Good Hope

“Don’t be shaken in mind or Spirit,” writes the author. Most say the first letter to the church in Thessalonica was written by Paul. It has all the trademark signs of his writing. And it is also deeply apocalyptic, proclaiming that Christ’s coming is imminent. The second letter, which in style and tone is quite different from the first, seems to have been necessary because the thing the first letter said was imminent had not yet happened. Years were going by, and still Christ had not come.

“Don’t be shaken in mind or Spirit,” he says. Remember the truth about things. Remember you are children of God, chosen to be a blessing. Do not give yourselves over to anxiety.

Someone told me the other day he was having trouble sleeping at night, because of the election. “If Hillary wins…I just think our country will be ruined for a generation. I’m thinking about moving to Canada.” When I laughed, he said, “I’m serious.” I responded, “You know they have single-payer health care there, right? It’s not a nation known for its conservatism.” “Yes,” he replied, “but they don’t have Hillary.”

And not long after, I had the mirror-image conversation with someone else, about Trump – not sleeping at night, would be devastating to the country, right down to moving to Canada. “Trump will be the destruction of our Republic,” he said, “the end of the American experiment.”

Both conversations put me in mind of a “story” in the satirical newspaper, “The Onion,” with the headline, “Man Who Threatened to Move to Canada Before Election Still Here.” “For weeks before the election, Ron Glick kept saying, ‘I swear if that clown wins, I’m moving to Canada.” “Glick has threatened to renounce his citizenship every four years since 1980, when Reagan’s victory was supposed to precipitate his emigration to Spain.”

This long election season is almost over, and for many across the land it has produced the kind of fearfulness that is reserved for times of war. People are afraid to talk with one another about it because tensions are riding high, families are divided, and church folk are known to drop their heads and walk the other way if the topic is even mentioned.

So, with all that said, here on this All Saint’s Sunday of 2016 I am going to tell you who to vote for. My bags are packed, the car is running outside, my plane ticket to Canada bought, so here goes. On Tuesday, you, along with every Christian you know, should vote for Jesus. There, I said it.

“But,” you might protest, “Jesus is not on the ballot.”

Yes, you are correct. You’re going to have to write him in. But, let me be clear, you’re going to have to write him in after you get out of the ballot box. Somebody besides Jesus will be elected, and some in here will have voted for the winner and some for the loser, but we will all, all of us who bear Christ’s name in baptism, need to be about the business of writing him in, no matter who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We are not the first generation of Christians to experience anxiety about the times. The earliest Christians, who always lived on the edge of persecution, were an anxious lot as well. You can tell by the tone of Paul’s letters. He is constantly telling them not to worry. “Don’t be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed,” he writes, and he could be writing those words today.

For the early Christians, the primary worry was that Jesus had not returned, time was passing away, and so were the apostles. The imminent return that the first letter to the church at Thessalonica had proclaimed was now being updated by a second letter with a new message – don’t be alarmed, be patient.

It is a hard message to hear, and some in the early church were having none of it. They were ready to interpret the things going on around them as a sign that Jesus was returning in their lifetime. Paul may or may not be the author of the letter, scholars say, but it doesn’t matter; the message is clear – don’t fall for it, don’t be shaken in mind or spirit by those who might say the end is near. They might say it under the spell of some prophetic vision (by spirit), or by reason and logic (by word), or by letter (maybe even a fake letter purporting to be from Paul himself). Don’t fall for it.

Paul writes Jesus in. The people of Thessalonica are caught up in fear, and in their fearfulness they are prone to believing, falsely, that something other than God’s grace in Jesus Christ can hold their ultimate loyalty. Paul names the anxiety they are feeling, then he reminds them of the teaching they have received, then reminds them they are God’s beloved children, that God has loved and saved them, then exhorts them to confidence, and prays for their growth. It is a powerful response to fear and alarm, then and now. Paul calls to mind Christ. He writes Jesus in.

What does it mean to write Jesus in? It seems to me it means to be grounded in grace, not lacking in hope, and motivated in all things by love. When we walk out of the voting booth, whoever wins, that is the moment the real work begins – when we have the chance to practice grace, to act in love, to not lose hope, especially when we are among those with whom we might not agree.

On this All Saints Sunday, let us be reminded that our own congregation has been here since 1811. We were here for the War of 1812, when a young Republic was threatened. We were here in 1861, when the bloodshed that was the Civil War visited our town in a momentous battle that cost over 6,000 lives, our then-sanctuary used as a makeshift hospital. We were here when World War I came along, the war to end all wars, followed in short order by a Great Depression that wiped out whole families in our church financially and then another war in which the fate of the world hung in the balance. We were here when our nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor, entering that war. How many of our own congregation lost children, grandchildren, fathers, in those wars? We were here when presidents were assassinated, when the Civil Rights of African Americans shone a spotlight on the South, and we were here when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed just three hours down the road and the whole nation felt as if it was sitting on a powder keg. We were here September 11, 2001, when terror visited our shores.

I do not recite this litany to in any way diminish the times in which we live now, or the importance of the issues we face, but rather to remind us that we have practice in what it means for followers of Jesus Christ to write him in when times are uncertain.

In every period of our history, there were faithful saints who, in the midst of great fear, worshiped God, had their babies baptized, practiced grace, bestowed mercy, communed at the table, and in ways large and small refused to give in to fear, refused to become cynical or hopeless, continued to proclaim that the way of Christ provided a way through fearful times. We remember them on a day like today not to engage in sentimentality, but to draw strength from their witness, to remember that we are not alone.

In 1983 I wrote an editorial for our high school newspaper condemning the United States continuing involvement in Lebanon. A Marine barracks in Beirut had just been bombed, 220 Marines and 21 other service personnel were killed. I wrote a scathing political editorial in which I blamed then-president Ronald Reagan. I was raised in a union family of yellow dog Democrats (they would vote for a yellow dog before they’d vote for a Republican), and so I wasted no time claiming my heritage and laying into Reagan and the Republicans with the fervor and certitude a high school sophomore can muster, which turns out is quite a bit.

I was getting lots of props for it, and somewhere along the line my grandmother had clipped it out and given it to my pastor. When I walked by his office on Sunday, he asked if I could come in and talk for a minute. He said he had gotten my well-written editorial, and he was proud that I, as a young person, cared enough to express myself.

“If you will allow me, though, I’d like to caution you.” It was one of his favorite words – “caution” – that and “grace.”

“Remember,” he said, “that all the things you are writing about are complicated, and the more complicated something is, the better you will need to be at listening to the people who don’t agree with you. They will always have something to teach you, if you’re willing to learn.”

I remember not appreciating his words at the time, thinking this was cautious pastor-speak, not wanting to ruffle any feathers. Now I know he was trying to help me write Jesus in.

I remember being on fire about some hot political issue and going in for my Greek class with Dr. Waddle. It was second year Greek and I was the only student. I was going off, named a couple of students with whom I disagreed strongly, and I called one of them a Neanderthal. Dr. Waddle looked up over his reading glasses and said, “I think you meant to say ‘fellow human being created in the image of God, sinner saved by grace, just like you, right? Could have sworn that was what you meant to say.”

Writing Jesus in.

I’m so grateful for these two saints and so many more who, over the years, have helped me know what it looks like to write Jesus in. My prayer this day is our entire congregation will wake up on Wednesday, and every day, determined to not let fear and cynicism steal our good hope, but instead will write Jesus in, remembering the words of our text, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Amen.

Requiem for My Father

I knew you – really knew you –  late

Which I suppose conventional wisdom

Would say is better than never.

And in this case, conventional 

Wisdom is wise indeed. 

The sages mingle with the masses

And with one voice speak truth- conventional, cliché, clear:

“Better late than never.”

Let it be written in the clouds

Let it be recorded on the limestone

Around which we scatter you. 

(For Curtis Edward Joiner, Jr. 1946-2016)

The Invitation of Finality

I preached this sermon Sunday, August 7, and found myself missing lots of people and places and times, and being grateful. So I thought I would share. Here’s to those things great enough to me missed. 

Preached by Christopher A. Joiner

First Presbyterian Church, Franklin, Tennessee

August 7, 2016

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Revelation 21:1-6 

​During a Christmas Eve candlelight service at the church I served in Alabama, it was the custom to form a circle at the end of the service while our candles were lit and invite people to share. In January, one of the core families in that church was moving across the country. The father spoke up and said, with tears in his eyes, “Thank you for making it so hard for us to move away.”

 

​It is a blessing that Joan Chittister commends to us all, the one a father said every time he hugged his daughter goodbye: “May every place you be make it hard for you to leave…May every person you love make it hard for you to say goodbye.”

 

​I’ve mentioned to you before our daughter Chandler’s habit when we go on vacation of starting to anticipate the end before it has barely begun. We arrive on a Monday afternoon to the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, just putting our feet in the salt water, and she says, “We will have to leave on Sunday. I don’t want this to end.” I used to try and argue her into recognizing that Sunday was a long way off, but we both knew the truth. It really wasn’t a long way off. It would be here before we knew it. And we knew the week would be wonderful; just being all together in that place, sharing uninterrupted time, Sabbath rest and re-creation. We would miss it for sure. She was just missing it ahead of time.

 

​And I saw it on the faces of students on Friday as they waited in our neighborhood for the school buses. A mixture of excitement and apprehension, and that telltale look that says, “Where did the summer go?” I sensed it in the scores of Facebook and Instagram photos of students on Friday. All of them a variation on the theme, “I can’t believe how fast they are growing up.” Where did the summer go, where did the years go? If you were one of those students, and you felt a little or a lot of sadness about summer’s end; if you were a parent or a grandparent and felt the sting of tears falling down your cheek as you watched your child enter the school building, then it is a sure sign you were blessed in some way by the thing you miss.

 

​Chittister says that life is made up of a series of choices, and gradually we build up a scaffolding of those choices, “each of which, sooner or later, one way or another, ends.” And the measure of our happiness, the measure of “our wisdom as we go,” is whether or not, when that period of life which those choices represent comes to an end, it is hard for us to leave…it is hard for us to say goodbye.

 

​We are sad because that which we are leaving or saying goodbye to is important to us, has become part of us in some way deep within. Often before a funeral, someone will start to cry and apologize. I always try to say, “Never apologize for your tears. They are a sign of the importance of this person to you.” And what we affirm at a funeral we see affirmed here today. Each of these moments in our lives, each of these goodbyes, anticipate a day when our lives will be gathered up into the life of God, when there will be no more goodbyes, no more tears, no mourning over losses. This is the vision of John compiled in the often-troubling and misunderstood letter called Revelation.

 

​It would be easy here to take a detour through this book’s eerie visions of dragons, lakes of fire, the four horsemen, and lots of other images that feel taken straight from the fertile mind of Stephen King. In reality, many of these images were taken straight from the pages of the Hebrew scriptures and the apocalyptic tradition, which tried to describe metaphorically something that is indescribable. What is it they were trying to describe? The end of days, the day when God would do what we cannot do for ourselves, the day when God would fulfill God’s intentions for the world.

 

​But today, we have skipped the detour and gone straight to the end of the book. All of Revelation’s seemingly bizarre imagery has been leading up to something, which we see with striking clarity here in Chapter 21. And what we see is that “God does not merely bring the end, God is the end.” God is “all in all.” Our lives and the life of the world will be taken up into the life of God so completely that it can only be called “new.” A new heaven and a new earth. The One we worship we will see, face-to-face.

 

​When God is all in all, there are certain things which can be no more. Death, the thief which takes those we love away from us, which stalks the world in violence and war, which hides away in cancer cells, which hangs over us as threat, always in the background of every goodbye and every ending, which is the source of crying and mourning and pain, will be gone.

 

​But true to form in this book of images, all those things that disappear when God appears are summarized in the disappearance of one thing. John writes it at the very beginning of our text: “And the sea was no more.”

 

​Remember back at the beginning, the very beginning as narrated by Genesis, when God created the heavens and earth and the earth was void and without form, and darkness covered the face of the deep. The Hebrew is tohu wa bohu. It is chaos, disorder, formlessness. And God creates by pushing the seas back, causing land to appear. The ancient Hebrews believed that it was only God’s grace that held those chaotic waters at bay. We see in the story of the Flood the one time God’s gracious hand was lifted from those waters, allowing them to run free, and chaos and death ensues. The sea represents that chaos. It represents all that is broken in the world, all that threatens.

 

​“And the sea was no more.”

 

​I don’t know that I fully understood the power of this image until I stared out through night vision binoculars onto the Aegean Sea. Standing atop a hill overlooking a lighthouse, temperatures below freezing, the chopping waters rising and falling in colors of green, chaos was a word that made sense. As I scanned the waters – up and down, up and down – I occasionally saw the far shoreline of Turkey, knowing that in the deep woods on that other shore there were thousands of people waiting. The smugglers advertised bad weather discounts for those desperate enough to get in flimsy boats, more than likely wearing fake life jackets for which they had paid extra, to make the journey across the sea to where we were, on the Island of Lesvos, in Greece.

 

​What must that water have represented to the refugees on the other side except tohu wa bohu, formless and void and full of chaos?

 

​How much more powerful is that promise, standing on top of a cold hill in Greece – “And the sea was no more.” It is not a promise about the literal disappearance of the sea, but about the banishment of what it represents. Refugees drowning in the cold waters? No more. Cancer? No more. War? No more. Homelessness? No more. Broken relationships? No more.

 

​And goodbyes? No more. All things new.

 

​It is easy, though, when reading these promises, to begin to pine for that new day, to say things like, “I know it is hard now, but one day, in the future, on the last day, everything will work out.” Not only is that cold comfort for someone experiencing the chaos of the sea now, it is not faithful to the call of the Book of Revelation itself. We are called to live now as if that new day were already here, because, in Christ, it is already present though not fully realized. We catch glimpses of it when we walk in the Way of Christ in the world. We participate in it when we cry with those who weep, when we sit alongside those in pain, when we mourn with those who mourn. We participate in it when we give water from the well of life to those who thirst.

 

​One of those nights in Greece, Harding McCall saw a boat through those night vision binoculars. By the time the next day dawned, Harding and Tony Inglis were in the Aegean Sea, guiding the boat to the rocky shore, where other members of our team were waiting to tend to babies, help people out of wet and cold clothing, guiding them up to the lighthouse. The refugees were filled with joy, taking selfies with our people, laughing. They had made the journey across the sea. Every cup of water given to them, every bowl of hot soup and mug of warm tea was a participation in that day, that coming day.

 

​“And the sea was no more.”

 

​So that feeling you feel when you are sad to see something go, whether it is the summer or the year or a season of life? May you see that feeling as a grace, a sign of the blessing that was, and a foretaste of blessings to come. But may you also see this: a day is coming when all those events and seasons and times, all the love that you have ever given or received, along with the world itself, will be taken up into God.

 

​Last June was my last time to take classes at Austin Seminary, as I move to the writing phase of the program. From the moment I arrived on the campus for the two-week term, I was saying to my friends I dreaded the end. It was like my toe was barely in the water and already I was anticipating the end. I know where Chandler gets it. My friends were begging me to stop talking about it. It was two whole weeks away. But they knew. We all knew. It flew by. And what a blessing that at the end, it was so hard to say goodbye. And yet, those friendships, that time, it is not gone. It, and all the other times when we have loved and been loved, all of it is taken up into the life of God. So let us live each day by the light of that coming day, let us live each day so that every place you be make it hard for you to leave and every person you love make it hard for you to say goodbye. Amen.

 

 

Laughter

I don’t know that there’s 

A more holy,

More sacred, 

More poignant

Sound

Than the laughter

Coming from the upstairs room 

Of your child

With old friends. 

You say

“How can friends be old 

When they are one score,

And so many more to go?”

But you are not sitting below,

Hearing, as I do, the joyous 

Guffaws,

Cutting through the air

Like old grooves,

Old souls,

Old friends. 

You could do worse than pray

For your children nothing more

Than this. 

The End of Job

In a Doctor of Ministry course I took a couple of years ago with Rabbi Blumofe at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary on “Theology after the Holocaust”, we were given the assignment of re-writing the end of the book of Job based on our studies. The piece I wrote for the assignment was based on Elie Wiesel’s story of the night the prisoners in the Nazi death camp put God on trial. I am preaching on the end of Job in a couple of weeks, and that, plus Wiesel’s recent death, caused me to dig out the assignment and share here. It is hard to overstate the impact of Wiesel’s voice and actions on the ways we think about suffering and faith, war and peace, and our propensity for silence in the face of atrocity. His words inspired these. May he know the peace of the presence of God.

For the context of the poem, see Job, chapters 38-42 and Wiesel’s book, Night.

 

The End of Job – By Christopher Joiner

I had heard you with my ears,

But now I see you with my eyes;

Therefore I gird my loins.

I am a man, a God-breathed creature,

I will ask of you, and you will answer me.

 

Where were you

when the Sabeans attacked,

Slitting the throats of my sons save one,

For the sake of oxen?

 

Where were you

When your own fire (your own!)

Came down from the skies

And burned my boys

So that nothing remained but ashes;

For what? The sheep?

 

Tell me if you know.

Were you out drinking with friends

Gambling with the lives of your faithful ones?

 

Where were you

When the Chaldeans descended in formation

And spilled rivers of blood of my children

To acquire camels?

 

Where were you

When my sons and daughters

The few I had left in the world,

Felt the rafters shake

And the roof collapse on them,

As they lay dying slowly,

Some suffocating,

Some broken and bleeding and screaming,

For You.

Where were you?

 

I called out to you

And you answered with silence.

 

It is true I do not know

I was not there,

When you laid the foundations of the earth.

But I do know suffering.

I know the feeling

Of wanting to pull my skin from my body,

Such was the unrelieved pain.

Do you?

 

I know the indignity of the sidelong glance,

The accusing stares,

Words of imputed wickedness from those

Who would call me friend.

Do you?

 

I know the void of grief without end,

Without meaning,

Useless and cold and unrequited.

Do you?

 

I never claimed to set the foundations of the earth

Or to create one thing in it,

Save a life of faithfulness to you.

You, though, have claimed much

About yourself.

 

So answer me with more than questions,

See me and know my suffering,

See me face to face,

See me in all the glory of my name –

The Sufferer.

 

And God said,

“I see.”

 

And Job said,

“Then you are guilty,

And all I have suffered is useless to me.”

 

Then Job went inside,

covered in whirlwind,

and spoke into the darkness,

“It is time for evening prayers.”

 

Thus ends the book.

Spending Time


I am spending time in a place in the mountains of Virginia with dear friends and colleagues. It is a place not many miles from Tinker Creek, where Annie Dillard went on a pilgrimage. 

There she wrote of “spending” time, not in the passive way we normally use the word, but in it’s literal, more active (and troubling) sense. Each thing we do or don’t do each day is a trading in the currency of minutes. “Spend the morning,” she said. “Spend the afternoon,” she implored more emphatically. “You can’t take it with you,” she proclaimed, the words on the page evoking the cadences of an Appalachian country preacher in full invocation. 

As I sit in this circle of friends, framed by mountains bathed in the morning sun, I have only one quibble with Annie. Time spent with friends and family, time spent in community, time spent cultivating love, time spent giving and receiving grace…it may pass, but it is never gone like a twenty at the grocery store. I believe, in the mystery of God’s grace and God’s time, it remains. 

Paul said faith, hope and love remain when all else has passed away. I believe he meant that in the economy of God there is a kind of time you can spend, and, when you find yourself at the end, reach in your pocket and find you were able to take it with you after all. A walk with a friend by a running stream passes time and comes to an end, and yet remains, by grace, in the heart of God and in mine as well. 


Could that be what Jesus meant when he said, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…?”

Time for me to stop writing. I have yet more time to spend and treasure to store.