Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon: Lifestyles of the Rich and Faithless?

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 31, 2016, Pentecost 11C
Luke 12:13-21

Lifestyles of the Rich and Faithless?

I am curious to know: how many of you remember Robin Leach?
If you don’t remember his name, maybe you remember the name of the show he hosted for many years on television:
(with accent) THIS is…Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous!
It was a show back in the 80s and 90s devoted to … well, it’s hard to make it any clearer than the title itself. Insanely opulent mansions, ridiculous limousines and luxury cars, and yachts the size of Navy ships – but far more luxurious than any military vessel ever, populated by Hollywood stars, Saudi Arabian princes, minor European royalty, the occasional athlete, and even a casino and hotel developer who, coincidentally, is seeking a new job this year. You may have heard of him.
Anyway, the show itself (to its credit, I suppose) didn’t really pretend to be about anything other than ogling all the stuff. I never could decide if the makers of the show really wanted their audiences to feel sick and depressed about their own mundane lives, or if social consequences of any sort were even contemplated in any way. It was just out there, relentlessly displaying luxury after luxury for the … entertainment (I guess?) of its viewing audience. If your brain didn’t shut down due to the sheer sensory overload, you might have found yourself wondering … why do these people have this stuff? What’s the point? Outside of the occasional “I saw it and I just had to have it” (which of course is not really an answer), that question seems never to have been asked or answered, at least not on the occasions I saw the show (which were admittedly blessedly few).
Maybe the lead character of the parable Jesus tells in today’s reading from Luke isn’t quite on the level of a featured rich person on that show, but he is rich, and we are told this by Jesus before we even know that he got such a super-abundant harvest. And in Luke, to be honest, “rich” isn’t always a good thing.
For example: even at the very beginning of this gospel, in the Song of Mary upon her meeting with Elizabeth, we hear that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). In chapter 6, Jesus proclaims a “woe” on the rich, “for they have received their consolation” (6:24).
The hits don’t stop coming with this reference in chapter 12. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in chapter 16, is particularly harsh. In that story, the rich man ends up in the torments of Hades, while Lazarus, the poor beggar who lay at his gate daily, was in eternal rest in Abraham’s bosom. It doesn’t go well for the rich man when he (still not getting his situation) asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dab some cold water on his tongue, because hey, it’s really hot down here. The denouement of that parable is perhaps the coldest cut of all, when Abraham declares that such persons would not be convinced of the errors of their ways “even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31).
And then there’s the rich young ruler of chapter 18 who, when challenged by Jesus to give it all away and follow, “became sad, for he was very rich” (18:23), an event that prompts Jesus to exclaim “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24), comparing the feat to getting a camel through the eye of a needle, but finally offering the hope that “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (18:27). Frankly the only rich person that really comes off well in this gospel is Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who pledges to give away for the poor and pay back any who have been defrauded.
So it’s not a surprise that this rich man here in Luke 12 is not going to turn out to be a good guy, but he does seem particularly tone-deaf, with his resolve to tear down perfectly good barns and build bigger and better, showier barns. Seriously, simply adding another barn would be a lot easier and quicker, and that’s before the moral calculus about a person’s responsibility with wealth.
Note that Jesus tells this parable in response to a man from the crowd calling out to Jesus to settle a dispute with his brother over the family inheritance. After an initial “who do you think I am?” rebuff, Jesus turns quickly to warning the crowd against greed, saying “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). Immediately after the parable Jesus launches into teaching that is very specific in its extension of this warning, inviting his hearers and us to look at the ravens who don’t plant or harvest, the lilies that “neither toil nor spin” (12:27) and yet are more glorious than Solomon at his most glorious. Finally Jesus gets to the point: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34).
Now by this point, you may have already begun to draw a conclusion about where this sermon is going to end up. Ugh, another sermon bashing rich people. And there is definitely a moral peril expressed in this parable. The more wealth and possessions one has, it seems, the greater the danger of becoming attached to that wealth and those possessions in a way that clouds one’s spiritual judgment. It may be a cliché to say that “money can’t buy happiness,” but clichés often become clichés because they are true enough to get repeated over and over again, which seems the case here.
Perhaps more significant than simply the insufficiency of money to procure happiness is the utter inadequacy of money as a substitute for a relationship with God, which seems to be where the man who decides to build bigger barns goes off the rails. As Presbyterian minister Meda Stamper puts it, “The parable of the rich fool … illustrates simply and memorably the futility of choices made in isolation from the love of God and neighbor.” Stamper continues to describe what is a central theme, not just in this parable but in the whole gospel of Luke: “the problem of wealth in the context of the holy kingdom where closeness to God is life and attachment to things reflects soul-stifling anxiety and fear.”*
The particularly damning part of the choice the “barn man” makes in this parable is that only one person seems to factor into it: himself. There’s no notion that he even has a clue there might be others in his town in need. There isn’t even the notion that his workers (which he would have had to have if the harvest was that plentiful) might benefit from some portion of that harvest. He sure looks like a man who never learned the basic lesson we tend to expect our kids to learn by kindergarten: the lesson of how to share. To modify a quote that has become a popular social media meme recently, it never occurs to this man that, having more than he needs, he might choose to build a longer table instead of bigger barns.
But of course, this being a parable of Jesus, the simple answer is not quite the whole answer. The dirty little secret about us modern folk, even us modern Christians, is that we don’t have to be “rich” by the standards of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or other such popular measures to become attached to our stuff in a way that hinders closeness to God. Heck, you can even be homeless and be powerfully attached to your stuff. If we look deeply enough, we can all find some element of that unhealthy attachment in ourselves.
For myself, it would probably be books or music. For you it might be some other possession – not necessarily a pricey thing, but some thing or things to which the attachment might be so strong that it has the power to cloud one’s spiritual discernment. Whatever might be the case, attachment to the things of the earth is a moral peril to the degree that it precludes or hinders attachment to the things of God, to the “treasures in heaven” we are encouraged to store up, to the neighbors around us whom God calls us to serve.
You see in your bulletins today a survey from the Finance and Stewardship Committee, one that begins the process of discerning how we will steward our resources for the forthcoming year. The word “stewardship” tends to feel loaded and burdensome to us in such a context, but at its most basic it speaks to this question of how we participate in the kingdom of God, as a church and as individuals, and how we make use of the resources we have been given – the harvest we have gathered, so to speak – to participate in that kingdom and its work. In that process the challenge before us, this year and every year, is to do so without becoming attached to those possessions or resources themselves, but to see them as gifts from God to be given in service to God and neighbor, something that “barn man” never seems to have grasped.
We don’t need to have crazy luxury around us, or Robin Leach ogling our stuff on behalf of millions of TV viewers, to fall into the trap of attachment to things that cannot give life. None of us are beyond that trap. Only when we see what we have through the eyes of the kingdom, fully recognizing God and neighbor in our decision-making, do we begin to get free of that trap. Only then do we see that building bigger barns is not the answer.
Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#307            God of Grace and God of Glory
#417            Lord Jesus, Think on Me
#822            When We Are Living
#716            God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending

Credit: Enough is never enough...

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon: What to Pray, or How to Pray?

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 24, 2016, Pentecost 10C
Luke 11:1-13

 What to Pray, or How to Pray?

It is one of the most familiar things we do in the church. Whether as the body gathered in worship or each of as individuals in our own quiet time, Christians pray.
It is also, quite possibly, one of the most – if not the most – misused and abused practices of the Christian faith. It can be used before a Friday night football game as a kind of sanctified middle finger at anybody in the crowd who does not claim Christianity. It can be appropriated by political parties as a insinuation that God endorses our candidate and hates the other one (I promise I wrote that line before the RNC last week). It can be used, as Jesus shows in a parable about a Pharisee in Luke 18, as a means of proclaiming one’s righteousness to the derision of other, presumably less righteous folk around the one praying. Prayer can be abused quite prolifically, and it sometimes seems the more public the prayer, the more abuse of prayer is involved.
That is a danger, but there are others. Maybe for the church itself the danger is something different; the danger is, perhaps, that we pray without remembering how, or why.
It’s possible something like that was in play as the disciples approached Jesus in today’s account from the gospel of Luke, in which they ask Jesus to teach them to pray “as John taught his disciples” (v. 1). Now we can’t be exactly sure of what this means, whether there was a manner or a style or even a fixed text that John’s disciples had inherited from the one called “the Baptizer.” Whatever it was, Jesus’s disciples wanted Jesus to give them that same thing, but it’s not necessarily a given that what they asked for was what they got.
You’ll no doubt have noticed that the text recorded by Luke is not quite the same as the version we’ll be saying later in the service as we typically do, when the pastor doesn’t forget. Luke’s version doesn’t include a few of the familiar phrases that are in that popular version, which is patterned after the text recorded in Matthew 6. Luke records the address of the prayer as simply “Father,” instead of “Our Father in heaven” as in Matthew; “your kingdom come” is not followed in Luke with “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”; and the end doesn’t include the plea about not leading us into temptation. But perhaps the most jolting difference is in what happens when, after we have prayed for our daily bread, we turn to the petition for forgiveness.
We say, “and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Other denominations borrow from different text translations and say “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” – that seems particularly popular among Methodists. This of course leads to some amusing situations when “debts” and “trespasses” groups are together in the same service, and the running seminary-type joke about Presbyterians being obsessed with money while Methodists are fixated on property.
The really interesting part, though, is in the little words. Matthew records Jesus telling the disciples to say “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Luke’s version is a bit different; “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
Whoa. The prayer Jesus gives the disciples assumes that we are forgiving those who do us wrong. We state this, if we pray the prayer this way. I don’t know about you, but thinking about the prayer this way would give me pause before launching into the prayer. Umm…am I really living up to that?
Even with all this just within the model prayer that Jesus gives, Luke records more, and we miss out on what Jesus wants his disciples to understand about prayer if our reading ends before we get to this part. It’s possible, though, that across the centuries our minds haven’t always been attuned to this instruction very well for one important reason; what Jesus has to say here is not about us, we who (with the disciples) are seeking some kind of nailed-down instructions for getting exactly what we want when we pray. Jesus isn’t giving us a formula for Praying the Perfect Prayer; Jesus wants us to understand the God to whom we pray, the God Jesus calls “Father”.
Jesus gives us this instruction in a mini-parable and a handful of seemingly silly hypothetical examples. The mini-parable is one that has confused readers more than once. A man unexpectedly receives a guest at midnight (remember, we’re in an age before 24-hour quickie-marts or Wal-Marts), and goes to his neighbor to plead for bread. The neighbor is already tucked into bed, the house all locked up (in a modern retelling we’d say the alarm system was already set), and it would frankly be a big hassle to get up and fish out a loaf of bread. However, the petitioner is persistent, and Jesus notes that even if the neighbor’s friendship or “neighborship” isn’t enough to get the man out bed, he’ll eventually get up and give him bread just to get him to go away.
When readers stop here we get a strange picture of God, as some cranky old sleepyhead who has to be pestered into answering our prayers. Needless to say that’s not Luke’s point, which we understand when we finish the whole teaching episode. So, let’s finish the teaching episode.
We get one of Jesus’s more eloquent sayings in Luke’s gospel; “Ask … search (or “seek” if your memorized scripture mental file is all in the King James Version) … knock” is one of those eloquent passages that stays with us pretty effectively. But again, we can get crosswise if we stop here.
Verses 11 and 12 can be a little troubling for us. In the age in which we live, it is sadly easy to imagine parents who would give their children a snake when they ask for a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg. We know that fathers (or mothers) aren’t always kind or giving to their children. We know too well that fathers (or mothers) can be abusive, destructive, or even deadly to their children. We really need to listen to the cries of those for whom the word “Father” does not bring forth an image of a loving and caring parent, but instead summons nightmares and trauma. We do not need to be so attached to our particular words and phrases that we cannot hear the pain of those for whom the words are not words of comfort and reassurance.
But finally, we get to the key point that Jesus is trying to get us to hear. It’s worth hearing again:
If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

While we might not be keen on being called “evil,” hear what Jesus is saying: we (Jesus’s listeners) know what it means to give our children good things. We know how to do the right thing for our children. If you have ever been a parent, you probably learned along the way that being a good parent is quite a different thing than giving your children everything they ask for. I’m just gonna guess that you never gave your six-year-old a chain saw as a toy. I am sure she was a clever child, but probably she’s not quite ready for that kind of thing at this point, and (I’m just guessing) you knew that. We give our children what they need, not necessarily what they want.
If we have enough basic sense and enough basic goodness to do this (or most of us, anyway) for our children, how much more will God do likewise? How much more will God give us what we need when we ask? God knows us well enough not to drop ten million dollars in our laps just because we ask. God knows us well enough to know what kind of jerk we’d become if we suddenly had that dropped in our laps – possibly much more destructive than the six-year-old with a chainsaw. 
I am pretty sure that the Rolling Stones were not seeking to express a theology of prayer in their song, but it’s actually not a bad summation; “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find … you get what you need.
This is a hard truth. We don’t always get what we want when we pray. If we always got what we want, Lynette Ramer would be here with us this morning if she weren’t off on vacation, instead of at her home under hospice care. But if we continue to pray for Lynette, we just might find that she gets the peace and the rest she needs.
We don’t always get what we want when we pray. We pray for peace, not just in Baton Rouge or Orlando or Nice, but also in Munich or Baghdad or Kabul, and yet the assaults and the attacks and violence keep happening. But if we continue to pray for peace, we just might find that we become the bringers and makers of the peace that we need.
How much more will God give us the Holy Spirit when we ask?
How to pray: we give God the glory, we ask for what we need, we forgive, we pray persistently, we trust God to give us what we need – we trust God to give us the Holy Spirit. Maybe that’s not as easy to memorize, but maybe that is what we need to hear.
For a lesson on how to pray, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#728            Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door
#465            What a Friend We Have in Jesus
#464            Our Father, Which Art in Heaven
#39              Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Credit: Of course, in our church we say "debts"... ;-) 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon: One Thing

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2016, Pentecost 9C
Luke 10:38-42

One Thing

Last week’s sermon was about doing. The Samaritan was, in the words of the lawyer interrogating Jesus, “The one who did mercy to” the man who had been assaulted by robbers. Being a neighbor was ultimately about who came to the aid of the one in need.
Today’s sermon is going to sound like a contradiction to last week’s. The one who is busy seems to be castigated and chastised for doing the work of serving, important and necessary work. What it does represent, instead, is a need for discernment, for each one of us.
This is a very familiar story, this one of Martha and Mary.  It’s too familiar.  The story is often told and preached with particular “tweaks” added and unexamined presumptions included without even thinking about it.  And, with its two female protagonists face-to-face with Jesus, it is a major, major trap for any preacher who falls into the mistake of “choosing sides” with either industrious Martha or contemplative Mary, or even of reducing the two characters to stereotypes of (female) Christian discipleship.  Given the (hopefully) evident fact that I am not female and the potential questions of gender roles and restrictions embedded like tripwires in this story, it’s too easy to get in trouble preaching this text.  Try to defend Martha, and you’re reinforcing old gender stereotypes about a woman’s place being in the kitchen – and only in the kitchen.  But, endorse Mary and her breaking out of that stereotype, and you’re still in trouble; now you’re endorsing the passive, submissive role of a woman sitting at the feet of a (male) authority figure.  Really, you can’t win.
Before negotiating this particular theological minefield, it is helpful to remind ourselves of where we are and how we got to this place.  The tenth chapter of Luke is part of this gospel’s travel narrative, the story of the teachings, confrontations, and other events that are recounted as part of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem.  The narrative actually is initiated towards the end of chapter nine, when the text notes that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.”[i] 
So far on the journey the primary events have included an unpleasant encounter with a Samaritan village, in which the disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in return for not receiving them (Jesus had to rebuke them for that); the “mission of the seventy,” part of the sermon two weeks ago,in which Jesus sends out pairs of disciples to preach, teach, and heal across the region, and from which those disciples return rejoicing that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us![ii]; and, finally, the story heard in last week’s sermon, in which a lawyer who challenges Jesus on the law ends up getting a lesson in being a neighbor. 
We do need to keep this background in mind, because it offers us the chance to break out of some of the assumptions and stereotypes that have clung to this story over the generations, and might allow us to hear in it a warning that is not at all gender-bound or stereotyped.
Jesus enters a village, where he is greeted by a woman named Martha who welcomes him into her home.  Catch that?  Her home.  Some scholars have suggested that Martha’s home might have been one of those visited by a pair as part of the mission of “the seventy.” At any rate, it is Martha’s home and her place to welcome Jesus. 
In the next verse sister Mary is introduced, sitting at Jesus’s feet as Jesus teaches.  Unlike the richly narrative account of the Good Samaritan incident, we get only bullet points here, and barely that – Jesus arrives; welcomed by Martha, etc.  Also, where’s Lazarus?  Don’t these two have a brother who dies and is raised by Christ?  In the Gospel of John, yes, but there is no mention of Lazarus here. 
Back to the bullet points; Mary sits at feet, Martha distracted by tasks.  Now here’s the most fertile place in the story for readers over the ages to start “filling in” unmentioned details.  Think about it:  in your own hearing and reading of this story, what “tasks” is Martha distracted with?  Be honest – you don’t learn when you cheat. 
How many of you were picturing Martha distracted with “kitchen” tasks – cooking, or otherwise preparing a meal?  Or perhaps “cleaning” tasks? 
Now would we have conjured such images if the folks welcoming Jesus were two brothers named Samuel and Simon?
Over the years many, many scholars, commentators, preachers and others have presumptively “filled in the blank” about Martha’s tasks with the stereotyped “women’s work” of their own ages, so you’re hardly alone – you’ve been well conditioned.  But here’s where a bit of sermon rule-breaking comes in, about quoting Greek in your sermon (we’re taught not to).  Where the NRSV and other translations use the word “tasks,” the Greek texts have a form of the word διακονια.  It might sound familiar, or perhaps sound like the English word “deacon,” which indeed is related to that Greek word. 
Now διακονια has a wide range of meanings, centered around the concept of serving.  The kind of kitchen tasks we were just considering can be included but are hardly exhaustive of the full definition.  In fact, as biblical scholar Warren Carter points out, the overwhelming majority of the times when this author uses the word, either in the Gospel of Luke or the book of Acts, these domestic tasks are not what the author has in mind; rather, the tasks are those of service as in a “church” or church-like body, tasks that might include caring for the needy, distributing gifts given for the poor, or possibly even including proclamation (that would be preaching).[iii]  
Hmm.  Thinking of Martha and Mary as house preachers certainly puts a different spin on this story, doesn’t it? At any rate I hope this allows us to lay aside questions about “women’s work” and get to the vital word of warning to any follower of Christ, of any gender, who hears this passage today. 
In the movie City Slickers, one of the title characters, played by Billy Crystal, comes under the scrutiny of Curly, a crusty but enigmatic cowboy played by Jack Palance.  Crystal’s character is one of a handful of urban folk who have signed up for an authentic old-fashioned cattle drive; these folks are to Curly a confused and messed-up lot.  They come out to do a cattle drive thinking it will suddenly straighten out their confused and messed-up lives, when in fact those same confused and messed-up lives will just be waiting for them when they return to New York.  Curly continues to suggest that folks don’t take time to know what’s important; too many things get in the way.  To Curly the secret of life is: “this,” as he holds up one finger.  “One thing.”  Crystal’s character asks what the “one thing” is, and Curly answers, “That’s what you have to find out.” We, however, know what the “one thing” is, or at least should know.
The virtue of Mary in today’s scripture lesson is that, in that moment, she chose “the better part,” or as the Greek texts would really translate, the “good part” or “good thing.”  That does not mean that such passive sitting is not always the right thing to do.  But in that moment, with Jesus in the house teaching, Mary figured out what the “better part,” the “good thing,” even the “one thing” was and fixed on it.  Martha, on the other hand, got distracted or disturbed by many things when the “one thing” was sitting in her living room. 
The tasks of ministry are needed, now more than ever.  But without the “one thing,” the teaching, the life, the very presence of Christ at the center of our doing and serving, the work too easily become distraction, disturbance, even uproar and damage to our faith.  And we can’t afford that. 
We live in a world where society is too willing, gleeful even, to enshrine injustice into law, to establish poverty as a necessary or inevitable condition for others to profit, and to tolerate a tidal wave of abuses against our fellow children of God. Even so, we can’t lose the One Thing.  We must take the time, as counterintuitive as it feels, to stop, sit at Jesus’s feet, and listen. 
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner (yes, him again) warns us of just what it really can mean, and what it really can take, to stop and sit at Jesus’s feet:
What deadens us most to God's presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought.  I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort … than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer.  If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.

We really do have to stop and listen. Cut the chatter. Eliminate the noise. Stop and listen for the Word that gives meaning to our doing. Stop and hear the Word that is the motivation and source of strength for all of the tasks that await us as a church.  When we fail to do so, we get cut off from the One Thing that makes all the work and doing matter. 
On that day, that one time, Mary got it right, and as Jesus said, it wouldn’t be taken away from her.  Neither will it be taken from us to sit and listen at Jesus’s feet.  At least, not until it’s time to get back to work. 
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal except as noted)
#309                                    Come, Great God of All the Ages
#450                                    Be Thou My Vision
#----                                    This One Thing Only, Loving God
#702                                    Christ Be Beside Me

1 Luke 9:51
2 Luke 10:17
3 Warren Carter, “Getting Martha Out Of the Kitchen,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996), 264-280.

Credit: It's a real clash, all right...

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Meditation: High and Dangerous Waters

Another two-posted-sermon day. This was from Saturday, July 9, a meditation given at the closing worship service of a new-student program at my seminary alma mater. I was dumb enough to volunteer. Wasn't going to post, but decided, why not? But do remember the context.

Union Presbyterian Seminary
July 9, 2016, Communities of Learning Face-to-Face Worship
Genesis 7:11-12, 17-20; Psalm 69; Mark 1:4-12

High and Dangerous Waters

Have you ever been caught in an undertow? Out in the ocean, finding yourself suddenly a lot farther from the beach than you expected? I know some of you are beach people, so maybe you know what I'm talking about. An undertow or a rip current is a pretty frightening thing for an eight-year-old, which is how old I was when I had my first experience of one. Fortunately I was with an older sibling and a cousin who knew enough to paddle our little float sideways until we escaped the rip current and get back to dry land.
As much as water is a frequent metaphor in the church, I wonder if at times we lose some of the power of that metaphor in the way we use it. We’re all Psalm 23 and the Lord our shepherd leading us by the still waters. It’s a pretty image, one that has been reproduced in countless examples of artistic kitsch with Anglo Jesus cuddling an adorable baby lamb or something similar (paintings that will never get into the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). On the other hand, though, the psalmist who gave us the psalm we just sang looked at waters just a bit differently, in 69:1-2:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

That psalmist is hardly the only biblical writer who saw the waters as source of wildness and peril. The tale of Job features none other than God boasting of the untamed torrents of water, fathomless deeps, and the fantastic Leviathan that sported in the deeps beyond human comprehension. The story of Jonah also evokes the terrors of the sea, as Jonah is beset by storm, gulped up by a great fish, and finally spat up on the shore.
These are high and dangerous waters.
Perhaps the most dramatic such story of water and its terrors is the account of the great flood in Genesis. The outlines of the story itself I would imagine you know well enough; but let the description of the rising waters sink in. “The fountains of the great deep burst forth…the windows of the heavens were opened…” Waters so great and so deep that the mountains were covered – and not just covered, but overtopped and submerged. It is a terrifying picture. These are high and dangerous waters.
It’s not hard to imagine that later descendents of those Hebrew peoples had such stories in their heads as they made their way down to the Jordan to be baptized by this crazy wilderness preacher John, called the Baptizer. The Jordan was neither small nor still. Maybe it was just enough to convey the sense of danger that tradition had ascribed to waters in various ways in Hebrew scripture.
John himself was also a pretty good picture of wildness and danger. Mark, who is not normally given to great detail, slows down his account long enough to give us the “runway description” of John’s wardrobe and diet. Just imagine the fashion show: And the Baptizer is commanding the path down into the river today in an inverted camel-hair ensemble that just oozes unpredictability and danger, with a striking leather accessory around his waist…amazing how John keeps in fighting trim with his patented honey-and-locust diet… . In short, there’s no reason to think anybody saw this passage, this event, this baptism as normal or “safe” or “tame.” Even in the Jordan, these are high and dangerous waters.
Jesus is among these crowds, to be baptized by the eccentric wilderness prophet with the eccentric wardrobe and diet. At this point in Mark’s story, Jesus is just this guy, you know? Oh, except for Mark calling him “the Son of God” back in verse one of this chapter. He himself only shows up from Nazareth in verse 9, and like all of the other pilgrims to John’s baptism spot, he steps into the water and is baptized.
Then things get crazy, at least for Jesus. The heavens “torn apart” – don’t miss that! No mere “opening” or parting like those other wimpy gospels. “Torn apart”! The Spirit shrieking down like a dove, the voice from heaven … the waters of the Jordan turn out to be high and dangerous waters indeed. Oh, and then there’s a wilderness ahead, too.
Y’all are not doing a safe thing. You are starting an experience that, despite our best efforts to give you a sneak peek, will challenge you in ways you’ve can’t imagine. Your faith will be bounced around and challenged and bruised and even broken in some places. You will wonder what you are doing here, and why, why, why you put yourself through this. You will question your calling, your ability, and even your sanity.
And it won’t stop when you graduate and move into your vocation. You’ll be heading into a place where you won’t be able to leave town without wondering if the parishioner who has been battling cancer longer than you’ve even been in the church will succumb to it before you get home. You will go into a calling where you will see poverty you couldn’t imagine existing in the most impoverished places on the planet, and it will be in your own town. You may see literal high waters ravage your community, as one of my classmates has in West Virginia of late. You will see hatred and bigotry and cruelty to turn your stomach, and love and grace and mercy and joy beyond your imagination.
This font may not look like it, but it contains high and dangerous waters indeed. You have no idea where the currents will take you, what the skies will tear open and show you, what wilderness you’ll be driven into.
And Jesus calls you to dive in. 
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)

#164                  Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways
#602                  Holy Lamb of God
#478                  Save Me, O God, I Sink In Floods
#482                  Baptized in Water

Sermon: Samaritans

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 10, 2016, Pentecost 8C
Luke 10:25-37


It is such a familiar story, what’s a pastor to do with it?
It is maybe the most well-known parable Jesus told, rivaled only by the parable of the prodigal son. It’s a full-fledged story, with plot and development and conflict and all the good stuff that makes a story compelling enough to hear.
Well, one thing we can do is back up and remind ourselves that the story didn’t just come out of thin air; Jesus is – cue the dramatic music – being interrogated. By a lawyer.
The lawyer is, as Luke tells the story, testing Jesus. Throughout the different gospels different parties at different times do just that, trying to trap Jesus in some kind of bind that would either set him up to be found in error theologically or cause him to fall out of favor with the people. The lawyer (who is not the kind of lawyer we think of nowadays, but should be assumed to be an interpreter of the law) here seems to be probing Jesus for some kind of theological misstep about the commandments.
Instead, Jesus turns the question on his interrogator, who could hardly get away with declining to answer – it was his job to answer questions about the law. When he did so, and did so appropriately, Jesus more or less congratulated him and invited him to go his way in peace and security. This of course left the lawyer stewing in the same kind of humiliation that Jesus’s would-be interlocutors typically endured; their questioning turned against them, their duplicity exposed. But in this case the lawyer can’t leave well enough alone, and – using a long-favored legal tactic – tries to recover himself by questioning the terminology in the answer: “And who is my neighbor?
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner offers this take on the lawyer and his question:
He presumably wanted something on the order of: "A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one's own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever."
Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer's response is left unrecorded.

Well, not that I want to be in the position of questioning a Pulitzer Prize nominee like Buechner, but one small part of the lawyer’s response actually is recorded for us. And it’s a pretty revealing answer.
Upon finishing the parable, Jesus again turns on his would-be interrogator. Having told the story in which a Samaritan steps up, above and beyond the call of duty, to aid a badly wounded man who had been passed over by members of the religious elite, he again questions the lawyer, asking him to identify which of the three travelers in the story had been a neighbor to the wounded traveler. Do pay attention to the lawyer’s response:
The one who showed him mercy.
On one level, of course, the lawyer has answered rightly. Now the way the Greek is constructed in this particular sentence, a more literal translation would read something like “the one who did mercy to him.” That’s actually a theologically superior way to put it, if not so wonderful grammatically. “Mercy”, like so many of the loaded theological words we use, is active. It’s not a feeling or emotion or empathetic reaction. Mercy is, even if English doesn’t quite capture it, something you do. And this traveler had in deed “done mercy” to the wounded man, unmistakably so. And Jesus’s answer to the lawyer acknowledges this, as he leaves him with the command “Go and do likewise.”
But notice the lawyer’s answer again, even in the theologically superior but grammatically awkward version:
The one who did mercy to him.”
The three passing travelers in this story didn’t get names, but they did get pretty clear identifiers that Jesus’s listeners would have immediately recognized. One was a priest, a religious authority, and the second was a Levite, a member of that tribe set apart since Moses’s time for service in the Temple. Two figures to whom would be attributed qualities of righteousness as a part of their standing among the people.
The third man was a Samaritan. And the lawyer couldn’t even say the word.
In the time of Elijah and Elisha, the prophets who figured into the scriptures and sermons the past few weeks, Samaria was simply a region of Israel, the northern of the two kingdoms that had resulted from the machinations of those who succeeded Solomon as king after his death (the other kingdom was Judah, which was centered in Jerusalem). The city of Samaria sometimes served as the seat of government of that northern kingdom. By the time of today’s story, though, all of the region is simply lumped into a larger Roman province called Palestine. Yet over the centuries a virulent schism had erupted between those Jews whose worship was centered on the Temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritans, who were, technically, Jews, but whose practice had evolved to worship on Mount Gerizim in their own territory, a site which they claimed was the original holy place in Israel, dating to the time of Joshua, as opposed to Jerusalem, which only became prominent during the era of King David. In short, a disagreement over what might seem to outsiders an arcane theological point had become a hard-and-fast schism, with Jerusalem Jews literally going out of their way to avoid even passing through the region of Samaria, much less actually having anything to do with Samaritans.
For Jesus to invoke the third, merciful traveler as a Samaritan, no doubt provoked agitated bristling, and probably an oath or two, among his listeners. That’s if they were a well-behaved group.
It was a two-sided provocation that Jesus put before his listeners. By no means would any self-respecting Jew of what we might call the Jerusalem party even think of defiling himself by dealing with a Samaritan at all; being a neighbor to a Samaritan was out of the question. At the same time, no such self-respecting Jew would conceive of a Samaritan being a neighbor to a Jew. It would never happen, they might say, the way a plantation overseer of the 1850s might say that a member of the same skin color as the slaves he ruled over would never be President of the United States.
Such was the vitriol that our lawyer couldn’t even vocalize that “the one who did mercy” could even possibly be a Samaritan.
It’s easy enough for us to grasp the main point of the parable, and to apply to it Frederick Buechner’s point that a neighbor is basically anybody who needs you. But it’s not always easy or comfortable to get Jesus’s point that “anybody” really does mean anybody. We aren’t prepared to give up our grudges, our ancient hostilities, our prejudices or superior attitudes or whatever ruses we use to divide ourselves and keep ourselves set apart from and above others. It would never happen. It can’t happen.
I won’t let it happen.
Our society is pretty good at demeaning and dehumanizing “the other.”
The world out there calls them job-stealers and threatens to build a great big wall, never mind who’s going to pick all those tomatoes and strawberries in south Florida.
People call them terrorists and threaten to bar them from the country, even if they’re citizens, never mind that they are the ones that the actual terrorists kill first, as witness events in Baghdad and Medina in recent weeks.
Or they just call them thugs when they get shot, whether they be black man or police officer. Jonathan Tuma or Steve Weaver.
And Jesus says we can’t be part of that. Jesus says that’s your neighbor. If they need you, if they need your help or your care or your compassion, that’s your neighbor.
Jesus has this nasty habit of not caring one whit about our preferences or prejudices or whatnot. The world says “but Jesus, they’re…” and Jesus cuts us off and finishes the sentence “your neighbor.” Society protests “but he’s a…” and Jesus won’t let us finish, but says “the one you should imitate.” See, the kingdom of God doesn’t honor those divisions we create. The kingdom of God sees need and moves to meet it. End of discussion. If we want to claim to be part of that kingdom of God, we’d better move that way too.
Which one … was a neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves?
The one who did mercy to him.
Go and do likewise.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#63                    The Lord is God
#351                  All Who Love and Serve Your City
#203                  Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love
#766                  The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sermon: Remember Whose You Are First

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2016, Pentecost 7C
2 Kings 5:1-19a; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Remember Whose You Are First

One thing you are taught in your preaching classes at seminary is that an effective sermon focuses on one scriptural passage. “Passage” here refers to a block of scripture that is “complete” in some way – it tells a full story or some block of it, contains a unit of teaching that is coherent and well-rounded, or somehow can be understood as a whole. That’s not how preachers have always been taught; at one time the emphasis seems to have been on preaching a single verse of scripture, a process I find impossible to imagine. Anyway, the idea is that you pick one such unit of scripture (a “pericope” if you want to know the fancy seminary word) and concentrate on it in your sermon. Normally that’s what I do in a sermon. While I might briefly refer to other scriptures as a way of supporting or drawing a contrast to the principal reading, there is one primary scripture that is the focus of the sermon.
I can’t do this week, though. Two passages are demanding my attention, and neither one will give way to the other. And yet, oddly enough, both of these readings are telling me the same thing.
We were introduced to Elisha last week, as he doggedly held on to Elijah until the very last, taking up Elijah’s prophetic mantle in the process. As we come to him this week he has been in that role for a while now, and aside from one angry cursing at a group of young boys who taunted him over his baldness, his prophetic term has been rather calmer than his predecessor’s. He has his quirks; when a trio of kings came to him for an oracle in 2 Kings 3, he refused to speak until a musician was provided to play – perhaps making Elisha the first beat-poet prophet.
In today’s reading from 2 Kings, Elisha remains almost a background character, only appearing in person at its close but deeply involved in events nonetheless. While a powerful army commander and multiple kings are involved in the story, some of the most important roles in the story are played by people who are anonymous to us, and of least significance in the social strata of the time; the servants of the general Naaman and his wife.
Take the young servant girl who served Naaman’s wife, for instance. She had apparently been taken captive from her home in Israel, presumably during one of many military battles between Israel and Aram. She would have been well aware both of Naaman’s military prowess and of the skin condition that threatened his stature, no matter how successful he was in the field. It would have been easy for her to say nothing. It would have been easy for her to rejoice in Naaman’s potential downfall; after all, he had led an army that defeated her homeland. How the mighty hath fallen and all that, you know.
But this servant girl remembered who she was, or whose she was. Such gloating, or even simple refusal to offer help in that time of suffering simply was not reconcilable with what she knew of Israel’s God. Yahweh was a God who heals, and she remembered the prophet in her homeland who healed others. Because of whose she was, she spoke up to her mistress, telling her about that prophet in the region of Samaria, which set in motion the events of today’s story.
Elisha himself also shows us what it is to remember whose we are. By reaching out to Israel’s king at a moment when that king was apparently forgetting whose he was, Elisha helps avert a potential disaster between Israel and Aram, and incidentally reminds that king that there is indeed a prophet of the one true God in the land. Later in the story Elisha will also demonstrate whose he really is as well, refusing Naaman’s very generous offers of reward for his healing.
For Naaman, though, first he has to learn whose he is. He was a man of power and accustomed to wielding authority over others even as he also served his king. The humiliating spectre of his disease threatened all that. Being brought so low as to take the advice of a foreign servant girl was bad enough, but to get shuffled off from the king to some prophet out in the backwoods, only to be handled by some messenger boy was almost too much. Fortunately, more of those anonymous servants appear on the scene to save the day, persuading Naaman that it only made sense do the simple thing that the prophet asked of him. Finally he takes his Jordan River bath and is “over-healed”, his skin being made like that of a young boy.
It seems that a lot of people overlook an important point in this story: Naaman converts! He declares his profession of faith in verse 15 – “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He’s still a little confused about some things, not realizing that that same God would be with him even in Aram and wanting to take along some Israelite dirt, but it’s a start. After Elisha rebuffs his attempts to pay, Naaman confesses his dilemma; his job required him to support his master, who still worshiped that foreign non-god, and seeks pardon of Yahweh through Elisha, who sends him on his way in peace. Whatever else he may have had to learn, Naaman had picked up one important thing: he knew whose he was, he knew the Lord who held not only his healing but his very life in his hands, and that this Lord would still be whose he was, first and foremost.
The reading from the gospel of Luke for today seems different on its face, but that same idea runs through this story like a fierce undertow out at the beach.  Jesus is commissioning seventy of his followers to go out into the towns and cities that were ahead on his own itinerary. Luke doesn’t go into much detail about exactly what Jesus is commissioning these seventy to do, but we get little snippets – extend peace to the houses they enter; be good guests, eating what they’re provided even if it’s not kosher; cure the sick; proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God; if a town doesn’t receive you, move on – but not before you proclaim that the kingdom of God is near.
The challenging part, though, is the way Jesus sends them out. Jesus himself describes it as sending them out “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” No bag, no sandals, no provisions of any sort. They are being sent out vulnerable and at the mercy of others. They are totally reliant on the goodwill of those to whom they are sent.
So they are sent, and it seems that things go well. The seventy are excitedly reporting that “even the demons submitted to us!” and Jesus is celebrating right with them.
Note that ending, though:
Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

Remember whose you are first.
It isn’t about doing end-zone dances over fallen demons. It isn’t about tossing power around as though you’re drunk with it. It isn’t even about shaking the dust off your feet and telling a town where to go if they don’t receive your message.
Remember whose you are first.
It isn’t about being Warriors for Christ or members of the Power Team, or any of the ways Christians have tended to want to gloat over the centuries. It isn’t about anything that we do, in the end. It is, for the servant girl or Elisha or Naaman or the seventy, about whose we are first.
We claim a lot of different identities. We identify ourselves by our careers or vocations, by membership in this club or that group, by our hobbies or activities, our circle of friends, by how we vote or what music we listen to or goodness knows how many different ways. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but remember whose you are first.
You are God’s own. You are called and commissioned and sent out by Jesus. Your name is written in heaven. You are a servant of God before you are anybody else’s servant.
Remember whose you are first.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

#331                  God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand
#8                      Eternal Father, Strong to Save
#500                  Be Known to Us In Breaking Bread
#719                  Come, Labor On

Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan, 1150 (British Museum collection)

Sermon: Don't Blink

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 26, 2016, Pentecost 6C
2 Kings 2:1-14; Luke 9:51-62

 Don’t Blink

When last we left Elijah, the prophet had just been rebuked (mildly, to say the least) by the Lord for his pronounced myopia and “I alone am left” whine, not least by being ordered by God to go anoint his successor, a prophet named Elisha. Whether enthusiastically or not (after all, we don’t know if Elijah even knew Elisha at this point), Elijah at least obeyed that command, upon which Elisha left his farm and family (slaughtering twenty-four oxen on his way out, and giving the meat as a feast for the locals) to follow Elijah. Elijah did have a couple more prophetic encounters left in him, including his dramatic condemnation of King Ahab over his theft of the vineyard of a neighbor and one more destructive conflict with Ahab’s successor, Ahaziah. By the time we get to today’s reading, though, Elijah’s time is up, and Elisha seems to know it.
Our narrator certainly knows it, and is almost blasé about it at the beginning of our reading. How often do you see a sentence that begins “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” and continues in blasé fashion about Elijah and Elisha’s journey? I suppose after all the over-the-top things that have happened in Elijah’s term on earth, one more crazy thing doesn’t seem like much, but we are talking about a man who is going to be gathered up by a chariot of fire and whisked away. That seems worth a little bit of excitement. At any rate, it seems like everybody, including Elisha, knows that something extraordinary is about to happen.
And if he didn’t know it, there were plenty of others along the way to clue him in on the subject. As they travel, they encounter companies of prophets, and in each case members of those prophet groups take Elisha aside and say “you know he’s going away, don’t you?” and each time Elisha responds “yeah, yeah, I know, just hush” and determinedly plugs along with Elijah, even though Elijah keeps trying to put him off as well.
Remember, Elisha hasn’t really been the prophet yet. He has so far been functioning like an understudy, or perhaps like an Assistant Prophet of Yahwistic Theology still awaiting tenure. Even though God specifically commanded Elijah to go anoint Elisha as his successor, it’s not even clear that Elisha was a prophet at all before Elijah showed up and ordained him, so to speak. At the end of 1 Kings 19, when Elijah comes to anoint him, Elisha was plowing in the fields (his parents’ fields, evidently) with twelve yoke of oxen. And before following Elijah, Elisha wants to return home to say goodbye to mom and dad and to slaugher those oxen for a great feast. Doesn’t sound much like a prophet in the making, and his name doesn’t appear again in the Kings narrative until today’s reading, and yet here Elisha is, doggedly following his prophetic mentor to the last.
And this most likely wasn’t an easy life for which he was signing up. You might remember the gospel reading for today, in which Jesus warns those who say they want to follow him. “Nowhere to lay his head.” For that matter, no turning back – sounds like Jesus would have been less inclined to indulge Elisha’s wish to say goodbye to his parents and throw that ox barbecue. This is not a glamorous life. We have elevated these characters from the Bible to the status of heroes, but that wasn’t necessarily how they experienced life. It wasn’t easy, particularly when you had an angry king and queen hounding you as did Elijah. But, for all that, Elisha was still there, still following Elijah to the end.
So, let’s follow what he sees.
With some of those other prophets following along, Elijah and Elisha come to the Jordan River. Ii isn’t one of the Great Rivers of the World, but it’s not small. One doesn’t just wade across it, or swim across for that matter. Elisha watches as Elijah takes his mantle (the same one he had wrapped around his face on Horeb the mount of God, at the “sound of sheer silence”) and rolls it up to strike the water, causing it to part. No doubt Elisha and the others recall the Hebrew people crossing the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership as they finally approached their promised land after years in the wilderness. Elijah and Elisha cross, as the other prophets watch.
Finally Elijah gives up and asks Elisha what he wants. What do you say in such a situation? Many years before a newly elevated king, Solomon, was asked this question by no less than God, and had chosen to ask for wisdom. Here Elisha, asked by his prophetic mentor, chooses to ask for what he sees in Elijah, only more. Given what we’ve seen of Elijah this might seem a truly frightening prospect, but Elisha nonetheless sees in Elijah what he needs to step into his call. Except he doesn’t just ask for it, he asks for a “double portion.” He asks for more, for beyond. What makes a “double portion”? Is it more power, more ability to do great feats, more discernment about God’s call to a prophet? We don’t get an explanation. Nonetheless Elijah allows that Elisha’s request will be granted, but only if Elisha sees Elijah is he is taken away.
In other words, don’t look away at all. Don’t even blink. And certainly don’t look down at your cell phone. No pressure there, right?
And yet Elisha, determined as ever to fulfill this call he never expected, manages to keep his eyes on Elijah, until the fiery chariot and whirlwind sweep him away, finally fading from sight.
In a story like this one, with some utterly fantastic elements and a setting clearly unlike anything we will ever know, it can be difficult to relate. Chariots of Fire is a movie, not something we actually expect to see in real life. But Elisha does show us something we need to see, something we can in fact learn from even in our own very different modern times.
Elisha is wise enough to seek what his mentor had. It’s not that we need to think Elisha saw Elijah as perfect. We’ve seen the ways in which Elijah’s zeal sometimes outstripped his willingness to rely on God’s leading. And yet for all his excess, Elijah was still in touch with God, still a servant of Yahweh, and Elisha knew he needed that if he were to step into Elijah’s prophetic office.
But even at the same time he asked for Elijah’s blessing, he knew that wasn’t enough. He needed more. Elijah’s world was already shifting away. Ahab was no longer on the scene, and even his successor Ahaziah’s reign was short-lived. Israel would be challenged by different enemies. Elijah’s way wasn’t going to be sufficient. Elisha’s prophetic ministry was going to be a different one than Elijah’s, and in his request he was wise enough to grasp that.
We can learn from this. We, the modern church here in Gainesville and around the world, cannot cavalierly dispense with the foundation that our ancestors in the faith have built. It is not perfect. It is not foolproof. We as Christ’s church in God’s world have failed too many times in too many places in too many cases to think we’ve ever been perfect. We’ve endorsed too many evils in the name of our convenience or our status in society. We managed to read the Bible in such a way that we decided keeping slaves was o.k., for perhaps the most egregious example. That’s in our history.
But still, flawed as those saints may have been, they are the ones who have built the foundation on which we stand, and we cannot dispense with that. Neither, however, can we be bound to it.
The church of the nineteenth century was not sufficient to witness to the world of the twentieth century, and neither would the twentieth-century church will never be the church that successfully witnesses to the world of the twenty-first century. Just try telling someone they ought to be in church. They’ll ask you “why?” point blank. And if you don’t have a real, honest, authentic answer, you’ve lost them, probably for good. We don’t get to throw open the doors and just expect them to come. Doesn’t work.
We need more. We need things we’ve never understood before. Our challenges are different than those our fathers and mothers, or grandmothers and grandfathers, or any of the generations before us ever faced, and we need to be equipped and prepared to witness to unchanging truth in an ever-changing world.
Elisha did indeed step into Elijah’s prophetic call. Yet his prophetic ministry would be quite different from Elijah’s. No rash challenges to a horde of Baal prophets, no running from Israel to Sinai. And yet his work would see healings, health restored to barren and poisoned lands and wells, and even a powerful foreign general converted to the worship of Yahweh. Not bad.
Can we as a church, both local and universal, rise to that challenge? Can we be a church that witnesses to the eternal in an age like none we’ve known before? Can we speak truth, bear witness, tell good news to a world or a country or a city that is dramatically different that the one in which we grew up?

We would do well to ask for a double portion. Thanks be to God. Amen.

#405            Praise God for This Holy Ground
#810            When In the Night I Meditate
#282            Come Down, O Love Divine
#825            Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Well, you try to paint a man being carried away in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire...