back to the book?

I’ve been feeling restless tonight – llike I should be working on something. After Relay For Life, and the Lake Junaluska trip, and the chili cookoff, I’m in kind of letdown mode – the next thing I have to look forward to is my Sierra Leone trip in November.

A year or two ago, I started pulling and adapting some old sermons, blog posts and other material with the idea of possibly self-publishing a book of faith-based essays. I don’t know whether there’d be any market for it, but – as with my Bad Self-Published Novel – it would be a low-risk enterprise, as much for the challenge as anything else.

So I started re-looking at some of the content tonight. It’s still a little short; I need to write a few more things exclusively for the book, if that’s what I want to do.

Win or Lose

Mt. Lebanon UMC
July 3, 2016

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 (CEB)

10 After these things, the Lord commissioned seventy-two others and sent them on ahead in pairs to every city and place he was about to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest. 3 Go! Be warned, though, that I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. 4 Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way. 5 Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ 6 If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. 7 Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. 9 Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’ 10 Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, 11 ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’

16 Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. Whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
17 The seventy-two returned joyously, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit themselves to us in your name.”
18 Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning. 19 Look, I have given you authority to crush snakes and scorpions underfoot. I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you. 20 Nevertheless, don’t rejoice because the spirits submit to you. Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven.”

When I saw this passage in the Lectionary, I thought I’d preached on it before. So I went through my files, and found that I’d used this passage for a devotion during a training event for my teammates in 2009, when Gail Castle and I were co-leading a mission trip to Malaba, Kenya.
Of course, it makes perfect sense as a passage about missions. It’s about the disciples being sent out into towns and cities that they weren’t familiar with, telling strangers about Jesus for the first time.
Continue reading

Worry too much

Sometimes it feels like bars of steel
I cannot bend with my hands
Oh-I worry too much
Somebody told me that I worry too much

— From “Worry Too Much,” by Mark Heard

One of the reasons I chose “Lake Neuron” as a domain name was a deprecating reference to the fact that I sometimes tend to overthink things. That was certainly the case with white water rafting. Being fatter than I once was, older and less flexible than I once was, I imagined any number of ways that white-water rafting could go wrong for me, starting with stepping into the raft.

Not one of them happened. In fact, I had a fabulous time white-water rafting.
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Backing up for those who don’t know, I’m here in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, for a trip with the middle school youth from my home church, First United Methodist in Shelbyville. Lake Junaluska is a Methodist retreat and conference facility. It’s huge, sort of a small town wrapped around a lake, and there are various events, big and small, going on at any given time. A lot of United Methodist ministers retire here.

Our trip here is a joint venture between First UMC and Isle of Hope UMC from Savannah, Georgia. The reason for this is that our director of children and youth, Alden Procopio, is originally from Savannah and Isle of Hope and participated with them in years past. They have a very large group; we’re sort of the junior partner, with only three adults and six kids.

We are staying in a beautiful converted house on the compound called the Lagoalinda Inn. The inn overlooks the lake, and we can see kayakers out there. However, all of our water adventures are off-site. Today, we drove back over the border into Tennessee for the white-water rafting, which was on the Pigeon River.

In my raft today, I was with two of our First UMC kids, Grayson and Kenny, and an adult (my roommate here at Lagoalinda, Henry) and two boys from Isle of Hope, plus our guide, a red-headed woman named Katie. It was loads of fun, and I felt like such an idiot for worrying so much about it. The safety briefing today, of course, was Ground Zero for worry-warts; they talk about how you react to various situations, which just reminds you of all the ways in which the trip could conceivably go wrong.

I was in such a good mood that I spent money on a USB with 16 photos of our raft — too much money, but, hey, it’s the only proof I have. I can look at those photos for a long time to come.

Later in the day, we went to downtown Waynesville, the city closest to Lake Junaluska. It’s got a really lovely and active downtown area — it reminds me a little of Fayetteville, North Carolina, where my brother Michael and his family live. We went in this place called Mast General Store — it’s part of a chain. Upstairs, it’s a clothing store, but downstairs, there are various other types of merchandise including the biggest selection of candy I have ever seen — big old bushels of bulk candy, plus all sorts of other types of candy — lollipops made with maple sugar, PEZ dispensers, candy bars you haven’t seen in ages and assumed had gone out of production, and lots more. It was a hoot.

Also at Mast, I tried a Blenheim hot ginger ale. This is a North South Carolina product which I first learned about in, I guess, the late 1970s, when Charles Kuralt did an “On The Road” segment on them for CBS News. It’s not like any other ginger ale you’ve ever tasted — tangy, but with a heavy ginger bite. They have “hot” and “not” varieties, in case you want the ginger a little more subdued.

Tomorrow, we will go tubing, and then on Monday, we will go to Sliding Rock near Brevard, North Carolina, a natural feature which is a little like a water slide.

We do have programming — a guest speaker who talks to the kids in the morning, before we head out, and then again in the evening. He’s been great so far as well. He has an interesting background — converted to Christianity from a family of Jews.

Anyway, I’m having a great time. Like Warmth In Winter, it feels more like a vacation than like being a chaperone, but Alden says I’m doing fine. In any case, if it weren’t for my presence, Grayson and Kenny couldn’t be here, because our church rules require that for this type of overnight trip, you have to have a male chaperone if there are any male campers (and vice versa).

We’ll drive back home on Tuesday.

The Very Impressive Centurion

Mt. Lebanon UMC
May 29, 2016

Luke 7:1-10 (CEB)

7 After Jesus finished presenting all his words among the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion had a servant who was very important to him, but the servant was ill and about to die. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. 5 “He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.”
6 Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. 8 I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
9 When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said,“I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” 10 When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.

This is one of my favorite stories from the Gospels, and when I saw it in the Lectionary for this week I was delighted, and I thought I knew the story well. But whenever I go to look something like this up for a sermon I learn something new.
For example, a week ago I would have told you that a centurion was an officer in the Roman army who was in charge of 100 men. The word “centurion” comes from the same root as “century,” or “bicentennial,” or “percent.” It means 100.
However, I learned that by the time of Jesus, the Romans had changed their structure a little bit, and by that time a “centurion” was actually in charge of about 80 soldiers. The Romans didn’t bother changing the name, though; they were still called “centurions.” It’s like when you say you’re going to “dial” a phone number even though your phone doesn’t have a dial. Force of habit.
But actually, it’s possible that the centurion we’re talking about here wasn’t really with the Roman army at all – at least, not the real Roman army. According to the Wesley Study Bible, historians tell us that the Romans had no troops stationed in the region of Galilee, which they considered a remote and unimportant backwater. So this particular centurion, and whoever was under his command, may have been local forces, not actually a part of the official Roman army but rather mercenaries whom the Romans had hired to keep the peace – sort of a Roman cross between the National Guard and the French Foreign Legion.
But the qualities that made a good centurion were the same no matter what the nationality. Luke, who wrote both this gospel and the book of Acts, mentions centurions numerous times, and according to the commentator William Barclay it’s always in a positive context. It was a centurion at Jesus’ crucifixion who said “Surely this was the son of God.” There were several times in the book of Acts when we hear about centurions protecting Paul or ensuring that Paul is treated fairly while he is a Roman prisoner.
Perhaps it was the case that a centurion was a man who had proven himself worthy and earned some level of trust and responsibility – but who hadn’t yet risen high enough on the organizational chart to be truly corrupted by power.
Whatever his citizenship, we know that the centurion in today’s scripture was a gentile – and yet, he was a gentile who was friendly with, and supportive of, the local Jewish population. In Luke’s account, the Jewish elders from that community come to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. They tell Jesus that the centurion loves their people and that he actually donated the money to build the local synagogue.
The great center of worship for Jews was the temple in Jerusalem. But synagogues were, and are, neighborhood or community meeting places which are the Jewish equivalent of a local church.
Although the Romans had their own gods, and their own belief system, they did not necessarily force the countries they conquered to worship their gods. If there was a pre-existing religion, and if it wasn’t fanatical, the Romans tended to encourage that it continue, believing religion to be a civilizing, or at least pacifying, influence. The Roman emperors would rather have the people in a temple or a synagogue than in someone’s back room plotting rebellion. In fact, according to William Barclay, Caesar Augustus encouraged the building of synagogues in Judaea for that very reason.
But we don’t get the sense that this centurion’s support of the local synagogue in Capernaum was calculated. We get the sense that he had developed a warm and friendly relationship with the Jews of that area, which is all the more amazing because the laws of Moses limited the extent to which he, as a gentile, could interact with those Jews.
It is possible for a Gentile to convert to Judaism, but that’s not what had happened here. The centurion remained a Gentile. That meant that in certain ways, he and the people he was helping had to remain at arm’s length. But he was friendly enough to Judaism to give enough money to build the local Jewish community a meeting place.
It’s easy to be generous to your own. It’s harder to be generous to those outside your circle, and even harder to be generous to people who are, by their own laws, prevented from showing you a full measure of generosity.
This centurion was a remarkable man. But the Bible is filled with stories of unexpected people as examples of faith.
This centurion had a slave who was ill. Now, just as this centurion’s attitude toward the Jews was quite unusual, his attitude towards his slave was also quite unusual. Roman slaves had no rights. One writer even recommended to his fellow Romans that they go through their slaves every year or two and the ones who were no longer productive should be abandoned to die. But this centurion apparently had a different attitude towards this slave, and the slave’s illness grieved the centurion.
And so, the elders came to Jesus and they asked Jesus to intervene. They tell Jesus what a good man the centurion is, and it comes out as if they’re apologizing for the fact that he’s a gentile. We know there was no love lost between the Jews and the Romans, or the Jews and the gentiles in general.
“Well, we know he’s a gentile,” they tell Jesus, “but he’s not one of the bad ones. He’s one of the good ones. It’s okay if you help him.”
It’s funny, because that sounds kind of prejudiced. Anyone who has a really bad prejudice will try to defend themselves by pointing to their one black friend or their one Hispanic friend. “See? I can’t be prejudiced! I have a black friend!”
At any rate, the elders bring the message to Jesus, and Jesus – in his compassion – goes with the elders to the centurion’s home.
But then the centurion hears that Jesus is coming, and sends word – “No,” he says, “I’m not worthy to have you in my home.” And, in fact, Peter – after Jesus’ resurrection, when he visited the centurion Cornelius and began the process of sharing the gospel with the Gentiles – acknowledged that, under the rules and customs of the time, it was considered wrong for Jews to visit Gentiles or associate to closely with them, such as visiting them in their homes. The centurion in this passage knew that as well, and he didn’t want to put Jesus in a position of breaking the Jewish law.
But the next part of his message is what’s really extraordinary.
“Just say the word and my servant will be healed,” says the centurion. “I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
There’s an old story – and I apologize to those of you who have heard it before – about a town where there was a bad flood. One man was sitting on his porch, his entire house surrounded by the flood waters. An inflatable raft came by, and a man from the sheriff’s department said to him, “Get in the boat, and I’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
The flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to move up to the second floor of the house. He had the window open, and a powerboat came by with someone from the Civil Defense. “Get in the boat,” they said, “and we’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
Well, the flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to climb up onto the roof of the house. A National Guard helicopter came flying overhead and dropped a rope ladder. “GRAB HOLD OF THE LADDER,” said a guardsman holding a bullhorn.
“NO THANKS,” the man yelled back. “THE LORD WILL TAKE CARE OF ME.”
Finally, however, the flood waters rose too high and the man drowned. He found himself at the Pearly Gates, and was escorted inside, where he insisted on speaking to the Almighty.
“Why didn’t you take care of me?” the man demanded to know.
“I sent two boats and a helicopter,” God responded. “What more do you want?”
That’s us sometimes – we ask God for help, but we get a little too specific about what form that help should take. Maybe we ask for a new washing machine when God’s will is actually to make our old machine last a little bit longer – or maybe God has plans for us to encounter someone at the Laundromat. We get fixated on asking God to help us in some specific and dramatic way, and we miss the beauty and richness of all the other ways God might be looking after us.
But the centurion was not trying to limit God – just the opposite. The centurion was showing that he understood that God works in many different ways. When he heard Jesus was coming to visit him, he was alarmed – because he knew it was against the religious laws for an observant Jew to enter his home. So he sent word to Jesus – “Don’t come. I know you don’t have to come. I have men under my command, and I tell them to go somewhere or to bring me something, and they do it. I know you can heal my servant from anywhere.”
In the account of this same story in Matthew’s gospel, the centurion even rushes to meet Jesus himself to say this in person. That contradicts Luke, who quotes the centurion as saying he’s not worthy to approach Jesus in person.
The centurion knows what it’s like to have a little bit of power. And he has the imagination, and the faith, to understand that Jesus has divine power. And just as the centurion can send people to do things or get things, the centurion knew that Jesus could heal his servant from afar.
Jesus responded to this with amazement. I read from the Common English Bible earlier, and I want to repeat verse 9: “When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, ‘I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.’”
Jesus was impressed with the centurion! What a remarkable thing! This centurion had a better concept of who Jesus was, and of what Jesus was capable, than the Jews who had come to recommend him. He had a level of faith that Jesus hadn’t found anywhere in Israel.
In the fourth chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus is in Cana, but a royal official from Capernaum comes to see him. The royal official has a son who was sick. The official, like the Jewish elders who approached Jesus on the centurion’s behalf, assumes that Jesus needs to be present to heal his son. But Jesus, as the centurion understood, isn’t limited by time or place. Jesus speaks the word, and sends the royal official home.
When the official gets home, an overnight trip, he discovers that his son is healed – and when they tell him what time the boy started getting better, it was at one in the afternoon on the previous day – exactly the time that Jesus had pronounced him healed.
So Jesus can heal from anywhere, and this is true in the case of the centurion’s servant, who was found in good health by the Jewish elders when they got back to town.
The centurion’s faith is held up as a model for our own. The centurion had complete trust that God, in the person of Jesus, could and would do what was right. But the centurion, rather than insisting that God act in one certain way, put his request in the context of God’s kingdom as a whole. The centurion didn’t want Jesus to come to his home because he was concerned about the impact on Jesus and his ministry.
That concern might have been misplaced – Jesus was on his way to the centurion’s home, and apparently had no hesitation about going there, just as Jesus freely associated with whoever needed him and whoever turned to him, regardless of how those associations looked to the religious leaders of that day. But the important thing is that the centurion was concerned for something larger than his own household.
God encourages us, throughout the Bible, to bring our cares and concerns and requests to the holy throne. We don’t always receive what we ask for. Sometimes we ask for things that would be harmful to ourselves or others. It’s like the Garth Brooks song – some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. Sometimes we make requests that aren’t really that important in the larger scheme of things. Sometimes we don’t know why God doesn’t grant our requests.
Those of you who are parents or grandparents may have a better sense of this. When your child, or your grandchild, comes to you and asks for an ice cream cone, you know that ice cream cone isn’t of any great importance in the long run. You know that you’re providing for that child in a hundred other ways that are much more important – seeing to their health and their education and their safety.
Sometimes, you have to say “no” and the child doesn’t understand why. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want them to ask. The fact that they ask you for things is a sign of their trust, a sign that they know you love them and that you want the best for them. It’s part of the conversation of growing up.
And as they grow up, as they begin to mature and better understand the world and their place in it, what they ask you for will change.
God wants us to ask for things, for ourselves and in intercessory prayer for others. God already knows what we need, but God still wants us to make the request because that conversation helps us. It helps us realize what our own priorities are. It helps us realize our dependence upon God. And as we grow in our faith, our prayers will change over time – they’ll become less selfish and more about what’s best for others. The centurion wasn’t requesting healing for himself – he was requesting that his servant be healed. Although, actually, even that’s not true – it wasn’t the centurion who made the initial request, it was the centurion’s friends, the Jewish leaders.
Prayer is a conversation with God. It needs to be a two-way conversation, in which we listen for God’s voice in our hearts. God wants us to be in that conversation, and even if we start that conversation asking for the wrong things, at least it’s a start.
And this story is also a great example of the importance of intercessory prayer. Everyone here is concerned with someone else’s welfare – except the servant, and we don’t meet the servant, so he’s not really a character in the story.
Let us all aspire to be more like the centurion, someone who trusts completely in Jesus, who believes in Jesus’ kingdom, and who has the compassion to pray for others. Maybe someday, we’ll get to hear Jesus say that he was impressed by our faith as well.

We can’t turn over the raft, because Methodists avoid immersion

I’m looking forward to a trip I’m taking with the First United Methodist Church – Shelbyville middle school youth next month to Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.

I’ve heard of Lake Junaluska for years and always wanted to visit; it’s one of the most famous Methodist retreat centers and headquarters of the World Methodist Council. It’s owned by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

This being a youth trip, we will get to enjoy some of the surrounding area in the mountains. This will include tubing and white-water rafting, neither of which I’ve ever done before, and a natural rock water slide. We’ll also have some programming with a special guest speaker.

There’s a museum at Lake Junaluska about the history of Methodism, but the musuem closes at 4 each day and, according to the agenda our youth director has sent out, our free time periods all seem to start around that time. So I may not make it to the museum. That’s sad, because — by sheer coincidence — I’m currently reading Wesley And The People Called Methodists, by Richard P. Heitzenrater, a history of the origins of Methodism which was recommended at the last lay servant class I took. But, hey, there’s always next time.

I had a great time as a chaperone with our youth (both middle and high school) at Warmth In Winter in January, and I expect to have a great time on this trip as well. We have a great group of kids at First UMC. This trip will be in partnership between First UMC and our youth director’s home church in Savannah, Ga., Isle Of Hope UMC. So we’ll meet new people as well. We’ll all be staying at the Lagoalinda Inn at Lake Junaluska.

Faces at the Cross: Joseph of Arimathea

First United Methodist Church
March 6, 2016

During the season of Lent, each different worship service at First United Methodist Church is focusing on one of the “Faces at the Cross”: someone associated in some way with the crucifixion story. When the Rev. Lanita Monroe asked me to fill the pulpit this Sunday, she asked me to preach on this Sunday’s subject, Joseph of Arimathea.

I want to read you three passage, from three different gospels, each from the Common English Bible. Each of these passages is about today’s Face at the Cross, Joseph of Arimathea:

Luke 23:50-56 (CEB)

50 Now there was a man named Joseph who was a member of the council. He was a good and righteous man. 51 He hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council. He was from the Jewish city of Arimathea and eagerly anticipated God’s kingdom. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Taking it down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried. 54 It was the Preparation Day for the Sabbath, and the Sabbath was quickly approaching. 55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it, 56 then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils. They rested on the Sabbath, in keeping with the commandment.

John 19:38-42 (CEB)

38 After this Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Jewish authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away. 39 Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe, nearly seventy-five pounds in all. 40 Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths. 41 There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.

Mark 15:42-47 (CEB)

42 Since it was late in the afternoon on Preparation Day, just before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph from Arimathea dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a prominent council member who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom.) 44 Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. 46 He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried.

When Lanita asked me to preach on Joseph of Arimathea, I was delighted – I’ve always found him an interesting character.

I once tried to write a novel about what happened to the disciples in between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. I knew I wasn’t a trained scholar of Bible history, but I told myself it was going to be more allegory than speculative history, and so if the characters used modern speech patterns or if I got some minor detail wrong, it wasn’t a big deal. But I eventually decided the story was too big for my skills as a writer. I still have the manuscript on my computer somewhere, and I look at it occasionally.

When Jesus was arrested – and willingly surrendered, telling Peter to put away his sword – the disciples seem to have made themselves scarce. Peter, of course, famously followed Jesus to the place where he was being tried, but then denied three times that he knew Jesus. We hear about John being at the crucifixion, and Jesus speaking to him. And we hear about Judas Iscariot’s remorse and death. For the most part, the 12 disciples seem to have laid low on that sad Sabbath day. They didn’t disperse, or leave Jerusalem, and when the Sabbath was over they were found together in the same place on Easter morning. But the Bible doesn’t tell us much about what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

We can assume that this was a moment in which most of the disciples had lost faith, or were at least in a state of confusion – their shock and disbelief on Easter morning indicated that they weren’t expecting Jesus to return, even though he’d spoken about it during his ministry. So many of Jesus’ teachings were in parables or metaphors, and the disciples did not seem to have the courage to take the idea of Jesus rising from the dead literally. This was a moment when Jesus’ followers might have been reconciling themselves to what seemed to be proof that he was just a great teacher and not the world-changing messiah that they’d been promised.

It’s hard for us, knowing the outcome of the story, to imagine the despair that Jesus’ followers must have felt. They believed he was the Messiah. Many of them, not understanding the true nature of his kingdom, had assumed that his destiny was to lead the people of Israel to political freedom, overthrowing the rule of the hated Roman Empire.

Now, Jesus – the miracle worker who could raise others from the dead – is dead himself. Hope is over. The game has ended, and our team lost. The disciples clung to each other, but they must have been questioning whether they’d wasted the months they spent following Jesus.

Joseph of Arimathea, however, is the other way around – and that’s one of the things that’s interesting about him. Joseph was fearful while Jesus was alive and yet somehow found boldness after Jesus’ death.

Joseph was a wealthy man, and he was a member of the Sanhedrin – a council, or court, composed of 70 members, plus the high priest. The Sanhedrin was responsible for questions of Jewish law.

We know that Joseph was wealthy, but we don’t know from the Bible what his occupation was. There are legends and traditions, which developed in church history, that Joseph was involved in metalwork somehow. In the middle ages, when the church was fascinated by the holy grail, the cup used during the Last Supper, there were legends – and they were only legends, with no apparent basis in fact – that Joseph had been the first keeper of the grail.

During Jesus’ lifetime – according to John’s gospel — Joseph had kept his admiration for the controversial teacher from Nazareth quiet, out of fear of his fellow members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus, with whom Joseph worked to bury Jesus’ body, first came to Jesus under cover of darkness, and it’s implied that Joseph had been just as anxious not to let anyone know of his interest in Jesus’ teachings.

And yet, now, with Jesus’ beaten and bloody corpse nailed to a piece of wood, Joseph of Arimathea chose to take a step out of the darkness. It was at this moment in which he decided his devotion to Jesus would no longer be a secret.

By earthly measures, by conventional wisdom, the cause of Jesus of Nazareth had already been lost. Joseph of Arimathea had nothing to gain and everything to lose by allowing his feelings to be made public. It’s like someone deciding to root for the losing team after the game has ended.

The idea that Joseph would oppose his fellow members of the Sanhedrin is a remarkable one. The Sanhedrin were about preserving the peace, and the status quo, and the power of the existing religious elite. They surely convinced themselves that they were doing what was right for their own people and what was right in the eyes of God. It not only took courage for Joseph of Arimathea to stand up to them, it took spiritual perception. It took spiritual perception for him to realize the truth in Jesus’ teachings, a truth that seemed to run counter to what the Sanhedrin stood for. It can be hard to question and move past long-held convictions when they turn out to be against the will of God.

I highly recommend the book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” an award-winning biography of the great theologican Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. One of the things that comes through in Bonhoeffer’s story is the extent to which so many elements of the official state-sponsored church in Germany – the reichskirke – were easily co-opted into support of the Nazi cause during Hitler’s rise to power. They thought that their patriotic and religious duties were one and the same, and Hitler seemed to be doing great things for Germany. So they rationalized and they made excuses and they just went along.

Most of them went along.

Bonhoeffer and a group of other pastors began to see the Nazi regime for what it was and they began to form a movement called the Confessing Church which distanced itself from the German government. Bonhoeffer, of course, eventually gave up his life for the cause. He had been sent to safety in America but deliberately returned to Germany to stand with his fellow Germans. He played a part in a conspiracy to assasinate Hitler and was eventually executed by the Nazis.

In the movie “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” Jimmy Stewart, playing a character named Jefferson Smith, says that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. It’s at this moment, when the cause of Jesus seems to be a lost cause, that Joseph of Arimathea decides to go public with his admiration for Jesus and all that Jesus stood for. Mark, in the Common English Bible, says that Joseph “dared” to go to Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. And given the uproar that had surrounded Jesus and led to his crucifixion, it was an act of daring to ask for his body and give him a dignified burial.

It seems like an odd, even offensive, comparison to make, but one of the things that happened to pop into my head as I thought about Joseph of Arimathea was the story of the Rev. Louis Sanders.

Robert McGill Thomas, a Shelbyville native, became one of the all-time great obituary writers for the New York Times. I never got to meet Mr. Thomas, even though he visited Shelbyville quite frequently and even kept a house here. But after his death, I read the wonderful book “52 McGs,” which is a compilation of 51 of his best obituaries from the Times, along with his own obituary. Robert Thomas was best-known for writing obituaries of unusual and off-beat subjects, and it was from the book “52 McGs” that I first learned about the Rev. Louis Sanders.

Rev. Sanders was a member of the Christian church – Disciples of Christ, like First Christian Church across from Hardee’s – who attended Vanderbilt Divinity School. In 1963, he was head of the Fort Worth Council of Churches, not unlike Lanita being the head of Bedford County Ministerial Association. Following the Kennedy assassination, he was working on organizing a memorial service for JFK, but it was also his duty to make sure that someone was available to preach at the funeral service for – well, for Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who had been arrested as an assassin and then shot two days later by Jack Ruby. The Fort Worth Council of Churches felt that Oswald – or at least, Oswald’s family – deserved some sort of funeral service, an act of simple Christian compassion, even though at that moment Oswald was perhaps the most hated man in the world.

Two ministers agreed to officiate at Oswald’s funeral, but then when they discovered the services were outdoors, at the graveside, they pulled out at the last minute, afraid that they themselves might be killed by snipers. So Rev. Sanders, who had come to the service as an observer and had left his Bible in the car, performed the ceremony, reading the 23rd Psalm and a passage from John 14 by memory, and giving a two-sentence eulogy which mainly mentioned Oswald’s mother and how much she loved her son.

There is, of course, no comparison to be made between the man Louis Sanders eulogized – a man guilty of a horrific crime – and the one whom Joseph of Arimathea buried, who was blameless. The comparison is only in the courageous acts of mercy which were made despite overwhelming opposition from the community.

For Joseph of Arimathea, giving Jesus a tomb was compassionate and kind. We don’t know what he was thinking or feeling about the teacher from Nazareth whose body he claimed, but he at least knew that Jesus had been mistreated by his fellow members of the Sanhedrin.

I don’t believe he had, at this time, a complete understanding of Jesus’ true kingdom. Almost no one did. Had he known Jesus was about to rise from the dead, the courtesy of a tomb would have been, well, somewhat meaningless. The fact that Joseph of Arimathea offered a tomb probably means that he thought Jesus was going to need a tomb.

But Joseph at least recognized something of Jesus’ holy nature, and had the courage to stand up in the face of opposition from his fellow members of the Sanhedrin.

There may be many times in our life, in our faith, in our service to the church in which we don’t fully understand God’s plan. But we have to do our best to be faithful, and sometimes our faithfulness is rewarded in unexpected ways. The conspiracy in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved failed to assasinate Hitler, and yet Bonhoeffer in martyrdom became an example and an inspiration to millions, drawing attention to his valuable writings.

Abraham and Sarah trusted God to give them descendants even when they were past their child-bearing years. Mary and Joseph trusted God even when she was unmarried and mysteriously pregnant.

Joseph of Arimathea donated a tomb thinking that it would be the eternal resting place of a great teacher who was killed before his time. Instead, the tomb itself would become a symbol of the greatest event of human history. The empty tomb of Jesus speaks to resurrection, and rebirth, and hope. Joseph of Arimathea had the wisdom and vision to follow God, and the courage to trust in God without knowing the complete plan. May each of us be able to say the same.

risen

risenA week or two ago, the youth of First UMC Shelbyville asked our youth director, Alden Procopio, about the movie “Risen.” Alden thought – correctly – that she ought to see the movie before recommending it, so she and Rev. Lanita Monroe went earlier in the week. They liked it so much that Lanita sent out an e-mail blast inviting all ages, not just the youth, to attend the 4:15 Sunday matinee.

So I joined the group today, walking from the church to the theater and back again. The short review, which I’ll expand on below, is that I really enjoyed it – I thought it walked a fine line between an innovative approach and reverence to the source material.

I get frustrated with some of the ham-fisted attempts to put faith on film. Not surprisingly, three of the four coming attractions before tonight’s movie were faith-based. One of them, a fictional story about a teacher suspended for using a Bible verse in her classroom, seemed like a perfect example of what I normally don’t like in this genre. The movie (judging only from the trailer, which can be inaccurate) is really black-and-white, portraying the chief opponent as a one-dimensional villain and the teacher and her supporters as a persecuted minority. Any non-Christian would find it laughable and unconvincing, but non-Christians wouldn’t go see it in the first place. The movie is aimed at Christians – but its primary purpose (again, judging from the trailer) seems to be reinforcing how great we are and how nasty and evil anyone who disagrees with us is. The question of how and when faith can be expressed in taxpayer-funded public schools is a complicated one, and not always a matter of black and white, heroes and villains. But a more-nuanced treatment probably wouldn’t sell group tickets to churches.

Sorry; excuse me for getting off on a rant there. I only bring it up to contrast it with “Risen.”

Now, to be fair, any Biblical epic is going to suffer from a little bit of the same preaching-to-the-choir effect I described above. Few non-Christians are going to be interested, so any claims of evangelistic value are going to be wildly overstated. But I think a well-done Bible movie at least has some value in terms of inspiration. It certainly served that purpose from a couple of our youth, who said during the post-movie discussion back at the church that the movie had helped them imagine the crucifixion story.

By way of confession, about 10 years ago I tried to write a novel which was not unlike “Risen” in intent – it was supposed to tell the story of what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I still have the incomplete manuscript; I gave it up because I decided I didn’t have the Bible scholarship to do it justice, and my original excuse that it was going to be “more like a parable than Bible history” was just that, an excuse.

“Risen” brings the story to life in a way which I found creative and reverent.

The story is told through the eyes of Clavius, a Roman tribune, played by Joseph Fiennes. Pilate (Peter Firth) sends a war-weary Clavius, who seems to be Pilate’s protégé, to the crucifixion site to break the legs of the three convicts and hasten their deaths. (If you remember the Bible story, you know that Jesus was already dead by that point and was pierced in the side instead.) Then, the next day, when the Judaean religious authorities complain to Pilate, Clavius is sent out to put Pilate’s personal seal on the tomb and post a couple of guards there.

Minor quibble: It’s sort of a Hollywood cliché that in movies, ancient Romans speak with upper-class British accents. But when working-class Roman soldiers are given working-class British accents (not Cockney, but something like that), it just sticks out like a sore thumb.

On the next day, the tomb is discovered to be empty – and Pilate commands Clavius to investigate, and to locate Jesus’ body in order to refute the rumor that he has somehow been resurrected.

This leads to what seems like a first-century police procedural, as Clavius and his newly-assigned deputy, Lucius (Tom Felton), track down rumors, dig up newly-buried bodies and try to intimidate everyone.

Clavius keeps telling people that he’s after the truth, and that he’ll allow them to go free if they’ll give him the truth. Eventually, of course, Clavius comes face-to-face with a truth he did not expect.

From that point forward, the movie changes in tone a little bit, bending the rules to depict Clavius as being present (albeit in the background) for several Bible scenes involving Jesus and the disciples. As long as you accept this as a work of inspirational fiction, and don’t take it too seriously, I’m fine with that. After all, as previously admitted, I tried to do the same thing. Think of it as “Ben-Hur” for the 21st Century.

The filmmakers do get several little details right. Jesus actually looks (gasp!) Middle Eastern, rather than like that blankety-blank Warner Sallman painting. The crucifixion wounds are in Jesus’ wrists, rather than his palms. If you tried to crucify someone by putting nails through their palms, the nails would tear through the flesh. Only by nailing just above the wrist – which still would have been considered the hand by the gospel writers – do you have the proper bone structure to hold someone on the cross for several days (which is how long crucifixions normally took). Clavius gives the disciple Bartholomew an accurate description of how crucifixion actually kills a victim – by suffocation. The victim must keep pushing his body up to breathe, and eventually, after days of agony, he gives up, exhausted, and is strangled by his own weight.

Rev. Lanita, in talking about the movie to the youth, lamented that they fell into the common trap of portraying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, when the gospels don’t refer to her as such. (The idea that she was a prostitute comes from someone in church history speculating that she was the same woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, even though the Bible does not give us any specific reason to make that connection.)

It all seemed to work, at least for me. Fiennes is absolutely great as Clavius. You can feel his weariness, but then he shifts it aside and becomes an intimidating interrogator, and he makes his conversion – which, by the conventions of this type of movie, has to be somewhat sudden – believable. He still seems like the same person. With a lesser actor, this movie could have easily descended into camp.

Firth and Felton are also great on the Roman side, while Stuart Scudamore (running a close second to Cumberbatch in the silly name rankings) is quite good as Simon Peter (IMDb lists him as “Peter,” but he seems to be referred to mainly as “Simon” by the other characters). Stephen Hagan is just a tiny bit too giddy as Bartholomew, but I’ll let it slide – especially since the more-common mistake in Bible epics is to be universally-gloomy. This movie actually had a few moments of welcome and appropriate humor, such as one where one of the Romans makes a disparaging remark about the Jewish high priests just as we, the audience, see them approaching him from behind. There’s also a scene between Simon and Clavius late in the movie which incorporates some funny byplay.

I just really found the movie inspirational. I doubt many people who aren’t already believers will be converted by it, because I doubt they’ll go see it in the first place. But we probably shouldn’t expect movies to proselytize anyway. I think this is fine as a creative expression of faith, one which someone like me (and the teens from church) can simply enjoy on its own terms.

I highly recommend it.

warmth in wrap-up

All of the moms of First United Methodist Church – Shelbyville teased me about whether or not I was ready to be a chaperone at Warmth In Winter, and carried on like I was making some great sacrifice by attending.

But I expected going in that I’d have a good time – and I did. It was a blessing, in a very real sense.

It’s a moving thing to see young people in the throes of some of their first religious experiences. Bishop Bill McAlilly, who preached this morning, recalled a church camp experience at which James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” was played, and I had to laugh – because one of the strongest memories of my own junior high church camp experiences has to do with Taylor’s “Shower The People.” “That’s not a church song,” I thought to my seventh grade self. “That’s a song from the radio. Are they allowed to do that?”

That camp experience is still potent in my memory, four decades later, and I always list it as a key part of my spiritual journey whenever I’m asked to lay out my spiritual timeline at some retreat or mission trip training event.

That’s where these kids were this weekend. How remarkable for them to get to go and be at a nice hotel with three thousand of their peers, and see a Christian band play with rock-concert-style staging — video screens, lighting and what have you.

The teens from Shelbyville First are a great group, and they really got out of this experience what you’d hope they would get out of it.

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We know that one peak experience doesn’t guarantee a life of faith. Nothing guarantees a life of faith; faith has to be renewed on an hourly basis. In fact, during a breakout session on Saturday I and the other adults from First UMC heard some disheartening statistics about how many children who actively participate in their church youth groups lose their connection to the church just as soon as they get to college.

Bellarive, which was the worship band for this weekend’s event, has a song lyric that goes “You will never fade away / Your love is here to stay,” and while God’s love is faithful we are not always faithful to God.

That’s a challenge and an admonition to all of us in the church, but it does nothing to diminish the value of, or the need for, events like Warmth In Winter, or the week-in, week-out youth activities in a local church. We do not know whose heart might have been turned this weekend. Decades from now, some great Christian leader – maybe a member of the clergy, maybe a layperson whose faith has been reflected in a life well-lived – may look back to that weekend in 2016 when she stood up in front of the stage in the mosh pit, bouncing up and down to the music of Bellarive and swapping warm fuzzies with strangers from other churches.

In case you’ve missed my previous posts, Warmth In Winter, which started in 1982, is an annual youth weekend held by the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Despite the name, the “Tennessee” conference is made up of Middle Tennessee.) It’s been held for the past several years at the Embassy Suites hotel and convention center in Murfreesboro, but it attracts thousands of teenagers and has outgrown even that facility. This year, for example, the Embassy Suites was sold out and there were church groups staying at several other hotels in the Medical Center Parkway area, plus some churches that just commuted. The Saturday morning programming had to be done in shifts – while the groups staying at the Embassy Suites were in breakout workshops, the groups staying off-site were in the main room for worship, and vice versa. Next year, Warmth In Winter will be held at Gaylord Opryland.

My nephew T.J. Carney was a member of one of the “design teams” that put on the event this year, and he appeared on stage a couple of times, in a skit and as a “stick figure dancer” (you had to be there). I could not be prouder. T.J.’s younger brother James also got to attend the event; they are both from Bell Buckle UMC.

So it was tremendously moving to see all the kids enjoying this experience and hope that it will have an impact on them down the road.

But I also enjoyed the programming directly. When you’re talking to teenagers, you don’t talk to them about nuances of theology, or socio-political implications, or textual criticism. Duffy Robbins, the keynote speaker for the event, had a three-point slogan upon which he based all three of his sermons: “God has a plan … Man has a problem … The choice is up to you.” Simple, clean and direct. Every now and then, even we adults need a message that cuts to the essentials and touches the heart.

Duffy Robbins, by the way, was terrific all around, with a sense of humor that appealed to everyone in the room. I found this on YouTube from 2014, but he did exactly the same routine this weekend:

He had a way of taking this simple story and making it come to life. A story about teaching his teenage daughter how to drive became a lesson on the Incarnation, and the need for God to be in the seat next to us. Just perfect.

The other major part of the program was illusionist Jared Hall:

I knew going in that I’d enjoy the program. I had seen enough slide shows from previous Warmth In Winter trips to have a basic sense of what the event was about. But as I posted Friday night, I wasn’t quite sure of my own role. I wasn’t rooming with the kids – that’s prohibited by United Methodist “safe sanctuaries” policies due to the risk. Our church’s director of children and youth, the wonderful Alden Procopio, does a great job with the kids, and so it’s not like I was needed to hand out stern looks. (The kids were great all weekend, really.) This was a suite hotel, and as the only adult male in the First UMC group I had a suite all to myself. I felt almost guilty for being there and enjoying the program.

After I wrote those words Friday night, a couple of things happened Saturday that made me feel better. We had a block of free time, and went to a nearby shopping area with a lot of food options. We gave the kids the freedom to go where they liked. Alden and the Three Moms – Vickie Hull, Tanya Lane and Rachel Cunningham – went with a few of the teens to a barbecue restaurant, but I tagged along with another group that went to Panda Express. Just being there, me and the teens hanging out, made me feel a little more like I was actually a chaperone and not just a tag-along. I sat with most of the same kids that night at the Murfreesboro District pizza party:

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I also found out that I had to be there. The event’s policy required that if there were male campers, there had to be a male adult from that church (and, I assume, vice versa). If I hadn’t been there, Grayson and Kenny and Sam might not have been able to be there.

I bought myself a T-shirt on Saturday, but I joked about not buying another souvenir I really wanted. At a layspeaking class I took last November, I was amused at the John Wesley bobblehead doll brought along by the teacher. They had those bobbleheads at the Cokesbury table at Warmth In Winter this weekend, but I decided they were too expensive.

Today, on our way home, we all stopped for lunch at Toot’s South. After we’d eaten, as we were trying to consolidate the plates a bit, all of a sudden the four grownups with whom I was sitting started looking at me and handed me a white paper bag and an envelope.

The bag, as you’ve no-doubt guessed, contained this:

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The envelope was even better – a card signed by the kids and the other adults thanking me for being there.

By the way, there’s a bad pollen problem inside Toot’s this time of year.

Warmth In Winter, Friday night

Terrific first night at Warmth In Winter.
As we were gathering for evening worship, there was a theatrical percussion group (along the lines of Stomp or Blue Man Group) called RePercussion, and they were terrific. Illusionist Jared Hall really only did one trick tonight, but I think we’ll see more of him tomorrow. Bellarive, the worship band, was great, and I really enjoyed the keynote speaker, Duffy Robbins, who was funny and relatable. Of course, none of this content is aimed at washed-up 53-year-olds; it’s aimed at youth, and there were 3,000 of them in the ballroom tonight, and I think they were really connecting to all of it. Communion was led by the Rev. Skip Armistead, whom I knew briefly in the early 90s when I was serving on the Tennessee Conference singles council (he probably doesn’t remember me), and the Rev. Amanda Diamond of Morton Memorial UMC, a great friend of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry whose pulpit I’ve filled before. After the service, I saw Amanda along with Kylene McDonald at the T-shirt booth, and I’m always happy to see Kylene.
I got to see my nephew T.J., who is on the design team which is running this show, very briefly; he’d been here all day and was already tired, and that was before evening worship. T.J.’s brother James is also here; I haven’t run into him yet.
I’m happy to be here, but I guess I don’t feel that much like a chaperone yet. There’s not much for me to do other than be here, and there are a few of the teens that I’m not sure even know who exactly I am, and vice versa. I am here in this big old suite, which I have all to myself as the only adult male in our group. The boys are next door. In the old days, teens and adults would have bunked together, but that’s prohibited, and understandably so, by the new Safe Sanctuaries policies. So that’s good in terms of me getting a good night’s sleep, but I feel almost guilty for being here.

a blessing in song

I am one of three people with administrative access to our church’s Facebook page. A few weeks ago, while my pastor, the Rev. Lanita Monroe, was on a mission trip to Louisiana, I was checking that page and there was a message from a man named John Lemonis.

Crosby LaneJohn is a member of a vocal trio called Crosby Lane, named for famed hymn writer Fanny Crosby. Their specialty is new, Americana-style or country-style arrangements of classic hymns, and they also tell the stories behind those hymns as they perform them in concert. They also have some original songs, one of which – “Crucified” – is right at this moment being played by not only Christian radio stations but country stations, and is about to premiere on the cable channel GAC.

Crosby Lane had a radio interview scheduled in Scottsboro, Alabama, early in the day on January  20, and then after that they would be driving back to their home base in the Nashville area. They had decided to message some churches along their route home to see if any of them might be interested in a Wednesday night performance.

I messaged John back telling them that our pastor was in Louisiana. I gave him her e-mail address. I had no idea whether he’d end up e-mailing her (after all, one of the other Facebook contacts might come through first), or how often Lanita was checking her e-mail while on the mission trip.

After the return of the mission team, I was delighted to discover that John had, in fact, gotten in touch with Lanita, who had agreed to have the group perform tonight. I tried to help get the word out through social media and on the church news page of the Times-Gazette, so that we’d have a decent crowd.

Then, of course, weather happened. I worried that Lanita might have to call off the church’s normal Wednesday night activities, or that we might have a poor crowd. When I stopped by the church while on my daily walk today, it looked like our Wednesday activities were good to go, but the person I spoke to at the church wasn’t sure whether the band was still coming. If they came, they would be driving down from Nashville rather than up from Alabama, since their appearance in Scottsboro – the whole initial reason for their visit here – had been cancelled.

They came, and I’m so glad they did. It was a wonderful performance, melodic and inspiring. John and Michaela Lemonis and Tonja Rose blessed all of us with their music, with the stories behind the hymns, and with their joy in performing, even for a crowd of 35-40 people on a cold, wet Wednesday night. As it happened, I ended up sitting at the same table as the three of them during dinner, and they couldn’t have been nicer or more enthusiastic.

Everyone who was there for the performance loved it, and many of us bought CDs afterwards. “We want you to come back!” someone called out.

I hope they do too, on a night when we can give them a bigger crowd  — even though they may have bigger and better things ahead.