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 /

Monday, March 12, 2018

Drugs Addiction--What We All Need to Understand

Linda and Tim Willis--good, good friends lost their 34-year old son, John after years of struggling with addiction. None of us can really understand the deep pain this family carries to this very this day. Pray for them. Linda, John's mother shared the following words of Facebook. They are worth reading. Attention must be paid.

His Mother, Linda writes these words on Facebook. "Borrowed from an Al-Anon group post. I wish I could credit the writer, but honor the anonymity of the group. John did not choose addiction. Nor did our family."

You yourself may not be a addict but try and love one, and then see if you can look me square in the eyes and tell me that you didn't get addicted to trying to fix them.

If you're lucky, they recover. If you're really lucky, you recover, too.

Loving a drug addict can and will consume your every thought. Watching their physical deterioration and emotional detachment to everything will make you the most tired insomniac alive.

You will stand in the doorway of their bedroom and plead with them that you "just want them back." If you watch the person you love disappear right in front of your eyes long enough, you will start to dissolve too.

Those not directly affected won't be able to understand why you are so focused on your loved one's well-being, especially since, during the times of your family member's active addiction, they won't seem so concerned with their own.

Don't become angry with these people. They do not understand. They are lucky to not understand. You'll catch yourself wishing that you didn't understand, either."What if you had to wake up every day and wonder if today was the day your family member was going to die?" will become a popular, not-so-rhetorical question.

Drug addiction has the largest ripple effect that I have ever witnessed.It causes parents to outlive their children. It causes jail time and homelessness. It causes sisters to mourn their siblings. It causes nieces to never meet their aunts. It causes an absence before the exit.You will see your loved one walking and talking, but the truth is, you will lose them far before they actually succumb to their demons; which, if they don't find recovery, is inevitable.

Drug addiction causes families to come to fear a ringing phone or a knock on the door. It causes vague obituaries. I read the papers and I follow the news; and it is scary. "Died suddenly" has officially become obituary-speak for "another young person found dead from a drug overdose."

Drug addiction causes bedrooms and social media sites to become memorials. It causes the "yesterdays" to outnumber the "tomorrows." It causes things to break; like the law, trust, and homes.

Drug addiction causes statistics to rise and knees to fall, as praying seems like the only thing left to do sometimes.

People have a way of pigeonholing those who suffer from addiction. They call them "trash," "junkies" or "criminals," which is hardly ever the truth. Addiction is an illness. Addicts have families and aspirations.
You will learn that drug addiction doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care if the addict comes from a loving family or a broken home.

Drug addiction doesn't care if you are religious. Drug addiction doesn't care if you are a straight-A student or a drop-out. Drug addiction doesn't care what ethnicity you are. Drug addiction will show you that one decision and one lapse in judgment can alter the course of an entire life. Drug addiction doesn't care. Period. But you care.

You will learn to hate the drug but love the addict. You will begin to accept that you need to separate who the person once was with who they are now.

It is not the person who uses, but the addict. It is not the person who steals to support their habit, but the addict. It is not the person who spews obscenities at their family, but the addict. It is not the person who lies, but the addict.

And yet, sadly... it is not the addict who dies, but the person.

Thanks, Linda for sharing this--which really is a piece of your heart. 

--Roger Lovette /

John Willis: A Tribute

Ever since I got that sad phone call last week saying John Willis had passed away—no words can express my feelings. And then I remembered those words of the black poet, Langston Hughes. Over and over I kept remembering them. And today I place them down beside the broken hearts of this family and for all of us. They are a prayer:

“At the feet o’ Jesus,
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo’ mercy
Come driftin’ down on me.

At the feet o’ Jesus
At yo’ feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo’ hand.”

Reach out yo’ hand to dear John—you already have. Reach out yo’ hand to Linda and Tim and David and the relatives and friends and all of us. You already have. For this family could not walk down this aisle and sit here without Jesus reaching out his hand.

So we come to honor this special life of John Willis. He was born in 1983 in Galveston, Texas the second son of Tim and Linda. They moved here from Texas when John was about two and a half. And they moved around the corner from our house—and they were our neighbors. And two of the people that came were little John and David. They were two of the cutest the kids I have ever seen. I became friends with that little blond boy and his brother. For five years I was their Pastor. John grew up in this church. Walked down this aisle right here one Sunday and said he wanted to be baptized. And the Sunday of his baptism he wrote this note—right before he was baptized. He read to the church that morning. Here it is:

“I am being baptized because I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. Today I would like to make that public before the church that I love. I do this because I love Jesus and I know he loves me.”

And then he went upstairs and his Daddy baptized him. So I say out loud today—John Willis has been baptized. And from then until now—he has been kept in the Father’s love and the Father’s care.

I know what some of you will say. But he had this problem with addiction for years and years. Yes, he did. And there were times when his demons just raged. But drugs do not nearly define this special life. Or anybody’s. He loved his family. He loved Clemson. He loved baseball. He was on the Soccer team at Seneca High. He attended two different colleges. He was an artist and I am told a great salesman. A charmer. I saw that when he was three years old. So John wore many hats. He was also a son and a brother and a grandson and a nephew and a friend to so many that are here today. But most of all I think he was a Father. To Isaiah. I’ve seen picture after pictures of little Isaiah and his Daddy. He loved his little boy fiercely—no wonder he wanted to beat his addiction and raise Isaiah. In the Fellowship Hall look at the pictures of John and Isaiah. They are wonderful.

John wanted to continue to live—and I don’t think he had any intention last week of dying. He just wanted peace—he just wanted the demons to subside. He just wanted to be like everybody else—not knowing that everybody is a whole lot like him. We are all poor little sheep who have lost our way. We are broken. Maybe not as John was broken. But we are all broken. We are all Prodigals. Maybe we still have our shoes…and our coverings…and you can’t see our pain by looking—nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen. But folks we are all part of the human family.

During this Lenten season I have been preaching on Jesus’ seven last words that came down from the cross. And last week—I preached on that third word. From the cross—Jesus spoke to his mother and he spoke to John. Even in dying he remembered the pain of his mother and the pain of that disciple. And I give that word to Linda and Tim and to David especially. He looked down and remembered them. And the God who could not take the nails out—reached out to his mother and those others, too I think. Mary never forgot those words. And I hope Linda will never forget that that third word that came from the cross is for her. And Jesus linked his mother's grief to John's grief—and he said take care of each other. Is it too much to believe that it is a word for us all—this word of relationship. Take care of one another.

Bill Coffin and the Willlis became friends and Coffin tried hard to help John. When Bill Coffin’s own son Alex died in an automobile accident, he was only 24 years old. Dr. Coffin mounted the pulpit and spoke to his large church family sitting out there a week after the funeral. And he talked about the food they brought and the flowers that came. And he said in a terrible time they were holy reminders of the beauty and life that these gifts bring. But toward the end of that sermon he said to his congregation: “You gave me what God gives us all—minimum protection and maximum support.” And then he said, “I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.” As was Mother Mary…John…all those other scattered disciples. And also Tim and Linda and David and all of us. Minimum protection—but maximum support. And this is why we have come too surround this family and to carry them through the dark days ahead. Some of you here—like Mary and John—come at great risk. You put aside your own griefs and sadness to whisper to this family—we love you and we will care for you. And if we are making it—so can you.

Tomorrow I will turn to the fourth word from the cross. It may well be the hardest. “My God,” Jesus railed out, “my God why has thou forsaken me?” That question just fell down like cold rain on Mary and John and all who came. And like Jesus in this setting—we ask the same question too: “Why have you forsaken dear John and Linda and Tim and all of us. Why? And from beginning to end of the book—there is no answer. The “why’s” just hang there. Why? Why have we lost more to addiction since 2017 than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam combined. More than 64,000. Why? We cannot say. But we weep with those who have lost the battle and every loved one who has stood by so helplessly. I told Linda and Tim—and this is true—you did everything you could. Everything. And sometimes that is not enough. So we have no answer to the why’s.

But we remember the story of the stubborn, stubborn boy that took his Daddy’s money and left home in a huff. The old father could not hold him back. And every day he would ask over and over—where is my boy?  Is he OK? Night after night the Father tossed and turned. The boy had broken his heart. But one day when the son’s money was gone and he was starving and nobody would take him in…he came back down the road to home. Barefooted. In rags—nearly naked.  Skinny and dirty. Ashamed. And broken. And we know the rest of that story. The old Father ran to meet him. And would not even let him finish his confession. The Father just opened his arms and took him in. His beloved son. Saying over and over: "My son! My son!"

And when John slipped away into the mystery on that Tuesday evening in Anderson—we know the rest of the story. The Father—wouldn’t let John finish his confession. He just opened his arms and whispered: “I love you…I love you…It’s all right.” And John has found now what he tried so hard to find here and never really did. A peace and joy and incredible wonder and dazzling light.

But that is not the end of the story folks. For that same Eternal Father strong to save—reaches for all of us—in our grief and in our brokenness. And he will calm all the restless waves…and he will somehow save us one and all from all the perils of the sea. From all the perils of the sea.

We thank God for the life of John Willis. He didn’t live long enough. But he did live long enough to touch his family with a love that will always be. And he loved dear Isaiah as much as anybody could. I still remember the Willis last Christmas here at our Christmas Eve  communion service. I looked back over any shoulder and there were the Willis’—Tim and Linda and David—and John, too coming down the aisle to received what God gives to all his children.  And I waved—and smiled and I threw John a kiss.

And so, friends I leave you with the prayer we began with. It is for us all:

“At the feet o’ Jesus
Sorrow like a sea. 
Lordy, let yo’ mercy 
Come driftin’ down on me.

At the feet o’ Jesus
At yo’ feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo’ hand.” 


Pastoral Prayer

Lord God—bearer of all our griefs and carrier of all our sorrows…we thank you that in this hard place you do not leave us alone. You are here or we could hardly stand it.

We thank you for dear John and for the many facets of his life. So very many. Like us—he was one of God’s broken children. So we ask you to receive him into that clean, well-lighted place where every tear is wiped away…and death will be no more…and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

So Lord Jesus reach out your hand to Linda and Tim and David and all of us. Even in our darkness help us to remember that there really is a peace that will pass all understanding. Help us to know deep in our hearts that there is a stubborn, stubborn love that will not let us go—ever.

Thank you,  Jesus for always reaching out your hand.  Here and always. AMEN.

John Willis
May 20, 1983 - February 28, 2018 

(This Meditation was spoken at the Memorial Service for John Willis at the First Baptist Church, Clemson, South Carolina March 10, 2018)

--Roger Lovette /

The Fourth Word from the Cross: "Why?"

"Christ nailed up might be more
than a symbol of all pain.
He might in very truth
contain all pain.
And a man standing 
on a hilltop
with his arms outstretched,
a symbol of a symbol,
he too might be a reservoir
of all the pain that ever was."
            --John Steinbec

Today we stand in the middle of the seven last words. Three words have gone before and three words will come after. So today we stand at dead center.

The first word, “Father forgive them…” was addressed to God for us all. It is a word of inclusion because it takes us all in.

The second word, “Today, you shall be with in Paradise,” was spoken to a thief in answer to his cry, “Jesus remember me.” It is a word of compassion.

The third word, “Behold thy son, behold thy mother…” was directed toward his mother and toward John. He gave them to each other, and so this is a relational word.

This fourth word was addressed to God. But I think there is more here than just that. Certainly Jesus spoke to God. It is the only question that we find in the seven words. But it is also a chilling, frightening, bloodcurdling kind of a word. You know it. We’ve all said it a hundred times. “My God, my God why has thou forsaken me.” This is the question Jesus railed out to God. “Why?” It is a word of abandonment. 

We’ve all asked this question. We’ve heard many other people ask this question, too. If we have ever lost a husband or a child or somebody who was special or the roof of our lives just caved in we have asked these words: “My God, my God why?”

If you have wandered through some fog of depression, some season in hell when the lights were out and you were trying to feel your way along—you’ve asked this question: “Why?”
If you have ever stood before someone or something that you couldn’t set right or heal or undo or just fix—then you have asked this question. 

Just yesterday I had a funeral for a young man who was 34 years old. He died of a drug overdose after years of struggle and pain. I have known him since he was a little boy. And sitting out there were his bereft parents and a sad congregation of their friends and we were all asking that question: “Why?” It really is a word of abandonment.

Does this question have any place in church? Of course I would rather be dealing with something positive and sunny and happy. But I think there is some connection between the awful things that happen to us and this fourth word. Do the terrors and the despair and the pain and the abuse have anything to do with this man called Jesus? Can these words be really uttered by the Savior of the world?

But I think the church did not leave this fourth word out, but put it in intentionally when they wrote the gospels. Even the placement. I think this, too is intentional. When the church sat down and collected his words and wrote them down they knew what they were doing. 

Outside the doors where they wrote a storm raged. Injustice raged. Unfairness raged. Hunger and poverty raged. The plague raged. Their little graveyard were dotted with all the names of the children they had lost and their husbands and wives and their neighbors. 

And so they put these gloomy words into the book—because they had all asked that question: Why? This word from the cross is a cry of delirium. All of us have a pain threshold and there on the cross Jesus had found his. But I think it is more than just pain. It is cry of desolation and utter aloneness so deep and black that all he could say was: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani ?” My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?

Did you know that these words are found in the 22nd Psalm.? Jesus probably learned them as a little boy from his mother. Like the Psalmist he was calling out a question to his Father.

We have no idea what this fourth word means. But we do know it means that if he cried and really did suffer and if he felt the aloneness that we have felt—then this word really means we have been heard and cared for and, like him, we will find hope in the darkest places in our lives.

Some of our funniest stories have been written by a man named Peter De Vries. He wrote The Tunnel of Love and a great many other books. But sandwiched in between some of his comedies there is this serious book about a man named Wanderhope. He had a little daughter who has been diagnosed with leukemia. The book was written, I guess sixty years ago at a time when there were no cures for leukemia. And so this distraught father, Wanderhope asked  his question, “Why?” over and over again. He kept asking why but no answer came. And so one day when her pain was so intense, the father in desperation went into a chapel and knelt down before the statue St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and hopeless cases. And this is what he prayed:

“I do not ask for her life to be spared for me—but for her. Or give us a year. We will spend it
as we did the last—missing nothing. We will mark the dance of every hour between the snowdrop and the snow: the crocus to tulip to violet to iris to rose. We will note not only the azaleas crimson flower but the red halo at the base when her petals fall. We will prize the chrysanthemums which last so long, almost as long as paper flowers…We will seek out the leaves turning in the fall. Everyone loves the beauty of springtime but who loves autumn after the leaves have fallen? We will. We will note the lost yellows in that bush that spills over our neighbor’s stone wall. We will seek out all the modest subtleties so lost in the blare
of oaks and maples…When winter comes, we will let no snow fall ignored. We will watch again the first blizzard from her window like figures locked snug in a glass paperweight. ‘Pick one out and follow it to the ground!’ she will say again. We will feed the plain birds that stay to cheer us through the winter and when spring returns we shall be the first out, to catch the snowdrop’s first white whisper in the wood. All this we ask, with the remission of our sins, in Christ’s name. Amen.”

Not long after he prayed for his daughter, little Carol went into remission and he knew his prayers were answered. But the remission did not last long. And suddenly everything went crazy and she was so sick and the doctors shook their heads.

In the middle of all this madness on the way to the hospital one morning, he’d stopped and bought a little cupcake to take to her. She loved cupcakes. When he got to the hospital he found she had died and he was not even there. 

The father just wandered around, in a daze, not knowing where he was. He still had her cupcake in his hand. He staggered outside and found himself on the steps of St. Catherine’s Church. Looking up, up, up over the door there was a stone carving of the Lord Jesus with his arms outstretched on a cross. He stared at the concrete Jesus for a long time. And then he took the cupcake and threw it as hard as he could. It hit the face of the crucified Jesus. Great blobs of icing began to drip down that face like tears and fell to the ground. And Wanderhope sat down on the steps and cried and cried and cried.

The writer, De Vries comments: Wanderhope had come to that ancient place where we all must come to. The alternative, he wrote, was the muzzle of a gun or the foot of the cross. The novel is autobiographical for the writer, De Vries himself lost a little girl and this story is really his story.

But let’s turn back to our text. We are told that some in the crowd misunderstood Jesus’ fourth word. He had said: “Eli…Eli…” and they thought he was praying to Elijah. And so the gospel says that a soldier, touched by the pain and pathos, took a spear and dipped a sponge into vinegar and sour wine and held it up to the parched lips. But others said, in derision, “Wait. Wait. Let’s see if his Elijah comes.” And they laughed and laughed. 

Do you remember what happened next? The text says: “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” The Greek reads differently from the English words. The Greek says: “With a great shout he gave up the spirit.” And a soldier standing nearby had heard that shout before. It was the cry of a warrior coming back from battle after the war was over. Jesus died, not defeated and broken but with a victory cry. It was the cry the soldier had heard a hundred times. And that soldier said something so strange that those around him thought he had lost his mind. Looking up he said, “Surely this was the Son of God!”

What is this fourth word that came down from the cross? It is a word for the wounded. For anybody who has asked: “Why? Why? Why? No wonder the church, later linked what happened on that cross to those old words in Isaiah 53. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried over sorrows…But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made was whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53. 4-6)

You see he can take our questions too. Like great blobs of cake we can even throw them at the cross. Jesus takes them one by one. And after all the question and the rage—the outstretched arms of Jesus still remain.

I close with the word of the Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner that commented on these words: “If you prayed like this, O Jesus, if you prayed in such agony, is there any abyss so deep that we cannot call out from it to your Father? Is there any despair so hopeless that it cannot become a prayer by being encompassed within your abandonment? Is there any anguish so numbing that it must no longer expect its mute cries to be heard amidst heaven’s jubilation?

(This sermon was preached at the First Presbyterian Church, {Pendleton, SC, March 11, 2018)

--Roger Lovette /

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Third Word from the Cross: "Mother, Behold Your son..."

photo by Georgie Panwelo / flickr

The first Sunday of Lent we began a sermon series on the seven last words that Jesus spoke from the Cross. The first word was a word of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them…” The second word was spoken to a dying thief: “Today you shall be with me in paradise.”

Today’s word is the first of the seven words we find in John’s gospel. It is a powerful word. The scene is the cross. Four women stand there. Mary, Jesus’ mother; her sister Salome; Mary, the wife of Clopas; and Mary Magdalene. Four women. And with them stands one lone disciple: John. One gospel calls him the disciple whom Jesus loved. 

Four out of the five standing there were women. What in the world would we do without the women? Early in the story there is an Elizabeth and a Mary. Both pregnant. There there is that old woman, a prophetess named Anna that we meet in the temple shortly after Jesus’ birth. Of course all twelve of the disciples  were male but on the ledge of a well in a public place he asked water of a woman with a spotty reputation. You weren’t supposed to do that. When they threw a woman at his feet—caught in adultery. Jesus knelt down and wrote in the sand  and lifted her up and sent her on her way singing. Once again our Lord  broke all their rules in a single action.

Before the crucifixion our Lord’s feet were washed by another woman—much to Judas’ horror. The money spent on the perfume poured on Jesus’ feet could have been spent on the Building Program or feeding the hungry. Judas whispered “What a waste!” Right before his crucifixion Jesus stopped at the home of Mary and Martha when they had lost their brother. And the book says Jesus wept. And so at the cross there are four women and one man. If that were not enough—Mary was there to take her boy’s broken body down from the cross. But on Sunday—Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and “other women” the text says—they were there to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Last at the cross—first at the tomb. Wee know how the rest of that story ends Easter. Easter. The first European convert was a wealthy woman named Lydia. But the names geo on and on. Take the women out of the book and it would be poorer indeed.

But take the women out of our lives and where would we be? Florence Nightingale…Dorothy Day…Rose Parks…Mother Theresa…Oprah…Maya Angelou. And to those we might add your mother and mine and those thousands and thousands of others. Why we’d have to fold up the church without the women.

When our church was trying to introduce women deacons for the first time one of our women came up and said, "I'm against this woman deacons thing." "Why?" I asked. "Because we still need to give the men around here a little something to do."

photo by Chema Concellon / flickr
Working on this sermon I remembered there was always a Mary in my life. My own mother working 7:00 to 3:00 in a cotton mill every day until her retirement. Always. In High School I had this Journalism teacher who put up with my adolescent antics. She believed in me and nudged me to write. Nobody in my family had ever been to college and so one day she said, “Roger, I think you ought to go to college.” In the first church I had, next door was yet another Mary. She would knock on our door late in the evening and want to know if she could help with the baby. She knew we had no idea what to do. Her real name was Rosa Claire. And after a stormy business meeting she would come to our house bringing her own special communion:  unfermented grape juice and fruit cake. She would come and stay just long enough to lift us up and tell us it was gonna be all right. Years later the last time I went back there to preach I looked out and there she was. Victim of a stroke. Mouth drawn. She had aged. And shed looked up at me and smiled as best she could.  I could go on and on. And so could you.

photo by nicoreto / flickr
This third word is: Behold. Look. See what is there. Mary, Jesus’ mother needed someone to take care of her. John, his disciples needed somebody to take care of. Sometimes the reverse is true. Mary needed to take care of somebody and John needed to be taken care of. I want you to look closely for around that splintered cross Jesus created a whole new family.

The third word that came down is a command really. “Behold!” Look See. Open your eyes. See beyond the suffering. See beyond the confusion and awfulness of that day. See beyond the soldiers that gambled for his garments. See beyond every diversion of that dark Friday afternoon. Jesus saw his mother. Jesus saw his disciple, John. What would happen to them? “Mother look at your new son, John. John, look at your new mother.” This is a remarkable word. Even dying Jesus transformed every relationship. 

I think we’ve got our eyes closed today. Not much real looking. Little beholding. We’re so busy propping up the NRA we don’t see. What? All those Mamas from Sandy Hook to Parkland, Florida. Politicians don’t see them they see that $178,000 and a free parking place at Reagan National Airport. See. We Democrats and Republicans need to see what ought to be as plain as the nose on our faces. We are to be a United people and all we’re doing today is gouging at each other. Calling students that hid under desks and scared for their lives—actors. God help us when we don’t see. This third word is a word of relationship. We’ve got over 700,000 who think they will be forced to leave college and service and jobs and family and be sent back to a country where many of them cannot even speak the language and never remember living there. Look. These young people called Dreamers are as good as they get. And we are going to throw them away. See. I picked up Time Magazine last week.The editors sent a fine photographer James Nachtwey all over the country to capture pictures of real people caught up in this Opioid crisis. In 2016 alone we had 64,000 people dying every year from drugs. That is more than all these wars we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and the entire Vietnam war. Look.  It’s not pretty. One
Memorial service for seventeen gunned down in Parkland, Florida
photo by SacredHeartPix / flickr
mother said, “The fact that he’s still alive means that there’s hope.” Fifty miles away her 31 years old boy Billy sleep beneath an overpass in Boston. Another mother in that same article talked about her 24-year-old-daughter Michaela who was struggling with and addiction before she died in September. “Even though she was drug-addicted, she was just so alive. She was funny, she was smart. She was a 5-ft.1-in., 103-lb. dynamite.”

I know this is depressing business. But the third word says: “Look.” and maybe if we look long and hard enough we might just begin to do something about what matters most in this country. People. That’s the bottom line. Remember what Jesus said in the last parable he ever gave? Remember? He said, “Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these…you do it unto me.” And they said, “Least? Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” And Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you as you did not do it to one of the least of these you did not do it to me.” We cannot avert our eyes if we follow this Lord Jesus.And since we’re talking about family he also said, “By this they will know you are my disciples, when you take care of each other.” Another version says: “When you love one another.” It starts right here…and stretches out to wherever you go.

Look around you this morning. Open your eyes, Jesus said. What do you see? Look around you. Look at this choir. We’ve got some kids here—look, really look. And we’ve got some couples and middle-aged people and old folks. Look around you. We have no unearthly idea what some people have been through. You and I have no idea what dangers, toils and snares some of the people in this very boom are sloushing through right now. It doesn’t matter if we are young or old or in between—Conservative or Liberal for rich or poor or scared or self-righteous or mean or kind as can be. This third word says that we are given to each other. Mother, behold your son. John, behold your mother. The only connection we can really claim today is this cross up there—a plus sign—connecting us one and all. With ties that are stronger than blood when properly understood. 

There is a very famous painting in which Mary, the mother stands at the end of Good Friday with all the pathos and sadness etched into her face. In her hand she carries a crown of thorns. John holds her up. The artist, I guess is trying to say that as she stood there to the very end. And as they took the broken body down she said, “Can I have that?” And they gave her his crown. And she kept it. In the painting John leads her away and she holds the crown of thorns in her hand. And the scripture says: “From that hour on, the disciple took her to his own home.” Jesus never wants anyone abandoned. 

This has been a hard sermon to preach. There are so many things out there I would just as soon not see. But we have to put down where we are with what we have beside this word that came down from the cross. It was not only for Mary and John. It is, I believe a word for us.

I think the story I am about to tell says what I am trying to say. It was Christmastime for the Preschoolers. And they had been taking clay and molding it into little bowls to give to their parents for Christmas. They worked for days. Sometimes they messed them up and they would have to start all over again. But they were so excited. They took those little clay bowls and put them in a kiln. On the last day before the Christmas holidays the teacher gave everyone their bowls. The kids had told their parents for weeks that we have a surprise for you for Christmas. Can’t tell you what it is—but it will be a Christmas surprise. So as school let out one little boy ran fast, trying to put on his coat and holds surprise at the same time. And he stumbled and fell down. The bowl slipped out of his hand and broke. No. No. No. He couldn’t believe it. And then he began too cry. His Daddy came over to him, patted him on the shoulder and said, “Son it doesn’t matter.” But the Mama came behind him, took the son in her arms and held him tight. She said, “Oh, but it does matter…it matters a great deal.”

And this is why we have dealt with this hard word. It matters, you see—it matters a great deal.

photo by Chema Concellon / flickr

(This sermon was preached one the third Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2018 at the First Presbyterian Church, 
Pendleton, SC)

--Roger Lovette /