The Greatest Story Ever Ignored

The Greatest Story Ever Ignored

by J. Barrie Shepherd

Covenant Network G.A. Luncheon
212th G.A., Long Beach CA
26 June 2000

Acts 12:6-17

Excerpts from this address appear in Covenant Connection Vol. 3, #3.

Thank you for those generous introductory words. Speaking on such an occasion, and before this most challenging of audiences, a gaggle of fellow clergy, can be a daunting task. I was tempted, indeed, to open with the prayer of the pious Scot, elder in the kirk, who, while earning his daily bread in a whisky distillery, tumbled one day into a vat of the finest single malt. As he fell he was heard to utter this fervent prayer:
Lord, grant me a mouth worthy of this high occasion.

As some of you know I recently retired from the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York — mother church of New York City Presbyterianism. Retirement: that’s when you move from Who’s Who, to Who’s he? On my last Sunday in that historic pulpit, I was reminded of the pastor greeting parishioners at the door after his farewell sermon. There was much talk of how he would be missed, but all that was nothing compared to the outright sobbing of one of the older members; this poor lady seemed possessed by grief. “Now, now dear, don’t be so upset,” the pastor murmured modestly; “I’m sure in his own good time the Lord will send a new minister every bit as good as I am.” “Ah, but that’s it,” sobbed the lady. “I’ve been a member here for 50 years and I’ve seen a dozen ministers, and they just get worse and worse and worse!”

I think we’d better pray:
Stretch us, O God, at this midday hour. Draw out all of the kinks, the knots, the cramps and creases, all the weary, fearful, timid places of our souls, and shape us into something new, something beyond, something brimming, spilling, running over with abundant life. Let us be born, be born anew this day, in Christ. Let us say, AMEN.

Allow me a text, because as a preacher, and a Scot, I tend to get lost without one. You remember in Acts, when Peter is flung into gaol, and the Angel of God appears in the night, strikes off his chains, flings wide the prison gate, and leads him out to freedom. Bewildered at first, Peter makes his way to the house where the rest of the apostles were gathered, praying earnestly for his release. He knocks at the door, and when Rhoda the maid recognises his voice she runs back to the gathering to tell them Peter himself is standing outside.

And their response, in chapter 12 and verse 15:
They said to her, “You are mad.”

This was the church speaking, you realize, not the Pharisees or Sadducees, not the priestly clan of the Sanhedrin or Pilate with his lofty Roman logic and law. This was “the early church” that spoke so dismissively, scornfully to Rhoda, that assured her she was seeing ghosts, that could not recognize an honest-to-God miracle, the deliverance of the Holy Spirit, when it was staring them in the face, or trying to beat down their door. This skeptical, incredulous bunch who today would have sent poor Rhoda to a psychiatrist, this was that “early church” we so often refer back to in reverent and envious tone, looking to them for guidance, a model, an example, at the least, of how to exist as a Christian community. This was the church of Jesus Christ, about as close to the Master, to the origins, as we can possibly get, that said to Rhoda, “You are mad,” that informed that poor slave girl she had to be insane.

And it didn’t end there. Throughout the rest of the New Testament, in one situation after another, we see the glorious message of resurrection, of liberty through faith in the risen Christ, degenerate into a series of petty squabbles and disputes over authority and jurisdiction. Who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s clean and who’s dirty, who’s in and who’s out?

And it’s been that way ever since — has it not? They did it with Origen, with Francis and Joan, Luther, Galileo, Wesley too, and Teresa, Schweitzer, King, Dorothy Day in our time — said they were crazy, pronounced them clean out of their minds, because they had seen, caught and lived a freedom, an abundance of life, a reality of resurrection that the rest of us, this established, everyday, meat- and-potatoes church could not even recognize, let alone grapple with.

It doesn’t take much history to realize that the Christian church as an institution has pretty consistently resisted new ideas, fresh visions, any but the most gradual, incremental kind of change from the beginning. Born in ferment and the dynamic of a revolutionary gospel message, we Christians matured almost instantly, almost indecently, into a group that cherished above all else stability, reliability, tradition, permanence and precedent. Perhaps it was the need to convince the Roman Empire that we were not just another crazy band of zealots. Perhaps it was the urge to preserve at least something from the chaos of that empire’s long, slow collapse into chaos.

Whatever. The radical enthusiasm and simple direct vision of the kingdom taught by Jesus of Nazareth, a kingdom that crept in like a thief in the night, like leaven that secretly ferments and bubbles up until it transforms everything it touches, was swiftly overcome by other, more mundane concerns. That realm of God, consistently portrayed as a feast of one kind or another in Jesus’ teaching, soon became something more orderly and dull, more akin to civil government or the courts of Roman law. And the followers of a man who — I’d be willing to wager — never attended a single committee meeting, unless we count those gatherings at Caiaphas’ and Pontius Pilate’s palaces, promptly got themselves all bogged down in policies, polities, and procedures.

Did you ever wonder about those apostles who called Rhoda mad? I mean, maybe they weren’t praying at all — if they had been, surely they would have discerned the action of the Spirit among them. I suspect they were gathered in executive session, trying to compose the very first Book of Order, principles, guidelines, a manual of procedures for dealing responsibly with the authorities — when the liberated Peter, full of the spirit, came pounding on their tight-locked door. The greatest story ever ignored, yes, the greatest story ever ignored.

I have long had a thing about that lovely old exclamation in the King James Version of Isaiah 6:
Woe is me, for I am undone!

Oh I know the newer, more accurate versions have, “I am lost,” “I am confused,” “I am disoriented” or something similar; but I do my devotional reading in the familiar King James, and that phrase still resonates deep within.
Woe is me, for I am undone!

You see, we get so knotted up nowadays. Knotted up personally with schedules, commitments, habits and attitudes, preferences, preconceptions, prejudices; knotted up institutionally with rule books and guide books, precedents and procedures, chains, yes that’s literally what we call them, chains of command. Do you realize that the original Book of Order comprised some 10 pages, while the current version has 128, not counting appendices? We get so knotted up nowadays. And then somewhere, somehow we find ourselves in the presence of the Almighty, and the first thing that happens is our knots are all undone. We are set free — wonderfully, fearfully free, like Peter with his chains struck off, his prison bars set wide, and a new world of possibility in Christ set before him.

Now let’s be careful here. I am not advocating anarchy, the abandonment of all structure and regulation, that dreaded state called “anything goes”. Certain knots are necessary; they hold us together, after all. But my suspicion is that these essential knots are fewer, far fewer than any of us would easily admit. And that if we could begin, both personally and institutionally, to undo this unnecessary burden, we would be set free, amazingly and alarmingly free. Just like a piece of string with all its knots removed, set free to be useful, full of uses in holding things together, binding up the fellowship of Christ, bridging all kinds of chasms and establishing new links with whatever or whoever lies beyond. You see, I’m not against rules and regulations per se; but I am against, I am appalled by what these regulations, and our continual fighting over them — I’m appalled by what this is doing to us, and what it is keeping us from doing in the service of our risen Lord.

I’m talking about the difference between a church that is run by, dominated by its rules and regulations, and by its incessant and eternal fights over those rules and regulations — yes, paralyzed by them — and a church on fire with that liberating gospel of new life in Christ that broke open Peter’s gaol and can still break wide open every impasse, every seemingly insoluble dispute. What was that word in that overture again, “irreconcilable” differences? Sounds more like Divorce Court to me than the church of our risen Lord. We face an issue, and I hope you will agree, that goes far beyond the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered Christians. We are, of course, fully and unshakably committed to that goal –and let no one call this into doubt — we have been from the beginning. And by God’s grace it will happen, and happen soon. We’re shooting for next year in Louisville. But the real issue goes beyond; it goes right to the nature of the church, the future of this church we love and serve.

Between a rock and a soft place: that’s how I’ve come to view the situation of the church today. Between a rock and a soft place. For centuries, millennia, we have been wedded to this image of the rock — Petros — that upon which Christ’s church is founded. And to be sure it is a powerful , effective image, one that evokes stability, solidity, changelessness, the Almighty God of the Hebrew Covenant issuing eternal laws from that majestic rock, Sinai. That insurance company knew what it was doing when it offered us “a piece of the rock.” But the trouble with images — and as something of a poet I have learned to work with and craft images with great care — the problem with metaphor, simile, analogy and the like is that however popular, however dominant they become, they are, all of them, of necessity imperfect. They don’t quite fully do the job; they simply cannot tell the whole story.

And there is another side to this God of the Covenant — that’s what Jesus came to reveal, didn’t he? — a side most powerfully portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal, when the forgiving father/God did not wait for an apology, for any admission of guilt, shame, repentance, but as soon as he glimpsed the outline of his long-lost son, way out there on the horizon almost, just lifting the latch of the gate to the furthermost field of the family farm, he ran from the house, all the way down that dusty farm road and flung himself upon his boy, embraced him, welcomed him home. And there’s not a lot that is rocklike about that, is there?

And so this God of the rock, this unshakable, immutable, Almighty One of Israel, this Deity about whom the theologians thought up all those omnis — omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent — this double-belt-and-suspenders God, is also somehow the Lord of the Dance, One who walked the weary roads of Palestine, who wept great tears as of blood in a garden for us, who went, at the last, or almost the last, to death on a cross of shame for our sakes. And we find ourselves — don’t we? — between a rock and a soft place. Caught, in other words, between a stern, unchanging, almighty God of justice and law, and that fond, forgiving father of the prodigal, caught between a majestic concept, as we have just observed on Trinity Sunday, and this God who insists on messing everything up by becoming incarnate.

So too with the church. We have clung too long to that hallowed old image of the rock, set firm amid the flux and flood of our times, safe, secure and unchanging above the turbulent, troubled waters, a beacon of unchanging light and truth, laying down the law according to the Book of Order, and then inviting folk to follow it, to follow it or else.

I am more and more convinced that our times call for a church that is willing to forsake its cherished place of authority and power, to climb down from its secure perch high on that lofty rock, and to plunge right in, risking itself among the torrents and rapids in reaching out to those in peril and distress, the forgotten, the rejected, the despised, the oppressed.

That’s where I see Christ today. Not high on a throne somewhere pronouncing judgment, right and wrong, clean and unclean, who’s in, who’s out. I look for Christ in the rapids, right where the river runs its swiftest and most dangerous and nothing seems secure. I look for Christ among the homeless and troubled, those who count for little or nothing, the small change of our world, folk who do not and never will figure on the bottom line. I look to see our Lord among those who struggle daily with depression and despair, desertion, bereavement and addiction — those for whom, because of race, class, circumstance, or sexual orientation, nothing seems secure — those who find no foothold in the swirling waters and need above all else a hand, a hand beside them in the flood, a hand that still can steady them and point toward the shore, a hand that bears the marks of deep suffering and rejection of its own. That’s where I seek Christ today, not so much on the rock, as in the perilous waters.

I wrote a poem about this a couple of Easters ago. It was an eleventh-hour gift to my Easter sermon next morning, and many of you know how miraculously welcome those gifts are. I’d like you to hear it now

Holy Saturday at The Green Market

I think I caught the risen Christ,
just yesterday, on Broadway alongside Union Square.
We were returning from the Green Market
— fresh fish, green mesclun with a pinch
of bright and edible nasturtiums tossed on top,
some tiny new potatoes for our evening meal —
when I glimpsed ahead a shambling, awkward figure
lurching his twisted way along the sidewalk
and jerking fiercely now and then as if in seizure.
He wore a red baseball cap slightly off center,
sweat shirt, jeans, sneakers — all shabby
but well cared for, clean — and over his right arm
a cardboard carton with the lid cut off to shape
a sort of basket, I suppose, to display wares.
I glanced in as we passed and sure enough
there were ball-point pens, other plastic items
in there waiting to be purchased. Silent —
in my head — I wondered at the courage of one
so violently deformed, yet coping, contriving
to survive this predatory city.

Those contorted legs could not move him
that fast and we were swiftly past him to confront,
lying across a heap of trash bags up against the wall,
a homeless man, asleep, with the usual pathetic sign
informing all and sundry:
I’m in trouble, please help. Someday
I may be able to do the same for you.
I walked on, ignored both plea and promise,
passed right by as I’ve been taught to
by this casual, careless, care-less cruel city;
then glancing back over my shoulder saw our friend
in the red baseball cap struggle across,
laboriously read — how long it seemed to take —
that grubby and ill-lettered sign, then lean
over and drop something in the cup.

Yes, I realize, it only encourages. I know
they’ll likely spend it all on booze. I’ve heard
and lived these arguments, knowing far too much,
believing far too little, and being so afraid,
for years now. But there was something in
that simple act, an eastered innocence
put me to shame, drove me to my knees
among the sidewalk lily vendors.
I think I caught the risen Christ,
a day early, but there just the same,
on Broadway yesterday alongside Union Square.

A couple of months after that incident I had another vision on the streets of New York City. It was Gay Pride Day. My first in Manhattan and therefore quite an eye opener, a revelation you might say. The scene, much of it, is quite normal and respectable. 90% of the marchers in the parade would not seem out of place in your typical Sunday congregation. But that other 10%. Michty Me! as we used to say in Scotland. Michty Me!

It was right after church, so I was still wearing my clerical collar and dark suit. The parade passes right outside our Fifth Avenue doors, and so First Presbyterian staffs a water table along the curb. With hoses from the church kitchens, gigantic urns, and trays crammed with paper cups, we offer “a cup of cold water in Christ’s name” to all who pass by. And after several hours of marching, on a blazing hot June afternoon, it is most welcome. Anyway, this was my first experience, as I said, and so I hung out near the back of the crowd until some compelling force drew me, first to the front, then behind one of the urns filling cups and trays, and finally out on the street itself, clerical collar and all, holding out our simple gift of Christian charity. What happened next is the subject of another poem. I call it “Real Presence.”

Real Presence

Yes, a frilly pink tutu
was, more or less — more less
than more — all he wore,
that and a tall pair of teetering
stiletto heels and parasol — from tip
to toe in matching lurid pink,
strutting his jet-glow black and
body-built stuff from side to side
in flagrant full gay pride
parading down Fifth Avenue.

From giant urns outside our church
we plied the passers-by with plastic
cups “o’ kindness yet” on a hot June
afternoon — “in Jesus’ Name.”
Fully clothed, and more,
dark clergy suit, black shirt and
stiff white collar, I stood my ground,
clutching a tray of cooling draughts
to represent a welcome and a blessing —
at the least — as child of God.

Beaming, he tripped across bestowing
smiles, spectacular, on all and sundry,
chiefly me. Daintily he took the cup
I offered, leaned perilous close —
those tipping heels! — and kissed me on one
startled cheek, his bristles coarse, lips —
generous smile notwithstanding — brushing
deep, appalled revulsion through my gut,
despite all my head was murmuring of
tolerance and Christian love.

“Oh Reverend,” laughed the lady
from the sewing circle,
“you should see the juicy kiss
mark on your cheek.” And as we both
dissolved in honest, healing mirth,
first head, then heart took over
from my gut and raised a prayer
of thanks for grace’s all-too-often
way of shoving me, still screaming,
toward birth.

Real Presence.
As the years went by that parade became more and more a part of my liturgical and spiritual life. And I became bolder, much bolder. The last couple of years I made a point of singling out the most bizarre and outrageous characters. They would come strutting by, naked perhaps except for a leather thong here and there (more there than here), and pierced in every imaginable, and most seemingly excruciating spot with rings, heavy ornaments and such. They might well be screaming invective at our church buildings; after all, they had passed many places of worship along the length of Fifth Avenue and almost all had greeted them as Saint Patrick’s did, with barred doors and an intimidating police presence. “F the church!” they would be yelling; and then I approached with my tray of cups, and no matter how outlandish, how alien they appeared, they melted, became instantly and completely human, smiled bashfully, said, “Thank you, Reverend,” or “Father,” gulped down their drink, and marched on.

In the second book of Kings there is an intriguing episode in which four lepers have, let me suggest, a message for our torn, fearful and divided church. Israel’s capital, Samaria, is under long and desperate siege by Ben-Hadad, king of Syria. Elisha the prophet announces that the city will be liberated the very next day, but no one listens. That night four lepers sit by the city gates debating:
“If we go inside, we starve. But if we stay out here we also die. Let’s take our chances with the Syrians.”

They cross to the enemy camp and, behold! it is deserted! The Lord has driven off the Syrian host in panic. Well, those lepers had a blast, feasting, drinking, carrying off treasures and concealing them. But then they stopped and said a curious thing (2 Kings 7, v. 9):
“Then they said to one another, ‘We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news; if we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us; now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.'”

We too, who are seen by some within the church as lepers, we too who have been invited more than once to move outside the gates, we too have stumbled upon unearned treasure. We too have found ourselves blessed beyond our dreams. And we too have great and liberating news to share.
This day is a day of good news!

In the full and free deliverance brought by the cross of Christ, the siege — every siege — has been lifted. Hunger, fear, suspicion, are no more. The enemy has vanished and we, all the inhabitants of this city we call the PC(USA), we are set free to rebuild those precious bonds of community and respect , generosity and even love.
Owe no one anything except to love one another…
wrote Saint Paul in Romans 13:
… for whoever loves the neighbor has fulfilled the law.

Set free, then, our chains struck off like Peter’s, we remain bound to only one thing, each other. Christ has given us each other, gay and straight, conservative and liberal too, Bible thumpers and Bible massagers, and has challenged us, is challenging us today, to find ways, honest, caring, hard-wrought ways, to live together and to serve him for Christ’s sake… to serve him for Christ’s sake.

One final poem. I wrote this in Atlanta during our national Unity and Diversity Conference last fall, wrote it inspired by how much we all shared; devastated by how little actually keeps us from the urgent needs of a hungry world.

(amid a lovers’ quarrel)

Where, then, shall we meet?
Not yet, it seems clear, on the windy street corner
of whom to lay hands on, and why;
nor in the echoing lobby
of just what our sweet Bible must say about
this or that, him or her, who’s in, who’s out;
nowhere on those steep climbing steps
spelling out all the what and how much
one has to believe to be saved;
nor poised on the threshold of views
about government, guns, the rich and the poor,
about babies and sex and the state of the world.

Where, then, shall we meet?
Can it be before the One who takes
our weary, blistered feet and washes, dries,
refreshes them with tender care, then sends us out
to bear, repeat his humble acts with gentle,
world-bestowing kindness?
Or if not there, before the final Judgment Seat
of One who told us, with an earth-shaking insistence:
Feed my sheep… feed my sheep…
Feed my sheep.

Thank you.

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