Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.


In Touch

Well, I’ve been getting back into the groove since jurisdictional conference. I’m excited to return as the Columbia District Superintendent, but I must admit that yesterday helped my spirits more than 3 days of Cabinet earlier in the week. A great friend who mentored me as a young pastor, J.E. Mozingo, died after a tough illness. On the golf course we called him “Down-the-middle-Mozingo.” He didn’t always hit the ball that far but it was ALWAYS down the middle. That was a metaphor for his life. He was always “in the middle” bringing other opinions and people together. He was on the Darlington County School Board when things were quite tense, and he was a voice of reason and a calming presence. J.E. was a peacemaker that got along with everyone. He held hands with both sides on tough issues.

J.E.’s wife, Bobbie, was my first funeral at Wesley Chapel. I have always deplored generic funerals, so I tried to be as accurate and tactful as I could about Bobbie. She was a rich character filled with spice and zingers. So I shared some of that in her funeral, maybe too much because after the service NOBODY said anything. No one said, “You really captured her!” or anything like it. I crept away from the cemetery feeling lousy that I had evidently overstepped the boundaries of decorum.

About an hour after the funeral, J.E. called me and in a voice sounding more gruff than it really was, said, “Preacher, Are you going to be at the parsonage?” I replied sheepishly, “Yes.” Then J.E. said, “Well, I’m coming over to see you. I’ve got a tip for you.” I freaked out. What kind of tip, “piece of information,” was J.E. going to lay on me? He came inside and we went into the huge living room and he talked about this, that, and everything else. He had me twisting in the wind and my tension mounted to the point that I finally said, “Alright, J.E., what about the tip?” He looked at me and pulled out some cash, saying, “I thought it was a damn good funeral.” I apologized over and over again saying that I had misunderstood him, but over the years, 27 to be exact, J.E. always got a laugh out of me asking for the tip, the “piece of information.” We were close from then on.

I know his family and his cadre of friends will miss him. He was such a wonderful gentleman! He was a farmer who could work himself dirty but he could also dress up like nobody’s business. He was authentic wherever he was because he was always real and relational – in touch with his environment and the people in it. He reminded me of my Daddy.

My Dad had a hard life – mixed blood and an 8th grade dropout. When he asked for my mother’s hand in marriage her father didn’t even turn around. He reportedly said under his breath, “You make your bed hard, you’ve got to sleep in it.” Mamma and Daddy ran off to the Methodist preacher’s parsonage one town over. When my mother’s parents sent out the none-too-happy wedding announcement they even spelled my Dad’s name wrong.

He spent the rest of his life proving them wrong. He overcame adversity after adversity and he did it the same way J.E. Mozingo did. Both of them had an uncanny knack of being really present with people, with all God’s creatures. With Daddy I think it was his native blood. Gosh, he could read people and in a Crocodile Dundee sort of way, he could talk to the animals. One of my most treasured possessions is this picture with my Dad standing out in an open field with his hand on a cow’s shoulder with her calf off to the side. If you know anything about cattle, you know that you can’t just do this. It’s amazing. I saw Daddy do this sort of thing over and over again with animals and people.

So, I thank J.E. Mozingo for reminding me of life’s greatest pleasure – being in touch. After the pain of jurisdictional conference and the angst of coming back into what some call an administrative job like being a District Superintendent, it was good to be behind the pulpit yesterday. I was back at home. Those who know me are quite aware that my superintending is an “in touch” kind, too. I’ll never be a bureaucrat. Like my Daddy and J.E. Mozingo – I’ve got to be hands on and love on people including all of God’s marvelous creation. That’s who I am and ever want to be. Thanks, J.E., for giving me another tip this weekend! I needed it so I could be renewed in my call!