FUMC News

"Seeds of Life"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/18/2018

 

John 12:24-26
“Seeds of Life”
March 18, 2018
 
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” [John 12:24-26]
 
Those are words that I find myself speaking most often standing in a cemetery, conducting a burial service.  In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul wanted to reassure them that when a body is buried in the ground, it is not the end of the person, and that God transforms death into life on absolutely every level.
 
“What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” [I Corinthians 15:42-44]
 
Before Paul could say that, though, and before any of us could gather around a graveside and talk about something stronger than the natural cycle of birth and death, Jesus confronted his disciples to become his followers, precisely when following him meant to follow him into dying.
 
            Beware leaders who glorify death.  False messiahs do that all the time, and lead others to destruction.  In 1978, Jim Jones set up a mass suicide/murder situation among the people he led to the jungle in Guyana, and a tape that somehow survived that day has him saying,
 
"I tell you, I don't care how many screams you hear, I don't care how many anguished cries...death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you'd be glad to be stepping over tonight."[1]
 
Jesus would never say any such thing.  Nor would he have had anything in mind like Marshall Applewhite, the unhinged leader of the cult called Heaven’s Gate, who in 1997 convinced thirty-nine people to put on black track suits and Nikes, to eat applesauce laced with barbiturates, wash it down with vodka, put plastic bags over their heads, and then lie down and cover up with a purple cloth – because a comet visible in the sky at the time was hiding a spaceship that was coming to collect their souls.[2]  Nor would he have been like the Branch Davidians in Waco, who held off the FBI for fifty-one days to protect David Koresh from answering charges of child abuse.[3]  Those are only three modern examples; there are many more if you dig around, people who were overcome by their own demons and dragged many others to their deaths with them.
 
            Jesus never glorified death, and never sought it.  The gospel of Matthew recounts how, in the Garden of Gethsemane right before his arrest,
 
“he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’”  [Matthew 26:39]
 
When soldiers arrived to take him, he didn’t ask his disciples to fight to the death, or to fight at all.  Instead, he stepped up and,
 
“he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’”  [John 18:7-8]
 
The real Messiah is very different from the false ones.  He gave his life for others, rather than ask others to give their lives to save his.
 
            Yet in asking for followers, people who walk in his footsteps, he knew that there would be the possibility that those followers would face the same dangers that he faced, even death.  It would never be something to be sought, but neither would it be something to be feared.  It is something to be avoided, but not at all costs.
 
            Maybe it’s someone like a Liberian man named Foday Gallah who was 37 when ebola broke out in the town where he drove an ambulance, presenting him the choice to stay in the middle of the plague or leave for safety.  He stayed.  Someone asked him about it and he said,
 
“I was trying to save a little boy, a little child. And he survived. He survived. He is alive and well and doing great. He is somewhere in Kakata. And that was my prayer. That was my wish. Even if I had died of Ebola, I still have family, right? But that little boy lost his family. His mother, his brother, his sister. Wiping away his entire family. But I kept him alive. So all my efforts did not go in vain. I survived, and he survived.
 
I saw him [in the treatment unit]. I got there two days before he was discharged. He was there. And I stayed there for two weeks. He was my son there. He was always around me. I was very happy to see him. I was very happy. Maybe he gave me the strength to live because all my efforts [to save him] did not go in vain with that child.
 
I don’t regret picking him up, because I prayed for his life, I wanted his life. And today he has his life. So I think I achieved something: his life. At least that can be a representation of his family. So there is one member of the family who survived.
I am going to go back in full swing. I am not going to be afraid. I am going to walk in to fight Ebola with all of my might. I would have died. A lot of people die. But in there I was treated, and cured, and automatically that is the work of God, and I have built immunity to it, so that is a gift.”[4] 
 
            This is someone who realized that, should he die, it would not be for nothing.  He did not seek his cross, but his cross found him, and he took it up and followed.  And he was only one of thousands, most of whose stories have gone untold, though God has seen them and, one way or the other, seen them through.
 
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” [John 12:24-26]
 
 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonestown#Deaths_in_Jonestown
[4] http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-ebola-caregivers/
"Not to Condemn, but to Save"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/11/2018
John 3:16-17
“Not to Condemn, but to Save”
March 11, 2018
 
 
            One of my favorite writers and preachers was a man named Walter Wangerin, who died a few years ago, way too soon.  For awhile he was pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, Indiana, a struggling church in a struggling town, but one where the people knew and loved the Lord.  In one of his books, he tells a story about his own struggles.[1] 
 
            Across from the church lived a woman named Marie who, like most of the neighborhood, fought to make ends meet.  Wangerin felt for her, and also for her young son, but wasn’t quite sure how he could best help her, and she didn’t make it easy on him when she regarded him with a mix of resentment and suspicion.  He later realized that she made her living in the world’s oldest profession.  He began to look askance at her, too.  Then, one night, Wangerin was working late in his study and all the lights were off except the one at his desk, when he heard suspicious sounds outside.  The church had been broken into a couple of times and he got nervous, so he peeked out a window.  He saw Marie filling water jugs at the spigot on the side of the church that was itself having trouble paying its bills.  “Geez!” he wrote,
 
“the presumption griped me.  She was busy stealing.  She was reaching into the very heart of the building, even to frighten me in the privacy of my study.  I felt very, very vulnerable.
 
…She’d shut the water off.  When she passed the window, I saw her from the knees down, lugging in each hand two plastic jugs of water, and then I was alone again – and full of anguish.
 
…I had no idea what to do about Marie’s little theft – or the arrogance of it.  Well, well, well: water isn’t communion ware, after all.  What do you pay for water?  Pennies.  So let it go.  That’s what I said to myself.  Just let it go.  And I thought: if the city has turned off her water, you can bet they’ve turned off her gas and electricity too.  The woman’s without utilities.  And she’s got a kid who needs to drink and wash and use the bathroom.  So calm down and call it charity and let it go.
 
Yeah, but that kid nagged at my mind.  What was she teaching her child?  That he could take whatever he needed – whatever he wanted, for heaven’s sake.  Any child, I don’t care who or whose it is, deserves better than this poor kid was getting.
And then that’s the next thing that nagged: what is the ethic for supporting a prostitute, even by inaction and non-involvement?  This is a church, after all.  We have a covenant with virtue, after all, a discipline, a duty, a holy purpose, a prophetic presence.  Shouldn’t I talk to the woman?
 
Precisely at that point all my abstract inquiry skdded against reality.  Talk to the woman?  Why, the woman doesn’t talk!  She stares at you with a moribund stare.  She scorns you with murderous scorn.
 
… ‘So let it go.’  I said that out loud in the doorway of my study.”
 
            So far, so good.  But it continued to rankle him.  Then one day, again working late and hearing the tap running, he took action.
 
“I thrust my face to the window and looked into midnight and squinted to make my eyes adjust.  I saw the figure beneath the street light.  I saw the body bending at our faucet.  Two feet from mine I saw a concentrating face. …who was this drawing water from the bowels of Christendom? One of the prostitute’s johns!”
 
He saw things getting out of hand, so he ran into the boiler room and shut off the valve. 
 
I feel okay using this story in a sermon, because so did Wangerin.  It was a situation where it was important to draw the line and to do it in a way that was considerate.He wrote that
 
“Even so in the end did a cleric and the church prevail, by cunning, not by confrontation, and no one was hurt, and no one’s feelings or reputation was wounded, neither the church’s nor the prostitute’s.  We could coexist on opposite sides of Gum Stree
Most of the people who heard it understood that.  Most.
 
            At the church door he spoke with Miz Lillian Lander.  “Pastor?”
 
“Her voice was both soft and civil.  It was the sweetness of it that pierced me.  … ‘You preached today,’ she said, and I thought of our past conversation.  ‘God was in this place,’ she said, keeping my hand in hers.  I almost smiled for pride at the compliment.  But Miz Lil said, ‘He was not smiling.’  Neither was she.  Nor would she let me go.
 
… ‘Her grandma’s name was Alice Jackson,’ Miz Lil said, staring steadily at me.  ‘Come up from Kentucky and went to school with me, poor Alice did.  She raised her babies, then she had to raise grandbabies too.  She did the best she could by them.  But a body can only do so much.  Pastor,’ said Miz Lil, ‘when you talk about skinny Marie, you think of her grandma.  You think of Alice Jackson by name.  You think to yourself, she died of tiredness – and then you won’t be able to talk except in pity.’”
 
            Wangerin’s story is a warning to preachers.  It is tempting to thunder against the dark, hoping that lightning will give a moment of clear vision where there is no daylight.  But those bolts do not belong in anyone’s hands but the Lord’s.  What human being would even be certain to aim them at the right target?  Who would not end up sending one straight through their own heart?  But
 
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him, the world might be saved.” [John 3:17]
 
It is a warning to all Christians, because in good faith and in truth we may want to follow God’s will, and want to see others do the same.   Only, where do we see God’s will if not in Jesus?  It cost Jesus more than we will ever comprehend to follow through on his mission.  It cost far more than any of us could ever give.  We get a glimpse of it when more is asked of us than we are ready for, especially if it is asked of us again and again and again, and we are ready sometimes to “die of tiredness”.  Even if we do, it is not the whole story.
 
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]
 
Until then, God grant us all grace to look beyond ourselves and to see people in such a way that we won’t be able to talk except in pity – or to act except in mercy and in love.
 
 

[1] Walter Wangerin, Jr., “Miz Lil” in Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).  Quotations here occur from pages 44-48.
"A Temple on the Move"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/4/2018

 

John 2:13-22
“A Temple on the Move”
March 4, 2018
 
            I can open up any modern book and read the copyright and printing dates.  We cannot do that with the gospels.  Scholars have to make some informed guesses about the place and time of their composition based on language, contents, where they are quoted outside the Bible, and so forth.  John, unlike the other three, seems to have been composed after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, and that makes a difference.  The story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple shows up in all four gospels.  John differs from the other three in that he puts it toward the beginning of Jesus’ active ministry, not at the end, which sort of surprises me because it makes sense to me that something like that would be the last straw for the authorities, as it is in the other three versions.  John, though, uses events from Jesus’ life to make a point more than the others do.  Instead of threatening the end of religious observance, he is promising an ongoing access to God that no catastrophe can change.
 
            We have our holy places.  There are buildings that matter deeply to Christians.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem occupies the probable site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and people have been traveling to worship there for sixteen hundred years.  Various branches of the Church have been arguing for nearly that long about who has jurisdiction over the place and there are elaborate agreements that leave some parts of the building in the hands of the Roman Catholics and some parts in the care of the Greek Orthodox and relegate a section of the roof to the Ethiopian Coptics.  But last week, as part of a protest over confiscation of other church properties by the Israeli government, the building was closed for awhile.  I saw some pictures of pilgrims kneeling outside the locked doors. 
 
           Allowing worship to stop, even temporarily, in the Temple was unthinkable for the Jews of the first century.  Josephus, who wrote a history of the war in which the Romans sacked Jerusalem, says that the priests
 
“carried on their religious service uncurtailed, though enveloped in a hail of missiles.  Just as if the city had been wrapt in profound peace, the daily sacrifices, the expiations and all the ceremonies of worship were scrupulously performed to the honour of God.  At the very hour when the temple was taken, when they were being massacred about the altar, they never desisted from the religious rites of the day.”[1]
 
The scriptures we know as the Old Testament had anchored the worship of God on Jerusalem and on the Temple as the place where, out of the whole earth, God had directed his people to gather and where he had said he would meet them.  To destroy that would, they thought, destroy God’s promise.  Imagine – as an analogy – what would happen to Islam if Mecca were wiped off the map, and the Ka’aba that Muslims face to worship, wherever they are in the world, were turned into a hole in the ground?
 
           The Temple had been destroyed once before, and the people had felt themselves totally cut off, especially those who had been carried away as prisoners.
 
“By the waters of Babylon –
            there we sat down and there we wept
            when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
            we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
            asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
            ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
            in a foreign land?” [Psalm 137:1-4]
 
For two generations, their focus was on trying to get back, and Nehemiah led them in the effort, inspired by Isaiah and guided by Ezra.  Zeal for Jerusalem and for the Temple was the burning motivation of their lives.
 
            On the other hand, if the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral or St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or every church building on the globe were to disappear, we would be deeply upset and mourn their loss but it would not go to the heart of our faith.  It’s fair to say that we have John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple to thank for that. 
 
“The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’  Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
 
Our access to God is through Jesus, who has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, whose Holy Spirit is everywhere, not just in one designated spot, however beautiful or time-honored.
 
            In fact, the Bible calls the Church his Body, and reminds us of Jesus’ own words:
 
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” [Matthew 18:20]
 
Sometimes it’s catastrophes that reveal that.  I’ve seen it happen on a plane when it hits turbulence.  I have felt Jesus’ presence standing on a corner by a vacant lot during an anti-drug vigil in Philadelphia.  Mother Teresa knew that she could find Jesus sitting beside people dying in the streets of Calcutta and Dietrich Bonhoeffer shared communion with other believers in a Nazi prison.  Julia Ward Howe looked out from a rooming-house at the Union troops guarding Washington during the Civil War and said,
 
“I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps.
 I can read his righteous sentence by their dim and flaring lamps. 
His truth is marching on.”
 
Even so, in the everyday and in the safe places, too, Jesus is right there in the ordinary unremarkable.  He’s there when a family bows its heads to give thanks at the dinner table, and when parents are saying prayers with their children at bedtime.  He’s certainly here with us as we gather at this table in his name.
 
 

[1] Josephus, War I. 148, cited in E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE-66CE (London: SCM Press, 1992), 92.
"Loss and Gain"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 2/25/2018

 

Mark 8:31-38
“Loss and Gain”
February 25, 2018
 
            We often forget, perhaps willingly, that slavery was once legal throughout the American colonies, Pennsylvania included.  I’m going to read in a few moments from the Journal of John Woolman, who was a Quaker born in New Jersey in 1720.  He became one of the earliest and most effective abolitionists.  Still, it wasn’t until 1780 that the commonwealth passed a “gradual emancipation” law that declared that children born to enslaved women in were to be considered free.  Those held as slaves continued as such until freed by the slaveholder or by death.  And slavery was as brutal in the North as in the South.  In the mid-eighteenth century a black man was convicted of a crime and executed in Perth Amboy by being burnt alive, with persons of color from all neighboring townships forced to witness the execution.
 
            Looking back on those times, we want to ask how people could have allowed it.  We want to think that we would have been the ones who would have stood up and said, “No!”  Woolman’s Journal gives an insight into how even somebody who knew, deep down, that the customs and law of the time were wicked could calm and soothe his conscience.  As background to this passage, it helps to know that Woolman was a notary who was paid to sign off on transfers of property of all sorts.
 
“My employer, having a negro woman, sold her, and desired me to write a bill of sale, the man being waiting who bought her. The thing was sudden; and though I felt uneasy at the thoughts of writing an instrument of slavery for one of my fellow-creatures, yet I remembered that I was hired by the year, that it was my master who directed me to do it, and that it was an elderly man, a member of our Society, who bought her; so through weakness I gave way, and wrote it; but at the executing of it I was so afflicted in my mind, that I said before my master and the Friend that I believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion. This in some degree abated my uneasiness; yet, as often as I reflected seriously upon it, I thought I should have been clearer if I had desired to be excused from it, as a thing against my conscience; for such it was. Some time after this a young man of our Society spoke to me to write a conveyance of a slave to him, he having lately taken a negro into his house. I told him I was not easy to write it; for though many of our meeting and in other places kept slaves, I still believed the practice was not right, and desired to be excused from the writing. I spoke to him in goodwill; and he told me that keeping slaves was not altogether agreeable to his mind; but that the slave being a gift made to his wife, he had accepted her.”[1]
 
“I’m only doing my job.”  “It could have been worse.”  “It wouldn’t last long.”  “It was my wife’s decision.”  “I needed to keep peace in the house.”  “I didn’t want to offend anyone.”
 
            Let’s talk about Jesus.  He confronted some of the most entrenched abuses of his own day, practices that had their justifications.  Roman coins had the image of Caesar stamped on them: Augustus Caesar, who claimed the title divi filius, “son of a god”.  Images and idols could not be carried into the Temple, so moneychangers were needed to prevent that.  Likewise, if the Law required animals to be sacrificed, a pilgrim coming from North Africa or Persia couldn’t carry a cage of pigeons that whole way.  It made sense to set up a few stalls where they could buy them right there.  So far, so good. 
 
           But we all know what happens when people bid for the contract and sweeten the deal, right?  Kickbacks, exploitation of those who could least afford to be there, artificially high prices, the poor being elbowed out of their place as part of the congregation, the sellers forgetting why they were there in the first place, and who-knows-what-else Jesus saw going on. 
 
“And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all
the nations’?
     But you have made it a den of robbers.’”
[Mark 11:15-17]
 
Yes, there were times that Jesus expressed lenience, as when hungry people plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath, or when a sick man whom he healed took up his bed and walked away with it, again on the Sabbath.  But when what was going on destroyed people’s relationship with God or degraded them as human beings, he had no patience.
 
            Jesus emphasized that it is one thing to be stuck without good choices, but it is another to deny that you have choice, or to sell out.  When you do that, what you sell is more than you will ever realize.
 
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  [Mark 8:34-37]
 
(Now, I warn you, I’m going to stop preaching and start meddling.)
 
            I’ll start with myself, though.  I have to admit that I am where I am because of how unfairly others have been treated.  William Penn may have made his treaties with the Indians, but for the most part, this land was not borrowed.  A big chunk of the wealth that built our economy came from slave labor.  As for myself, specifically, I can point to scholarships that helped me out in seminary that came from the Duke Foundation (as in Duke University), whose money ultimately derived from James Duke’s ability to encourage smoking and sell a lot of cigarettes in China.  My education is tied to an increased rate of cancer and emphysema.  Do I not, then, owe it to someone to say that I cannot undo the past, but I refuse to repeat injustice in the future?  So hear this: “Don’t smoke, don’t vape, don’t chew, don’t juul.  Just don’t.”
 
            Jesus’ words also mean that what we think is to our benefit may not be worth anything in the long run, so be prepared to forgo what you consider to be owed to you, because you might lose your soul over it.  You may have a legal right to say anything, but if it is hate speech, or even simple gossip, you don’t have any moral right to open your mouth.  Maybe people have a legal right to own an assault rifle, but children deserve safe schools more than you deserve whatever warm and fuzzy feeling you get from having an AR-15 in the house.  Maybe you don’t own any weapon like that, but do you have stock in a company that sells them?  There are places in the world where prostitution is legal, but what does it do to everyone involved in the business?  There are spots where you could farm poppies for opium and heroin production.  Could you look into the eyes of someone whose child has overdosed?  These things give fuller meaning to “making a killing”.
 
            Just be aware that you kill yourself at the same time.  And for what?  There’s a scene in A Man for All Seasons where Thomas More is on trial for treason that he has not committed, but Henry VIII wants him found guilty.  One of More’s former proteges steps forward and gives false testimony against him that everyone in the court recognizes will guarantee conviction and a death sentence.  More notices that the witness is wearing a chain and badge identifying him as the new attorney-general for Wales and says to him, “Richard, it availeth a man nothing to sell his soul for the world.  But for Wales?”
 
            An English teacher I had in high school told us on the first day of class, “I want you all to know that I can be bribed – but that none of you can afford my price.”  I hope nobody else ever could, either, for their sake, as well as hers.
 

[1] The Journal of John Woolman and A Plea for the Poor (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1961), 14-15.
"Between the Beasts and Angels"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 2/18/2018
 
Mark 1:9-15
“Between the Beasts and Angels”
February 18, 2018
 
            Temptation is one of the simplest and one of the most complicated aspects of life.  We all know what it is and can see it plain as day and at the same time we don’t always recognize it when it’s right in front of us.  Temptation is serious, because one wrong choice that looks small (and maybe is small) often has consequences larger than itself and before you know it, you’re stuck in a situation that is beyond you and even your efforts to get out of it just seem to make things worse.  Try out this poem by C.S. Lewis, and see if you don’t know what he’s talking about:
 
“Nearly they stood who fall.
Themselves, when they look back
see always in the track
One torturing spot where all
By a possible quick swerve
Of will yet unenslaved–
By the infinitesimal twitching of a nerve–
Might have been saved.
 
Nearly they fell who stand.
These with cold after-fear
Look back and note how near
They grazed the Siren’s land
Wondering to think that fate
By threads so spidery-fine
The choice of ways so small, the event so great
Should thus entwine.
 
Therefore I sometimes fear
Lest oldest fears prove true
Lest, when no bugle blew
My mort, when skies looked clear
I may have stepped one hair’s
Breadth past the hair-breadth bourn
Which, being once crossed forever unawares
Forbids return.”
 
            When the gospels of Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus being tempted, they do it in a way that illuminates the ways in which evil disguises itself as good and the importance of staying close to God’s teaching for our own welfare and safety.  But the gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ temptation in a way that, while less precise and less extensive, seems to me to go to the heart of what it can be like to be in the midst of it for the rest of us and what it was also like for him.
 
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [Mark 1:13]
 
When temptation comes to someone, it’s like being in a wilderness, alone.  It’s like being surrounded by all the dangers that are out there, some of which give themselves away and some of which lurk quietly for the chance to pounce.
 
            There was a guy named Colin who I knew in Middle School.  He was two years older, so we weren’t buddy-buddy, but we lived in the same neighborhood.  Around that time he got into some trouble and was in a serious fight with a kid from another school.  He was in the hospital for awhile, and after that just sort of faded out and I never really paid attention; I had my own friends, like you do at that age.  Somewhere around ten years ago, somebody passed along a brief obituary with Colin’s name at the top.  At the end it said memorial contributions could be made to the Caron Foundation, so I figured that he had died of substance abuse of some sort.
 
            Last week I attended a presentation that the bishop arranged at Hempfield UMC, west of Lancaster.  The speaker spoke about opioid addiction, and why it is so hard to get out of it.  He explained that the opioids do some unusual things to the human nervous system.  They can block pain, which is what they are prescribed to do.  They increase a sense of pleasure, which is part of what gets people hooked.  In so doing, however, they destroy the receptors for naturally-occurring dopamines, which are the substances that allow us to feel good in non-harmful ways, like when you feel a sense of accomplishment or when somebody gives you a hug or you feel good after exercising.  These receptors can grow back, but it takes months.  So if somebody gets off the abused drug that they were using to kill pain or make themselves feel good, there will be a long period afterward where they will feel nothing.  They will be emotionally blank or worse.  Meanwhile, the part of their brain that is still craving the drug that destroyed the receptors will keep calling to them and creating physical desire for another hit.
 
            In the lobby after this, I was talking with someone who is friends with Colin’s mother, and she brought him up.  “You know that’s what killed Colin,” she said.  “He had been clean for a good, long time and was doing okay at work and so his mother and stepfather thought they could go away for a couple of days, and when they got back…” and then she described a scene that I’ll spare you.  The wild beasts: sometimes you hear them out there, howling like a hungry coyote; sometimes they are like a copperhead waiting under a log.  Jesus was out there in that wilderness, and is there now.  He’s the Good Shepherd who leaves a flock of ninety-nine sheep who are all accounted for just to find the one that is missing and may not even know the dangers it faces.
 
            That brings me to the other part of Mark’s description of what goes on.   Jesus
 
“was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
 
The word “angel” simply means “messenger”.  Angels are messengers of God.  They might be supernatural or they might be natural.  Like temptation, the message might be loud or it might be subtle.  If you want loud messengers, take the Ten Commandments.  They are pretty straight-forward.  The quieter messengers are there, too, those little voices and gut reactions that something is just a little out of line, and it’s good to listen to them, too.  I disagree with Mike Pence in a lot of ways, but I will give him credit for one thing that he’s taken some heat for.  He says he will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife nor attend functions without her if alcohol is being served.[1]  If he knows his weaknesses, he pays attention to them, and that makes sense. 
 
            There’s a danger of legalism, too, of course.  Nobody said it would be easy.  In fact, Jesus himself said that
 
“the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” [Matthew 7:14]
 
It’s easy, again, to point fingers or to identify one or two activities that are sinful and to say that as long as you stay away from those, you do no wrong.  I had a textbook for an ethics course one time whose title was Money, Sex, and Power.  What if it had been called Making a Living, Relationships, and Getting Things Done?  That would be a little less catchy, but not off-target.  Life is tricky and complex.  No wonder Jesus taught us to pray,
 
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
 
They are out there, both temptation and evil.  Let’s not sugarcoat it, or pretend that we don’t face temptation, when even Jesus did.  We fool ourselves if we think the beasts don’t leave us with plenty of bites and scratches along the way.  But let’s not forget that Jesus is out there, too, and he knows the way when we don’t.
 
            East of the Jordan, in the wild lands where Jesus may have spent those forty days, is an area that was once called Gilead.  It was known as the source of a medicinal plant, Pistacia lentiscus, that contributed to an antiseptic, anti-irritant ointment called “Balm of Gilead”.  Out in the wilderness, where Jesus has been, the wilderness where we also find ourselves sometimes, there is also healing for the deepest troubles, the things that lead to addiction or despair or to seeking power over others, the things that warp the way we see ourselves or the way we see God, the things that we allow to come between us and his love.
 
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
 
Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend,
And if you look for knowledge, he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.
 
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
 
If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.”

 

 

[1] http://www.latimes.com/local/abcarian/la-me-abcarian-pence-marriage-20170405-story.html

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