Sermons

January 29: Mark 1:21-28

   

Mark 1:21-28

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

January 29, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

In high school, I visited the psychiatric ward at the hospital. My mother was visiting a woman from our church, I was too young to drive, and with Mom as my chauffeur, I was stuck tagging along wherever she wanted to make stops.

I remember toting my textbooks inside this foreign place, planning to retreat to some unnoticed corner and work on homework while I waited for Mom to finish her visit. But then, to my own shock and surprise, I struck up conversation with some patients on my own accord. As in, I initiated it. There we all were, sitting in the lounge area, and I just started talking, like I was some kind of friendly person. Which I most definitely was not.

I’ve always been the shy type, and I was especially so as a teenager, when there was so much pressure to sound cool every time you opened your mouth. But I guess the fact that I was surrounded by crazy people who were not likely to judge my coolness nor had the social status to do so anyway, drove some of my shyness away, and it occurred to me that maybe they needed a friend. Not a doctor who was paid to help them, or a family member who was sort of stuck with them, but just someone who wasn’t trying to “help” anything at all, but just talked to them because she recognized their humanity hidden behind the quirks.

If there had been psychiatric wards in Jesus’ day, I’m sure he would have paid them a visit. There was no such thing at the time, but Jesus did engage many a demon-possessed person. I’m not sure if a demon-possessed person is comparable to a patient in the ward or not, and theologians, scholars, and doctors aren’t really sure either. To be honest, this whole business of possession and exorcism has got a lot of enlightened intellectuals all fussed. How do you explain such extreme spiritualism and still maintain the credibility of Scripture in a modern culture? Frank Peretti novels aside, demons and possession don’t make much splash in the daily news. They are not a part of our daily conversations or awareness, except for occasional horror movies, which I avoid pretty religiously anyway. No matter what our take on the Bible and the reality of miracles, we have to admit that demonology just isn’t really a part of our atmosphere anymore, even in the church.

We read Gospel stories like the one today, and hooray for Jesus casting out demons Way Back Then, but what has it got to do with Now? We’ve got scientific labels for people who aren’t right in the head. And if we encounter someone crazy who doesn’t neatly fit an existing label, we’re more apt to find a new disorder than to chalk up their behavior to something so primitive-sounding as demon-possession.

Which potentially makes these Gospel stories problematic. Did Jesus really understand what he was up against? Was it mental illness, not really a demon? If it was a demon, what has become of demons in our day and age? Has medication replaced Jesus?

I am inclined to think that such debates miss the point. What every generation of history can agree on is that Evil—capital E—is wickedly real—it has a million faces, a horridly long reach, a tenacious grasp, a frighteningly quick pace, and a sickeningly sweet smile. It is fierce and aggressive, deceitful and subtle, violent and tricky, and we are tempted to believe there is no end to the havoc it can unleash in human lives.

The man in today’s text has collided with such Evil in a terrible way, and its havoc on him is so severe it has rendered the man useless and unfit for society. If we were reading in Greek, we would see that in verse 23, this man is described as being “in an unclean spirit,” which differs slightly from verse 25, Jesus casts the evil spirit out of the man. One commentator explains it this way: “These two beings [the man and the spirit] are conceived as somehow ensphering each other, and sometimes one, sometimes the other, is said to enclose the being identified with it. The demon is said to be in the man, or the man in the demon. In [v.23], the man is said to be in the unclean spirit, and v. 25, the unclean spirit it said to come out of him.”[1]

I find this to be a powerful image for those of us who have known some form of Evil—be it fear, rage, betrayal, addiction, violence, anxiety, depression—whatever face Evil displayed in your case, you could never quite tell whether the evil was inside of you, ravaging and plundering and tearing you to pieces from the inside out, or whether you were inside of it, swallowed and engulfed, lost inside its Dreadful Bigness, like a child in the dark. These two beings—the Great Evil and you—were somehow ensphering one another. Sometimes it was inside of you, like an awful burden you couldn’t seem to shed, and sometimes you were inside it, like a cage with no exits.

Sometimes this happens to you; sometimes you watch it happen to someone you love. In the case of loved ones, you don’t know whether you are trying to get something ugly and dark out of them, or whether you are trying to get them out of something ugly and dark. You don’t know whether to treat it more like an infectious disease, festering in their very soul or to think of it more like a cold steel trap in which they are stuck. It is a raging monster, no doubt, vicious and unrelenting, but it small enough to hide in the heart and huge enough to fight back.

And today’s story is a tale of when just such an entanglement gets unraveled in the blink of an eye, and The Evil inside the man shrieked as the jumbled mess came undone. I imagine The Evil was shrieking because it was essentially dying—there is no power in Evil without a human home in which to dwell, without a human soul on which to feed.

The Evil shrieked, and the man himself convulsed.  Convulsed—in Greek, a medical word that refers to the spastic action of the stomach when retching. Now I hate throwing-up more than any kind of sick, but even I admit throwing up can be a relief when it alleviates the nausea. Some people find themselves so soul-sick they would give anything to just vomit the horror out and be done with it.

Jesus had simply said, “Be quiet,” which, in the Greek, also means, “Be still.” And then he said, “Come out of him.” I suppose he could have been speaking to the demon, saying “Be quiet. Quit speaking your vicious lies and your poisoned truths. Get out of this man and stop terrorizing him!” Or maybe, Jesus was speaking to the man, “Be still, quit fighting this monster. Take my hand, and step out from him, get away from its shadow. My light will guide you home.” Maybe, Jesus was speaking to the both of them, and it was his attentiveness to the both that made all the difference. Most people were too uncomfortable to address a crazy man and too afraid to address a demon, but Jesus was unruffled by either, so he looked them straight in the faces, in a way that said, “I see you. I see you both. Other people have made you out to be One—one hideous, twisted, half-of-a-person, but I can still see you, untangled and separate. There is a whole person underneath the mess, crying to be free, and there is also a monster, who is no match for my power, and I say, Come out from each other.”

I don’t know that it matters too much how each generation defines satan, or how precisely we diagnose demons. We’ve made advances in science and medicine, and those are worthy achievements we can embrace as times change. But what stays the same, what every generation of Christians still declare, is that Jesus drives out Evil. We find a thousand ways to say the same thing to every era—that Jesus is Bigger than Evil. That Jesus has the authority to speak to Evil. That Jesus is Power and Evil is only a leech. That Jesus is Creator and Evil is only a manipulator of created goods. That Jesus is Risen and Evil is only a failed assassin.

What was true about Jesus Way Back Then is true about Jesus Now—that whatever their ailment, Jesus find ways to speak to hurting people, to see beneath the chaos to the person underneath, and to call them out into the Light.

There is a woman who tells about her stay in the mental hospital as a teenager struggling with bulimia. Her ailment was an eating disorder, but there were all kinds of ailing patients. She says, “There was one man on our unit who spoke only in numbers. I ignored him at first . . . it’s hard to know what the appropriate response is to “Twenty-one ninety-six forty NINE?” But one day I decided to take a guess. “Fourteen?” I responded tentatively. I remember his face changing from empty to surprised to happy. Then back to empty, quickly. But I definitely saw happy, for a moment there. That taught me to try, at least once, to speak each person’s special language.”[2]

If I were one of Jesus’ disciples, and he sent me out into the world to cast out demons in his name, I would protest, “What?! I don’t know how to do that.” But maybe Jesus would just smile at me and suggest, “Why don’t you start by really seeing people—the human being beneath the muddle. In your mind’s eye, separate the person from the monster that plagues them, and try to speak to them both, without fear. You won’t know how, but make your best guess, and be sure to speak my name into the midst. Your attentiveness alone will make a difference, and my name will cast out shadows. And if you can’t remember all of that, just look at people the same way I look at you, and you’ll do alright.”

 


[1] Rev. Ezra P. Gould, “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Mark,” International Critical Commentary, 22.

[2] Momastery.com, January 10, 2012. http://momastery.com/blog/2012/01/10/fourteen

 

Download:  http://covenantbaptist.sermon.net/da/119817009

Jan 22: Mark 1:16-20

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 1:16-20

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

January 22, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

 

Life is messier with a dog than without one. So the Renfro household has discovered. Especially when she is a stray dog who goes into heat a week after you adopt her. But alas, it was love at first sight, so I can’t really complain. Some decisions just make life more complicated, but you choose them anyway and live with the consequences.

Following Jesus is certainly one of those complications. If you drop your livelihood to follow him, then how on earth will you eat? No one really knows, but some people follow anyway. They say he can take two fish and make a thousand, but let’s be honest—the fishing nets are more consistent. They say he can multiply loaves of bread, but that’s not really reliable enough to count on when you’re preparing your budget. The issue isn’t so much whether miracles are possible, but whether they are probable when you need them. The problem is that the bread loaf explosion in Scripture only occurred once, maybe twice, but people go hungry every day. You can’t just walk away from a sensible, practical approach to life in order to gallivant with Jesus across the countryside. Of course not. It’s simply not sensible.

And yet, Mark tells us that some people did it anyway. Simply dropped their nets, in the blink of an eye, and followed him. I want to know why.

Or maybe . . . How? How did they just rise up and run after him like that . . . ?

Or maybe what I really want to know is . . . What kept them from coming back home? Why didn’t they run back after they realized how difficult it would be or after they realized they were all gonna die and Jesus would be first?

I suppose, in a strange way, it was love at first sight. Some decisions just make life more complicated, but you choose them anyway and live with the consequences . . . and there’s nothing quite like love to inspire insanity.

But I do not suspect it was the gushy, heart-warming kind of love. I mean, when Jesus showed up at the fishermen’s boats, he had a strange look about him, his delivery was abrupt, and no one knew which rumors about him were true. But I imagine there was this sort of Spirit-love that hovered around him and reeked of something genuine and life-altering, mysterious and compelling. It drew them in and demanded that they trust him, before they had time to weigh the pros and cons.

This story always fascinates me—the way they drop their nets and follow without hesitation. Perhaps because it is so hard to believe. I never could have been a disciple—not because I don’t love Jesus, not because I wouldn’t have wanted to learn from Jesus like a Rabbi’s apprentice. I never could have been a disciple because I just don’t have the guts to be that spontaneous—to leave my whole livelihood and my home in a split second to try something I know nothing about. I am far too responsible to be a disciple.

Their behavior in this story is just so downright shocking I want to believe this is out-of-character—that the disciples prior to meeting Jesus were not irresponsible men. Imagine Jesus, picking irresponsible, irrational, home-abandoning, job-quitting people for his team? Certainly not. Something must have happened to make the disciples suddenly choose what made no sense from the surface. I mean, do they even know who Jesus is? We know from the rest of the book of Mark that it will take Jesus’ entire ministry for the disciples to even start to get it, so what did they possibly understand at the very beginning to cause this sudden and drastic leap of faith?

To my chagrin, either nothing special happened, or the Bible doesn’t tell us. Jesus merely said, “Follow me,” and they followed. The story takes up all of five verses. 2 ½, really, seeing as the same scenario is repeated twice and without a satisfying explanation in either case.

This story fascinates me and disturbs me all at once. Is the point that Jesus just might up and call me to something without giving me a proper explanation, not even so much as a promise that things will turn out okay? Or is the point that when the call comes, something unexplainable will make my following possible?

Let me add that if we make this story about two options only—stay a fisherman or follow Jesus—then we’ve reduced its power. There are a thousand ways to follow Jesus, and all that’s needed is the creative capacity to detect unusual calls:

This blogger I read is becoming hugely popular insanely fast. Advertisers have started contacting her, offering to pay her for advertising space on her blog. But she refuses any money, writing: “One of the purposes of this blog is to prove that things exist that are not for sale. That money and efficiency and publicity and popularity might not be the answers. Our goal is to go deep here, not wide. We are collecting hearts, not exposure, and certainly not cash.”*

This guy I know just took a part-time job, instead of full-time one, because he realized there are some things in life more important than making money, and a full-time job would have prohibited him from some of the Really Important Things he wants to do—of course, he has to live in a small house, sell his T.V., and give up some other pleasures to make it possible, but from what I hear, it’s worth it.

There are dads I know who play with their kids more than they watch sports; there are spouses who choose faithfulness even when they are afraid the spark may be lost forever. There are kids at school who choose kindness over bullying and moms at home who choose service over self-indulgence.

There are a thousand ways that people abandon nets and follow after that crazy prophet from Nazareth—in this room alone, dozens of calls are represented, and I’d venture at least half of you are right on the cusp of hearing something new and your grip on that net is already loosening.

The way I see it, most days I go quietly about my business, responsibly tending to life in the ways I know how. But on some occasions, Jesus will spot me and think that I am right for the task. He’ll tell me so, and it will put fear in my stomach and courage in my heart. If I waver too long, I’ll chalk the whole thing up to passing indigestion and turn back to my boat, like a responsible adult who has outgrown her proclivity for imagination and adventure. But if I take just one step forward, at the first hint of his voice, I might surprise myself by dropping my nets of sensibility altogether and embarking on a journey of wonders.

The way will be tough and the dangers will abound, but heck, something got me to go this far, that is, to leave the boat and that was pretty far to travel for a security-addicted girl like me, so I suppose, I might as well keep going and follow this man to the end. Amen.

 

*http://momastery.com/blog/2010/11/11/mo-money-mo-problems/#comments

Baptism of the Lord: Mark 1:9-11

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 1:9-11

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

January 15, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

In seminary, we practiced baptizing. Really. My class took a field trip to the Baylor Student Life Center. We brought our swimsuits, covered ourselves with white baptismal robes, and climbed in the swimming pool—all 20 of us, and practiced on each other. I imagine it looked as if some strange cult had arrived to occupy the campus swimming pool. I don’t know if the pool was reserved for us that morning, or if everyone just politely and fearfully cleared out when they saw us coming.

It was one of those rare days in seminary where what you learn is practical rather than abstract. For example, it was the first time it ever occurred to me that except in cases of small children, I will baptize people who are bigger than me 95% of the time, and I learned it takes a certain amount of artistic finesse to lower people into the water, especially when you are smaller than average.

Some people are scared to be baptized, even after they are ready to be Christian, and I can’t say I blame them. Giving someone the authority to purposely dunk your face under water is uncomfortable. What if the water is cold? What if the minister holds you under the surface while he prays a long-winded prayer? What if those white robes are see-through, or what if you swallow water and come up coughing? What if your pastor drops you because you’re bigger than she is? You don’t get to be in control during your baptism, and it’s not exactly comfortable. It looks weird, and it’s even weirder to try and explain to your nonChristian friends and family.

And I wonder if John the Baptist’s baptisms were all the stranger still. I mean, at least my class did their practicing on a Baptist campus. John was out in the wilderness dunking people in a river by the hoards, as if John’s wardrobe and diet weren’t enough to make people suspicious.

Baptism is a big deal if you’re Baptist—hence the name. Some people believe that one of founders of our denomination, John Smyth, believed so strongly in believer’s baptism, that he baptized himself, since there were not yet any other Baptist ministers who could do it for him. As a Baptist, I suppose today’s text should be one of my favorite Bible stories—Jesus getting himself baptized. What better biblical support could we Baptists ask for?

But if I were to be perfectly honest with you—there is a lot about baptism that I just don’t understand. Or, at least, baptism hasn’t always moved me in the way I would want it to.

There at least two reasons (that I know of) for my struggle to comprehend baptism. First, I grew up with a Christianity that exerted a lot of energy denying works-righteousness, which meant you had to be very careful when you talked about baptism, because baptism could easily be misconstrued as a “work” by which people thought they could be saved. We don’t want that, so it’s better to downplay baptism than have people mistakenly look to water and rituals to save them rather than God’s grace. I get that.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that in our very attempt to preserve grace, we may have crippled our means of dispensing it, kind of like a treasure that you lock away but never spend. We may have done so much to “protect” the treasure of grace, that we’ve made it hidden and inaccessible. What I mean is: Baptism has never been a way to earn salvation, but baptism has always been a mysterious and sacred gift through which we encounter grace in our very bodies in an inexplicable fashion. You see, we can talk about grace, we can think about grace, we can read about grace, we can sing about grace, but there is nothing in the whole Christian practice quite like the physical wave of grace that hits your very skin in the waters of baptism. The only thing I can think of that comes close is when we taste grace with our tongues in the bread of communion. There are so few things among our religious practices that help take grace beyond an abstract concept and make it tangible. God’s grace is so heavenly, so divine, so esoteric, so huge that we need something tactile, earthy, common, small—like the waters of baptism and the bread of communion—if grace is to be translated to our human flesh.

No, baptism is not a work that we do. It is a mystery that we enter. And if we downplay baptism for fear of missing true grace, well, we might just cut ourselves off from a God-ordained channel of communication.

The second reason I think the meaning of baptism got lost on me is that our brand of Protestantism tends to be anti-ritual. Of course, it’s generally troublesome when you define yourself by what you are not rather than what you are. But more to the point: rituals are good and wholesome. The problem is when we disconnect our rituals from the rest of our living, thinking, and being. Then it becomes an empty ritual, and an empty ritual ceases to be a ritual at all—it is more like the gesture of a clown, meant to entertain, or the wave of a magician, intended to deceive. But living rituals are an absolute necessity for anyone who hopes to get their faith past their heads into their hearts and out into their daily life. Rituals help engage our whole being, and not just our thoughts. Baptism is a ritual, and it’s a mighty good one for a Christian.

However, all that being clarified . . . it is still curious that Jesus shows up for baptism because he doesn’t need saving grace the way we do. He doesn’t need repentance in the way John’s followers needed it. And surely he doesn’t need a ritual to connect him to God, seeing as how he is God. So why, of all people, does Jesus get baptized?

Some say Jesus was baptized in order to an example to us. I kind of buy that . . . but I’ve already been baptized.  So what’s the point of reading about Jesus’ baptism year after year, if I’d already done the deed myself?

Maybe Jesus did it because baptism is messy and physical, and the symbolism is so real it slaps you in the face like a splash of cold water.

When we were growing up, my younger sister was notorious for sleeping in. She would turn her alarm on its loudest setting—loud enough to wake up everyone in the house, except for her, who would sleep right through it until it shut itself off. She kept setting her alarm earlier and earlier, to give herself “time” to wake up—which meant that the whole family was waking up earlier and earlier while she continued to snooze peacefully away. My mom tried everything to teach my sister to wake up, but nothing was working. One day, we had all had enough, so my mom tried a new trick. She took a tiny cup, filled with just a couple ounces of water, and when the alarm started blaring and my sister kept right on sleeping—surprise! My mom woke her up with a splash in the face.

We still laugh about that story today, and my sister claims that she woke up convinced that she was drowning. Just a few ounces of water and she thought she was drowning . . .

Committing to faith can feel like that, I think. Just dip your toes in, and you’ll fear for your life. Feel the sprinkle of a few drops, and you just might think you are drowning. But to put your whole head under? To let a whole new way of life rush over and around you like a flood, to place yourself wholly in the confidence of someone else’s arms, such that you will suffocate if they are not reliable, to hold your breath in the hopes that dying to self really does mean new life on the other side? That’s crazier than it looks from the sidelines. The riverbank spectators may mock, but they don’t even know how insane this business really is. No one knows, until they’ve already waded in up to their waist, and by then, there’s not much choice but to go under, and hope you come back out, alive and clean.

I think this story is supposed to be strange, and odd, and mysterious. I think we’re supposed to wonder why Jesus would get himself baptized, because we’re also going to wonder along the way why we let ourselves get baptized. All that is certain is that we did it, and that it changed us somehow, and that there’s not really a good way to go back to the safety of the sidelines, even if we wanted to. There’s the hope, of course, that the Spirit descended on us, just as it is descended on Him, and that God’s favor was spoken over us in some visible way, that grace was bestowed, and that we were called children of God.

So may we know somewhere in our hearts that even on the worst of days, we would still choose the icy waters of baptism over the numb existence of the sidelines. May Jesus, the beloved of God, beckon us to stand in the waters by his side, and look up, and see the heavens torn asunder, and the Spirit coming to meet us. May we choose the river, mysterious and torrential though it may be, because we’d rather be drenched in grace than remain dry and dehydrated on the riverbank. May we dive in, and meet Jesus. Amen.

Sunday after Christmas: Luke 2:22-40

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Luke 2:22-40

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

First Sunday After Christmas

January 1, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

I want to begin with an excerpt from a blog today. It’s a story you may have heard before, but even if you haven’t, I suspect it will start to sound familiar soon enough to some of you . . .

“When Philip Groning wanted to make the documentary ‘Into Great Silence,’ he asked the Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in France if he might spend a couple of years quietly filming their lives. They said they would think about it . . .

 . . . 16 years later [Philip] received a letter . . . [the monks] had considered his request and were now ready for him to begin filming.

 What kind of slow-moving world do these monks inhabit? 16 years in the modern world is time enough for two or even three careers. Why would these monks assume Philip Groning was still interested in this project or even interested in filming anything at all? How did they find his address after 16 years? Did someone write it on a scrap of paper and keep it in a box all that time?

 The monks of Grande Chartreuse mark time in their own way. Time in their world moves more slowly. Things unfold gradually. Nothing happens quickly, so when things do happen they are important things . . .

 [Did I mention this was written by a pastor? He continues . . . ]

While our church does not move as slowly as these ancient monks, we are a very slow church. When I am at our church I can hear the people of our world rushing by on the highway while I mark steps down the path to the labyrinth. A car that passes our church might travel a mile before I take another step. Five miles while I consider a painted rock left on the ground by a child. Which of us do you think is actually getting somewhere?

 We are a slow church. It is our nature. Many of us are tired [of high-energy churches] . . .  We are a church for people who feel their life speeding along like those moving sidewalks in airports, and they want to get off for a time. We’re strolling through life here, meandering along at our own spiritual pace . . .

You guessed it—this is an excerpt from Gordon’s writing a few years ago. There’s another line that made laugh, where he writes, “The average time it takes to get a project completed at Covenant Baptist Church is three years.”

When I read today’s text about the eight-day old baby Jesus, what stands out to me is that Anna and Simeon were really, really old, and they waited a long, long time.

No one knows whether the Greek is trying to say that Anna was 84 years old or that she had been a widow for 84 years, which would probably put her age closer to 103. Either way, the point is: Anna was old. Simeon too, scholars presume, since he is ready to die after seeing Jesus. One ancient source claims Simeon was 112. Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel; Anna had been waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. Between the two of them, if you add their ages together, that’s over two hundred years of waiting.

So can you imagine the scene—the joy on Simeon’s wrinkled face, the love in Anna’s wise old eyes? I can see Simeon’s aged, nearly crippled hands—bones and blood veins protruding—shaking mildly, half from excitement, half because he lost the ability to hold them steady over thirty years ago, and it is with those hands that he reaches for a baby so new that the skin is shiny and smells sweet. Imagine a widowed woman who’d never had the pleasure of motherhood caressing the child with a tenderness even Mary couldn’t match for Mary had waited nine months, but Anna had waited a lifetime.

Two elderly folks whom everyone else in the temple regarded as old cooks who’d lost their grip on reality.  If you saw one of them scuffling towards you, you darted off so as to avoid their gaze. If you listened, you could hear them muttering softly about the coming consolation of Israel . . .

but nobody listened. Those two had been around so long they were like permanent fixtures in the temple, easily ignored. Some of the younger priests secretly made bets on who would die first—Anna or Simeon. That was the most excitement either of them caused. They did attract some pity from the more compassionate priests, and those priests were a little worried Simeon and Anna would die from disappointment rather than natural causes. How tragic to wait your whole life and never be fulfilled . . .

Now the presentation of babies at the temple was a regular occurrence. But somehow it felt sacred every time—new life being brought before God in this old place, offering up what was young and human before a God so ancient and so divine. Simeon loved to greet the parents; Anna often asked if she could hold the baby. Decade after decade those two greeted babies and offered up silent words of blessing, but rarely did parents realize their children were being cradled by saints.

Anna and Simeon—the two old cooks who kept watch for the Messiah and blessed the babies. After a century of so, you would think they’d be done, ready to move on. You would think they would have given up on the Messiah. Neither Anna nor Simeon could explain it, but somehow, each baby brought them new inspiration to keep hoping.

They didn’t know they were waiting around for one baby in particular. The vision wasn’t that clear; the “consolation of Israel” was more of a fuzzy dream that you can’t quite remember than a well-defined treasure you could go searching for. A century of waiting, and they never knew how they would recognize it when it came. For all they knew, it could have come and gone, and they had missed it, but somehow, that just didn’t seem possible.

So they waited relentlessly, which is a funny way to describe waiting, but there was no other word for it: they were relentless in their waiting.

And then one day Mary entered the temple with a baby boy tucked in her arms, and the Spirit of God moved through Simeon like an Awakening and the heavens bust forth in a song that only very old ears can hear, and the two old cooks turned out to be prophets in disguise.

Fred Craddock describes Anna and Simeon as saints who were “at home in the temple.” The temple of God, the very presence of God was their home, their rest, their holding place.  And I wonder if we could be like them, or if we see the church as a mere building where we gather rather than a haven where we can hold tight to the wildest of hopes.

I often think about what worship should do to us week after week, if we do it right. I don’t really think that we should leave church every week feeling beat-up with conviction about our sins and shortcomings like all we ever are is screw-ups. But I also don’t think we should we leave feeling warm and fuzzy inside as if all is right and good in the world when in reality, the world is a pretty screwed-up place full of injustice and suffering. Nor should we leave church feeling gushy in-love with Jesus like religion is a teenage romance, or scary in-fear of God like church is the place to escape wrath.

I think we should leave the church building every week feeling as if we shall never give up. That no matter how screwy our world, our family, our habits, or our hearts might be, we keep coming back to the good old sanctuary because hope is palpable here. You can over-turn every rug, open every closet, and search every corner and you won’t find a single quick-fix or easy answer, nothing that feels like a sugar-high and no one who can be the perfect friend. But you will find love and the hope that a new world is possible.

Jesus meets us here. Sometimes it is subtle and sometimes it is entirely secret. On rare occasions, it is obvious and overwhelming. But whether we know it or not, feel it or not, understand it or not, there occurs in this place, week after week the mysterious mingling of God with humanity that changes us little by little and never lets us alone.

That, I think, is the reality that sustained Anna and Simeon all those years in the temple and slowly gave their old, tired eyes a prophet’s vision.

The church’s mail comes across my desk every week, and inevitably there is always a flyer advertising the next greatest seminar on how to make our church relevant to the culture. But it seems to me that God and God’s holy places are always relevant, and that flashy seminars and homage to the latest cultural trends are more likely to obstruct rather than aid our capacity to mingle with the ancient wisdom of God. That’s my take on it anyway.

I believe that part of my calling as a pastor is to place a ferocious amount of trust in the church, no matter how crazy or outdated that might seem. Of course, I’m pretty new at this, so I might lose heart. I might get discouraged. I might get hurt. I’ve got a long ways to go before I can match Anna’s 84 years of faithfulness, and there’s no telling what might come along to threaten my commitment or challenge my faith. I’m not thinking only of the stuff that could happen to me, but all the stuff that might happen to the people I love, too. 84 years is a long, long time to wait for the consolation of God’s people, and the ground is ripe for disappointments all along the way.

But I guess I am willing to dive in anyway because I see you and your unlikely devotion to this place—in short, I can see that you’ve made the church your home, and it gave me the courage to join the family. Of course, you might lose heart too, you might get discouraged, you might get hurt.

But I was just thinking, maybe we could stick together and encourage one another. You know, grow old together. Slowly, but surely, go crazy and confound the world together. Keep watch for the Messiah and bless the babies. Keep hope and never give up. Together, like a bunch of old cooks who are quietly and surprisingly prophetic. Amen.

Advent #4: Luke 1:26-38

 

Advent Reflection

Luke 1:26-38

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 18, 2011

Kyndall Renfro

 

In light of recent news-breaking events, I’d like it to be known that I personally know RG3—i.e. Robert Griffin III, recent Heisman winner and Baylor University celebrity. At least he has spoken to me: once.

He was a freshman, and I was an employee for Student Athlete Services at Baylor. I have to admit, my first impression wasn’t a good one. It must have been a bad day for RG3 because that large grin was missing, and he wasn’t all that nice to me. He mumbled out a “sorry” to me, and that was that.

So when he started getting popular, I was skeptical at first. I warmed up though, and three years, two winning seasons, and one Heisman later, he’s completely forgiven. And, bonus: now that he’s a nationally-known figure, I have a claim to fame. Robert Griffin III once apologized to me.

Have you ever noticed how those of us who are not famous grope after breadcrumbs of renown? Hoping to touch the hem of the garment of a celebrity, as if it had the power to change our obscure lives?

Feeling like we’re near a celebrity creates such a buzz. Why do you think all the tabloids in the check-out line at the grocery store stay in business? Reading those juicy stories makes us feel close to people of influence—people who don’t have a clue who we are or what our names are.

Today’s passage lays out a bunch of details right from the beginning, and not a one of them sounds juicy. (Except maybe the virgin part, but we’re not even supposed to know that she’s pregnant yet.) All we read for starters is: The sixth month. The angel Gabriel. The region of Galilee. The town of Nazareth. A virgin, engaged to a man. A man named Joseph of the house of David. Her name was Mary.

None of these details make for an eye-catching headline. They are details we’ve heard a million times. It’s the part of the story I often skip. I don’t want to read about the boring set, the familiar scenery.

But imagine you are standing in line at the grocery store, glancing at the tabloids, greedy for the latest celebrity update. And that’s when you see it—your name and your picture right on the front of a magazine.

That’s what the Christmas story is like—someone perfectly ordinary, unknown, and unsuspecting gets noticed by God. That means the set and the scenery—the time, the place, the individuals, the details—make the story in this case, because every small and specific detail is a reminder that the God of the universe gets that intimate with the world—specific time, specific people, specific places. Galilee. Nazareth. Joseph. Mary. Someone Really Big knows our names.

Imagine Mary’s shock when the angel appeared to her.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

As far as I can tell, there is nothing particularly startling or threatening about Gabriel’s greeting. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be shocked if an angel showed up on my porch with a message from God, but the words themselves don’t sound all that alarming. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Some of us would give anything to hear a word from the Lord that He is with us.

But Mary is not comforted, amused, or pleased. Maybe it would be like wondering how on earth a picture of your face ended up plastered on the cover of People.  Only certain kinds of people end up in People, and you are not that kind of people. There must be some mistake.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” the angel says in my NRSV translation.

“But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The TNIV says “Mary was greatly troubled at his words.” The Living Bible calls Mary “confused and disturbed.” The Message says she was “thoroughly shaken.”

“Do not be afraid, Mary!” Whew, what a relief, Gabriel stepped in to fix her. In the world of angels, I don’t know how they qualify gender, but Gabriel is most definitely a man. “Just don’t feel that way, Mary.”

Yeah right. That approach didn’t work, which doesn’t surprise us women, so Gabriel fumbled on . . . “you have found favor with God.”

Which is what he said the first time—the very thing that set Mary off in the first place, and Gabriel repeated it. I’m not thinking Gabriel’s such a genius at this messenger business, but you’ve got to give him credit for improving. When Zechariah expressed apprehension, Gabriel struck him mute for nine months.

With Mary, he simply continued, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”

And I imagine this is the part of the story where Mary went from anxious to terrified. Sure, bearing children in that culture was an honor. If. You. Were. Married. Bearing a child out of wedlock? Unthinkable, unbearable.

Gabriel couldn’t stand to look Mary in the eye for the rest of his delivery: “And (gulp) you will, you will name him, J-Jesus. He will be great! And will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of your ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end . . .” Gabriel peaked at Mary . . .

“How can this be . . .?” The strangeness was palpable. The confusion in the air was so thick that Mary and the angel were holding their breath.

“Well . . . the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Gabriel stopped, and there was a long and terrible silence. How could he bear to return to the heavens if Mary said no? The whole redemption of the world rested on the success of this message, and her response. Yes, he fully believed that nothing would be impossible with God if Mary said yes . . . but what if she didn’t? What if it was back to the drawing boards? She looked so scared, so distraught . . . or at least, that was how she had looked last, when Gabriel’s eyes were still open. What if all that God had planned and hoped for the world was not yet to be . . .

He heard Mary shift and clear her throat. He shielded his face with his hands and peeked.

Her voice came out like a whisper, but it was stronger than any human voice he ever heard: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Gabriel was so excited he forgot to reply, and he darted away without another a word to make the announcement to the heavens: “She said yes!”

The angels threw a loud and rambunctious party that night. Mary sat at home in the quiet and pondered these things in her heart.

It is a mystery to us and to the angels what happened inside of Mary on that day—not just the holy conception, but also what caused the shift from anxiety to bravery. She grew a baby, and she grew courage, and I suppose the Holy Spirit was culpable on both accounts.

Perhaps Mary quit thinking about what this would mean for her, and was able to get a glimpse of what this would mean for the world.

Perhaps the coming of God into the world is too big of a thing to say no to, no matter how ill-equipped you may feel for the task.

Perhaps the coming of God into you is too bizarre and well, delightful, of a thing to reject, no matter what people might say about you.

The whole thing is just crazy enough to keep getting our attention year after year. And no matter what kind of year it has been, we arrive at this season, and call it what you will but something like the Spirit of God comes to us and we grow courage. Amen.

Advent #3: John 1:6-8; 19-28

 

Advent Reflection

John 1:6-8; 19-28

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

Third Sunday of Advent

December 11, 2011

Kyndall Renfro

 

 

Last week, we talked about who John the Baptist was, and what his ministries were.

Today’s text is all about who John the Baptist was not, and what his ministries were not.

 John was not the light, so says John chapter one, verse 6-8. “He came only as a witness to the light.”

John was also not the Messiah, so says John chapter 1, verse 20, and this claim is a quote straight from John the Baptist’s own lips. You see, the priests and Levites had shown up to ask John who he was, but instead, John answered by saying what he wasn’t. “I am not the Messiah,” were the first words out of his mouth. He admitted it readily and freely.

John was also not Elijah.

Not the Prophet, with a capital P.

Not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.

And, while John was on a roll, testing negative at every turn, he tested his questioners as well and the results were similar. He discovered what they were not. “Among you stands one you do not know,” John said to them, which may sound like he was addressing their knowledge, but really, John was speaking to their identity. The priests, Pharisees, and Levites were supposed to know God better than anyone—it was their vocation, after all—but they did not recognize the Messiah in their midst. They were not as knowledgeable and priestly as they thought. They thought they were the professional know-ers God, and generally-speaking, this perceived proximity to God gained a priest respect. But John was not your average person, so he saw past their portly perceptions to the undernourished spiritual vision beneath, and he pronounced with a prophet’s poise: “You do not know.”

Perhaps the priests’ inflated sense of who they were blinded them from recognizing the Messiah in their midst. Perhaps it was John’s humility in knowing what he was not that freed him up to see Jesus for who he really was.

I don’t mean to suggest that the priests and Pharisees were arrogant, per se. I think they were good-hearted with good intentions and good wits about them. So what when wrong? How did the ones whose job was to see God, fail to see?

I am reminded of a story about Barbara Brown Taylor, a priest with a tender spot in her heart for lost or wounded animals. One time, she tried to rescue a little bird. She kept it with her in her office, spent her lunch breaks driving across town to buy worms to feed the bird, she fussed and flitted about, meeting the bird’s needs and coaxing it back to health. Eventually the bird grew strong and healthy again, just like Barbara had hoped. The time came to let the bird go into the wild, but there was always a good reason to hold on just one more day. One day the weather wasn’t quite right; the next day the bird didn’t look quite strong enough after all. But after weeks of the bird flying around her office, Barbara finally realized she had to let the bird go. She took him outside to the field by her office and watched him soar away. With a twinge of sadness at the parting, Barbara headed to her car. She was sure going to miss that bird . . . suddenly, she felt talons latching onto the top of her head. The bird was back, he was back in a jiffy, and the grip of his claws seemed to say, “I’m not leaving. You can’t make me.” Turns out he didn’t know how to soar off and be free after she had sheltered him for so long.

Barbara Brown Taylor had to try multiple times before she was able to coax that bird to fly away for good. She eventually drove out into the woods somewhere and let him loose there. She realized she’d gone too far—she had tried to nurse that bird to health so it could be independent once again. Instead, she’d taught the bird to depend on her. Unfortunately, she admits, she’s often done that in ministry and in life too. She tries to be too much, and it poisons the relationship. She was meant to be a channel of blessing and life, but she tried to be the very life itself. Instead of bearing witness to the light, she became the light, and as a result the people she cared for started to think the world would go dark if they had to face it without her. Sometimes she starting thinking their worlds would go dark if she wasn’t there to help them.*

The moon can go on thinking it is the sun, but all that does is wear out the moon.

I suspect those priests and Pharisees began their vocational journeys with good intentions all around, and somewhere along the way, they got themselves in over their heads. By the time John the Baptist arrived, proclaiming that the True Light was now coming into the world, the priests and Pharisees were tired. Really, really tired. Too tired to listen. Too tired to see. They had been fighting hard for righteousness for a long, long time, and it gave them tunnel vision. So when Jesus appeared on the peripheral, they might as well have been blind, because they could not see Him.

We get ourselves into all kinds of trouble when we try to be the light, but it’s not like we meant to take things too far like that.  It feels good to try and be a messiah to someone who in need, to someone who is hurting, to a family member we love. It can feel like we matter, like we’re making a difference, like somebody needs us.

But at the end of the day, our energy is zapped and somehow, despite all the good we’ve done, we feel like frauds. We have ensured that someone needs us, but we are not always sure if they love us, or if we can even follow through.

Maybe this Advent, we need to relinquish the delusion that we are light. Let ourselves sit with the darkness—darkness created by us, the darkness thrust upon us by hurtful people, the darkness inside us, the darkness surrounding us. Sit with all our varying darknesses, acknowledge them, and wait for Light to come.

The Light can shine on you and through you, but you can never be the Light. You cannot be the source, the giver, the electricity. You can conduct it like wire, and that is a worthwhile job, to be sure, but you are not the thing, the point, or the hero. You’re just you. You may be a voice of one calling, “Prepare the way for the Lord,” but you are not the Lord, and the funny thing is, sometimes we forget that. Truth be told, it is a relief not to be the Messiah, or Elijah, or The Prophet. It is a relief when you have the freedom to just be you, and nothing more. It is a relief, when you finally look sideways and see that The Light is coming.

If you see the sun rising on the horizon, and you are the moon, you get out of the way. Sometimes your life will work like a reflector—absorbing the rays of light and casting them back out again—and that will feel wonderful, like you’re alive. People don’t need that from you—heck, they’ve got the sun—but on occasion you will reflect a ray into some dark corner to someone for whom the sun’s blocked out. It will make all the difference to them, but chances are, you’ll never know it. The moon is modest like that.

If you do not know what you are not, the One you’ve been waiting for will come, but you will not know Him, though He is among you. The Gospel of John begins with John the Baptist proclaiming who he is not, which, apparently, makes room for Jesus to come along and proclaim all that he is.

“I am not,” says John.

“I am who I am,” says God.

Way back in Egypt, when God made one of his first appearances to humankind, Moses asked God who he was, and God said, “I am . . . Tell the people ‘I am’ has sent you.”

And when God came again, in the body of Jesus, his message was the same and yet bigger. The Gospel of John asks Jesus who he is, and listen to the ways Jesus responds:

 “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born,

I am!

When you have lifted up the Son of Man,

then you will know that I am he.

I am the bread of life.

I am the way, the truth and the life.

I am the vine, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the good shepherd,

I am the one who testifies for himself.

I am the light of the world.

I am with you.

Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.

I am the resurrection and the life.

You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am.

I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”

And, finally, when the soldiers arrived in the Garden to arrest him,

Jesus said, “I am he. I am he. I told you that I am he.”

 Is there room in your heart this Advent for the invasion of Light? Or have you dressed up your darkness that it might parade as light, and thus stolen the show, worn yourself thin, and obscured your own sight?

The moon must not feel sad

that it cannot be the sun.

For the sun gives its all

and it gives it freely–

so there is nothing to envy.

There is much to receive

and much to reflect.

When the moon

Forgoes all pretension;

When the moon

loves the sun,

then, then the moon dances,

And I’m here to tell you

in the spirit of John the Baptist,

We were all meant

to dance like the moon.

Amen.


* Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church.

Advent #2: Mark 1:1-8

 

Advent Reflection

Mark 1:1-8

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

Second Sunday of Advent

December 4, 2011

Kyndall Renfro

 

The way I imagine it, John the Baptist had a wide and hospitable grin. And when he smiled, you could often spot a locust leg sticking out between his teeth, leftover from dinner. He would shake hands with enthusiasm (his hand was wide, the skin was rough) and your smaller hand, once swallowed by his, would kind of stick there—honey residue from lunch. His clothes emitted an unusual odor like the mix of wind, wild flowers, and sunshine. His hair went every which way, his beard was scraggly and unkempt. The sound of his voice was like rushing water—powerful, yet soothing.

Yes, indeed, John was wild, unconventional, not quite convincingly sane. Compelling, yet mildly terrifying. You never knew whether to run out into the wilderness and join him, or run away as fast as you can. At first you felt uncomfortable in his eccentric presence—you’d never met anyone like him before (and you were unlikely to ever meet someone like him again). But after awhile you warmed up and felt more at home with John than you’d ever felt with anyone because you just knew there wasn’t a thing about your appearance, your smell, or your talk that John was going to judge.

Oh sure, he could preach one fiery sermon on repentance, but John let God do the judging. He just did the preachin’ and the baptizing. John liked to keep things simple. Whatever guilt you might harbor—that was between you and God, and John was not going to be a third wheel. Some preachers have themselves convinced its their job to insert their presence into other people’s business; John had the mind to run out into the wilderness and preach from the desert, where people would only hear him if God brought them there.

Now we don’t hear much in the Bible about John’s childhood, but you wonder how a perfectly respectable son-of-a-priest ends up wearing camelhair skirts and pillaging the desert sands for locust morsels. Maybe he had the guts to believe what his mother, Elizabeth, told him about himself and his calling. Maybe he spent one too many days at the feet of Mary, listening to outlandish tales about miraculous births, visiting angels, and traveling wise men. Maybe John grew up playing pretend with a rather unusual cousin, where the lines between imagination and reality were strangely and divinely blurred. Maybe the other kids in the neighborhood made fun of John, so he decided early on he might as well be himself rather than cater to what others expected of him.

As far as I can tell, you don’t get that crazy by choice, at least, not by one choice alone. You start on a path, trusting where the path leads. You don’t look back; you put one foot in front of the other and make up your mind to enjoy the journey, no matter where it leads.

The text says John “appeared” in the wilderness, as if he didn’t exactly mean to end up there, but it’s where he found himself. And since many people who struggle in life end up wandering into some type of wilderness, I suppose John felt this was as good a place as any to start preaching. The people who needed his message would end up in the wilderness eventually, thinking they had finally stumbled into pure God-forsaken territory and John would already be there, preaching and baptizing, living off locusts and honey just to show that life is sustainable in the lands of draught and desert. Lo and behold, the desert can be the birthplace of transformation.

I imagine John didn’t have to do much persuading. He just greeted people when they arrived, and the look in his eyes told them all they needed to hear, “I see you’ve come to repent.” Most people didn’t know that was why they had stumbled there, but once John put words to it, things came into focus, “Yes, of course, I’ve come here to repent.”

In today’s world, we’ve sort of butchered the word “repent,” as if repenting meant to feel sorry for your sins, and maybe do a little begging for forgiveness. In John’s day, people went out into the wilderness to find a whole new way of life. John lowered their bodies under ice cold river water—water to wash the old away, ice-cold to reawaken their senses, open air to pump oxygen into new life.

And then, then, John would proclaim the ultimate promise—a Savior was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit! So really, the people were more than repenting, they were preparing themselves for something even greater—the very Advent of God.

That is, after all, how the prophets depict the ministry of John—“a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight paths for him.’”

This picture of John’s ministry in Scripture, I find utterly compelling. I have long loved the image of making pathways in the wilderness, and here at Covenant, the image hits closer to home than ever. We know what it is like to clear paths in a wilderness, move rocks around, find the path hidden beneath the stones. John’s ministry reminds me of Covenant, this unique place in the wilderness of San Antonio.

We may at times, wonder, should our church be in the heart of the city, where the people are? God knows we need churches in there, but God also needs churches out here. For people who need to come out to the wilderness if they are to find God.

And like John, we prepare their way. We don’t deliver God on a platter. We don’t insert ourselves where we do not belong. We simply call out into the wilderness, and proclaim good news among the trees and the cactus, which sometimes feels like a fruitless task. Who is even out there who would hear us?

But like John, we’ve simply found ourselves here, so we trust our location, and we start preaching. We preach as we make the paths straighter, more accessible. We remove rubble that stands between people and God, but we do it quietly so as not to disturb the courtship. A lot of our work goes unnoticed, but that keeps us humble, the grounds sacred, and the people who visit here, undisturbed.

I mean, this place can disturb you, from the gut of your insides to the toes of your socks, but only if it is God’s doing. We generally don’t interfere when we see a miracle off in the distance, building high like a wave; we do try to position ourselves just so, that we might feel the wave of God’s mercy pass over and around, like a baptism.

The way we create prayer paths, parking lots, and labyrinths around here speaks to me about the Covenant way of evangelism. We embrace the wild mess of the world, and we refuse to coerce it. We accept what’s there—the rocks that belong, the trees that were here before we were, the land that has a history longer than we can imagine, and we simply and very, very gently, so as not to disrupt any sacred stirrings, help curve paths that make a straighter way for people to find God.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to meet him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Amen.

 

Advent #1: Mark 13.24-37

An Advent Reflection

Mark 13:24-37a

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

First Sunday of Advent

November 13, 2011

Kyndall Renfro

Keeping Watch: the longer I live, the more I find that God lurks in the most curious places.

After I surprise myself by finding God where I didn’t expect God, I think it over, and realize that yes, actually, it does make sense that God would show himself there. This is the world he created after all—why should I think any shadow, nook, or mystery could escape his notice, or misplace his presence? God’s fingerprints are everywhere, if I look for them.

No corner of creation can hide from God, in the way that Waldo was never lost to the illustrator. Waldo only seemed lost to us when we cracked opened the pages of a Where’s Waldo picture book, and the pages exploded with color in our faces. Waldo was small and hidden to us, but not to Waldo’s creator. And just when we thought we’d found a page where Waldo was indeed truly missing, we’d give one final look and experience the joy of discovery all over. Quick, turn the page, let’s do it again.

Of course, Where’s Waldo was all fun and games, but when the Scriptures say, “Keep watch,” that’s a different story, right? I hear apocalyptic warnings like today’s with trepidation, an inner quiver, and an uncomfortable fear of the unknown.

The Sun will be darkened? The Moon will not give its light? The very stars will fall from the sky? Then how will I see???

The Heavenly Bodies will be shaken? Changes are scary, and the Bible paints a picture where nothing stays the same. Even the sun, the moon, and the stars, who have been unceasingly faithful since Creation, will betray us.

When I open texts like this, initially I cannot see past the explosion of odd images. Whatever beauty, whatever truth, whatever comfort is there remains small and hidden—not lost, but very difficult for the unadjusted eye to spot.

Unfortunately, when it comes to texts like these, some Christians dissect the images and offer up strange interpretations that only scare us worse, confuse the picture, and disguise our Hope. If you settle for the first trendy interpretation you can get our hands on, you’ll only end up with a set of lenses that blur the page and make your head spin. Tylenol can’t fix that kind of headache, Adderall won’t bring things into focus, and no pill can calm end times anxiety. You have to get a new set of glasses altogether.

Or, better yet, learn how to see in the dark.

Sit with mystery.

Forsake suspicion.

Embrace suspense.

Explore the unknown corners of your universe.

Turn over rocks, crawl through caves,

scuba-dive your ocean depths.

In other words,

Live to explore and discover.

 

Most importantly,

Don’t be afraid of the dark.

Darkness is a good place to hide,

to wait, to watch.

Like a baby in the womb,

growing strong and gaining nutrients.

God is there,

in the darkness,

when the sun is gone and the stars have fallen.

Darkness can mean something new is being born.

 

Madeleine L’Engle tells a story about how ancient people were terrified by the onset of the winter months because as the sun set earlier and earlier in the day and rose later and later every morning, the people feared the sun would finally desert them altogether and never return, leaving the earth in unrelenting night. Somewhere inside, you and I share that primitive fear. We read texts like these about the end of all days as we know it, which is described like a Great and Terrible Darkness, and we cannot help but feel nervous. L’Engle writes,

It was a long time before I could begin to think of this ending of all known things, all matter, the stars in their courses, music, laughter, sunrise, daises and dynasties, starfish and stars, suns and chrysanthemums, as being in any way something to look forward to with joy and hope. It was a long time before I could turn my thoughts to the eschaton without terror. Long before I’d heard about the atom bomb or the hydrogen bomb, or fission or fusion, I feared the end of the world in much the same way I fear a nuclear holocaust . . .

[And] the end of the world in the eschatological sense  . . . is not just the end of this one planet, but of all the planets, all solar systems, all galaxies.

And what then? Is that it? Annihilation?

No. Annihilation might follow an intergalactic nuclear battle, but annihilation is the opposite of what the eschaton is about. It is not nearly so much a going as a coming, an ending as a beginning. It is the redemption, not the destruction, of Creation.* 

A coming rather than a going, a beginning more than ending, redemption rather then destruction. The re-creation, renewal, restoration and redemption of everything. Suddenly, “Keep Watch” takes on new meaning.

But Christ hasn’t come in 2000 years, and what if it’s another 2000 before He does? The End with a capital E might be a long way off, but that doesn’t mean we should walk around with our eyes closed. Keeping watch is less about peering suspiciously around every corner for signs of the Second Coming and more about adopting a lifestyle and a way of seeing that delights in finding God in every unexpected nook.

The word to keep watch can set us on edge, as if the Second Coming might pop out from behind a common bush and startle us. I don’t know why exactly that always makes us so nervous—God has surprised us before, and we nearly always weep and dance for joy. Sure, it is disconcerting when an average bush can unsettle you by catching holy fire, but a burning bush is the kind of thing you can walk up to and talk with, if you take your shoes off. A bit of proper reverence and the sacred becomes approachable. A sideways glance with proper eyesight and the holy is made visible.

Jesus says, “Keep watch,” which is an active way of living and being and seeing, not a passive way of waiting around for the world to end or for heaven to sweep us home.  Elizabeth Barring Browing reminds us that in the here and now, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; And only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” My dear friends, keep watch. Yes,

Keep watch

In every nook

Corner

And mystery.

Let God surprise you.

The joys of discovery

Await even you.

 

And of the Second Coming?

They say not

even the angels of heaven

Nor the Son of Man

Knows the day or hour.

So fear not.

The whole universe will be surprised

And the whole universe will weep for joy.

 

Some of us will weep all the more

That we waited so long

To spot Him.

What if we had kept watch

From the beginning?

What wonders, what beauty

Await those

who watch.

Amen.



* Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season, 3.

Christ the King Sunday (Matt 25:31-44)

A Sermon for Covenant

Christ the King Sunday

Matthew 25:31-46

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

November 13, 2011

Kyndall Renfro

 

Dear sheep on my right, dear goats on my left, dear audience in front of me,[1]

You have all entered this morning as players in a drama, and unfortunately for you, the cast was set before you were properly warned. Of course, you chose the seat you sat in, but you weren’t aware that you were choosing your eternal fate too. Was this predestination? Or an unfair version of free will—who can really say? Let’s not squabble over minute theological discrepancies. You are sheep (those to the right). You are goats (those sitting to the left). You get to watch (those in front middle). ‘Tis the sovereignty of this seating arrangement.

The head of the sheep committee informed me this morning that he would like to make a public announcement. Proceed.

Sheep Captain (stands up from right side): “We would like to give thanksgiving and praise for God’s abundant favor! We never even knew that we had been with Jesus, serving him when we served a needy brother, loving him when we loved an ailing sister!”

Why, yes, it’s lovely, isn’t it? Thank you.

Apparently, the Head Goat has a comment as well.

Head Goat (stands up from left side): “Um, we would just like to protest that none of this seems very fair. We always thought salvation came by faith, not works. Your theological doctrine is deliberately heretical, and we submit a formal complaint requesting a reevaluation.”

I’m sorry, but this script came straight from Scripture. You may sit down.

My dear sheep, my disgruntled goats, my curious observers, how does it feel to sit where you sit? To hear what you hear, from your angle?

My question, every time I read this text, is which am I—a sheep or a goat? I mean, I’ve been saved by grace through faith, of course, but I’m not sure if that works in this instance, so to stall my confusion, I normally take a backseat as a distant observer, like someone who merely watches a play but never enters the set and walks around inside it, trying on different characters, exploring whether it is scene one or scene two to which I belong.

And it is easy to justify sitting back there as observer because I have two pretty darn legitimate objections to this text anyway. First, isn’t this works-righteousness? How does this story fit with the rest of Christian theology? And second, I want to do works of mercy. I really do. But I’m overwhelmed. There is too much need and injustice and that makes me feel frozen and helpless. I can barely get my own life together—what do I have left to give to others?

This is really one of the only stories in Scripture where we actually get details about judgment. And to everyone’s great surprise, you don’t hear about grace or justification, confessing faith or asking Jesus in your heart. The people in this story are judged based on whether they fed the hungry, clothed the needy, visited the sick. This doesn’t mesh too well with the Roman Road or the EvangeCube or the Four Spiritual Laws . . .

I don’t think the point here is that faith doesn’t count, but rather that faith is, perhaps, a broader concept than we realize. Maybe faith isn’t all about what we mentally agree to only; maybe faith is more holistic and comprehensive than a cognitive decision alone. There’s Christian practices and there’s Christian beliefs, and could it be the question of the chicken and the egg—which comes first? Some people believe, and thus they begin Christian practices to match their faith. Other people practice their way into faith, and I don’t know, maybe some people even die and reach judgment before they’ve comprehended mentally what they’ve been doing with their lives.

Whatever this text suggests to us about salvation, it is certainly meant to unsettle the saved. Did you hear the surprise in their voices? Both the sheep and the goats didn’t realize they had been near Jesus, with the opportunity to serve him. If Jesus was able to whisper in our ears that yes, he was there that time we thought he wasn’t, that was him with the scraggly beard and the cardboard sign on the side of the road, that was him, single mom with three unruly kids at the grocery store, paying with food stamps and a few wadded-up bills from her back pocket—if Jesus whispered, “That was me,” we would all be shocked. The question is, is it a good shock for you or a bad one?

If you found out that you’re mostly a goat at heart, I’d like to sympathize with you for a moment. If the shock left you in awe that you’re a sheep and you didn’t know it, good for you, but you don’t need a sermon anyway. It’s the goats that get to me. I mean, I get why you’re a goat. You hear the overwhelming statistics about poverty and disease, you watch the horrifying accounts on the news, you listen to one organization after another beg for your support, and it is just too much. It’s better to just focus on yourself and your family—that’s plenty to keep you occupied as it is. I’m not making fun either. I mean, really, the amount of suffering out there is paralyzing.

And of course suffering is paralyzing on a cumulative level, but it can also be paralyzing in the details too. In high school, my friend Sara and I were camp counselors to a group of younger kids, and one night I woke up in my bunk bed to the sound of retching, which, by the way, was the start of a nightly event. There was a stomach bug that got passed from kid to kid while we there. I lay in my bunk, listening, knowing I should get up and help. It was my job, but I wasn’t so sure I could stomach it. Paralyzed. Interestingly, my friend, Sara discovered in that week that she actually likes taking care of the kids who get sick at camp, that she doesn’t so much mind cleaning up the vomit and comforting girls when they need it, right there beside the camp toilet. That amazed me; maybe even repulsed me. Sara discovered some strange niche that no one else would have wanted to fill, and she started giving herself permission to fill it, no matter how odd it might look to the rest of us.

I still haven’t figured out how we ever adequately serve the least of these—how we notice each and every one, how we adequately approach the problem of suffering. But I can’t help but think there is at least one sufferer out there who is waiting specifically for me to take note. That there is some strange niche of need that no one else might want to fill, and I need to start giving myself permission to fill it, no matter how odd it might look to the rest of us.

Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me,” as if the smallest thing mattered. Jesus does not seem to be commending those who’ve made great, noticeable strides in the cause for justice. The sheep in this story are surprised to learn that they’ve done anything at all extraordinary. I suppose they are the type of people who were first obedient in one small way, and then they just let that small obedience run its course—one thing leading to another, taking them places they never could have dreamed of, and they just kept plodding along until they arrived at the feet of Jesus, and they looked up and lo and behold, he’s welcoming them home.

So what if us goats weren’t doomed to stay goats? What if Goat A started with one, small obedience? Just one for now. One “least of these” who crosses your path, and you normally don’t pay proper attention. Chances are, you don’t even have to go out and find that person. You already know who it is. What if you chose to believe that one person is worthwhile, and then see where that one small belief leads you? Could be interesting. Could change everything.

And what if Goat B did the same thing, and before you know it, some of what Goat A is doing overlaps with Goat B, and I don’t now, it was like, you were a community, and the work you did by yourself suddenly took on new energy, and together you actually accomplished more than you ever realized. In fact, sometimes Goat A just needs a break from helping people, but that’s okay, because Goat B’s got your back, and you can rest awhile and recoup, and the rest of your community now gives to you. And what do you know, by the end of our time together, there’s no longer a left side and a right side to the room, but we’ve all held hands and formed a circle.[2] We sing peace to one another, share grace and trust love, and that’s just the way we plan to enter Judgment Day—where I’ll be darned if we don’t meet Jesus with a smile on his face when he looks down on us, all huddled together in a teary-eyed bundle because we never would have made it that far alone.

Today is Christ the King Sunday—a day where we think about what it will be like to meet our King face-to-face on Judgment Day—and our text began with Christ seated on his glorious throne, surrounded by all the angels of heaven. Our eyes are drawn upward to the glittering golds and the sparkling whites. But Jesus is looking down—down at all the people of the earth, especially the needy, and he draws our gaze away from the glory of heaven to the grit of the earth, and says, “That’s where I’ve been. Did you see me? Did you help me? If your focus was anywhere else but on my dear ones, the least ones, then you missed me.”

My dear sheep, some of us aspire to be sheep too, but we need your help. Encourage us. Notice our gifts. Hold our hand and help us be holy. My dear goats, you are not alone. Many of us are goats, but if we stick together and start small, we can become something new. My dear spectators, I hate to break it to you, but eventually your job gets boring—it’s messy and complicated over here in the action, but you won’t regret joining in.

You may not have gotten to play the character you would have hoped for today (my special apologies to the hell-bound over here), but perhaps all of you can go home and try on a new role for size. It’s perfectly okay if you have to grown into it.

Praise be to Christ, our King, who keeps his eye fixed on the least of these. What a King, what a Savior, oh to be like Him! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] For those not present in worship that day, I read Matthew 25:31-46 as if the room really were divided into sheep and goats. I addressed only the right side of the room with vv. 34-40, and only left side of the room with vv.41-45.

[2] For non-Covenant members out there, this is a reference to our weekly benediction, where we end our worship in a circle, join hands, and sing.

Judges 4:1-9

A Sermon for Covenant

Judges 4:1-9

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

November 13, 2011

Kyndall Renfro

 

This is the only text from the book of Judges to make an appearance in the entire lectionary. Perhaps the lectionary was trying to do us preachers a favor, seeing as the book of Judges contains the most graphic, violent, bloody, and disturbing stories in the whole Bible. (If you don’t believe me, read Judges chapter 19 when you get home.) The seven short verses the lectionary assigns for today are some of the tamest you’ll find in the whole book.

 

Which I take to be a challenge. How can we, on this one day out of the three year cycle, tackle the nastiest stuff in all of Scripture? In one sermon, how can I cram in all the lectionary leaves out?

 

Of course, it seems worth asking—even if we could cover it all, should we? The Bible expresses no qualms about telling these stories of violence, rape, and human sacrifice, but are these really stories for the church? The lectionary doesn’t seem to think so, and other preachers and scholars seem to agree. A seminary professor explicitly told his students they shouldn’t bother trying to preach Judges chapter 11, for example. It’s too messy, too complex, too disorienting and strange to belong in the hour of worship, I suppose.

 

For starters, what do we do with all the violence? There is a recurring pattern in the book of Judges—the people rebel, God “sells” them into oppression because of their rebellion, the people eventually cry out to God for deliverance, God leads them in war and the Israelites slay their enemies. Trading violence for violence in an unending cycle. The only interruption of the cycle is at the end of the book where things—believe it or not—actually get worse, and the violence spreads internally. Israelite fighting Israelite; neighbors defile their neighbors.

 

Thrown into the tumultuous mix, there are all kinds of women in Judges—more female characters in this book than any other book of the Bible—and the presence of women has often confused the church. Do we sit them in the corner as silent spectators with bonnets to cover their hair; or, do we set them loose to be full-fledged worshippers and proclaimers alongside us, not knowing what might happen if we do?

 

The place of women in the book of Judges is fascinating, and as diverse as you can imagine. From Deborah to Delilah to the unnamed concubine, from prophets and warriors on the one end to rape victims and human sacrifices on the other—women play a plethora of roles. Some good, some bad, some tragic. The church doesn’t always know what to do with women, and this book suggests that we inherited our confusion from the nation from the Israel.

 

At the beginning of Judges, women are powerful, influential, honored, praised. In the opening scene there is Aksah: negotiator, initiator, land owner. In chapters 4 and 5, we have Deborah: judge, leader, prophet, liturgist, artist, and commander. Then there is Jael in chapter 5, who crushes the enemy general, Sisera, at her feet, and the glory of the victory belongs to a woman. In chapter 9, a woman drops a milestone on top of the evil Abimelek’s head and once again, the victory of a battle belongs to a woman. We are not told her name though, and here in the middle of the book of Judges we see an indicator that the role of women is starting to make a shift . . .

 

The next female character is Jephthah’s daughter, Judges chapter 11. We don’t know her name either. She is sacrificed on an altar by her father due to a misguided oath. Another unnamed woman appears in Judges 14 &15—Samson’s first wife, who is burned alive after being traded among men. Like Jephthah’s daughter, she seems to have no say in her fate.

 

We are told Delilah’s name, yet her character is ambiguous. She uses deceit to gain power. We wonder if she had any other choice? Is she strong, or desperate, evil or merely clever? It’s not really clear . . .

 

But by the end of the book of Judges, none of the female characters have names, and there is no ambiguity about their role. They are nameless, which is fitting because they are treated as objects, not humans. The details are graphic and disturbing; so genuinely horrific, let’s not speak of it in the presence of children. At the beginning of the book, women are warriors and leaders; by the end they are the spoils of war, traded among men for pleasure, disposed of at will, torn to pieces, and no one can remember their names.

 

There is a rapid spiral in the book of Judges—the people grow further and further and further from God . . . and their women move further and further and further from places of honor until they are objects to be used, abused, and discarded. It is a fascinating social commentary on the role of women. It is a telling portrayal of what happens in a community when the people quit serving God as king. The key phrase at the end of the book—it appears twice in the same manner—states, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”

 

The Israelites entered the Promised Land as the people of God, but by the end of the book of Judges, they’ve created a kingdom in their own image, and in trying to be their own kings they’ve become savages who kill one other and reduce women from human beings to possessions.

 

I don’t even want to know what was happening to the children.

 

But that is not how things started. In today’s story, the people have rebelled against God and thus are living under the tyrannical rule of king Jabin of the Canaanites. It was said he had nine hundred chariots with a reputation for cruel oppression, which reminds us, and probably reminded the Israelites, of their slavery in Egypt. But the people have not yet forgotten God entirely; they need only to remember the Exodus in order to know what to do, and they do it. They cry out to God, and as always, he hears them.

 

Just as God found Moses in the wilderness near a burning bush, and asked him to lead his people out of Egpyt, God finds his prophet Deborah—she’s under a palm tree—and once again, God has deliverance on his mind. You wouldn’t expect God to find a woman, but Deborah defies expectations at every turn, and I have to admit, I kind of love that about her.

 

Now either Deborah was more gutsy than Moses and jumped right on board without hesitation, or we simply don’t get to hear the part of the story where God had to convince her. All we know is that by the time she relays God’s commands to Barak, she is poised and confident, more than willing to accompany him straight into the heart of the battle. She even predicts, “The Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” Since this is where our passage today ended, we might think Deborah is making a prediction about herself—she will gain the honor.

 

But not so. Another character, more unlikely than the first, will emerge. She is a non-Israelite, a woman, a woman whose husband is an ally of the enemy. Sisera himself feels safe running to her tent to hide while his armies are being defeated by Barak and Deborah. He presumes upon Jael’s hospitality, asking for water and a place to hide. She goes above and beyond—she brings him a cup of milk, she covers him with a blanket like a mother would cover a child. That a general can rest at all while his men are dying a few fields away seems odd to me, but he sleeps like a baby. Jael creeps back in, this time not like a mother peeping over the crib, but like a deadly force of stealth and courage. In her left hand, a tent stake. In her right hand, a hammer. She must know of the alliance her husband has made with this man, but some deeper motivation overcomes her. She rests the sharpened tip of the stake at the corner of his temple, she raises the hammer, she strikes one blow, and then another. She keeps at it until he is dead. She stands up, wipes her hands on her skirt, and exits the tent where she calmly encounters Barak and shows him the enemy is defeated.

 

The whole thing is kind of eerie. You might see why they have left this part of the story out of the lectionary. We’re never even really sure why she did it, seeing as how she wasn’t even an Israelite. But Israel is forever indebted. They will sing about her later, rejoicing, “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women!”

 

It is said that another woman, Sisera’s mother, is back home peering through the window, wondering when her son will come home in victory. The text reads, “She keeps saying to herself, ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: a woman or two for each man?’” Sisera’s mother does not suspect Sisera is dead, killed by a woman—a woman, who, perhaps, he had hoped to bring home as plunder.

 

The winners in this story are a unlikely trio—the female judge and prophet, Deborah (wait, can a woman really do that?), the male warrior, Barak, who unashamedly asks for help and directions from a woman (wait, can a man really do that?), and the non-Israelite woman, Jael, who plays one of the most decisive, cunning, and brave roles in the entire book.

 

I admit, the violent features of the story are a bit disconcerting. All I know for sure is that the women in this text refuse to become spoils of war. They choose to be warriors, and their community allows it. Not blood-thirsty warriors, but warriors for justice and liberation. And the community rejoices. They break out into song in chapter 5. They celebrate Deborah. They celebrate Jael. No one says, “Thank God we won the war, but what a pity we were lead by women.”

 

Ultimately though, this isn’t a story about women, or men. It is a story about God. God who delivers his people. Again. Judges 4:23 says, “On that day, God subdued Jabin king of Canaan before the Israelites.” The people sing, “May all who love the Lord be like the sun when it rises in its strength!”

 

Deborah functions like a Moses figure, leading the people out of their new Egypt, but then again, she is totally different from Moses in so many ways. Which says to me, God never tires of inventing ways to invade the world with his goodness and deliverance. Jael, with a cup of milk and a tent stake overtakes a celebrated army commander. You know what I think that cup of milk says to us? That the small things matter. That the small people are big people in God’s way of thinking. That there is no end to God’s creativity and that your own creativity has a place in God’s work. God uses the unexpected and the seemingly inferior. Sisera expected to take women home with him as the spoils of his war. Instead, he enters the home of a woman and meets his death. For this slice of history, the world is turned topsy-turvy, just like a world re-imagined and re-invaded by God out to be. We’re the ones that got things so messed up—God sets things right and it looks strange to our eyes. We’re used to seeing things one way—God does something wholly other and we are left with our mouths hanging open. We can either protest or rejoice, fight the inevitable or join the redemption. Barak and Deborah broke out in song, and I hope we have the inclination to join them.

 

Eventually, the morality of Israel in the book of Judges will spiral downward, and the least of these will be trampled on. But we know from this story, from the outset, that when God reigns, the least of these have a place in His Kingdom. Not a place of subservience, but a role worth remembering. So whether you are a child, or a woman, or merely a broken individual who doesn’t seem worthy at all, you have a name in God’s story.

 

In this community, may we work side by side. May we guard each one’s dignity. May we save each one’s pride. May we walk hand in hand, and they will know we are Christians by our love. May they know who our King is when they hear us, because we call each other by name. Amen.