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The Providence of a Silent God

A Response to the Events of the Weekend of August 12-13, 2017

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

1 Kings 19:9-18

August 13th, 2017

Broad Street United Methodist Church

Will you pray with me?

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. Let the search for our salvation be thy glory evermore. May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

My little brother Scott and I were listening to the Wicked soundtrack on the way back from Chapel Hill last night after Marcus and Taylor’s wedding, and we listened to the hit song from that hit Broadway musical, “For Good” and in that song, it has words such as these (I’m not going to sing them because unlike my brother I was not given the gift of song), “I’ve heard it said, that people come into our lives for a reason bringing something we must learn, and we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return, well I don’t know if I believe that’s true, but I know I’m who I am today because I knew you. Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes the sun, like a stream that meets a boulder, halfway through the wood. Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good… So much of me is made of what I learned from you, you’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart. And now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend. Like a ship blown from its mooring by a wind off the sea, who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good. ” Hold onto that song as we journey through the text today.

What do you do with a silent God? Theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and countless others have probed that question from every tragedy like the World Wars or the Holocaust or September 11th or the Great Recession of 2008. What do you do when God is silent? What do you do when God is absent? These are very real questions in need of very real answers. Sure we could turn to Scripture and say that God shows up just in time but that’s harder to say to families of murder victims or the of the opioid epidemic. We could point to God’s plan in it all and how God works in mysterious ways, how many times have you heard that? These answers all fall strangely short in our 21st century lives. And unless you’re willing to be a fundamentalist and have blind faith they just don’t strike at the heart of the matter for people today. Relevant Christians and theologians in today’s world do not have all the answers, and that is perhaps the greatest thing we could take from today’s Scripture readings.

We have two very different places and contexts for today’s seemingly unrelated scripture lessons. God is absent in our reading of Joseph’s selling into slavery and his brother’s treachery. And Elijah is on the run from vicious people who want his head on the platter. We see that God is strangely absent in the ways that we think God should be present in this story. Shouldn’t God have intervened and saved Joseph and Elijah, two of the greatest characters in the Hebrew Bible? Shouldn’t God have saved them from affliction and the sword and slavery because God is good? These are all questions I’ve heard time and time again. And I didn’t have an answer until the other day when I was reading Rob Bell’s new book, What is the Bible? Bell points out that we read scripture incorrectly, we read it in bits and pieces and if you waltzed into worship today without knowing the greater context of the story you would think that God is silent, absent and mean.

But friends let me propose to you that reading scripture and our very lives as incidences in a story book is like trying to look at a whale with a microscope, sure you may see things that you may have never seen, but you also have to zoom out to see the larger picture. And the larger picture is this: God always redeems and restores. As theologian and preacher Sam Wells puts it, “We will never escape the fire, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but God is with us in the fire.”

We can never answer why the Holocaust happened or why Jim Crow was even in the vocabulary of our language during the early 20th century. But what we can do is respond to these situational realities of hate with an overwhelming force of love. Because that’s precisely what Christ did on the cross. Christ was willing to experience the depth of the human condition so that we might live and receive an abundance of life. We threw death and God and God laughed it off on Easter morning. If anything, we should be careful that we don’t think God’s silence is God’s absence, but instead perhaps maybe we should view it as we’re not listening hard enough.

God was there when you received the cancer diagnosis or didn’t receive the promotion. God was there as you buried your spouse or your daughter far too early. God was there when your friend was killed in a car accident. God was there when your husband left, or your wife was barren. God was there. I promise you with every fiber of my being that God was there working and redeeming your story, just as God redeemed the whole of Creation two millennia ago.

I must confess that I have all too often tried to push God into a box like many of us have. I’ve cried out to God, “Where are you?” “Why here?” “Why now?” and I’ve oftentimes felt the deafening silence of God. But I’m reminded as John Wesley would be quick to remind all of us that God is a God of providential and prevenient grace, that grace present in our lives before we knew it could take root. God has been working since before time began to bring to completion your life for the sake of the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. And to borrow again from the Apostle Paul, “Now we see through a mirror darkly, then we shall see face to face.” You know that old hymn “We’ll understand it better by and by” has some credence here in this sermon. Because we cannot possibly understand the marvelous workings of God in this life, maybe we’ll understand it better on the other side of the Jordan. One can only hope. This is where I would have normally ended our sermon for the day and sent us on our way to Cozumel Mexican Restaurant or Sorrento’s Restaurant. But the events of yesterday require a different form of preaching and proclamation.

Today we’ve been talking about the silence of God, and the timing of God. But yesterday, there was a silence of a different kind, not the silence of God, but the silence of the church and her people. Yesterday, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the KKK, white nationalists, and Neo-Nazis marched on the town and attacked clergy, and counter-protesters in violent acts of oppressive racism. It was not safe to be black or a person of color in Charlottesville yesterday. So I have to ask you, what were you doing yesterday? God, who calls us not to silence but to redemption was watching, and if you didn’t see the oppression, if it somehow missed you on social media or the nightly news you only have yourself to blame. Because God is never blind to the suffering of people, and we can’t be either. Just two weeks ago from this very pulpit I proclaimed that God has no hands or feet or mouth but ours. And if you are silent at a moment like this, if you do not condemn the racism you see through whatever channels and avenues you have, you can leave church now because you’re doing church wrong.

When we’re baptized into the United Methodist faith or make a profession of faith, we are asked if we reject evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, and if for some reason you are sympathetic to the white nationalists, if this is making you squirm in your pew then you need to reconsider your place in the kingdom of God. Because in the kingdom of God there is no racism allowed, and the last will be exalted. So that’s bad news for Broad Street. For too long, we have sat on the throne of exaltedness as the downtown, rich, white church, trust me, I’ve been complicit in it as well. Until we get off our thrones and into the streets to proclaim and re-claim what racism has taken away, we’ve missed the point of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now before you all leave, I want to offer a word of hope. It’s easy to be the white Christian moderate and say this isn’t all about me, but God has commanded us to speak up to small and big acts of oppression. So that may mean condemning the racist joke or standing up for the woman who needs a raise because they make 70 cents on the dollar compared to men. Perhaps it’s hiring Jaquan instead of Jim, or saying enough is enough and that black lives matter to God. When you ignore the fact that white matters more than black you are being silent to a population of God’s children. But today, you can change for the better, because God knew you and knows you, because of the handprint on your heart like in the musical Wicked, you have been changed for good. And you can speak up and speak out in God’s name. That is the greatest and most hope-filled news of all. Because we knew God, we have been changed, for good.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

When Resurrection Happens Best

You see resurrection happens best early in the morning on the first day of the week because it’s so unexpected and forgotten about.

John 20:1-18

On this most holy day where we mark the resurrection of our Lord, won’t you pray with me?

O Christ who rose victorious over the grave, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight for you and you alone are our strong rock and our redeemer. And may I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When does resurrection happen best? I must confess to you this year that I let Easter sneak up on me. This isn’t because I don’t love Easter, I love singing Christ the Lord is Risen Today and Lift High the Cross. But for some odd reason this year, it doesn’t feel like resurrection happens. Now don’t worry, your pastor isn’t turning into some atheist hell-bent on telling you that God doesn’t work in our lives or in the life of our world. I’ve just been so consumed with other things and other realities, that I forgot the resurrection. So today, permit me if you will, to work through this resurrection business with you.

I can remember growing up and being the cross bearer at my home church in Statesville. And one Easter, as I was carrying in the cross, proud of my place and status in the church as the cross bearer, I suddenly realized I was being upstaged. A man, who looked nothing like the demographics or socioeconomic status of the congregation had entered the church with his umbrella folded and under his arm. He walked past me and down to the altar and prostrated himself at the altar while the choir and congregation sang the hymn we opened with today.

I was furious, why in the world would someone upstage my big moment to carry in the cross? Why would someone take away the spotlight from me? But then I realized, he needed Easter and I did too, and I was missing the point of it all. I was so consumed with my reality that I forgot about the beauty of hearing the angel say, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” I forgot the beauty of Mary hearing Jesus’ voice and realizing that life could be different for her and the rest of humankind because of this moment.

You see resurrection happens best early in the morning on the first day of the week because it’s so unexpected and forgotten about. We’re in a culture that has forgotten about early in the morning on the first day of the week because we are so consumed with other realities and presuppositions about how things should look and how we should all act.

Look at this way: I have close friends who bring me out of my own resurrection shell by dancing with me in Target even when I don’t want to, or taking me on a bachelor party before my wedding and wiggling me out of my shell there. My own fiancée Stephanie inspires me to come out of my resurrection shell by telling me that chronic illnesses like the one I have is only as powerful as we let it be. My parents pull me lovingly out of my resurrection shell by giving me a beautiful and wonderful childhood for me and my brother by sacrificing so much. The resurrection is a powerful force that works in our lives and brings to fruition all that we can possibly be. Because you see the resurrection happens both here and now and then and there. We have the potential to be resurrected today.

I think this reality speaks to Bethany United Church of Christ. Last week, we committed ourselves and our livelihoods to this church and its resurrection. Now we have to begin to roll the stone away. We have to say to one another that this place, this church, this building, these people are worth fighting for in the search and battle for resurrection. But here’s a secret: Christ has already won. There is no height nor depth, nor anything in all of creation both in the earth, above the earth, and under the earth, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus… Absolutely Nothing. There is no power or principality that can keep you from experiencing the resurrection.

I want to be careful here, because I was raised in the Methodist, Wesleyan tradition and we can be quite moralistic and pietistic, meaning that we are consumed with the goodness here and now. Let me be clear: the resurrection changes everything. The resurrection that we will celebrate in the creed and in the Eucharist is something that matters because we are finite. But in the finite realities that we face, when relationships fall apart, when we lose the job, when we have to retire because of disability, when the specter of death looms over us, Christ will be present because Christ is risen indeed. We who are Christian can proclaim the resurrection in Target by dancing, in chronic and terminal illnesses by fighting and proclaiming death does not have the same sting it once had, and in the very grips of death itself we can sing, because God will make things right again. God will raise us from our metaphorical deaths, and our physical deaths, because that’s when God does God’s best work.

If you need any proof, you should go over to the Bethany United Church of Christ Facebook page and see the pictures from the Easter egg hunt, we had at least 15 children there, ready to hunt for eggs and have a snack. We need to re-imagine and re-invigorate the way we do this thing called church, to where those 15 children don’t just show up when cupcakes are present, but when church is happening on a Sunday morning like this one.

You know growing up I always wanted to be pastor, and so I read every book I could on being a pastor and a few years back Eugene H. Peterson put out a book that said this, “I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truths. Salvation is kicking in the womb of Creation right now, any time now it could happen. Pay attention.”[1]  Friends, Bethany United Church of Christ has an announcement to make this Easter Sunday… We are pregnant. We are pregnant with anticipation for the resurrection of this church. We are begging God’s Spirit and God’s grace to be present in this space every time we gather for worship, fellowship, and administration. And though I will never experience pregnancy and a family of my own is so far off in the distance, I know that when you’re pregnant, you have to make ready that which needs to be made ready, you have to prepare for the beauty of childbirth and of all that it entails.

So today, how are you preparing to be born anew as this church? Are you inviting friends to worship? Are you coming to this place to join in membership and in fellowship with us? How are you making ready a highway for God in the desolate and dark places? How are you, after being met with the forces of death proclaiming that Christ is risen? We are people of the resurrection, we are a people and a community pregnant with potential to roll the stone away.

Wendell Berry is a prolific poet and prophet of the modern day. He has this poem that’s been on my heart lately and as any good preacher knows an Easter sermon is not complete without three points and a poem… So let me share parts of it with you. Close your eyes and let this be your Easter prayer:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap.

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.[2]

Won’t you continue in prayer with me now?
God who called to Mary by name. Call to us also in the darkness of our own souls. Offer us resurrection so that we too may practice it with hope, reliance, and a sense of dignity in the face of sorrow. This we ask in Christ our Lord’s name. Amen.

[1] Peterson, Eugene H. Pastor.

[2] Berry, Wendell. Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front (Edited by Rob Lee for context and time)

Are We Good Enough?

A Sermon for Lent IV

Mt. Pleasant AME Zion Church

God looked over everything he had made; it was so good, so very good! It was evening, it was morning- Day Six.- Genesis 1:31

Won’t you pray with me?

Good and gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight for you and you alone are our strong rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I’ve been fixated lately with the new Disney live-action film, Beauty and the Beast. The film as you may recall centers around a prince who has been cursed because of his inability to be hospitable or kind. But as you know the beast before he can love again must believe that he is worth love and good enough to love. Throughout the movie the beast feels that he isn’t good enough for love or a second chance. Or perhaps look at it this way: Frederick Buechner is a prolific and profound Christian author whose father committed suicide. Buechner writes that after his father’s death his mom found in a copy of their Gone With the Wind book a note from Buechner’s father and her husband. The letter communicated how much he loved his wife, but ended the note in this way: I’m just no damn good. My mentor Ned Hill points out that in that note there was no indication of his actions that would make him bad, nor was there any circumstance that happened to him, he just felt like his whole personhood, his whole reality, was no damn good.

I want to propose to you today, that we need to re-frame our goodness. We are beautiful creatures with beautiful realities. They may, at times seem broken and bruised, but that is when God does God’s best work. For God swept over the primordial waters and created a good and beautiful creation. God swept over the primordial deep and brought forth the bounty of our reality. There are people in our faith who would be quick to skip over Genesis 1 and find ourselves with a fallen reality. But I think the most important thing we could ever remember is that we are good first, we may have our issues and our hindrances, we may have our demons and our troubles, but God created us good for a reason: to express that goodness to others and to ourselves.

I have a friend who told me about a theory in psychology called differentiation. This idea in relationships that you should differentiate yourself from your partner in order to be more fully engaged in the relationship. You must realize your own goodness before you can enter relationships with others. With that in mind, my message to you today is simple as it is complex: you must see the good in yourself before you do anything in this life. You must see that God created you good. Because if you don’t, you will fail at this thing called life. People will tell you that you are not good enough. People will tell you that you have no worth, the world will work against you until you have nothing left.

But friends I’m reminded that this very reality is a moment to take a situation of despair and make it into a proclamation of goodness. We are joyful because are good. We are hopeful because we know deep down that we are good people with good intentions. We are meant for to be children of God, and for that meaning we see that we are as good as creation gets. We are created in the image of a loving, grace-filled God.

That being said it doesn’t always work out that way. We aren’t always in the best place in life. We face our realities, and we wonder and doubt if we are really good at all. But then, in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of the womb and that child grew to prove that goodness will always overcome anything humanity could ever face. That darkness may last for a night but joy comes in the morning. I don’t know about you, but if Jesus can experience the goodness and the terror of life doesn’t that give you courage and permission to be good in spite of the terror? That even though we face trials and tribulations God created us to be good.

It is in that goodness that we are free to embrace one another regardless of where we sit in life. That these “isms” we’ve created as society like racism and sexism must end because we are all good. There is no limit to the goodness that God can instill within our very beings, we just have to harness it and use it correctly. There is a danger to demonize and fear the “other” especially in our culture and reality, but if we are good enough for God then the entirety of the human race has potential for goodness as well. We must face each other with a sense of dignity and without fear. For goodness will always win, because Christ overcame even the horror of death with the goodness of life on Easter Sunday. So this Lenten season as we prepare for Holy Week and Christ on the cross may we always be willing to embrace each other and embrace the goodness of our very souls.

Goodness is sometimes underrated in our society, we’re always trying to be great or amazing or grand. But if we begin to see that goodness is the basis of all we do, we can appreciate and love it for what it is: the ground on which we stand and have our existence. If we’re willing to begin at the intrinsic goodness we all have, there is nothing we can’t do or withstand.

I must confess today is a hard day for me to preach on goodness. I don’t feel intrinsically good. You see I have a chronic illness I face that had me in the emergency room this week. The illness I have is scary and makes me question the foundations of my goodness. It makes me wonder if it’s worth it in the end, and I have to wake up every day with the pain of knowing this illness will never go away, I can only treat it with all I have and hope for the best.

But as I was sitting in the hospital at 4am on Monday night, I realized something that I want to share with you all today… I wasn’t alone. I had friends staying up late into the night texting me. I had parents checking up on me, I had family sitting with me. Dear people of God, you are not alone in wondering if you are good. You are not alone in thinking that this sermon isn’t for you. Because I wonder if this sermon is even for me. You see that’s the funny thing about stuff like faith. We have to trust in spite of doubt. We have hope in the face of despair. We have to claim resurrection even when we’re in the valley of the shadow of death. We have to find grace when the well seems dry.

I’m afraid that there will be days when you like me don’t feel like you can take your situation and make it into a proclamation. But that is when you lean into God and God’s goodness and find there a wellspring of hope and trust. I don’t have all the answers as to why good doesn’t always win in this world, why there’s racism, why there’s sexism, but I do know this, goodness may not always win the battles, but it will certainly, without a doubt win the war. And on that last day, we will know that God did a mighty work in the world through the unrelenting, unstoppable goodness that is in each one of us.

Frederick Buecher’s father thought he was no damn good. I think the hardest part about that statement that Buecher’s father made was that he probably was good. He probably was a decent well-meaning human being who just happened to forget his goodness. So my challenge to you today is to first, never forget your own goodness and loveliness. But secondly, and just as importantly, you must remind others of their goodness and loveliness as well. You never know, it could be life-saving and most certainly will be life-giving. So I want you to look to your neighbor and say “you are good because you are God’s.”

In that reality, you have given others permission to leave this place knowing that they are good enough, because God is good. God is big and God is love. In that hope, in that mindset, in that reality we go from this place and see the newness of what a good life looks like. We can leave our hospital beds, our broken relationships, our burnt out careers and see that there is potential to find goodness in life again. The wonderful part of the story of Beauty and the Beast is that redemption through goodness, compassion, and a willingness to take a chance with the destiny of others. We must begin our journey of being good because good is our destiny. We like the beast in the fairy tale must find redemption in our worth and in our salvation through the realization of goodness in our lives. When all is said and done, when the curtain goes down and the lights go dim, we will all hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Be good, and be faithful. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though death is against us, You are for us.

“Sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness.”

By your power, great God, our Lord Jesus healed the sick and gave new hope to the hopeless. Though we cannot command or possess your power, we pray for those who want to be healed. Mend their wounds, soothe fevered brows, and make broken people whole again. Help us to welcome every healing as a sign that, though death is against us, you are for us, and have promised renewed and risen life in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~a prayer for healing, Book of Common Worship (PCUSA)

Many of you have been messaging me and asking how I’m doing. Many of you have been reaching out in prayer and in hope for my health and the wellbeing of my family. So I wanted to take a moment to update everyone. On Monday I was hospitalized, and now I am receiving careful care and attention from my doctors and my family. It may seem to you, as it does to me, that I’ve written far too many updates on my mental health.

This is no easy road to walk. This is no easy reality to live with. But in spite of it all I am feeling the stubborn yet gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit to reflect on the circumstances I continue to face. In May of this past year I preached a sermon quoting the poet Galway Kinnell who said, “Sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness.” Today, I want to offer some thoughts on what I’ve learned and how I’m reacting to the reality I am facing this week. I want to share how I am re-teaching myself my loveliness

  1. I am enough. I was created by a great and loving God and I was created good. Though mental illness is a part of my story it is not the entirety of who I am or what I espouse to be. I have to love my quirky, nerdy self for who I am and that is enough. I don’t need the approval of others or institutions to know that.
  2. Vocationally speaking, I am clear. There is a need for mental health advocacy and policy reform within the United States. 1 in 5 persons die from suicide[1] if they are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That means that you have a better chance of survival playing Russian Roulette with a six shooter revolver than having an experience with bipolar. Why are we not fighting this? Why are we not equipping healthcare policy to deal with the mentally ill? We’re still in the middle ages when it comes to the brain and frankly it’s time for a reformation and transformation of the system. I commit myself to being a part of that transformation.
  3. Sacredness is found in the reality that I am not alone. I’ve spent my past few years writing a book on the beauty of an institution. While I still firmly believe that, I’m realizing the sacred nature of coffee, of wine and food, of a hug, of a sweet embrace of a lover. I’m realizing the hope of institutions is not in the institutions themselves, but the people that are inside them. We must work to recognize the sacred and beautiful moments in the darkness for that is what will see us through.
  4. Finally, and most importantly… This will never, ever win in my story. It came close on Monday, and it came close last April. But I am determined and I am driven because I have a story. I am going to cast off the stigma and the pain to say that I am loved and lovely. The whole reason this is published is not to elicit pity, but to say that our stories are sacred and must be shared.

Some say that I could lose everything in telling my story. But I’m reminded that a first century Palestinian Jew said that, “Those who lose their life will gain it.” I’m not going anywhere, I’m sitting here, gaining strength and courage for what lies ahead. I ask you to join me on this journey. Speak up and speak out about mental illness. Speak up and speak out about what might be going on in your mind. We will fight, we will win. Because in our loveliness we see that God created us for victory. God will redeem. Thanks be to God, and let’s fight the darkness.

[1] National Institute for Mental Health

A Sermon on Addiction

The tale as old as time: Redemption.

Beauty and the Beast: A Sermon on Addiction

Genesis 50:19-21

“But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”- Genesis 50:19-21

Won’t you pray with me?

God may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight for you and you alone are our strong rock and our redeemer. And may I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jake was a giant of a figure in life. I only met him once in my life but from the stories I have heard from my fiancée’s best friend, Jenn, Jake’s sister, I realize he lived life brilliantly. He was a character, always looking for the next adventure, and full of the excitement that any 20-something should have in the prime of their existence. But Jake had a dark reality that crippled him. Jake was an addict. Jake was a victim of the heroin and opioid epidemic that has our country in its grip. And so today I want to preach on addiction, and the process we must all take to face these realities that our nation is grappling with. But first, let us turn our hearts and minds to Scripture.

Today we hear words from Genesis, the first book of the Torah. This story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers after years of absence and after a tortuous reality that Joseph faced because of his brothers we see the climax of the story. Joseph, now second in command in Pharaoh’s court has the opportunity to take justice for his situation. He could have ordered his brothers killed for their acts against him earlier in the book. They threw him in a pit and wanted him killed. They lied to their father Jacob and broke his heart. They sold him into slavery. It would be easy for us to lash out in an inhospitable and awful way if we were in Joseph’s situation. It would be easy for us to take revenge because revenge is sweet and it is what all of us secretly want in life. But Joseph, the exemplar of forgiveness and redemption says this: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today.”

Though I never got to know Jake in this life I have gotten to know Jenn pretty well. She is my fiancée Stephanie’s best friend and Jenn changed the course and trajectory of her life’s vocation after her brother Jake’s death from an overdose. Friends I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing someone to addiction. If you’re like me you would probably cower in the corner and not take the covers off your head in the morning. But Jenn, this Joseph figure has taken a horrific situation and is making it beautiful. She has taken the tortuous reality that has would have certainly given her permission to be bitter, but instead she enrolled at Appalachian State in the addiction counseling master’s program to change the course of other people’s lives so that they will not face the same reality that Jake did.

I could tell you all the statistics, I could tell you that our president promised on the campaign trail to make this situation right and has yet to propose budget measures to combat the epidemic. But what I want to propose to you today is we need to be more like Joseph, we need to be more like Jenn. We need to combat the heroin and opioid as a church for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ. This is not a political issue, this is an issue of facing up to the reality we face and say “You may be great but we will make good on our word to reach out to those who have no hope.”

I must stress here that the church cannot do this by ourselves. We cannot possibly address the epidemic by ourselves… But we can begin the conversation. Joseph knew the pain that could be caused by shying away from the pain of the past. Jenn did too. We all must face the pain of addiction and say that it was intended for evil but God is a big God. A God who can take a horrific situation and make it beautiful. That being said, God needs us to act as well. We must begin to stand up and speak out in the name of God against addiction. We must encourage people to get the help they need. We must encourage people who have lost loved ones to addiction and remind them there is hope.

I don’t claim to have the answers as to why Jake isn’t here today. I can’t speak to this social crisis as a person who has all the answers, none of us can. But if anything, I know that there is hope in the reality that God can take Jake’s sister after the hell she witnessed and shape her into a person who will care for others. If that isn’t redemption, I don’t know what redemption is.

You see redemption is this faithful reality that God will make things right. We may be angry, we may be frustrated or confused as to why addiction is even a word in our vocabulary… But this much is true: On that last day God will redeem even addiction fully and completely. God has embraced Jake in those loving arms and welcomed him home as a child who had faced hardship, and though he did not win in this life God redeemed even his addiction.

I’m starting to think that someone like Jake who was a victim is someone for whom God has special affinity for. God does not do this to us or make us addicts, that’s preposterous and not a God we want anything to do with. But God also knows the road Jake walked, because I am sure that Jesus would have been in the same crowd with the addicts and the desperate in this world if he were here today. Jesus died a horrific death and in that moment Jesus experienced the full range of humanity so that there is no place that Jesus could not go to reach us, and that means even in the needle Jesus knows the pain and absence of good in those moments. But Jesus also doesn’t leave us there. Jesus takes and makes new what people ruin with the needle. In the resurrection that we Christians hold fast to, Jake’s track marks are like Jesus’ wounds, they have been glorified in redeeming grace.

What’s the good news here? God does the same with Jake as God does with anyone who dies of an overdose. God brings close, and God redeems. Or as Genesis says, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today.” Addiction intended to harm Jake and Jenn Kline, and though it took Jake, it can now be intended for good and redemption as Jenn makes her vocational livelihood fighting addiction and its aftermath.

I once heard that addiction could be known as “beauty and the beast” the idea that in addiction an addict can be gloriously themselves in one moment, and beastly in the next. It just so happens that the number one movie in America right now is the live-action remake of the Disney tale as old as time Beauty and the Beast. I want to lean today into the reality on which the movie is based: a curse. The movie is based on a curse of a prince’s arrogant and inhospitable actions. Because of this, the enchantress places a curse on the prince; he will remain a beast until he learns to love.[1]

I think we will never face addiction as a church until we learn to love. We will never break the cycle and curse of heroin and opioid addiction until we lean into Christ and encourage our friends, families, brothers, and sisters to acknowledge the reality, seek help, and see it through to the end of the story. We must be hospitable and not make excuses. What is so raw and real about the epidemic is that it knows no race or class, no religion or creed. That being said, we have to view Jake and countless others who suffer from addiction, wherever they come from, as beautiful people who just needed and need help. We may not always win the battles but I believe we can win the war of addiction. Because what can we not do when we put our prayers and resources toward an issue? What can the church not accomplish if we work together to acknowledge addiction for what it is and then begin to pick up the pieces? These realities are hard, difficult, and sometimes impossible to face. But just as Joseph turned into the reality of forgiving and redeeming his brothers, may we do the same.

I think the beautiful part of the story for Christians in the 21st century is we know what happened with Joseph. The Israelite people that Joseph saved that day became a great nation and brought forth from it the Messiah, the hope and savior of the world. And though I don’t know the end of Jenn’s story, I do know this: God will redeem this situation and bring forth from it people who faced down addiction and were made well. Because that is how this works. Pain exists, and sorrow may last for the night… But joy, that joy that takes addicts and makes their stories beautiful, will come in the morning. May we work, may we pray, and may we fight for the glory of redemption from addiction. All glory honor and power be to the one who was, who is, and who is to come. Amen.

[1] Howell, James C.

A Redeemed Pup

Holly is redeemed and restored to the fullest extent of God’s power. Thanks be to God.

I write this with an overwhelming feeling of being hungover with grief. I lost my 12-year-old miniature schnauzer last night. She died in my dad’s arms, at home, far away from a vet’s office or the puppy mill that she was rescued from. I had the opportunity to hold her, tell her it was ok to leave, and that we loved her deeply. She was, after all, our companion and friend for many years.

As I sit here in my parents’ bedroom committing these words to paper the other dogs are quiet, the quietest I’ve ever seen them. They know something has happened, that someone is missing. But that turns my mind to death and the end of all things. Will Holly be redeemed? Will Holly be restored? Will Holly be resurrected?

John Wesley, a person in whom I have great respect, preached a sermon titled “The General Deliverance” on the redemption of the whole of Creation. He used the text below:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;  for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;

– Romans 8:19-22

Wesley argues that we humans are subject to the fall and responsible for it, but we took the whole of Creation with us. If God is fully redeeming us, won’t God fully redeem Creation? These are all questions Wesley considers. I can’t say for certain about anything regarding the resurrection, but I do know this: I want nothing to do with redemption that isn’t offered to a dog like Holly. The eschaton wouldn’t be the same without her.

This much is sure for me: I feel the presence of God when I was with Holly. I feel the depth of God’s love when I play with my other dogs, Lizzie, Frank, Little Man, and Roscoe. I know the certainty of God’s grace when I think of the second chance Holly received being rescued from that puppy mill.

I’m starting to think that even though some would argue you need the sinner’s prayer to get to heaven, God’s embrace is bigger than that. God’s embrace is far reaching, even to dear Holly. For Holly embodied elements of God’s presence that aren’t possible for me to embody. And for that, thanks be to God.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned a time and place in the eschatological vision when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb. Well I envision a time and place when the poodle will lie down with the schnauzer, and all will be right with the world. Our strongest and surest hope is found in the reuniting in redeemed and restored realities. And if my faith has taught me anything it’s that Holly has been redeemed and restored. I’m thankful you got a second chance, because ultimately, you taught me the story of redemption.

Go rest well Holly, you lived a life full of fierce love and faithful presence. Rest in peace and rise in glory.

 

A Demon by any Other Name

A Demon by any other Name: A sermon preached by the Rev. Rob Lee

“They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spiritsbegged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.”

Won’t you pray with me?

God, in whose name demons quake and are fearful, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight. For you and you alone are our strong rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This past April, I spent six days in the hospital just up the road from this beloved Divinity School. I fought against a demon of my mind, and I had to give voice to how I was feeling to get it under control. Today I confess that I struggle with, fight with, deal with bipolar disorder, a crippling mental illness that causes me to live in a topsy turvy reality where left seems right, up seems down, and wrong seems right. It is a scary disease that can strike at any moment, but it is one that I have found is nothing compared to what God has done and continues to do in my life.

Now I can see some of you hesitantly trying to figure out where I’m going with this. I think Mainline Protestantism from which I come has many problems, but one that sticks out to me is our inability to give voice to what is going on in our world and in our individual lives. Today we hear a story from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus challenges us to name the name that we all fear and let it leave us and be cast into the sea.

You see today in our lesson Jesus confronts a man who had an unclean spirit in him. He lived among the tombs and no one could restrain him. He had been restrained with shackles and with chains but to no avail, this man was without hope and cast out to be with those who are dead. I think the most interesting part of this text is when Jesus asks for the demon’s name. In ancient culture if you knew the name of the demon or evil spirit you had power over it, you could control it. Names are important and naming our demons are just as important.

I think it would be easy for us in our modern-day sensibilities to excuse demons as mythological creatures best left for the history books and Bible stories we hear ever so often in the lectionary. But this mainline Protestant is here to say that there are powers at work in your life that are nothing short of demonic. Whether it be alcoholism, that gambling or drug addiction, mental illness, or anything that comes to your mind right now, you know it’s true that there are things at work that keep you in isolation at the tombs. They are the chains and shackles that keep you dead. But I come today to proclaim a God who knows how to loosen shackles. I know a God who can bring us forth from the tombs and into the light of God’s dream for us.

Now of course I must say here that we have things that help us deal with our own demons and giving them names like Jesus did. We have medicine and psychology and other means at our disposal that I believe God has given us to give voice to that demon we face. I also want to be clear that unlike the demoniac in this story I will never be fully healed from my bipolar disorder, but I do know that God created me ultimately to be good, and though bipolar is a part of my story it has lost its power over me because it has a name.

But perhaps the most challenging part of this text is not the possession by a demon, but the command Jesus gives the demoniac after he has been set free of his demons. Jesus commands the unnamed man to go home to his friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for him, and what mercy he has shown him. Could it be that this man is unnamed for a reason, could it be that Jesus is speaking directly to us?

You see throughout the narrative arc of scripture we place ourselves within the story, we may identify with David when he is facing Goliath, Moses when we’re called to speak up or speak out, or Mary when faced with daunting circumstances. But here, in this text, does anyone want to identify with the demoniac? Does anyone want to be the one who lives among the tombs of dead people? I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’d rather not be. We’d rather be the people who watch the swineherd go over the hill and into the sea. But today I’m pleading with you to let your demons have a name. I’m asking you to give voice to this unnamed man and proclaim that your issues are big but we serve a God who is bigger. A God who knows the terror of schizophrenia, or the horror of bipolar, a God who recognizes anxiety and depression and gives us tools to fight and to heal.

You see this unnamed man is more than just a storybook character. This unnamed man is me. And when I turn over the keys of my illness to the Lord of time and space I know that God can take a demon and make it a blessing. God can turn the demoniac into a proclaimer of the wondrous deeds God has accomplished in the lives of God’s beloved children.

Now you could easily stop me here and say I’m off base in calling mental illness a demonic possession, and I recognize the consequences a statement like that might make. But I also realize that this is not child’s play or something to shy away from. We cannot confront the power of mental illness until we give it a name and a face and say you do not have the power you think you have.

This could cost us everything. My uncle never did conquer the demon he faced and succumbed to suicide. But I know throughout it all the God I have come to know embraces and stands with us in our weakness. That is our greatest and highest hope.  We ultimately will not win against some demons on this side of the Jordan, but the God who has destroyed death will destroy even the most crippling mental illnesses we could ever face. The hope of the resurrection is that we will shed these illnesses, these demons and find our stories restored to their former glory of goodness.

When I was in the hospital for six days in April I knew that I could get through this setback because of my friends, my family, and those surrounding me in love and support. Since today I stand as an unnamed man in Mark’s Gospel I come to you today to proclaim that the Lord has done wondrous things, and shown me mercy that I didn’t deserve. That is now your commission and your mission as well. You can’t un-see what you have seen. This is now your time to leave the tombs and find Jesus ready to heal and to redeem your story. Take the shackles off and find anew that there is nothing, no height or depth or anything at all that can separate you from Christ Jesus.

There’s this prayer I’ve been praying for years when bipolar tries to get the best of me. So perhaps today as it closes you might join me in hearing the prayer of St. Francis de Sales, a saint who lived in the 1500’s but whose words still right true today.

Let us pray:

“Be at Peace, do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; rather look to them with full hope as they arise.  God, whose very own you are, will deliver you from out of them. God has kept you thus far, and God will lead you safely through all things; and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in God’s arms. Do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting God who cares for you today will take care of you then and every day. God will either shield you from suffering, or will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imagination. Amen.”