Friday, August 18, 2017

Immigration Dreamers--A Challenge

photo by Steve Rhodes / flickr

Driving from Clemson to Greenville last Thursday night we listened on the radio yet again recount the fallout from Charlottesville, Virginia. We heard Saturday's chants ands yells and terrible sounds from the battle ground in Charlottesville. Screams from those yelling: "No Jews...Whites matter...We don't want you...Take America Back." The radio said it was a riot and it pointed out the conflict between irate Nazi and Confederate sympathizers and those on the other side of the divide. There were billy clubs and baseball bats and rifles galore. Commentators said it looked like a war zone.

Far away from the President's remarks and the jockeying back and forth about who was to blame and what really happened there--we found our way to the Triune Mercy Center in Greenville. God knows we needed some mercy. Us and our whole divided country.
Inside the Church there was a Dreamer's Conference. Undocumented young people longing for a higher education told their stories. We learned a lot that evening. There are over 800,000 young people called the Dreamers. Over 7,000 of them can be found in South Carolina.

We learned a lot that night. President Obama in 2012 signed an Executive order called DACA. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Those that qualified for this program could receive Social Security cards allowing them to work. They could also get a driver's license, pay taxes and be admitted to college.

America was the only country most of them had known. One young man told about crossing the river from Mexico and nearly drowning. Someone told how their parents had to leave them behind in Mexico and came across the border looking for a new home. They did not see their parents for two years. One told that their Mother had a fourth grade education--and the Father only finished the eighth grade. One after another told of there sacrifices their parents had made so their children would have a better life. Some worked three jobs to help those that spoke that night. 

We heard a 23 year old young man tell of winning a Fulbright scholarship to Furman and was studying Biology hoping so become a Doctor. A young woman was studying nursing at USC-Upstate. After she finishes her nurses training she hopes to go to Medical school. Neither student could practice nursing or medicine in South Carolina when they finished their course work. Our state law forbids this. A young lady who had worked hard in cosmetology school was told toward the end of her training that she could not receive her license in this state. One after another said, "We are not rspists or criminals. We just want to get an education." The Dreams Act has protected them so they could live out their dreams.

Mr. Trump in his run for the Presidency promised that if he was elected he would tear up the Dreamers Act. Since then ten State Attorney Generals have signed a letter to the Department of Justice asking the federal government to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by September 5 or face a lawsuit. 

South Carolina's Senator Lindsay Graham has proposed support for the Dream Act but has received no help from other Republicans leaders in our state. The Governor believes immigration should be strictly enforced and has referred to all undocumdented immigrants as "criminals."

If the Dream Act is rescinded thousands of these young people will have their lives torn up and have to give up their educations. As the young people spoke I couldn't help but see the huge stained glass window overarching all that was said. In that window Jesus prays in the Garden. I think I know what he would say about these young people and all those other 800,000 who simply want a better life. 

I came away praying that somehow the terrible news from Charlottesville would not define the American story  in 2017. We can do better. And few could help the dreams of these young people and their families come true.

I keep remembering the poem by Langston Hughes, the black poet.

"Bring all of your dreams,
You dreamers,
Bring me all of your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them 
in a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-tough fingers 
Of the world."

photo by Justin Valas / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Anti-Semitism--2017 Style

photo by Corrie Ten Boom / flickr

The great Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney used to say, "Boys if they ever hear Jesus was a Jew we're gonna be in bad trouble." I thought about these words this week when I watched the events taking place in Charlottesville. Strange and very sad. Alt-Right...Neo-Nazis...KKK...Racist skinheads...Neo-Confederates...Christian Identity...White Separatists. Some carried all sorts of flags. Confederate...several different German Nazi flags. They marched with torches which was a troubling reminder of the Hitler days. 

Supposedly they gathered around a Robert E. Lee statue which the city had promised to remove. Wonder what Robert E.Lee, lover of Virginia would have said about what was taking place in his state. I think we all know.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tells us that there are 917 hate groups currently operating in the United States. Scary indeed.

Word from the White House is weak and confusing. There is a vast silence from our elected officials in Washington. What would it take for those officials to stand and say: "Enough! This is not who we are."

The world must look at us in shock and horror. We must set the record straight. One of the most embarrassing comments of late came from Steven Miller, Senior Policy Advisor for the White House saying Emma Lazarus' words on the Statue of Liberty were not there from the beginning but were added later. As if these words really do not matter: "...the tired...the poor...the huddled masses yearning to be free...the wretched refuse...the homeless...the tempest-tost..."

This is a moment of truth for us as a country. We must ask again--what kind of a people make up America. And if we decide the words of Emma Lazarus are really true--if we believe that the words of our Pledge of Allegiance still hold: "liberty and justice for all..."--then we must raise our voices, use our influence--do whatever we can to make everyone know what kind of a people we are. 

Maybe Mr.Trump and his minions should leave the Golf Courses or the White House and wander over to the Holocaust Museum. I wonder if the President has ever been there. If he--they--did go how could they not possibly be moved by the mounds of glasses, clothing, shoes--suitcases left behind by some of those over 6 million that were killed simply because of who they are.

We Preachers need to remind our congregants that this Jesus we say we follow was a Jew and begin once again to unpack all that means for us and for this country. 

Dear God--please bless America!

photo by jinjian liang / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Is This Making America Great?

photo by Mooch Cassidy /flickr

One Man said "I am 100% American. I hate Jews, Catholics, N...... and Muslims." His friend said:"I am 200% American I hate everybody."

Sunday morning, getting ready for church I turned on the TV to see what was happening. The scenes from Charlottesville on Saturday were shocking. Ugly, ugly rhetoric. Nazi signs. Nazi? Confederate flags everywhere. Two groups screaming at one another. Bottle throwing. People attacking people. Scary and heart-reaching indeed.

But what really moved me were the black commentators and the fear and pathos you could hear in their voices. They thought that we had moved beyond this kind of hatred.They thought America was a safe place for them and for all those that feel like outsiders today.

I went to school in Birmingham in the fifties. I remember the Montgomery bus boycott. I remember the bombing of four little black girls in Birmingham that terrible Sunday morning.
I remember in Seminary hearing Dr.King speak in our Chapel and how moved I was with his dream of justice for all. I remember the night, sitting in a darkened theatre in Southside Virginia hearing the word that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. I have stood before the monument of Dr. King in Washington. The day I was there I remember seeing a black family--Father, Mother and two little children looking up, up at the huge statue of Dr. King. The children were pointing. I remember the night Barack Obama was elected and the lump in my throat. Deep in my heart I was so proud of all the progress that we had finally achieved. I knew we had a long way to go--but we had moved so far.

And so--when I picked up my Bible and sermon and turned off the TV Sunday morning I thought about our country and how troubled we are as a nation and how divided we still are. Driving down the road seeing the tall green South Carolina pines, the joggers and the bicyclists, passing little black churches and the church that meets in the theatre and the Baptist and Presbyterian churches nearby. I drove on thinking--how did we get to this awful place after the struggles and the sacrifices and tears and bloodshed? Not to speak of all the martyrs in our struggle for peace and justice. 

I prayed during our Prayers of the people for this country, this President who seems so wrong-headed. I prayed for all those black correspondents with fear in their voices. And for all those out there--watching TV and wondering why mostly white folks hate them--Muslim, Immigrants, Blacks and Gays--the transgendered. Anybody that is different. 

It isn't over--our struggles. But we hear a few others raise their voices. And I think, once again those voices are growing. The old prophet longed for a day when justice would roll down like a mighty stream until it touched all. Even after all these years--I guess this is what I still pray.

It doesn't begin by bashing Trump. Though he does not seem to really understand that his base are not just those that voted for him--but we...we the people. All the people. Color, religion or lack--no matter who--rich or poor. All. Everybody. So it is our job reach out in our little ways to make sure that in this strange time and place we shall try our damnedest to pull off some victories small though they may be. It matters--what we do--it always has.

photo by Stephen Melkisethein / flickr

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and heartstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
                                                           --President Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural address

--Roger Lovette /

Monday, August 7, 2017

Prosperity Gospel

(Someone said that if a Martian landed here and listened to the talk and the debates they would think that rich people didn't have much money.)

I couldn't help but do a double-take when I saw this scene.  Shiny Mercedes with a tag on the front proclaiming: "Prayer Changes Things." I really guess it does when you are riding around in a Mercedes. God has blessed--and blessed with "more than this person could seek or ask." I think the word is abundantly.

Today we are awash in greed. This is nothing new for the United States. From our founders on being well-heeled opened a lot of doors. Nothing wrong with that--except on the outside of those doors stands most of the hurting people in the country and world. 80% of our stocks are owned by 8% of the population.

"We are blessed" is said over and over by those who have a great deal. Our President, living in what he calls a dump--the people's house--is a classic example of greed and narcissism. But it isn't fair just to pick on Trump--if Hillary had gotten elected what difference would it have made when it comes to this greed business.

I keep scratching my head about the Evangelicals who have jumped on the Trump bandwagon. His favorite preacher is some thrice-divorced blonde in Florida that says God wants everybody to be rich. She even had a prayer at the Inauguration. She and many of the other Evangelicals would not see any contradiction with a shiny Mercedes and a tag that proclaims: "Prayer changes things." Maybe prayer does not change things--but I still believe, on my better days, that prayer does work in people's lives. I've felt it's power working in my own life--and I have seen it work in the lives of many others--and some of them drove Mercedes too.

My problem is not with the Mercedes--but it is the idea that if you are rich God has poured out a special dose of his love and care on you. And in my book that is heresy. I also know a multitude of people that pray daily and are hanging on by their fingernails--sometimes financially--sometimes emotionally--sometimes spiritually. Money and Jesus don't really mix too much. Remember the rich young ruler. He went away sorrowful because he had great possessions. Remember the parable of the rich man and the poor man. Or remember the story of the Good Samaritan. Or Jesus' words: "To whom much is given--much shall be required."

It doesn't matter if you are rich if you can get outside the bubble and see how most of the world live. And in response give back. This is not as much a political issue as it is a theological issue. Even though our politics should be humane and express some kind of justice for all. This is why this health care debate will test our Christian faith and our belief in the "all-ness" of the gospel. Once again what we do will reflect the kind of people we really are. 

I came from the other side of the street. My family had no car--much less a Mercedes. I would have given anything just to have four wheels back then. Much of adult life has beset with old cars that broke down at the wrong times. This surely did not make me a saint. And coming from where I did--I confess that I do love my stuff. Beautiful house...two cars paid for. That never happened before. And I like my creature comforts. And like most of us I don't think nearly enough about: "the least of these."

But if prayer is to work and change anything in my life it is to keep me sensitive. To make sure I give back. And that I will continually long for the day when everybody, and I do mean everybody. "...will sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid..." (Micah 4.4) Reckon that applies to Mercedes' owners that have "Prayer Changes Things" emblazoned on their cars--you bet. Even them. Maybe especially them. But like Micah reminds us the word really is everybody.

--Roger Lovette /

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Finding Our Place Out of All the Places We Will Go

photo by bishl70/ flickr

I want to talk to you today about places. They’re pretty important—these places. Think about it. You sit on the same pew week after week. If you are like me when you pull into the garage you park in the same place day after day. You sit down to eat at the same spot every meal. You probably sleep on the same side of the bed. Little children take a sheet and cover the top of a table and get under the sheet—this is their place. Good places are safe places.

Place was enormously important in the Bible. Egypt—that hated place. The wilderness—that hard place. The Promised Land—the land of their dreams. But something happened. The Babylonians came in—and dragged most of them away from their place to Babylon. They never did feel at home. And then after 70 years they found they could return to the Promise land but it wasn’t what they expected. The Babylonians had destroyed just about everything when they invaded Judah years before. And the Israelites began to mutter: " This is what we prayed for all those years.” Isaiah and Jeremiah and many of the other prophets talk about place. Losing it. Living in a foreign land. Returning to what they did not expect. How hard it all was. 

The New Testament is no stranger to places. Bethlehem…Judea…Galilee…Samaria…Rome…Ephesus…Corinth…Jericho...Emmaus or there toward the end: the land that is fairer than day.  Specific places are dotted all over the Bible.

But I want us to think about a place find in Genesis. Or maybe I should say a non-place. You know the story of the brothers, Jacob and Esau. Esau was the oldest and the oldest was to receive most of the inheritance. That’s the way it worked. But the Mama was afraid that if her other son was left out—it would be terrible for Jacob. So she cooked up this scheme. The Father—Isaac was old and could hardly see. Near-blind, someone had to lead him around. And it came time to bless his oldest, Esau and give him his inheritance. But the Mama sent Jacob into see the old father—dressing him up so the old Daddy thought he was Esau and, not knowing, he gave the blessing and the inheritance to Jacob. It was wrong at every point. And when Esau heard that Jacob had cheated him out of what was rightfully his—he exploded. “As soon as my old broken-down Daddy dies, I will kill my brother for what he has done.” And Jacob, chicken and scared for his life took off. Left his place trying to find some spot where he would be safe. As he ran away the enormity of what he had done hit him hard. He'd betrayed and lied and cheated his brother and his old father.  And there was no turning back. But all this is background.

And so we come to our Scripture. Genesis 28. Jacob wound up in the middle of nowhere.
photo by Tilman Haerdle / flickr
You couldn't even find it on a map. They called it Luz—ugly name. Luz. But there Jacob rested or tried to. And he lay down with a stone for a pillow and slept. He had the strangest dream. He saw this ladder—and it stretched all the way from where he was—sorta like Jack and the Beanstalk—all the way up, up to heaven. And on that ladder angels were ascending and descending. It was a beautiful dream. A wonderful dream. This is where the term Jacob’s ladder comes from. But that’s not my point. He woke and began to think about what he had dreamed. The ladder. The angels. Coming all the way down from heaven to where he was. And this cheater and liar found this amazing thing—God came all the way down from heaven to where he was. And as he thought about it—this is what he said: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.”

That place. Running away like a scared rabbit. Scared for his life. Carrying a heavy load of guilt for what he had done to his old father and his brother when he cheated them. And in that place with only a stone for a pillow, a hundred miles from home—in the desert with heat and scorpions and God knows what else. There Jacob said the weirdest thing: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew not not.”

And that’s the sermon. And we could go home now and eat fried chicken or grilled cheese sandwiches or whatever else you have for lunch. But no. We have got unpack this story. Hopefully we won’t go over. For I am getting a little hungry too. 

So our text is about a place. Surely, Jacob said, amazed and dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe it. Looking around with nothing familiar and everything strange, he said: “Surely the Lord is is in this place and I knew it not.” 

photo by Eric Lanning /flickr
So that’s the sermon in a nutshell. Look around you. Right now. Where you are. This church. Today. Driving home in a car you wish was a little better. Parking in your a garage with all this stuff you ought to get rid of but you don’t. And entering the house where the door squeaks and you wish somebody—somebody had dinner  on the table. This is your place. 

Maybe you did not choose the job—but you got stuck. Maybe they took a breast off and you worry every day. Maybe one of the kids or both have not written or called in three months. Maybe you look in the mirror and whisper: “Where did it all go?” One of my kids told me lately, “I’m thinking about moving to Canada. This country is such a mess—I don’t know if I can stand it here.” I think it is all talk—I hope. 

I have a confession to make. I don’t know how many times I have wished for another church. Where they appreciated me more. Or paid me more. Or maybe we could have bought a nicer house. Or the denomination would not have passed me over. Or I wish we had had more money or saved more for retirement. I don’t know how many times the grass just looks greener over there. 

But one day I was in Princeton, New Jersey for this conference. And somebody said: “Did
photo by Nick Diakopoulos / flickr
you know that Albert Einstein lived over there on Mercer Street—I think it is the third house down on the left. Little white house with green shutters. Hmm. I walked down there and found the house number. No. 12 Mercer Street.  And the place where Einstein had lived and it was for sale. And the doors were open and I decided to look inside. The painters were painting the place but they must have gone to lunch. The house was empty. And I went in. Looking around I thought: “This isn't where one of the most famous men of the twentieth century lived? ”Here?” Three or four rooms down stairs. Not too big. Little staircase with two or three rooms upstairs. Tiny kitchen. Old cabinets. Einstein’s house. Why my house was bigger. My yard was bigger. I had a whole lot more flowers than this house. And I walked away thinking. Maybe it doesn’t matter where your place is—maybe the size is not so important. Maybe not even location, location. Maybe good, good things just might happen everywhere. And weeks later when I got home I looked around and said: “Well, maybe this place and this church and my crazy family are not so bad after all.”

I used to  do calligraphy. And I ran across this quote which I calligraphed over and over trying to get it right. “There are palaces everywhere.” And after all that scratching I did on paper—I have tried to remember over and over: Well—maybe there just might be palaces everywhere. Even here. Especially here. Looking around—I wondered. Still do sometimes. 

And so back to our text: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” Also folks that’s our sermon today. It’s like Moses that time in the wilderness.. Trying to herd those stupid sheep. Wishing it was not so hot. Wishing he had not been so touchy with his wife that morning. In the most ordinary of places God spoke. And this is what God said: “Take off your shoes—the place where you stand is holy ground.”

photo by Ken Lund / flickr
photo by rjv541 / flickr
Carl Sandburg tells that two and a half miles from Hodgenville , Kentucky on a dusty dirt road February 12, 1809 —which was a Sunday—the granny woman came to a cabin.  This is the way Carl Sandburg puts it., “And she and Tom Lincoln and the moaning Nancy Hanks welcomed into the world of battle and blood, or whispering dreams and wistful dust, a new  child, a boy.” Later that morning the proud Papa walked two miles up the road to neighbor’s house. When they opened the door Tom said, “Nancy’s got a boy baby.” Dennis Hanks lived in the house and was nine year old. He walked down the road until he came to Tom’s house and went into the bed room where Nancy held the new baby. Dennis asked her, ‘What you goin’ to name him, Nancy.” And she said, “I’m gonna name him Abraham after his grandfather.” Who in the world would have thought what a wondrous day that was for the whole wide world. Abraham Lincoln. And when you go to Washington and you stand there quiet before his great statue—it is hard to hold back the tears. Do you get the point? The place where we all stand is holy ground. 

Do you think I am just preaching to the choir sitting out here in your robes? Nah. I am talking-to myself as well as to everybody here.I need to remember the Jacob story and the ladder and the angels and what Jacob said when  he woke up and rubbed his eyes. I am trying to remember those words: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” You look around you at some of these empty pews and someone thinks: Why can’t we be more like Newspring? Or maybe a little like Joel Osteen’s outfit in Texas. And we put our musings down beside the book which says: “It happens right here. Right chere. If it happens at all.”

Let me end with a story. You may not know the name of Brewster Higley. He lived in the 1800’s and was a Doctor. He married Maria and a year later they had a little boy who died when  he was just a few days old. The next year an epidemic swept through their town and his wife, Maria died. A year later the Doctor married Eleanor Page who bore a son they called, Brewster Highly, 7th. But Eleanor died soon after the baby was born. But Highley married a third time to Catherine Livingston. And they had two children a girl and a boy. But his wife met with an injury that took her life and he was left with the children. He needed someone to help him raise the children so he married a widow, Mercy McPherson. But it was a stormy marriage and in desperation he left his children with relatives and secretly fled one night and struck out for Kansas. A month later he married Sarah Clemens and they moved to a cabin 14 miles from Smith County in 1871. He loved it there. After marriages and grief piled on top of grief moving, always moving from place to place, he finally at long last found his home. And it was good! And one day he sat down and expressed his feelings with these words: 

“Oh, give me a home,
Where the buffalo roam, 
And the deer and the antelope play,
Where never is heard a discouraging word, 
And the sky is not clouded all day.”

Brewster Highly finally found his place. And his words are known everywhere. Franklin Roosevelt said :”Home on the Range” was his favorite song.

But it expresses the hope and dream of us all. We all look for such a place. But what Jacob learned and Moses learned and so many others have discovered.. It doesn’t matter where you are. “Surely the Lord is in this place and we knew it not.” So let’s leave here with our eyes wide open for what God has to say to all of us right where we are.

The place where we stand is holy ground. Somebody said that the grass is greener where you water it. So folks, let's get out our hoses.

photo by E. makpaob / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the Pendleton Presbyterian Church, Pendleton, SC August 6, 2017)

--Roger Lovette /

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Evangelicals--Remember: "Pass by on the Other Side"?

collage by Gabby-Facciani / flickr
(She writes: "On one side of my collage, I put pictures of homeless people living in poverty. On the opposite side, I put pictures of rich people and very expensive things rich people can buy.I sometimes think it is ridiculous how much some people have and others so little.")

I have been amazed at the horde of Evangelicals that have fallen into line with Donald Trump. I almost wrote love. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has said Trump is our dream come true. Huh? Not only do I decry many of the President's policies: immigration, assault on our National parks, climate change--and his continual lies. George Washington is definitely not in the White House. President Trump will say something and deny that he said it or smother his words with semantics. 

I think the Evangelical embrace of Mr. Trump  is flat-out heresy. Ethics seem to have  
Evangelicals at White House
completely flown out of the window. One of Jesus' cardinal stances was his care for people--all people. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus particularly stopped and talked lovingly to the outsiders. Women and even with women with shabby reputations. Samaritans that were considered half-breeds. Tax Collectors. Those just written off as sinners. Even lepers and poor people. Even rich young rulers. They all loved him greatly. 

 I have just appalled at the President's cruelty. He seems to be utterly insensitive to everyone except himself and his own blood kin. He had a perfect right to fire James Comey. But days later to keep badgering him with what a poor job he had done and how he had left the FBI in chaos was a little too much. His attacks on the Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been monstrous. Whether we agree with Mr. Sessions' directives on many things--he has been verbally abused several times by the President. This is cruel. To dismiss all immigrants as rapists and murders is just wrong. And to send millions back to the other side of the border without even asking about these folk is heartbreaking. A case in point: the dreamers--the finest of immigrants who only dream of a better chance--are sent away without feeling. His treatment of former President Obama and his opponent in the election, Hillary Clinton is just mean. Mr. Trump won the election--is this not enough? But the President's opinion of health care for millions that would lose their coverage bothers him not at all. He has said that if we cannot pass his health care bill--let the Affordable Care Act fail. Fail? What of all those folk in Nursing Homes or with Home Health care or children that receive help. His stance on his enemies is cruel indeed. 

This is why I appreciate a fine prophet who keeps his finger on the moral pulse of our time. Agree with him or not--he really does speak truth to power in ways that all the rah-rah Evangelicals cannot understand. Read Ken Sehested's fine words about cruelty. You might want to subscribe to his blog: Prayer and Politics.


There are at least four ways to normalize cruelty, to make it appear routine, inconspicuous, unnoteworthy.
            One is to make it a statistic. It was the Soviet butcher Joseph Stalin who said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” So, talking about 15 or 20 or 30 million people without health care, as the various Republican plans have stipulated, isn’t a stretch when there are no faces or names.
            Eh, a million here, a million there. . . .
            A second way to normalize cruelty: Use the word “freedom.” (And if you can stuff it in, insert “religious” as an adjective.) That’s what Vice President Mike Pence did in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Asked if repealing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) would be “worth it” if the outcome led to “millions fewer Americans” having health insurance, Pence responded by saying “the very essence of living in a free society is people get to make their own decisions. . . .” —for more see Oliver Willis, Shareblue 
            A third way to normalize cruelty: Call it colorful language. That’s what short-term White House communications director Steve Scaramucci did in his non-apology after being called out for using a squalid stream of profanities to describe West Wing colleagues, plus promising to “f***ing kill all leakers.” Tacitly, by his silence, Trump had no qualms with such behavior.
            A fourth way to normalize cruelty: Say it’s a joke. Just kidding. That’s the response from the White House after Trump did one of his famous wink-wink saying-something-without-actually-saying-it comments, this time, in a speech to law enforcement, an endorsement of police brutality. His suggestion was so bald that police chiefs across the country publicly disassociated themselves and their officers from the president. (For the White House press secretary to say it was all in good fun is actually worse.) —for more see Ray Sanchez, “Police push back against Trump’s law-and-order speech,” CNN

--Roger Lovette /

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Church--What's It All About?

(This Board shows the Pastors of the Iffley parish Church, St. Mary of the Virgin, found in Iffley Oxfordshire, England. It dates back to 1170. I saw this Board in the foyer of the Church I visited and marveled at how long that church has been serving that tiny parish. Despite the ups and downs through the years the beat still goes on in churches around the world.)

Suppose next Sunday morning a Martian landed in your front yard. She would ring your doorbell and introduce herself. And it’s about 10:30—and you don’t have time to talk. You tell her politely that you are getting ready for church and you don’t want to be late. Church? she will ask. What’s Church? And you try to answer as best you can in the few minutes you have left before you get in the car. What would you have said to this Martian standing there with a question on her face. Let me answer this question with a story.

A friend of mine was visiting a Seminary and he walked into a classroom and saw these words scribbled on a blackboard. 
We gather together: 
To tell the story…
To break the bread and take the the cup…
To bring here the things of our lives…
And to lift up our hearts in hope.” 

And that’s about the best definition of what Church is all about than I can think of. And if some Martian knocks on my door—asking this question—I hope I can remember these words. Know a better definition  of church? I don’t.

Let’s unpack those words. For that strange Martian and for us too.


We gather together to tell the story. We all know this—but the problem is that today we are not altogether sure what the story is. The Book says that the story is embedded in this word gospel. Mark when he began his book wrote: This is the gospel…the good news of Jesus Christ.  Gospel is good news. And every gospel in its own way tell about the good, good things that Jesus did when he came. 

But the problem is that somewhere along the line from then until now a lot of people are not sure about this gospel and it’s story. All my life I’ve heard it’s not always good news. And out there this morning watching TV or jogging down the road or just reading the paper—they wouldn’t be caught dead in church. Why? They heard nothing but bad news. Don’t. Must. Should. Ought. Wagging a finger in judgment. Used to be it was No drinking…dancing and smoking. Used to be No mixed bathing. Used to be White’s only. Used to be only respectable people. And out there today are a whole lot of people sleeping under bridges in old paper boxes that wouldn’t dare come into a church. Why? They wouldn’t feel welcome. They know that and we know that. Why? They think what happens here is bad news. And how wrong they all are. 

The story is about as far from those ideas as anything I know. It’s not finger-pointing judgment. It’s the reverse. It’s opening your arms wide and staying welcome. That’s the theme of the Bible from beginning to end. In Genesis The Lord God walking in Eden in the cool of the day—weeping, weeping at what Adam and Eve had done.  Or turn to the New Testament. God so loved the world. Huh? The world? Not just the Presbyterians or the Americans or the Legals or the Republicans or Democrats. Not just us white middle-class folk. But God also loved the world and that’s the story. No qualifications.

In Luke’s fourth chapter he tells us what Jesus came to do. In Jesus’ first sermon he took his text from Isaiah 61. 

“The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me 
To bring good news to the  poor 
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 
and recovery of sight to the blind
to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4. 18-19)

Remember the reception he got? People in his hometown were furious. They muttered: “This, this isn’t the story? That's crazy.” Some of them even tried to kill him. But remember his words. Good news. Not bad news. Luke 4.40 says that: “As the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.” We  come here to tell a story and it is good news for all. Not finger-pointing—but Open Arms.


I told my Martian friend that:  We gather together to break the bread and take the cup.
Photo by James Emery / flickr
Some churches take Communion every week. Some monthly or quarterly. But regardless of how often we do this—one of the centerpiece's of almost every Christian Church is a Table. 

]Almost every home has a kitchen table—here in church we have this Table. And around our kitchen tables healthy families eat together and laugh together and celebrate birthdays and so many other occasions. I was in a group one time where we had to answer the question: What is the warmest room in the house where you grew up? You knows what I said. The kitchen. That old Oak table where we gathered day after day. That was the warmest room.

And here we come back to the Table to remember. It is one of the warmest parts of this house, too. For around this Table we take the Bread—we hungry ones—and we remember that this is the Bread that came down out of heaven and that he or she that eats this bread will live forever. There is something here that, as my Mother used to say, “sticks to your innards.” So when we leave here and encounter the hard things—we remember how he broke the Bread and gave it out for the hungers and sustenance of our lives.

We also take the Cup from this Table. And we remember on our better days that he said that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all our sins. So this is a forgiving table. And we remember that here the burdens of our lives can be lifted and we start all over again.  No wonder after we confess our sins here we give everyone what we call the assurance of pardon. “As far as the east is from the west so far has God removed our transgressions from us.” (Ps. 103.12) So this is a remembering place. And we come back to the Table again and again just like we sit down at our tables at home. 


Is that all? The Martian said. Not quite I told her. We come here to deal with the things of
our lives. I think it means that we don’t leave the heavy things we carry outside the door. It’s a thin faith that thinks we can only deal with the happy things here. And some churches today are making a cottage industry out of smile, smile, smile.And do we smile here? And we do celebrate our victories? Of course.  But we also bring with us whatever it is that hurts and pinches and keeps us awake at night. Remember the old gospel song: “Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”

Once at a Communion service, I asked the congregation to put down down what burdens they had and what they would like God to help them with. And they came to the Table bringing their little lists and left them in an offering plate before they took the Bread and the Cup. They were all anonymous—but these are some of the things they had written.

“God have mercy on me, my sins are too many.”
“There are betrayals every day of my life, but especially, I am aware of those that affect my family and my God—betrayals of envy and impatience.”
“Impatience—inability to cope with different situations.”
“In family relationships and service to mankind, I have been lacking and weak.”
“I have not cared enough for those in need around me. I have remained too caught up in my own personal affairs.”
“I have trouble believing the God is a functional force in the universe ands in the resurrection of Christ.”
“The feeling that is must work to earn the love of others.”
“I have scorned a friend this past week to my shame.”
“For the lack of faith in time of trial and troubles.” 
My downfall—anger, anxiety.”
“Egocentricity and lust.”
“Holding a grudge and remaining bitter.”
“I have not always told the truth.”

Here in this quiet place we can bring the things of our lives knowing that God hears and God listens and God forgives. And knowing this—we know that none of us have room for self- righteousness. We are all the same sinners in need of heaven’s mercy and help.


I could tell my Martian friend was getting figidity. And so I told her: just one last thing. We
come here to lift up our hearts in hope. Hope, she said? What’s that? I told her it might be the most special word we need today. We watch TV, read the papers, listen to all the noise around us and it’s easy to lose hope. My sister-in-law says: “We’re going out just in time.” And there are days when we all feel like that. Hope-less.

Washington in a mess. We wonder about places like Iraq and Afghanistan and North Korea and Russia. We read about immigrants that are too scared to send their kids to school these days. One Muslim man told me that his wife would not go the the Mall by herself. She wears a scarf around her head. She is afraid. But we all have personal troubles. Health issues. Worries about family members. Or my friend who told me the other day his fourteen year old grandson took his life. He told me it happened months ago and is still hurts so bad. 

This was the kind of world that Jesus came into. And what did he do in that troubled time of slavery and poverty and early death and crucifixions and mean Rome breathing down their necks and Caesar stalking around like Jesus Christ.  

Paul wrote some of his most powerful words to the shabbiest church he knew. They were fussing among themselves. They were engaged in all sorts of hanky pankey. Word came that Paul, in prison could be killed by Rome and they said, “See…See—how can we go on.” And this Apostle who had been through it all wrote these words to them: ”Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” A few sentences later he tells them why. “But we have this treasure in clay pots, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” He did not gild the lily. This is how he continued: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” and then just a paragraph later he says it over again:”So we do not lose heart.” The word is hope.

And so for two thousand years I told my Martian friend the church has kept going. Good days and terrible times. Plagues and tears and personal battles and fights in churches and ins and outs and ups and downs. Yet they kept going—and so must we.

For this Jesus who came and still stretches out his nailed-scarred hands and does what he has always done. He brings good news to the poor. He proclaims release to the captives. He recovers sight to the blind…and he lets the oppressed go free…and whatever year it is—whatever is going on—this, he says,  is the year of the Lord’s flavor.

And so somehow in the middle of all their madness and ours—we can find just enough hope to go on. And this is why we have a church…and this is why we keep coming back year after year—decade after decade—generation after generation. 

We meet God here and somehow, like all those others, we find this is enough.

(This sermon was preached at the Pendleton Presbyterian Church, Pendleton SC, July 30, 2017)

--Roger Lovette /