This story is about a man who was thought to be in a vegetative state and, after 20+ years, has come out and is able to communicate by guiding a speech therapist’s hand across a keyboard. What is also fascinating is the under-story here. Modern science seems to be in disagreement with itself. On the one hand, it was a modern form of a brain scan that revealed that this man was actually in a coma and not in a permanent vegetative state. They think for a good while he was actually conscious inside of a totally paralyzed body. Miracle? Well, the counterpoint is that modern science also says this is not possible and they are doing “guided communication” with this patient.
I find this a bit intriguing that many in science are okay with science as long as it stays out of the miracle business. Or, at least if it does venture into miracles, it better be able to explain exactly how they happened. I wonder if this is not God demonstrating that science begins not with us as advanced humanity but with, dare I say it, with God. What if this was a miracle? Do we believe it? I’m guessing we don’t-it’s much easier to write God off then actually stop and try to unpack the depth of such a thing. Thoughts? Comments?
**as a side note I want to ask for prayer for the family and friends of Rev. Joe Roberson. He was tragically killed Saturday night in a car accident. He was a husband and father of 4. He was a leader and mentor. He was my mentor and my very good friend. I will be posting soon on some thoughts and feelings of losing someone close to you-I’m just not ready to do so yet.**
A particular passage in Ephesians was brought to light this morning in New Testament and I wanted to reflect on it because it has, I feel, a lot of merit especially considering the state of the Church in our modern era.
Ephesians 2:11-22 says:
11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
I had a friend mention the statement they hear all the time earlier today: “I love God, it’s the Church I have a problem with.” Oh if I had a nickel for every time I have heard that myself. When did the church get out of the business of reconciliation? Well some might contend around the time Constantine made Christianity legal and it became the national religion of Rome. Others may even contend, as I do, that the Church never quite got into the business of reconciliation if we use Paul’s other letters as our evidence.
So what does reconciliation look like? Well for Christians it is the very essence of our salvation. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are reconciled into a relationship with God that, before that time, was never quite possible in the same way it was after. How ironic it is, then, that Christians and the Church seems to forget this fact so quickly. We establish our institutions. We build our steeples and set our rules and we’ll be damned in we are going to let anyone in who does not first adhere to the arbitrary conditions we set.
Now please keep in mind that I am not advocating for a free-for-all in terms of Christian conduct. I don’t think Paul would either. Opening the doors of church wider does not mean we say we can behave however we please in hopes of not seeming judgmental. But it does mean we choose those standards, as Paul did, that matter to God. I don’t think hymnal singing vs. projector and screen singing was one of those standards. I don’t think organ music vs. live band music was one either. I really don’t think political ideology was a standard. And I know for a fact (as attested to by many of Paul’s writings) that racial, ethnic, gender, social, and even (yes, even) sexual orientation was meant to be a standard which one had to adhere to a “correct” policy before they could be in the community of Jesus Christ.
We are called as the Church to build one another up in love and seek to serve each other in the spirit of mutual edification (cf. Eph 4:1-3; Rom 14:19; Gal 5:13; 1 Thess 5:15). As Luke Timothy Johnson said this morning, “If the Church is not in the business of reconciliation it’s doing anything.”
It is an interesting idea that our primary job as the Church could be to work to reconcile the world to God. If we are called to be the body of Christ then how shall this body behave? What are the primary tasks of existence in this body? If God seeks to reconcile the world then I do believe the Church is one of the primary vehicles of this mission. But this means attitudes within the Church must change. We can not be about building up our institutions. We can not be about “converting” everyone to our way of doing things. We must be about reconciliation if this passage is to be taken seriously. Self-preservation is nothing more than an attempt to continue the existence of the institution in a statement that we lack the faith that God will preserve the Church to do the very work of God. Reconciliation is the Missio Dei and the Church is summoned to be the vehicle of this radical love God has for the world.
And the ironic thing is, I can’t think of anything more Evangelical than this!
So the other my New Testament professor pointed out a text from Paul used in both Romans and Galatians. In Greek it is Pistis Christeou. Translated it is “Faith Christ.” Now the debate is whether this text refers to “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ.” And the implications of the translation could be very meaningful to the text and its interpretation. ”Faith in Christ” refers to the traditional Xhristocentric claim that salvation comes through belief in Christ alone. But if one translates the phrase to mean “faith of Christ” then universalist claims could be given more validity. In other words, if we are justified by the faith of Christ then is that exclusive for Christians alone or for everyone? And what is the nature of our understanding of salvation? I will say that I don’t know and don’t have a clear stand on either option. The discussion served to raise more questions for me than answers. But it did make me reflect on a couple ideas:
I know for some this may anger you that a self-avowed Evangelical Christian writes such things that go against the very tradition of Evangelicalism. I know for others you may be glad to hear that maybe I think a more universalist notion of salvation is in order-well don’t put me over there either. I wonder if the real answer here is the non-answer? Maybe the beauty of this particular debate is that we aren’t the ones who have to give the answers? Maybe we shouldn’t worry about the after-life nearly as much as we always have. And if that’s the case, then what does that mean for how we live the life we have RIGHT NOW???
Sunday served as a great reminder of how much a preacher needs God and how easy it is to forget that. Please note before continuing reading that I am not in need of encouragement nor am I feeling uber discouraged after my sermon Sunday. I am actually very excited at what seems to have been a great learning opportunity.
Right after I finished my sermon Sunday I knew something didn’t feel right. ”It was rushed”, I thought. Even my ultra-honest but so far very impressed with my preaching wife said, “You seemed off…were you nervous…I didn’t follow it well.” My Con-Ed supervisor and Associate Pastor even asked me when the last time I preached was. ”A few months ago in my home church,” I responded. ”Well it was a bit academic,” he said. Now don’t get me wrong. He said it was good. I hit he text hard and didn’t go for the easy answer in Job. I left it open-ended as any good Job sermon should be. But it was lacking a personal touch. It was lacking that personal invitation to the listener to join me in the text. Instead, I kept the distance there and did the best I could tell them what it was like in the text-rather than inviting them there with me.
Over the last few days I have come to the conclusion that I really envy student pastors in this area. Sure, they do have to work harder than those of us not serving a church. But they never have to make that awkward transition from seminary to the “real world.” And most in seminary would probably argue that seminary is very far from the “real world” or even the “real church.” But student pastors continually keep one foot in the church and one foot in seminary. They never really run the risk of losing their zest for relevance in the church. They don’t normally become cynics of the church as many in seminary do. And most of all, they don’t normally fall prey to the trap of never inviting their listeners to where they are.
I am convinced this is a gift all preachers must master. This doesn’t mean we water down the gospel to “meet people where they are.” But it does mean we don’t get too haughty in our assumption that an M.Div automatically makes us the smartest person in the room. After all, “the last shall be first and the first will be last.” And “all of us are to be like a little child.” It is this lesson I am thankful to have had taught to me after this past weekend.
Below is my sermon text for this week’s lectionary text of Job 38:1-7, (34-41):
I once saw a sign on a billboard for a church that said, “Looking for peace and happiness? Come find God here.” I wonder what our friend Job might think of that claim? As you have seen over the last couple of weeks, peace and happiness are among the last feelings Job feels when considering his life and his relationship with God. When I began seminary last year I have to say that my image of Job as a reader what shattered. Like many of you I had always heard the phrase, “The patience of Job” when referring to someone with great patience. It was not until last year in my Old Testament class after doing a careful reading of this entire book that I learned just how impatient Job was. In fact, by the end of the book Job grows plain bitter towards God and life. In Job 19 we read the famous text where Job exclaims, “he knows that his redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.” We guess what sports fans, Job is not pleading for God to show up. He is pleading for a redeemer to rid him of the turmoil he feels God is bringing upon him. Job is not crying out for God, he is crying out against God. Much of the book of Job is spent with Job growing more and more restless of God lack of answers and his friends who are continuing to try and convince him to just curse God. But Job knows he is innocent. He knows he has not done wrong and he pleads his case against this injustice throughout the book. You see Job is not merely refusing to curse God because he is righteous. He also refuses to curse God because that means he loses his case and admits to a guilt he has built such a case against.
And it is here in chapter 38 that we finally hear the long awaited response of God. By the time we make it here we are ready for some sense to be made from the madness of Job’s suffering. Surely, God will explain why Job is subject to such a degree of suffering? Surely it will be here where God will answer the age-old question Rabbi Kushner so famously coined, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
But God does something even more interesting and disheartening than that. On the one hand, God appears to Job as the God of creation. He spends verses 1-7 of chapter 38 recounting to Job the works of creation-and reminding Job he was no part of them. Why? Does this not add insult to injury? Well we have to remember there is disconnect here we experience with the culture of the Old Testament. God was not merely the God who creates out of nothing as we have come to interpret. It was not thought of as merely “Let there be light from no light” and then God flipped the switch on to turn on the lights of creation. It is much more involved than that. For these people God creates something not from void but from chaos. Put it another way, “let there be light” really refers to God granting order from the chaos of darkness. We know this as Christians as well. If Jesus is the Light of the World then he is indeed a light among the chaos of the darkness of this world-including and especially suffering. If this is true then John 1:4-5 can be read with new meaning:
…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)
You see there is actually an answer in the non-answer God gives Job. The issue we have as readers and humans is that it is not the answer we want or that Job wanted. Bu then who ever said God works around our personal whims and wishes?
The second point we need to catch in this speech from God is that while God is conveying this notion of being the Creator of order from chaos He is doing it from the ash-heap where Job sits in misery. Job doesn’t have to go to some mountain or alter to find God. God comes and find Job. This might God of all of creation comes to Job in his moment of greatest weakness and joins him in the humiliating circumstances where he lies.
So now you may be wondering that age-old question that plagues preachers in all settings: what does this mean for us? I’m afraid that if you are expecting an explanation from me about this story you will sorely miss out. I can use the excuse, I reckon, that if God didn’t give any direct answers then surely I don’t have to either. But I do think there are a couple implications here we can learn from and consider.
Have you ever noticed how egocentric pain and suffering is? I don’t mean that in some accusatory way-but it’s a fact. When our world collapses around us we understandably retreat to the closed shell of what is left of our personal humanity. We stop acknowledging the world around. And why should we? After all, there is too much chaos in our own lives right then to even think about the chaos that exists in the rest of the world.
Dr. Carol Newsome, and Old Testament professor at Candler and our resident expert on Job, shared with me a personal story the other day about a real-life reality of this egocentric nature of suffering. She said that she had a student once who, halfway through the semester, lost her teenage son in a car accident. This was her only child and he was now gone. This student shared with Dr. Newsome that on the day of her son’s funeral she was riding in the car and her Bible fell open to the book of Job. And for some reason she began reading on her car ride to the funeral home. She told Dr. Newsome that for some reason, that did more for her pain at that moment than anything else could. Dr. Newsome questioned her and asked, “Why is that? I know Job to be one of the more depressing books of the Bible.” “It sure is” the student said, “But it helped to remind me in that instant that I was not the only one in the world who was suffering. And for some strange reason, it gave me a sense of momentary peace and freedom.”
I want to commend Rev. Brock for doing this series from Job. And I want to commend all of you for coming to hear it. In our modern American churches we don’t hear too much from old Job these days. Often we are guilty to extracting from the Gospel what we need and can use to make our lives better, more productive, and easier to manage. Job challenges us to come face-to-face with the notion that sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we are met with the painful knowledge that we can’t fix everything. Life happens and sometimes that means pain and suffering happen as they are just as much a part of the human condition as happiness and joy. And we don’t like this. As a self-sufficient, self-produced culture we don’t like to be reminded that sometimes we are not the captains of our own destiny. And Job serves as a painful reminder of this fact.
In spite of that I think Job’s story does have more answers than we like to give it credit for having. They are not always our answers on our terms. But they are answers just the same.
This God of creation is the God who continues to create. And this is a God who refuses to let the chaos of suffering and pain keep Him from creating. Even in the midst of suffering and heartache God is still creating anew. And even more than that this God refuses to let us lie in the ash-heaps of life alone. This God does not wait for us to come to Him-often He comes and seeks us out.
Job also grants us permission to take our frustration and pain and heartache straight to God. Culturally we are taught we can’t do this and we have to suck it up because God knows there is always more suffering in the world than we know. But I think Job grants us a new permission to express our grief with the chaos of suffering with God himself. We don’t have to put on a “happy face” when we come to church. We don’t have to mask our suffering or, worse yet, stay home until we feel better. Dr. Tom Long puts it an even better way when he says, “What better place than the church to take our pain and leave it with God?”
And finally Job reminds us that God will be present in our pain and suffering. Who knows better about suffering than a God who suffered Himself. And so we leave this place with few answers but with one promise: whether it is in the ash-heap of the land of Uz or the ash-heap of Golgotha or the ash-heap of our very lives here today, God will show up. God will continue to create anew. And that is often all we have cling to. And more often than not, that is enough. Amen.
Below is the manuscript from my speech at the Sherman Scholarship banquet last night. I have to admit that there was one point in the personal story portion where I had to pause and fight the tears back-the people I reference in the story happened to eat at the same restaurant as me for lunch yesterday. I was able to tell them about the speech and how I am telling their story and of their loved one. It was an ironic and providential moment for sure and made the speech something very different for me. Hope you enjoy!…
When I was asked to speak here tonight I have to admit I was a bit intimidated. How does one thank a group of people who have stepped in the role of granting such an awesome opportunity? I know I speak not only for myself but also for every student here when I say without this money, many, if not all of us, would not be here. We’re humbled and grateful for such an opportunity as the Sherman Scholarship grants. But what would be a good way of expressing this? I was at a loss for a couple weeks.
But then I found something-a story that just might have a message for us on this occasion this evening. And it goes like this:
3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages* would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they* sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
Last year I spent my Con-Ed serving at Wesley Woods Hospital. For those of you who don’t know our high-tech Candler lingo, Con-Ed refers to Contextual Education, which is an opportunity to go into a setting and put into practice some of the ministry lessons we learn here in the classroom. In your first year at Candler you serve in either a social or clinical setting and in your second year you serve in a church or ecclesial setting.
Wesley Woods is a geriatric hospital affiliated with the Emory Healthcare system. Our job as Con-Ed students was, in essence, show up 4 hours a week to be chaplains to the patients there.
Last fall I met and got to know a special patient. His name was Al. Al was an elderly Jewish man from New York state. He was moved to Wesley Woods after he had fallen and broke his hip. In the process of his recovery he had developed throat cancer. When I met Al he was sitting in his chair while his sister was trying to feed him. Al, in his sister’s words, was a stubborn old man who couldn’t stand for someone to assist him with life’s basic tasks such as eating. She explained all of this during our first meeting. I was surprised at her candor because Al was sitting five feet from us. When I looked at him he just shook his head and laughed, “She really dotes over me doesn’t she,” he would chuckle.
Over the next few weeks I made it a point to come by and see Al. I was, as he grew to call me, his lunch appointment. Sometimes he would ask his sister to leave and he would tell her that he had business to discuss with me. Sometimes she would stay. We talked about life-nothing too in depth, just the basics. I told him how much I loved to run and he told me how he would always go to his favorite breakfast spot in New York City on the morning of the New York marathon to watch the runners as they went by. I had him tell me exactly where the spot was so I could remember when I ran there in a few years. The funny thing was we both knew the meeting would never happen but it just seemed to be the best thing to say at a moment like that.
I watched Al grow progressively weak during his stay at Wesley Woods. I watched his ability to speak slowly leave until all he could do when I entered was smile and raise his head as an affirmation for me to enter the room.
Then one day I came in and there were two more people present whom I have not seen before. Al’s sister was in tears and she told me that hospice had been called-the end was near. These 2 women were her daughter and granddaughter. She called them to tell them the end was near and that they might want to come down and see Al one more time. Al couldn’t acknowledge me, as he was too weak. When I came to his bedside it took him a minute to remember me as his sister was pleading with him, “This is the young chaplain, Al, don’t you remember?” All he could do was give my hand a slight squeeze.
After a bit of small talk I tried to make my way out of the room and give the family their privacy. Then Al’s sister asked me the question that inevitably floors a young, know-it-all seminary student, “Will you pray with us and for Al?” “Um…well..uh…sure” I stammered back. But can you tell me a Jewish prayer? I don’t know any. “Hun, it’s the same God,” she said. And so I prayed. I don’t remember what I said. All I remember is that my mind was racing and I clumsily fumbled my words and haphazardly made it through-never being so glad to finish a prayer in my life.
When I left that room that day a million things were running through my mind at once. Did I just minister? It sure didn’t feel like it? And then it hit me-I didn’t minister. On the contrary, I learned one of the great and humbling lessons of ministry: more often than not, in the moments of greatest ministry you as pastor are, in fact, not in the active role of ministry. Put it another way: the best ministry often happens when the pastor is not the one doing it. When crisis strikes and we are reminded of the sheer frailty of our humanity and we are caught like a deer in the headlights it is then that THE Presence is made known. It is then that our role becomes that of just another participant and God Almighty steps in, closer than we could ever imagine, and we are left awestruck at what God refuses to stay away from. We are reminded that God still cares for humanity. We are reminded that it is God and God alone who can make broken things whole-even when whole doesn’t always look like what we think of as whole-even in the frail squeeze of a dying man’s hand.
And it is then that we are reminded we are not alone and this journey of ministry. God is with us. We are reminded of the fact that it often only takes a few fish and a couple loaves of bread for the work of the Kingdom to happen. And sometimes it takes gutless know-it-all seminary students and generous folks who offer their loaves and fish in scholarship form in a statement of the faith they have in the God who refuses to stay away from humanity. And before you know it, there are baskets left over. And all of us have eaten to our heart’s content.
And what are these gifts among so many hurting and needy people in this world, you ask? Well, it’s a heck of a lot more than you think. Amen.