In Dr. Sheri Adams church history class at Gardner-Webb University Divinity School, I learned, among other things, about Archbishop Oscar Romero. I found his life fascinating and have since been drawn to his legacy. Frequently, I refer to Romero's life and work when preparing sermons. Such was the case for this message, preached at First Baptist Church of Weaverville on May 15, 2016 (Pentecost Year C for those following the Revised Common Lectionary. Note: I substituted the Haggai text for the Old Testament reading). Here's the beginning of the message; it's continued in the attached audio.
A word of explanation: this particular Sunday, when I did the children's sermon, a toddler was particularly interested in the microphone. He added a lot of commentary and a touch of chaos to the worship that morning. I refer to this at the beginning of the audio.
John 14:8-17, (25-27), Haggai 2:3-7
In May 2015, Pope Francis ordered the beatification of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador. Pope Francis was affirming what many had said for decades: Oscar Romero’s life so closely resembled the life of Christ, that Romero should be declared a Saint.
Romero came from a lower middle class El Salvadorian background. One of eight children, Romero learned a trade early because his father and others of the time believed that academic studies would not lead to profitable employment. Romero excelled academically though and by 13 he was longing to study scripture with the intent of becoming a priest. He completed his studies and was ordained into the priesthood at the age of 24. He rose quickly in the Catholic church and soon became the archbishop, the highest ranking priest in the nation.
At the time, El Salvador was in the midst of a bloody civil war that essentially pitted the powerful elite—who were aligned with the catholic church—against the poor, oppressed majority. Romero, most people believed, would further the cause of the wealthy elite because he had such a position of power; in reality though, he became focused on the concerns of the poor. He spoke out against injustice, taking his message from the pulpit to the streets and to the airways.
He said, among other things,
“The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.”
Romero, a true voice for those who had no voice, advocated for the poor literally until his dying breath, as he was assassinated while he was preaching a sermon on living out the message of Christ to serve the least of these among us. Romero, now considered by many to be a saint, was at the very least, a true advocate for the oppressed in his land.
Oscar Romero, guided by the spirit, was the people’s advocate, the voice for the voiceless.
The word Advocate comes from a Latin word which means “to call.” Our word voice comes from the same Latin root word. Advocate, therefore, could mean "to call" or "to give voice to." . . .
You see when I was in my last couple of years of high school, we lived on the other side of a swing bridge that spans the Intercoastal Waterway. My school was less than two miles from home, but because it was on the other side of the bridge, I never knew how long it might take to drive to school. If the bridge was turned to allow large ships to pass, you might wait up to 10 minutes for it to come back around. (These days, there’s a big highway bridge that provides an alternative route from my parents' home to the high school, so the swing bridge is not nearly as big of a problem for travelers as it once was.)
Bridges. They make a real difference in the quality of transportation.
According to the NC Dept of Transportation, NC has about 13,500 bridges. We have all kinds of bridges here. We have bridges made from wood, steel, and concrete. We have highway bridges, street bridges and pedestrian bridges. We have suspension bridges, natural bridges, covered bridges, draw bridges and yes, even swing bridges.
Each year, 9,000 of those are inspected by certified bridge inspectors. And guess what? Roughly 40 percent of our bridges are "considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” Now before you go out and trade your Honda for a hover car, know that NCDOT states that these bridges are safe but will “require significant maintenance to remain in service, and limits on vehicle weights may be required.” The price-tag on the repairs? Upwards of $9.4 billion!
Bridges offer convenience, save us time, and open opportunities to us that would otherwise remain closed, but they require significant effort to build and once they are built, the work is not done. That’s when the ongoing task of maintaining the bridge begins. And that task never ends.
(Want the rest of the sermon? Here's the recording.)
I started dating my husband in 1985 when I was just 19 years old. I met my future mother-in-law that same year. Her son and I have been married nearly three decades and on April 11, 2016 she celebrated her 80th birthday, a birthday doctors never dreamed she would see. Since the 1960's, she has fought a muscle disease that has transitioned through a number of diagnoses: dermatomyositis, polymyositis, and now muscular dystrophy. Whatever the doctors say, we say she's a miracle. Today's thank you note is to my one and only mother-in-law, Joyce Lawrimore.
A Most Excellent Mother-In-Law
(loosely based on Proverbs 31)
An excellent mother-in-law who can find?
She is far more precious than a screened in porch on a warm summer day.
The heart of her daughter-in-law trusts her, confides in her, and heeds her wisdom.
She supports her daughter-in-law’s vocation, and avocation.
She believes in her daughter-in-law, encourages her, and inspires her.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She does not take sides in conflict, but offers support to those whom she loves.
She knows how to apologize. She does not interfere.
(A rare and valuable example she is among mothers-in-law.)
She suffers medical maladies, but does not complain.
She has searched for a cure, found new treatments, and defied the odds.
She is persistent. She is strong. She is resilient.
Her family takes great pride in her.
Her potato salad is the best in the South.
No other mayo but Duke’s is allowed in her cupboard.
Her pecans are roasted to perfection.
Her fresh tomatoes are served free from their peeling.
She adores her grandchildren, but is not biased.
Her grandchildren are the most beautiful, talented, and wonderful children ever born.
She speaks the truth.
She rises while it is yet night, but refrains from judging her late-to-rise daughter-in-law.
She laughs easily, and sees the humor in painted squirrels running through the park.
Toys sing and dance in her living room.
At God’s direction, she donates her electric organ or takes her family to Disney World.
She opens her hand to the poor; and reaches out her hands to the needy.
Strength and dignity are her clothing. (But multiple blankets keep her warm.)
She laughs at the time to come when she will run up heavenly stairs and feast on divine delights.
Her children and her grandchildren rise up and call her blessed;
her daughter-in-law also, praising God for the blessing of a godly mother-in-law.
“Many Mothers-in-Law have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a Mother-in-Law who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Happy Birthday Joyce! I love you and am so grateful for you!
Our 30 year old retaining wall had come tumbling down, and the stone masons were tasked with rebuilding it. They would reuse the rocks, but they’d have to shape them to fit the new design. The old wall had looked a lot like a pile of rocks stuck together with some mortar. The new wall would be superior to the old one and not just because of its advanced construction technique either. It would be a real work of art: aesthetically appealing as well as structurally sound.
The work was tedious. Each mason chose a stone and with chisel and mallet, began sculpting it to fit the wall. Gloved hands turned the rock this way then that. Decades-old dirt clods fell away easily; old mortar took a bit more work. Eventually though, the mason would have to knock off parts of the stone itself. He would pound away, turning round rocks into square ones. Once he had placed a reformed stone in place, he’d choose another one and start again. The wall began to take shape. And it is beautiful.
Kind of like a church.
Think about it: we come together to build something beautiful and strong. Like the masons working on the wall, God shapes us into living stones. God holds us tenderly in gentle but firm hands, knowing we have everything we need to be the building block needed in this place at this time. Yet we’ve covered ourselves with the concealing mud of shame or conceit, vanity or self-loathing. As we are placed together to form church, God carefully, slowly, and with great love, removes as much of our muck as we will allow.
Sure enough, it takes no time for our ugly parts, the ones we wouldn’t release, to scratch against the residue of The Others. It’s uncomfortable, even painful, to have to make space for them. It would be such a beautiful church, if The Others weren’t so muddy and jagged.
“They should have let God shape that mess off of them before they came here. They just aren’t going to fit in here like that.” We wince and grumble, making a show of accommodating their faults. Meanwhile, we have forgotten our own smudges and imperfections, concentrating as we are on the defects of The Others. Too often, we leave or The Others leave, seeking a place in a different church, a different community.
And the story repeats itself: because no matter where we go, the living stones are imperfect, dirty, and broken. At least that’s what it looks like to human eyes.
But what does God see? To divine eyes, do we look like rare gems, uniquely shaped to form this particular church? Do our imperfections look like godly opportunities to grow into who we were created to be?
God calls to us saying, “Come to Jesus, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-6)
*This post originally appeared at baptistnews.com as "A ragged wall that looks a lot like the Church," on March 27, 2016. "Baptist News Global is a reader-supported, independent news organization providing original and curated news, opinion and analysis about matters of faith." Visit them regularly at baptistnews.com.
On February 28th, I preached at First Baptist Church of Weaverville, NC. My sermon, entitled “Turning Toward Truth,” was drawn from Luke 13:1-9 and Psalm 63:1-8 (see full biblical text below). In addition to the scripture, I quote two sources in the sermon: a column by James Alison published February 19, 2013 in The Christian Century; and the February 27, 2016 post, “On Certainty (Luke 13:1-9)” from the blog Richard’s Food for Thought, by Reverend Richard Bryant.
Luke 13:1-9 (NRSV)
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it.
Psalm 63:1-8 (NRSV)
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" John 5:2-6
When I was in Israel in 2008, we went to the pool mentioned in this text. We stopped there for a bit while Dr. Robert Canoy, Dean of Gardner-Webb Divinity school and leader of our trip, led us in a devotion. Interestingly, a few months later, my pastor at the time, Dr. Guy Sayles, preached on this text. I’m indebted to these two theologians for much of my understanding of this passage.
The Pool of Bethesda is huge. And since the water is all drained out now tourists can walk around in it, amongst the porticoes and down the stairs. You can see the Sheep Gate from there—the gate that the faithful would enter when bringing their sacrifices to the temple. And just a few steps away is the door to St. Anne’s church.
Do you know who St. Anne is? I didn’t, but I’ve learned that she was Mary’s mother. If tradition is correct, the church stands just over (at least approximately so) the spot where her home had been. How about that? The pool of Bethesda was located in the neighborhood of Jesus’ grandmama’s house. Follow me now. For as long as Jesus could remember, this man had been lying there by the pool. When Jesus was a toddler, the man was there; when Jesus was playing stick ball with cousin John, the man was there; and when Jesus began his ministry, the man still lay there.
So what does Jesus say to him? He says, “Do you want to be made well?” That’s all. He’s not sassy or flippant or sarcastic or anything. For example, Jesus did not say, “Hey Mister, I’ve been watching you soaking up the sun there for a quarter of a century; I’m starting to think you like your problems, bucko.” He did not say, “Man would you dadgum swim or get off the deck? You are flat wearing me out here.” He did not say, “What is your problem dude? You are seriously wallowing in your woes.”
“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asks.
And me? I’m not sure I do. Sometimes, often, I prefer lying by the pool watching others dive into the pool of wholeness. I prefer inaction. I prefer woe.
But Jesus says, “I’m not forcing myself on you. It’s your call. Do you want to be made well?”
Too many times I don’t have the strength to accept wholeness. But Jesus, amazing sweet Jesus, keeps asking me, every time I’m sprawled out, paralyzed by self-pity, “Aileen? Do you want to be made well?”
I say, “Jesus look at me! I’ve been soaking up the sun here by this pool full of the same old problems for a quarter of a century. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I just swim and get off the deck? What is my problem? I am just a wallowing, woe-loving mess.”
Jesus looks at me with love’s eyes and extends love’s arms. “I know exactly who you are. I’ve been right here your whole life. So,” Jesus says to me, to you, “Do you want to be made well?”
Just for today, I’m going to try not to point out all the reasons why that’s hard and just say, “Yes.” How about you?
Earlier this year, I preached a sermon called "Shining in the Darkness," from John 1:1-18 and Jeremiah 31:1-7. Today, I was getting so down about all the fussy, contentious election news, that I reread some of that sermon to remind myself that we do, in fact, have hope. I thought I'd pull out a portion of that to share with you.
(I've linked the audio below for my mother, and for anyone else who might want to listen to the whole thing.)
Have you ever experienced dark times? Times when you longed for light? Just a little light, you think. A flashlight. A cellphone. Even a match.
Indeed, darkness abounds in this world. And sometimes we find ourselves crying out to God saying, Look God, these times are dark! I’ve lost my job; my kid’s struggling in school. My house has been on the market for a year and doesn’t show any signs of selling; my parents are growing old and showing the signs of age. I’m estranged from a family member; I’m a single parent. My job makes me miserable but I can’t quit because I need the money; I suffer from chronic pain, crippling depression, heart-breaking loneliness. My marriage is over; my loved one has cancer; my child is terminally ill. This is dark stuff.
And the problem is, even we as the Body of Christ don’t seem to know how to access the Light. I know a teenager charged with a crime he did not commit and a woman who has dealt with difficult, life threatening complications from an intricate and delicate surgery. Both of them have said to me, “I know this is part of God’s plan or it would not have happened.” They say this, shrugging shoulders, weeping, baffled by a God who would plan such things.
And I say, NO!
God put on flesh! God gets it. God is upset right along with you! Now, I do believe God will redeem all things and is always in the process of regeneration, reformation, renewal. But just because something happens doesn’t mean God designed it that way.
Redemption? YES. Intention? NO!
Think about it. God does not always get God’s way. Do you think God planned the Holocaust? Did God plan the attacks in Paris recently? Does God carefully lay out a plan for childhood cancer? I cannot believe these tragedies are God’s intention. What I know, though, is that not even darkness this extreme is beyond God’s redemptive love.
Scripture says in 1 John 1:5, "God is light and in God is no darkness at all." I cannot believe that God ordained the Holocaust. But I stake my life on the assurance that even in the dark, horror-filled days of the Holocaust, God's redemptive love found divine entrance. Almost immediately following the devastation of the Paris attacks, people found hope in unexpected places and encouragement from new friends. In the midst of countless chemotherapy appointments, the mom of a child with cancer comes home to a fresh cooked meal and a lawn freshly mowed. That’s light! That is God.
“It’s like real-life Tetris,” Josh said, laughing.
“Every time we load stuff, it’s hilarious,” Sarah said. “We have to sit around the drums. And the microphones are, like, here,” she said holding her hands on either side of her head and gesturing forward and back. Josh pivoted on the restaurant bench and leaned back. “One time Andy had to sit like this,” he said, lifting his legs to place his feet on an imaginary drum.
“And there was always something wrong with that car,” Sarah said, shaking her head, somehow frowning and giggling at the same time.
“The Jeep Liberty! That was fun!” Josh said, meaning it.
Sarah looked at me, making eye contact. “It wasn’t fun.”
“It was!” Josh laughed as he ticked off the crises they faced. “We ran out of gas once; the breaks went out one time. And it would just start smoking for one reason or the other. It was great.”
“Josh enjoyed it. I didn’t.”
We were having lunch at White Duck Taco Shop in Asheville, talking about Josh Linhart and Sarah McCoy’s new music venture. These two have been performing together since 2011 when they were college sophomores majoring in music at Mars Hill University. Now, five years later, they are two of the four musicians in the newly formed group, WHYM. Sarah is the vocalist and plays keyboard and guitar; Josh plays percussion; Andy Little, also a MHU grad, plays bass; and Nathan Culberson, a graduate of University of North Carolina in Asheville, plays electric guitar.
“Why the new name?” I asked them. (For the previous 3-4 years, the musicians of WHYM were known as The Friendly Beasts.)
“Mainly because our sound is so different now.” They spoke as much to each other as to me, so it’s hard to remember who said what. “Back then, we were college students who wanted to jam together. We did things as cheaply as possible; we were amateurs.”
“Now we are taking it up a notch. We’ve hired technicians to help us with production and we’re doing things professionally.”
“So even though the four of us were together as The Friendly Beasts, WHYM is really a whole new band.”
“WHYM.’ I’ve been trying to figure out what it means,” I said as Sarah and Josh seemed to wait for my answer—as if it was up to me to come to my own conclusion. “Is it initials for something? Is it from another language? Is it a play on the word ‘whim?’”
Silence. We sat there, thinking, not talking, about those four little letters. Sarah was the one to respond.
“It’s not any of those things. It’s really about the sound of the word. We wanted a single syllable that had a soft sound. We brainstormed a lot of different sounding words, and this one just seemed to fit. But we don’t really know what it means exactly. It’s a mystery.”
“The meaning will work itself out,” Josh added. “Kind of like our faith.”
“When we were younger, we saw things as more black and white. Now we have questions and we allow room for those questions, for the mystery, in our music.” (Their words began to merge again.)
“And not just in the lyrics, but also in the actual music.”
“We have been wanting to think about uncertainty.”
“Not to worry about it . . . “
“To leave space for it. And to be okay with uncertainty.”
“We think it’s more authentic.”
If WHYM is anything, it’s authentic. These musicians have been raised in the church; all four came to know Christ early in life. (Three of them are actually pastors’ kids!) They have lived their faith, wrestled with it, questioned it, and have kept believing. Their music draws listeners into a safe space where followers of Christ don’t have all the answers, where mystery is expected and therefore is not nearly so scary. As a youth minister, a parent to teens, and a friend to many college students, I can attest that this is the kind of safe place our students are seeking: a place where Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit moves in the most mysterious of ways, and humanity is beloved by God, even when they are uncertain.
WHYM started a Kickstarter campaign that lasts until March 3. Every donation—from $1-$5000—grants free music and additional rewards. (Just $5 gets you their new release, coming out in May!) Would you consider supporting them? If you do, down the road, you and I can both say, “You know that amazing band WHYM? I helped them get their start!”
I grew up Southern Baptist, so if it weren't for my Lutheran best friend giving up sweets every year around this time, I'd probably not have thought too much about the Lenten Season. I mean, I'm sure my Dad mentioned something about it in his sermons along the way, and he even held Maundy Thursday services way back in the seventies (radical for the time). Still, I didn't really practice Lent until about a decade ago when we joined a Baptist church that had reached back to its early Christian roots and resurrected the practice of Lent.
There are lots of different reasons that observance of Lent is important to all who follow Christ. (I recommend this article for more information and opinions on the season.) One reason I've heard is that Lent can be a sort of New Year's Resolutions re-boot, a time to get back on track with the life goals you set for yourself a couple of months ago. While I definitely agree that Lent is a time to reflect on our own brokeness, I don't actually think we should use this ancient practice as a self-improvement exercise. Not that Lent doesn't actually have that outcome, because naturally we do become more fully alive when we are more focused on God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But, in my opinion, self-improvement should not be the ultimate objective.
According to the liturgical (church) calendar, Lent marks the weeks leading up to the church's observance of Easter. Thus, it is a time of contemplation, a time to renew the commitment to follow Christ into the difficult spaces where darkness reigns and light is rare. Thus, for my Lenten discipline, I try to select something t0 add or eliminate that will remind me frequently of Christ's deep love for all of creation and my responsibility to reflect that love in my daily life. Want some examples? Here you go.
Whatever you choose for your Lenten discipline, my prayer is that you will remember daily that you are beloved beyond measure.
What about you? What Lenten commitments have you made?
In my family, we call it cocoa butter advice. It’s the advice that no one needs, but everyone
offers. You know what I mean, right? It’s like when my sister suffered from a rare disorder called obstetric cholestasis which caused severe itching from the inside out. Some dear soul would hear she was pregnant and itching and would suggest, enlightened and eager, “Have you tried cocoa butter? That really soothed my itchy skin when I was pregnant.” My sister’s liver was malfunctioning and her obstetricians were consulting with specialists across the globe. It wasn’t cocoa butter that she needed.
Most of us have offered our share of this kind of not-so-helpful advice. We hear someone has a fever and we can hardly keep ourselves from reminding them to drink lots of water to avoid dehydration. Someone mentions computer problems and we ask way too quickly if they’ve tried restarting it. We mean well, bless our hearts, but this kind of advice is anything but helpful.
As the Body of Christ, we can easily become too generous with cocoa butter advice. It comes from a good place; we don’t want someone to suffer when we might suggest something that could alleviate their pain. So we jump in with solutions even before we have any idea what is truly needed.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of my mother. You see, after years of unrelenting pain, Mother decided last fall to undergo a knee replacement. The risk of infection was minimal and extremely rare, but my mother fell into that dreaded one percent. The infection in her knee required a second surgery a year after the first. This surgery meant removing the first knee replacement and inserting an antibiotic prosthetic. After three or four months of immobility and daily IV antibiotics, she’ll have yet another knee replacement and hope to be in the 99% this time.
People, myself included, have had lots of suggestions for Mother. The thing is, she has done way more research on her particular situation than any of the rest of us. Plus, she is perfectly willing and capable of asking for information when she needs it. Unrequested advice is just not helpful right now. But those of us who love her want a quick fix. We want to offer some words of wisdom that will help her feel better faster.
As the Body of Christ, I think we are often guilty of over-advising. We love each other. We want to help. We want the pain to go away. But we don’t know how to do that, so we fill the gap with words of dubious relevance. One problem with this tendency is that too often we pronounce our advice and promptly absolve ourselves of responsibility. But instead of spewing out cocoa butter advice, what if we offered some real comfort?
Here are a few things we could try.
Let’s commit to being more intentional in ministering to each other. Let’s listen with open hearts to each other’s stories. And let’s keep the cocoa butter advice to ourselves.
*This piece was first published on November 16, by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.