Embracing the Little Ones

icoana-copiiThen they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.

Saint Meinrad Archabbey sits on a hilltop in a little community that bears the same name, St. Meinrad, Indiana. Population: not so many, really. Without the monks and the students in the seminary, there wouldn’t be very many people, at all. But there would be cows, lots and lots of cows. On account of all the dairy farms there… And when it’s hot. And the wind is just right… The cows make their presence known. You just… you don’t forget that they are there, believe me. You can smell them. Not them, really. It’s what they produce… and I’m not talking about milk, mind you. But the stuff people spread around the garden. Nature’s fertilizer. Oh my… you step outside and it almost takes your breath away. Kind of makes you wish something would take it away.

Ann used to make fun of me whenever I’d say it, but the cow stuff there does not smell the same as it does here… Here, in West Virginia, there’s a sweetness to it. Really. (I know this because I grew up across the creek from McSweeney’s, a little dairy farm in Wayne County. It was almost pleasant, in a way.) But at Saint Meinrad, it’s not pleasant at all. It’s… it’s almost violent at times. Something that could do you great harm (physically and mentally). There’s nothing sweet about it whatsoever.

But something strange happens when you open the door of the great abbey church. Just as you open the door and start to cross the threshold, the odor from the dairy farm blends with the lingering smell of incense… And it does something. It says something, I think. Something profound. I have no idea what, mind you, but it’s something deep and profound.

Anyway, the dairy farms and the cows and the humble people who live at the abbey remind me of a story that my grandmother told me (more than once, I think) when I was a little boy. It was a story about life on the farm. Not a dairy farm… It was more like Old MacDonald’s farm. With chickens and a horse and a goat and a milk cow and a goose. There was even a cat there. And a dog or two. So the story was about all of that. But it was really about something else. Something Jesus talked about. Here. In the gospel of Mark.

“There was a farm… not so far from here,” she said. And one day a little dog who lived there decided to go for a walk. Because he wanted to see what was there on the farm. So he left the front porch of his master house – the old farmhouse there. And walked all around the farm. And he saw things he’d never really seen before. Because he was  still just a pup. The first thing the little dog saw was the barn. And next to the barn was a pen – a place out in the open that was surrounded by a big wooden fence.

And there on the other side of the fence was a big, beautiful horse. And when the horse saw the puppy, he said… Oh, did I tell you they could talk? The animals on this farm could talk to each other. So when the horse saw the puppy, he called out to him. “Hey you! You must be new here.” And he said something about the weather and how good it was to be outside and not locked up in a stall on such a beautiful day.

And then the big, beautiful horse looked down, way down at the little dog and said, “By the way, you’ll soon learn that the master loves me more than other animal here on the farm. Because I’m more important. I’m the greatest. The best of all,” he said. “Because I can carry  great loads for him and pull the plow (which is heavy, you know). I can even carry him on my back and take him wherever he wants to go.” And he looked down at the puppy who was tiny compared to him. And he said, “An animal your size is of no use to him at all.”

The little dog hung his head and was about to walk away when he heard another voice. A big voice that was deep and low. It was the cow. She’d been grazing there in the pasture just beyond the fence. She said, “I’ll have you know that I have the most honored position on the farm. I’m more important than all the other animals here,” she said. “Because the farmer and the farmer’s wife make buttermilk and cheese and sweet cream butter from the milk that I give them. But you… you don’t provide anything for the family. So the horse is right. You aren’t important. You aren’t worth anything, are you?”

And then the sheep spoke up and said, “Listen, you old cow, you aren’t as important as me. The master takes the wool I give him and makes clothes. Sweaters and scarves and hats and things. So I keep the whole family warm. But,” he said to the little dog, “I wouldn’t want to be you. You don’t have anything to give them. Nothing, at all.”

And one by one every animal on the farm said, “I’m more important. I’m number one. I am the one who’s really important. And they argued about it. The chicken said she deserved the top spot on the farm. Because she fed the family – she gave them eggs. And what would they do without eggs to boil and scramble and cook with each day. And the cat said, “Now wait just a minute. The master’s house is free from mice because of me. So, I should have the place of honor, not you.”

And they quarreled and bickered and argued about who was the greatest and who was the best. But there was one thing they all took for granted. And that was that the little dog was not important at all. He had nothing to give. He was the least and the last and the lowest of all.

And the puppy ran away. He found a place under a tree away from all the other animals. And he started to cry. And then an old dog heard him sobbing. And he came to the little one and listened while he told him what had happened. And the puppy said, “They’re right. I don’t have anything to offer… To anyone,” he said.

And the old dog who was gentle and wise said. “It’s true. It’s true… you’re too small to pull a plow or a wagon. And you’ll never provide milk or eggs or wool for the master. But,” he said, “that doesn’t mean they’re better than you or more important. God created you, too, you know. So love and serve your master with the gifts that you have.”

Late that evening, when the farmer came home exhauster from working all day in the sun, the little dog saw him and ran to him wagging his tail and licking his feet. And then he jumped into his masters arms. And they played and romped around in the grass with barks and laughs and wiggles and smiles. And finally the little dog’s master held him close to his chest and patted his head. And he said, “No matter how tired and weary I am when I get home, I feel better when you greet me. I wouldn’t trade you for all the animals on the farm.”

Oh, did you hear what happened when they got to the house in Capernaum that day? The master, their Shepherd, took a little one in his arms. A little one, mind you. He embraced him and held him close to his heart. And it said something. Something deep and profound. The very thing we needed to hear…

They were on their way to Capernaum. Which was home for some of them. Peter and Andrew lived in Capernaum. And so did John and his brother James.  They had come from the mountaintop – where Peter and James and John had seen Jesus in all of his glory. He was glowing. Transfigured says Mark. And his clothes became dazzling white – even whiter than any garment or robe they’d ever seen.

And they saw things there that they couldn’t explain. Things they couldn’t even comprehend. Moses and Elijah were there with Jesus. Moses and Elijah… who lived generations before them. Hundreds of years. And they saw the cloud. Not a dark cloud, mind you. A bright and shining cloud. And they heard a voice speak from the cloud! The Voice, God’s voice, said, “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him!” Nearly scared them to death.

They came down from the mountain. And right away, Jesus healed a boy who was in the grips of some unclean, evil thing that had taken over his life. And in just a short while, they left for home. For Capernaum by the sea. And as they made their way through Galilee, they kept to themselves. Away from the people, the crowds and the busy little towns and villages that surrounded the lake. Because Jesus wanted to be alone with his disciples so he could teach them… and help them learn about God and God’s ways and God’s kingdom.

He said, “The Son of Man (God’s anointed one, the Christ, or the Messiah) will be handed over to people who will kill him. They’ll put him to death…” Can you imagine? That was him! He was talking about himself! The One who stood with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. The One who was shining bright with God’s glory all around him! They’d heard this before. It was before they went to the mountain. Before they saw him as he really was. But now he was saying it again. “I’m going to be taken. I AM going to be put to death.” It didn’t make sense.

He told them… he told them twice. “After three days I will be raised.” But they didn’t get it. They just couldn’t comprehend such a thing. I mean… this wasn’t their idea of a messiah, at all. He’s supposed to rescue them. Deliver them from their oppressors. (You know… those pesky Romans. The occupation forces.) And he was supposed to bring in the Kingdom – the reign of God. Which surely meant taking control of Jerusalem. Because it was their land. Their home. And they were God’s people. He was supposed to bring in the glory days! Not die in defeat.

Maybe it was a story. Maybe it was like the story about the little dog on the farm. A parable, really. A story about something else. They just couldn’t figure it out. And they were afraid to ask. I don’t know why. It just didn’t fit.

So… they left it alone. Talked about something else. It got a little heated, says Mark. Looked like they were quarreling. Bickering. Arguing about something. So when they got to the house in Capernaum, Jesus asked them about it. “What were you arguing about on the way?”

You could have heard a feather drop. Nobody said a word. Not even Peter (which was unusual for him!).  Shame does that. It brings silence. Not the good kind of silence. There isn’t enough of that. It was the kind that makes you squirm. The kind that makes you want to hide till it all goes away. But this wouldn’t go away. The smell of it lingered. And there was nothing sweet about it. It stank. It just reeked. Because… on the way, after Jesus said he would humble himself and become obedient, obedient unto death, they were arguing about which one of them was most important. Which one of them was going to have the highest rank in the Kingdom.

Oh, “I should be the one to be honored, I followed him first!

“No, I should be the one, I’m older and wiser.”

“But I went to the mountaintop. I saw Moses. I saw Elijah.”

And on and on it goes. “I’ve been a member longer than you… Well, it doesn’t matter, I paid my dues, if you know what I mean… Oh really? Well, I’ve rolled up my sleeves, nearly worked myself to death for this church. And no one ever thank me either… Oh, I know these people, this church is my life… Well then why don’t you show up a little more often.

And it goes on and on. And do you know who gets left out? Maybe it’s not who you think…

Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be last of all. And servant of all.”

People thought of children that way. It sounds so strange to us. But it’s true. Children were like servants. They had the same rights, the same place in the world as slaves. They were the least and the lowest. Of no value, no standing. In fact, if you called someone (a grown-up person) a child it was like calling them uselessworthlesstrash…

And just then, in that moment. Jesus took a child, in his arms. And embraced him. Held the child close to his heart. And this is what he said. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the One who sent me.”

That’s who gets left out… That’s who we leave out when we live as if our needs, our value, our place in God’s world  is more important than somebody else’s. When we leave out the little one, whoever that may be, we leave out God.

But when we receive them. When we embrace them. When we love them and serve them and value them, we are loving and serving and worshiping (it means ascribing worth to) God.

There is young man named Palmer who led the campus ministry at Wheaton College (in Illinois, I think) a few years ago. He has a church now in Arizona. But something happened when he was at Wheaton that changed his life.

He took the basketball team, from Wheaton, to Africa. To Malawi. They were there to do some mission work, and to play some basketball, too. Palmer had made arrangements for the team from Wheaton College to play the African Bible College team there in Malawi.

But here’s the thing… Shoes, I mean any shoe in Malawi is a luxury. Lilongwe, is the capital. And Palmer, who grew up in West Africa says that it is the only African city where he has seen grown men walking down the streets without any shoes. They are barefoot. And because they are barefoot, they are ashamed. They don’t have any choice. But, in their culture, they feel terribly ashamed – worthless, mind you, because they don’t have any shoes. It is a sign to them. It says something about them, they think. That they are poor. Not just that… It says to them, “You have no worth, no value. You are trash. Throwaways. The lowest of the low.

So when Palmer took the basketball players from Illinois to have their first practice in the gym at  Africa Bible College, he wasn’t really surprised to when he saw that two of the Malawi students in the gym were playing basketball with one shoe. I mean, each of them was wearing only one shoe.

Well… the players from Wheaton College had never seen anything like it. And they started to laugh. They were poking each other and pointing to the African players. Talking about how funny it was that two guys were playing basketball with one foot in a shoe and the other one bare!

Well… the Malawi coach was standing there. He had lived there in Malawi for about ten years he told them later. And one of the Wheaton players turned to him and asked why these guys were playing basketball in just one shoe.

And here’s what he said. “One of the players showed up today with no shoes. And his friend saw him. And he didn’t want him to be ashamed when your team arrived. So he lent him one of his shoes. Now they both have at least one shoe.”

And the laughing stopped. And there was silence. Not because they were a shamed. But because it said something. It said to the friend without any shoes, “You are important. You are of great worth. You are somebody – Someone is loved by God and by your brother.”  And it said to the Wheaton players, “This is greatness. This is what it means to love and to serve.”

That’s what they saw and heard in the African Bible College gym. They saw Jesus put his arms around one of the little ones. Embracing him, holding him close to his heart. It was as if they had stood on the mountain with Moses and Elijah and saw Jesus in all of his glory. And they heard something – something like a Voice speaking to their hearts… Saying, “Thank you. I love you, too.”

“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the One who sent me.”

Hear the Good News

Neither do I condemn you."

Neither do I condemn you.”

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. 

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,
Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,
Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,
Grant us peace…

People don’t like to hear about that anymore. It’s just… it’s not something we like to think about, really. Doesn’t stop us from doing it, mind you. And it doesn’t keep us from making a wreck of things, either. It’s just something we don’t like to talk about. But there it is… People sin. We all do, it says in the Good Book. And we got an early start at it. “I was a sinner when I was born,” it says in the psalms. Just born right into it. “In sin did my mother conceive me.” It was there when we started… from the very beginning.

The first sin I remember, mind you, was when I was just a wee little boy. Couldn’t even see the top of the kitchen counter! Which made it awfully hard to steal cookies out of the jar. But I managed… Mitzi, my trusty beagle, would stand guard at the door while I scooted a chair up to the counter. And as Mitzi kept watch, I would quietly – silently – slip the lid from the top of the cookie jar, dip my arm in (up past my elbow!) and grab a cookie. Well… maybe two or three cookies. Which was a sin in my mother’s kitchen.

But I wasn’t to blame, because I didn’t make them. She made them. My own mother. The best oatmeal cookies you could imagine… Which is the only way to eat oatmeal, you know. My mom used to make the stuff and put it in a bowl for breakfast. But it was… oatmeal. What else can I say? It’s like cough syrup with lumps. Kitchen cement with sugar and butter… It’s just oatmeal, that’s all. Not all that appetizing if you ask me… But when you make it into a cookie… well, that’s something else. And my mom’s oatmeal cookies were just wonderful. Really. All gooey and thick and sweet.

And whenever she’d bake them, she’d let me have one, right out of the oven. And it would just melt in your mouth, right down to your toes. Made you feel all gooey and warm on the inside — as if you had turned into a big cookie yourself. And oh, it was good … Almost sinful it was. But that was it. One cookie. I could have one oatmeal cookie. “Because you don’t want to ruin your supper,” she said. X But it doesn’t work that way, moms. Too many cookies don’t ruin your supper. It’s too much supper that ruins your desert! XI tried to explain this to my mom. But she couldn’t quite comprehend it. So that was it. One cookie it was. One thick, gooey, wonderful cookie still warm from the oven.

Trouble is… kids can’t eat just one cookie. It’s just not in their nature. So I would smile at my mom, showing off my dimple… and I’d say something like, “Mom, could I please have one more of those delicious cookies you worked so hard to make?” And my dear, sweet mother, who was the crowned and reigning queen of old softies, would look at me and smile (showing off her dimple)…  And she would say, “Well, of course not. You have to wait.”

So I waited. Of course. I waited till she left the room and the coast was clear. And when I was sure she was nowhere in sight, I would sneak up to the cookie jar, lift the lid… And as soon as I had my fingers around a cookie, I’d hear a voice. Not the little voice you “hear” sometimes when you’re really not sure whether you should do something or not. But the big voice… the voice that you hear when you’re caught red-handed by your dear, sweet, soft-hearted mother. And that voice said, “Thomas Patrick Nolan — you put those cookies back in the jar!” To which, of course, I would respond, “What cookies?”

This was not a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you know. It was more like a learning process, I think… for my mom. Because she was always learning new ways to catch me red-handed — not just with cookies, but with my Sunday-shoe-shod foot hovering over a puddle of mud. Or sneaking out of the garage with a fishing pole in my hand when I was supposed to be cleaning my room. Or she’d catch me watching TV when I was supposed to be studying. But every time, she’d just appear. And she’d catch me right in the act with my cheeks puffed out (like a chipmunk before his long winter nap).

And I would be caught. And ashamed. And scared. Afraid that they would take away my allowance, or ground me, or worse.

But once, I remember, I was really afraid. Because I had broken one of my father’s commandments — the one that said, “Never take anything (from anybody at any time in any place) that doesn’t belong to you.” It happened when I was seven — or eight — I’m not really sure. But it doesn’t matter, does it? I was old enough to know better. And I did. Believe me. I knew better… It’s just that I wanted to be like the big guys, the older boys — the ones everybody looked up to (I thought).

And the big boys, of course, carried combs in their pockets — long black combs that were fat on one end and skinny on the other. I don’t know that they ever used them to comb their hair — from the looks of them they didn’t. But they carried them in their pockets because it made them look cool. And they did come in handy for other things, you know — like flipping small projectiles, paper wads and things, across the room. And they’d use them on the south end of their northbound friends. They’d just pull it back and let it fly. And then turn around and act innocent or run like the dickens, if need be.  But they were always there, those long black combs sticking out of their pockets like a badge that said, “Watch out! This kid is cool. This kid is somebody.” 

One day after school some of the big guys dared me to go into Mr. Cunningham’s drugstore and get one. Without paying for it, I mean. “All you have to do,” they said, “Is act like it’s yours, and they’ll never know the difference!” And when I told them that stealing was wrong, they laughed at me. And they called me a “mommy’s boy”. A baby, they called me. And little boys don’t like to be called babies. They just don’t. They want to fit in. They want to belong. They want other people to look up to them, not down on them.

So I went into the drugstore. And I took one of those long black combs that was fat on one end and skinny on the other from the little round container. And I stuck it in my pocket as if it was mine. And I started to walk out of that store and into a whole new world. Into Joe Cool-dom, I thought. But all of a sudden I heard a voice. And the voice said, “Aren’t you going to pay for that comb in your pocket?” And I turned around and there was Amos, one of the pharmacists, who went to our church. And I took the comb and I handed it to him.

And I’ll never forget what he did that day. He knelt down beside me and looked me right in the eye. And he said, “Those boys out there aren’t your friends. And I really don’t think you want to be like them,” he said. “So I’m not going to say anything about this to anyone this time. But I want you to go home and think about what you’ve done.”

And I did. I ran all the way home. And I thought about what I’d done. I had to — because I couldn’t think about anything else. And I was so ashamed and so afraid of what my mom would do if she found out, that I told her myself. Stood there with tears running down my cheeks, waiting for her to tell me how bad I was. And that she didn’t love me anymore. And that they were going to send me away (to Prunty Town, or the army or something). But she didn’t…  She picked me up and she held me. And by that time I was sobbing. And she said, “I think you’ve learned your lesson. Just promise me,” she said, “Promise me you’ll never, never do it again.”

And that was it. She never mentioned it again. It was as if she’d forgotten what happened that day. And that’s something, I think, I’ll always remember.

Neither do I condemn you. Go… and sin no more.

God is like that, you know. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love… He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

It’s what this story [from the 8th Chapter of John] is all about. It’s about someone who broke one of her Father’s commandments … and the lesson she learned when God forgot.

But you know it well. John (the Beloved) says Jesus went up to the Mount of Olives to pray. And the next morning, at dawn, he went to the Temple gardens. And in no time at all, a crowd had gathered round. So Jesus sat down to teach them. And all of a sudden, right out of the blue, some of the teachers there at the Temple brought a woman to Jesus. They found her, they said, with somebody’s husband, some poor child’s father! Caught her red-handed. Without question the woman was guilty.

She had broken one of her father’s commandments. The seventh, in fact. And when you break that commandment you break someone’s heart. You break their home and their family’s trust (and your family’s, too). Which is why the law said this woman should die. She “deserves the death sentence” is what the law said. (It wasn’t enforced by that time, of course. But the law was still there on the books — in The Book, that is.) So they brought her to Jesus the teacher, the wandering rabbi, and said, “What should we do with this woman? The law says she should die.”

But they didn’t care about the law. Not really, I mean. If they had they’d have brought the man, too. You know they saw him. Because one person can’t break the seventh commandment alone. It always takes two… But where was he? They didn’t bring him. They just brought her. And only because she was handy, I think. She was just being used to set a trap for this teacher — this Jesus.

And it was a good one they thought. They had him cornered. They couldn’t lose. No matter what Jesus said, it would make him look bad. And they would look good. They’d be the “big boys” in town, the somebodies, they thought. For if Jesus said, “Kill her,” then all the common, ordinary folk who had gathered around him wouldn’t think so much of him. “No mercy. No pity. No compassion at all.” But if he said, “Let her go” – the leaders of the Temple could say he was teaching God’s people that the Law didn’t matter anymore — that it was okay to disobey God. It’s okay to break God’s commandments. It’s no big deal… So they had him either way. Either way he’d look bad. And they would look good.

But Jesus ignored them. He didn’t say anything. He just leaned over and wrote in the dirt with his finger. But they kept coming at him with all of their questions. “What should we do, Jesus? What do you think? Should we stone her to death, like it says in the Law? Come on, teacher, tell us! Should we execute this woman or not?”

Jesus said, “Go ahead. Do it… And let the one among you who’s never sinned throw the first stone.

And he stooped down again and wrote in the dirt. And, mind you, nobody knows what he wrote on the ground. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? What mattered were the words he had already written on their hearts: Let the one without sin throw the first stone. For when they heard that, they all went away — from the oldest to the youngest. They all went away.

So there she was, a woman who’d broken her Father’s commandment, and somebody’s heart, and their home and maybe her own. Stood there red-handed and guilty. With Jesus the Teacher, the Son of God… Can you imagine? Peter stood there once, alone with the Lord, and… you know what he said? “Go away, Lord. Please. For I am a sinner. I’m not good enough to stand in your shadow.” Peter said that! Peter. The Rock! And if he felt that way when the Lord looked at him, imagine how she felt (after what she had done).

But Jesus looked up and said, “Where are they? Isn’t there anyone here to condemn you?” And the woman said, “No. No one, Lord.” And Jesus looked at her and said, “I don’t condemn you, either. Go. Be on your way. And don’t sin anymore.”

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … Oh, did you hear it? He does not deal with us according to our sins.

It was as if God had forgotten what she had done! And that was something she’d never forget. Something (to her) that would be worth remembering for the rest of her life. Because something amazing happened that day. A sinner learned that she could be a saint. Not because she had earned it. And not because she deserved it. But only because Somebody loved her. I mean really loved her. And knowing that, receiving that, and remembering that changes everything. X

When I was in high school, the youth from our church and the Baptist church decided to meet together. Every week. The youth decided this … on our own. Nearly scared some of the older folks to death. The Methodists were afraid the Baptists would lure us over to the other side. And the Baptists were afraid we’d sprinkle their kids and make Methodists out of them. But that didn’t happen. We just wanted to do things together, that’s all.

And we did… The two pastors were thrilled. They’d come to the meetings sometimes. Even went on a few retreats with us. And as we got to know them, we grew to love and respect them even more.

I didn’t really know much about the Baptist preacher. He was quiet and gentle and full of compassion — one of the most Christ-like people I’d ever known. Reverend Cox was his name. He was an older man. But when he spoke, we all listened. Not because we were supposed to. But because his gentle wisdom spoke to us.

One night we were talking about that passage in Mark where Jesus speaks of “the one sin that can never be forgiven.” The unforgivable sin… We asked him about it. And he told us about something that happened when he was younger. He was pastor, then, of a church in Virginia. And the church was in a spiritual slump, he called it. Attendance was down. And giving was off. There didn’t seem to be any life in the church anymore. The faithful were still faithful. But it was as if they were there, he said, because there wasn’t anything better to do.

He tried to figure out how this had happened. And what was to blame. He read books about “church-burnout,” and growth and decline. And he prayed. A lot. Every morning and evening he would kneel alone at the altar and pray that things would change. “But the more I prayed,” he said, “the worse it became… I thought it was me. It has to be me. I’ve offended somebody. I’m doing something wrong. I’m not trying hard enough. It has to be something.”

So… he tried harder and harder to turn things around. He spent hours and hours working on sermons.  He knocked on doors, inviting people to church. He did it all. Tried to be the best pastor he could be. But nothing happened. “And, at that point,” he said, “I began to question my call. Maybe God hadn’t called me. Or maybe he had and now he was calling me out of the ministry.”

And he was in the study one night, staring at a blank sheet of paper. “My heart was heavy and my throat was sore from trying to choke back the tears. Because I was convinced that I had committed the unforgivable sin. I didn’t know how or when,” he said. “But I just felt that I had let God down so much that he didn’t even want me around anymore.”

You could have heard a feather drop when he said that. We couldn’t believe that someone like him — someone so humble and so full of grace, could even think such a thing. But he did. He thought he was so sinful God could never forgive him.

So he was sitting there staring at that blank sheet of paper with all of that weighing down on his heart. And the phone rang. It was one of his clergy friends — a Roman Catholic, he said — the priest of the Catholic church at the end of the block.

The priest said, “I haven’t seen you around lately. Thought I’d give you a call … see how you’re doing.”

And they chatted a bit. And, all of a sudden, the dam burst and Rev. Cox poured his heart out to his friend. Told him how things were in the church… and how he had failed. He said, “Father, I’ve let him down. I haven’t done what God called me to do.” And he wept…

The priest didn’t say anything. At all. And then he spoke in a voice that was firm and gentle: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. “My brother,” he said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you… are… forgiven.” 

Rev. Cox said, “I still don’t know what to say when people ask about the unpardonable sin. All I know is that God loves us. Unconditionally. And he takes our sins (even the sins of doubt and despair) and he remembers them no more…

Let me say it again. Hear the Good News… In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Hearts on Fire

caravaggio_-_supper_at_emmaus_1606_oil_painting_141x175cm_pinacoteca_di_brera_small

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

Finally, they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.

It happens more often than we think, you know… this business of not seeing, not recognizing, or not knowing who’s with us…

There was a little boy at one of the churches who was… well, he was just a boy, that’s all. Always getting into trouble, which really embarrassed his parents, I think. Because they’d never done this before. He was their first. And he was a handful, believe me. He would slide down from the pew during worship and grab the backs of the blue-haired women’s legs who sat in the pews in front of him. Which made for some interesting worship. You’d have thought the Spirit had gotten hold of them the way they jumped to their feet and called out (as if in prayer). But it wasn’t the Spirit. It was just a little boy.

And sometimes, mind you, he would laugh in church. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There isn’t, at all. It’s just that he laughed out loud at the most awkward moments. Like the Sunday the ninety-year-old alto sang a solo in church. She had a beautiful voice. Or used to, I think. But she kind of warbles now. It’s like tremolo on an old electric organ. Her voice just kind of quivers and quavers. And when little Eric heard that for the first time, he laughed so hard he fell out of the pew! Thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen… or heard!  And his parents were so embarrassed. Other people wanted to laugh but couldn’t, of course, for fear that the elderly alto would think they were laughing at her!

And then there was the time his dad grabbed him and headed out of the sanctuary with him under his arm. It was right in the middle of the sermon. And… I don’t know what the poor child had done. But he was in trouble. Whatever it was just could not be tolerated, I guess. So his dad grabbed him and started for the closest door. Had the kid under his arm… backwards. So that the child’s feet were pointing forward. And his little face was looking back at the congregation. And just as his dad reached the door, the boy cried out, “Pray for me, church! Please, pray for me!”

The kid made for some interesting worship. He did… One Sunday morning I said something that he actually heard! It was when I was inviting people to stand and share the peace of Christ with the people around them. I looked out over the congregation and said something like, “Jesus is here in this place!” And the kid looked around and said, “I don’t see him, mom! Which one is Jesus?”

Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

It reminds me of Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian. One of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. His greatest published work was titled Church Dogmatics. Took him years and years to write it… all about God and the church and what the church believes about sin and grace and forgiveness and so much more. When he finished there were thirteen volumes of the thing. Six million words. And some of them about yea long, I’d say.

And my favorite story about the great theologian is something that happened near the end of his life. He was invited to lecture at the University of Chicago. And he talked about the Dogmatics and about his years teaching in Germany and being forced to leave that country because he refused to bear allegiance to Hitler. And people were just spellbound by what they saw and heard.

And at the end of the lecture, he said he would take a few questions. And the last question of the night came from a young seminarian. “Professor Barth,” he said, “In all your years of writing and teaching, how would you sum it all up? What is the greatest insight about God and the faith you could share with us tonight?” And Karl Barth looked down for a moment. And then he said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak, but he is strong.”

A wonderful story… But there’s another story about him I think you should hear. He was on a street car one day in Basel, Switzerland, where he lived and taught. And a tourist to the city climbed on and sat next to him. And the two of them struck up a conversation. “Are you new to the city?” Barth asked the tourist.

“Yes,” he said.

“Is there anything you would particularly like to see in our city?” asked Barth.

“Yes,” said the tourist. “I’d love to meet the famous theologian Karl Barth. Do you know him?” And Barth said, “Well… as a matter of fact, I do.” And he turned to the man and smiled and said, “I give him a shave every morning.”

And the tourist jumped from the streetcar, ran back to his hotel and told everybody there all about it.  “Oh,” he said, “You’ll never believe who I ran into on the streetcar this morning… It was Karl Barth’s barber!”

You see… this business of not seeing, not recognizing, or not knowing who’s with us happens more than we think…

Geraldine Floyd was one of the members of Christ Church in Clarksburg when we were there. And she and Chester, her husband, went to Westerville, Ohio to visit their little grandchildren and their mother – Chet and Gerry’s daughter, who happens to be married to a minister there. And Geraldine said they had a wonderful time. Got to meet some of the neighbors and people at the church. And everyone was so friendly and warm. And the church, she said, was just filled with kindness and grace.

And after the service, they all sat down for Sunday dinner at the parsonage. And when they were seated, they bowed their heads to pray. And as they did, Gerry said her daughter noticed that her little girl’s hands were not as clean as mothers think they should be. So when the prayer was over, she leaned over and whispered to the child. “Go wash your hands, we don’t want any germs.” And the little girl looked up with a sigh and said, “Germs and Jesus! Germs and Jesus! That’s all you hear around here,” she said, “and I’ve never seen either one of them!”

Luke says, When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

The truth is he vanished that weekend…before the Sabbath began, at a place called Golgotha. The Skull. The trash heap, they called it. The end of death row. A place beyond the walls of the city, where thieves and traitors were affixed to crosses… and then left there to die. That’s when he vanished. Jesus vanished on Friday. While the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, says John [in his Gospel]. And his broken, bleeding body — all that he left behind in this world – was wrapped up and buried in a stone cold tomb. And that’s it. That’s all there was. But at least there was that. There was a body to tend to – and a place to mourn and show their love and respect.

And then even that vanished from their sight…  Sunday morning, when the Sabbath was over, Mary and the others went to the tomb to tend to the body. But when they got there it was gone. Vanished. Nowhere in sight. And even though Mary claimed that he walked and talked with her in the garden that morning, they didn’t see him. He was gone. And so were their hopes and dreams and the answers [they thought] God had given to all of their prayers. It was all gone now – just like Jesus.

So the disciples, the Twelve at least [or eleven, I should say] went back to the house in Jerusalem with the large upper room. And they locked the door – just locked it all out there. But two of the others who’d followed Jesus went home. Back to Emmaus. Seven miles down the road. Though it seemed more like seventy, I’m sure, with all of the grief and disappointment weighing down on them. It was Cleopas and his companion… his wife, maybe, or a dear friend.

And as they plodded along, they talked a bit about what had happened there in Jerusalem, of all places … during the Passover, mind you. And while they were talking, this stranger came along and joined them on their journey. They didn’t know him, mind you. I doubt that they cared. But whoever he was, he asked them why they were so down in the dumps. So they told him.

They told him about Jesus. And what they had done to the man. How he was arrested on the very night of the Passover supper. And how he suffered and died on a cross, of all things. And they even told this stranger how they had hoped that he was the One God had sent to rescue them all and bring in the Kingdom, and help them be the people God wanted them to be. Oh, and they told him about Mary and Joanna and all the others who came running back from the tomb that morning saying, “He’s risen!” And that some angels had come from God to tell them these things. But it was just… they were hysterical, that’s all. Let their emotions get the best of them. Because no one else saw him. How could they? He’s gone. Vanished. Nowhere in sight.

And finally the stranger said, “You don’t get it, do you? Why can’t you believe? The prophets told us it would be this way.” And he just opened the scriptures to them – what we call the Old Testament. The Hebrew bible. And he told them what prophets had said about the Christ. How he would suffer and die and then be raised up.

And by that time, they had come to Emmaus – the end of the journey for Cleopas and his companion. But the stranger was going on to some other place. So they begged him to stop and rest and stay the night with them because it would soon be dark…

There was something about this man. Some people are like that, I think. There’s just something about them that draws you to them. They just seem to warm your heart in some way. You gain something from just being in their company… from hearing their stories, their thoughts and ideas. And that’s how it was with this Stranger, I think. They felt their hearts strangely warmed, as John Wesley would say.

So they asked him to stay. And the traveler accepted their hospitality.

And that evening the three of them sat down together for Sunday dinner – Cleopas, his companion, and their guest. And the strangest thing happened… The guest became the host. And he took the bread in his hands. And he blessed it and broke it and gave it to them – just as Jesus had done so many times. When he ate in the home of Simon the Pharisee, and fed the five thousand, and just as he did a few days earlier when they ate the Passover meal, his Last Supper with them. Just like Jesus…

And all of a sudden their eyes were opened. And they knew that this was no stranger, it was Jesus. It was Jesus, their Lord. He’d been with them all along – even when they were hurting and hopeless, the Lord himself was with them.  They didn’t see him at the time, of course.  But looking back now, they could see that he’d been with them on the journey. That’s why their hearts were so strangely warmed and just burning within them on the road to Emmaus… Jesus was there. Jesus was with them. And they’re eyes were opened there at the table. And they saw him. The risen Messiah. The living God. Jesus. Emmanuel. The Word made flesh.

And then he was gone. Vanished. All over again …. But this time it didn’t matter. It didn’t leave them hurting and hopeless. It didn’t leave them weighed down with sorrow and grief. Because they had seen him. And they knew he was there. He was with them even when, for the life of them, they couldn’t see that. Isn’t that what they learned from their walk to Emmaus? Seen or unseen, Jesus is there. Bidden or unbidden, he is with us.

So they got up and ran to the door. And they didn’t stop till they got to Jerusalem – to the Upper Room where the others were staying. And they were already singing and shouting already, “He’s risen! He’s risen! And Peter has seen him!” And Cleopas and his friend told them what had happened to them on the road to Emmaus, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread.

For When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

I don’t know, I guess there are times when he seems invisible to us. When life gets hard, and things don’t work out, and the road you’re traveling is long and steep, you wonder where he is. Because sometimes you can’t see him, either. Some people, you know, just seem to be happy all the time. Non-stop. Twenty-four seven. Like that annoying pink rabbit that keeps pounding away on his drum. They just don’t stop. As if he’s right there with them all the time.

But people like us – real people, mind you – don’t always see that. We’re like Cleopas and his companion. Jesus can be right there beside us and we don’t have a clue. We think he’s vanished. Act as if he’s dead and gone. Or that he’s so far away that he can’t get here from there… wherever there” is.

If only we could see him. If only we could feel our hearts strangely warmed. If only we could hear his voice on the journey like Cleopas and his friend…

Oh, but remember. Remember. Jesus came to them on that hard, heavy, sorrowful journey… Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And they said, “Oh, didn’t our hearts burn within us… didn’t our hearts burn with fire when he walked with us on the journey.”  And remember. Remember. He walks with you, seen or unseen. Bidden or unbidden, he is with us.

Half a century ago, a bishop from Hungary came to speak to a gathering of church folk – mostly Lutheran –  somewhere in Minneapolis. It was 1957. A little more than fifty years ago. And the bishop from Hungary stood before a packed auditorium and told them a story. It was his story, in fact. For, as a bishop of the Church, he had spoken out against the Communist government – a government that had shut down every school that was connected in any way with the Church. And because he did… well, you know what happened. The bishop was arrested and locked away in prison for nearly two years. And not long after he was released, he was arrested again. And this time he spent more than six years in prison.

He was tall and stately, but quiet and gentle. And the people who heard his story that day said they could hear something in his voice… Something warm and strong and tender…

“They put me in solitary confinement. In a cell that was tiny, maybe six feet by eight,” he said. And there were no windows. And the cell was soundproofed. I couldn’t see or hear anything outside that cell. It was like being buried alive. Sealed up in a tomb, completely broken off from the world.” And he said, “They hoped to break down my resistance by cutting me off – by isolating me from anything I could see or hear or touch. So they put me in that cell that was more like a tomb.”

And he looked into the faces of the crowd. And he said, “They thought I was alone. They thought I would die there. But they were wrong,” he said. “I wasn’t alone. Because the risen Christ was there in that room. And because he was with me, I survived…” And then he stopped. And his eyes filled with tears. And in a trembling voice he said, “No. Forgive me that isn’t right,” he said. “I didn’t survive… I triumphed,” he said. “And so will you.”

He’s right you know… You will not just endure the journey. You will triumph… and sometimes you may even feel your hearts strangely warmed. Because you aren’t alone either. Jesus is with you. Seen or unseen, bidden or unbidden, he is with you.

May the peace of Christ be with you….

My Grandmother’s Gift

This short piece was originally posted in December, 2010.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…”
— John 10:14 (NRSV)

On a wall near her kitchen table were the words my grandmother prayed each morning as she ended her time of quiet communion with God: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want ….” That was the image of Christ she carried in her heart and life — the image of the strong and tender Shepherd who will not lose even one of his sheep. For my grandmother, too, was a goodly shepherd, a curate to the world around her, caring for the lost and broken members of God’s own flock.

As a young boy, I spent a good bit of time with my grandmother, often staying the night with her in the little white frame house she called home. During the day I would work with her in the garden, gathering just enough corn for our supper and a basket of tomatoes for canning. In the evenings I would sit by her side as she read from The Upper Room and the bible she so gently cradled in her hands, as though it were a precious thing, treasured and holy. And from those ancient words that spoke of truth and grace, she would weave stories. And from the stories my grandmother told, God would weave healing and hope.

It happened on a dark and dreary day when I was seven, maybe eight years old. I was sitting alone at her kitchen table imagining that the brown china rabbit I had taken from the shelf was a living thing, a real live rabbit hopping through the forest. The rabbit had been a gift to her from a friend — someone very dear to her heart. On days that were dark and dreary, my grandmother would take the little brown rabbit from the shelf in her kitchen, place it in my hands, and begin to piece together a story. It might be the tale of The Hare and the Tortoise, The Velveteen Rabbit, or a story of her own making about a little brown rabbit that lived in the woods. And always, at the end of the tale, there would be a treat — a small glass of milk, a lemon cookie, and the warm and wonderful feeling of being welcome and wanted in my grandmother’s house.

But on that dark day, when I sat alone with the fragile brown rabbit, I imagined it hopping along — which it did, of course, with the help of my hand. But suddenly it “hopped” too close to the edge of the table and fell. When it landed on the old braided rug beneath the table, it was broken in two. And at that very moment, something inside me was broken, too. Everything was broken. After all, the rabbit had been a gift, something precious and dear to my grandmother’s heart, something that could never be replaced. So I ran. I ran and hid behind the old shed at the far end of the garden, where I was sure I would never be found. I sat there crushed and broken inside, mourning the loss of my grandmother’s love and the trust I had broken along with the rabbit. “No one will ever find me here,” I thought. And after what had just happened, I thought I didn’t deserve to be found.

But as the shepherd seeks the lamb that has strayed, my grandmother sought me. I could hear her footsteps coming closer and closer. As she came around the shed, I braced myself and looked down at the dirt, ready to bear the bitter scolding that surely was coming. I was in tears and trembling silently, because I knew that I was about to hear my own grandmother tell me how terribly disappointed she was in me — how ashamed she was to have such a grandson. She would tell me, surely, that I wasn’t welcome in her house anymore, that she didn’t want me to be her grandson, and never again would I sit at her table or hear her stories or know her love.

Ah, but grandma really was like a shepherd. She was like a goodly shepherd who seeks the one who has gone astray. Instead of scolding, she gathered me up in her arms and gently carried me back to her house and into her kitchen. And there on her kitchen table sat the little brown rabbit, no longer broken but all in one piece, as if it was new. She pointed to the rabbit, put her arms around me, and said, “If I had to, I could probably get along without that rabbit … But I don’t think I could ever do without you.”

That day she gave two lemon cookies and a tall glass of milk. And she told me a story about a little brown rabbit that was broken in two and put back together with a whole lot of love … and a wee bit of glue.

And the truth that Christ has woven in my heart from that experience is at the very heart of all the “I am” sayings of Jesus. It is what our hearts most long to hear: “I am with you. I am with…  you.”

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. — Isaiah 40:11 (NRSV)

An Invitation to Grace

Neither do I condemn you."

Neither do I condemn you.”

Note: These short posts first appeared as an invitation to the community for Sunday worship on the FaceBook page of the Westmoreland United Methodist Church. TPN (Benen) 

Have you ever felt that you are so unworthy, so tainted, so far from being “good enough” that people wouldn’t even like you if they really knew you? Or what about God? Have you ever thought that something you’ve said or done or thought would keep God from accepting you? I think it’s more common than we like to admit. Even people like Isaiah the prophet and Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ own disciples, felt so “soiled” and un-clean that they were ashamed when encountered by God. And yet, the Good News is… you are forgiven!! You are accepted. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but that the world and you and I and everyone in it might be accepted, loved, forgiven and freed from everything (and anything) that would separate us from this amazing God who loves us. This amazing God who loves… You. Really. You are God’s beloved son. You are God’s daughter, the apple of God’s eye. Nothing can ever take God’s love for you away.

 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

And Given a New Name (Luke 13:10-17)

Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and she who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God…”

See what love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God; and so we are. ◊

I was looking at some old pictures the other day. They were buried in a folder somewhere on my computer. It was something Ann had put together a few years ago for my thirty-ninth birthday. Or fortieth. Or… well, that’s not important, is it? It was for my birthday.  And there were pictures. Just some old pictures of things.

Like me, for instance. There were old pictures of me. Most of which were rather embarrassing, mind you. I mean, there was one of me dressed in a clown suit that my mother had made. It was for Halloween, I think. At least, I hope it was. I hope I didn’t just wear it around… to school or to church. And the next year I was a black cat (with a tail and ears that were pink on the inside). So Ann got her hands on a picture of that of course. (Just when you think you’ve finally purged these things from your memory altogether, there they are. They just reappear.) And there was a picture of me in uniform as a Cub Scout. And pictures of my dog and me riding a tractor.

And there were other pictures, too. Pictures from our wedding. Pictures of our parents. And pictures of Patrick and Kristof when they were wee little boys. And there was a picture there of a small, white block church with a big white steeple. It was my very first church. At Salt Rock, West Virginia. Not too far from here as the crow flies, I suppose. I had two churches then, Salt Rock and Mt. Pisgah, which was closer to Barboursville. Sort of. Near Roach, West Virginia. Or “Frog Town” as the locals call it.

It reminds me of a retired pastor who lived nearby.  He was a kind, warm-hearted man who would come and visit us sometimes. And every now and then, when I had to be away, or when I was under the weather or on vacation, I would ask him to come and preach. And sometimes, on Sunday evenings, I would just ask him to come and speak to us. Because I liked to hear him, too.

He was a wonderful pastor. His name was Paul Houston. Maybe some of you knew him. A kind, humble, easy-going fellow he was. But there was a problem. This is terrible. I’m embarrassed to say it. But it’s true. I had some sort of mental block when it came to Paul’s name. Because every time I introduced him… and every time I announced that he would be there, I called him by the wrong name. Not completely wrong, mind you. That would have been better. It was just half wrong, which was worse. Because every time, I would say, “It’s a joy to have Sam Houston with us tonight.” Sam Houston. Every time.

And Paul was kind. He never said a word about it. But some of the men in the church would start humming “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Or they’d say, “Came all the way from the Alamo, did he?” Four years we were there and I don’t think I ever got his name right when I said it in front of other people. Four years!

It’s a terrible thing to call someone by the wrong name. I’m always scared to death that I will say the wrong name at a wedding… pronounce David and Judy husband and wife when they aren’t even anywhere in sight! While poor Mark and Melissa are just standing there with a blank sort of look on their faces, wondering who on earth the preacher is talking about.

Or what if you commit the wrong person to the ground? Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust? Or baptize the wrong baby? Or the right baby with the wrong name? The parents aren’t going to be happy. “How could you possibly think we would name our little girl Marsha MALLOW?” These are the things preachers dream about.

There was a young preacher, I don’t remember his name either, but he was always having problems like that in the pulpit. Always getting things mixed up. Saying the wrong words. Reading the wrong scriptures. And the church insisted that he wear a wireless microphone so they could hear him when he moved around … to receive the offering or speak to the children. So they fixed him up with a little wireless mic. And they showed him how to turn it off (if he needed to) and how to turn it back on.

The first Sunday he had the thing on, he forgot to turn it off during the offering… while the ushers were going from pew to pew. And the organist in that church was nearly a hundred, I think. And there were some days when she could see better than other days. Which she didn’t mind so much because she couldn’t hear all that well, anyway. So, on those “other” days the offertory would sound a bit like a cat walking across the keyboard.

And that morning was one of those mornings. And all of a sudden, over the speakers, the congregation heard the voice of their young pastor calling on the name of the Lord. People tried not to laugh. But he did it again. And that was it. They had to sing an extra hymn just to settle them down. And after the service, mind you, he tried to explain that he was “just thinking out loud about the offertory prayer.”

He had a guest preacher one morning. The assistant to the Bishop in that conference. His name was Marcus Belleau. And he had asked Rev. Belleau if he would offer the pastoral prayer that morning. So, the young preacher stood up. And he said, “Good morning everybody. Reverend Pray will now Belleau (Bellow).”

It’s a horrible thing to call someone by the wrong name. It’s embarrassing, really. You’re afraid it will make them think you don’t care. You don’t respect them, or value them, or even know who they are. And nobody wants that. Would you want that?

But sometimes, some times, people do have the wrong name. A name that doesn’t fit. A name they’ve been given by someone who doesn’t care. Or by someone who doesn’t love them. Or value them. Or even respect them. A name that doesn’t really speak the truth about them. And it needs to be changed. Like Abram and Sarai (suh-RYE) or Jacob their grandson who was later called Israel. Or Paul’s friend Barnabas [the name means “Son of Encouragement”], whose real name was Joseph. Because it makes a difference, you know, what people call you.  And sometimes what they call you just doesn’t fit.

A preacher named Bobby McClain said something like that. He’s was a teacher at Wesley Theological School in Washington, DC, for 33 years. He used to tell a story about a man he met in Korea who was a tailor. And he made beautiful clothing. He was a South Korean, he said.  And his name was Smitty. Smitty Lee. And Dr. McClain thought it was odd — to find a Korean in Korea with a name like Smitty. It just isn’t what you’d expect in that part of the world. So he asked him how he got the name Smitty. Bobby thought that maybe his grandfather was American or something. But it turns out there weren’t any Americans in his family tree. He was one-hundred percent Korean, he said.

But he told Bobby a story about something that happened when he was a boy — back in the days when they were at war. His village was attacked. And he would have been killed, he said, had it not been for an American soldier from Richmond, Virginia named Smitty Ransom. And he went on to tell Dr. McClain about a custom they have in that part of the world. And he summed it up for him in just a few words. He said, “He saved my life. I took his name.” X

It’s what happens, I think, when you come to know Jesus. He saves your life. And you take his name, a name that tells others the truth about who you are, that you are “given of God” — a gift, a blessing, one who is called to be a blessing to others.

That’s what it says in the Book of Hosea. It says, Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and she who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God.

That’s what this story in Luke is about. It’s about a woman who is rescued one day by a man named Jesus. And when it’s all said and done she has a new name. A good name, the right name – one that speaks the truth about who she is.

It was the Sabbath, says Luke, “the Lord’s Day”, we call it, a day of worship and rest. So Jesus went to worship that day at the local synagogue. In fact, he was the guest speaker, the guest rabbi, that morning. And there was a woman in the congregation that day who’d been crippled for eighteen years.

And that’s what they called her. They called her “the bent woman.” She had another name, I’m sure, but nobody knew it. To them she was just the bent woman. The “stooped’ woman it says in some translations. That’s what they called her. It’s how they thought of her.

But when Jesus saw her that morning, he called her forward. A woman! Right there in the synagogue! And he put his hands on her and said, “Woman, you’re free. You’re free from this ailment.” And the bent woman stood up. For the first time in eighteen years she stood up straight. And she gave thanks to God. Which is a wonderful thing whenever it happens! But to be in the Lord’s house, on the Lord’s Day, with the Lord’s people… It’s just perfect! Couldn’t be any better!

And yet, people there were upset and offended and all bent out of shape, themselves, that this man would do such a thing on the Sabbath! XI think… maybe they were jealous. Especially the leaders — the rabbis and teachers — because Jesus was just a carpenter, they thought, a blue-collar type from some little village. And they were professionals, mind you, seminary trained!

So the leader of the synagogue turned to the crowd and said, “This is the Sabbath. This is the Lord’s Day. If you want to be healed come back on a work day – a Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday evening. But not on the Sabbath! You’re not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath!

And that’s when it happened. Jesus said, Every Sabbath you untie your oxes and donkeys and lead them to water so they can drink. And if you can do that for them, then shouldn’t this woman, who’s a Daughter of Abraham, be set free on the Sabbath, as well?” X

Did you hear it? He called her a Daughter of Abraham. Not the bent woman. Not the stooped woman. Not “this poor, pitiful creature whose life isn’t worth living.” Jesus called her a Daughter of Abraham – Abraham, mind you, the “Great Grandfather” of Israel. The one to whom the Promise was given – the wonderful promise that his descendants would be a blessing to others. That’s who she is, said Jesus. She’s a Daughter of Abraham, a blessing she is, a gift of God – someone to be honored and treasured and loved.

She was already standing, of course. But when Jesus said that… You can almost see it can’t you? Something standing inside her. Something bent being straightened. Something crippled made whole. Something broken put right. Because Jesus had given her a new name. A name that fit.

That’s what it says in the Book of Hosea. It says, Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and she who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God.

What’s so amazing about this story in Luke is that we’re all a part of it. Because… here it is the Lord’s Day, all over again. And we’re here in the Lord’s house, with the Lord’s people all around us. And he is here with us. Oh, and he means to rename us — each of us, all of us – with a name that fits, a name that tells the truth about who we are. Because, for too long now, the world we live in has been calling you all the wrong names. And you know them all too well. Because you hear them, too. The world names you too old, or too young. That’s who you really are it says. Or maybe it tells you you’re not important or you don’t really matter, you’re broken and bent and less than you should be.

Oh, but Jesus means to rename you. He means to give you a new name – a name that fits. A good name. The right name. Because you’re a daughter of Abraham, too. And you are his son. And the truth – the gospel truth, mind you, is that you are somebody to be honored and treasured and loved. Because you are God’s child, his beloved, he calls you. And if that’s what God calls you, then that’s who you are.

Oh, see what love the Father gives us that we should be called the children of God… and so we are.

Fred Craddock lives in Georgia now, but he grew up in Tennessee. And he loves it. Still. Especially the Smoky Mountains around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. So he and Nettie, his dear wife, often go there on vacation. And not too far from Gatlinburg (near a little place called Cosby, Tennessee) is one of their favorite restaurants. It’s called the Black Bear Inn. And a few years ago, they were there for dinner. And just as they started eating their meal, an elderly man walked up to their table and said, “Good Evening.”

“Good evening to you,” said Fred. The man said, “You on vacation?” And Fred said, “Yes.” But under his breath he was saying, “It’s really none of your business.”

“Where you from?” said the old man. Fred said, “Georgia. I’m from Georgia.”

“Well what do you do there in Georgia?”

And Fred wanted to say, “Leave us alone. We’re on vacation, and we don’t know who you are.” But what came out was, “I’m a minister.”

“Oh, what church?” said the old man. “Christian Church,” Fred answered. And the man paused for a moment. And then he said, “I owe a great deal to a minister of the Christian Church.” And he pulled out a chair and sat down at their table. And Fred said, “Yes, have a seat.” Even tried to make it sound like he meant it, he said. But he didn’t. He had no idea who this guy was or what he wanted.

And the old man said, “I grew up in these mountains. My mother wasn’t married and the whole community knew it. I was what they called an illegitimate child. And in those days that was a shame, and I was ashamed. People shunned my mother and said terrible things about her. And all of that fell on me, too.” And he said, “When I’d go into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who was my father. And at school the children said ugly things to me, so I stayed to myself at recess, and I ate my lunch alone.”

“And when I was eleven or twelve,” he said, “I started going to a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. It had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face and a heavy beard and a deep voice. And I went to hear him preach. I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. But I was afraid I wasn’t welcome there because I was a … well, I was illegitimate. Didn’t even know who my father was. So I’d go just in time for the sermon, and when it was over I’d move out because I was afraid someone would say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in a church?’”

And he said, “One Sunday some people lined up in the aisle before I could get out, and I was stopped. And before I could make my way through the crowd, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a big, heavy hand.” And he said, “It was that preacher. I turned my head and caught a glimpse of his beard and his chin, and I knew who it was.

I was trembling in fear. And he turned his face around so he could see mine. And he stared at me for a bit. And I knew what he was doing. He was going to make a guess as to whom my father was. And a moment later he said, “Well, boy, you’re a child of …” And he paused there. And I knew it was coming,” he said. I knew I would have my heart crushed and that I’d never go back to that church again… That preacher looked at me and said, “Boy, you’re a child of God, a child of the King. I’d know you anywhere. ‘Cause there’s a striking resemblance, boy.”

“And then,” he said, “he swatted me on the bottom. ‘Now you go and claim your inheritance.’ And he said, “I left that building a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life. When that preacher gave me a new name. When he told me who I am.”

Fred said he was so moved by that story, he had to ask him, “Sir, what is your name?”

He said, “Ben Hooper, Child of God.”

I don’t know what would have happened if that preacher had not been there to say that to that young boy. I only know what happened after that… Ben Hooper was twice elected governor of Tennessee. And he made a world of difference in the lives of the people around him.

It’s your name, too, you know… It’s who you really are. You… are God’s own beloved child.

See… Oh, see what love the Father gives us that we should be called the children of God. And so we are.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

Benen

Longing for Home

Humblepastor's Blog

I wrote these words a few years ago while on silent retreat at Saint Meinrad.

Times of silence, prayer, and holy listening seem few and far between. There is deep within my soul, in my heart of hearts, a hunger for silent communion with God. It is a desire to be known, to be held, to be wholly accepted by God as I imagine a loving grandfather would adore and even delight in a beloved grandchild.

I never knew either of my grandfathers. And yet, I have (since childhood I suppose) held an image of “grandfather” as one who is strong, tender, loving and wise. He is someone who has learned gentleness and peace even though he has known hardship and experienced sorrow. He is one who delights in each grandchild, somehow enabling each one to feel and to think that they are “grandpa’s favorite.” Grandfather’s love is something they…

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