“Pastor Chris, I love you but your sermon was awful” (Note: She was right!)

jane esdale

During the post-ritual worship ritual of greeting the preacher Rev. Jane Esdale in as polite of a way as she could do it informed me I had just preached an awful sermon.  I immediately asked Jane if she would share with me and the congregation her thoughts.  Rev. Esdale convinced me never to use the words “worthy” or “unworthy” in a sermon or in my theology.  Previously I had stressed that we are all imperfect, which is true, but I had used “imperfect” and “not worthy” as synonymous, and they aren’t.

I am forever grateful for what Rev. Jane Esdale taught me.  So many people I’ve encountered struggle with feelings of being unworthy.  Jane’s theological point has great ramifications for our relationship to ourselves, each other and to God.

By the way, Rev. Jane Esdale may be the most incredible Christian I’ve ever met.  She got on my nerves and the nerves of others by making fun of our southern accent, but hey, we all get on each other’s nerves.

One of the best gifts, other than correcting my sermon, Jane gave me was a small clay piece of art.  It was the head of John the Baptist being served on a platter.  Jane knew the what the cost of following Jesus could be, and the answer to, What does the Lord require?

Here’s her sermon.

Original Blessing 

Genesis 1:24-31

And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Those of you, who were in church last Sunday, know that my sermon this morning is a response to a paragraph in Chris’ sermon, called “Recycle,” that he preached on April 3. To remind us of the sermon, here is a brief summary. Chris said: “in the scripture text for today Jesus, Mr. Recycle himself, is recycling, his disciples. Yes he is. He could have thrown them overboard. He could have given them a pink slip. He could have tossed them out into the garbage pile. He could have started with a new group. And who would have blamed Jesus. They all forsook Jesus and fled. They all betrayed him and hit the trail. They all denied him and deserted him. He appears before them but not to criticize or scold or shame. He appears before them, Jesus that is, to bless them and commission them.” Still, all good. I am agreeing wholeheartedly. And then…

Let me say that it is a rare day indeed when I disagree with Chris’ sermons. Oh, I may not like too many masculine references for God, or I may roll my eyes when he speaks of his BELOVED Tar Heels. But for the most part, my theology – my thinking about God and how God wants us to live as Children of God – runs pretty much along the same lines as our pastor’s thoughts.

But I was caught up short. Yes, I actually cringed when I heard our leader say the following words near the end of his sermon on April 3rd.

“Really, nothing of us are worthy. Let me say that again so I can get an amen this time. Really, nothing of us are worthy. And none of us will ever be worthy. And the great thing about the Easter story is that Jesus hangs with us despite our unworthiness.” Right there, in the fourth row, on the right of the sanctuary, I shuddered. Couldn’t help myself, really. Especially the sentence, “And none of us will ever be worthy.”

You see, I am what I call a recovering fundamentalist. I doubt that I made up that phrase, “recovering fundamentalist.” I had been taught from the time I was in children’s Sunday school that I was born bad. Remember the wordless book song. Four little blank pages: My heart was BLACK as sin until the Saviour came in. His precious blood (the red page) I know, has washed me WHITE as snow. And someday when I’m old, I’ll walk the streets of GOLD. Oh wonderful wonderful day, that washed my sins away.”

My sweet little Sunday school teacher said that I had to ask God’s forgiveness for my sins or spend eternity in the fires of Hell. For me, there was no FUN in fundamentalist.

In order to be certain that we weren’t tainted with temptation, our church held “alternate activities” on nights of school dances following football games. We were not to attend movies. Not even Walt Disney movies. We girls were discouraged from wearing more than lipstick and a little foundation. We were taught that other religions, like Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and even our Roman Catholic friends and neighbors belonged to CULTS, and of course, would never get to Heaven. And we were taught that God was a JUDGE who, if displeased with us, would send us straight to – you guessed it – H-E-double hockey sticks, exclamation point.

Imagine how I felt, then, at age 20 to find myself pregnant with my first child, married – really a child myself. I smoked, too. I really was bad. I knew that I must be headed straight to the Hot Place where the fires were never quenched. I lived in fear that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I worked for Jesus, I probably wouldn’t make it to the streets of gold.

Imagine again, a young married woman of 24 with two small children, meeting with her new Baptist minister, who told her for the first time in her life, that God is a God of LOVE. God loves all of us – no matter what. No matter what. That God loves the Charles Mansons, the Osama bin Ladens, my enemies, just the same as God loves me. Think that it was rough to feel unworthy of heaven for 24 years? Try believing that God loves us all the same, without regard for who we are or what we have done – or as one prayer of confession says – what we have failed to do!

For the first time in my life, I really embraced my faith. I reveled in this kind of love, which I had never experienced before. I could hardly stop singing with happiness because of this new love given to me by God.

Thirteen years later – if you’re keeping track of my journey, I am now 37, a single parent, finishing my final year of seminary. I had an opportunity to hear Matthew Fox, a formerly Catholic and now Episcopalian priest, speak at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, in Rochester, New York, (optional: one of those fine Northern seminaries. Yep there are divinity schools north of the Mason Dixon line!) Matthew Fox’s theology, based upon the Hebrew scriptures, states that blessing permeates “all creation from the very beginning.” He continues “There is no doubt that original blessing is the basis of all trust and of all faith. Original blessing underlies all being, all creation, all time, all space, all unfolding and evolving of what is…” Original Blessing! Not “Original Sin” as I had been taught back in fundamentalist days where we all begin life – not in innocence – but in sin.

Fox continues to say, “The (Hebrew) word for covenant, beriyth, is also directly related to the (Hebrew) words for ‘create’ and for ‘blessing.’ A covenant is a blessing agreement, a promise to bless and to return blessing for blessing.” Fox also quotes former president of the Catholic Bible Association of Germany and author, Herbert Haag, who writes: “The doctrine of original sin is not found in any of the writings of the Old Testament. It is certainly not (emphasis mine) in chapters one to three of Genesis…The idea that Adam’s descendants are automatically sinners because of the sin of their ancestor, and that they are already sinners when they enter the world, is foreign to Holy Scripture.”

Fox cites Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, whom he calls “a Jewish prophet.” Wiesel says, “The concept of original sin is alien to Jewish tradition.”

One last quote from Fox: “We enter a broken and torn and sinful world – that is for sure. But we do not enter as blotches on existence, as sinful creatures, we burst into the world as “original blessings.”

Enough quoting from “Original Blessing.” You can get a copy at your local bookseller or online anyway. I’ll cut to the chase. What does all this have to do with us today at Wedgewood Baptist Church?

Fox’s theology has to do with the idea of living in the reality of being blessed by God — not cursed by God. This thought of being God’s blessing contradicts atonement theology – the belief that we are “such worms” that we needed saving from our own bad ways. And that’s where Original Blessing has meaning for me. Phrases like “such a worm as I,” “saved a wretch like me,” etc., in our hymns and in the way we think about ourselves – especially concerning whether or not we are worthy to take communion or to consider that Jesus might or might not recycle us – cuts to the quick. I believe that we are all worthy.

And I am thankful that Jesus knew the worthiness of his disciples and chose to recycle them. Even though they made mistakes. Even though they walked away. For it is certain that we all do make mistakes. We lose our tempers, we ignore peoples’ needs, we separate ourselves from God. But it is also certain that WE ARE WORTHY. WE ARE BLESSED BY GOD. WE ARE LOVED. WE ARE GOOD. Let’s proclaim this together. Would you repeat after me?

We are worthy!

We are blessed by God!

We are loved!

We are good!

And on this basis we are WORTH RECYCLING. Not because Jesus swept down and “rescued” us from our unworthiness, but because we have been blessed BY GOD since our beginnings. Thanks be to God for this blessing! Let us resolve to live up to our worthiness and our goodness as children of God! Amen.

“My Goal Is To Treat People Like My Golden Retriever Treats Them”

marsha tegard golf

Yesterday I was on the golf range at Raintree Country Club with Rev. Marsha Tegard. I’ve become Marsha’s golf instructor. Pray for Marsha.

Marsha and her wife, Andrea, started attending Wedgewood Church six months ago.

marsha 1

Last Sunday Marsha rang our Tibetan Tinghsa Bells as people shared their celebrations and prayer concerns. Marsha, who is transgender, got to ring the bells for herself. Rev. Marsha announced to the church her new name was now official and legal. We all cheered.

But back to the golf story. I hope you aren’t one of those people who hate golf stories because this is a good one, and it’s not really mostly about golf. It’s about how people are to feel about other people, how people are supposed to love other people, how people are to treat other people.

When we got to the golf range, a man came up to Marsha and said hello. Marsha was thrilled. Marsha works as a nurse assistant at a hospital and the man had been on Marsha’s floor with his Golden Retriever which has been certified as a therapy dog. What a great ministry! Anyway, the man was aware of Marsha being transgender and she was thrilled that he treated her just like any other person not only at the hospital but at the golf range. When Marsha commented on his extravagant welcome of her, he said, “Well, I told my pastor that my goal is to treat every person like my golden retriever treats them.”

golden retrierver

Wow! That’s it, isn’t it! If all people would just treat other people like a Golden Retriever treats people.

I got the impression the person doing the golden retriever therapy dog ministry was a conservative Christian. Just a guess.

It’s slow work, folks. And some people may be beyond hope. But more and more people are treating LGBT people like Golden Retrievers treat all people. And, even better, they are discovering LGBT people are some of the most wonderful people in the world and are forming loving, long term relationships with them. Thanks be to God!

Make Your Mom Happy But Not Too Happy

Mother’s Day is around the corner and I’ve been thinking about my mother since my wife and I got a new refrigerator last week.  Seventeen years  ago we did an addition to our home and when mom saw the addition, which included a revamp of our kitchen, she commented, “Why didn’t you get rid of your ugly refrigerator?”

My parents never had an opinion they failed to share.  My mother in her 60s+ years said “For most of my life I’ve kept my opinions to myself but now I’m sharing them!”  Me and my two brothers consulted and we couldn’t remember a time when mom didn’t share her opinions.  In mom’s defense, she probably did withhold some of her opinions in her relationship with our father, but we sons can’t remember her doing that with us.

Do you encounter a lot of people who like to share all their opinions with you?  God help us.  And God help us not to share all our opinions.

As a liberal clergyperson I share a lot of opinions.  I feel it is important to do so on many critical matters that impact our society and impact people  who are marginalized.  There are many opinions of mine, however,  that just aren’t that important to share.

May God help us to know when to open our mouths and when to keep our mouths shut.

By the way, here’s our new refrigerator which replaced our ugly refrigerator that lasted 20 years.  Mom, hope you are looking down from heaven and liking our new frig (although it sticks out further than our cabinets).

frig

It’s not easy being a mom.  Give your mom a break, even if she has, and shares, too many opinions.

I’ll close by offering an opinion:  keep your mom happy, but not too happy.

 

There once was a young mother who was struggling . . .

Jet LeBlanc, a Wedgewoodian, shared this amazing story during Missions Sunday at Wedgewood Church.  Jet leads our Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich ministry for the homeless.  Every other Sunday we make PB&J sandwiches for homeless people in Charlotte after worship.  At 3 pm, the sandwiches, along with other food and drink provided by others, are distributed on the streets of uptown Charlotte.

jet leblanc

Jet LeBlanc

There once was a young mother who was struggling to keep her two tiny children, one girl and one boy, housed and fed. Her husband was a sailor and spent long stretches away from home, but with some help from his family this young woman was doing okay. The small family was getting by. Then she got tonsillitis. She went to the hospital. They botched her tonsillectomy and she died, drowning in her own blood. She wasn’t yet 20 years old.

Nobody could reach her husband, who was at sea. His relatives came and took the girl, but for some unfathomable reason, they didn’t want her little boy. He was only 18 months old, but they left him alone to fend for himself. Oh, and the father? He never returned. Neither of his children ever saw him again.

A neighbor pitied the poor bereaved baby and took him in. He lived with her off and on until he was about 11 years old, but she was widowed and very poor. She made her living taking in laundry. This was during the depression and she could barely afford to feed herself, let alone a growing child. By then he was a wild boy, a fighter and a gambler. He lived on the streets and by his own wits from then on. That boy was my father.

Later in his life, he was able to overcome his disadvantages to an amazing degree. He joined the army, rose through the ranks, became an officer, and had a family of his own. His four children always had a home, and enough food, and clothes and toys. It was never a lot, but it was always enough. You might think he had broken the cycle of poverty and neglect, but you’d be wrong. He suffered, every day of his life, from knowing that he had been thrown away. When he died, it was from the diseases of overindulgence – alcoholism and heart disease. He ate and drank unwisely and too much. He hoarded food and had many unhealthy habits, all stemming from his childhood of food insecurity, chronic poverty and homelessness. It was not my father’s fault that he had been abandoned, but his entire life was damaged by it.

Maybe the homelessness ministries at Wedgewood mean so much to me because of my father. Because I could see in his eyes the legacy that hunger and want can cause. Because when I look into the eyes of a homeless man I don’t see a loser, or a threat. I see my father. And I want to feed him. When I see a hungry child, I think about my poor, desperate grandmother trying to keep her children healthy and I want to feed her, and her children.

The problem is huge, and we can’t fix the whole problem. Not all of it, and not alone. But we can feed people who need it. We can hand them a sandwich or a banana, and smile at them, and talk to them. We can recognize their humanity and worth. I know a sandwich would not have saved my dad, but it’s a start. It’s something real. In a world that has abandoned you, a sandwich can be a comfort, and a smile can be a godsend.

If you want to know more about the Sandwich Ministry, please come talk to me after the service. We will be making sandwiches and handing them out today, as we do every other Sunday. And we would love your help and participation.