Following is the homily offered at a Lenten luncheon at St. Mark’s UMC, Charleston. The theme of the series is “Home” – safe and secure.
March 27, 2019
Rev. John W. (Jack) Lipphardt, retired; Director WV UM Disaster Recovery
A familiar Biblical text from Mark contains the ancient Hebrew Shema: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Matthew tells the story simply, without the Shema. Luke puts the story in the context of a lawyer who is trying to set a trap for Jesus though Jesus’ response leads to the story of The Good Samaritan. Hear this story as Mark records it.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
You are not far from the kingdom of God. As Jesus teaches, the Kingdom of God is not far off or some time in the future. It has already broken in upon us — we are living in the kingdom now!
You are not far from home. Love God, love the neighbor, you are not far from home.
I wanted to run away from home when I was six or seven years old. I cannot remember why. I was mad at my mother. My younger sister who was useless at the time may have had something to do with it — she had spoiled my chances of being an only child. My mother’s response to me was very calm. “Let’s fix a couple sandwiches, and you should take your jacket for when it gets cold.” Made me even madder. I determined to stay home — I’ll show her!
I almost left home three weeks ago. After the vote at the special general conference. I was overcome with shock, denial, hurt, pain – I was the poster boy for pastoral counselors who know the stages of grief. That night, I nearly resolved to leave home and find another, to leave the Church I have loved and known as home. But as the next day rolled along, the pain and grief turned toward anger and a different resolution. I realized that I cannot be a good friend and ally of people more deeply hurt and cast aside by a narrow vote of attempted church law if I leave home. I drew strength from folk across the denomination who were gathering their own resolve to stay home and continue the effort toward inclusion of all in the family of God. And I drew strength from 70 years as a cradle UM – the Church that is home to me – and I drew more strength from remembering why I have been a UM all these years.
Throughout my life, I have remembered a comment made briefly but profoundly by my grandmother: “The best way to make disciples is to be a faithful one.” I also recall learning from a high school Sunday school lesson series on the Wesleys that Father John stated that “there is no holiness but social holiness.” From my parents, I learned the values associated with observing the needs of others and, without fanfare, doing what they could to respond, often bringing others along by their quiet witness. From pastors, I learned the global nature of mission and ministry.
Home. Much as I might want to take comfort in the thought that Jesus wants to enter my heart – that I want to take him there – that he stands at the door of my home and knocks, I am persuaded, as Bishop Will Willimon says, that “We don’t take Jesus anywhere; he takes us.” Jesus may be standing and knocking at my door, or at the door of my heart, but more than coming in, he is calling me to come out and to go with him. It is a theological framework for the life of discipleship. “Follow me,” he says. There is another home besides the blocks and mortar, wood and glass of the house where I reside. Home is also where Jesus is.
Home for me is The UMC with its discipleship, with its recognition that it can only be holy when it includes the neighbor, with its open table and mission and outreach across the globe, and with its affirmation that Jesus may knock on the door of my heart not so much to come into me but to drag me out into a hurting world and to follow him. Love God, love the neighbor, remain within the kingdom of God, stay home.
I get asked from time to time why I accepted the bishop’s call to give direction to disaster recovery after the storms and flood of 2016. I had attempted retirement six weeks earlier. First of all, I am obedient to my bishop. Well, mostly. 😎 But it was also a calling to ‘stay home’ in ministry with the church I love and to forestall retirement. It was very tempting to kick back in retirement and to take on a number of tasks at the home we built. I get teased about the “f” word at home: “Finish”. Projects get started and then get delayed in finishing. I need to finish some closet spaces and two bathroom floors, but those projects at home are waiting while I answer the call of my other home. Jesus, of course, is welcome in my home, but when I look for him, he’s not inside wanting to help me finish the closets; I find him heading outside, waving me out. “Follow me,” he says.
He is in the work and ministry of UMCOR and our Conference’s disaster response and recovery ministries. He is in elderly folk whose homes were destroyed in Amma and Nallen. He is in children in Rainelle and Camden-on-Gauley who no longer clutch in fear to their mothers when it begins to rain but still are hyper vigilant and anxious. He is in children with a single parent in Clay who lost not only their home but also the source of income when the business employing their mother was impacted. He is in disabled persons from Richwood and Clendenin living in a residential facilities that were destroyed, requiring their harrowing rescue and unsettling relocation, including lying them down on dry church pews praying they don’t roll off while arrangements are made in distressing circumstances to relocate them. He is in the Howard Creek neighborhood in White Sulphur Springs, a lower middle class working neighborhood where massive destruction took place, killing five of the twenty-three people who perished in the flooded region. Across the disaster zone, thousands of people watched in horror as the safety and security of “home” were flushed away.
Home. Let me share one story. JF and Miranda will have others in the next couple weeks, but this family’s story demonstrates the nature of The WV UMC’s persistence walking alongside them to find their way home.
In 2015, a family of five lost their home in a fire. I’ll call them Glen and Brenda. They bought a very small house nearby intending to expand it a bit to fit their family. They moved temporarily into a trailer owned by an aunt and located on Glen’s parents’ property. A year later when the storms and flood came, the mobile home was destroyed. At the same time, Glen’s brother’s family was displaced as their mobile home was also destroyed. They all moved into a 2 bedroom house with their parents: grandparents, sons and spouses, and grandchildren – 11 people most of the time, 13 when two children of joint custody were home with them. They had an independent disaster case manager who was unable to make much progress.
In April, 2017, we had a bridge-building team from Orwigsburg PA who also wanted to help in home rehabilitation, and we assigned them, at the case manager’s request, to their home. The former case manager, unable to move forward with them because of the remote location and difficulty of hosting volunteer teams, transferred their case to WV United Methodist Disaster Recovery case management and construction supervision. Domestic issues with Glen’s brother’s family compounded the problem, making the home environment extremely difficult, so we hurried to complete the kitchen so that food and household goods would not be stolen by the brother’s family. The small lot precluded excavation for a typical septic system, so a home aeration unit was necessary. A neighbor refused to allow treated discharge water to flow to a stream near the edge of his property. The other neighbor consented, but though trenching across that property was considerably longer, we got the DEP permits and made it work.
In the meantime, an error on Clay County’s part applied property tax payments to a wrong parcel, and without effective notice, the property was sold for taxes to a real estate agent who thought she was buying a different property that the county advertised. We went through the process of redeeming the property. Then, last month, a major road slip blocked access, requiring a 15 mile detour along a gravel mountain ridge road. The home aeration unit was installed last week, and the family was finally able to move into their home. After nearly three years, we will have house and home blessing with them two weeks from now! Home! The ministry of WV UM Disaster Recovery that hung in with this family to get them home is Home for me.
Home, of course, is where I kick back and root for my Duke Blue Devils and share space with my family and a sweetheart dog. It is warm in the winter, cool in the summer, dry when it rains. We love the house that is our home. The children and grandchildren know the way home. The physical house remains unfinished, but so is my life. Home is my Church and is also my vocation in ministry. Further, home is where Jesus is – “out there somewhere” – or standing at my door beckoning me to follow him somewhere.
Love the Lord your God, love the neighbor as yourself, and keep mindful of the kingdom of God: we are not far from home.
My mama taught me to say ‘thank you’, and I would be remiss not to say Thank You to St. Mark’s for the different ways the congregation has helped families recover from the 2016 disaster – helping them find home. Thank you.