Monday, May 10, 2010

A Change of Itinerary

A Change of Itinerary
Sixth Sunday of Easter C
Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9
St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church
May 9, 2010

One of my favorite activities is the planning of a family vacation. Mind you, these days we don’t take them as often as we used to when the girls were younger and lived at home with us. In those days, when time was short and money was tighter, making sure we got maximum “bang for the buck” was absolutely essential. So, for instance, when we flew to Seattle in the summer of 2000, I figured that since we were going so far west we needed to take in as much as possible. So it was that I meticulously put together a ten-day adventure that took us not just to Seattle, but to Portland, Vancouver, Victoria, via the Columbia River, various and sundry ferries, a jaunt into the British Columbia wilderness and even the more arid eastern part of Washington. In order to accomplish this, every minute had to be scheduled, every penny accounted for, and reservations secured well ahead of time.

My family somehow put up with my anal-retentive approach to discovering vacation bliss but they have never let me forget how exhausting it all was. I doubt that I would have remained as cool and collected as the Apostle Paul in Acts 16 who wound up in Philippi only because he had been forbidden entry into Bithynia. In fact, the story as it is told in the verses just preceding today’s opening lesson is one of doors slammed shut and continual frustration for the apostle to the Gentiles. Having just come away from the infamous Apostolic Council in Jerusalem where he had received official permission to continue his ministry to Gentiles, he found himself losing his traveling companion, Barnabas, in a tiff over the head-strong Timothy and then confronted with continuing issues whenever he tried to follow his prescribed itinerary. Finally, according to the text, he has this rather strange dream of a man from Macedonia who asks for help. From this point on, Paul’s willingness to change his itinerary will not only make a difference in his ministry but will impact, I would like to suggest, all of Christian history.

First, Paul crosses the Aegean from Troas to the island of Samothrace, to the port city of Neapolis, to the Roman colony at Philippi. Though this may not seem much different from many of Paul’s other travel narratives, we should note that this marks the point at which the gospel officially moves from Asia to Europe. Grammatically, this shift is all too apparent in the text as we move from third-person to first-person narrative, but historically the shift is even more important. In short, without this hop-skip-and-a-jump, those of us who are descendants of European immigrants might very well not even be Christians today.

Second, there is a curious shift in missiological strategy in our passage that often goes unnoticed by preachers. Up until this time, Paul’s approach has been to go looking for the synagogue on the Sabbath as a springboard for Christian evangelism. But, remember, that the narrative suggests that he is coming fresh from the Apostolic Council back in Jerusalem where, with a few provisional agreements, he has been “released for denominational service” outside of the Jewish community. So, whether it is the fact that Philippi simply doesn’t have a synagogue or because Paul is intentionally changing his approach, on this particular Sabbath the text says, “we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer,” (Acts 16:13). In all the previous accounts of Paul’s ministry he has gone to the sunagoge, but this day he finds himself at the proseuke. Instead of joining his brother Jews in a house of worship, he finds himself perhaps out in the open air “outside the city gates.” Now, later in the sermon I want to come back to this description of ministry near the city gate, but for now it is important that we simply be aware that there is this second “sea change” afoot as he not only moves outside of his planned itinerary in Asia Minor into Europe, but moves, as well, from the synagogue to a place of gathering near the entrance to the city of Philippi.

And this then leads us to a third interesting shift. Had he gone to a synagogue, he would have been seated, no doubt, on the “male side” with a bunch of bearded guys who smelled of testosterone. But, here in Philippi, he must do the unthinkable as a Jewish man and begin a conversation with a group of women. In an article written almost forty years ago now in the British periodical, The Expository Times, Derek Thomas suggested that this initial contact with Lydia “points to a new status for women, a new estimate of the value and place of woman in the purpose of God,” (“The Place of Women in the Church at Philippi,” 118). While I think that perhaps the Rev. Thomas waxes a bit overly hyperbolic here, it is the case that women played a key role in the leadership of the early church as is made clear by the numerous references throughout the Pauline literature.

But women seemed to have been absolutely front and center in the church in Philippi. In fact two of them, Euodia and Syntyche, seemed to have undergone something of a falling out that spilled over into the larger church body. While Paul never discloses the nature of their disagreement, that he includes a personal appeal in a letter sent to the entire church suggests that this went beyond a mere difference of opinion. In fact, the majority of scholars believe that this may well suggest that these two women were openly expressing their views in the church and because they were probably in positions of leadership it may have had a deleterious effect on the larger congregation.

Now, all of this is well and good, providing interesting little insights into our opening text, but what of the larger context in which we find ourselves on this Sixth Sunday of Easter as we prepare for the Ascension of Christ in a few days and the celebration of Pentecost, or Whitsunday, which is yet to follow? I would like to suggest that the travel itinerary from the book of the Acts of the Apostles is something of a miniature of the radical healing or therapeusis which lies behind all of today’s readings. For, if you look closely at the texts which follow from both the Revelation of the Elder John and the narrative with which we are provided in John’s gospel, we are confronted with pictures of healing and redemption—both of which take place near the city gates.

In the case of the former, it is a vision of great hope. But much of the imagery we get in the Bible is quite pastoral—that is, we are used to hearing of green swards, rustic shepherds, and the clean smell of the great outdoors. But this vision, this dream, which captures the imagination is set in a city. And the curious thing is that normally one would look for an element of health and redemption in the precincts of the synagogue, or temple. But notice what the writer says: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb,” (Rev. 21:22). And, then, just a few short verses later we hear of this great heavenly city, that “its gates will never be shut by day,” (Rev. 21:25). This is a place of vast hospitality where fear is not the order of the day but openness which involves vulnerability to all that many might consider “diseased”—since disease is what is classically defined as that which comes from outside and infects the body.

And then in the latter gospel lesson, we find Jesus heading into this very earthly city on the first of several journeys at holiday time. In this respect, John’s gospel is quite different from the other three Synoptic Gospels. For in them, Jesus only goes once to Jerusalem and that is to die. But in this gospel, Jesus is seen striding into the holy city on several different festive occasions. And this time, we are told he finds himself at the Sheep Gate near the pool of Bethesda—an area which many of our students know has recently undergone archaeological preservation. Here, we encounter a diseased man—one of many invalids afflicted with blindness, lameness, or paralysis. As on many occasions, Jesus brings healing to one considered ritually unclean. But what is fascinating about this story is the note on which it ends—a line which we might easily overlook. The gospel writer says simply, “Now that day was a Sabbath,” (John 5:9). Again, the gospel challenges traditional ways of thinking about boundaries between sacred and secular. Just as the gospel has come to the pagan culture of Philippi and to a gender considered second-class, or just as the gates have been left open and no temple necessary in the heavenly city, here Jesus is not in the synagogue as one would expect but at the city gates on the Sabbath healing one who would have been considered ritually unclean. What are we to make of all of this boundary-crossing in three different narratives?

At the heart of the Easter season there stands this curious element of surprise—from Mary waiting outside the tomb, to the disciples on the Emmaus road, to Jesus showing up for a fish breakfast with the disciples. For those of us old enough to remember his voice, in the words of Private Gomer Pyle, the message of Easter is, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!” And yet, every year we fail to be surprised by the return of spring, by the next bend in the road, or by the sheer wonder of the sacraments discovered in the mundane as my new friend, Dean Nelson, points out in his book, God Hides in Plain Sight. And, we bring that same failure to pay attention to these familiar texts of scripture so often that we forget that the element of surprise is at the very heart of inductive Bible study.

Perhaps what we need is a change of itinerary—something like that which the apostle Paul experienced in today’s text. But this begins, not by seeing the difficulties in life as God not paying attention to us, but by seeing such times as opportunities to be confronted by a new way of seeing our world and taking a road we had perhaps never thought of before. Like those living in the first century, we may have become accustomed to looking for God in only certain places or in only certain ways. But perhaps God wants to take us out of the church building to the city gates or even, heaven forbid, open the very gates of the city to those whom we have marginalized. What might that look like? Where might such a thing happen?

I want to tell you about a couple of alums from our department who have forced me to rethink my itinerary. Because some of what I want to share is somewhat sensitive, I have chosen not to reveal their real names lest it be embarrassing to them. So, for the sake of today’s narrative I’ll simply call them Moe, Larry, and Curly. These three guys all came to our department a number of years back and were somewhat nondescript. They were, like many of my students, fun-loving, somewhat carefree guys. They had their passions—most of which, I came to believe, were outside the classroom, though their love for Jesus was apparent to anyone who knew them. They enjoyed sparring with Dr. McPeak and myself, but I have to confess, I wasn’t sure if any them would make a big impact on the world because they were “C-level” students who sat in the middle or at the back of the class and didn’t seem to get fired up about spending the evening reading in the library the way I do.

Over the years we have remained in casual contact. And they each have gone their separate ways, all of them eventually getting married. So, I was somewhat surprised to hear a few years ago that two of them had come together to plant a church. They were absolutely convinced that this was what God wanted them to do and they were willing to put their lives on the line for this venture of faith. When they came by to tell me about it, I have to admit that I thought they were a little bit crazy. They told me how they wanted this to be a “safe place” for people and an open space situated near the “city gates” where they lived. They didn’t want to invest a bunch of money in an expensive building, they just wanted to find some space they could rent where they could share the gospel narrative and help people discover Jesus in their everyday lives.

And you know what, that is just what they did. Recently I had occasion to see some of the work they put in to make this church happen. In fact, one of the guys who participated in that new church plant is now a student of mine. And when I watched Curly preach, I sat back in awe at how he took a text from one of Paul’s epistles and made it come alive for a group of people who sat on the edge of their chairs. Were these the same guys who stayed up at night playing video games and fell asleep in my class because of my boring lectures? Were these the guys that I had written off as accumulating too much debt without spending enough time in the library? What had happened to my assumptions that these guys would not leave a mark on the world?

To say that I was surprised would be to put it mildly. I had mistakenly plotted out an itinerary for these students and had been trying to send them to ministry amongst a bunch of Jews when they had been called to a place down by the river. I had all of the costs worked out, but these fellows decided to be more like Jesus and not count the cost. So, this morning, as we prepare for the Ascension of our Lord, comes these gentle reminders that the resurrected Jesus is not to be held onto and touched in our houses of worship but to be discovered outside our doors, perhaps even outside our carefully-drawn boundaries. And maybe next time I need to learn to just get into the car and drive wherever the wind might take Darlene and me. (Well, at least I’ll think about it.) But even more importantly, I invite you to join me in seeing God’s purposes for the redemption of all of creation in each and every person and in each and every place. And, in so doing, our hearts may yet be ready to get just a glimpse of what a change in itinerary can do when we celebrate the birthday of the church on Pentecost. It is to this open-ended journey that God invites us this morning.

Monday, May 03, 2010

God Has a Story, Too

“God Has a Story, Too: Do they all Live Happily Ever After?”
Ruth 4:1-17
Greenville College Chapel
May 3, 2010

Some of us are glad we never have to repeat adolescence. For me, the worst part was trying to figure out how to engage in building a relationship with someone of the opposite sex without falling completely on my face. Somehow or the other the toxic mix of teenage hormones produced a combustible effect whenever I tried to figure out how to be sauve and debonair. That is why I depended on my friends, like Mark Skaggs, to help me by participating in what usually turned out to be disastrous amorous adventures.

Mark and I became friends because we were the two male outsiders in the percussion section of the high school band. The only difference was that I was a complete and utter nerd while Mark could at least fake being cool. On the infamous trip to San Antonio in the spring of 1974, while the rest of the drum section was engaged with a strange smelling weed, downing a variety of hard liquor, and testing out a collection of Cuban cigars, we were simply looking to bag a couple of dates back to our room. This, however, didn’t work out so well since the aforementioned remaining members of the percussion section were busy filling the room with a combination of marijuana and cigar smoke laced with the distinct odor of Jim Beam and Johnny Walker.

So it was that we decided to try again when we returned home and my parents granted me the use of our house for a day while they ventured off to some area minister’s conference. The plan was quite simple: pick up of the ladies in question, followed by a bit of romantic music played our favorite rock group, Chicago, while sitting out on the screened-in porch enjoying grilled burgers and franks. The first part of the plan was sure to impress, given the fact that Skaggs owned a gorgeous 1969 Yellow Mustang, complete with oversized enging. That car looked and sounded of brute male testosterone. When we drove down the street beautiful women would come running out of their houses yelling, “I want to ride! I want to ride!” The second part should have been easy as well. Haul over Mark’s oversize speakers and hook them up to my turntable and, then, get the charcoal going on the grill outside.

The problem was, though, that I had never actually been allowed to start a fire on my father’s precious grill—I had only watched him do it. And I knew that anything that demanded mechanical ability or the use of one’s hands usually ended in disaster for me. So, I decided to make sure that the charcoal would light. I emptied the entirety of a bag under the metal grill and soaked it with a portion of a can of gasoline my dad had out in the garage for use on the mower. As I bent low over the grate to apply the match to about ten pounds of blackened charcoal, I remember hearing this incredible “whoosh” all around my head and literally leaping back from the force of the flames. Fortunately, my oversized aviator glasses protected my eyes. But the first thing I noticed was this incredible stench as Mark came running out of the house and threw a towel over my head. My precious locks of hair that usually fell down over my collar had been deeply singed and were still smoking. Worse yet, my eyebrows were pretty much missing. Not being able to see myself as others might, I couldn’t understand why my friend, Mark, was on the ground laughing like a hyena. “Hartley!” he said. “You were on fire, man! And your hair is a mess.”

What were we to do? We had to pick up the women in a few minutes and I looked like something out of a Boris Karloff horror flick. I will always be grateful to my friend, Mark Skaggs, for his attempt to restore me to manhood. He carefully clipped away my singed hair and even tried to replace my eyebrows with my mother’s meagerly collection of women’s cosmetics. He was laughing so hard, though, that when he tried to redraw my eyebrows with a pencil the line went up and down in dark jagged lines. Even his muscle-car Mustang could not salvage our long-awaited rendezvous with the first-chair clarinetist and flautist. They would spend the evening trying hard not to laugh at me or Mark’s version of how I tried to prepare for our “hot date.”

Well, unlike my experience, Ruth’s story ends, not in disaster, but with its exact opposite: complete and total restoration. Having taken the road less traveled and followed Naomi back to her home in Bethlehem, having slogged away in the field day after day, and having risked everything on the threshing floor, at long last her hopes and dreams were coming true. Perhaps challenged by her courage and his lack of it, Boaz had made his way into town the next morning and confronted a nearer kinsman, much as Ruth had bravely challenged him. Though the unnamed man had been enamored of the opportunity to acquire additional property, when he heard that Ruth was part of the deal, he balked. For the first time in the entire story, a man takes charge, receiving the other’s sandal as a physical representation of agreement to the deal. And, before numerous witnesses, we are told, Boaz proclaimed to all his intention to make Ruth his wife.

Some might be tempted at this point, to view the story as setting to rights the true patriarchal nature of society. How odd it must have seemed to the original readers to have these women as the central actors in this historic narrative. But, now, at long last, has emerged a masculine hero on his white horse. Yet, we are surprised that the narrator frames the ending of the story with as much care as its beginning, choosing to focus on Naomi, instead of Boaz. For this is a story of redemption not only for the younger woman, but primarily for the older one. In fact, we are told that, “Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.” To which the women in the neighborhood proclaimed not, “A son has been born to Ruth,” but, “a son has been born to Naomi.” This woman who had once self-proclaimed that she was changing her name to Mara (“bitterness”), has now been redeemed and restored, herself.

But even that does not end this rather strange tale, for the narrator concludes of the child: “They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David,” (4:17). And then we are allowed to overhear in a final text which we did not read this morning, a recounting of the connection between this David and the generations extending back to Perez, the child born to Tamar by her father-in-law, Judah. It is almost as if the writer is seeking to reassert the scandalous nature of the connections that bring together these women who have survived by their wits, relying even on sexual craftiness when necessary. Think of it! Because of the role of tracing one’s genealogy in the ancient world, and particularly in Israel where proof of pure blood was considered essential by some, this “ending” to a tale would have been the ultimate insult. That such a book even made its way into the biblical canon must signal something very important to us.

For the reality is that, though unmentioned, the real power behind the scenes, the real director of this story, is none other than YHWH, the God of Israel, himself. That David, the one whom the Bible describes as “a man after God’s own heart,” could have come from such poor and scandalous circumstances surely says something about the way that God works. Ruth, as important as she is to this story, then, is relegated only to the role of lead actress. The curtain rises and each player comes forward to present herself and to bow, linking hands one with the other. But, then, the line parts in the middle and the actors and actresses step to the side as the unseen and unnamed director is acknowledged because, “God has a story, too.”

And the wonder, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, is that the story doesn’t end there: not even with Ruth, not even with David. For linking the Old and New Testaments together is this hinge we call The Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 1, in which the scandalous lineage is extended both backwards and forwards to include, not only Ruth and Tamar, but Rahab the harlot and Bathsheeba, one of the victims of David’s greatest abuses of power. And, the gospel writer tells us, from these lives, from these stories, God has woven a tapestry beyond belief. For, you see, Ruth’s story and Rahab’s story and Tamar’s story and Bathsheba’s story lead us invariably to another scandalous young couple in another out-of-the-way place in a world that still believes that God should work amongst the rich and the powerful in spectacular ways for all to see. But there, in Matthew 1:16 we are told that God’s story moves not in palaces of kings but in the midst of the everyday mundane life of a poor peasant girl from Nazareth, whose name was Mary. And, like Ruth, she will have to risk everything whenever she chooses to say “yes” to God. But, my friends, her “yes” will have historic consequences for all of human history. For, when Mary chooses to bear the Christ-child, God’s story intersects with our story.

You know, when Wilson Hogue took the reigns of the new Free Methodist College here in Greenville near the end of the nineteenth century, he knew that perhaps his most important faculty appointment would be the person he chose to head up the Religion Department. For that task, he turned to a poor itinerant pastor out west in Oregon who had taught himself Greek and was hungry to further his education. John LaDue packed his wife and everything he owned to head to the Midwest, where he would have to work harder than any man should on starvation wages. In 1894, he made a total of $400--$300 of which came from his full-time teaching post and the rest from pastoral responsibilities to which he was assigned. Within ten years, he had earned an advanced degree from the famed University of Chicago and began to be called, “Rabbi,” by the many students who sat at his feet and came to love him. In 1918, when the Spanish Influenza swept across this nation, John’s wife died caring for their ailing daughter. Brokenhearted, he dove back into his teaching responsibilities in an attempt to assuage his grief. By 1923, he was worn out, so friends, alumni, and students raised enough money to pay for his way to Palestine, to see the Holy Land, during his lone sabbatical. You can read the journal he kept over in the archives situated in the basement of Ruby Dare Library.
LaDue believed in studying history carefully to see how God was at work in and through the church and he knew that our perspective is oftentimes distorted. He wrote of the First World War which was center-stage for the Greenville community and the rest of the nation for much of the second decade of the twentieth century: “What an end it is towards which the purpose of God is moving. This present colossal European contest with all its mighty implications is but a mere local incident in His all embracing cause.” Though he later would return from the Middle East, his health remained in poor condition and by the mid-twenties, it was clear that someone would have to replace Greenville’s first Religion Professor.

That someone proved to be none other than Wilson R. King, a proud alumnus of G.C. who had won honor as a scholar-athlete. King served with distinction during a time of division and fissure in American Religion. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, he sought to steer a course between the twin specters of theological liberalism and fundamentalism which threatened to engulf Protestants in both open and covert warfare. Calling for a radical combination of a critical, inquiring mind, with a warm and compassionate heart, Dr. King inspired a generation of students through the thirties, forties, and fifties of the last century.

Replacing King, the professor committed to inductive Bible study whose curmudgeonly ways had sustained him when under withering theological attack, would require someone like David, after God’s own heart. So, in 1957, back onto campus walked the winsome, young Jim Reinhard, behind whose eyes framed by those large horn-rimmed glasses, beat the heart of a giant. I can’t imagine anyone not loving the one we called “Jimmy”. He poured himself out for his students and developed with his wife, Marilyn, the COR trip that most of you students have taken. While away on his sabbatical pastoring a church in Evanston in the late seventies, he was tempted not to come back to teach. The people there loved the way he cared for and challenged them to follow the gospel. Teaching large classes here was draining, as John LaDue had learned, and Jim knew there would be a price to pay. But come back he did and poured his heart into every class he taught. And many of my younger colleagues like Brad Shaw, Randy Bergen, Karlene Johnson, and Scott Neumann got to sit under his teaching as a result of that painful decision.

But, on Good Friday, 1993, Dean Richard Holeman called to tell me that Dr. Reinhard had suffered another heart attack and to put him back in the classroom in the fall would be impossible. Would I consider coming back after 14 years away? I was mighty comfortable in Toronto. Life was good. My family was happy. We had what I still think is one of the greatest congregations of loving parishioners, representing over thirty different ethnic groups. Six years in Canada and a year in England had allowed me some distance from the narrow American provincialism I had so longed to leave behind. But, to make a long story short, it quickly became clear that the call of my alma mater was the call of God.

And so, I returned. I was scared to death. When I had arrived on campus as a student in the mid-seventies I was something of a caricature later portrayed best by Dana Carvey with his character, “Garth,” complete with the long hair and the drumsticks protruding from my back pocket. Sitting there in 222 Hogue Hall, I felt like an intruder. That, after all, was Dr. Reinhard’s office and there was a hundred years of teaching in the department to try and live up to. Students quickly learned that I was no Jim Reinhard. I wouldn’t think of trying to skate down the aisle in chapel and I was never known to bring balloons or dress up like a clown.

But, as I reminisce a bit here on this beautiful spring morning, I’m reminded that my former teacher and colleague, Dr. Royal Mulholland, has now been retired long enough that most of you have never had one of his classes. And it was Royal who told me about one of his early chapel addresses which incorporated language which some found offensive and even moved some Board members to call for his firing. But I also know that one of Royal’s students, Aaron Cobb, is taking a job this summer as a Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University. And, Aaron got turned on to reading philosophy because of Dr. Mulholland and my former colleague, Dr. Craig Boyd. And, heaven knows, how many other countless alums there are out there because of Royal’s and Craig’s passion for philosophy and the liberal arts. The great Art Holmes, former professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, once said that his goal was to produce a hundred Christian philosophers for the academy and the church and, as a result, his legacy continues on even today. So, I figure if I can just hang in there like Drs. Mulholland and Holmes, something good is bound to happen.

But, in the end, you see, it’s not really about me at all. Because one of these days, even if I stay here for the rest of my career, somebody else is going to inhabit my office and pick up right where I left off and the institution will be better for it. And, I will eventually take my place out there in Montrose Cemetery, a few blocks west of where I currently live. You see, eventually, every professor at Greenville gets a permanent sabbatical and never has to worry about reading a paper ever again. Perhaps I’ll get lucky and someone, maybe you, will occasionally dredge up a story about old Prof. Hartley or maybe my grandson, Tristan, will come back here to try and figure out what attractions this place had for me. I don’t know. But I do know that my story is being carefully interwoven with that of others here, in this place. And when I have a cup of coffee with my friends Joe and Jeff or sit down to discuss literature with Brad or Christina or Lesley, I sense that there is something much bigger at work here than them, or me. Was it simply chance that brought me here or something much greater?

The apostle Paul tells us that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. And I happen to believe that this work of reconciliation will go on, whether I am a part of it or not. But, my friends, what a privilege it is to be a part of this cosmic plan and this grand adventure! It’s a story that reaches back into the very mists of time. It’s a story that reaches its zenith in the events which we have so recently celebrated in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. And, it’s a story that reaches even into the nooks and crannies, the crevices and cracks of a little Midwestern town that fails to register nary a “blip” on the radar of most of the rich and powerful.

So, here we are, headed into the homestretch at the end of another academic year. And I want to encourage you to not be afraid to throw a little gasoline on the academic pyre. Sure it’s risky and sure your hair may catch on fire. But, just like my friend, Mark Skaggs, you’ve got a lot of us in this community who are prepared to douse the over-exuberant flames and to trim the locks of your scorched intellectual head. So, like Ruth, our semester’s heroine and example, commit yourself to the dangerous journey to the threshing floor and the risky business of transformational learning. And don’t worry about the consequences, since God may have something much more exciting in mind than even you can imagine. Because after all: God has a story, too.