Sunday, April 8, 2018

After Easter Blahs--The Emmaus Road

Window at Leicester Cathedral
 photo by Amanda Slater / flickr

Easter had come and gone. Two of the disciples had heard the rumors that the tomb was empty but they had not seen him. And so those two followers—living through the horror of Jesus on the cross—couldn’t get it out of their heads. They tried to change the subject--but they both kept coming back to what had happened. And then we read I guess the saddest words in the Bible: "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

We’ve all been there—most of us. We had hoped. We turned away from the grave—where we had buried so much. And like those two in the story we shuffle back trying to change the subject. We had hoped. We had hoped to go on that trip we always talked about. We had hoped we would have had more years. We had hoped maybe to see him graduate from college and get married and maybe one day even grandchildren. We had hoped maybe, just maybe we would win the Final Four. I watched those players slowly make their way to the locker rooms.Team after team. They played so hard and lost. Heads down. Defeated.  We had hoped the Doctors could have stopped it. We had hoped that life would have been different. Or, as that character said in the old play, Winterset, “How have I come to this sunken end of a street, at a life’s end?” We had hoped. We know this Emmaus road. You and I. Hoping the marriage would work out. Hoping we would be able to help him or her. We had hoped. 

photo by Chris Brooks / flickr
The Emmaus Road was only seven miles from Jerusalem. But sometimes seven miles can be long indeed. So what do you do? Like those two after Easter—we go back to what happened before. To a life’s that’s different. Like the poet said, “When she died the shine went out of everything.”  And so we try to change the subject. Talk about something else. Read a book.The bars around here are filled with people that are just trying to forget. Young and old. So we turn to Facebook. Or Instagram.Or keep watching those funny things people send out on email or Twitter or whatever. We try just about everything. Carlyle Marney used to say, “We keep trying to forget that we all live in a haunted house.” Coming back from the funeral, on the way to the cemetery this widow sat in the back seat of the car sobbing ands sobbing. Her relative driving turned around and said, “You’re just gonna have to get over it.” So we talk about closure or turning the page or writing a new chapter. Starting over. 

Except those of us who have walked the Emmaus Road know it isn’t exactly that easy. Oh, we had hoped…we had hoped. But it was not to be—we thought. For on that road where those two tried so hard to forget a stranger came and wanted to know what they were talking about.

And they poured it all out. They told of the last supper in that Upper Room. Jesus washing their feet. The Garden where he prayed and the soldiers that came and Judas that kissed him. They told this man about that rigged trial where the crowd laughed and spit on him as the soldiers stripped him naked. And they told this stranger about the ugly crowd that yelled crucify him. And they told him that just three days before they had nailed Jesus to the cross like a criminal. It seemed so long ago. And then they spoke of black Saturday when nobody said a word. We had hoped they said softly.

That was then. But this is now. What does that long hard road mean and why did Luke be the only writer that gave us the story? It means, folks we are not alone. Like the old song, “We’ll never walk alone…” 

But know this, often we don’t even know that he is with us. Like those two that Easter
photo by Petros Gagilas / flickr
evening. And we discover that this stranger is no stranger. No wonder we keep singing, And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own…”Hoping…hoping.

But remember the story. The writer Buechner says: “It is precisely at such times as these that Jesus is apt to come into the very midst of life and its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of some sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but…at supper time, or just walking along a road.”

 Look at the accounts after Easter. Mary crying her eyes at the tomb and Jesus calling her name. Thomas and all the others behind locked doors—scared they would be next. And the Risen Christ coming to Thomas and to them all. Or John’s story of Peter and the others going fishing. Just going fishing. And they fished all night and guess what—these fishermen caught nothing. Fisherman. And from the shore someone said, “Cast your nets on the other side…” And it worked. There were so many fish the nets almost broke. And they squinted their eyes toward the shore. "Who said that?" And it was Jesus. Jesus on the seashore. 

Maybe the Emmaus story means that the times that he comes are maybe everyday moments. Maybe this is how he comes. Sitting down at a meal. A simple meal. No turkey and dressing and a linen tablecloth and the finest silver. Just a simple meal. This is how he comes. Just a little old ninety year old nun in a wheel chair cheering her team and the tiny moment caught fire and everybody knew. Maybe it is always in the simple things when Jesus comes.  

Oh I know we would have told the story differently. We'd put flyers out everywhere. We'd rent a plant and have Jesus is alive...emblazoned across the heavens. We'd even begin to sing: He’ll be coming round the mountain when he comes. We will all go out to meet him when he comes. We will cook chicken and  dumplings when he comes. We will all go out to meet him when he comes. We'll all be shouting' Alleluias when he comes..." Not quite folks. The Emmaus us story is always different than we thought. Not brass bands. No Alleluias. So quiet you could hardly hear a pin drop.

Let me tell you a story that I think fits when I’m trying to say. We didn’t have a baptistry when I was Pastor here like we do today. We used the old church which was right out there where the Fellowship Hall is when we baptized. And every baptism took place over there across the street. And when it was time for my son, Matthew and the Mattox’s son, Matthew and Paul Caffrey to be baptized we planned it for a Sunday night—for we had services at night back in the dark ages. Very dark. We had been on vacation and came in on Sunday afternoon to get ready for baptism and somebody called up and said, “Uh, somebody forgot to fill the baptistry.” “What!”  “We’ve got all these people coming to the baptism in and and we planned this date for Bernie Caffrey because he was very sick with cancer and we scheduled that service between his chemo sessions, He could come this night. And besides our son and Matthew Mattox were to be baptized.” The man that brought the news said, “Well, what are we going to do?” I kinda muttered, “I don’t believe I could get by with sprinkling them. Might lose my job.” I thought and thought and said, “Maybe we could use the Lynch’s swimming pool.” Well, I called them and told them I had a strange request—there was no water in our baptistry and we had three candidates that we had to baptize. Could we bring the church out to your house and let us use your swimming pool in about, say forty-five minutes.” Long pause. Then they said yes. So when people came to church that night we told them that we had a contingency plan. We were going to have baptism any the Lynch’s house.  Everybody looked at each other. The preacher had done a lot of weird things—but nothing like this. Baptizing in a swimming pool--like the Jehovah's Witnesses! Well, I was sick at heart. I could just see people standing around giggling and making fun and calling out things like: “Is the water cold?” “Preacher, can you swim?” But that did not happen.

Like the Emmas Road—on that Sunday night when people surrounded that pool…something special happened. I will never forget it. We baptized both the Matthews and then Paul. And I had asked Paul’s Daddy, who was dying from cancer…and who had once been a Priest—to lead us in a Prayer of Dedication. So—Bernie—bald headed and lean from the chemo—reached in his pocket and unfolded a piece of paper and asked us to pray. And this is what he prayed:

"Heavenly Father, at this time we would like  to dedicate these young people to You as they choose to become members of Your intimate family through the sacrament of baptism. Remember how You led Your chosen people out of Egypt by Your show of power at the waters of the Red Sea? Please show the same power for these boys tonight and protect them as You protect all your children. Remember how You led your chosen people through the waters of the river Jordan to let them enter the promised land? Please lead these boys through the trials and joys of life to the heaven You promised to those who follow Your way. Remember how You gave salvation to the world by the blood and water that flowed from Your Son’s side on the cross? Please give the same salvation to these boys as they enter the waters of baptism as Your adopted sons. Remember how You sent the Holy Spirit to Your close followers of Pentecost and gave them the courage to be brave Christians in their words and actions. Please send the same Holy Spirit into these boys tonight so that they can carry out Your teachings in their lives. Be with us all, Heavenly Father, so that we can also live out the power of our baptism in our own lives. Amen." It was a holy moment. 

And when it was over Dr. Caffrey took the boys out to McDonalds for a celebration. It was the last public appearance that Daddy ever made. We had his funeral here just a few weeks later. 

I think we all need to hear the Emmaus story today. For you see—it isn’t just their story. If we look carefully it is our story too. Just walking down whatever road we walk—who knows what will happen? Maybe, just maybe our hearts, like theirs, will burn within us as we meet him where we are.

photo by giveawayboy / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Clemson (SC) , April, 8, 2018)

--Roger Lovette /

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Easter Word: "It is Finished!"

photo by James Tissot / flickr

We begin today where we left off last week. At the foot of the cross. Week after week we have listened to the last words that Jesus spoke from the cross. The first word he spoke from the cross: “Father forgive them…And then, to a thief he said: “Today you shall be with me in paradise…” The third word may be the tenderest: “Mother…Behold your son, John…” And then he said: “Why hast thou forsaken me?” And then that terrible word out of pain and delirium he said:”I thirst…” And then there toward the end as his life was slipping away he prayed: “Father…Father…” 

But there is one more word from the cross. It was the last thing Jesus said. “It is  finished.” It was a word of completion. In the Greek the word reads: “tetelestai.”It is finished. 

Jesus’ time had run out. The scourging and the pain and the heat had taken their toll. So he bowed his head and said, “It is finished.” Tetelestai. What did it mean, this last word? The gospels say that this was a loud cry.  A mighty shout. Tetelestai. The word in Greek was an exclamation. The root word is telos. It means achievement. Fulfillment. Completion. The New English Bible translates the phrase: “It is accomplished.”

Most, standing there, did not hear the words as a triumph. How could they? Even the
 photo by Charles Meeks / flickr
disciple and his Mother. They looked up at blood and gore and remembered a rigged trial and the unfairness of it all. No they could hear no triumph in what he said. All they could see was a slow and terribly dying. Surely it was a word of defeat.

But they and we hear it wrong. This finishedness was no defeat. Jesus had done what he came to do. Calling sinners to repentance. Saying in his first sermon: I came to preach good news to the poor. And we have missed it. I came to release the captives—even those whose bodies are marked with tattoos and faces as hard as rocks. Them too? He also said he had come to bring sight to the blind and liberty to all the oppressed and to say right now…right now this is God’s time. They wanted him to judge and to underline their prejudices. And to side with them in despising all the outsiders. No wonder even at the beginning they tried to push him off as cliff. His heart was just too big.

But how wrong they were. He came too make them more human and kinder. To take off the burdens of everyone and forgive their sins. To wipe away all the things they hated about themselves. He came for the weary and heavy-laden. young, the rich, the restless, the hookers, the tax collectors and fishermen and farm boys. Everybody!

And so what he said there at the end was this: I have finished what I came to do. It is accomplished! The Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world has done just that. Tetelestai!

Maybe it means that we don’t have to hang on some cross. That we perfectionists don’t have to work so hard to be liked and successful and to feel good about ourselves. Too quit all this judging of all the people that are not like us. Folks, it is finished. And this is why we sing allleluias and haul out these lilies and even buy our Easter bonnets. We can put down our weapons. We can love one another: even fundamentalists and liberals and Democrats and Republicans and all those in-between. And if we can’t love them at least, he says, we can try to love them.

In my first church and my first Easter we had what we called an opening assembly at Sunday School and everybody sat in the same room to make announcements and greet one another and see who was missing. And the Sunday School Superintendent turned around to his new-green preacher and said: “Preacher don’t you think it would be wonderful to let all the boys and girls march around the church while we sing: 'In your Easter bonnets with all the frills upon it.' What do  you think?" I almost fainted. And I said back to him: “No, I don’t think we should do that.” And he snarled back, “Then we won’t do it!” I made a mistake. Probably the best thing I could do in that drab room on Easter with all those tired farmers sitting there would be to let the kids march. To celebrate Easter. Tacky as it was I now believe Jesus would have approved.  

You see, the last word has been spoken. And they took his lifeless body down, down from the cross. And as Mary cradled her boy’s broken body in her arms the others, mostly women, just stood there sad and grief-stricken. There was nothing left to say. And God bless him, Joseph of Arimathea  stepped up to the mother and said, “I have a tomb you can use.” And this was followed by black Saturday. The saddest day. Remember Emily Dickinson’s poem: The Morning after Death.” The house is quiet. You just sit there. There is nothing to say. And that was the way it was for Jesus’ mother and her friends. Just nothing to say.

used by permission Easter Morning 37 / flickr
And then came Sunday. John’s story may be the best. Mary Magdalene came. Just to see him for the last time. But the tomb was empty. Empty. And she ran to tell the others that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. And the others came to see for themselves. Sure enough Jesus body was not there. So they left and Mary Magdalene just stayed there. Weeping. Weeping. And somebody she thought was the Gardener spoke and said, “Why are you weeping? “And she said, “They have taken away my Lord’s body!” And she thought she had heard that voice before. And then this stranger called her name: “Mary…Mary.” And she knew who it was. He called her name and told her to go and tell the others. And she did. And now we know the rest of the story. Not only did he call her name. But he also calls our names. Jim and Brenda and Mark and Sally and Edna and Joe. Oh we do know the rest of the story. The gospel is still working on our unfinishedness. As he worked on Mary’s that morning.

We all have so much that is not finished. Marriage stuff. Family stuff. Sex stuff. Money stuff. Anger stuff. Depression stuff. Church stuff. Selfishness stuff. Hurt stuff. Every one in this room has brought something unfinished with us today.

As I was writing this sermon I remembered a story that I think says so much. This story is true. Kay Chance is a Methodist preacher said that one day her husband of 22 years came in and said he wanted a divorce. He had found someone younger and prettier. Kaye was devastated. So she began to try to piece her life back together. Hard business. She was separated for two years before the divorce was finalized. She kept thinking maybe he would come back and they could start all over again. 

One day the Pastor she worked with sat across the desk listening to her as he had done so often. The Pastor told her he wanted to give her something. He reached in his desk and pulled out a plastic easter egg. “One day you are going to have to bury the relationship with your husband. Not now. Your pain is too fresh. But I want you to hold on to this egg. Put it somewhere so you can see it. When the time comes you will know what to do with it.”

photo by Charles Rodstrom / flickr

She put the egg on her bedside table and she looked at it all the time. Asking, "When Lord—when. What do I do with this egg?” Six months later she was served with the divorce papers. She had to fly to Myrtle Beach where the divorce would be finalized. She and her 16 year old son boarded the plane.

In the lawyer’s office they sat across from each other and discussed in clinical terms who got what. They fought about visitation rights and insurance and everything. Finally it was over and she and her son walked down to the beach. She told him to sit on the bank and wait—she had something she had to do.  She walked down to the water. 

She took from her purse that Easter egg the Pastor had given her months before. She had put inside the plastic egg a picture taken of all three of them the Christmas before they separated. She filled the egg with sand to weight it down and wrapped it with tape. And she threw it as far as she could throw the into the water. “God,” she prayed, “bring new life out of this death. Bring some kind of resurrection from this grave.” The egg hit the water and she turned and walked back up the beach toward the son. They fell into each other’s arms crying and crying.

Then they walked to the car. Her back was to the water. She said she wanted to turn around and see if the egg had drifted toward the shore. Maybe her husband would come back and they could start over again. But in her heart she knew better—and she never looked back. She wrote later that the act of throwing away that egg was her first funeral as Pastor.

I told that story one Easter and found her address and sent her a copy of the sermon. Kaye wrote back and said her story was not quite over. The letter said she had moved on. It had been very hard. She was called to be an Associate of a large church in Georgia. At the new church she had met a wonderful man and they were to be married soon. She ended the letter by saying, ”New life really does happen after all.”

The God who finished his work on the cross reaches out his arms to all our unfinishedness. And on Easter as the flowers and trees begin to bloom—we are reminded that life begins again. So, like Kaye we put inside our egg whatever it is that hurts and brings pain. We try to put it behind us. Knowing that Easter is real. And Paul’s words are true: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” So this last word may be the best word. It is finished. And he calls our names. Thanks be to God!

photo by Rod Waggington / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the First Presbyterian Church, Pendleton SC , Easter Sunday, 2018)

--Roger Lovette /

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Christians--Stand Up for Jesus not Politicians

photo by Daimon Eklund / flickr

For quite a while now I have been worried about our country. The mean-spiritedness of the current administration reflects some of shabbiest of our values--if we call them values. The President sets the pace for the rest of the country. Cruelty, selfishness--bullying have no place in this society. Countries who have looked to us for years as the the shining city on the hill feel like the lights have been turned out. To privatize everything institution simply will throw more and more money into the hands of the already well-heeled. 

It was horrifying to hear right-wing pundits say terrible things about the millions of kids that marched for life just days ago. They have been made fun of, debased, called ugly names--and even accused many of them of being paid actors. Those who crawled under desks to save their own lives--while watching their classmates gunned down have a right to speak. The current climate which begins at the top trickles down and people feel license to smear and hate anybody that disagrees with them. This is not the American way.

The article I hope you'll read is published in Sojourners Magazine by its Editor Jim Wallis. Jim Wallis has been on the front line of peace and justice issues for many years. Once in Birmingham I heard him speak. He held up a copy of the Bible. It had holes all in it. He said this is the American Bible. He had taken a razor blade and taken out every passage that dealt with the poor and needy. Many of those holes have never been filled. Today we might snip out the Ten Commandments and all those passages dealing with peace and justice issues as well.

Bill Coffin once said, "Where there's doubt, there's more considered faith. Likewise, when citizens doubt, patriotism becomes more informed. For Christians to render everything to Caesar--their minds, their consciences--is to become evangelical nationalists. This is not as distortion of the gospel; that's desertion...It's wonderful to love one's country, but faith is for God. National unity too is wonderful--but not in cruelty and folly."  

A group of leaders of almost every mainline denomination met on Ash Wednesday to ponder the state of the nation and the church. They call their document: "A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis."
If you read their words you will find they are concerned Christians--as we all ought to be. This document gives me great hope.

--Roger Lovette /

It's Easter!

I've had this picture in my office for years and years. I look at it when I need hope. Maybe it will help you too.

Propped up on pillows, she asked, “Whatcha going to preach on Easter Sunday? She had been in the hospital for days. She had an IV in one arm and her hair was coming out from the assault of chemotherapy. “Wish I could be there…” and she left the wistful sentence hanging. What was I going to preach on? “You’ve asked a good question.” I said. “ Easter is the hardest time for the preacher to preach. Easter is just too big to capture. There is no way you can put Easter into words. I guess that is why we use Easter lilies and a lot of music.” I kept thinking: what was I going to say on Easter Sunday? I responded to my sick friend like this: “What am I going to preach on? I’m not sure what I’ll talk about. Maybe I will begin reminding everyone that Easter began in the dark, in the cemetery with a cluster of weeping women. That’s quite a stretch from Easter bonnets and Peter Cottontail. But Easter came at a hard time. They couldn’t get over the execution of their Lord—the injustice of it all. Their grief was heavy and more than they could take in.” She said, “I never thought about it that way.” “Yeah, it’s a part of Easter we usually miss. Easter comes to the hard places in life. To the things we don’t understand. To grief and unfairness and dead-end streets. I think Easter means that this special day is for anybody who faces the darkness and the unfairness of life.”

“You got me to thinking, Sally. Maybe I’ll move on to talk about Mary Magdalene and how she stood at the Empty tomb weeping. Christ’s body was gone and she assumed someone had stolen it. She stood there talking to someone she thought was the gardener—she finally came to see that she was talking to Jesus. If you read the accounts of Jesus’ appearance to others, we get the feeling that Easter was hard to see. Hasn’t it always been that way? With our fifteen-year-war and wounded vets and Washington scandals. All those kids who hid under desks and feared for their lives who marched last week. We worry about a multitude of things. What’s true and what’s false. All the lies.

Easter is hard for most of us to see. It must be hard for you lying in that bed, worrying about the future. Don’t you wonder about what Easter has to say to all these other people in these hospital rooms?” She said, “I’ve thought about that a lot. I never wondered too much about if Easter was real or not until I got sick. Now I think about it all the time.” “Easter has always been hard to see for most of us,” I told her. “ No wonder so many find it hard to believe.”

“Christ called Mary’s name that morning in the cemetery. So Sunday, “I told her, “I might say that Easter is a very personal word. Everybody’s name is called. We are all included. So much of religion today deals with who’s in and who’s out. Easter is not some yardstick of judgment. ‘He is risen’ spread like wildfire because it was best news that ever was. Easter touched their needs. The woman with a sordid past. The old mother overwhelmed in the loss of her son. The doubter who could not believe what he could not see. Easter walks into every hospital room and knows the names of those in every bed. Easter is not qualified by status or health or gender or race or sexual orientation. Some want to pare Easter down to the size of our prejudices but Easter cannot be boxed in--everyone’s name is called.”

            Easter is more than azaleas and dogwoods blooming and the lushness of the first greens of springtime. But maybe the budding flowers and trees are a sign that the life force really is stronger than the death force. None of us need despair. My friend in that hospital room. The woman who stamped my ticket at the parking lot when I left. Even the man that blew his horn and waved an angry finger at me on my way home. The worst things that happen to any of us need not be the last word. 

As I had left my friend’s room she had said to me. “Sounds like a pretty good Easter sermon. Lying here, I need an Easter real bad.”  We all need an Easter. Maybe that’s why it keeps coming around year after year, decade after decade. In the middle of all those signs the kids held up in Washington last week one girl held up a sign that simply said: Hope. Maybe underneath it all hope is what Easter is all about.

photo by John Sonderman / flickr

(This article appeared Easter week-end in the Anderson-Independent (SC) and the Greenville News (SC)

--Roger Lovette /

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Sixth Word: "Father"

photo by Chema Concellon / flickr

Some poet wrote words that I think are appropriate for today. Listen:

“Did Mary make a birthday cake
For Christ when he was small,

And think the while she frosted it,
How quickly boys grow tall?

Did Joseph carve some foolish thing
From extra bits of wood,
An ox, a camel, or a bird,
Because the Christ was good?

Oh, sometimes years are very long,
And sometimes years run fast,
And when the Christ had put away
Small, earthly things at last

And died upon a wooden cross
One afternoon in spring
Did Mary find the little toy,
And sit…remembering?”

Slumped there at the foot of the cross, leaning on the disciple John I think Mary remembered when Jesus spoke from the Cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my
photo by Katrina Cole / flickr
spirit.”Today we have taught our children: “Now I lay me down to sleep…”But in Jesus’ day little Jewish boys were taught another going-to-sleep prayer. Mary’s heart must have turned over. For she had taught little Jesus a prayer at bed-time. Do you know  what not was? “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” She would alway remember that the last thing he had said she had taught him. 

So the last word that came down from the cross was: “Father…” Did Mary remember when Jesus was twelve and they lost him?She and Joseph were so frantic. And they finally found him in the temple with the religious officials. And they said, “Why are you here—we were so afraid.” And Jesus said: “I must be about my Father’s business.” 

Father—a word that would be a thread that runs through the whole story. At his baptism, at the beginning of his ministry there was that word again. As he was baptized the Father said: “This is my beloved son…” And Jesus whispered back: “Father…” Early on he taught his disciples to pray. He said, “Our Father…” Or that time when Mary and Joseph came to bring him home. People were saying terrible things about him and his parents wanted to protect him. He said the strangest thing about other brothers and other sisters and even a larger family—and another Father. There toward the end when he gathered his disciples in that Upper Room—do you remember what he said, :”Let not your heart be troubled…in my Father’s house are many mansions…” And then: “I am going away but the Father will send you a comforter—the Holy Spirit to be with you forever.” But he kept saying that word over and over.  That dark night in Gethsemane when he prayed for that awful cup of suffering to pass—what did he say? He said Father. But he used the term of great endearment when he prayed: “Abba,” he said. It meant Papa. “Papa take this cup from me.” And John said, “Mary did you hear what Jesus called God? Papa.” And then dying on a cross—our Lord’s time had run out. There was no other place to go. And he prayed, ”Father…Father…into your hands I commit my spirit.” He was like a child calling out to a parent in the dark. 

We can’t get away from this word, Father. Oh I know some fathers are lousy fathers. I know there are dead-beat Dads. Some are abusive fathers. Mean and cruel. I know there are absentee fathers. I know all that. So many with pursed lips say we can’t use this term Father any more. It diminishes the picture of God. If God is like my Father, they say, God help me. But let us come back to the cross—and listen to the words of Jesus there at the end. There is another Father—an eternal Father strong to save, who saves us from the restless waves. Who saves us from all the perils of the sea. From every perils of the sea.

Of course he said that God was like a mother hen that gathers together her brood and loves and protects them. God is like a mother. But when we bow our heads before sleep comes…we remember he taught us to say: “Our Father…,our Father in heaven.” And when we come here on Sundays after a week of hard work and worries and just tired. We bow our heads and we say it together—for we all belong to him. We are all members of his family. We pray like he taught us to say, “Our Father…”

The phrase is a word of trust. Maybe call it faith. But Jesus had bet his life on the providence of God. “I have meat that you know not of… He gave himself over to the will of the father and so there at the end it was all he had to say. “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Sculpture by George Grey Banard
Speed Museum, Louisville, KY
What else is there to say? I told you last week about a funeral I just had. John was 34 years old. He has struggled with addiction for years and years. His parents had done everything they knew to do. And because I had known him since he was a little boy and I always loved him—they asked me to give the meditation at his service. What was there to say? And this is what I said: “We remember the story of a stubborn, stubborn boy that took his father’s money and left home in a huff. He said he’d never be back again. Thank God those days were over. The Father of course tried to hold him back. Nothing worked. And so the old Father every day would ask over and over: “I wonder where he is. I wonder if he is OK. I wonder if he is safe.” Night after night the father tossed and turned. The boy had broken his heart. But one day when the boy’s money was gone and he was starving and nobody would take him in—in desperation and shame—he turned back down that road he hoped he would never see again. Barefooted. In rags. Nearly naked. Skinny and dirty. Ashamed and broken. Smelling of cheap beer. But we know the rest of that story. The old Father ran to meet him. And he would not even let his son finish his confession. He put his gnarled hands on the boy’s face and just looked at him. Just looked at him. And the old Father just opened his arms and took him in. And he turned to his servants and said: “Bring the best robe. Bring good sandals. Bring him a ring —he lost the last one or pawned it. But another ring for it says he is my son. And let’s have a feast—a great feast.”  And the old man remembered the boy’s favorite foods. “Fried chicken. Potato salad. Macaroni and cheese. Homemade rolls. Banana pudding and Red velvet cake. Set the table with the best silver for this my son was dead and now is alive.” Who wouldn’t want a father like that? 

From beginning to end the book there is this word: Father. And we people of faith hang on to it like a life-raft—or should. Where else is there to go. When we slosh through every day. When we face the hard, hard things of life. When we have nothing to say in the face on injustice and suffering. When the world is just too much for us. Jesus taught us that the only word for good times and bad is this wonderful word: Father.  

No one captures this word from the cross better than Victor Hugo in his classic, Les Miserables. The story has stirred millions. It is the tale of little Cosette who is scared and lonely.

Cosette is alone and in the dark that she so dreaded. She strained at the bucket that she was forced to carry. She was quite unaware of the event that would change her life forever. 

“She had only one thought, to fly; too fly with all her might, across woods, across fields, to houses, to windows, to lighted candles. Her eyes fell upon the bucket…She grasped the handle with both hands. She could hardly lift the bucket.

She went a dozen steps in this manner, but the bucket was full, it was heavy, she was compelled to rest it on the ground…She walked bending forward head down, like an old woman: the weight of the bucket strained and stiffened her arms.

                                  .                     .               .               .                  .

Arriving near an old chestnut tree which she knew…,the poor little despairing thing could not help crying: ‘Oh! my God! my God!’

At that moment she felt all at once that the weight of the bucket was gone. A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle, and was carrying it easily. She raised her head. A large dark form, straight and erect, was walking beside her in the gloom. It was a man who had come up behind her and whom she had not heard. This man, without saying a word, had grasped the handle of the bucket she was carrying.

                          .                      .                     .                   .                     .

There are instincts for all the crises of life. The child was not afraid.”*

Later, Hugo writes, the child learned to call him father and knew him by no other name.

Is it any wonder that there, toward the end when it was almost over—he said the word he had been using all his life. “Father…into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Let us use it too.

photo by gato-gato-gato / flickr

*Carlyle Marney, Faith in Conflict, (Abingdon, Nashville, 1957) p.42

(This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018 at the First Presbyterian Church, Pendleton, SC)

--Roger Lovette /

Saturday, March 24, 2018

We the People--Not the N$R$A

photo collage by Vince Reinhart / flickr

It's been quite as day. High school kids led the way. Those that hid under desks and saw their fellow-students gunned-down--all 17--had to do something. And so something they did. They planned this Rally today and it spread like wild fire. Every State in the Union had a March for Lives Matter. There were 800 marches in this country alone.

They reminded us of what we adults have let slip away. The Declaration of Independence does not begin with the Second Amendment or even the First. It begins: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the  common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States." 

We the People...
Not the N$R$A
We the People...
Not we the Democrats
We the people
Not we the Republicans
We the People
Not we the Lobbyists
We the People...
Not we the President...
We the People
Not we the Congressmen...
We the People
Not we the Senators
We the People.

We the victims
We the bereft parents
We the young people
We the people.

There were 800,000 that filled the streets of Washington. And they filled the streets all over the country. Will the speeches, the dreams, the songs, the camaderie, the marching and the deep love for all the people in American make a difference?

This country does not belong to any special interest group--or should not. It is time...high time...for us to do something about this serious problem that is killing not only our young but citizens of all ages. We the people.

photo by Lorie Shaul / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Fifth Word: "I Thirst..."

rendering by Rembrandt

Today we come to the fifth word that came down from the cross. “After this, Jesus knowing that all was now finished said, ‘I thirst.’ A bowl full of vinegar and sour wine stood there; so they put a sponge full of vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Let's read it again. "After this, Jesus knowing that it was all finished, he said, 'I thirst." After what? After four other words were spoken. After the sun was high in the sky and the afternoon wore on. After the blood had dried and the flies came. After the laughter had worn thin and the crowds had grown tired and began to dwindle away. After the dehydration had set in. For exposure to sun and wind and rain is the worst part they say of crucifixion. The body of the crucified literally dries out. Across the body there would steal a terrible desire for something to quench the thirst--to soothe the burning throat--just a drink to kill the parched, dry feeling for the moment. "After this...Jesus said, 'I thirst.'"

After what? After he had forgiven them—the crowds? After what? After he had remembered a dying thief?  After what? After he had given his mother to John and, the disciple John to his mother. After what? After he had spoken his “Why hast thou forsaken me?”—to the Father himself?

After all of this—we come to the fifth word. ”I thirst.” His time was almost gone. It would not be long now. This is the only word in seven that deals with physical pain. This is the only word that Jesus spoke about his suffering. 

What does this fifth word mean? Unless it means that he identified with all the hurting folk whose needs are elemental and basic. Abraham Maslow—psychologist—years ago said that if we do not meet the basic developmental needs of people we cannot ever deal with their other needs. They cannot hear, they cannot understand, if their primary needs have been ignored. Nor can ours.

Basic needs? The need for bread. The need to be loved. The need to be affirmed. The need to bed warm and safe and free. The need just to have a chance. Rubbing as Q-tip of water over cracked lips, holding a head so gently and putting into their mouths one of those little curving straws and whispering, "Can you taste it?" It's taking a glass of water down a darkened hallway in the middle of the night to a child who has called out, "Mama, I'm thirsty." This is basic business--this fifth word.
photo by Michael Hamann / flickr 

This is also a word for self. It is also a word for humanity. He asked the crowd, "Somebody, somebody out there help me!" Here he stands with all those whom the church has largely ignored. For Jesus knew that until the basic needs are met we cannot talk about other thing. Even Jesus or salvation or heaven or whatever.

Abraham Lincoln told this funny story about an extremely pious chaplain in the Civil War who would go from division to division asking theological questions. The soldiers dreaded to see him coming. He would purse his lips and say, “Do you believe in the sovereignty of God? “ He would say things like: “What do you think of predestination?” “How do you feel about the Antinomians in the book of Galatians.” Real cutting-edge questions. One day after it had rained and rained and the cannons were stuck in the mud, the Reverend came to a boy knee-deep in mud trying to push a cannon out of the mud. Tip-toeing through the muck the chaplain put his hand on the soldier’s shoulder and asked, “Brother, have you accepted the Lord?” And the man turned and said, “Don’t ask me any riddles I’m stuck in the mud!” 

And this fifth word that came down from the cross is a word for all the mud-splattered. They are everywhere.My daughter-teacher talks about all the kids in her school that get breakfast and lunch or they would be hungry all day. And on week-ends the school gives them food to take home in little sacks so they will have something to eat Saturdays and Sundays. This is America. And how in the world can we expect people to get any better when they don’t even have enough to eat. 

And all these people standing outside abortion clinics don’t have time for the born. They are trying to protect fetuses. And we know what happens to those born that fall through the cracks. Every person who has taken an AK 47 had shot up schools and churches—were kids who had never had a decent home life. Never had anybody to really love them. Because nobody met their basic needs—nobody took them a cup of water some night when they needed it. Nobody was there. 

We’re too busy worrying about giving teachers guns and talking about mental health facilities which we have cut almost in half. Talking about prayers in the classroom. Or getting those aging grandmas taking care of grandchildren off the rolls and back to work. Let’s quit dealing with riddles when people are hanging on by their fingernails.

photo by gato-gato-gato / flickr
Our text says that at the foot of the cross there was a bowl of vinegar—really soured wine. It was used for anesthetic purposes. They would place a sponge-full on a spear and hold it up to the parched lips of those on the cross. The crowd heard the fifth word that Jesus spoke, “I’m thirsty” and somebody responded and it helped—it helped enormously. Caring always does.

Caring matters. We’ve all known it. Remember that time you were in the hospital and couldn’t get out of bed. There were too many tubes and you felt terrible after surgery and you couldn’t help yourself. Nauseated and in pain that seemed endless. And you pushed the button on your bed and somebody came. They patted you on the am, they gave you a shot, they lifted a cup of water to your lips and wiped your brow. And that said, “Honey, it’s gonna get better.” And you made it because somebody heard you were thirsty and came and touched your need.

Do you remember the last parable that Jesus gave? What did he say, there toward the end? “Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these…” Lord, who are the these? Who are they? And he named them one by one: the hungry…the thirsty…the naked…those in prison…the homeless…the sick. Anybody in need. And then he said: “Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these—you do it unto me.” No qualifications. No deserving. Just folks. 

But we want to talk about the infallibility of the Bible. What are we gonna do with these gays? Reckon he believes in the virgin birth? Why is New Spring so big and we are so little. And down beside all of these we have this fifth word. Simple. Basic. “I thirst.” This is a word of identification. Whoever out there needs. This cross-beam comes all the way down to where you stand and I stand and where we weep and wonder. It is a word for all of us. A word for every human being. Nobody is left out.

photo by Lane Foumerot / flickr
Not even those women who wear hajis on their head and wonder if somebody will say something mean in the mall.  Not even children who dress in old hand-me-downs and never get chosen for anything. Nobody is left out. Not even that little couple with one little baby and not enough money and having such a strain in their marriage. They need somebody to knock on their door and invite them to church or just smile at them in the grocery store—or treat these strangers like they are somebody.

God knows my track record has not been too good with this fifth word. I have passed by more times than I should. Lousy Samaritan. But when I first lived here behind our church there was an old house the Drug and Alcohol Abuse Center wanted to use for a half-way house. Well—that was quite a discussion. But when the dust cleared we finally said yes and these troubled, troubled men came to find healing—we hoped. There was one man that lost his family. They couldn’t take the drinking and the drugs. But he got better and he talked his family into coming back. And the wife worked at our church for awhile. And they needed a place to live. And at that time we were trying to build a Habitat House for somebody. Its was the first Habitat House in Pickens Country. And we chose this family. I even worked a little on that house—but not enough to brag about. But when we finished this couple and their three children moved in. He got a job on a Garbage truck in the city and life began slowly to come together. We moved away. Were gone over twenty years and moved back. One morning I forgot to put our garbage can out. As the truck moved on I ran down the street with my garbage. And yelled, “Stop! Stop!”  And the truck stopped. And a black man got off the back and came to get my garbage sack. As he got closer he looked familiar. It was the man that received our first Habitat House. I couldn’t believe it. “Curtys,” I said. “Curtys, is that you?” And he said, “Dr. Lovette! Dr. Lovette!” “Curtys”, I said, “I didn’t know you were still here.” “Oh yeah” he said, “Still living in the house. Got it paid far. Getting ready too retire from the City.” 

We don’t get enough victories in this business. But once in a while it happens. It is the job of us all. Like that soldier at the cross. He dipped his spear in the soured wine on a sponge and lifted it up to the parched lips of Jesus. Somebody said of all the people around that cross he would have liked to be that soldier. I think he was right. 

Let’s try to take a cup of water to somebody out there who is thirsty. For inasmuch as you do unto the least of these—we do it unto him. Maybe that is where we meet him after all.

(This sermon was preached at the First Presbyterian Church, Pendleton, SC, March 18, 2018)

--Roger Lovette /