Sep 26

Lazarus, Dives, and Us

I love this parable from Jesus. It’s one of my favorites. A rich man, Dives, ignores his poor brother Lazarus for years, “feasting sumptuously” every day while Lazarus starves. And Dives, that rich man, gets what’s coming to him: swift, certain, non-negotiable judgment. Everyone love a good comeuppance story, and this parable has it in spades. When I was a choir director in North Carolina, I couldn’t wait for this parable to come up in our worship schedule, so the choir could sing,

Rich man, Dives, he lived so well,

And when he died, he went straight to hell!

I used to tell the choir to give that “hell” everything they had. It felt good to sing that in church, and it feels good to hear that, at least once, someone who had it coming got it. Continue reading

Jun 20

Galatians: Baptized into Christ

When we are baptized, we die to our old selves and rise to life in Christ. Paul says, “As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” Last week, we heard Paul say, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Crucified to our old selves, adorned with Christ on the outside, alive by Christ on the inside, that is what it means for us to be baptized. As the church of Jesus Christ, life after baptism should be an intense focus on giving Christ free reign over our lives, so that we can be made more and more like Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Continue reading

Jun 22

The Shape of Our Stories

When we become disciples of Jesus Christ, one of the most important and difficult things that happens to us is that we acknowledge God’s authority over the shape of our stories. We like to fool ourselves, of course, into believing that the shape of our story is all our own, that my story does not look like anyone else’s, that I can make my story into whatever I want, so that my life is unique. But all stories owe their shape to other stories. When people asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” they were really asking, “What shape do you want the story of your life to take?” And maybe you said, a firefighter, or an astronaut, or a teacher. The details—which subject you would teach, or where on the moon you would land, or how many people you would save from disaster—were unpredictable, but the story you wanted for your life already had a basic shape to it. I’m guessing most of us stopped thinking about the shape of our stories a long time ago, but not all childish things are meant to be put away. Continue reading

Dec 08

Waiting for Holiness

            Advent is a season for waiting. Nobody likes to wait. We’re impatient; the things we want, we want now, not later. Waiting just gets in the way. In fact, waiting is more than an inconvenience, more than just one of life’s little annoyances. Being told to wait can feel like a punishment, like you’re being deprived of something someone else has now, sooner than you have it. You go to the doctor; she has some concerns about your symptoms and orders a test. You have to wait a week to get your lab work done. Then a month to see your doctor again, who now says you need to see a specialist. Getting an appointment with the specialist takes another three months. It’s like your life has been put on hold; it almost feels like you’ve been sentenced to a prison term while time passes between tests and appointments.  All along you wonder, “What do I have to do to be first in line?” “Why do I have to wait so long?”

The frustration all of us have at some point with waiting we share with Israel. God’s chosen people, Israel, is a people founded on a promise, in fact, on several promises, which is another way of saying that Israel is founded on waiting. God promises to make a great nation out of Abraham’s offspring, but Abraham sees only two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. God leads the people of Israel out of Egypt, headed for the Promised Land, but they have to wait 40 years before they enter. Hundreds of years later, when the prophet Isaiah lived, Israel again is waiting: to see if God will deliver her out of the hands of impending doom. Fast-forward another several hundred years, and we find John the Baptist declaring that it’s time to make the final preparations, that the time of Israel’s waiting is almost over.
            The waiting of Advent is not a punishment. When we wait during Advent, we are not denying ourselves the pleasures of the holiday season the rest of the world seems to be enjoying. Instead, Advent helps us to make a bold statement: “We are members of the people of God, grafted onto the promises given to Israel by the grace of God. Their story is our story. Our story is their story. Our story is not a story of instant gratification, of getting exactly what we want exactly when we want it. Our story is a story of learning how to wait patiently, of using the period of waiting God has given us. 2 Peter 3, which we heard at the lighting of our Advent wreath this morning, says it this way: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.” Advent is the time when we remind ourselves and the world that we are a people who see waiting as a time of opportunity—the opportunity to grow in holiness.
            John Wesley taught the early Methodists that holiness is not something we can pursue on our own, as individuals, cut off from other Christians. What we need, Wesley said, is social holiness. Social holiness means that we seek holiness together, as a group, stopping to care for the least among us, never allowing a little one to stumble, never arrogantly assuming that Ihave reached a state of holiness while my brother or sister still needs to grow.
            We might well mistake John Wesley for the prophet Isaiah or John the Baptist this morning. “Comfort my people” and “Prepare the way of the Lord” are addressed to the whole people of Israel, not just to this or that individual. The words cry out for a response: make straight! Confess! Repent! Turn around! Israel’s pursuit of social holiness depends on responding faithfully to these demands.
            The problem was, in both Isaiah’s day and John the Baptist’s, there were people who thought waiting and holiness had nothing to do with them. In Isaiah 39, the chapter just before the one we read today, Isaiah warns King Hezekiah that the whole kingdom will be carried off to Babylon. Hezekiah shrugs his shoulders and says, “At least it won’t be on my watch!” In John the Baptist’s day, as we learn later in Mark’s gospel, King Herod has the same attitude. “Comfort—who needs that? Everything is fine. Prepare—for what?” Hezekiah and Herod are isolated, cut off and unable to learn from people who do need comfort, who long for the way of the Lord to be made ready.
 These same words today—Comfort! Prepare! Make straight! Confess! Repent!—are for the whole church, in every corner of the globe, and not just for me or for you. We need to be sure that we are not like Herod or Hezekiah, that we are never cut off from brothers and sisters who spend their lives waiting. So if we want to grow in holiness, if we want to respond faithfully to God’s call to us this morning, we need to be in fellowship, in solidarity, with people whose lives and needs are very different from our own. We need to listen to those in the church who are waiting.
Friends, right now, at this very moment, our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ are waiting. They are waiting in Ferguson, Missouri, for leaders brave enough to listen to concerns about police militarization. They are waiting in New York City for friends and neighbors to realize that justice system failures are not about liberal or conservative constituencies. They are waiting across the country for media personalities and reporters and bloggers to have even a shred of decency or an ounce of shame. They are waiting for their white brothers and sisters in Christ to listen to them instead of talking heads or loudmouth coworkers. They are waiting for the day of the Lord. Today our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ need to hear these words of reassurance and comfort and peace. And our holiness, our social holiness, depends upon our refusal to live in isolation from them and our willingness to stand in fellowship and solidarity with them.
You may be wondering why I’m talking about a problem that seems so far removed from Forest Hill, but that’s exactly why I cannot remain silent this morning, why I feel compelled by the Word of the Lord to speak out today. The very fact that this waiting that affects so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ could feel so distant is itself a symptom of the disease, a sign of the problem. And the problem is not nearly so far off as you might think. I wasn’t in Forest Hill a week this past summer before someone tried to tell me that black slaves should have been grateful to their white masters. I was speechless. And just last week a group in our community had the audacity to call me up and offer money to help out a local family in need—as long as it was a white family. This time, I had something to say, and when I asked why it needed to be a white family, the person on the other end of the line said frankly that some members of his group were prejudiced and some were even members of the KKK. I told him he should look for someone else to help him.
Advent is a season for waiting, a time to grow in holiness as members of the body of Christ. Holiness is what we will find in the manger on Christmas Day, what we will find in our Lord Jesus Christ when he returns: a word of love that listens to those who long for their waiting to end; a word of judgment for those who make the waiting painful and for those who live as if there were no pain to bear. To be holy as Christ is holy: that is our calling as Christians. If we are to be holy, we must walk with those, like our African-American sisters and brothers, who spend their lives waiting and do not want to wait any longer—just as Christ came to a waiting Israel and a waiting world. That is what Advent is for.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” Amen.
Aug 18

The Tears of Joseph

            The scene is tense. The sons of Jacob stand before the throne of Egypt’s most powerful prince. They are tired and hungry—they are desperate. Already they have been before this throne and sent away. Now their youngest brother, Benjamin, has been detained and accused of stealing the prince’s silver. If they had anyplace else to turn, they would have done so, but they are poor, and they need this prince’s help. Their family will starve without it.

            The prince, for his part, has been toying with the sons of Jacob. He knows something they don’t. He has helped them bit by bit, but he hasn’t decided yet what he’ll end up doing. Will he get his revenge for his brothers’ betrayal? Or will he turn away from his anger and hurt in order to help out his family, Jacob’s family? For the prince, as we know, as he knows, and as his brothers only learn in this morning’s story, is Joseph, son of Jacob, brother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.

            A lot has happened to Joseph since Genesis 37, which we read last week. He has been put through the wringer in Egypt, but it has worked out for the best for him. His dreams, which got him into so much trouble back home, make him a trusted advisor to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Meanwhile a famine has struck the region. Egypt, because of Joseph’s dreams, is prepared for the famine and has good stores of grain and food. But the wandering sons of Jacob have had no such fortune. This famed Egyptian prince, whom they did not know was their brother, was their last chance. The big reveal—that this prince, on whom they depend, is the brother they tried to kill, the brother they sold into slavery—the big reveal is not exactly good news for the sons of Jacob!

            Ah, but the big reveal is not really that the prince is Brother Joseph. The real news, the good news, in this morning’s story is that God has sent Joseph to preserve life. Jacob’s sons had thought they were in charge when they tossed Brother Joseph into the pit. But God had sent Joseph to preserve life. They were sure power (and money, of course!) was in their hands when they sold him to their Ishmaelite cousins. But God had sent Joseph to preserve life. And now, face to face with the brother they had betrayed, Jacob’s sons found themselves emptied of all their power, convinced that Brother Joseph, this prince of Egypt, now had all the cards. But God sent Joseph to preserve life.

How like God it was to choose this young brother, this nobody, to become the salvation of his people. The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, indeed! How like God it was to make Brother Joseph, abused and mistreated most horribly by his brothers, the herald of good news for Jacob’s family. Despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, cut off from the land of the living—this was our Brother Joseph.

You see, Joseph is not just the story of a younger brother in an ancient Semitic tribe God happened to rescue. Joseph’s story, the last story in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Joseph’s story sets up a pattern that God follows over and over again. The pattern of Joseph’s story is the pattern of King David’s story, the pattern of the prophet Jeremiah’s story, the pattern of the story of the people of Israel. The pattern of Joseph’s story finds its fulfillment in the story of Jesus, the unexpected Savior who is despised, rejected, and crucified for the salvation of Israel—and the whole world.

Up to the moment he disclosed his identity to his brothers, I don’t think Joseph himself knew that God was working in his life for the good of Jacob’s family, that God had sent him to preserve life. I’m not sure he had yet decided whether he was going to help his brothers or return their evil deeds tit for tat. Joseph had to take a risk—the risk of being a peacemaker. The risk of choosing reconciliation over revenge, love over hatred, peace over violence. It may not have been an easy decision. But once Joseph committed to the path of reconciliation, he set himself on a journey with God toward a more peaceful future.

It’s interesting—the Bible does not say, at this point, that Joseph forgave his brothers. The journey toward reconciliation begins here in Genesis 45. Not until Genesis 50, after Jacob has died, do the sons of Jacob seek forgiveness from Brother Joseph. Forgiveness even at that point is not inevitable—Joseph’s brothers fully expect their request to be denied and even offer to become Joseph’s slaves. But Joseph does forgive them and reassures them that though they “intended to do harm to [him], God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20). In this case, starting down the path of reconciliation leads to forgiveness, but there are no guarantees.

There is, however, a cost. Even at the start of his journey with God to reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph cannot turn to his brothers in love without weeping. He doesn’t just shed a few tears. He sobs. He wails. His weeping is so loud, the household of Pharaoh hears him. Over and over again, Joseph weeps. He weeps as he turns down the path of reconciliation. He weeps as he embraces his brother Benjamin for the first time. He weeps over the other sons of Jacob as he offers them the kiss of peace.

Joseph’s tears are the salve, the healing balm, the anointment desperately needed for the wounds separating him from his brothers. They are tears of sorrow over being separated from his family for so long. They are tears of joy for the reunion that has finally happened. They are tears of lament over the evil deeds of his brothers. They are tears of relief from the burden of anger and revenge that has weighed on Joseph ever since he was thrown into the pit. Joseph weeps, and his tears are the beginning of Israel’s salvation.

If only we would learn to weep like Joseph! If only we would have enough faith in God to risk reconciliation with those who have hurt us. If only we would learn to shed tears as Joseph does in Egypt, and as Jesus does on the road to Bethany and in the garden of Gethsemane. If only our tears could mark the beginning of the path to forgiveness and healing! Do you not yearn for the faith of Joseph as I do? Do you not wish to weep as he did? Pray that God would heal our hardened hearts.

Sadly, like the sons of Jacob, everyone but Benjamin, we watch Joseph’s tears in dumbfounded silence. What do we say? What do we do?

All of us—whether as individuals, as a church at Centre, as the body of Christ—all of us have a Brother Joseph, a friend, a relative, a neighbor whom we have harmed, someone who owes us nothing more than the evil we have committed. Today, for those of us Christians who happen also to be white Americans, our Brother Joseph is Michael Brown and every other black teenage boy who cannot leave his house without fearing for his life, either because of the ghettos this country’s policies have created or because of the anger of an insane vigilante, or because of the prejudice of a militarized police force.

If our lives have been preserved thus far, it is not so that we can lord God’s grace over those around us. It is so that we can seek forgiveness and mercy from our Brother Joseph, in the hopes that we might yet be saved.

It turns out that it wasn’t really Jacob who favored Joseph more than all his other sons; it was God. And God’s faithfulness and love for Joseph went ahead of him to the pit, into the bonds of slavery, and up to the throne of Egypt’s Pharaoh. God did not love Joseph in order to spite the other sons of Jacob. He loved Joseph in order to save all of Israel—and the whole world. As Christians, we benefit from God’s love for Joseph thousands of years later. God’s love for Joseph spared Israel and prepared the way for the birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. When we claim the benefits of this love, however, we must realize that this love of God makes a claim on us as well. We must flee to our Brother Joseph to seek his forgiveness and mercy. We must learn from our Brother Joseph to weep for reconciliation with those who have hurt us. For if we would claim Jesus as our Lord, we must always remember that Joseph is our brother.