In a Foreign Land

church in decline

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 NRSV

I often think of Rev. David Brooks. He was the first pastor who suggested that God may be calling me to be a pastor. I had the opportunity to serve with him as the youth director of a church during the summer of 1986.

I will never forget the day that he called me into his office and shut the door behind me. I thought I was in some kind of trouble. For this was the first time I had ever served on church staff, and I wasn’t too sure I knew what I was doing.

Well, I soon found out that I was in trouble, albeit a different kind of trouble. For he asked me: “Jarrett, have you ever considered that God may be calling you to be a pastor?”

“Me a pastor? No way I will ever be a pastor!” I said.” He then went on to point out the pastoral gifts that he saw in me and to encourage me to prayerfully consider that God may be calling me to pastor a church. Out of respect for him, I told him I would.

Well, five years later, as I was getting ready to graduate from seminary to be a pastor, I was sad to hear that Rev. Brooks had passed away.

I think about him often today. For, as we are studying on Wednesday nights, the church and the culture has changed so much since that day he called me into his office, and I think of how shocked he would be if he could witness what we are experiencing today.

I must confess that I also wonder if he would still believe I possessed the necessary gifts to pastor a church. Because the truth is, although I now have over 30 years of experience serving with churches since that day I was called into his office, I still have moments, especially here in 2019, when I am not too sure I know what I am doing.

In the 1980’s, if a pastor loved the members of their church, if a pastor showed up on Sunday morning with a sermon (it didn’t have to be an awe-inspiring or even a good sermon, just a sermon that was based on scripture and had an appearance that the pastor had put a little work into it), then the church pews on Sunday morning would be full of people to hear the sermon.

Parents with young children came without hesitation, although the only children’s program consisted of a nursery and a simple Sunday School lesson. Young adults even found the music meaningful, that consisted only of a small choir, organ and piano.

Today, the only churches that seem to be full of people are expected to have elaborate children’s centers that rivals some amusement parks, a Chuck-E-Cheese or a Playland at McDonalds. The music must be on par with the music that entertains us at concerts. There’s disappointment if there is an absence of video screens, smoke machines and concert lights. The pastor needs to wow us with their charisma, and just make us feel really, really good.

He also never experienced 9-11 and the rise of religious fundamentalism that came out of it. He never witnessed the election of the first black President, and as a response, the resurgence of the religious right and the rise Christian white nationalism. He never witnessed the anti-Christ spirit that is in our nation today: the greed, the vulgarity, the selfishness, the fear of the other, and the further marginalization of those who are different.  And he never knew that many churches today would support, even seem to worship these anti-Christ sentiments.

And Rev. Brooks died before some people started walking away from the church for good. He knew that many churches in Europe were in delcine, but he never saw it here. He could not ever imagine that an entire generation of young adults would reject the church.

From the vantage point of 1986, it is like we are living in a strange, foreign land, in a completely different world. Churches that were once the insiders of society are now the outsiders. And many of us in churches like ours today are afraid, and we are not too sure if we know what we are doing.

This is exactly where the Israelites find themselves in today’s Hebrew lesson. They have just been exiled into Babylon, finding themselves in a foreign land.           .

It is into this strange and fearful reality, that the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter of hope.

Jeremiah writes that they can find their hope in the willingness and the courage to let go of their past.

Jeremiah insists that the people who have found themselves in a foreign land must surrender its old identity and accept its new situation not only to survive, but to eventually flourish.

He encourages them to begin working towards building a new way of life. They needed to accept that Babylon was where God has planted them and where God wants to work through them.

When Jeremiah says, “Pray to the Lord on their behalf,” the prophet is affirming the truth that God can be found even in this strange and foreign land. God has never left them. God is still working among them and wants to use them to make their new world a more just and peaceful place to live.

Jeremiah wants them to know God is present everywhere, even at the margins, even among the broken, the dejected, the afraid, and the subjugated, in other words, even among outsiders like them.

Jeremiah assures them that they can call on the Lord even without the temple, and the Lord will answer.

Having been conquered, humiliated and deported by military force, the exiles are embittered and vengeful. And Jeremiah writes: “Seek the welfare of the [foreign] land to which God has banished you.” In other words, “Seek the well-being of the land of your enemies. For their well-being is also you well-being. Their peace is also your peace. Pray for their land.”  This is an illustration of the social and political significance of praying for and loving one’s enemies.

Jeremiah encourages them to accept their situation in exile, but not to regard it as hopeless or unchangeable. As he mentions in a later verse, we have the promise from God: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I believe Jeremiah’s letter has much to say to churches in 2019 who find themselves in a foreign land.

Churches today who find themselves living in a foreign land respond respond in several unhealthy ways.

The most popular response is to just give up and walk away, to give in to defeat and scarcity, to succumb to the lie that God is no longer present, no longer working in the land, that God no longer has anything for us to do, that church today is just a waste of time.

Another popular response is to just be in denial about it all and to just ignore it. “Yes, the world may be different, but we really don’t need to do anything differently to live in this new reality. So we just need to keep doing the same things that we have always done.”

Another response is to adopt a defensive, self-protective posture. Paralyzed by fear, having no idea what to do, we retreat into our safe sanctuaries to comfort one another while loathing our enemies, for those we blame for this new reality.

Another response is to join the new culture. “People crave entertainment? We will give it to them. People want to feel good about themselves today? Let’s make that happen. The culture has embraced an “us vs. them” mentality? Our leaders resort to name-calling and bullying and work to further disenfranchise the other? To survive in this new world, we will join them and do the same thing. Everyone around us has forgotten that the greatest of God’s commandments is to love our neighbors as ourselves? Well, we’ll just forget that too. To survive in this new culture, we will simply blend in with the new culture.”

I believe Jeremiah’s prophetic words call churches today to respond in a better way.

The prophet reminds us that God is still here, and God is still working in this world. And God still wants to work through us. And God still has a lot of work for us to do!

And God is specifically pressing us to move away from the private walls of the church and into the world, into the public space, to do what we can to fulfill our calling as people of faith to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly.

And because churches that embrace love, kindness and humility now find themselves living in a world of hate, meanness and greed, because churches that embrace the inclusive, counter-cultural way of Christ, are now the outsiders, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized of society, I believe we are to especially go out and address the needs of others who have been disenfranchised and marginalized, all those who suffer from political, social and cultural insecurity and discrimination.

For one thing that our faith teaches us is that God is always most discernible and most present in the margins. Jesus called his disciples to leave their old lives, their old worlds behind, to drop their nets, to journey out to the fringes of society to experience God in new ways and in new forms.

So, what does God want us to do in this foreign land? What do we do when we are not sure what to do?

We need to first make sure that our theology is not a private theology, but that it is a very public theology. It is one that presses us to pray for the welfare, not for our church, but for our city and nation.

It pushes us to commit to work for shalom, for peace, for well-being, for healing, for wholeness, and for justice, not just for the members of our church who feel like they are now living on the margins of society, but for those who have always lived on the margins, for those who have always felt like outsiders…

…while remembering the great promise of God:  “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Let us pray together

O God, in this strange time and place, help us to be strong and courageous as we share the good news of gospel out to the margins of society. Knowing that you are with us and with you is our hope and our future.

Age to Age: Celebrating Gwen Long’s 100th Birthday

Gwen and George Long

Psalm 71 NRSV

Psalm 71 is a beautiful declaration of an individual’s trust and hope in the faithfulness of God through every stage of their life: birth (v. 6), youth (vv. 5, 17), and old age (vv. 9, 18). Throughout any long life filled with many ups and downs, the Psalmist wants people to know that God can be trusted.

Most scholars believe that Psalm 71 is the declaration of a person in the latter stage of life who is uniquely capable of reflecting on all of life’s stages. Some suggest it could belong to an older David written shortly after Absalom’s revolt, but most believe it was an older member of the Rechabite community that was living in exile. Verse 21 suggests that it could have been a leader of that community offering hope to others during exile.

What a God-given coincidence that one of our lectionary readings for this day is this beautiful Psalm. Because on this day, we celebrate that this community called First Christian Church in Fort Smith has such a leader—someone who comes to us today on her 100thbirthday to offer all of us much hope.

Gwen was born on August 25, 1919 in Antlers, Oklahoma to Hugh and Lillie Vaughn.

Born ten years before the Great Depression, Gwen is probably the only person who is here today who rode a horse to grade school.

Gwen’s childhood was a rather unsettled time as the family lived in various places in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwen’s father would find different work in the new oil industry.

When Gwen graduated from the 8thgrade, her dad said that he could help get her an apartment as she continued her education, but she would need to find work to pay for room and board, which was not an easy thing to in that time.

At first, Gwen got a temporary job helping a woman in Camargo, Oklahoma who was pregnant. Then, she got another temporary job helping a Catholic woman who had several children. This was before Gwen was baptized into the Christian Church, so she recounts: “She must not have been a very good Catholic, because if she was, I suppose I would be a Catholic today.”

During her sophomore year, Gwen worked in a cafe south of Woodward, Oklahoma. But Gwen said that was a difficult experience, because the woman she worked for was an alcoholic and she “didn’t much care for that.”

Frustrated with her job in the cafe, as she was walking home one day, she happened upon a couple sitting in their front yard. They owned a mercantile store in Vici, Oklahoma. When they found out that Gwen was looking for a job, they said to Gwen: “Young lady, we have been praying for God to send us a daughter!”

The couple were leaders in the Christian Church. Gwen not only started working in their store, but she started attending their church, and at the age of 16, Gwen was baptized. Although she could not see it then, looking back she says she knows that it was God’s providential presence led her to that couple. For this is when life took a very promising turn for Gwen.

She soon met a young man who was working at a full-service filling station named Oliver Wendell Beck. After a courtship, the couple was married in 1937. World War II had just started when their son Kenneth was born on January 2, 1940 in Seiling, Oklahoma.

At this time, a new Air Corps Basic Flying School was being constructed in Enid, Oklahoma where Wendell landed a good job. However, not long after the young family moved to Enid, while Wendell was helping to unload gravel from a box car with a piece of heavy equipment, he was accidentally and tragically crushed to death.

Gwen remembers “There I was a widow and a single mother of a two year-old after four short years of marriage. She adds: “I was only 22 and had no sense. There is no way I could have endured that period in my life without God. I know God was with me.”

Gwen miraculously had the determination, the wherewithal and the strength to move back to Vici where she found childcare for Kenneth, worked hard and finished High School graduating as the Valedictorian of her class.

One day, a man from Oklahoma City was driving by the school looking for a secretary. The man saw Gwen and asked her to get in his car so he could dictate a letter for her. When Gwen finished writing the letter, the man read it and hired her on the spot. She then moved to Oklahoma City where she was able buy a house for her and little Kenny

Gwen soon learned of a grand opportunity at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Midwest City. This is where Gwen would become a real-life Rosie the Riveter. Their spirit of “We Can Do It” inspired not only their contemporaries but each subsequent generation of working women in all fields of employment.

More than ten-thousand Oklahoma women worked at the Douglas Aircraft Company and Tinker Field during the Second World War.

And Gwen adds that as a riveter, she made “barrels of money.”

During this period, Gwen received word that one of her good friends who in was living in California went through a painful divorce. Gwen, who had not that long ago lost her husband empathized with her friend’s loss like few others could. To help her distraught friend, she sold her car, and boarded a train with little Kenny and headed west where another riveting job awaited her in California.

Looking back, she knows without a doubt that the presence of God was with her and Kenny on that train.

After comforting her friend in her grief, and perhaps having been comforted herself in her own grief, yet another sign of God’s providential care, Gwen transferred back to the Douglas Plant in Midwest City. When the war was over, she got a job in the cosmetic department at Haliburton in Oklahoma City. It was then that her friend from California moved back to become a beauty operator at Haliburton. Soon after moving back, her friend met a soldier who had just returned from overseas, and the two of them married.

What does this have to do with Gwen?

Well, one of her friend’s customers had a brother who had also just returned from serving overseas in France and Italy. And obviously feeling grateful to Gwen for giving her hope after her divorce in California, she set up a blind date up for Gwen to meet this soldier. His name was George Long.

Gwen said that she was single 9 years after losing Wendell, because she never met anyone she wanted to marry, someone who would be a good daddy to Kenny. She says she supposes Kenny made her picky. George, however, fit the bill. George was college-educated, smart, handsome, an Army Major and a good father.

After marrying, George and Gwen raised Kenny and two had two girls Carolyn and Kathleen.

Gwen remembers that period of her life between marriages vividly. She said most of the time she really didn’t know what she was doing. Moving to Oklahoma City as a secretary and then taking the job at the Douglas plant and then going all the way out to California and then back to Oklahoma. She says, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it.” But looking back, “I know it was God leading me, helping me. I know it was God’s presence.”

George and Gwen had a wonderful life together. Kathleen and Carolyn were both able to go to college, something Gwen was never able to do. And fortunate for First Christian Church, George transferred to Fort Smith as an engineer with OG&E. They joined our church after attending the first service here in this sanctuary. Here, George worked tirelessly on our Property Committee. Gwen sewed the drapes for the baptistery and made the cover for our piano. They both devoted their lives to this church.

During George’s retirement, they had the wonderful opportunity to spend 20 years traveling in RV’s across the country.

After many wonderful years, tragedy struck Gwen’s life once more as her son Kenny was diagnosed with brain cancer. After a 2-3 year-long courageous battle, on September 4, 2006, Kenny died. He was only 66 years old. Your children are supposed to bury you; you are not supposed to bury your children. And to compound the tragedy for Gwen, just three short months later on November 28, George, her beloved husband of 58 years, passed away.

Gwen said that losing her son and husband so close together was devastating, but she knows God was there, and it was God who got her through it.

Life after George has not been easy for Gwen. Although Gwen said George left her well taken care of, she says the only trips that she has been able to take since she turned 90 are trips to the doctor. She says she used to go anywhere she wanted to go, but now, living at Brookdale Assisted Living, “she only goes down to eat at 8, 12, and 5.”

She says she doesn’t know what she would do without Carolyn and Kathleen and calls them both gifts from God. “God has been so good to me, my whole life long,” she says.

And today, on her 100thbirthday, her very presence with us is a declaration of God’s faithfulness that offers us so much hope, hope that only someone who has experienced God’s protection and deliverance throughout a life-time can give us.

Her sense of humor, her smile, her laugh, her honesty (which sometimes can be brutal), the way she is still so very much engaged in the life of this community fills us with so much hope.

She gives us hope that although we experience many hardships in life (death, divorce, disease, in a thousand different ways we experience them), those hardships are never lasting. However, the faithfulness of God is lasting, from age to age.

Like the Psalmist, perhaps the eldest leader of the Rechabite Community, Gwen, our eldest leader gives all of us hope, for…
1 In God, Gwen has taken refuge;
and she has never been put to shame.
2 In God’s righteousness God has delivered Gwen, rescued Gwen; inclined God’s ear to Gwen and is to Gwen a rock of refuge, a strong fortress.

5 For the Lord is her hope,
her trust, from her youth.
6 Upon God she has leaned from her birth;

And today, she praises God continually.
8 Her mouth is filled with God’s praise,
and glory all day long.
9 The Lord will never cast her off in the time of old age;
or ever forsake her when her strength is spent.
12 God has never and will never be far from her.
God will always make haste to help her!
14 Thus, she hopes continually,
and will praise God yet more and more.
15 Her mouth will tell of God’s righteous acts,
of God’s deeds of salvation all day long,
though their number is past her knowledge.

17 From her youth God has taught Gwen,
and she still proclaims God’s wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and grey hairs,
God will not forsake her, and today on her 100thbirthday, she comes into to the house of God to proclaim God’s might
to all the generations to come.

20 The Lord has revived her from many troubles and calamities
and she knows that
even from the depths of the earth
God will bring her up again.

And the good news is that God’s faithfulness that Gwen has experienced throughout her life is for all people. As Gwen has trusted in God’s faithfulness, so can we. The good news is that Gwen’s story of trusting in God’s providential care from age to age is not the only story in this room.

So today, as a community of faith, we join hands with Gwen to praise God. Our lips shout for joy. For, with Gwen, our souls have also been rescued!

Thanks be to God!

Steady Until Sunset: Remembering Larry Gene Vaughn

Larry Vaughn

In the 17thchapter of the Book of Exodus we read the amazing story of how the Israelites defeated of their enemy, the Amaleks. The Amaleks were a group of nomads who attacked the Hebrews in the desert of Mount Sinai during the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The Amaleks swooped in on the Israelites and cowardly killed those who were lagging behind.

For that is what the enemies of life do. For some the enemy is cancer. For some it is diabetes, renal failure and heart disease.

And when the enemies of this life attack us, we are faced with a choice. We can surrender to our enemies; we can succumb to their attacks; we can bemoan or whine, or we can stand our ground and fight.

Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some men for us and go out; and fight with Amalek.’

This week, I have heard more than one person say that they had no idea Larry had the health issues that he had or that Larry must have had more health problems than he let on.

Because Larry was always so positive. Always upbeat, steady. Although he spent five hours a day, three days a week in a dialysis unit, he never complained.

He knew he had an amazing life. He was grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time in over 40 countries through the Oil and Gas industry, to learn different customs and to appreciate different traditions. I love listening to his stories, especially the way he would describe the beauty of wildlife in different parts of the world and the food he enjoyed while traveling. Always remaining true to his positive spirit, every steak he ate was the best piece of beef, and every deer he saw was a monster.

Many men in Larry’s health surrender and succumb to such illnesses. They lose strength within to fight, to continue living, to continue working. They can reach down and dig deep; however, there is just nothing left. No amount of digging will see them through.

However, men with faith in the God of Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Joshua, men with faith in the God, understand that true strength does not come from within, but comes from and by the grace of God.

Moses said to Joshua:

Choose an army and fight. I, myself, retired a long time ago from fighting. I am too old, too tired, but I will stand on the top of a hill and raise the staff of God with my hands and summon the grace and strength of God to defeat our enemy.

So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of a hill. 

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Moses noticed that Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, he noticed that Amalek prevailed. [This was a certain sign that it was God, and God alone, who was giving the Israelites the grace, perseverance and strength to defeat their enemy].

I don’t believe can be no other explanation for the optimism and positive spirit of Larry Vaughn considering his poor health. It was more than some inborn competitive sprit or personal determination, drive or grit. It was something divine.

Larry simply never quit. He kept persevering. He kept fighting. He wanted to do whatever he could to keep to keep living, to keep working, to keep hunting, to keep being there for his family and friends. “Oh, to do that, I need to have a triple bypass and possibly a valve replacement to be on the kidney donor list. Ok, sign me up!”

Many studies have been made to identify symptoms of depression or the giving up on life. People who give up and surrender to the enemies of life become detached and disengaged from the world around them. They no longer care what their neighbors are up to. They begin to ignore their children and their grandchildren. They stop communicating with their spouse, and most certainly with their ex-spouse. They become disinterested in their church.  And they stop paying attention to the news and to sports.

Although dialysis took a toll on Larry, he possessed any of these symptoms. Larry enjoyed his evenings with Elizabeth, watching the news, the wheel of fortune and a movie. He was forever selflessly doing things for his Jason and Jordon, always finding time to do things with and for Grayson. Through thick and thin, he never missed a day without checking in with them. Just as he did throughout his life, no matter where he was.

He was not only interested in his church, attending every Sunday, but he was even interested in his pastor. He kept up with my work with persons with special needs through Ainsley’s Angels on facebook. He became especially concerned about me when he discovered that I had not been hunting since 1993. So concerned, that he scheduled us a dove hunting adventure for the first of September.

He cared about what was going on in the world, and he was in no way, shape or form disengaged from sports. He continued to follow his alma mater Arkansas Tech in sports and loved watching Razorback game.

It was obvious to everyone that knew Larry, that he never gave up. For as Isaiah 40:29 reads, Larry was a living testimony that “God gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might God increases power.” And in the 73rdPsalm we read: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Larry Vaughn was a living example to all of this great truth.

That’s why so many of us were left scratching our heads when we learned of his passing. We simply had no idea that he was so sick.

Our story continues in Exodus:

But Moses’ hands grew weary; so Aaron and Hur took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur held up the hands of Moses, Aaron on one side and Hur on the other, and the hands of Moses were steady until the sun set.

God has always used others to do God’s work in this world. God calls each of us to minister to one another. God uses us to supply God’s strength to those who are weak, to keep them steady, to help them fight the good fight, to finish the race. Such was the case in this victory of Amalek. Moses did not possess the strength to keep his hands raised through the duration of the battle, so God sent him Aaron and Hur who brought him a rock to sit upon and then held up each of his hands.

God also sent Larry others to give him support when he was the most weary.

Last week, when Larry needed support, God sent him good friends, Dr. Dana Rabideau and Wayne Wright who who traveled great distances to be with him. They were so faithful to him. And of course, his twin brother Jerry, who had been a part of Larry his entire life, was there with Susie letting Larry know that he was loved. As was his companion Elizabeth. Divorced, but still together, until death parted them.

Larry and Jerry love to tell stories about them fighting and whipping one another. Jerry talks about beating him up during the day and Larry sucker punching him while he slept at night. Jerry talks about one incidence when Larry stabed him in the leg with a knife during a competitive game of Mumble Peg. Jordon remembers the two of them wrestling, trying to get the best of each other, in the White River. But more often than they were horsing around and competing with one another, they were supporting one another. They were loving one another. And in the end, Jerry, you were there for him.

You could say that you brought your brother Larry a rock to St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa to steady his hands until the sun set. And together with Elizabeth, Dana and Wayne, you were to Larry like Aaron and Hur were to Moses.

And the hands of Moses were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his army.

And the good news for us today is, that this same God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Moses and Joshua, the God revealed in the Risen Christ and in the life of Larry Vaughn, will give us strength in our grief, joy in our suffering and grace in our lives. God will send others: friends and family and church members to hold our hands, to keep them steady, until the sun sets, until the battle is won.

But the really good news is that the final battle, the battle with life’s final enemy has already been won. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?”

The good news for all of us today is that as God has stood by Larry and gave him strength to battle the enemies of life, through our resurrected Lord, God has defeated death, and Larry is now and forever with his Lord.

May this good news help us now to live our lives as Larry lived his: Persevering with the strength of God, receiving help from friends and family who provide us a rock, living with the steady purpose of sharing the joy and the hope of the Lord with all people, until the sun sets here and rises forever in eternity. Amen.

For Easter to Happen, Somebody Needed to Pick Up and Carry a Cross

oklahoma city bombing firefighter baby

Luke 24:1-12 NRSV

It is Easter Sunday! Resurrection morning has dawned. New life is being born! Something wonderful has been lost, but something magnificent is being gained.

However, on this Sunday of Sundays, I believe it is important for us to realize that before we can experience new life, before we can celebrate resurrection, before we can sing alleluias, before love can win, somebody needed to pick up and carry a cross.

And the sad thing is that there are very few of Jesus’ disciples who understand this. They do not understand it today, and they did not understand it 2,000 years ago.

Although Jesus continually taught that to gain our lives, we must be willing to lose our lives, that Easter could not happen without some self-denial, that resurrection could not come without some self-expenditure, that new life could not be born without some sacrifice, that love could not be won without some suffering, that the the light of Sunday morning could not  dawn without the darkness of Good Friday, when the time came for the disciples to follow Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross, most all of them very selfishly fled to save their lives.

One would betray Jesus. Another would deny that he even knew Jesus. Nearly all would desert him. In spite of Jesus’ continual call to pick up a cross and follow him, most of the disciples never got it.

However, there were a few disciples who did get it. There were a few who were willing to carry a cross. There were a few who chose to live selflessly and to love sacrificially. There were a few who faithfully followed Jesus all the way to Golgotha.

Although the intrinsic sexism of this world’s history has caused many in the church to overlook these faithful disciples, the good news is that all four Gospel writers did not.

In Luke 8 we read these words: Afterward [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women…Mary, called Magdalene… Joanna…Susanna, and many others…” These women helped support Jesus and the twelve “out of their own means.”

And on Good Friday, when none of the male disciples could be found, Mark 15 reads: “There were also some women looking on…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, Joses, and Salome.

In Matthew 27 we read: “Among them [gathered at the foot of the cross] was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

In John 19:25 we read where all the male disciples fled: “But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

There are many problems with Christianity today. However, I believe one of the biggest problems with our faith today, especially here in North America, is that we have too few Mary Magdalenes.

There are too few people who understand that authentic faith, true discipleship, always involves a cross. It always involves answering a call, taking a risk, denying oneself, going against the status quo, pushing the boundaries, stepping way outside one’s comfort zone.

A problem with the church today is there are too many Christians who believe they can sing “alleluias” on Easter Sunday without going through some suffering on Good Friday, who believe they can experience some new life without death to self, who believe they can somehow rise up from the waters of baptism without getting their hair wet, who believe they can serve Jesus without getting their hands dirty.

What this world desperately needs needs right now, and what the church needs more than anything today, are more disciples like Mary Magdalene. For Mary Magdalene understood that when Jesus called people to be his disciples, Jesus was always clear that there would be a cross involved.

I think this is the reason that Mary Magdalene is remembered today by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is the reason she is mentioned by name by the gospel writers more than any other apostle. And this is the reason that today, on this Easter Sunday morning, Christians all over the world will hear her name mentioned as they gather to worship.

Some will hear her name as Mark 15 is read: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where Jesus was laid.”

Some will hear her name as Matthew 28 is read: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.”

Some will hear it as Mark 16 is read: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.”

And others will hear it as John 20 is read: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.”

Just as Mary Magdalene had given what she had to support Jesus’ life, Mary was still doing all she could for Jesus in death.

And because she always selflessly pouring herself out, because she kept giving, kept sacrificing, kept risking, serving, bending, expending, anointing, because she was the most faithful of all of the disciples, because she not only sacrificially followed Jesus all the way to the cross, but courageously followed him all the way to the grave, because she followed him to the very end, she was the first person on earth to see the risen Lord.

Mark 16:9 reads: “Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene…”

And in John 20:18 we read where it was Mary Magdalene who first proclaimed the good news of Easter, speaking five simple words that changed the world forever: “Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’”  Not only was she the first person to see the Lord, she was the first person to proclaim the world-changing, earth-shaking, life-saving good news of Easter to the world!

Mary Magdalene was the very first to preach the glorious good news of resurrection on Easter Sunday, because she stayed with Jesus until the very last in his suffering and death of Good Friday. Easter happened for Mary because she had answered a call to follow Jesus, and she followed Jesus all the way.

Observing Good Friday this year was a surreal experience for many Americans, as it fell on April 19, the day of the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.

The story of one survivor, Terri Talley, exemplifies the suffering experienced by our nation, as well as how new life was raised out of the ashes through those who were willing to pick up and carry a cross.

Employed by the Federal Employee’s Credit Union on the third floor of the Murrah Federal Building, that morning was extremely busy for Terri. She had just returned to work after spending several days away, and a stack of paperwork waited for her.

Catching up on work, Terri took a moment that morning to chat with her good friend and coworker Sonja Sanders. “For her, it was a big day. She had just been promoted into management,” states Terri, who is certain she was the last person to have spoken with her friend.

What seemed like just moments afterward, everything changed. At 9:02 am, thousands of pounds of explosives, assembled in the back of a Ryder moving truck parked in front of her office building, exploded.

Terri recounts: “I fell from the third floor to somewhere around the basement level. It was really really fast. It was so fast that I didn’t really know what had happened. The suction pulled me down so quickly.”

Surrounded by noise Terri says, “When I came to the first time, I thought: ‘This is a really bad dream. I will just go to sleep and when I wake up everything will be okay.’ But when I came to [again], everything wasn’t okay. I thought that I must have been in a really bad wreck, and I must be [pinned in the wreckage], because I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even scream for help. I would try, but I was really squished. And I thought to myself: ‘I hope someone finds me.’”

Terri was found by a firefighter who almost overlooked her. [Like being sealed in a tomb] she was completely encased in concrete and granite. Terri says: “There was just a little hole and a little piece of me was showing. He touched me and … started screaming: ‘Hey! I have a live one here, and I need some help!'”

After much hard work, Terri was freed and rushed to a nearby hospital, where her injuries were identified: temporary blindness, a concussion, temporary amnesia, a cracked first vertebra in her neck, a broken right ankle, skin damage on her foot, and multiple abrasions. During her seven days in the hospital, and for weeks following, a sense of shock permeated her life.

However, today, she has this powerful message for the world:

I always tell [even] the littlest of kids: ‘Don’t think that there is nothing you can do, because kids would color pictures and send me notes. Those made me feel like people were really thinking about me. You can always do something, no matter what age you are.’[i]

This illustrates that to experience Easter Sunday, we have to have a Good Friday.

Before new life could be experienced, before resurrection could be celebrated, before “alleluias” could be sung, before love could be won, somebody needed to pick up and carry a cross.

-First Responders needed to run toward an explosion.
-Firefighters needed to go into a burning building.
-Doctors and nurses needed to give all that they had to give.
-Friends and family and church members needed to pray.
-And little children needed to pick up some crayons and color a picture.

To make Easter happen for someone–today, right here, right now–we can all do something, be something, risk something, sacrifice something, give something, create something.

We can all pick up and carry a cross.

We can feed someone who is hungry.

Visit someone who is lonely.

Love someone who is hurting.

Include someone who has been left out.

We can mentor someone who lives in a foster home.

Care for someone who is sick.

Forgive someone who has made mistakes.

Believe someone who has been abused.

We can share grace with someone who faces discrimination.

Stand up for someone victimized by injustice.

Speak out for someone devalued by oppression.

We can stay close by and anoint someone who is dying.

Be a friend to someone who is grieving.

With the spirit of Mary Magdalene, let’s keep the faith, and let’s keep the faith going, keep it moving forward, all the way to the foot of the cross, through the betrayals, through the fear, through the denials, through the suffering, through the shame, all the way to the grave, even to a tomb that has been sealed by granite or concrete.

Let us keep doing whatever we can, with whatever we have, wherever we are, to love one another until the entire world is able to sing:

“Alleluia! Alleluia! I have seen the Lord!”

 

[i]https://www.nps.gov/okci/learn/historyculture/stories.htm

Home by Another Way: Remembering Harold Stewart

harold stewart pic
July 17, 1946 – January 1, 2019

As evidenced by the attendance here this morning, the shocking news of Harold’s passing has been devastating to many.

We did receive some comforting words. Harold did not suffer. There was no prolonged illness, no pain, no struggle. Harold was given the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with loved ones here in Fort Smith and then in Nebraska. Harold was happy. He was full and content.

But then we received a dreadful word, a word that was difficult for us to hear, that that his wife Audrey, whom we all know he adored, had to drive home from Nebraska all by herself as Harold’s body was sent home by another way.

“Home by another way.” Those are the exact words Matthew uses in yesterday’s gospel lesson to describe the journey of the Wise Men after they worshiped Jesus, laying down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, we are told that they went “home by another way.”

“Going home” is of course how we like to talk about death. We find great comfort in the old hymn:

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

“Home” is being with God. It is a place of perpetual belonging, acceptance, comfort and love. It is a place of eternal rest and peace.

In his book of Revelation, John described it this way:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

See, the home of God is among mortals.

God will dwell with them;

they will be God’s peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away (Revelation 21).

So, in a way, going home is the goal of every believer. And as Christians, we believe that how we get there, how we go home, matters.

Do we go home following the instructions of King Herod? Do we go home by collaborating with the empire? Or do we go home by another way?

Do we go home following the way of greed and power, the way of self-centeredness and fear, the way of deceit and cowardice, the way of exclusion and isolation? Or do we go home by another way?

I believe the most comforting word, the most hopeful word for us this morning was what we first thought was a most dreadful word: “Harold went home by another way.”

As Christians, we believe Jesus showed us the way, the truth and the life, the very narrow, yet broad and expansive way home.

Matthew writes:

One day Jesus was teaching a large crowd of people. While he was still speaking, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone said to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’

But Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mothers and my brothers!’ (Matthew 12:46-50).

In other words Jesus said, “here is my home, here is my family.”

I believe this story reveals that Jesus had a much broader, more expansive definition of home and family than we often do.

This, of course is why Gentile Wise Ones from the East were guided by that star to worship the Jewish Christ child: The people of God, the family of God, extends beyond Israel, and includes all people.

And so it was with Harold.

If I said to you, “Harold sure did love cooking for his family.” Your first response would probably be: “Which family are you talking about?”

Are you talking about the Stewart family? Or are you talking about his family at the Elks Lodge? Perhaps you are you talking about his family at First Christian Church?

Someone told me that he left Mike and Jane one of his famous pizzas in the fridge before he and Audrey left for Nebraska. That was so Harold. As his mother Roberta Ray used to always say: “It is very difficult to get Harold out of the kitchen!”

Harold also loved to make his pizza monthly for his Elks lodge family. And each time Harold invited me to the lodge and introduced me to other lodge members, it was obvious to me that he was introducing me to his home away from home. During the fish fry, he introduced me to his son Mike and daughter-in-law Jane, but he also introduced me to countless sisters and brothers. Chris Perry has written that Harold’s example and leadership is the reason they like to say that the “Elks Loge 341 is the friendliest little Elks Lodge in America.” That is because they are truly a family.

And of course this church was the beneficiary of having a brother named Harold in our family. Our brother Harold spoiled us with that infamous pizza recipe, the juiciest hamburgers you have ever tasted, unbelievable pulled-pork barbeque, and most recently, a Christmas dinner that featured a prime rib that Steve Riggs described best as “crazy good.”

What if I said to you that “Harold loved being there for his family?”

Well, are you talking about his sons Brian and Mike? Are you talking about one of his six grandchildren or his great-grandson?

Are you talking about his family at Fort Smith Restaurant Supply? Are you talking about the names of the people with whom he worked that he would text to his pastor requesting prayer for them when they were sick, experienced a loss or had a need?

Or are you talking about a child he mentored for the last three years at Howard Elementary School? Are you talking about the 12-year-old boy he visited once a week, oftentimes bringing him lunch, building his self-esteem, encouraging him in his studies and teaching him the importance of values that he may not learn in the classroom, like looking someone in the eyes while giving them a firm handshake?

Or are you talking about one of the children at the church who he made an effort to greet every Sunday morning before reaching in his pocket and giving them a piece of candy.

Yes, the good news is that Harold certainly went home by another way.

Speaking of going home by another way, it is no secret that Harold could literally build a home. His sons describe him as the best teacher they ever had. They even built an entire house together on Ten Killer Lake. Harold taught them how to do everything, from carpentry, duct work, heat and air, plumbing to laying tile and flooring. They said Harold knew how to crack a whip in such away that you never even knew there was a whip.

Harold could fix anything. His son Brian recalls that anytime he or Mike ever had a problem with their house, whether it be carpentry, plumbing, heating or air, all they had to do was call Dad. They said: “And it seemed like it was before we get the phone hung up the doorbell would ring and there would be Dad, standing there wearing a tool-belt around his waist and light on his head.”

With Harold, anytime something would break, his family said they never called a professional. They called Harold. Just like we did here at the church. Just like I am sure they did at the Elks Lodge.

Yes, more than anyone we know, Harold went home by another way.

Yesterday, someone asked Audrey: “How in the world did you drive home all by yourself?” She replied: “I had a good teacher.”

We all know how he absolutely adored and cherished his wife of 38 years, Audrey, but the love he expressed to Audrey always seemed to have an even higher purpose. For me it was like he was modeling for others what love looks like, what being a true gentleman looks like, what being an authentic disciple of Christ looks like.

As I watched him each Sunday morning, walking into the church building holding Audrey’s hand, opening the car door for her after church—it was as if he loved her as an example to the world how we ought to love one another.

Perhaps that is exactly what Harold was doing. Harold was not only a mentor to a young man at the Howard Elementary. He was trying to teach us all how to be wise men and wise women and go home by another way.

He was teaching us how share the inclusive, expansive love of God with all people; how to see and treat all people as children of God, as sisters and brothers; how to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Yes, as his sons have said, Harold was one of the best teachers we have ever had, for he taught us all how to be wise men and wise women by avoiding the way of King Herod that so many seem to be taking these days, and instead, choose another way:

the way of chivalry over the way of indecency,

the way of love over the way of indifference,

the way of compassion over the way of apathy,

the way of sacrifice over the way of self-centeredness,

the way of inclusion over the way of fear,

and the way of calmness and peace over the way of stress and worry.

And when we choose to go home by this way, not only will we change the world and leave this world a better place than we found it, we can rest assured that like Harold, we will see that the home of God is among mortals. With Harold, we will dwell with God and be God’s peoples. God God’s self will be with us.

To wipe every tear from our eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

There is a great old hymn with beautiful words that describes what Harold experienced the first day of this new year.

Just think of what it must be like to step on shore and finding it heaven,

Of taking hold of a hand and finding it God’s hand.

Of breathing a new air and finding it celestial air,

Of feeling invigorated and finding it immortality

Of passing from storm and tempest into an unbroken calm,

Of looking up and finding it home.

A Glimpse of Heaven: Remembering Janice Rickman

Janice Rickmans Tie Dye Moment
May 24, 1946 – Dec. 8, 2018

One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner, has wondered what Heaven is like. With me, he believes we can get a foretaste of heaven right here on earth.  Buechner writes: “To speak of ‘heavenly’ music or a ‘heavenly’ day isn’t always to gush but sometimes to catch a glimpse of something.”

Upon experiencing something that is soooo good, perhaps we have all said, “Ahhhh! This is heaven!”  A bite of chocolate cake. A warm cookie with cold milk.  A lover’s touch.  A faithful friend.  A child’s hug.  A walk on a beach or in the snow. Resting one’s head on your mother’s shoulders. Undeserved forgiveness.  Unconditional love.  Unwavering devotion. Unexplained strength.

I heard a another preacher describe it this way: Heaven is sort of like this perfect room on the second floor of the house. It is a room upstairs where we are not yet permitted to enter from our position in a room here on the first floor.

However, there is this small, tiny hole in the ceiling of our room. And if we position ourselves just so under that hole.  At just the right angle.  At just the right moment.  If the light is just so. The shadows fade and we can see a little of that room. We can catch a glimpse of Heaven.

Greta will tell you that one thing that she will never forget is her mother recalling the moments after Greta was born, and specifically that moment Janice held her for the first time. As soon as the doctor handed Greta to her, as she held Greta in her arms, pressed her lips to kiss Greta’s forehead, and said Greta was “as warm as toast.”

Greta, you will always remember that, because your mother was describing a moment for her that was nothing less than heavenly. As she held you in her arms, as she loved you as she loved Bradley and Sarah, with a love that was out of this world, that hole in the ceiling got a lot larger for your mother. The light got just right, the shadows faded and heaven came down.

The Bible paints many portraits of the widening of this hole in the ceiling.

The prophet Isaiah prays for such widening:

Shower, O heavens, from above,

and let the skies rain down righteousness;

let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,

and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;

I the Lord have created it. (Isa 45).

Ezekiel writes about the glimpses of heaven he experienced:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1).

Malachi talks about opening a window to heaven,

…see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing (Malachi 3).

John talks about opening a door to heaven:

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this’ (Revelation 4).

And then we have those beautiful recollections of Jesus’ baptism as the Gospel Writers describe the heavens opening up. Mark literally says the heavens were “ripped apart” as the Spirit of God descended like a dove.

Greta and Sarah, I do not believe either one of you will ever forget the many ways that your mother helped to open up the heavens for you, to make that tiny hole in the ceiling a little wider, to move you to just the right position, to be in just the right light, at just the right angle, for the many times she caused heaven to only open but to actually come down so close to earth that you could feel it, hear it, smell it, and touch it.

When we study the Bible, from the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, through the occupation of Israel by Babylon, to the oppression of Christians by the Roman Empire—from the tribulations of Job, the persecution of Daniel, through the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, to the trials and hardships of the Apostles Paul and John, the one theme that is constant is the divine strength, the holy resoluteness, the sacred presence of God in difficult times.

Greta and Sarah, you and Bradley, all of her grandchildren have witnessed this miraculous strength in ways that you are still trying to, but may never comprehend. Whatever storm came her way, divorce, death and disease, her love for you never failed, in fact, it never even wavered. Her love for you was indeed out of this world. No matter her circumstance she was always there with you, never away from you, always for you, never against you.

She possessed this supernatural strength, this holy fire, this divine determination to always be there to give any of you what you needed. Janice became a single-parent when Bradley was 11, Sarah was 9 and Greta was 2, and although she experienced the grief and sorrow of divorce, she never let you kids see it. She remained dedicated to her job as a legal Clerk and later with ABF to make sure that your needs were always met. If she ever went into her room, closed the door and cried, you never knew it. Her love was selfless. Her love was sacrificial. It was self-expending. It was heavenly. And there is no wonder that you look back on your childhood today, at her love and care and strength, and ponder, “How in the world did she do that?” In her strength, you were catching a glimpse of heaven.

During this Advent season, we celebrate another moment when the heavens were opened, when a choir of angels filled the skies to announce the birth of a baby.

John describes the announcement this way,

See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are (1 John 3:1).

Through the gift of a baby born in Bethlehem, we are all born into the family of God. Through this baby named Jesus, we have been made family.

For 20 years, Janice worked as a legal clerk here in Fort Smith. When she left that position to work for ABF, she grieved. Why? Because her co-workers there in the legal office had become family to her. The same thing happened while she was at ABF.

Janice was not a member of the church or the denomination with which I serve as pastor. She was a proud member of the Church of Christ.

When she first moved to Methodist Village, one of her big concerns was that they were going to make her a Methodist. To illustrate this, the first weekend she moved into Methodist Village this past April, they had a tornado warning. The protocol for a tornado warning is to place identification tags on a lanyard around the necks of all the residents. When they placed a name tag around Janice’s neck, she wasn’t so much concerned about the possible tornadoes as she was about her name being printed under the word “Methodist.” She took one look at her badge and said, “I knew it. They have made me Methodist!”

So when I would visit her at Methodist Village and others would ask her if I was her pastor, she would immediately respond: “Oh no. He is my daughter’s pastor.”

This makes it all the more special some of the last words she spoke to me. She looked up at me said, “I love you.” Janice loved me, not as her pastor, but as family.

With those three simple words, “I love you”, she moved me. She moved to just the right spot, to that spot where the light was just right, to that spot where the shadows faded, and just for a moment, I could see through that hole in the ceiling, and I caught a glimpse of heaven.

This is the power of love. Love has the power to make strangers family. Although we have different faiths and different beliefs, love has the power to unite us all as sisters and brothers.  And when we love one another like family, when we treat one another as sisters and brothers, the heavens are ripped apart!

Since I have been a pastor here in Fort Smith, I have been impressed with the quality of care and love I have witnessed through the good people who work and serve at Methodist Village. They truly love and care for the residents as family. So each time I go out there, every time I visit, I catch a glimpse of heaven.

As I’ve mentioned, when Janice first became a resident of Methodist Village, it took her a little while to accept it. At first, it was a strange place, a place where she did not belong. After all, as she would tell me, there were “old people” living there. She assumed that her stay there would only be temporary. She would get a little rehab and then go home.

So, who could blame her for not immediately embracing nursing home residency and all of the activities and programs they offered. When she first arrived, if you wanted to visit Janice, you knew that you could always find Janice in her room. She wouldn’t be in dining hall with the other residents tossing a bean bag or playing bingo.

One day, when Sarah came to visit, like always she went straight to her room, but Janice was not there. She walked down to the nurses’ station where they would sometimes seat her, but Janice was not there. She searched the entire facility until she finally asked someone for assistance.

They said, “Well, today is Tie Dye Day! Perhaps she is with the other residents making a Tie Dye!”

Sarah immediately responded, “Oh, I don’t think so.” But they went down to the dining room anyway where everyone was tie dyeing, and there she was.

She was sitting there wearing this tie dye wrap, or scarf, or hat that she had made on her head. And she was holding this clapper in one hand, this hand that made a clapping noise when you moved it back and forth.

She looked up at Sarah. And waving the clapper in one hand and holding up a peace sign with the other, giggled and said, “I am having a tie-dye moment! And I am ready to party.”

Sarah responded the way that most of us respond these days when we catch a glimpse of something like this, something beautiful, something fun, something that warms our heart and makes us smile, something that is soooo good that we can only describe it as heavenly.  She pulled out her phone and took a picture and sent it to Greta.

And the good news is that this picture of Janice having a tie-dye moment, is a picture of Janice today. Through the tiny hole in the ceiling, we can see her today, sitting in the banquet hall of heaven, surrounded by family including her son Bradley, enveloped by eternal love, encircled by amazing grace, giggling, clapping, partying.

And because of that, we who grieve today know we are going to be ok. Greta and Sarah are going to be fine. Her grandchildren are going to be fine. Not only because your mother and grandmother has given you some of her strength and love (after all, you said you only needed a piece of it to be ok), but because you will be able to always see her, she will always be with you, each time something moves you to just the right spot, at just the right angle, when the light is just right, and the shadows fade, and this warmth comes over you, as warm as toast.

 

Remembering Naomi Hatley: Things Are Not What They Appear to Be

Naomi Pic
Naomi Hatley
April 17, 1924 – November 16, 2018

Esther 9:20-23

John 16:20-24

The late Reverend Warren Carr, a friend of mine and mentor, once said that a person’s eulogy in a Christian memorial service should be limited to those aspects of a person’s life that proclaimed the gospel, proclaimed the message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that we have much to say about Naomi today for she proclaimed the message of Jesus in ways that Rob and I never could.

When many think about proclaiming Jesus, they might first think about preachers. However, as those words attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” teach us, you don’t have to be preachy to preach.

Naomi was anything but preachy. Her faith was quietly practiced but deeply felt. Always self-effacing, she never imposed her faith on others.

However, her faithfulness was clearly evident to all. Many witnessed her faith through her active participation with this church as she led worship by singing in the choir and playing bells with the Primetime Ringers. She was an active member of the Christian Women’s Fellowship and possessed the heart of a servant, always enjoying potluck dinners and other fellowship occasions. When she could no longer drive to church, she had the church van pick her up at Butterfield Place so she could be here to faithfully worship and serve with her family of faith.

However, this was certainly not the only way that Naomi proclaimed the gospel.

It could be said that Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to teach us that things are not always as they appear to be. Sometimes reality is the exact reversal of actual appearances.

For example, Jesus said that those who appear to be last are actually first. And those who seem to be first are actually last.

In his first sermon, he said that it is not the rich who are blessed, it is the poor. It is the not the strong who inherit the earth, it is the meek. The Apostle Paul said it is not the wise who shame the foolish, but it is the foolish who shame the wise. It is the weak who shame the strong.

The gospel continually teaches us that things are not what they appear to be.

Of course, Naomi, first taught us this reality with her name.

It is not Nayomey or Nyomi.

It is Nayoma.

No matter how it is spelled, or what you’ve heard, or what you’ve read, no matter what you’ve seen or think you see and hear right now, things are not what they appear to be.

Naomi taught us this gospel truth in many other ways. Perhaps the the ways we will most remember, and for which we are most grateful, are the ways Naomi taught us, in the words of Ralph Sockman, that “nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as real strength.”

If you thought Naomi was gentle and quiet, then you probably never watched a Dallas Cowboy or Arkansas Razorback football game with her.

If you thought Naomi was a non-athletic spectator, someone who sat serenely on the sidelines of life, you probably never saw her slalom waterski, which she did until the age of 69 when she fell and cracked three ribs.

If you thought Naomi was this prim and proper Southern Belle, you probably never saw her play in the waves of the ocean. You never heard her laugh like a child as the waves would crash over her head knocking her off her feet.

If you thought Naomi only enjoyed soft church music, the chimes of handbells, the harmonious sound of a choir, a piano and organ reverently praising God, then you’ve probably never been to an Eric Clapton concert with her.

If you thought her husband of 66 years Pete, with his large, confident personality was the rock of the family. Then you probably didn’t know Naomi as well as her children knew her, as one with an iron backbone in a fluffy coating.

If you thought Naomi might be a pushover, a softy, a patsy you were probably not raised by her and as one of her children never did anything or said anything that would make her chase you with a fly swatter.

And you probably did not do or say anything that caused any harm to any of her children, because you would have quickly discovered that, like a mama bear robbed of her cubs, you simply do not want to mess with Naomi.

Naomi was soft as a pillow, but she was hard as a rock.

Naomi was tenderly ladylike, but she was a tough old broad.

Naomi was humble and unassuming but the sound of her laughter, the melody of her heart, and loud reverberations of her spirt can still be heard today.

Like the good news of the gospel, things are not always what they appear to be.

Of course Jesus taught us this reality to lead and to guide us down a certain path, on a specific journey, on a particular and peculiar way:

A way where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty;

A way where those who mourn are comforted and the meek inherit the earth;

A way where those who are hungry and thirsty for justice are satisfied;

A way where those who show mercy because they know they need it for themselves receive mercy;

A way that those who may not be pure, undefiled and unbroken on the outside will see God.

It is a particular and peculiar way where peacemakers are called children of God, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and outcasts are included.

It is way that always graciously extends hospitality, always asking if you need anything to eat, something to drink, a time to rest.

Her children tell me that had to stop visiting their mother when it was mealtime at the nursing home. Because she would always try to share her food with them. No matter her circumstance, the needs of others came before her own. Whenever it appeared that you were the one being hospitable to her, being a blessing to her, she was actually being a blessing to you.

This is a way that sets a high bar in a culture that seems to have no bars, that offers a righteous morality in a culture influenced by a distorted morality, that teaches ethics rooted in a selfless, self-expending, self-effacing love for this world and every human being in a culture with ethics rooted in greed and self-interest.

Jesus also taught us that this particular, peculiar counter-cultural way is the way to life everlasting. To save ourselves, we must lose ourselves. To truly and fully live we must die. And all who embrace this way, live this way, though they are dead, live.

The good news is as Jesus and Naomi taught us, things today are not what they appear to be.

Four years ago, when Naomi broke her hip, and then suffered a stroke during surgery becoming wheel-chair bound and unable to communicate clearly, it appeared that her life was over. She had no reason to live, no reason to smile, and certainly no reason to play the piano.

However, this tender soul made even more tender by the difficulties of life was a tough old broad, under the fluffy and frail coating, an iron backbone was as strong as ever. Thus, Naomi continued to play that piano. She continued to live her life and she continued to be grateful and always found a reason to smile.

No, nothing in this world is what it appears to be. Nothing this hour is what it appears to be.

Naomi appears to spell her name Naomi yet it is Naomi.

Naomi appears to be buried in the National Cemetery, yet her music is still filling this sanctuary.

Naomi appears to be gone from our presence, yet her gifts live on through her children and grandchildren.

Naomi appears to be dead and no longer in our presence, yet those of us with faith know that she is alive and is in the presence of the Lord.

It appears to be a cold, dark, rainy day, but somehow, some miraculous way, the sun is shining.

When some learned of her passing, they may have thought about how losing someone during a holiday week makes it all the more heartbreaking. Families are supposed to be gathering together this week to celebrate life and to give thanks for the blessings of life. They are not supposed to be gathering for a memorial service.

But the good news is, things are not what they appear to be.

In the wonderful little book of Esther, we are told about the Persian Empire’s plot to destroy the Jewish people. Under Queen Esther’s leadership, the Persians are defeated and Israel was saved. Mordecai, who had adopted Esther, and raised her as if she was his own blood, decreed that the days had been transformed “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness…”

There is no doubt in my mind that on this day after Thanksgiving with Advent and Christmas approaching this family is going to be alright. Pray for them, but don’t despair for them. Console them, but don’t pity them. For if Naomi taught them anything, it is that these days are not as they appear. What is going on right now, today, this very hour, is not what it may appear.

Sorrow has been transformed into gladness. Pain has been turned into joy. A day of mourning has been transformed into a holiday, and everyday are becoming holy days. And because we believe what Naomi proclaimed with her life, this week of Thanksgiving will always be for her family days of feasting, gladness and celebration. Thanks be to God.