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.

Profiting from Perpetual War


Today, we remember and give thanks for those who have given their lives in the service of our nation. During the pastoral prayer yesterday, many pastors in our country asked God to help us honor their memory by…

…caring for the family members they have left behind, by ensuring that their wounded comrades are properly cared for, by being watchful caretakers of the freedoms for which they gave their lives, and by demanding that no other young men and women follow them to a soldier’s grave unless the reason is worthy and the cause is just.[i]

The late pastor of Riverside Church in New York, Harry Emerson Fosdick, once said:

I hate war for its consequences, for the lies it lives on and propagates, for the undying hatreds it arouses.

In January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his farewell address to alert the nation of what he viewed as one of its greatest threats: the military-industrial complex composed of military contractors and lobbyists perpetuating war.

Eisenhower prophetically warned that “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” had emerged as a hidden force in US politics and that we “must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”

Failing to heed his warning, today we find ourselves in perpetual war. While perpetual war creates perpetual losses for families and perpetual increases in our national debt, it also creates perpetual profits for private business.

In 2015, the Department of Defense budgeted more money on federal contracts, $274 billion, than all other federal agencies combined. In 2016, CEOs of the top five military contractors earned on average $19.2 million each — more than 90 times the $214,000 earned by a U.S. general with 20 years of experience and 640 times the $30,000 earned by Army privates in combat.

In his sermon on militarism at Riverside Church in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the leaders of the original Poor People’s Campaign said:

If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

To honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, I believe we must do all that we can to escape this dark corridor, or at the very least, be dragged down it kicking and screaming.

This is just one of the reasons the Poor People’s Campaign has been reignited. We are marching and screaming that no more blood will be shed for this country unless the reason is worthy and the cause is just.

Calling for a moral revival in this nation, we do not believe we can remain silent when we discover the immoral profit that is being made by perpetual war.

We cannot remain silent when we hear war-mongering speech from our leaders that supports this immoral profiteering.

We cannot remain silent when our leaders call for a privatization of the Veterans Administration that will allow corporations to profit from the injuries of war.

We cannot remain silent when the Commander-in-Chief, who has the power to declare war, lies repeatedly to the American people.

We cannot remain silent when we learn that 53 cents of every federal discretionary dollar goes to military spending, and only 15 cents is spent on anti-poverty programs, many of which assist our veterans.

We cannot remain silent when those who profit by war proliferate our peaceful communities and with weapons of war that kill our children.

We cannot remain silent when people of color are being unjustly victimized, demonized and dehumanized by a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” that has become a war on the poor.

We cannot remain silent when children who are immigrants are being separated from their families to support a political agenda.

We cannot remain silent when the political agenda is to support a war economy for the financial benefit of a few. If we want to honor those who gave it all for our country, we must agree as a nation that it is morally indefensible to profit from perpetual war.

Speaking on behalf of those who sacrificed their lives in WWI, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae ends his beautiful poem In Flanders Fields:

To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.

May we honor their fallen hands by holding high the torch of truth while marching for peace.

[i]J. Veltri, S.J.


Mirroring the Self-Giving Love of the Triune God

reclaiming jesus

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 NRSV

We Americans are often guilty of trivializing things that are important. Consequently, survivors of loved ones who gave their lives for their country often struggle during the Memorial Day Weekend, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Americans truly know what Memorial Day is about.

Is it about the end of the school year and the beginning of summer? Is it about going to the beach, the river, or the lake? Is it about playing golf, having a cookout, or opening the backyard swimming pool? Is it about red-tag sales at the mall or some other self-fulfilling activity?

No, it is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about people giving all that they had to give, for they so loved their country more than self.

This weekend is about honoring those who died for us, and it is about praying for those they left behind. It is also a time to recommit ourselves to those who continue to selflessly fight evil in our world, evil that demeans, devalues and destroys human life and sometimes does it in the name of God.

May God forgive us for forgetting what this weekend is all about or watering it down for our own selfish gain.

I am afraid that we have done the same thing to the Christian faith. Consequently, followers of Jesus everywhere struggle, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Christians really know what the gospel is about.

Is it about judging and condemning others who believe and live differently? Is it about pure beliefs and possessing an attitude of superiority? Is it about having the right to discriminate and treat others who differ from us as second class citizens? Is it about banning people of other faiths from our communities? Is it about depleting our natural resources because we believe the Lord is returning and the world is ending in our lifetime? Is it all about going to heaven one day or on some other self-absorbed venture?

No, our faith is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self.

Thus, faith is about honoring a God who died for all. It is about recommitting daily to continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to demean, dehumanize and destroy human life and sometimes does it in the name of God.

Monday is Memorial Day. May we remember what it is truly about. And everyday is the day the Lord has made. May we remember how God is made known to us, relates to us, and loves us, and how God calls us to make ourselves known to, relate to and love the world.

This is where I believe the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can really help us—Three persons in one. Throughout the centuries, people have been trying to explain this complexity in simplistic language.

You have probably heard that God is like a pie. You can cut a pie into three pieces, but it’s still one pie. Or God is like many of us. I’m a brother, a father, and a son, but I am still one person. Or God is like water, and water has many forms: steam, ice, and liquid, but it is still water.

However, I believe each of these descriptions only scratch the surface of who our God truly is. It is only a watered-down, version of who our God is. Furthermore, it is defining God based on our understanding of the world, instead of allowing our understanding of God to define the world.

God, the creator of all that is, the power behind our universe, gave God’s self, emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out and became flesh and dwelt among us through Jesus Christ.  And Jesus Christ, while he was on this earth, gave himself back to God by becoming obedient to God even to death, even death on the cross. But before he left us on this earth, he promised not to leave us orphaned, he promised to be with us always by giving himself back to us through the Holy Spirit.

Do you see the one characteristic of the Holy Trinity which stands out?  God gave God’s self through the Son. The Son gave himself back to the Father. And God once more gives God’s self back through the Holy Spirit. God is a self-giving God. God is a God who loves to give to others the very best gift that God has to give, the gift of God’s self.

God is a giver. That means that God is not a taker. For givers are never takers.

Isn’t interesting that many Christians, often characterize God as a taker? Again, I think it is because we like to create a God in what we want our image to be, instead of allowing the image of God to define and guide us.

For example: How many funerals have we attended and heard the phrase: “God took her home or God was ready to take him?”

We have all lost loved ones to death. But the Trinity teaches us that Lord did not take them. For givers are not takers. A more accurate way of describing what happened to our loved ones when they breathed their last on this earth is that God wholly, completely and eternally, gave all of God’ self to them.

When we experience the heartache and heartbreak of this fragmented world, there is one thing of which we can be certain, God is here with us, not taking, but giving us all that God has to give, the best gift of all, the gift of God’s self.  If we don’t know anything else about God, we can know this. For it is God’s very nature.

As we renew our discipleship mission as a church, let us renew our commitment to mirror our God by living not as takers, but as givers.

For I believe with all of my heart that mirroring the self-giving love of God that is revealed to us in the Holy Trinity can help us reclaim the gospel that has been high-jacked by people who prefer to live in this world on their terms instead of on God’s terms.

Mirroring the self-giving love of God can help us recover our faith that has been co-opted by takers, by people who have used and misused the name of God for their own selfish gain

For if we mirrored the Triune God as self-giver, think of how everything would change.

Think of how our Christian faith would change. Our faith would not be about what we can take from God—healthier marriages, stronger families, deeper friendships, peace, security, comfort, a mechanism to overcome trials or to achieve a more prosperous life, or even gain an eternal life.

Our faith would be what we can give back to the Holy Giver—namely all that we have and all that we are, even if it is costly, even if it involves risk, danger and suffering, even if it involves the loss of relationships, stress on our marriages, sleepless nights, a tighter budget, even if it involves laying down our very lives.

Church. Church would not be about what we can take from it. It would not be about getting fed, experiencing some peace, attaining a blessing or receiving some inspiration to help us through the week.

Church would be about opportunities for self-giving. Church would be about feeding the hungry, working to bring peace, being blessing to our communities and inspiring the world. Church would no longer be a place that we go to on Sunday, but who we are every day of the week, the body of Christ, the very embodiment of holy self-giving love in the world. Church would not be a way to for us to get some Jesus. Church would be way we allow Jesus to get us to love our neighbors as we were created to love.

And our neighbors. We would look to our neighbors, not for what they can give us, not for what we can take from them, or how we can use them, but for what we may be able to offer them, especially those things that others are constantly robbing them of in order to support their dominance and superiority over them—their dignity, their equality, their value as human beings created in the image of God, their hope, their freedom, their justice.

We would look to our city, our state and our nation, not for what we can selfishly take from it, but for how we can selflessly give to it to make it a more just place for all.

The environment would not be something for us to take from, plunder and exploit for our own selfish wants, but something for which we sacrificially care for, respect, nurture and protect.

I believe if we would truly mirror the triune image of our God as givers instead of as takers, God’s kingdom would fully and finally come on earth as it is in heaven.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can rebuild a broken world.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can correct a distorted moral narrative.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can heal sick religion.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can bring down walls and break the chains of injustice.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers will erase racism and sexism. It will end sexual harassment and assault.

When we mirror the triune image God as givers, all hate, bigotry, and violence will pass away, and all of creation will be born again.

When we mirror the triune image of God as givers, liberty and justice and peace will come, and it will come for all.

When we mirror the triune image of God as givers, the words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled:

Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
…[Then] they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:3-4).

The First Easter Word


Easter Welcome

Sermon delivered at the 6 PM service  following the first Enid Welcome Table Meal, Easter, 2017

John 20:19-23 NRSV

The very first word that the risen Christ brought to his fearful and anxious disciples who denied and abandoned him was: “PEACE!” “Peace be with you!”

It was the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels: “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!” And it was the last word that came from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“PEACE!” It is the word that every human being living in this fragmented world needs to hear from our risen Savior.

Thus, after Jesus pronounced the word to his disciples, he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The Church has been commissioned by none other than the risen Christ to share this word with others. “PEACE!” It is the word people need to hear from the church more than any other word, and it needs to be the very first word that they hear from the church.

However, sadly, even after nearly 2000 Easters, churches all over this world have ignored this commissioning. And tragically, the very first words that many hear from the church are words that denote the exact opposite of peace.

The first words they hear from many in the church are words of judgment and condemnation. They hear loud, angry, hate-filled rants and protests. They hear words judging them as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they are condemned by those who justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that was used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination.

They may hear reserved words of welcome to come in and sit on a pew, but they clearly get the message right away that they are not to expect to truly become a part of the church. They are not to expect to be able to use their gifts to serve with and alongside those who have been deemed worthy for service. They are not expected to be truly accepted, forgiven, and loved.

However, I believe the Risen Christ still speaks to his disciples today. He is still saying to us that first word of Easter, “PEACE;” and is still saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

For God knows that there are people in every town, at every crossroad,  who hunger and thirst for a community of people in our world who have the audacity to truly live as followers of Christ who take the commission of their Risen Christ seriously to share “PEACE” with all people.

They are yearning for a church that seeks to be, not an institution or club of moral and devout people with right religion, right beliefs, right color and right lifestyles, but a church that seeks to be the living embodiment of the Risen Christ in this world, serving, loving, accepting and embracing the poor, the lost, the broken, the fearful, the grieving, those riddled with guilt and shame, and those whom society has rejected as outcasts, offering them the unlimited hope, unfettered grace and unreserved love that is in that first beautiful first Easter word, PEACE.

Lost Without Christmas

nl-Griswold-HouseLuke 3:1-6 NRSV

The pet peeve of nearly every pastor this time of year is driving around town seeing the number of houses which are decked out very ostentatiously with Christmas lights and decorations while knowing that the people living in those houses will not step foot in a worship service during the entire Advent and Christmas season. They have the biggest Christmas tree in their living room, the most lights on the trees in their yard, the prettiest wreaths on their doors, the brightest candles burning in each window, appearing from every indication to be anticipating the coming of Christmas, the coming of the Messiah, Savior and King; yet, for some strange reason, they do not feel the need to gather together on the Lord’s Day to worship and acknowledge their need for Christ. They have no desire to be here this morning to a light another candle in anticipation of advent of Christ.

I wonder what they are celebrating? What has brought their lives so much fulfillment and happiness and peace that they have the energy and desire to go all out decking their homes with lights and evergreens and candles but have no desire to gather for worship? What is so wonderful about their lives which makes them feel as if they simply do not need Christ in their Christmas?

What are they celebrating?  Getting off a few days of work to spend with their lovely families?  Presents? Santa Claus?  Christmas parties and dinners?  Their home?  Are their decorations merely saying, “Look at me!” “Look at my beautiful yard and my beautiful house? Look what I have built!  Look what I have bought!”

During a conversation with a friend of mine from seminary who was serving as a missionary on the outskirts of the Republic of Congo, I said:

Brad, I don’t know how you do it. How you can leave all that our wonderful country affords us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in a depressed third-world country!

To my surprise, he responded:

To tell you the truth Jarrett, I don’t know how you do it!  How on earth do you share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the affluent United States?  How do you convince people who have everything that they need a savior!  People are so spoiled in the U. S.  They have so much which they believe brings them happiness and fulfillment and peace. They don’t believe they need Christ. People where I minister have nothing. They are starving for the gospel!  They need the gospel!

We do have much, don’t we? The very best technology: computers, smart phones, smart watches, and smart TVs with digital signals carrying more information than our brains can possibly  comprehend beamed from satellites that were employed by space shuttles!

Yes, perhaps all of us living in the affluent West are tempted to look for our peace and fulfillment in the vast accomplishments of humanity. We marvel at science and technology and say, “Look at us, look at what we can do, look how smart we are!”

Because our capitalistic economic system is based on the what humans can accomplish if they are given the freedom to work for themselves, all of us have more clothes than we could ever wear, more food than we could consume, and bigger houses than we really need.

And with our freedom, we have so many choices. We can do so many different things. We can go to so many wonderful places. With our freedom there are no limits to what we can be and we what we can do and where we can go!

We are free to make as much money as we possible can, to marry who we choose, to have as many children as we want, and to live in the neighborhood and home of our choice.

Perhaps that is what so many are celebrating with their lights and evergreens and candles. They are celebrating freedom. They are celebrating the American way of life. They are celebrating their material possessions. They are celebrating technology and the accomplishments of humankind. They are celebrating Santa Claus and his great big bag of goodies made by the hands of mortals. They are celebrating family, the gift of human love and children.

So, maybe my missionary friend is right. In America, we are free to have so much which brings so much happiness and fulfillment and peace that there is really no need for a Savior.

Yet, deep inside, we know, that even within our wealthy country, within our most affluent communities, there is indeed much unhappiness and unfulfillment.

If wealth and freedom and smart human accomplishments are all they’re cracked up to be, why does the United States have highest rate of suicide per capita than any other nation on the planet? If our children have so much more, more opportunity, more toys than the other children of the world why is the suicide rate for children 14 and younger double that of other nations?

I believe that one problem we have with our country is that it takes a great degree of honesty to admit our unhappiness and unfulfillment. After all, with our great freedom of choice, we are free to fashion our lives as we choose. If the lives that we fashion are unfulfilling, guess whose fault it is? We have nobody to blame but ourselves; therefore, we are reluctant to admit to any sense of unfilfillment and unhappiness. Our pride and our ego prevent us from admitting that we ever reflect on our lives and ask ourselves the question: “Is there anything more than this?” We can’t admit that we are in need, that we yearn for something more.

So we cover it up with lights and evergreens and candles. We say to the world: “Look at me, I am happy, I am fulfilled. I don’t need church. I don’t need worship. I don’t need community. My choices and my consumerism are enough. My house, my clothes, my toys, my freedom, my family, my intellectual prowess is all I really need. It is enough.”

And yet, deep inside, we know that it is not enough. Deep inside we all know that there has to be more, but because of our freedom, our pride and arrogance, we are afraid to admit it.

Advent is a season of looking for something. It is a season of hoping and believing that “there has to be more.” It is a season of yearning.  Have you noticed the hymns we sing during Advent? Not the Christmas carols, but the advent hymns like the one we are going to sing in a few moments. The hymns we sing this time of the year are somewhat restrained. They speak of desire, of waiting, of expectation. The Advent prophets speak to a people suffering from homelessness and despair. It is no coincidence that John the Baptist’s voice is that of one “crying out in the wilderness.”

John the Baptist is crying out in the wilderness, because that is where the good news of the gospel is needed. In order to hear the message of Christmas, we must first realize that we are living in a wilderness. We must be able to be honest and say: “The choices I have made on my own have not brought me fulfillment. My freedom, my material wealth, my high tech gadgets, my diplomas, a nice home, a nice car, a vacation in Hawaii, New York, Paris or Southern California, even a wife, two kids and a dog are not enough. I need something more!”

With our freedom, it takes courage and it takes conviction to admit to yearning, to admit to our need to look for something else.

In order to see the fragile light of Christmas, we must first realize that we are in the dark. Even in an information age, we must confess that humankind does not have all of the answers. Advances in technologies, and the freedom to make choices and to make money cannot protect us from our dark world of evil.

As much as we try to decorate it with lights and evergreens and candles: gadgets break; space shuttles crash; family members get sick; relationships fail; loved ones die. Human beings, with all of their potential to accomplish good, are at their core, depraved.

A beautiful December 7th Sunday morning in Hawaii and a crisp September 11th Tuesday morning in New York City can be suddenly transformed into a burning hell without notice. An evening on the town in Paris, even a joyous Christmas party with friends and co-workers can become scenes of unimaginable tragedy.

One of the greatest things about coming to this place during this time of the year is that here, before God, in the midst of a dark world of falsehood and deceit we can be honest. We can come here, if just once a week, and tell the truth.

We can be honest and admit that nothing Santa could ever bring us, nothing made by mortal hands, will bring us fulfillment and peace. Nothing we can accomplish with our freedom and our intelligence can bring us joy.

So, maybe that is the real reason people will not step foot in a church this Advent and Christmas season. Because, what they see here is often really no different than what they see out there. They see, in the church, people who believe they have it all figured out; they have all the answers; they have everything they need for peace and fulfillment; they no longer have to keep yearning for Christmas; they no longer live in the desert. They see people who are unwilling to be honest.

So, here, in this place, let’s get back to what our faith is all about: honesty, authenticity. Let us be honest and admit that we do not have what it takes to experience true peace.

So, hear the good news on this second Sunday of Advent. To those of us who are honest enough to admit that we live in exile, in the wilderness, lost, wandering, hear the good news that God is making a way.

Listen to John the Baptist: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”

God is making a way through our desert, a highway straight to us.

Let’s be honest. Let’s realize that we need more, and let’s keep looking, keep yearning, keep working, keep serving, keep loving, and keep inviting others who do not have a church this season to join us, until we shall see the “salvation of God.”

Until we shall see Christmas and truly know peace, now and forevermore.

Peace Be with You: Remembering Albert Mosley

Albert Mosley 1 (3)In the sixteenth chapter, the 33rd verse of John’s gospel, we read words of Jesus that cannot be more true: “In the world you will have tribulation.”

Jesus didn’t say we might or we may have tribulation. Jesus said that we will have “tribulation.” Other translations read: “torment,” “trials,” “trouble,” “sufferings,” “distress” or “persecution.”

In this world, we will suffer. In this world, we will lose people we love, sometimes tragically. In this world, we will be injured, sometimes in terrible accidents. In this world, we will be diagnosed with sickness, sometimes with dreadful diseases. In this world, we will have failed relationships, sometimes divorce. Jesus said that in this world suffering is inevitable.

Albert Mosley could certainly testify to this truth.

Albert had just started high school here in Farmville when his father tragically committed suicide. Later, Albert, himself, would be critically injured on the football field. Years later, there would be the sudden and untimely loss of his mother, a risky back surgery, a grim diagnosis of Addison’s disease, broken relationships, the loss his best friend Ronnie Avery, incessant physical pain, diabetes, debilitating strokes and blindness.

Now, if this was the only testimony that Albert Mosley’s life could give, that in this world, we will have tribulation; then today would certainly be a sad and tragic day for all of us. However, the good news is that this was only a small part of Albert’s testimony.

Jesus said: “In this world, you will have tribulation.” Now, let’s read the entirety of this verse: Jesus said: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

After Albert lost his father, Albert did not hesitate to courageously become the man of the house, take care of and look after his mother, his six siblings, maybe especially, his little sister, Donna. Albert resonated with the great song by Clarence Carter, “Patches,” intentionally becoming the one that his family could always depend upon.

In spite of the tragic loss of his father and the increased responsibilities for his family, Albert somehow miraculously managed to excel in school. And in spite of some very good reasons to be bitter and angry, Albert possessed such a sweet and loving disposition that the girls in this town affectionately called him “teddy bear.”

However, I am certain that no one called him a teddy bear on the football field. Albert was an exceptional athlete, a strong, ferocious hitter. Perhaps football became the outlet for some of some of his anger that he had to have harbored. He hit someone so hard one night when Farmville was playing at Ayden, that it put Albert in the hospital where he was in a coma for three weeks.

And yet again, although he had even more reasons to become angry or bitter at life, Albert took heart and persevered.

After he recovered, he finished high school and went on to Atlantic Christian College, where he again continued to excel, earning the prestigious Top Hat Award. After college he went on to get a Masters in Education degree at Old Dominion University. Upon graduation, he taught school briefly until he was quickly promoted to principal.

Later, he became Vice President of the Virginia National Bank in Franklin, Virginia and in 1982 was awarded the “Boss of the Year” Award from the Franklin Jaycees. He was also awarded the #1 Jaycee President Award in the state of Virginia.

Then, as Jesus promised all of us, more tribulation would come to Albert, this time in the form of sickness and disease. However, in spite of every tribulation in his life, Albert always miraculously found a way to persevere, to love his life, and to love others. You could see it on the dance floor when you watched him Shag, Twist or do the Gator. In spite of everything, Albert was still the sweet, pleasant, fun-loving teddy bear.

I met Albert twelve or thirteen years ago. He had retired and moved back to Farmville to be with the family he loved. He had experienced many more ups and downs in his life. I watched him grieve deeply when his friend Ronnie passed away, and I witnessed his health continue to decline. The truth is that I have watched him suffer perhaps more than anyone I know. I cannot count the times I have visited him in the hospital and doubted that he would ever make it home.

Yet, I never heard him, not one time, not even in the hospital or in the nursing home, ever complain or grumble. Even when he lost his eye sight, his ability to walk, his ability to swallow just a sip of Diet Pepsi, Albert remained positive. In fact, I never heard him say anything negative, about himself or anyone for that matter. Even in his darkest moments of life, he loved his life, and loved those who were in his life.

Bro was always more concerned about others, than he was himself, especially his siblings. No matter how sick he was, if you asked him, he was always fine. And then he would ask you about others.

Doctor J,” he would say, lying in the hospital, unable to see, blood sugar over 200; “Have you seen Donna? How’s ol’ Carson and Sara doing? How are things going at the church? I got to get myself straight so I can come back there.”

And nearly every time before I left his side, even in ICU after his debilitating stroke in November, he would miraculously say to me, “Peace be with you.” And the miracle was not only that Albert could speak those words of peace, but was how it was obvious to all that in spite of every tribulation, Albert actually possessed this miraculous peace. And he truly wanted to share it with others.

The only way that can possibly explain how Albert endured the tribulations of his life is that the God of Jesus, somehow, some miraculous way came to Albert, obviously since he was a young boy, and filled him with this peace that surpasses all human understanding.

The disciples of Jesus also knew something about the ups and downs of life. Like a star football player, a teddy bear that the girls adored, or the vice president of a bank, the disciples had experienced some very high moments in life. They were with Jesus when he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Some of them even went to the mountaintop with Jesus and stood with him in the very presence of God. They rode triumphantly into Jerusalem with Jesus as little children lined the streets waving their palm branches.

And the disciples certainly knew something about tribulation. They were with Jesus when he was arrested in the garden. Some betrayed him. Others denied him. They all deserted him. They had made mistake after mistake, and they knew it. And they watched in horror as the one for whom they left their families and all forms of worldly security be tried, tortured and crucified.

Three days later, John writes that they were cowering in fear in a locked room. Rumors were floating all over town that the body of Jesus had been stolen, and the ones who destroyed Jesus and had taken his body would soon come to destroy and take them.

So, there they were, cowering behind locked doors. They could not have been more afraid. They were not unlike: a small boy who discovers his father’s suicide; a star athlete who is severely injured on a football field; or a well-respected and successful professional whose declining health had stripped nearly everything from him.

Then Jesus comes. We can’t explain how. The doors are locked. The windows are barred. But Jesus somehow, some miraculous way comes; he stands among them, and says: “Peace be with you.”

And this is not some superficial word of peace that denies or overlooks human tribulation and suffering. It is a genuine word of peace that acknowledges the pain of life, recognizes the wounds of today, but also the certain hope of a better tomorrow. Jesus shows them the wounds in his side and in his hands and says again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

The disciples then went out and lived the rest of their lives sharing the grace and peace of Christ with others. And they shared it to the end, even in the face of great persecution, suffering and death.

This is how I will always remember Bro. Like the first disciples, Albert was an imperfect man who suffered much tribulation in this world. However, although I cannot fully explain it, it was obvious to all that knew him that Jesus, somehow, some miraculous way, came to him. Through the love and faithfulness of his wife Ginny, certainly; through the love of his family and friends, definitely; and through divine and mysterious ways that surpasses all human understanding, Jesus came to him and filled him with this genuine peace, and then, sent him out into the world forgiving others, loving others, sharing the peace of Christ with other.

Days before Albert died, Becky said that Albert asked her if Chester could maybe spend the night with him in the nursing home. Becky said, for the first time, I could tell that he was somewhat afraid. And who would not be? In a nursing home, blind, nearly paralyzed, dying: he had more reasons to be afraid than anyone.

However, Becky said that when Albert breathed his last breath on Tuesday, that she had never seen anything so peaceful. I drove her and Chester home from the nursing home that day, and she kept saying, all the way home, “Thank you God, thank you God.”

The good news for all of us is that we have the certain hope that, once more, when Albert experienced his final tribulation on this earth, somehow, some miraculous way, Jesus once again came to Albert, as Jesus had obviously came so many times before, and lovingly tugged Albert’s ear saying: “Peace be with you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let it be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus came to him and filled him once more with a peace that is beyond all understanding, and this time, it is for eternity.

May this wonderful truth give peace to all of us who are still experiencing the tribulations of this world this day, tribulations that will continue in the days ahead. Through the memory of Bro, may we hear the risen Christ speak to us words that cannot be more true: “Peace be with you.”

Locked Doors

lockJohn 20:19-31 NRSV

On the evening of the first Easter, we find the disciples of Jesus cowering together in a house. Windows shut, shades pulled, curtains drawn, shudders closed and the doors have been locked up tight. It is nighttime, a dangerous time in any city, but this is Jerusalem, and here, on this night, the disciples had some pretty good reasons to lock the doors.

The most obvious reason their doors were locked was the fear that the institutional, religious authorities who organized and began plotting from the very beginning to put an end to Jesus and his message were quite possibly even now plotting to put an end to them.

So the disciples locked the doors.

And then, there may be another reason, earlier in our text we read where Mary Magdalene has told them, “I have seen the Lord.”  And what do they do?  They locked the doors.

After denying that he even knew who Jesus was, I’m sure Peter felt like locking the doors. After fleeing and deserting Jesus, leaving him to die alone between two thieves, I’m sure many of the disciples felt like locking the doors.

This image of locked doors has had me thinking all week. As I have pondered this image, I cannot get the words of my home pastor out of my mind. Every Sunday, during the Invitation, he always said the same words: “The doors of our church are now open for membership. If anyone here would like to be received into full membership into our church, you are invited to come down during the singing of this hymn.

Remembering these words this week has caused me to ask a question, a question that I believe is imperative for the church in the 21st century to ask: “Why do you suppose so many people today, especially people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, when it comes to church membership, also feel like locking the doors, locking the doors to even the thought of becoming a part of the church?”

From asking this question to countless people all over this country who have given up on the church since I was ordained in 1992, this is what I have discovered:

The reason that most young people give for locking the doors to even the very thought of being associated with the church is that they simply have no trust in organized, institutional religion. In fact, they regard the church the same way the disciples cowering behind closed doors regarded the religious system of their day—as a threat to Jesus and everything for which Jesus stood.

They hear some of their friends, the ones who do proudly profess to be a part of a church, on a tirade protesting against such things as equal rights, social justice, equitable healthcare, and any criticism about the gap between poor and the rich. They hear their church friends make scornful remarks about minorities of every persuasion, and they know just enough about Jesus and his affinity for the poor and the marginalized to know that something is terribly wrong with this picture.

Many young people today in no way want to be associated with the words of many in the church who make heinous claims on the behalf of God, such as: tornadoes are God’s way of getting our attention, the Haiti earthquake as well as Hurricane Katrina were directly linked to Voodoo or Catholicism; the Japan earthquake and tsunami and the South Asia tsunami were directly linked to Buddhism or Islam; or the events of 9-11 and the subsequent deaths in the War on Terror are God’s judgment on abortionist and homosexuals.

Young people today do not want to be associated with a religion that has preachers and congregations who picket the funerals for our soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice, yelling hate-filled rants declaring that their deaths are the will of God.

They hear preachers declare from their pulpits that either the American President or the Pope is the anti-Christ. And they look at institutional, organized religion these days and think that we may be the ones who are anti-Christ. So, like the disciples distancing themselves from self-righteous and judgmental organized religion, young people are locking their doors to the church.

And secondly, as the disciples also hid behind locked doors avoiding Jesus, there are some who are not simply avoiding organized religion; they are avoiding God. When they lost their grandparents, their parents, or some, their children, the response from their Christian friends was that God took them. God needed another angel, another flower in the heavenly garden.

The response of some in the church was that all of their loved one’s pain and suffering and their subsequent death, that their child’s untimely and tragic death was all part of some purpose-driven divine plan. So they lock the doors, wanting absolutely nothing to do with a God like that.

Whatever the reason for the disciples’ fear, the irony of our gospel lesson is that the judgmental, organized religious authorities were not trying to get to the disciples to arrest them and Jesus was not trying to get to them to punish, condemn them or take their lives. As I said at the Sunrise Service last week, Jesus was trying to get to the disciples in order to give them the word that they needed more than any other word—the very first word of the Easter story.

On Easter evening, the Risen Christ returns to his disciples, the same fearful followers who denied, forsook and abandoned him and pronounced “Peace!”  It was the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels in the beginning of the gospel.  “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!”  And it was one of the last words from the cross when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And here, the first word of Easter to the fearful disciples cowering behind locked doors is “Peace.”

THIS is what I believe all people need to hear from the church, and it needs to be the very first word they hear from us.

The first word they hear from the church should never be judgment, condemnation or some loud, angry, hate-filled rant or protest. It should never be that God took her or snatched him, or is punishing them, or trying to get their attention because of some sin. No, the first word they need to hear from us is “peace.”  They need to hear God say, “Peace. My peace I give to you. You are my sons. You are my daughters, I have always loved you.  I still love you. I will love you forever. I am here with you and for you, always working all things together for the good.”

I believe people in our world who have locked their doors to the church are thirsting for this peace. They are thirsting for a group of people in our world that have the audacity to truly live as the embodiment of Christ in this world offering the first word of Easter, the peace of Christ to a fearful world through selfless, sacrificial love and service to others. They are thirsting for a church that seeks to be, not an institution, but the living embodiment of Christ in this world, serving the poor, and those whom society has marginalized, offering grace, acceptance, love and peace.

Several Easters ago, we went to visit my parents in Elizabeth City.  We had a nice dinner, watched the Masters, and then ate some leftovers before heading home. It was late when we arrived back home, about 11:00.  And guess what?  We were locked out. In a hurry to leave after church, I had accidentally grabbed the wrong set of keys.

As Lori and Sara sat in the car, twelve year-old Carson and I checked every window on the first floor.  All locked.  “I guess I’ll break a window.”

“Wait a minute,” Carson, who has always had a lot more patience than me, said. “I think the window in the middle dormer upstairs is unlocked.” I grabbed my extension ladder that was much too short for the job.  I stood it almost straight up and asked Carson to hold it at the bottom as I climbed up.  Got myself on the roof in front of the dormer, but before I could reach it, because of the pitch of the roof, and the dew that had gathered, I began to slide off.  Came down, feet hit the ladder, almost knocking it over. I put a death grip on my shingles with my hands. Grabbed the top of the ladder with one foot and straightened it out with the other as Carson helped at the bottom.  I don’t know if he was more scared that I was going to fall and kill myself on the brick steps below or fall right on his head.

After one more idiotic try to climb on the roof, it occurred to me, “Maybe I can peel the vinyl ceiling back on my back porch just enough to climb up into the attic. Got my pry bar, and went to work.  Less than five minutes later, I was inside.

Now, was my wife happy?  Was I the hero of the night?  Was she proud of my resourcefulness and my persistence?  No, she was absolutely horrified by how quickly I broke into our securely locked house. “If a preacher can break in, anyone can!” she said.

This is the good news of this Easter Season. Our securely locked doors are not a problem for Jesus.  Here is the promise of Easter for each of us today. Just as the risen Christ was not stumped by the locked doors behind which the disciples cowered, so I promise you that the risen Christ will not be deterred by the locks that any of us or anyone else has put on our own doors.  Our God is wonderfully resourceful, imaginative, persistent, and determined to get to all of us.  Even in our lostness, even in our betrayals and denials, even with all of our past failures, Christ is ever determined to share his peace with us in this world.

I believe Christ is as alive today as he has ever been. I believe he is on the loose, even here in Farmville. He is moving and working and he is as determined as ever to get the word out…the very first word of the gospel proclaimed by angels, and the last word proclaimed on the cross and the first word of Easter: peace.  The question is: will he be able to use us? Will we allow him to breathe the Holy Spirit on us and send us into the world to help him share that word—a word of unlimited grace, unreserved forgiveness and unconditional love for all God’s people, especially to those who have locked the doors to the possibility of being a part of the church.

Will he find a group of people here that have the audacity to truly live as the embodiment of Christ in this world offering the first word of Easter, the peace of Christ to a fearful world through selfless, sacrificial service to others?

From what I have learned about you over the last seven months, and from what I what I see in you every week, I believe the answer is ABSOLUTELY!