Friday, July 3, 2015

July 4th-Lessons from a Blackboard

photo by Vicki Wolkins / flickr
A friend of mine said he went into a Seminary classroom to teach a class and someone had left these words on the blackboard. This is what he read: 

            “We gather together to tell the story…
              To break bread and share the cup…
              To quieten the terrors of our lives…
              And to lift up our hearts to hope.” 

On this Sunday after our national Holiday, July 4th I can’t think of anything better to talk about today than these particular words. We could talk about talking the flag down. Good idea. We could talk about why we cannot do anything about gun control. Good idea. We could talk about racism and how far we still have to go. Good idea.  Or we could talk about the longest war in our history which seems to be unending. Good idea. We could talk about same-sex marriage. Good idea. But we have heard arguments on all of these ideas all week…all year, really. So I want us to change the subject. Those words on the blackboard got me to thinking. Why are we here?
 photo by The KarenD / flickr

We gather together to tell the story. And what a story it is. Mark’s Gospel said it plainly:  “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”(Mark 1. 14-15) Luke who followed Mark told us about the first time Jesus preached. He stood in his hometown and opened up the Isaiah scroll and read: “He has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” A good news for everybody. Everybody? Every body. Poor. Why most of them would not set foot in a church. We are mostly a middle class outfit. Gays. Most of them are not in church today—why whether it is true or not they have gotten the message—the gospel is for straight people. I love the words that Saint Magdalene Episcopal Church put on their billboard: “We truly regret that gay marriage attacks the sanctity of your fourth marriage” Good news. For everyone. Yet a lot of what I hear coming out of the church today is bad news. Pushing people around. Judging who’s in and who’s out. Mixing politics and religion together and the brew is beginning to stink. No wonder a whole lot of people are sitting at home this morning in their pajamas drinking coffee. Who wants to go to church and feel like an outsider? 

A couple of years ago my wife and I spent a month in Oxford, England. And as we opened the door to the chapel of New College right in the middle of the foyer stands a life-size statue. It is strange. Modern. The figure is bound from head to foot in some kind of wrapping. Life-size. I looked at the title and it was Lazarus. The artist called it: “Lazarus Rising from the Dead.” An American artist named Jacob Epstein carved this figure. Even though Lazarus is bound in his grave-clothes his head is turned in response to Jesus’ command to come out of the tomb. His face betrays a mixture of terror, confusion, and genuine joy. 

I couldn’t get this figure out of my mind. I took several pictures of the statue and keep one in my Bible. In the statue Lazarus is still bound. But his face is turned to Jesus and he about to break loose from the wrappings that bind him down. Remember Jesus words at that tomb: “Unbind him and let him go.”

This captures the good news of the gospel as best I know. Who among us is not bound down by many things? Life, for many of us has not turned out the way we thought it would. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. But we are tied down by a thousand different things. If you were to write down right now what it is that cripples you and keep you tied up—I wonder what it would be. We are all tied down by something—or many things. And the good news of the gospel is that Jesus says to all of us: We can be unbound and set free. One translation says: “Unbind him and let him go home.” Some of us are like the Prodigal and find ourselves in some far country, far from home. 

Yet we come back here on Sundays to hear a good news. Hey, folks—all those things that wound us and cripple us and make us less than human—Jesus says to each one of us: Unbind them and let them go. And so, week after week we stumble in here hoping to hear a news that is good. There is a power let loose in this world. A power that can set us free from all those things that hold us back. That’s why we come. But there’s more. 

We gather together to break the bread and share the cup. Once I was in a group where we were asked to think what was the warmest room in the house where I grew up. Hmm. For me it was the kitchen. The kitchen? For you see the kitchen was where I did my homework. It was also the place with four chairs around a Formica table with my mother and father and brother. And though we were about as dysfunctional as most families—something happened there. We were all together. We were connected—and the food my Mama kept cooking was just something to behold. For me the warmest room in that house was the table. 

photo by Huzzah Vintage / flickr
And in the church—the table is the centerpiece. It’s where we all gather. I love the old Invitation to the Supper: 

“You that do truly love the Lord Jesus and want to be his true disciples, draw near with reverence and thanksgiving and take this supper for your comfort. Come to the table not because you must but because you may, come to testify that you are righteous but that you sincerely love the Lord Jesus sand want to be his true disciples. Come, not because you are strong but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on heaven’s rewards, but because in your frailty and sin you need heaven’s mercy and help; come not to express an opinion but to seek a Presence and pray for a Spirit and meet a friend.” 

And we keep doing this because we are reminded week after week and year after year that we get what we need here at this Table. It is the best symbol I know which tells us what the church is really all about. Good news. Good news for all. All the hungry—which includes all of us. Once a priest was serving the Sacrament and people filed down the aisle to kneel and to receive the bread and the cup. And in that line was a woman whom the priest knew. She was a prostitute. Many knew what she did. And she stood in that long, long line with her head down ashamed. And when she came to the altar and knelt there were tears in her eyes. And as the Priest came to her she shook her head and did not want to take the cup. And the priest, God bless him, said, “Take it, it’s for sinners.” This is good news. What we find here is love and acceptance and food, as my Mother used to say that will stick to your innards.  Good news. For everybody. Every body.

 We gather together to quieten the terrors of our lives. I do not know a time when people in this country have been more afraid. We joined the rest of the world that sad day when the towers fell.  And out of it has come this a fear that pervades almost everything. Did you know that the largest department in our government is Homeland Security? Almost every politician beats this drum. Fear…fear…fear.  

photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. /
 And if we are good stewards we must keep our citizens safe as best we can. But we come back here to find something to hang on to. Peter Steinke who worked with troubled churches says: The more anxious the system the more we seek certainty. I served as Interim in a big church. On one July 4th. And they had a tradition when you came in there was this huge American flag that covered the whole backdrop behind the Pulpit and the Choir. Why if that thing had fallen over we would all been suffocated. 

 And we are seeking certainty everywhere we turn. But we don’t come to church, even on this July 4th Sunday to pat ourselves on the back and say God bless America and forget the rest of the world. We come to with our fears. Not to avoid them. 

 You’ve got your fears and I have mine. Old age. Sickness. Cancer. ALS. Drugs. Sex or the lack of it. Money…money…money. Family members—not to speak of our national and international fears like Isis.  

Rowan Williams who was the Archbishop of Canterbury warns us “when all we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is one way of dealing with problems of the world and the problems of our country. 

 There is another way. And this is one of the reasons we gather here week after week. Do you know the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer was a Minister and as Hitler took over slowly everything in Germany and Jews were driven from their homes and businesses Bonhoeffer spoke out. He helped form a group called the Confessing Church to speak out against Hitler. It was a dangerous move. He was invited to the United States where he could escape Hitler and all his madness. And he taught in a Seminary in New York. But he kept hearing about the trouble in his beloved Germany. And he got on a boat and returned home against the advice of everybody--knowing what going home to Germany would bring. And he kept preaching and speaking out. One of his favorite scriptures was: “We do not know what to do but our eyes are on you.” (II Chronicles 20.12) He was arrested by the Nazis and put into prison. And even after the war was declared a failure for Germany one of Hitler’s last acts was to have Bonhoeffer hanged in Flossenburg  prison April 9, 1945. And in church we look about all these things that go bump in our nights—and remind each other, over and over: “We do not know what to do but our eyes on are you” 

In a hard time we gather here to hear a larger word: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” And down a few verses the Psalm reminds us: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”(Ps. 46.1-3, 7) 

This is why we open the Book Sunday after Sunday. Our direction does not come from talk radio, the Internet or some TV special. We open up the book and ask: Is there any word from the Lord? And Sunday after Sunday we get what we need for whatever it is we have to do. “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” But there is one more reason we come here. 

We gather together to lift up our hearts in hope. William Coffin used to say: “Faith puts you on the road. Hope keeps you there.”  

 My brother and I went on a cruise several years ago. Just the two of us. And we had a good time. And every night we would wander down to the auditorium to the karaoke songfest. And a whole lot of people, some of them more than a little tipsy would get up on the stage and make fools out of themselves. Some people sang off-key and it was terrible. And every night, without fail People would begin to call out loud, “We want Bill, we want Bill to sing. And we want him to sing: ‘I Believe I can Fly.” Now when Bill got up it got very quiet. You could hear a pin drop. And fat, old Bill with the thinning hair and the lined face from too much booze and cigarettes, would begin to sing:

            I used to think that I could not go on
            And life was nothing but an awful song
            But now I know the meaning of true love
            I’m leaning on the everlasting arms.
            If I can see it, then I can do it
            If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it. 

            I believe I can fly
            I believe I can touch the sky
           I think about it every night and day
           Spread my wings and fly away
            I believe I can soar
            I see me running through that open door
            I believe I can fly
            I believe I can fly
            Oh, I believe I can fly.” 

photo by JJ / flickr
All over the house you could hear sniffling and someone crying. I looked around and people were wiping their eyes. And we all so far from home began to sing along with Bill--a hope for our lives and our pain and our worries: “I believe I can fly.” Every night without fail we would gather in that darkened room and somebody would say, “We want Bill to sing. And we wanted him to sing: ‘I Believe I can Fly’.” And he sang for us all. Hope—that’s what he sang there is the darkness.  

Isn’t that really why we come? And to leave here and go back to whatever it is we face. Some hard things. Some things that we don’t know if we stand. Things that seems to have no answer. And we look around us at people just like us. They don’t have any answers either. But we gather together, we tell the story around a table…we try to deal with the terrors of our lives…but most of all we lift up our hearts in hope. And sometimes we learn it from one another, and sometimes from the book—and sometimes even from a sermon.

Paul said it so well when he wrote to the Church at Rome: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And if you let your finger down the page, you will read these words. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”(Romans 15.5-6, 13) And friends, that is a July 4th message for us all.

(This sermon was preached at the North Anderson Community Church, Presbyterian  / July 5, 2015,  Anderson. SC)

--Roger Lovette /

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