Monday, June 5, 2017

Left Behind

A Sermon Given to Haven Fellowship Church
May 28, 2017
By Stephanie and Jesse Coyne

It is Ascension Sunday, 40 days after Easter, the last Sunday for the crosses to be on our front lawn. This is the day marked in the church calendar as the time when Jesus finishes his mission on Earth and is raised into heaven.
It’s a time of goodbyes, long farewells, sadness, and the overwhelming feeling of being left behind.
But that’s not right, is it? In the passage of scripture that we just read in Luke, the disciples are not grief-stricken like they were after his death. Instead, we find them rejoicing—they are worshipping, they are in the temple continuously! This is the first time in Luke that they are seen worshipping Jesus.
The disciples, to this point, seem confused in most of the stories we read in the Gospels. What did they misunderstand about Jesus? In what ways was Jesus different than they expected him to be?
Along with the Pharisees and scribes, teachers, Jews and Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23), Jesus’ teachings and actions were hard for most people to understand. Instead of a Messiah who was to be King—powerful and mighty—Jesus acted in most un-kingly ways. You know the stories: He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He talked with women. He taught and modeled servanthood. What a King.
If we back up a little in this 24th chapter of Luke, before the verses that we have heard today, verses that the Seekers’ Sunday School class are becoming very familiar with, Jesus appears to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus says to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”
Now back up a little more, to verse 21, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They’d seen him die. If Jesus were to come and restore Israel, then he couldn’t die. He couldn’t be defeated by the Roman power. But he was—the disciples saw him defeated, crucified on a cross. And they didn’t understand.
As readers, we know the whole story, from beginning to end, and we are right there with Jesus—how can the disciples not understand?
But think about it like this: What’s the oldest story that you know about your family or a family member? Do you know stories that are older than one generation? Older than two? Even more? Every family has at least one character whose stories are famous…or infamous.
My grandmother lived by herself in upstate New York for many years. During that time, she would stop at my parents’ house during the holidays on her way to Florida each year. What was initially a weeklong visit stretched into several weeks and eventually more than a month-long tenure over the years. Whether that extension is true or just how it began to feel is difficult to say.
I’m not sure if it was the time alone or her marriage to a military man—my grandfather was in the Air Force—but she grew used to having things done her way, which she increasingly attempted to enforce at our house during her holiday visits. My brother was told that one of his friends, who was a large fellow, was not allowed to come over anymore because he was “too big,” and “took up too much room.” But the antics that made us laugh the most were when we began to discover sticky notes posted around the house with various sets of instructions. On the microwave, there would be a reminder to “you people”– her affectionate name for her family—to cover our food when heating it up. On the dishwasher, we were chided for not rinsing our dishes before putting them in or for using the same cup throughout the day. At the time, her behavior seemed frustrating or even comical, and yet I’m practically ceremonial about rinsing the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. My wife can testify.

The women are strong in my family also. My mom can go head-to-head in any competition about grammar, American history and literature, baseball, or college football. She has also been known to break up a fight between high school boys just by giving them “the look.”
Her mother, my grandmother, also a sports fanatic, is a real-life illustration of fiscal responsibility, reusing and recycling way before those words were part of a catchphrase. A widow for nearly 40 years now, she scrimped and saved, but she also gave generously to her church and to those families around her that needed extra money.
Her mother, my great-grandmother, became a single mother when my grandmother was young, maybe 7 or 8, yet she managed to employ several men to build her family a house during the Great Depression. She ran a little goods store and let people charge items on their account, even when she knew that those accounts might not ever be paid.
On my Dad’s side of the family, my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, Nanny and Papaw, were known for their laughter, never missing a chance to do so, though they sometimes had to remind each other that laughing would be their course of action.
Papaw lost his job during the Great Depression and decided that he would buy a car on the way home. Facing Nanny was not the easiest thing to do, and not only did he have to explain the car, he had to tell her that he was fired. Papaw was able to catch her in a breath in the middle of her diatribe and offered, “Pearlie Mae,” let’s laugh. And they did, believing that everything was going to be okay.
Most of the more legendary stories star Nanny. She never disappointed. I don’t remember a lot about her, but I knew that she was the only one who could put my dad in his place with a one-line quip like, “I’m going to trade you in for a dog and then shoot the dog.” She fussed at me for not stripping everything off a drumstick. She made chicken and dumplings by hand. She won a bass fishing contest, out-catching many fishermen, including her husband and therefore made it onto the cover of the national bass fishing magazine. And once, she fell into a flower pot and was found preaching the southern gospel with four letter, rather un-holy, words.
Genetics prove difficult to overcome, and even now, two of my cousins, my sisters, are bravely and gracefully—with undeniable strength—each fighting battles of their own. One is wading through the waters of a foster care adoption and the other has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Perseverance, independence, and humor are their traits, traits that may be familiar in your families too, and even though their stories may seem more like myths, if you were to meet any of these women, you would understand and thereby believe every story to be true.
While genetics themselves are hard to get around, my families’ stories have laid a good bit of the groundwork for who I was to be—for who I am. Would I be as independent as I am (or as stubborn!) if I didn’t know the stories about those who came before me? I think the answer is no.
Family stories, even cultural legends, become so famous, so mythological, that their morals and the boundaries they possess are often imposed on the next generation. This is the first question for us—how did the stories passed down, for generations, for hundreds of years, through war and destruction and exile—how did these passed-down stories affect people’s understanding or misunderstanding of Jesus?

Dennis Green, once the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, yelled during a post-game press conference, “They are who we thought they were,” not able to explain his team’s loss to the Bears.
But Jesus was NOT who they thought he was. He was not the Messiah they were expecting, if they were anticipating an individual to intervene at all.
The expectations about a Messiah were broad and diverse, but the one nearly universal attribute is that he would be someone from the line of King David who would restore Israel to its golden age; the glory days as when David was king—and that it would be even better. This “messiah” would be Israel’s ideal king who would raise an army, cast off foreign oppressors, and bring peace and prosperity to Israel and to the world. Think of the vision in Isaiah 11 where the wolf and the lamb lie together, the cow and the bear graze together, and the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1-10)
Diving a little further, what were the expectations of 1st century Jews? Reading again in Luke 24, we go back to the Emmaus road. As the two disciples were walking along speaking to the stranger, they explain to him their hopes about the one who caused the raucous in Jerusalem; they hoped that he was the one who would “redeem Israel”  (Luke 24:21) – a very loaded phrase.
The need for Israel to be redeemed is a theme found repeatedly in the OT because Israel constantly needed redemption after their continued cycles of sin, punishment, and reconciliation. The disciples on the Emmaus road hoped that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel once and for all. They expected that the messiah was the one who, through God, would break the pattern.
Take Psalm 72, part of which we read earlier, for instance. “May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.” It is one of about 10 “Royal Psalms,” which paint pictures of Israel’s ideal king. These Psalms were sung repeatedly through the generations. They form the foundations for later anticipations about one final anointed king or messiah who would come and right all the wrongs for the final time.
Most Jews in the 1st century expected that God was going to act in a decisive way to right the wrongs of his people. A new age or era would dawn so that Israel would never again fall into the destructive pattern of sin and rebellion. However, they had different ideas about how God would accomplish that task. Some thought God would intervene directly, others thought that it would take place through angels. Only some expected a specific individual or individuals, “a messiah.” None, so far as we know, expected Jesus.

From the beginning, God approached creation with covenant language. But humanity kept getting it wrong, so God, a God who pursues reconciliation, kept trying to re-establish the covenant. Even Jesus’ prayer included the desire for God’s purpose to be completed: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Micah 7:18-20 assures Israel of God’s commitment and the prophet also speaks to God being like no other:
Who is God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us.
However, Micah also reminds Israel of her part of the covenant. You know the verse, Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Time after time, God’s children proved that they could not overcome sin. God’s answer—to come to earth to see for himself! Jesus, God incarnate, walked and talked with humanity. Jesus experienced temptation. Jesus felt the pangs of hunger. Jesus suffered physical pain. And yet, he remained faithful, unlike Israel.
God’s people longed to be unified, they longed for the temple to be rebuilt, but again, they were unable to overcome sin. They fell to temptation, they cried for manna. They wanted the prosperity portion of the covenant to be fulfilled. They longed for these things to happen, not because they’d ever experienced life in that way—but because they had been told for so long that that’s how it was going to happen.
But Jesus came along and started saying things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

How could Jesus possibly be the one to redeem Israel?
Why was this a question for the Jews? If Jesus fulfilled all of these prophecies, how did they miss it? The very simple answer is that he died. That is why the message of the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews. (1 Corinthians 1:23) That is why the disciples were so often confused and angry, especially when Jesus started talking about his death. Read the end of Mark, chapter 8. Jesus asked the disciples who people thought he was and he got a range of answers. Then he asked the disciples who they thought he was and Peter got the gold star by answering, “You are the Christ.” But then what happens right after? Jesus starts talking about his death and Peter is rightly upset and even rebukes Jesus for saying such things. Peter just said that he was the Messiah and the Messiah was not supposed to die. To which Jesus famously responds, “Get thee behind me, Satan. You are thinking of the things of man and not of the things of God.” Your understanding of what the Messiah is here to do needs to be transformed.
The messiah was supposed to be a king who raised an army and led Israel to freedom and glory. He was not supposed to be a peasant who suffered and was killed as a rebel. We have no evidence of any Jewish group anticipating that their messiah was going to die and be raised from the dead. Now the astute Bible reader is no doubt thinking, “what about those suffering servant passages in Isaiah 53 about the one who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquity?
To answer that question, we can again return to Emmaus. Twice, in verse 27 and again in our passage in verse 44, Luke tells us that they didn’t understand who Jesus was until he explained to them from Moses and the prophets how all those things applied to Him: “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (45) Only after Jesus had been crucified and raised from the dead did his followers look back and search the Scriptures anew for signs of the messiah in light of the reality of who Jesus was.
Many of the texts like the Suffering Servant or the Virgin birth were not messianic expectations in the 1st century. Only in light of what Jesus said and did were his followers able to see these texts as applicable to Jesus—that they in fact did point forward to Jesus—but they could only see that by looking back.
As for us, we live on this side of the resurrection. We can search the scriptures and draw the same conclusion as the disciples: Jesus is the Redeemer we needed, even if he’s not exactly what we expected.
And yet in certain ways, He was exactly what they were looking for.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy—he was the son of David, a point made three times in the opening chapter. The very first verse of Matthew – the very first verse of the New Testament – begins “this is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David.” Jesus himself makes a few of the connections to the Old Testament for us by beginning his ministry in the synagogue, reading from Isaiah 61 about good news being preached to the poor, sight being given to the blind, freedom being offered to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor being announced. (Luke 4:18-21, Isaiah 61:1-9) Jesus then proclaims that those words were being fulfilled in their midst. In other words, he says, “here are the things you expected would happen when God finally acted to ‘redeem Israel.’ I am the one who is here to bring all these things about.” And what did Jesus do during his ministry? He preached good news to the poor, healed the blind, and so on.
We have heard the stories and on occasion, we’ve even witnessed his power. Surely, we have, at some moment in our lives, felt his Spirit move within us. But even if we proclaim Christ and teach Christ, and live as though we are prophets and disciples, we must admit that our humanity muddles both our expectations of Jesus and what we perceive are Jesus’ expectations of us.
As followers of Christ, and more to the point, as humans who follow Christ, we do not always have the clarity of an informed reader. Our minds are often closed to what Christ is teaching us.
Aren’t there times when we, in our daily lives, walk along roads with Jesus and yet we do not understand that he is with us? Our self-assurance and ego blind our eyes to the majesty that is around us.
Aren’t there times when we love the kingly models of Jesus, even the powerful, warrior models of Jesus, but we push aside the notion of servant leadership that was modeled for us by Jesus?
Aren’t there times when our hearts are burning with things we know to be true, and yet we still seek more proof that God is speaking to us?
We live on that Emmaus road, as blind as the disciples, and the prayer we sing is “Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus!” But how do we want to see Jesus? Surely not as someone who washes feet! Faith that is talked but not walked is so much easier, right? But this is not passive faith—this is a faith that does require something of us, and not in ways that are always comfortable or self-serving.
Seeking power, having power, being in power, seems like a good way to ensure that God is proclaimed as Lord above all lords. But we have to remember the stories of those who were powerless and yet, by their faith, helped God’s purposes be accomplished.
When we close our doors, we may succeed in keeping out some trouble, but we must also remember that we are called to love our neighbors. We are called to love our enemies. And Jesus, our model, ate supper with people who were despised. He supped with people who were feared.
Remember Psalm 72: “May all kings fall down before him.” And also, “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people and give deliverance to the needy.”
This is not a simple faith. This is a faith whose foundational stories come from exiles, from widows, from mourners, from sinners. This is a faith that began in love and whose roots are found underneath a cross.
And it is a faith that looses binds, sets captives free, and reconciles the sinner.
This is a faith that will take us to the depths of despair and longing and it is a faith that will bring us up into proclaimers of unfathomable joy. Oh that we will be as active in our rejoicing as those foolish disciples. Oh that we would see Jesus here one earth, resurrected in our own lives.
Great is your faithfulness, oh Lord. Oh, that we will be able to faithful to you.

Open our hearts and our minds and allow us to live into all that you would have us be. Remind us that we are not left behind, dear Jesus. Allow us to feel your presence on whatever roads we walk on in this life. Amen.

Monday, February 20, 2017

On the Occasion of Your Fourth Birthday

For four years, I have tried to gather words for you. I have given up on trying to collect all of the right ones, so an incomplete list follows, but before history took away too many memories, I wanted to write these things down.
I will admit to you, my son, that four years ago, my heart was not completely given over to you. My nervous gut and my slightly realistic mind held strong to their own feelings. My heart was ready to let you in, but it was breaking too.
I was anxious and sad, weary and ecstatic, all at the same time. I’m not sure how I made it over that bridge from New Orleans to Slidell.
It was a sunny day, so the lake glistened along with my tears. It was just me in the car, and I have no idea if the radio was on or off.
I have absolutely no idea why everything was perfect, but it was. I have learned to be comfortable in most situations, but I had no idea how to act, what to say, when to cry or when to smile. I gave up quickly on conscious actions and just lived in each moment.
I walked into the labor and delivery room, greeted my friend with the beautiful sandy-blonde hair. The Pitocin drip became our clock and we waited—but not for long!
And those magical nurses kept their smiles and the Beauty and I held hands and breathed together and cried and then we heard you cry and you were here.
I nervously looked at you as you sat underneath the warmth of the lamp, trying to give report to the Beauty on your fingers and toes and I remember asking the nurses, “Can I touch him?” The Smiles nodded, “of course,” and I placed my finger in your hand and another on your blue face and I breathed out all of the emotion inside me.
I looked at your hair and thought, can it be?” No way, my eyes are messing with me. But then the Smile said quietly, “his hair looks red!”
Walking in to weigh you, another Smile said, “this little one is special! He has two mommies who love him very much.” And it was already so.
Those with whom you share common blood held you and whispered in your ear. I don’t remember much about that first afternoon, but I do know that while my stomach was still in knots, I felt peace in those hours. In that room, we were all connected by a bond that wasn’t created by blood, but instead by a love that only exists in certain time and spaces. It is a love that springs from a beginning gift of trust—that of the Divine to the Beauty, and then the Beauty to me. Trust grows as love grows, and everyone there took part in the forming of that bond. Son, you are loved far more than you know.

Leaving the hospital was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, but in that same breath, I will also say that I was okay—the peace held. You had arrived and you were beautiful and healthy.
I returned to the hospital the next day, and the Beauty and I had more time together with you, but this time by ourselves. We were like young girls dressing up and playing with a doll. We took pictures and got you ready for your release from the hospital.
And the next moments are where my mind ceases to understand emotions as I know them. Any words that I can write are horribly insufficient for they all lack the abundance of description and feeling that was in that time. Taking you from the Beauty and feeling my heart grow with love for you and simultaneously break for her was the hardest thing that I’ve ever experienced. For all the silly things in which I have an egotistical amount of pride, I felt none in becoming your mother. I’ve never believed that your birth family would’ve ever lacked enough love for you, that somehow I deserved you because I had more, because we had more.
I tried. I tried to play the game of us vs. them. But I couldn’t. For a long time, and I suspect this will come up again, I had a hard time looking at all of those pictures because the overwhelming emotions were scary. I want to be the best for you; I want to give you all that you need; I want to believe that my desire to keep you protected is so strong that it would withstand all foes. But none of that is true, nor is any of that true for any parent. None of us has all the control we wish we had. Still, we make the choice anyway, I made the choice anyway, (‘twas an easy choice to make), to love you because I knew you were a gift. You are a gift for every day of my life.
I had to learn, and I often have to repeat the lesson often, that you are not wholly mine. Instead, you favor another woman, and with pride in her courage, I smile.
You and your sister are both children of God first, foremost, and with a long exhale, I give thanks that God holds you both in arms that are stronger, larger, more loving, and more welcoming that any of us will ever know.
Son, you are loved far more than you will ever know.

You and I went home, back across the bridge, and I criticized every driver that passed us by.
Your dad had turned the corner on the flu and was able to see you for the first time. I drove to the preschool to get your sister. It did not take long for us to get back to our apartment—the preschool was just three blocks away on campus—but in that time, I explained to her that the baby brother we talked about, just a couple of week prior, was now at our home and waiting to meet her. And despite any knowledge you have of her voicing anything to the contrary, she loved you in her very first curious look at your face.
Your grandmother and granddaddy arrived just a little bit later that day. After a time of snuggles and of course pictures, your granddaddy, always thinking ahead, went to purchase formula for you. He’s always good to have around when you’re overwhelmed!
You were well-clothed and diapered, and your daddy, sister, and I were well-fed because people from two congregations as well as from your Nana’s prayer group sent supplies and food to our house. I don’t think I bought you anything for 6 months!
Son, you are loved far more than you will ever know, and I pray,
Dear Lord, keep him close to you. Protect him and bless him. Give him wisdom and teach him how to love and share grace. Hold him in the palm of your hand.
Give us, his parents, ears that we might hear him and eyes that we might see him and words that we might guide him in your ways and in your truth.
Above all, let him know that he is loved by you.
Thank you, oh Creator, for our son. Even when I am overwhelmed, I thank you for this unexpected joy. I thank you for the paths you made so that two families were paired.
Thank you for leaving some of our emotions and experiences undefined by spoken description. Hear our songs of thanksgiving.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Giving Chapel

Children’s Sermon:
Do you know the children’s story, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein? I’ve always had a hard time with this book, even as a child. I don’t like it when the tree says to the boy, “I’m sorry,” when it can no longer offer the boy anything. I’ve always thought that the boy should tell the tree he was sorry for taking all of his things! But the end does give a nice picture—the tree still has everything the boy needs—just a place to sit.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this book and the Church. Not just our church at Haven, but all the churches, all over the world. I’ve been wondering if we’ve been like the boy and if the Church has been our tree.
In the Bible, we read that God strengthens us and takes care of us and is faithful to us, just like that tree. But have we done our part—we take and we take, but do we give? Are we leaving anything behind for other people?
I am confident that God will remain faithful to us and I am confident that God will have a seat for us if we need it—just like the tree, but I am also pretty sure that we have an active role in our relationship with God and with the Church. So today, I’m asking these questions of everyone: What can we do to help the church? How are we following Jesus?

The Giving Chapel
A Sermon Given to Haven Fellowship Church

The Chapel
The small chapel sat far back from the town’s well-worn main road, Main Street, or depending on your last name and how long your family had been around, Highway 7. In a field where apple, pine, and sweetgum trees sat here and there, and deer and other creatures helped themselves to the fruit and moss and other underbrush, the chapel was like an old woman in a rocking chair—content—happy with both her company and her view.
A creek meandered along beside the road and if it were emanating just a little bit of fog, the chapel would go unnoticed by most of the passers-by, covered over by the rising mist.
No one really knew who had built the chapel. Some older citizens speculated that one of the town’s founders, Old Man Peter, a builder, might have first constructed it with some of his leftover wood and materials. Others believed that the chapel was built over a good stretch of time by many different people.
The town itself was often seen as the only “living” section on the stretch of road between two bigger cities. It sat close to the top of a small mountain, and if a traveler took advantage of a hot lunch plate at Sally’s, he or she could stand in the diner’s parking lot, look south, and see the valley below. A quick 180-degree swivel north, and the view changed to an evident slant upward—the mountain top was near.
On the other side of the street from the chapel was the small home of Jack Swann and his aging father, Timothy. Jack could not hear well and sometimes when it rained, he would run through his front yard, pause at the road for cars to pass by, and run into the chapel’s field. Crossing the creek might have been an issue for Jack were it not for a tree that had fallen flawlessly over the water, connecting the pieces of earth together. Careful steps were still warranted on this natural bridge, but Jack’s quick feet had memorized the pattern needed in order to avoid a tumble and subsequent splash.
The chapel wore a tin roof, and any preachers of the past who were looking to make a point, loved hearing their own voices reverberate around the rafters as though the Holy Spirit itself were tossing truths around for emphasis.
For Jack, the roof was not needed to echo speech, but rather, to augment the sounds of the falling raindrops. A weary apple would occasionally hit the roof along with the raindrops, and for most people, it would make such a loud noise that their hearts might jump a little. But for Jack, the apple only provided slight percussion to the ongoing symphony.
About a quarter-mile behind the chapel was the grand home of Jane Cornelius and her family. Legally blind since birth, Jane’s glasses were a source of embarrassment for her and so she wore her coffee-colored hair long and willingly let it fall in front of her face.
When she was home from school, and the sun were shining brightly with zeal, she would make her way to the chapel and sit right in front of the altar and her gaze would drift upwards towards the back of the room. A single stained-glass window sat high in the eave, and it welcomed the dominating rays from the sun to illuminate its color. Jane could not make out the picture of the stained glass, but she could see the light and feel the light even without her glasses. And that was her first action when she sat down—taking off that burden—and they sat beside her as a quiet companion.
At least five days a week, William Lawrance travelled between the two cities on opposite sides of the town. He was a hard worker and rarely complained about the hour-long commute up, over, and down the mountain. He loved living in the big city and in the small condo that he shared with his wife and two children. The kids were happy in their schools and they all enjoyed their neighborhood.
And the commute itself wasn’t terrible—there was rarely any traffic, just the occasional deer to watch out for—and when he had an extra few minutes, he would pull off the side of the road and walk into the chapel’s field to one of the apple trees.
Nothing was better to William than an apple picked right off the tree. The word “fresh” didn’t begin to describe its flavor or its crunch. William would stand and eat, just for a moment, and he would glance out, over the creek and through the trees, and see the chapel. The serenity that those few moments granted him gave William pause to be grateful for all the wonderful things in his life.

The Trials
One day, a day like we all have sometimes, William and his wife started the morning with an argument. His commute to work was a half-hour longer than usual because of a rainstorm. Later on, he received a call from his eldest son’s school that his son was sick…and then, inevitably, a call came from the preschool of his second son who was presenting with many of the same symptoms as his brother.
Work was not going well that day anyhow, he’d had to fire two of his colleagues due to budget constraints, so William packed up and departed for home. With thoughts of job insecurity, he drove back over the mountain with some determination, ready to check on his boys and even more ready to settle into the recliner that used to be his father’s best seat.
Running over a piece of metal was not part of his travel plans; neither was the flat tire that ensued. William realized that while he had not planned this stop, he could at least pull over into his place on the road, near his apple tree.
He walked over to the tree, picked an apple and took a bite. He opened the liftgate of his SUV, resolved to change the tire, and saw that the back was full of his wife’s gardening supplies, all piled on top of the spare tire and tool compartment. With energy leftover from their morning argument, he gritted his teeth and declared:
Lord, why does she always do this? How many times have I asked her not to leave stuff in my truck!
He couldn’t wait to share his “See what happens,” and “I told you sos” with her when he got home. He grabbed a couple of the bags of garden soil and backed himself out from underneath the liftgate, only to discover with his head, that the liftgate had not properly lifted up the whole way. Bang!
With a new-found distaste for his current situation, he threw the bags on the ground, letting a flurry of choice words fly, and he slammed his fist on the underside of the liftgate. Of course, his wedding ring hit the metal part of the lock, adding even more emphasis to his questions for the universe.
William marched over to the tree and started filling his coat pockets with all the apples he could reach. He felt like someone was looking at him and he stopped, looked around, and saw the chapel staring back at him.
So? So what? This day is awful. This life is awful. My wife never listens to me and my kids are always sick. I work hard and we barely have enough to cover our bills with my paycheck. These apples are mine and I deserve them!
In an effort to teach that nosy chapel a lesson, he began climbing the tree, even shaking the branches, determined to knock off as many apples as he could. When his raincoat pockets and arms were full of apples enough to feed a multitude, he walked in a huff back to his car. He slipped and fell in a leftover rain puddle and apples scattered everywhere. William was soaking wet and apple-less.
“Hey Jane, catch this!”
It was her least-favorite game, but a group of kids at Jane’s school thought it was the best. Any number of items would suddenly be tossed her way, from pencils to books to paper balls, and the verbal indication of the game beginning never came quite soon enough. What always came quickly and viciously was the laughter from the players after Jane either fearfully ducked or wildly threw up her hands in a desperate attempt to block the flying item from her face. And the loudest laughs came when the “heads up” was given only at the moment the item hit her.
            “Butterfinger! What’s the matter, can’t you see? Can’t you catch?”
Jane’s only solace was in knowing that the taunts were as ignorant as their givers.
When she got home, she dropped her backpack on the front porch and ran to the chapel. Raindrops began to fall and Jane spotted the chapel’s door with a longing eye.
She sat in her spot and looked up, but today, no rays met her. No light met her. The clouds had stolen the sun for themselves that afternoon, on the very day when she needed to feel the light’s comforting warmth for herself. Nature had chosen its teammates and she had not been picked.
Her head sunk back down and she replaced the glasses on her face. She turned to leave, the pouring rain no longer a concern for her, but she slipped on a fallen apple as she walked out of the door and hit the floor.
She felt around on the floor for her adversary, found it, and picked it up. It felt good in her fist and her fingers gathered tightly around it as she drew back her arm. With certain audacity, she hurled the apple towards the stained glass window.
            “Catch this!,” she cried out to the window as its glass broke.
She didn’t stop running until she was beside her backpack on her front porch, her hair and clothes soaked from the rain.
After Jack’s shift at the local drugstore, he arrived back at his house, ready for a late afternoon lunch. He didn’t see his father’s truck and Jack supposed that he was out running errands or playing bingo at the local VFW post.
Jack settled into his peanut butter sandwich and TV station and fell asleep halfway through the sandwich and before the local forecast.
He woke up to a loud siren and saw the flashing lights of an ambulance and police car outside the front windows. He opened the front door and a policeman began walking towards him.
“Excuse me, is this your father?”  
The policeman pointed to a man on a stretcher, which was coming around the side of Jack’s house.
“Yes, it is! Dad! What happened?”
Jack walked hastily towards the stretcher and glanced around the side of the house. He could now see the corner of his backyard where his father’s truck sat parked, the bed of the truck open and loaded with tree limbs.
            “Jack! I called for you. I’m sorry that you could not hear me.”
“No, Dad, I didn’t hear you. I didn’t know you were here—I couldn’t see your truck out back. What happened?”
“It’s okay, son. I’m okay. I was trying to gather some of those tree limbs out back and I guess I stepped in a hole or something. My chest is a little tight, but I’m going to be just fine.”
A storm had moved through the town a few weeks before, and one of the trees in their backyard, an old, dying tree, could not hold itself together amid the wind gusts. Lots of limbs were scattered around their backyard. Jack knew that they were there, but he hadn’t gotten around to picking them up yet.
The paramedics pulled Jack aside:
“We think that along with a sprained knee, your father may be having a cardiac event.”
“A what?” Jack replied. “Is he going to be okay? I didn’t hear him calling. I don’t understand, how did you find him?”
“A neighbor saw him lying down in the backyard and called us. We’ll get him to the hospital—you can follow along.”
Once Jack arrived at the hospital, the nurses told him that his father had suffered a mild heart attack and a knee sprain, but luckily, would only need to stay in the hospital a couple of days.
Jack started home after he was assured by the medical staff that his father was comfortable for the night. When he arrived, however, he didn’t go inside his house. Instead, he turned towards the chapel’s field and started the walk over in the late dusk of the day.
His pace was deliberate but unhurried; he needed the fresh air and the comfort of the familiar field. The wind began to pick up, but Jack didn’t seem to notice the shift in the weather.
The wind’s pace quickened even more and the time between gusts shortened as though the sky would give birth to something soon. Jack began to feel a rush of emotions and just like that old tree in his backyard, he could not hold himself together any longer.
Tears ran down his face, his muscles trembled, and his brain fogged over with thoughts. He was scared. Yes…and no. He felt guilty. Yes…and no. He was grieving. Yes…and no.
He was mad. How could he ever care for his father if he couldn’t hear? How could he ever care for anyone? He was mad. He was mad.
He fell to the earth’s floor among the pine needles and pine cones and twigs, feeling the real and raw pains of each emotion. A large limb lay before him, a sturdy, thick one, but Jack, strengthened by his anger, picked it up with both hands, and lumbered it onto his shoulder like a baseball bat. He walked to the door of the chapel and started a series of methodical, purposeful swings.
With each strike and impact, he cried out:
            “It’s not fair!...It’s not fair!...It’s not fair.”
The battered door began to loosen at the hinges.
“Who am I? Why can I not hear?”
“How could I not hear my own father’s voice?”
“It’s not fair!”
            “Who am I…that you should love me?”
Jack’s revelation awakened him to more than grace, for he now realized that the weather outside was directing everyone to go inside.
He dropped his bat and quickly ran towards home. His weary feet, extra burdened by a weary spirit, were not sure, and his first steps on the fallen tree bridge were misplaced, challenging his balance. Gravity won, and Jack fell into the creek.
Shaken and saturated, Jack rose to his feet and rushed back to his house. Just as he went through the front door, a flash of light crashed to the earth and a boom of thunder quickly followed.
Jack jumped, turned around, and looked out across the highway, beyond the creek, and through the trees, and saw fire and smoke growing from the back corner of the chapel.

The Restoration
The smell of smoke and burnt timber lingered for days. The field and its few surviving trees were heavily damaged. No one approached the chapel’s leftover shell because no one knew whose responsibility it was to clean up, demolish, or rebuild the property.
Only the animals kept their routine. The deer and squirrels passed through the field as they always did, believing that something under and among the charred remnants would nourish them. Birds flew around the remaining trees, gathering sticks and other materials, obediently rebuilding their nests.
A couple of weeks went by.
Then one morning, William kissed his sons and wife goodbye as he headed out to work. He walked towards his car in the driveway and felt a few raindrops on his head so he ran back inside to grab his raincoat. He threw it on and felt something in his pocket. He fished out an apple, the only one he managed to come home with after his flat tire fiasco.
William immediately thought of his tree and his face turned to grief as he pictured the whole field and chapel, burned and bruised and abandoned. But as he held the apple in his hand, he a smile came to his face and called out to his sons:
            “Hey guys, come here! Come and see!”
Confused by the tone of his voice—it was glee-filled—the boys came quickly, followed by his wife.
            “Look! Come and see everyone!”
They all looked at the apple in his hand and became even more confused.
            “An apple? What’s so special about an apple?”
William, ignoring their apathy, took out his pocket knife and cut into the apple.
            “Seeds. Look at the seeds. Get in the car, everyone.”
Still unimpressed, the boys and William’s wife got into the car and William told them about his apple tree and the chapel and the fire.
            “We can go plant these seeds…we’ve got to go plant these seeds!”
They rode up the mountain and William parked the car. They all got out and walked through field and found a spot in which to plant their seeds. William ran back to their car to retrieve a shovel and garden soil and the family worked together to clear their spot of debris and decay.
From her bedroom window, Jane saw William and his family and went downstairs to her parents.
            “Come and see. Mom and Dad, come and see!”
Moved by the activity, Jane, her mom and dad, as well as Jane’s two brothers, walked into the field and started removing the charred remains—burned wood and broken glass—of the chapel.
Jack’s father, cane in hand, stepped out of the front door to get some fresh air and noticed William’s car on the side of the road. He looked to the field and saw the two families working.
            “Hey, Jack. Come...come and see.”
Jack heard his father’s voice and walked out onto the porch. Seeing, Jack smiled and walked over to the field, clutching a rake, and greeted them.
Other people from the town stopped by too. Together, they raised the tin roof off the chapel’s foundation and looked for any salvageable materials that might lie underneath.
Over the next few weeks, William and his family, Jane and her family, Jack, and many other people continued the rebuilding process. Seedlings began to spring up from seeds that lay underneath the scorched earth.
Stones and bricks, wood and windows, and other materials were given and they obediently fell into place. The tin roof was cleaned and repaired and then set back on top. The chapel began to take a new, and yet all-the-while familiar, shape. Bob, a local woodworker, built a new altar. Another passer-by donated a stained-glass window that once hung in his great-grandmother’s home.
A new door was attached to the chapel’s frame and etched into it were the words, “Look, here is the Lamb of God. Come and see.”
The chapel sat in the field peacefully, rebuilt, and renewed. The people sang “Come, Just as You Are,” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and “Amazing Grace.” And a sparrow sat in her nest, ready for Spring.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent 4, Candle of Love

Sunday, December 18th
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
 Candle of Love
By Stephanie Coyne
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 15:13
I recently pulled out the last box of Dove soap from my bathroom cabinet. It’s smell was fresh and clean—not too powerful—but enough to change the tenor of my morning’s mood. I hesitated as I held it in my hands, questioning whether I really needed soap with my shower that morning. My fingers lingered on the edge of the paper box.
Smells are important sensory cues for all of us. In fact, smell triggers emotions and memories more successfully than any other sense. My grandmother’s memory is tied to the smells of Dove soap, fried okra, and when I’m feeling particularly sentimental, the smell that comes from a bucket of crickets, ready to be baited on the hook of a cane pole.
She was masterful with a batch of okra (because she was patient), quick on the pull of a downed bobber (because she was patient), and gracious with her soap (because she loved). She always put a new bar of soap out for her guests, even for her family members. Although she liked things to be “just so”—she appreciated neatness—she also had something in her that wanted to make her guests feel welcomed and honored, perhaps even privileged.
This gesture of hers was not as obvious as offering the fatted calf, and for a child like me, I never even noticed the non-marred bars. And when I finally did notice, my first thought was not, “how lovely,” but was instead, “how wasteful.” Teenagers.
When we were cleaning out her house after her move to an assisted living facility, I found a bunch of used bars of soap underneath her bathroom sink and I took in a breath of embarrassment for my teenage haughtiness. I wondered if she ever opened a new box for herself or just always used the leftover bars.
A couple of years ago, as we cleaned out her assisted living apartment after her death, I again found myself in her bathroom. In her cabinet were numerous boxes of bar soap. I called my Dad in and said, “someone could use these.” He replied, “Yep. Take ‘em.” And so I did. And I’ve used ‘em.
For two years, I’ve used them. And every time I’ve opened the cabinet to get a new one out, the smell would hit me and I would remember my grandmother. She was kind; she welcomed; she loved.
I wonder if the Spirit’s language is smell. Riding on the back of a fragrance, the Spirit  whisks us away to the past, allowing us time to pause and to consider those emotions and lessons of memories. But the Spirit does not leave us alone in the past, nor does it leave us to dwell in the past. It floats with us through the joy and grief of yesterday and then it carries us back to this day.
I won’t ever be able to catch fish or fry okra like she did, but I can take with me her lesson of welcoming and share that lesson as my witness to love.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you,
for the glory of God.     Romans 15:7
Artist: Nikki Roland

 In him there is no darkness at all;
The night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light
of the city of God.
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

Author: Kathleen Thomerson
Hymn Tune: HOUSTON