First Grace --
then Faith and Works
Third Sunday of Lent
March 12, 2023
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
This past Wednesday marked International Women’s Day. It is part of the International Women’s Month. That’s right – the whole month of March is set aside to recognize women. As a man I feel so much better that all the abuse, neglect, inequality that there is between men and women is made right by these observances. How lucky are women to be so honored in this day and age. (Sarcasm) I must admit that I have not really paid much attention to this day – as a matter of fact, until this week I really don’t think I ever knew of IWM. And we should not overlook the fact that by designating a day and a month to honor women is not unlike all the other days and months we set aside to honor oppressed people. Researching the topic I found that this observance dates back to 1911 when women marched in the street to bring attention to their plight. At the time, women in most countries, including our own, were prevented from voting in elections. They had no say over laws that would be created to control their lives and to keep them held down. And here we are more than one hundred years later and, sadly, the task is still not completed.
It was with surprise that I discovered that the lectionary gospel reading for today, during International Women’s Month, is this story about the encounter Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well. This story has always held my interest because it so openly portrays Jesus’ humanity. His initial encounter with the woman has him approaching her in the typical way that many would in that day. She is alone at the well which means she is in violation of the requirement that women not be unaccompanied in public. Jesus’ opening words to her were not a pleasant “Good Day” but “give me a drink (of water).” She is shocked that he would even have this limited interaction with her, and she challenges why a Jewish man would speak to a Samaritan woman.
It is here that Jesus Messiah-splains to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ Could Jesus act any more “manly than this?” The woman had challenged him. Who does she think she is? A woman and a Samaritan no less. He failed to silence her as she picks up the tempo and proves she is able to hold her own in the theological world on the question where true worship takes place – the mountain where her people have traditionally worshipped and Jerusalem where Jesus and the Jews have been settled in. ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. With these words Jesus shows that he is not only a sexist but a culturalist as well. He plays the “Jews are superior to Samaritans” card trying to shame her back into her place.
This woman from Samaria challenges cultural mores about who would be a suitable woman for Jesus to meet (at a well!) and engage in a deep theological conversation. Unlike Jesus’ discussion from last week, with a learned and named man—Nicodemus—this woman has no name save her estranged location. But she jumps intelligently into the debate about the proper place to worship and is moved by his symbolic imagery, rather than being put off by it. The woman then moves into a more neutral position making it clear that she, a Samaritan, awaits the coming of the Messiah just as the Jews do as well. On this, she makes it clear that the Samaritans and the Jews are equal. And here, Jesus claims the title of Messiah and the disciples, who had been shopping in town, put the discussion to rest with their return.
This quarrelsome woman doesn’t even have a name. Surely she is a questionable character if she has no name. She joins a long list of poor biblical women who have had to endure enormous caricatures that we people of faith have created for them. The women of the Bible have especially suffered from our assumptions about them, which mostly reflect our own assumptions about (or patriarchy’s desires for) women of all time. It would have been satisfactory for this story to end with the disciples return but it delves into Jesus’ conversation with them and the dispute over whether or not he needed to eat their food. This guy not only is “living water” as identified to the Samaritan woman but he is also a type of “living food”. And while this argumentative discovery is going on the woman returned to her home village and broadcast the story of the man she had encountered at the well. And many came to believe what she was saying. But others needed to encounter the man himself and, sadly, this element of the story demonstrates that the woman’s word was not good enough and could not be trusted. Isn’t that just like men? Just ask Mary who, after finding Jesus’ burial tomb empty, she too is not trusted in this truth – Peter and the beloved disciple must go and confirm her story for themselves.
In the Bible there are women who, throughout the centuries, who broke with traditional roles of silence and subservience, to become heroes not just for the roles of women but for their whole communities. This past Monday, March 6th, was the observance of Purim – a celebration of freedom when a woman, Esther, was God’s agent who tricked a man named Haman, filled with evil intent to annihilate the Jews. Instead, he wound up going to the gallows, and the Jews lived another day until they became the target of another time of evil.
So many women today serve as heroes bringing our attention to the gaps that exist between men and women. My sense is that in his encounter with the woman at the well Jesus learned as much about himself as he learned about the woman. Here’s hoping that the men (and boys) of this time and the future will do better getting it right too.
Second Sunday of Lent
March 5, 2023
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor describes numerous biblical images in which darkness — night’s most obvious quality — is “bad news.” Taylor notes that in the New Testament darkness stands for ignorance and, in the case of John’s gospel, darkness stands for spiritual blindness. Nicodemus the Pharisee, came by night, came in the darkness to secretly speak with Jesus. Nicodemus came alone, sheltered from the light and any chance that people would be able to identify him. He came with curiosity. He came suspecting that Jesus had some knowledge which he did not have even though he knew the Torah (Law), practiced it, and was a respected pharisee in the community. He came hoping that Jesus would be able to not just give him answers but would give him a new understanding of what he thought he already knew. He probably had some anxiety about approaching Jesus and what Jesus might have to say. He came because he had information or experience that told him that Jesus was doing something outside the norms of the day. He did not come to challenge or chastise Jesus. He came in wonderment. Trained in Torah, a practicing Jew, a respected Pharisee, this Jesus had him thinking, had him considering the teachings he knew by heart in a different way and from a different angle. This Jesus had him looking into the scriptures he had carved upon his life, had him, Nicodemus, feeling there was an insight about to break into the light.
Nicodemus moved from his familiar and trusted truths to the new reality he saw breaking in through Jesus’ teaching and actions. The same movement is required in every Christian’s life and in every church’s life. Each congregation must see when its familiar and trusted truths have simply become too small for the new realities of the world breaking in. At that point, faith in the reality we see breaking through in Jesus’ teaching and actions must take over. Questions come to our minds around issues facing us today. In the face of Jesus’ teachings and actions, the “light” opens up new questions to ask and talk about. Like the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus, let us be prodded by questions.
This past Monday Akron City Council demonstrated to our community and to the world at large that institutional racism still lives with us. Council members debated for nearly four and a half hours whether to seat a twenty-seven year old Black male on the Police Review Board that voters mandated last Fall. The deadline to configure the board was Monday but with the blocking of four white, male members of council failed to do their required duty. Why? Well, three of the four admitted that they were contacted by the Police Union to vote against the candidate, and they made promises to not vote for his placement. So, if the City of Akron were to play the role of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night what questions should (not would) be asked and what questions would be answered that may not even be asked? And if Jesus were to say to the city, “You must be born anew,” would they heed such advice or would they dig in refusing to change their ways rooted in racism (and ageism since the youngest male among the remaining candidates is now 47)?
Nicodemus came by night, and so do we. We come under cover of night, when others are not around to overhear our questions, when others — who we are certain know more than we — will not see us wanting someone to speak plainly to us about things everyone else seems to already understand. And so we come at night and unwrap the questions on our mind. What did Jesus mean when he said...? This is probably a stupid question, but...? What does the Bible say about...? I was always taught, but now I wonder...? I just can’t get my head around....
As a congregation it seems quite likely that our time of wandering is coming to an end. A new dawn is coming. While still under the cover of dark we come metaphorically by night to know, to understand, to make sense of, to question, and to put into perspective so we may believe, may still believe, may find new belief, may adjust our belief to more completely or truly resonate with God and God’s requirements of us. Jesus challenges our sensibilities: “You must be born from above.” Perplexed, we, like Nicodemus the man, respond “How can these things be?”
It seems that we are at the threshold of a new era as a church in community. As in former times we can make it our home, safe and warm with the world locked outside. Or we can be a home for ourselves and others, safe and warm and welcoming to all who are also questioners of what Jesus has in store for the new life. I believe there are many in our community who have grown weary of the old ways of church and are looking for a community of faith that provides the safe space to question and learn and practice what God has in store for the future.
To be born from above is to challenge ourselves to wonder about God’s view and to give up our human views of the world and situations.
To be born from above is to reset our priorities to be in order with God’s priorities.
To be born from above is to question our Christian traditions – those that which we grew up with and redefine them in light of the modern age that God has brought us in to.
To be born from above is to let ourselves be re-created in the image of God even while we are still discerning what that image is like.
What does God have to do to open our eyes to the intended nature of the church — to be the effective, relevant, tenacious embodiment of Jesus literally the hands, feet, hearts, and minds of Jesus. God is doing God’s part. It is our time for us to do ours.
First Sunday of Lent
February 26, 2023
Adam and Christ
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote an unforgettable story about a Dr. Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde. Most of you know the story well. Dr. Henry Jekyll was respected in his community--a gentleman in every way. But Dr. Jekyll had some secret vices which he kept carefully hidden from public view. Thus Dr. Jekyll had a dilemma faced by some people today--he wanted to maintain his reputation in the community but be free to practice the vices that he knew would be repulsive to his neighbors.
So, Dr. Jekyll hatched a plan. Late at night in his laboratory he devised a mystical potion that would allow him to transform his physical features at will. In other words, after he drank this potion, he became a different person altogether. Thus, he was able to move around town and practice his unsavory vices without his neighbors knowing anything about it. During the day, he was the amiable Dr. Jekyll, a credit to his community. At night he was transformed into a sociopathic monster called Mr. Hyde caring for no one at all and wreaking havoc everywhere he went.
Initially, Dr. Jekyll was able to control these transformations, but such unrestrained evil could not be kept in check for long. One night in his sleep, without any intent on his part, he was transformed into the infamous Mr. Hyde. Even worse, the evil monster within began dominating his life and eventually took over completely. Dr. Jekyll disappeared completely; only Mr. Hyde was left.
Stevenson’s point was that there is a battle going on within each of us. Each of us carries around within us a little of Mr. Hyde and if we do not pay constant attention to our character, we too, can be dominated by our lesser selves.
Paul theological explanation of such a dilemma is that it is because we are descendants of Adam. Our Puritan forebearers were taught, “Through Adam’s fall we sinned all.” That was Paul’s con-clusion. Through one man, says Paul, sin came into the world. There is within each of us a spirit of disobedience and rebelliousness. We want to go our own way and do our own thing without regard to our responsibilities to others or to God. But Paul’s theology includes a way of overcoming our first Adam lives. According to Paul, Jesus was the new Adam whose teachings provide a new under-standing of ethics and morality. Part of being in a right relationship with God is to seek always to do the right thing. Deep in our hearts we know that. That is why we feel guilt when we do something we know is wrong.
What was being taught at the time of Jesus was the only way to please God was to obey the rules – the Ten Commandments. Over time hundreds of additional rules were added not as new understandings of morality and ethics but to add controls over others’ lives. Obedience to these rules wound up taking people’s minds off of how to live in response to God’s will but, instead, busying them with the fear that someone would catch and report them to the “authorities”.
Today we are witnessing the development of similar patterns. Baseless accusations about Critical Race Theory, AP History classes, attempts to monitor the menstrual cycles of young women and the suggestion that the party of small government take over the discipline in all public schools are all attempts to control the minds and bodies of people and to have them live in fear of being reported rather than giving them the opportunity to fully live in the presence of a God of love. And the grip of such ideas of a significant minority warns us how easy it is for the Mr. Hydes to succeed.
Many years ago a large fishing boat sprung a leak. Bringing it in for repairs, the owners discovered a hammer that had been left in the bottom of the boat years before by the builders. The constant motion of the ship had caused the hammer to beat against the insides of the boat until it had worn away the wood and the metal and caused the leak that nearly sank the ship. Who would have thought that a hammer, dropped into the bottom of a boat, would over time wear down the hull and be responsible for the sinking of the ship? It seems almost impossible. And this is the way we try to justify bad habits or hurtful words and actions. We act like they are no big deal. But there is an accumulative result of these actions when they grow in frequency and intensity that can result in slowly tearing a hole in our lives and we live in danger of sinking. New Years provides us an opportunity to make commitments (resolutions) to live better. And we fail. Why? Because we are unable to make such significant corrections on our own. Those who preach positive thinking do not understand grace. Those who encourage personal discipline are just controllers not unlike those in Jesus’ day.
Our battle of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde within us is conquered when we accept that its not up to us alone. Lent provides us another opportunity but the difference is that we can acknowledge that we cannot do it on our own, Lent gives us the boost of grace. God’s grace that cuts away all the anchors we have created that hold us down and prevent us from freeing our better selves to do the right thing(s). God’s grace will give us what we need to make a new start. A French writer named Henri Barbusse was in a trench full of wounded men during the First World War. While in that trench he overheard a conversation. One man in the trench was dying and knew it. He only had minutes to live. He turned to another man and said, “Listen, Dominic, you’ve led a very bad life. Everywhere you are wanted by the police. But there are no convictions against me. My name is clear, so, here, take my wallet, take my papers, my identity, take my good name, my life and quickly, hand me your papers that I may carry all your crimes away with me in death.” Whether or not the man who survived was able to make the change that was provided for him is unknown. But the opportunity was offered. He was able to put the Mr. Hyde within him to death and take on the better persona gifted to him by someone who had gifted him with a new life when he died.
Similarly, Lent is a time when we too are offered an opportunity of new life. Jesus wandered the desert for forty days searching himself, and being questioned by the Mr. Hyde within, as to what exactly he was willing to do with his life. During the forty days of Lent we too are given such an opportunity. “Mr. Hyde, meet Jesus.”
February 19, 2023
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
When we take all the magic out of this mountain top experience we make room to understand the truly basic element of the story. This is the point where Jesus had finally come to the conclusion that things were going to change because he was changing. He had spent the better part of the prior week contemplating what he was to do with the rest of his life. He, like any of us, once a decision is made after a long time to debating and worrying and praying can go about life with a sigh of relief and an excited understanding…people may even comment that we have a glow about us. Jesus, like any of us, can go about life like a whole new person now that the decision has been made.
This final phase of decision making started about a week before the Transfiguration when Jesus had asked his disciples the question, “Who do people say that I am?” Elijah…John the Baptist…one of the great heroes back from the dead seemed to be the current level of guessing. So moving beyond the general population Jesus focuses on the small group who have gathered around him….“Who do you say I am,” It was Simon who responded “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus praised Simon, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it . . .”
And then Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. And how does Simon Peter respond to this? He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turns and says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:16-23). One moment he’s the rock, the next Peter is Satan! Now, a week later, Peter is part of the trusted group up on a mountain offering to build booths for Christ, Moses and Elijah. But it will not be long before he will be standing in that courtyard where someone will ask him, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” And he will declare, “I am not!”
Well…Simon Peter is us! We’re just as wishy-washy in our faith. One moment we feel so close to Jesus that we are willing to give him all that we are and hope to be and the next moment, in a time of testing, we deny we ever knew him. How do you explain it? There is only one way and that is because the disciples were human, just like you and me. They were full of good intentions, but poor in execution. All of Jesus’ first disciples were very much like us. They had faith like a yo-yo. “Sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes almost to the ground.” You and I are equally confused and our faith fluctuates…and yet God gives us the free gift of grace. To be clear, grace is free, but faith is always fragile. The casual critic of Christianity asks, isn’t it dangerous to proclaim a grace that is given without strings attached? What motivation do people have to stay strong in the faith, if they do not have to fear God’s judgment? Only a person who has never really struggled with faith would ask such a question. Struggling with faith is the only real exercise we need. Those who belong to a sect that holds judgement and power over their heads are only reacting to threat and control out of fear rather than faith. And those who lead the crusade to control others using religion and fear of hell are perpetrators of holding others as slaves to their lesser selves.
When I was doing youth ministry at Middleburg Heights Community Church I took a group to New York City over Spring Break. We were lodged at Plymouth Church in Old Brooklyn.
Plymouth Church's first pastor was Henry Ward Beecher, who became a leading figure in the abolitionist movement. His sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, noted today as the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) that "helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War."
The church itself became an important station on the Underground Railroad through which slaves from the South were secretly transported to Canada. Locally known as "the Grand Central Depot," slaves were hidden in the tunnel-like basement beneath the church sanctuary. The Rev. Charles B. Ray, an African-American living in Manhattan, and the founding editor of The Colored American newspaper, was quoted as saying, "I regularly drop off fugitives at Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in Brooklyn." Plymouth Church is one of the few active Underground Railroad congrega-tions in New York still housed in its original location.
One of the main recurring events that garnered considerable public attention were Beecher's mock slave auctions. Imitating events like this in the South, Beecher would bring slaves into the sanctuary, auction them off to the highest bidder, and then set them free. The most famous case involved "Pinky", a 9-year-old slave girl who had escaped from Alabama. On February 5, 1860, in front of a crowd of 3000, Mr. Beecher started the bidding and a collection plate was passed around the congregation. When the plate with $900 and a golden ring reached the pulpit, Beecher picked up the ring and placed it on the finger of Pinky. He exclaimed, "Remember, with this ring I do wed thee to freedom." Sixty-seven years later, Pinky returned to Plymouth, now a well-educated woman, named Mrs. Rose Ward Hunt, and returned the ring Beecher had given to her.
In October 1859, the church offered Abraham Lincoln $200 for coming to Brooklyn and giving a lecture to the congregation. Lincoln accepted the invitation, traveled to Brooklyn and participated in church service on Sunday, February 26. Today a plaque marks the pew where Lincoln attended the service. Because of high demand, Lincoln's address was moved to Cooper Union, where a 25 cents admission fee was charged. Lincoln gave his famous anti-slavery speech before a capacity crowd of 1,500 on February 27, 1860, more than eight months before he was elected President.
Similarly, a story that is told about Abraham Lincoln that was perhaps influenced by the witness of Beecher and the Plymouth Church. Abraham Lincoln went to a slave auction one day and was appalled at what he saw. He was drawn to a young woman on the auction block. The bidding began, and Lincoln bid until he purchased her—no matter the cost. After he paid the auctioneer, he walked over to the woman and said “You’re free.” “Free? What is that supposed to mean?” she asked. “It means you are free,” Lincoln answered, “completely free!” “Does it mean I can do whatever I want to do?” “Yes,” he said, “free to do whatever you want to do.” “Free to say whatever I want to say?”
“Yes, free to say whatever you want to say.” “Does freedom mean,” asking with hope and hesitation, “that I can go wherever I want to go?” "It means exactly that you can go wherever you want to go.”
With tears of joy and gratitude welling up in her eyes, she said, “Then, I think I’ll go with you.”
Transfiguration is not some magical change in what a person looks like but a fundamental change in who they are and how they see who they are. It is not an external change as much as a whole modification of who they are. It is not self-generated but given as a gift sourced in grace. It is in the presence and practice of grace that we are set free. But that does not allow us to be like a free range chicken that just wanders about. The freedom that grace provides is the freedom to follow not because we are chained and forced but because we have been transfigured from a life of selfishness to a life of freedom.
Transfigured that’s not a word we use very much. Some of us may not use it again until this Sunday rolls around again next year. When was the last time you used it in a sentence?
I think I have most often heard it used is in the last verse from the Battle Hymn of the Republic –
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in whose bosom that transfigures you and me;
As Christ died to make us holy, let us die to make all free;
While God is marching on.
Julia Ward Howe summed this up quite well. It is not Christ’s transfiguration but ours that the story of faith is all about. And it is in the communion that we celebrate the transfiguration that we have been invited to participate and the transfiguration of ourselves…our church….our society…..and the whole of God’s creation.
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 12, 2023
I Corinthians 3:1-9
On Divisions in the Corinthian Church
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
There is a story about a bluegrass radio station in Missouri that received a unique phone call. The caller said to the DJ, “Hello, I am a farmer living alone on my farm. My wife is dead. And my children and grandchildren have moved away; I don’t see them very much. There are three things in my life that give me comfort: One is the farm. Second is my radio. The third is my fiddle. Sometimes in the night, when you are playing songs that I know and love, I get out my fiddle and play along with you. It brings me great comfort. But recently, my fiddle has gotten out of tune. The A string doesn’t work like it should, and I don’t have a tuning fork so there is no way I can get my fiddle back in tune. Would you mind playing the A note on your next program? If you will do this, I can tune my fiddle.” So the station played the A note, and he tuned his fiddle, and all was right with the world – at least the farmer’s world.
Fiddles are not the only things that can get out of tune. Churches can too. Churches can forget why they exist -- and play the wrong note in the world. It doesn’t happen all at once. It is rather insidious. Church business slowly replaces the business of the church. Budget concerns begin to override kingdom concerns. The past becomes more important than reaching people in the present. Without realizing it, a congregation settles for doing church rather than being the church. They are out of tune.
In the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul was addressing a church that was out of tune. Their loyalties were divided. Jealousy was running rampant. Paul had this to say to them:
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly— mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?... For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, 9 NIV). If the early church had problems staying in tune, it is certain that the church of today struggles with it.
There is another story about the little boy who went to church with his grandparents. His grandmother sat in the choir, and she often got irritated when grandfather nodded off to sleep in the middle of the sermon. Finally, she decided on a plan. She gave her little grandson fifty cents after worship each Sunday morning when he poked grandpa in the ribs whenever he fell asleep. This plan worked until Easter morning. The church was packed. Grandmother was sitting in the choir. She noticed grandfather nodding off. However, Tommy just sat there and let granddaddy snore away.
After the service grandmother was very disappointed in Tommy. “Tommy,” she said, “What happened? You knew I would pay you fifty cents after the service if you kept grandfather awake.” Tommy replied, “Yes Ma’am, but grandfather offered me a $1 if I would let him sleep”.
Some churches would rather just stay asleep than awake to the needs of the world. There may have been a day when they had been fine-tuned, blowing their trumpet for the gospel, but years of focusing on their power and agenda instead of on God has caused them to burnout. They would rather be left alone than be bothered with the mission of serving others. Some cynic said, “If it was up to some Christians, churches would have lightning rods on their steeples instead of crosses -- both in memory of that time when lightning struck the early church and as protection against it ever happening again.”
So how does a church fine-tune itself? It plays the A note of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church sings about it, preaches about it, prays about it, talks about it and puts those words into actions which benefit and attract others. The church exists to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The church exists to spread the good news of God’s redeeming love of Christ so that all people will come experience that love and learn to share that love with others. That’s it. It is pretty simple, but it is amazing how the church, can complicate it, dilute it, or forget it.
The years of Covid 19 have complicated the lives of churches and members. Dealing with the disease and death, social changes and adjustments as to how we went about “normal” business and how we sustained as churches without being in each other’s physical presence each week have brought about changes we would have never thought possible a decade ago. But, despite these obstacles and changes the church still survives – some better than others and some actually survive for all the right reasons. Let us strive to be one of those.
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 5, 2023
Salt and Light
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Law and the Prophets
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Salt was to the ancient world what canning, packaging, and refrigeration is to our world. The point that Jesus was trying to make was that salty people preserve society. The first disciples had no problem getting the point. “You, my disciples, are the salt of the earth, the preservers of the relationships between people and God and each other,” was the point the Jesus made with his new recruits. Some Christians confuse the task of preservation. They grab ahold of a single biblical notion and try to drive it to pull people back from advancing to their full potential. When the Supreme Court announced that the Constitution does not guarantee a right to an abortion did they forget that it also does not guarantee a right to cardiac by-pass surgery or to insulin? And in the State of Tennessee which has a Republican run Legislature and Governor the new Health Commissioner announced this week that the state will be refusing $10 million in CDC funds for the testing, treatment and medication directed at persons with HIV. These are federal monies which would not cost the people of the state a dime but those with a “higher” understanding are willing to draw the line and prevent people from receiving what is freely being made available. Please keep an eye on the Ohio Legislature.
Preservation as Jesus presented it was not intended to preserve traditions and mores but to preserve the very lives of all humans. It’s not a time of judgment but of justice. Our task is not to deny but to share. And salty people ought to be asking questions why all elements of society are not working to preserve the health and welfare of all people. We must hear the cry of the needy. Those voices lead us to compassion, not competition. They teach us to connect through sacrifice and self-restraint, not survival of the fittest. They teach us to win in this world by helping our neighbors and sharing with them rather than finding their weaknesses and defeating them. Salty people ought to be asking the kind of questions that challenge that kind of thinking. Salty people do not organize themselves into moral majorities nor political action groups. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” You don’t have salt, you don’t spread salt, you don’t share salt, you don’t buy salt, you don’t acquire salt—you ARE the salt of the earth.
Jesus also said you are the light. There is a story told of Albert Einstein showing up at the Institute where he worked one morning hobbling around with a cane. It seems that during the night he had stubbed his big toe. “This has happened five or six times before from walking around in the darkness,” he explained to a colleague. “The only really annoying part of it is that every time it happens I have to have an x-ray taken to be sure no bones are broken.” His colleague asked if it wouldn’t save trouble to simply turn on a light“Oh,” said Einstein, “I never thought of that.”
How often have you been in a discussion with someone (heated or not) and at some later time while rehearsing that conversation you think of something you should have said. In cartoons thoughts like that are often depicted with a lit light bulb. The problem is that too often we miss, avoid, ignore the opportunity to turn on the light of Christ in a conversation with someone. We want to be polite or not make a big deal but there are times when this decision allows people to stumble around in the darkness of their opinions and beliefs. Light shows the way and allows people to advance into once hidden places. Just where have you shown the light in our lifetimes?
Let me suggest another example: You are probably familiar with the picture called “Footprints”. It is often used to remind Christians that their walk in life is not done alone but that Jesus walks along side us. Such a picture provides comfort and when the depiction changes from two sets of footprints side by side to a single set -- does that mean that Jesus has taken off and abandoned us or that one of us got wiped out to sea? No, the notion is that the single set of footprints identifies those times when Jesus carried us along the way. Comforting thought. Have you ever been to the beach? Have you ever walked along the sand, played in the water, made sand castles, or picked up shells? A day at the beach comes to an end and as you make your way back to your condo or car you pass by a hose or a foot/body rinsing station to “get the sand off.” But that doesn’t really happen. Sand has a way of finding its way into all those nooks and crannies of our bodies to hide and irritate and when we finally take a shower the puddle at our feet is covered with sand – where did that come from? After a week or two we have washed enough sand down the drain to fill a small sandbox for a toddler.
Criminologists tell us no person enters and exits a room without leaving something of themselves behind. There will be a fingerprint, a footprint, a trace of hair, a thread of clothing or some other DNA evidence that we have been there and done that. It could even be a grain of sand.
What kind of footprints are you leaving on the sands of time? Better yet, as a walker with Jesus where have you picked up and dropped off sand in society? What difference has your “sanding” made to the world?
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2023
God Challenges Israel
Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. ‘O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’
What God Requires
‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
There have been times in my life when I have been involved in negotiations in an attempt to bring about an agreement. I’m usually willing to give significant time to that goal. However, if I suspect that the other participant(s) is not acting with honesty and integrity I have decided to cut things short and to simply ask, “What’s the bottom line?” using those words or something similar. Instead of peeling the onion one layer at a time let’s just cut to the core and figure out what it is that the other person(s) want. Knowing what is the bottom line can save time and energy and allows us to determine whether more time is worth it or just a waste of time.
When discussing church or faith or worship I don’t think anyone has ever asked me, “What’s the bottom line?” although I suspect that many people have harbored that question and held their tongue. And they should probably ask the question because, believe it or not, there may be a bottom line that does not treat the person fairly. Just bodies or money may be the motive of some churches – not my idea of being church.
What do you think? Is there a bottom line in our religion? Is there something so basic, so fundamental, that we can say with confidence, "This is the bottom line in our walk of faith." Long ago the prophet Micah asked a similar kind of question: "What does the Lord want from me?" Thinking of the religious heritage of his people, Micah wondered if burnt offerings were really the thing God most wanted from people.
What Micah came to realize was that God did not want something from us but, rather, God desires to have us focused on God not paying God off with a burnt animal. With the eyes of faith, Micah realized what God most wanted in response to what God has done for creation is the commitment of our human hearts. Micah's familiar words provide a framework for how the people of God in every age are to live. “(God) has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you God?”
The first aspect in bottom line religion emphasizes the social dimension: to do justice. Here justice is not portrayed as a blindfolded statue holding a book and a scale. Instead, justice is active. To do justice means to work for the establishment of equity for all people, especially those who are powerless. To do justice is a quest to make things right not just for the purpose of right and wrong but to protect and lift up those who are victims of injustice.
This week has been one where once again we have witnessed the denial of justice to a person of color who was pulled over by police for an uncertain offense which resulted in the police acting in rage and brutally beating a man so maliciously that he later died of the injuries they inflicted on him. The officers acted like a street gang with badges.
The call to do justice can make Christians feel uncomfortable not because they disagree with the concept (although some do) but because they do not want to “go to the line” in order to make justice the “bottom line.” And Jesus makes it clear that to do justice is not just an action of an individual, but Jesus makes it very clear that our corporate response to the evil in this world must be just as important. It is a part of our service to God to help provide comfort to the family of a man senselessly assaulted on the street, but is it not also our task to work for a just and lasting peace in our streets? It is our task to comfort someone who has been a victim of violence, but is it not also our task to work to eliminate the causes of senseless violence in our homes and on our streets? To do justice is the first aspect of bottom line religion.
The second aspect of bottom line religion moves us from the social dimension to the personal: To love kindness. This is not the warm fuzzies kind of love we have when we cuddle with a puppy or a kitten. The word used by Micah means love with a strong element of loyalty, such as that between two dear friends. This is nothing less than a call to love others in the same incredible way that God has loved us in Jesus Christ. In our own human strength, such loving is impossible, but when we allow the Spirit of God to rule in our hearts, sometimes we are able to love even those who hurt us deeply.
The third aspect in the sort of life God wants from us brings us to the spiritual or theological dimension: To walk humbly with God. Now the key word here is "walk." It suggests that the whole orientation of life centers in a daily walk of faith with the Lord. This call to walk is similar to Jesus' invitation to the disciples, "Follow me." Jesus seldom asks us "to believe," but rather to "come along." One who so walks with God will not be exempt from the dark places of life, but that person lives each day in the assurance that he or she will never walk alone!
What's the bottom line in religion? The bottom line in terms of what God expects is to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with a God who is both tough-minded and tenderhearted enough to be our Lord and our Savior. Let’s get to that bottom line together. Amen.
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 21, 2023
Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus Ministers to Crowds of People
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
One of the lessons of the last few “Covid” years has been the definition of what is an essential worker. Businesses that were open daily suddenly had their doors closed and locked. Bank lobbies were closed, school was taught on the internet, groceries were ordered on-line and put in the car’s trunk, and even a doctor’s visit was done on the screen of a computer or phone. Restaurants distanced tables and employees who cleared tables at fast food restaurants were let go as the only services available were through the drive-thru. Even today not all fast-food places have their dining rooms reopened. We have learned new lessons as to who really are essential workers among us and the truth is, most workers are in one way or another, “essential.” Over the “Covid” years we have benefited from the ongoing work of utility workers, long haul truckers, delivery drivers, pharmacists, highway maintenance crews, EMS workers, hospital staff, and the list goes on and on.
Jesus knew something about the importance of “essential” workers to get the job done. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus called some ordinary fishermen to do the work of kingdom-building. Jesus calls ordinary people like you and me to love and serve. And, as in the case of these fishermen, many times we do not need to learn new skills or receive extensive training. Jesus said, "You fishermen have been casting your nets into the sea. Follow me, and you will fish for people." And they did! They were fishermen before, they were fishermen afterwards, but with Jesus the focus and priorities changed.
We too are called to be a special group of people and to do some important things. Jesus says to you and me, "Follow me." You are essential personnel. Come as you are. Bring whatever gifts and talents you have and use them in my name. Bring your excitement and enthusiasm and I will channel them in the right direction. Bring your commitment and I will show you a place where you can make a difference. Bring your love and hope and watch them change lives.
Jesus said, "Follow me," and the exciting thing is that they did. Simon and Andrew, James and John decided to follow Jesus, but they weren't the only ones. All kinds of people responded. Not everybody decided to follow Jesus, but a lot did. From Simon and Andrew to us, women and men, young and aging, people of all colors and classes have heard that invitation in the places where they live their lives. In fact, Jesus could not stop saying, "Follow me." It is one thing to ask some fishermen to come along for a stroll along the Sea of Galilee, but it is another proposition altogether to utter those words "Follow me" so freely, almost carelessly, that anybody might answer. We know God loves everybody, but just because God loves everybody does not mean everybody is going to follow around after Jesus. Nor does the fact that God loves everybody mean that we want to see all of them in the crowd with Jesus, and with us.
Jesus' disciples were not a panel of experts. Jesus took people whom the world had labeled in many ways non-essential -- fishermen, tax collectors, notorious sinners, women who were never considered essential before -- and used them and their gifts in doing the work of love and issuing the call to others to follow in the way of Jesus. People who before never felt wanted found a place. People who doubted the world even knew they existed were suddenly essential personnel. You and I have been made essential personnel, not by our own merit, but because of a "Follow me" we once heard that included us and accepted us and affirmed us. Most of us have heard that voice and those words somewhere along the way. The question is, “how did we respond? And, more importantly, “how are we responding still?”
You see, every time Jesus says, "Follow me," it affects us. Where churches fail to fully understand the call to follow is when they don't mind Jesus trying to help the prostitute build some self-esteem, but that doesn't mean they want to be sitting next to her or him in church. When they aren't bothered by Jesus spending time with the mentally ill, but that doesn't translate into their own willingness to be more tolerant of that horrible disease. When they are glad to see Jesus healing the sick, those who are on death's door, but that doesn't mean they want the house in their neighborhood converted into a shelter for AIDS patients. When sort of like the idea of Jesus letting children sit in his lap, but that is a long way from appreciating the gifts and presence of children and overlooking the messes created in their celebrations. Churches fail when they fail to understand what it means when Jesus bypasses the church on his way to eat at the house of the most disgusting person in town and when Jesus holds that character up as a better model of faith than those who sit in the pews. In calling these others -- in inviting the poor and the lazy and the trash of the earth to the great banquet -- Jesus has deemed them essential personnel as well, and some of us are offended by that. Life in the church would be a lot more comfortable if it were just us, but Jesus can't stop saying, "Follow me." Not only can he not stop, he makes this invitation in such an undiscriminating way that most anybody might show up. At a time when churches are knee-deep in marketing techniques that are geared to attract people like those who are already here, Jesus is down by the soup kitchen inviting the homeless family to church. At a time when literature abounds on who we can and cannot expect to come to our church, Jesus insists on being present in every neighborhood in every section of town. Jesus calls people that have been forgotten and welcomes people who too often have been treated as non-essential -- and we are affected every time.
To you and me, to people of every race and class, to folks of every land and language, indeed, to all of creation, Jesus says, "Follow me." That is not a call to trail along behind Jesus without any intent to share life with one another. It is a call to love as Jesus loved, to welcome as Jesus welcomed, and to take our place alongside our brothers and sisters at the great round table where, for the sake of us all, all God's children are essential personnel.
Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 14, 2023
The Lamb of God
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
The First Disciples of Jesus
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
How often have you and I gone about the task of trying to find something but come up empty. Having searched completely, we tell ourselves, we are unable to see the item we are seeking. “It must be lost. Someone must have taken it. It’s not to be found. Where else could it be?” And then along comes someone else who without much effort is able to find what you were looking for. How often, since childhood have we been admonished after failing to find the obvious, “If it had been a snake it would have bit you.” There are times when we overlook the obvious because we believe that there is little chance for what we are looking for to be there. There is a fascinating story of espionage in World War II. In 1940, German military forces took over the tiny country of Belgium. They used threats and violence to keep the Belgian citizens from turning against them. But members of the Belgian Resistance found a way to pass messages about Nazi activities to allies in other countries without getting caught. They recruited a group of Belgian grandmothers who were skilled at knitting. There are only two basic stitches in knitting, I understand, and they closely resemble the dots and dashes used in Morse code. So these Belgian grandmothers passed information about German train movements to the Belgian resistance and their allies by knitting scarves and blankets with Morse code embedded in their stitches. They were so effective in their espionage work primarily because no one suspected that knitting grandmothers could be fearless spies.
The people in today’s gospel lesson had spent their lifetimes searching for the Messiah – the Messiah who would rescue them from all that threatens to harm them. The day after he baptized Jesus, John runs into Jesus again and he announces, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Wait, Jesus doesn’t seem to have all the mystique wrapped around him the people had been expecting. He doesn’t appear to be anything different than the rest of them. He’s nothing more than a carpenter from Nazareth. But when John looked past his own biases and distractions, he saw in Jesus a whole new light. And two of John’s own disciples were able to set aside the biases they had been raised with to see this newly defined Messiah as the one who they should leave John to follow.
What did John see? And how would it change our lives if we could see Jesus for who he really is?
The first thing John saw was that Jesus is the hope of the world. Throughout their history, the people had made countless animal sacrifices to appease God but to no avail. In Jesus, John anticipated that he would be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” For John, Jesus would be the final sacrifice; he would heal the world’s relationship with God. John saw Jesus as the hope of the world.
The second thing John sees is that Jesus brings a healing peace into the world. John believed that Jesus was the promised one who would reconcile the world with God healing the great divide which sin had created. Sin broke the intended relationship and separated us from all that flows from God: eternal life, unconditional love, unfailing peace, unshakable hope, unexplainable joy. Jesus’ life, ministry, and continued influence over us makes it possible for us and the world to be healed. It’s not something we can do for ourselves but, rather, the gift through which God makes it possible for us to find forgiveness and act in faith. A tourist was visiting the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. She noticed several students on their knees studying the courtyard and taking notes on their clipboards. She asked the tour guide what they were doing. He smiled. “Each year, the upperclassmen ask the freshmen how many bricks it took to finish paving this courtyard.”
The tourist waited until the students were out of earshot, then she whispered, “So, what’s the answer?” The tour guide answered, “One.” Here’s the explanation. It doesn’t matter how many bricks it took to make the courtyard. It still took only one . . . to finish it.
Jesus started something. In his day he was the last brick to finish the courtyard that God had begun. The forgiveness of sins was made possible and complete. Now, in each generation there is an opportunity for each of us to also be the “last brick” to keep the hope of fulfilling God’s plan going in our own unique ways. Keep up the good work.
First Sunday after Epiphany
January 7, 2023
Gentiles Hear the Good News
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
When we look at the example Jesus set before us to mimic it has to be clear that being a taker is not what he would have us do. In our scripture for today, Peter describes Him this way: “Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good!" Please, do not read that with confusion – Jesus was not a “do-gooder” but one who “went about doing good.” There is a difference.
We have all known people that we would say were do-gooders. Do-gooders give in a selfish manner. They wind up getting a “perk” out of what they did or what they give away. It makes them feel special, important, superior as opposed to uplifting the person they had given to. For a “do-gooder” it is not about helping or serving another but of feeling good about themselves.
Jesus went about doing good, extending compassion to all He met. When the crowd was hungry, He had compassion on them. When the Rich Young Ruler was searching for a deeper purpose and meaning in life, He had compassion on him and loved Him. Jesus had the power to feel the touch, hear the cry, sense the need of those who he encountered. He zeroed in on the needs of the people in front of him. His compassion was always coupled with actions of healing, helping and serving. Jesus’ compassion was the driving force of his mission and so it should also be the driving force of ours. In the presence of others our task is to try to walk in their shoes (or sit in their chair) to understand their real needs and access what we are going to do.
In the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., there is a plaque that says, “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander." Abraham Lincoln said, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men." Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." It’s a matter of conscience – that which interrupts our attempts to fall asleep at night because there is some unfinished business that we know, deep down inside ourselves, that we need to work on. It may not drive us from our bed in the middle of the night but, at the very least, it should set the agenda for our waking moments the next day.
I expect to pass through this life but once.
Therefore, if there be any kindness I can show,
Any good I can do and difference I can make,
Let me neither defer it nor neglect it—
Let me do it now—for I shall not pass this way again.
You don't follow your calling because it’s neat or cool. You follow your calling because of that constant whisper in the night that will not let you go. A calling is an urgency that is also important. A calling is a need that is not being filled. A calling is a something that lies before you now. It is one thing to pursue a career, it is quite another to answer a call. We are called to belong to Jesus Christ. We are called to become what He made us to be. We are called to use our resources, our influence, our time, our talent to bring His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Are you following your calling?
Today is the First Sunday after Epiphany. We are at the threshold of the Season of Light. Light and Hope are two symbols which are often paired together. Hope does not come from dark. It comes from Light. When we identify what our calling is it must define our lives by what it is we are going to do in doing good and bringing the light of Christ into all places. For goodness sake, act on your concerns, stand on your convictions, and invest your life in making the world a better place.
Methodist founder John Wesley said:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can!"
First Sunday after Christmas
January 1, 2023
The Escape to Egypt
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
The Massacre of the Infants
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.
The Return from Egypt
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazarean.’
Time flies! We may be feeling that way about 2022 – or – on the other hand we may feel that it just dragged on. It’s all a matter of perspective and that perspective can change from day to day if not hour to hour. Our story today is a prime example of time flying. After Jesus’ birth and the visiting shepherds have returned to their flocks and the announcing angels have flown off, he is later visited by the Wise Men who also come and go. The time marked here may be as much as two years. When warned in a dream about the anger of Herod at learning that the Wise Men had evaded him and returned home without telling him where the baby was to be found (rumor has it that there was a ketchup smear on the wall), the baby Jesus is packed up by his family and carried off to Egypt to take refuge. Some time later the family learns of Herod’s death and decide to return “home” only to be detoured to Nazareth because Herod’s son, probably harboring the same hate as his father, is now in charge of their home region. From the beginning of this story to its end, it is a testimonial of time flying – probably several years in a few sentences.
Here at the threshold of a new year we are challenged to take with us the best of the past and to look ahead for the best that is yet to be. A friend shared with me a few words of wisdom this week: “It’s okay to look back – just don’t stare.” Thinking on this wisdom is it not true that there is a risk that looking back can just keep grinding old hurts? I had a seminary professor who had a favorite line when asking a student for an explanation: “Just hit the mountain tops and don’t worry about the valleys.” A healthy look back at 2022 would gather those high times that brought us smiles while leaving the bad times at the foot of the mountain. Joseph and Mary may have had no idea of what was going on behind the scenes, but I doubt that they saw themselves as puppets being manipulated by the political world and God’s intentions. As much as they may have wondered what was going on, they may have also had moments of dreaming and revelation about the future of their family They were players in a larger game which they were learning along the way.
In Native American culture there is a talisman called a "dream catcher." Actually, they've recently become quite popular as pieces of jewelry and folk art. A dream catcher looks like a simplistic version of a spider's web, adorned with a few decorative feathers and beads. According to legend, parents are to hang a dream catcher over their newborn's cradle - the "web" then catches only the child's good dreams, while letting the bad dreams escape through the spaces of the web's strands.
The only effective way to combat the "war of words" that nightmare-purveyors assault us with is to hold on to dreams that have positive purpose. We need to dream a whole new vocabulary. What would happen if the words filling the atmosphere were "can," "yes," and "wisdom"? Instead of finding excuses to run and hide from hate-mongers and naysayers, daydreamers must proclaim "we can." We can make our children's lives happier; we can keep our families strong; we can help our community to join together; we can offer reassurance and support and concern for those whose dreams are never completed. Word dreamers also dream "yes" instead of "no." "Yes" to possibilities instead of "no" to probabilities. "Yes" to risking commitment instead of the "no" of safe detachment. "Yes" to loving without guarantees instead of "no" to all but our own existence.
It is not enough to say "yes." Day-dreamers with muscles must also will "yes." It takes tremendous energy to will a "yes" into being. The negative, nightmarish energy already whirling around our ears sometimes seems unassailable - it takes enormous willpower to continue to daydream in the face of the evils and those who are evil.
Like Joseph in today's gospel text, we must also be God-dreamers, Holy-dreamers. Joseph heard the call of the Holy in his dreams and responded by putting that call into action. The power of the Holy transformed the motivation behind all Joseph did. Joseph did not simply have a bad dream and run away to Egypt. He had a Holy dream and immediately implemented God's rescue plan. Our birthright, our daydreams of good words and strong will empowered by a holy vision stands at the threshold to 2023 with us. Let’s step through.
December 25, 2022
The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Many of you know that we have multiple generations in our home – Linda and I, our son, Chris, and his daughters, Josephine, Rowan and Lydia. It may seem hard to believe, or remember, but young children do not know how to unwrap gifts. They have no inherent interest or talent for unwrapping gifts. Unwrapping gifts is an activity that must be taught. Rowan and Lydia are two years old. Put a gift in front of them and they are content to admire the package. This year their gifts were “primed” with a tear in the wrapping paper for them to take hold of and rip the paper off. We had had also taken all the packaging tape off of the boxes and replaced the solid seam seal with a two-inch piece of scotch tape to keep the ears down. Nope, it didn’t work. They were happy to just stare at the wrapped boxes. They had to be guided to make the correct “what comes next” decision. Now, don’t worry. I’m sure that by this time next year they will be well on the way to ripping off the wrapping paper and getting to the gift. It’s just that unwrapping things takes time to learn.
Truth is, we spend our entire lives trying to figure out how to unwrap the gift that God has provided us through Jesus. We are not born with an innate understanding of what the Christ event is all about. Instead, we spend our lifetimes peeling away the layers of history, tradition, guilt, joy, sorrow, encouragement, hope, fear, support, etc. It’s not always easy and sometimes God or a friend needs to tear a little bit of the wrapper so that we can get the hint and go the rest of the way. Sometimes we need to take a break and God patiently waits for us to come back to the task.
Wherever you are in the unwrapping of the Jesus mystery this Christmas be assured that the task is worth it. The discoveries of God’s love and intention for our lives is right there to benefit from whenever we are ready, willing and able to pull off the wrappings.
A Merry Christmas to you and yours.
Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2022
Messengers from John the Baptist
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
Jesus Praises John the Baptist
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The other day I was in the grocery check out behind a woman who was purchasing some alcohol. The clerk was under age so he had to call upon one of the more senior members of staff to move the bottle through the scanner. Without asking for proof of age the clerk just hit some keys and walked away. The woman looked at me with license in hand and said, “I’ve reached the point that they no longer ask for proof of age as she stuffed her Driver’s License back into her wallet. Makes me sad.” I smiled and said, “They don’t ask for mine either. They just type ‘OLD MAN’.”
Too bad voters may not be treated the same way. It seems that the Republican majority in the Ohio Statehouse is under the false belief that only those who hold a Driver’s License are entitled to vote. Yes, I know that recent changes at the BMV make it possible for a person to renew their license on-line as long they are under the age of sixty-six. Older folks need to present themselves in person to the BMV to get their licenses renewed. So, what does that mean for the person who is an eighty-five year old resident of an assisted living center who no longer drives (or never did)? “Thanks for all the votes you cast in the past. Now stay home and stay out of the balloting process.”
Johnny Weissmuller (1904–1984) captivated the American public with his dual Olympic-Hollywood celebrity status, making him one of the most unusual and impressive stars of the twentieth century. He was the champion athlete of the Paris 1924 Olympics, medaled in two sports (water polo and swimming), set unprecedented world swimming records, and earned more gold medals (five) than any previous swimmer. In public memory, however, he will always be remembered as MGM’s Tarzan the Ape Man (Streible). Born in Friedorf, Austria-Hungary, Weissmuller moved to Windber, Pennsylvania, as an infant, and then to Chicago. The accounts of his early childhood are so conflicting that his citizenship was officially questioned when he qualified for the 1924 Olympic team; he used his brother’s Pennsylvania baptismal records to obtain a U.S. passport. According to Weissmuller’s son, he essentially exchanged identities with his brother Peter, a secret they took to their graves. Think of the last time you had to show some proof of your identity. Maybe you used your library card to check out books, or you used your student ID to get discounted tickets, or you showed your driver’s license to gain admission to a concert. Most adults have some form of proof that we are who we say we are. But if you don’t have any physical proof, how can you convince people of your identity?
Many years ago, Weissmuller’s son, Johnny Jr., wrote a book about his father’s time in Hollywood titled Tarzan, My Father. In it, he tells the story of his father’s visit to Cuba in 1958. Weissmuller was very popular in Cuba, and he and his friends went there for a golf holiday. This was during the time of the Cuban Revolution, when Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army was trying to take over the government of the country. One day, Weissmuller and his buddies were driving through Havana when they were surrounded by a group of Castro’s soldiers. The soldiers thought these wealthy Americans were supporters of the current government, so they intended to kidnap them and hold them for ransom. Weissmuller and his friends couldn’t convince the soldiers that they were just tourists on vacation. Until, that is, Weissmuller proved his identity by doing his famous Tarzan move—he beat his fists on his chests and let out his ear-piercing Tarzan shriek. The soldiers instantly recognized it, and they let him and his friends go free. That takes some pretty quick thinking when you’re in a foreign country and you’re staring down the barrel of a gun. Fortunately, his yell was known everywhere that American movies were shown. It was proof of his identity.
This morning’s scripture lesson is about John the Baptist, the man who was chosen by God to announce Jesus’ coming. Like Tarzan’s yell, John the Baptist can be viewed as Jesus’ proof of identity. John was bold, passionate, completely focused on pointing people to the coming Messiah but there seems to be some question in John’s mind whether Jesus truly was the One sent from God to proclaim and bring God’s creation to fulfillment. Maybe John knew he wasn’t going to make it out of that prison alive. And so he had to know. If this was the end, he had to know whether the purpose he had committed his life to—declaring that Jesus is the Messiah sent from God—was true or a lie
Our lesson from the scripture begins with these words: “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
So what deeds were John and his disciples looking for in the Messiah? They were looking for a man who would be a great political and military leader who would restore the kingdom and government of Israel and re-build the Temple. In all honesty Jesus does not take on this identity. “‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.’” Now John needs to decide if that is good enough for him. Jesus is not going to be the militarist but the pacifist – a pacifist but not a pansy. And, as with John, we too must decide if that is good enough for us. Currently, the far right, conservative part of the church are militant in their view of the world. They are willing to take away people’s rights, control a woman’s body, reward religiously controlled schools and grind governance that serves all people to a halt.
Jesus didn’t look like a great military hero or political leader; he looked like the grace of God. Where John the Baptist was looking for deeds of power; Jesus pointed to his deeds of compassion. In Jesus, God isn’t just restoring the kingdom of Israel; God is establishing His kingdom for all people.
That is the identity Jesus chose to display. How about you?
Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2022
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel for Jews and Gentiles Alike
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name’; and again he says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’; and again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him’; and again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
One brief, sunny morning a woman looked out her living room window and was amazed to discover a dead mule on her lawn. Immediately she called the sanitation department and asked them to remove the carcass. But by the time the work-crew arrived, she had changed her mind. She gave the men $100.00 each, instructing them to carry the mule upstairs and to deposit it in the bathtub.
After they had dutifully followed her instructions, one of the workers asked why she wanted the dead mule in her bathtub. She said, “Well, for 35 years my husband has been coming home at night, throwing his coat on the rack, grabbing the newspaper, plopping into the easy chair and asking, ‘What’s new?’ Tonight, I’m going to tell him there’s an ass in the tub that needs to be removed.”
Every year we plop down in the Season of Advent and ask’ “What’s new this year?” Ads in the newspaper and online introduce us to the newest “things” that are popular this year. We wander around the stores looking for something we have not seen before so that we can buy it and surprise a loved one. What was popular last year just won’t cut it this year. And so, every Christmas season we search the stores for some new sound, or flavor, or decoration, or game, or cell-phone “app” that defines the cutting edge of “cool.” And probably the memory of waiting in line, clawing through a crowd, falling into debt, will linger longer than the “new,” “cool,” “hot” thing you suffered for.
But wait a minute? Isn’t the exact opposite equally true? It’s the “old” stuff that we hanker after and hunger for. We hang the ratty old homemade ornaments on the tree and with each one we rehearse its story of origin. We crave the same old cookies that grandma or mom used to make. Although we will listen to the new recordings of old carols with new voices our greatest pleasure is when we hear “White Christmas” with the crooning voice of Bing Crosby. And we will pull out the the candlewax spotted tablecloth to fit to the table in a way where the stain is not identified.
So much of the joy of Christmas
Is the sameness of it all —
Always the wreath upon the door,
The festoons in the hall;
The mistletoe hung overhead,
The squeals at getting captured:
The sparkling tree that holds its viewers
The same beloved ornaments,
The candles and the bells;
The same old Christmas stories
That Grandpa always tells
The same old battered angel
Once again adds to the joy —
It’s stood atop the tree each year
Since Grandpa was a boy.
The merry family gatherings —
The old, the very young:
The strangely lovely way they
Harmonize in carols sung.
For Christmas is tradition time —
Traditions that recall
The precious memories down the years,
The sameness of them all.
Helen Lowrie Marshall (1904-1975)
So which is it? Sameness or Newness? The truth is Christmas finds us caught between our quest for the new and our yearning for the old. We are starved for new stories about the same old thing. The “Hallmark” channel is showing repeats of every schmaltzy Christmas movie ever made 24-7 from Thanksgiving Eve through Christmas Day and this year there were forty new movies added to the lineup.
In this week’s epistle text Paul is “engaging” a real community of first-generation Christians.
Some of those Christians were raised in the Jewish faith. They knew themselves as the chosen children of the covenant. They were selected and special because of God’s promise.
Some of those Christians were Gentiles. They were a mixed bag of religious backgrounds, more comfortable with table-top “gods” than an omniscient God. Yet these disciples were bonded into the same body by their faith in Christ. For the Jewish-Christians it was the fulfillment of an old story made new. The promised covenant, a right relationship with the divine, was finally accomplished and perfectly fulfilled by the person of Jesus Christ. For the Gentile Christians it was a new avenue of possibility, a new way of being fully human, that was miraculously revealed and extended to them. Christ’s merciful, sacrificial, gift of self, included those who were truly “others.”
These two hugely different life experiences and spiritual expectations came together, Jew and Gentile, in the Roman Christian community.
The reality of the Messiah was the fulfillment of something old. The reality of Christ’s sacrifice was the miracle of something new. No wonder first century communities found it difficult to find common ground. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God, says Paul to the Romans. Paul deemed it difficult to convince a first century Roman congregation of Jews and Gentiles to live together in faith and harmony, despite their differences. What about a twenty-first century congregation (or community, city, country) that is composed of persons and perceptions that cannot possibly blend without curdling, or mix without mishaps.
And yet during Advent we still seek together — whatever our “togetherness” might be to find what Paul called “the God of hope” so that we may experience the season that can “fill you with all joy and peace in believing.”
Advent is the irrational season, when we don’t let our reasons for differences dissuade us from the “reason” for the season. And there are a lot of “reasons” to be dissuaded. The world is as dangerous and as deadly a place as it has ever been. Especially for people of faith. There is hunger and holocaust. Germ warfare and genocide. Abuse and apathy. Disease and disinterest. Global warming, global warfare, and global god awfulness. That is the world of Reason. But Advent beckons us to live in the world of the Season — the Season of Anticipation, of Acceptance, of Accolades. This is the Second Sunday in the Season of Advent. We humans are an odd on-again/off-again species. We want everything new, glitzy, and brightly-lit. Yet we want everything old-shoe, old-school, and comfortable. Human beings are an interwoven mare’s nest of conflicting needs and wants, dreams and desires. There is no “one thing” that we want. There is only “everything” that we want. And that is why at Advent we prepare for and give thanks for the “everything for everyone” that arrived with the Incarnation.
We give “reason” a rest. We celebrate the irrational, the child. It is a moment for us to discover our essential “humanness,” which is our soul’s most basic response to God.
First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2022
The Future House of God
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Judgement Pronounced on Arrogance
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
It’s not easy to see in the dark. Some people are able to do so without hesitation, but, for folks like me, the dark seems a little darker these days than it did when I was a kid. This was compounded a few weeks ago when one of the post lights along our driveway went dark. I put off checking in to it when it was so cold but when I saw that the temperatures this week would be warmer than the rest of the winter, I decided to venture into changing the bulb. So, here I am, an old man standing in front all the new super-duper bulbs that are common today when along comes a young fella. “How can I help you?” he asked. I explained to him that I was looking for a light bulb for my post lamp but couldn’t find any. I explained how they had thick glass with cuts to provide crystal like rays of light. “They don’t make those anymore,” he said. “Let me show you what we have down here,” and down the aisle he went while I was thinking ‘who does this kid think he is?’ He offered me a 100 amp bulb – one of the new ones with those yellow tapes inside. After he left I spent a few more minutes looking for the bulb of my memory with no luck. I took the bulb home and installed it yesterday. Much to my surprise and delight the front yard is more lit up than any prior time. (I know, old dogs – new tricks.)
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. It is the beginning of our spiritual movement from the darkness of the world we live in to the great light which is brought to us in the birth of Jesus. As we look back, we can remember and identify when we thought that the darkness of the world was worse than any time before, but every time we fool ourselves into believing this false narrative we are confronted with yet another darker time. Pesky Coronavirus, the war in Ukraine, Russia’s menacing nuclear threats, and big bankers warnings of an impending recession worse than any previous all make the future look pretty bleak. But here in the Season of Advent we see some changes which, know it or not, are signals of hope. Driving down darkened streets, we are beginning to witness an increasing number of homes where new light (life) is springing up. We see candle lights in the windows and strings of lights on the house and decorating trees along with blown up figures depicting the joys of the season. New lights in the darkness bringing, whether the homeowner knows it or not, the message of Christ’s coming into the world. As the lights increase, we begin experiencing a new sense of faith, hope and love. We send greeting cards to people we have seldom seen all year. We decorate our houses with greenery hoping this symbol of life will become real. We string lights around our homes, hoping against hope to chase the dark away. It’s Advent. We live in Hope.
The poet Emily Dickinson wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
Hope is the untiring conviction that we are not permanently locked in our various predicaments. Hope stems from confidence in God and God’s goodness. As we climb the mountain path, we can become more introspective and more thankful for all that God has provided us for this journey.
Isaiah 2:3 invites us: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."
There is no doubt that you will be busy the next 30 days. That is not the question. The question is, are you going to be any better this month? Will you be busy with things that matter? Our problem is that we try to manufacture hope. We trim a tree, we hang some lights, we send some cards or write “the” letter, we pack our schedules with things to do and places to go. We take a few trips down memory lane. This is not where hope lies. Hope is not to be found in the things we do.
We can even engulf ourselves in religious activities, sing the Messiah, listen to the cantatas, engage in a thousand ways to help the needy, and still wind up feeling hopeless, because we have failed to encounter God, to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.
Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. Let us rise up to the place where we may learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths – and see the Light.
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
November 13, 2022
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,
and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
Well, we did it once again. Despite annual conversations among legislators to put an end to the “Spring Forward, Fall Back” formulas of time keeping, we again turned our clocks back one hour. The chore has been made easier over the past decade since our “smart” devices are magically reset while we sleep. What we are on now is what is called “Standard” time. Retreating one hour in order to get back to “Standard Time” is supposed to make our mid-winter mornings less dark and dismal. Unfortunately, as anyone who lives in Akron, Ohio knows, those brighter “a.m.’s” come attached to distinctly darker and longer “p.m.’s.” And even that extra morning light really only lasts for a couple of weeks, at best since we have more than a month left of declining daylight before we reach the shortest day of daylight.
It isn’t easy to readjust the “circadian” rhythms of our bodies. Not even by just an hour. And if you are not afflicted with SAD, “seasonal affective disorder, where the lack of daylight hours brings on depression, lethargy, and genuine “SADness,” losing the light still brings all of us physical challenges and changes. Besides over-priced trips to sunny lands abroad or to our South, scientists prescribe doses of specific wave lengths of light, available in special light bulbs, to help our bodies fight off the SAD-slump fall-back. More recently, nutritionists have recommended we up our intake of Omega-3 oils - those “good” fats found especially in oily fish and English walnuts. Salmon, the fish with the most unchangeable body rhythm of any scaly swimmer, is especially high in these Omega-3 fatty acids. Apparently, it takes a crazy, obsessed-by-tides-and-rhythms fish to help our bodies combat the changing tides and rhythms that the turning world has unleashed upon us.
Cold, dark days make us want to hunker down and veg out. I noted that several friends on Facebook spoke today (Friday) of a hot beverage, a blanket and a book to ward off the dreary, rainy day. The feeling that all there is ahead of us is a cold, dark future can bring on a kind of human “root vegetable” behavior. The just finished political races bombarded us with ridiculous ads to our mail and televisions. The future of the economy is confusing with the various “experts” claiming to know it will survive or nose dive. Getting up every morning, keeping motivated, giving all we have to our family, our church, our community, is not easy with the darkening that is coming our way. There will be days we will look towards the window and not seeing any substantial light we will prefer to roll over and go back to sleep rather than get up.
The concluding commands made to the Thessalonian community in this week’s epistle text addressed the threat of “idleness” to the life of the faithful. This “idleness” was not just a sitting-around-streaming a movie or television show we have seen a dozen times - kind of inactivity.
In the first century idleness was the idleness of those obsessed with the eschatological end-times and, as a result, who were not motivated to do anything for the good of the world around them. Those who looked to the Greco-Roman culture of patronage and political favoritism rejected the order of “work-to-make-things-better” world. Those who were brown nosers and glad handers thought their faith entitled them to a life of support and special treatment and they disobeyed the apostolic examples of daily toil and labor Paul and his companions had demonstrated personally.
Paul’s criticism of this kind of idleness comes with a stumble: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” With this statement Paul rejected the world of patronage and privilege. Instead, he advanced a new ethic of labor as love — love expressed by working for Christ, working for each other, working for the unlovely, and working for the future.
We cannot look back at the first century and say it was a cultural anomaly. Even today there is a significant number of folks who are either idle or desire to be idle about their faith and how to connect it to God’s creation. Among us are folks, some of whom claim faith in God and are members of religious communities, who care not to have any concern for improving things. They simply sit back, eat bon bons and wait for God to make the great eschatological move to end this mess which we have had a hand in creating. While we are taking care of our personal involvement with this goal of putting aside our idleness we need to focus on how to demonstrate that way of loving Christ and others to those who desire to serve in the same way but have not yet given themselves permission. But we must be careful to acknowledge that we are incapable of achieving this status with perfection. We have to accept that a faith filled life is not lived without some falls and failures. And that is where God’s grace comes in. Grace is both forgiveness and direction pointing.
Fine Oriental rugs can be distinguished from machine-made rugs by their curious variations in patterns. In Middle Eastern villages, where each Oriental rug is hand-woven under the direction of a master-weaver, it often happens that a weaver makes a mistake. But when a mistake is made, instead of pulling the work out to correct the error, the master-weaver finds some way to incorporate the error into the pattern. Experts say that the exceptional beauty of complex design in the rugs often is due to the skill of mater-weavers in turning mistakes into works of art.
That’s integrity. Each of us has the God-given potential to become a uniquely beautiful masterwork of God’s creative art. We are apprentices to the master weaver, who inspires the design and who helps us redeem our faults and finish the patterns. We lose integrity and run into snags when we try to do it alone. We, the church, are a community of aides who walk and work side by side to improve our ability to serve Christ and others.
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
November 6, 2022
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."
Do you have an Alexa in your home or car or phone? The age in which we live makes it possible for each of us to “own” our own little genie, or Alexa, in a bottle – who we can go to with questions and expecting answers. We have one that “lives” with us (it is always listening to what is going on) in the dining room. Sometimes we entertain ourselves by asking all sorts of questions while we are eating. But sometimes it get’s confused and admits it doesn’t have an answer to that and we try to rephrase the question so that it can find an answer.
The other night Chris asked what the upcoming schedule for the Pittsburgh Penguins (hockey) was. Alexa started to spout off a series of upcoming games. However, I realized that the answer given was for the 2021 season. Chris asked again and again, the same incorrect answer was given. I asked Alexa if it knew what year it was. The spinning light indicates thinking or anger (at least that’s my interpretation). Finally, the answer came, “2022”. But upon asking for the hockey schedule once more the incorrect answer was given.
I then asked, “Alexa, are you having a bad day?” The light spun around but finally came the words, “Some say ‘She threw her phone against the wall and pooped on it.” Then the machine shut down and wouldn’t respond to anything for several minutes. (I think it embarrassed itself.)
In some ways, Jesus was like Alexa. Jesus was asked a lot of questions during the time he was walking around the Near East some 2,000 years ago. Some of them were pretty good questions: "What must I do to be saved?" or "Whose fault is it that this man was born blind?" Others were not nearly so profound. "Can my two sons get the good seats in heaven?" "Can you make my brother split the family inheritance evenly?" Selfishness got in the way there. Selfishness and ambition. But however misguided those questions were, at least they actually were questions.
Members of a scholarly sect called the Sadducees had the opportunity of a lifetime with Jesus. They studied scripture most rigorously. They thought about and pondered God day and night. They thought they were dealing with life's big questions. It's pretty much all they did and some might suggest it was a big waste of time. To ponder God is to treat God like a thing or a theory. To know God is to be in an ever-learning relationship. So some Sadducees came up to Jesus and told him this big, long hypothetical story: an elaborate and drawn-out set-up. And then for the punch line, they asked a question. Only it really wasn't a question. You ask a question if you want to learn something; a fact perhaps, or someone's opinion, maybe some bit of wisdom. The Sadducees don't want to learn from Jesus. Their question wasn't really a question at all. It was a riddle, an attempt to create a logical trap. "There's this woman, see, and her husband dies, which is very sad, and they have no children, which is even sadder, so the guy's younger brother marries her, which is what the Bible says to do. Then he dies. And there's still no children. So the next youngest brother marries her and it goes on that way, with no children ever being born, through seven brothers. Then finally the woman herself dies." Jesus, at this point, is no doubt nodding along with this wildly improbable story, waiting for the punch line. You can just picture the Sadducees rubbing their hands together, ready to spring the trap; and then they pounce. "So when they all rise from the dead, who is she married to?" Personally, I think that the scenario is a nightmare. The wife should have been investigated for possible murder. What’s the odds of so many brothers dying off when married to the same woman. Certainly, Alfred Hitchcock or Agatha Christie could come up with some plot for this.
The faulty aspect of what the Sadducees laid out here is that we humans define time as a succession of things we do – one thing at a time. We are born, we are nurtured, we complete thirteen or more years of school learning things which build upon each other, we work, we change careers and work locations until retirement, we deal with health crises, we write our wills and take our last breath. Everything done in a linear manner. Here is just another example of how our understanding of God is framed by our own limited understanding. We do everything in a linear fashion. We look at our past. We plan for today. We dream of the future. Each thing follows a progression as if our lives are an unfamiliar recipe that we must follow step by step in order to accomplish ------- what?
According to Jesus, God has a whole different perception of time. It’s all balled up into one, singular concept. How often have we heard, “God’s time is not our time.” According to Jesus it’s not and not only is it as we understand it but it blows away all of our concepts of time. The question that was put to him was whose wife would this woman be after death? Jesus’ answer was NONE OF THEM. He goes on to say that everything that we experience in this life will not have any bearing on what we experience beyond this life. We are bound to God in a timeless universe free of that which “anchored” us in this life.
What does this mean for us? It's all God's time. All at once, or one thing after the other, all our time is God's time. We talk about family time, about down time, about company time, over time, work time, and me time. But it's all a gift to us. God is the God of the living, so we need to take the time God has blessed us with and truly see it as a time for life. Live like Jesus. Learn from Jesus. Live by scripture. Learn from scripture. Live in prayer. Learn from prayer. Live to share the good news. Learn from talking with and listening to other Christians. Scary? Sure, it is. But Jesus challenges us to simply trust God to do the right thing. Much of what Jesus said takes a lifetime to interpret but at least he didn’t say, “She throws her phone against the wall and poops on it.”
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 16, 2022
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
On August 3, 1970, sixty‑two‑year‑old Miriam Hargrave of Yorkshire, England, finally passed her driving test. It was her fortieth attempt. After so much struggle and perseverance, one would assume she started driving right away. But unfortunately, after spending so much money on driving lessons she couldn’t afford to buy a car.
Rev. David Guest required 632 lessons over a period of 17 years before he passed his driving test. “When I was told I passed I bent down on my knees and thanked God,” he said after passing the test. The 33-year-old cleric spent $11,000 on lessons, wore out eight instructors and crashed five cars before that momentous accomplishment. The secret to his turnaround; he finally switched to a car with an automatic transmission. His problems stemmed from an inability to distinguish between the clutch and the brake while driving a car with a standard transmission.
Most of us would have walked away accepting that we were not cut out to drive a car. On the other hand, we also need to question how smart this guy was to spend so much money on lessons and destroying several cars before figuring out he should drive an automatic rather than a stick. However, I must also question the “smarts” of eight instructors who didn’t get him into a car without a clutch.
Throughout our lives we have witnessed the stories of people who persevere and refuse to give up in the face of defeat after defeat. There have been times in our lives when we have known the struggle to be real. We admire those who persist. But we must be careful about the cause that is being pursued. This past Thursday we witnessed the summation of the January 6 Committee’s hearing which exposed us to the legacy of a loser who refused to acknowledge that he had lost the election and who manipulated several scenarios to try to prevent the peaceful transition of the presidency. The president persisted, but his cause was a lie driven by a quest for power.
Writer Ted Loder tells a story about a salesman named Barry, who was having a bad day. It was noon. He was in his favorite diner where he was forced, by the overcrowded noon crowd, into sharing his table with a woman who was wearing a loud print dress and green gloves which went to her elbows. After some initial superficial conversation Barry asked Angela, the lady at his table, her profession.
“I’m a messenger,” said Angela proudly.
“A messenger? From whom?” asked Barry out of curiosity.
“From Her.” replied Angela. Barry wanted to know, “Her who?”
“You know,” said Angela, “Her . . . God.” After a lot more disbelieving questioning on Barry’s part he finally said to Angela: “OK . . . suppose you are a messenger from . . . uh . . . Her . . . then what’s the message?”
“The Message,” says Angela without batting an eye, “is: ‘Hang in there!’”
Maybe that’s the message from God we need to hear today, whether God is a Him or a Her. I don’t know what you’re going through right now in your life. I don’t know what dreads or dreams you are currently nurturing. I don’t know what frustrations, failures or fears. But oftentimes God’s simple message to us is simply “Hang in there. Don’t give up. Keep going. You’re going to make it.”
Jesus told a story once about an unjust judge. This judge, said Jesus, had no fear of God and cared even less about what other people might think of him. He took bribes and gave favors to persons who held position and authority. He didn’t worry about conscience or law, about morality or justice. He was out to fill his pockets and to gain honor and recognition from those who held position, power, and wealth. But there was a widow who needed his help. She was poor. She had no money to bribe him even if that were her inclination. She was a widow, a woman all alone in a man’s world. She had no man and no money to secure legal counsel to plead her case. She held no position or authority, none of the necessary clout to commend her to the judge. But she was being persecuted, being taken advantage of and abused by an unknown adversary. Still, she let none of this stop her. Time and time again she kept coming to the judge with her plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” At first the judge responded with silence. He didn’t make a move to help her. His heart was hard and harsh; he had no interest in helping anyone who would not benefit his career or fill his pockets. But the poor widow kept on coming and coming, pleading and pleading. She would not let the judge rest. And notice what happened. The judge did not fear God, did not regard man’s opinions, yet he finally gave in to the widow and gave her the justice she was seeking.
Why? Because she would not give up. He could not get rid of her. She would not accept silence or take no for an answer. She kept coming and coming. The judge finally said, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t just wear me out.”
This widow was persistent. She refused to let this corrupt judge go! It’s one of those quirky little parables that Jesus loved to tell. But he adds a very serious moral to it: “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice.” It may not come overnight – it may be around before we even realize it – but God’s justice will come about in God’s way and God’s good time.
The scripture ends with the haunting question, “…when the Son of Man comes , will he find faith on earth?” What we sometimes fail to realize is that God is not in the business of granting our every wish. Instead, God enlists us in building a new kingdom based on God’s justice – not ours. Our task is to keep our eye on the prize – the Reign of God.
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 9, 2022
Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
“Art is in the eye of the beholder” and “A picture is worth a thousand words” are expressions that I remember hearing from my childhood. Not that I understood their meaning when I was a child, it seems to me that as we mature and our experiences in life grow, we develop an understanding of their meaning along the way. Linda and I have many pictures that hang on our walls, but I am not sure that any of them would qualify as “art” if we were to take them to the “Antiques Roadshow”. For the most part they are just pictures. For the Dreese household, “art” is probably best expressed in the little pictures and trinkets that our children and grandchildren have given us along the way. They are our treasures. Go to a famous art museum and you will not find the Dreese’s treasures there although many creations of the great artists do not seem to display any more talent than my kids.
What is housed at art museums is the works of those who have been identified as being a great artist – most of whom are dead. The pictures on those walls reach back as much as centuries. One of the problems with art that old is that it begins to show age. They may become damaged from smoke, yellowed from resin, or simply dirt-covered with age. Many paintings from the Medieval or Renaissance period appear faded, shadowed, and their colors muffled and darkened from years of storage, passing of hands, or from materials used that collected dust and mold. Along come those who are skilled at restoring these pieces of art using extreme caution to make sure they do not damage the original paint or change the image but simply restore it to its former beauty. They need to wash the painting carefully in a solution that can remove the grunge but retain the original paint, form, brush strokes, and canvas. The very idea of restoration in fact suggests an “honoring” of what lies beneath the surface grime and wear, a respect for the integrity of a painting’s original identity. It could be said in fact that this kind of restoration is a kind of “healing” of an image, a restoration of its fullness, beauty, uniqueness, and quality, so that it can again offer connection and enjoyment to all who lay eyes upon it.
Similarly, restoration of “sins” felt something like that to those whom Jesus touched either with his eyes, his voice, or his hands. He didn’t just cure a superficial disease. He “healed” a person, making them entirely whole –body, mind, and spirit. In doing so, he didn’t create something brand new of them, but he “restored” themselves, to wellness, fullness, joy, peace, community, brotherhood, faith, and belonging. Jesus didn’t need to heal those who already looked practically blemish-less. Instead, he healed those who clearly had been kicked about, dirtied by sin, their names muddied by their communities, their countenances bleak. They could now “connect” with God and others in a blameless, full, and intimate way. Their dignity, their ability to connect with others, and their self-image had been entirely restored. Their healing marked a “re-joining” to themselves, to God, and to others.
Have you ever gone through a chronic illness, in which you learn to live with a certain amount of pain, a disability, or a feeling of unwellness? Think even of something like arthritis. You can get so used to that level of stiffness and pain, which you unconsciously block out to some extent, that when suddenly you are cured of that arthritis by some miracle drug, you feel a burst of energy. You feel alive. You feel suddenly renewed and restored! With the pain or discomfort gone, you feel like a new person, like you can do anything! Our story describes a day when Jesus met up with ten lepers, called them over and then sent them on their way. To even interact with these “diseased” men was against all the rules. Their leprosy was viewed as a punishment from God for some sin. Added to that, they were shunned by their fellow humans for being diseased. So, when Jesus provides for their healing why does only one of them come back? We see in this story 10 men, all lepers. Apparently 9 of them are local Jews. One (1) is a Samaritan Jew. Why does the “foreigner” return, double back, and return to Jesus to express his heartfelt thanks to God? And the others do not?
Jesus’ story today takes place in the region “between” Samaria and Galilee. This is an important geographical detail. In this “liminal” space between the conservative Jews of Galilee and the snubbed outcasts of Samaria, we find some crossing over. While their “leprosy” has caused all of them to be cast to the outskirts of their respective towns in a similar position, once “restored” to their former selves, those who would be accepted as orthodox Jews so to speak headed back to their homes no doubt in Galilee, free now to re-engage with their communities, take back their positions, re-unite with their families, move forward with their lives. No longer outcast, they will readapt and return to the communities they love –communities who will continue to reject the Samaritans as “unpure” –not because of leprosy or sin, but because of who they are and the way they worship. As they believe, they are God’s “chosen” group of people, they believe that God’s healing is a given. After all, they are who they are. The Samaritan however, when healed, although restored in mind, body, and spirit, will remain outcast from Galilee. He will remain a Samaritan, disliked, mistrusted, avoided, and snubbed by the conventional Jewish community. But not from God. Humbled, his gratitude that God behaves differently than anyone he’s ever known, will spill from his lips in praise and laud. In his healing, he knows that God has accepted him fully and completely. He belongs to God as a beloved child. God’s grace knows no boundaries. The Samaritan does not need the acceptance of his compatriots. He is grateful enough for his acceptance with God.
We all need healing by Jesus. All fall short of the glory of God and are sullied and bent by sin. Some take God’s healing for granted. Those who have experienced the most difficulty in the world, the most bias, the most abuse, the most loneliness, the most rejection will cherish God’s gift the most. Our faith journey comes down to this: Is your primary goal in life to be accepted by the people around you? Liked by your peers? Or to be loved, beloved, and blessed by God?
A restorer must have some distance from the original painting on which he means to work in order to see it better Looking at something too familiar can make it hard to see both its beauty and its flaws. As any good restorer knows, to truly restore a painting to its original form, one cannot “perfect” it; but one must restore it flaws and all. What appear in fact to be flaws to us, often make a painting most unique, exquisite, character-building, and meaningful. To honor what lies beneath the surface of every one of us was important to Jesus. He knew that God made every single person special, whether Jew or Greek, native or foreigner. God’s grace knew no boundaries, not a boundary between Galilee and Samaria, and not a boundary between countries, peoples, races, or personalities. Thanks be to God.
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 2, 2022
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you. ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” ’
One day the sculptor Michelangelo attracted a crowd of spectators as he worked. One child in particular was fascinated by the sight of chips flying and the sound of the mallet smacking the chisel. The master sculptor was shaping a large block of white marble obviously with a finished product in his mind’s eye. Unable to contain her curiosity, the little girl inquired, "What are you making?" It is said that he replied, "There is an angel in there and I must set it free." In a very real sense every Christian at the beginning of their faith journey is handed a similar piece of marble which is called faith. It is our task to have in our mind’s eye the faith which God has intended for us and to chip away at it every day. But unlike Michelangelo’s creation the forming of our faith is a lifelong pursuit and with some, it requires a start over from time-to-time which God allows us to do so.
As people of faith the truth is that faith is all we have. We are born through faith, live by faith, and die in faith. And here’s the good News. It’s not all that difficult. Our faith is like a marble slab and we have to find, like Michelangelo, our angel inside. Sadly, some people believe that they have no talent. They have trouble imagining that there is an angel inside them to be freed from the slab. They are unable to envision their better self. They may even fear failure and not try at all. You and I have watched people fall into this slump. It is here that Jesus’ story of the mustard seed comes in to play. Jesus challenges us to believe just a little bit and to discover growing faith. Jesus does not ask you and me to have a mountains worth of faith, just a seed's worth. The seed, the container of a DNA mixture that holds the brilliant plan of a new form of beauty challenges us to consider the beauty of life lived to the fullest. If we say, “Well, I don’t have that much faith.” All it takes is a little faith. Here’s a simple truth to consider: Jesus’ isn’t interested in the quantity of your faith just the quality of it. It only takes a mustard seed’s worth if it’s genuine.
Getting back to the mallet and chisel we can get to work even when we have such a little bit of faith as a mustard seed. But faith is not enough. We need to be honest with ourselves: God owes us nothing. And if it is true that God owes us nothing, then we understand why self-righteousness is such a loathsome attitude for religious people. Self-righteousness assumes we are due God’s blessings and grace because of our good behavior. This has been a popular preaching line among evangelicals over the past couple of decades. They are always promising that if you do it right (what they tell you to do) you will get God’s blessing. This is contrary to an understanding that God allows us to chip away at our faith so that we can accomplish good things.
Jesus asks you to imagine you are the owner of a farm with slaves. When the slave’s work is done for the day and he comes in from the field, are you going to wait on him? Help him recline at the table? Prepare his meal? Serve his supper? I dare say not. He is not the master. You are the master and it is you who will say to the slave I am hungry. Get the meal ready and wait on me while I eat and drink and when I am done then you can eat. Jesus then drives home his point. The master is under no obligation to say thank you to the slave. Why? Because the slave was simply doing his job. It is what is expected of him. The servant is not worthy to receive any compliments when he does what he is expected to do. It is a message that flies in the face of our need to be recognized. This story then unfolds to see that God is the owner, we are the slaves, and we are obligated to be about our responsibilities.
There are churches who are composed of people who are quite happy to been seen as being in the right place – who are quite happy to stand by while others go about taking care of the business chores of the church – who get it done without understanding that the work is there for everyone – who seek recognition and credit for simply doing that which they are supposed to be doing. It is our duty to work in the kingdom of God and we are due nothing for that work. First and foremost, we live for God expecting nothing in return.
The world's most famous evangelist D.L. Moody was hosting a Bible Conference in Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Many of the participants came from Europe. Following the European custom of the time, they left their shoes outside their room to be cleaned by the hall servants overnight. They did not know that there were no hall servants in America. Walking down the dormitory halls that night, Moody noticed the shoes and determined not to embarrass his guests. He gathered up the shoes, went to his room and began to clean and polish the shoes. Only the unexpected arrival of a friend in the midst of the work revealed the secret. The following morning the foreign visitors opened their doors and found their shoes shined. They did not know by whom. Moody told no one, but his friend told a few people, and during the rest of the conference, a different person volunteered to shine the shoes in secret each night.
Of course, life is more than shining shoes but isn’t that a bit like washing feet?
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2022
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Even though we may often joke about “having a midlife crisis” for a person who is really having the crisis, it is no joking matter. It usually hits somewhere between thirty-five and fifty. It can be a growing worry or a sudden realization. It screams out to us that we have spent half, or a good portion of our lives, working at something that does not fulfill us. The career we trained for has not provided all the rewards we had hoped for. All of our years of raising children are coming to an end, and they may try to shake loose of us even though it seems they may never leave.
I have known people who when the “crisis” comes it’s like they have hit a wall. Splat! They are stopped in their tracks. They can’t go backwards to change how they have lived their lives and to make different choices. They are so overwhelmed with grief and regret that they become immobilized and are unable to move forward. Days become grey and filled with despair. Friends may try to help but are rebuffed, and if the person is not careful, they will entrap themselves in a loneliness that is increasingly difficult to break out of. On the other hand, there are those who, when faced with the “crisis” are able to assess their situation, learn from the mistakes they have made and begin to strategize the changes they will make for the living of the rest of their lives. Back to school or new job training, take up a hobby, have another round of child rearing with grandchildren, volunteer, become a friend to others, change careers altogether.
The story from today’s gospel is one of a man in crisis. It may not have been a midlife type, but a crisis driven by the fact that his disreputable management style was found out by the boss, and he was called in to give an accounting for what he had been up to. We might say he was a con man simply saving his own backside. What is the boss’ initial reaction? “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…” Does that make any sense? Did we really expect these words to come out of Jesus’ mouth? To compliment this employee who acted dishonestly seems contrary to the moral opinion we have of Jesus. No two ways about it, the steward was cutting deals with vendors to get some funds back into the till. Why Jesus is taking this position in this parable is perplexing. It has stumped scholars and preachers over the centuries, and we often get it all wrong. Perhaps Jesus has had enough handwringers in the world. You know what I’m talking about -- people who look at the world’s problems and say, “Dear me, somebody ought to do something.” Well, yes, they should. Let me rephrase that yes, WE should. There are times that call for immediate action. The steward didn’t bury himself in self-pity but used all his shrewd resourcing to get out of a bad situation.
A sailor sent a story to Readers’ Digest about how on his first day in the fire room of a Navy destroyer, it was his duty to open a particular valve. Unfortunately, the valve control, the size of a steering wheel, seemed to be stuck. After his best efforts failed to budge it, he reported his difficulty to the chief. The chief told him to keep trying and that he would send “Tiny” to help him.
Soon what appeared to be the largest sailor in the Navy loomed over the young sailor. The sailor grinned, thinking that Tiny would solve his problem. But instead of taking the wheel in hand, Tiny merely pointed to it and said, “Open that valve right now!” The young sailor got the valve open.
Tiny motivated him to discover strength he did not know he had.
Fear is a great motivator, and over the centuries the church has not been shy about using fear to control people and get them to do what the church deems best. There was a time when the church was able to dictate and control the government’s laws so that people could not get a divorce or practice birth control or abortion. As time passed those issues fell from the church’s control, and the rules were relaxed. Now, with a vengeance, the church is roaring back and in league with the government it is attempting to retake control of people’s lives and decisions. Or so it thinks – because free thinking people will have the final say and the church, like every other institution in modern society, is losing respect and authority until the point that it will become not only less influential but faithless – seeking power over others has a way of coming out that way.
In this scripture Jesus is trying to teach his disciples a lesson: The master you serve will shape the legacy you leave. If God is our Master, then our life will have an eternal impact. We will follow the example of Jesus as his Spirit grows in us. In 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a message at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In his message, he said, “I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the [purpose] of life. The [purpose] of life is not to be happy. The [purpose] of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The [purpose] of life is to do the will of God, come what may.” Dr. King gave his life for the cause of justice and equality for all people. And in doing so, he changed a nation. The Master he served shaped the legacy he left. This is life lived at its best. Seeking always to live according to the purposes God created you for.
What does your life stand for? What is your legacy? Would the people around you say that your greatest desire was to reflect the life. He wants you to understand that God is your Master, and God created you for His own purposes. He wants you to understand that whatever you desire most becomes your master. And that the master you serve will shape the legacy you leave. What if tonight God came to you and asked, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management.” Don’t you want to know how God could use you if you committed yourself fully to God's purposes? Doing so you will discover a purpose far greater than anything you could have imagined, and a legacy more powerful than any you could have achieved on your own character and commitment of Jesus Christ? Jesus doesn’t want you to waste your life.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 11, 2022
A Tree and Its Fruit
‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
We live in a time of “talking heads”. We are so driven and so prone to have news and commentary feeding into our ears at all times of the day and night. We used to look forward to 6:30 when Walter Conkrite would enter our television space to report to us the events of the day. Today, we don’t have to wait until 6:30 but, instead, can find the reporting of the news twenty-four hours every day. And we can find the news reported from every angle imaginable, so much so that two people can have completely different understandings of the same news story depending upon whose reporting they heard. In an age when technology has the ability to bring us closer together, we find ourselves moving apart. Social media has been a new tool in our hands over the past decade and it has proven to be a tool of connection but also a tool of separation. We know that social media can as easily be a platform for lies as it can be for truth. Sadly, we know the harm it has done and fear the harm it can (and will) do.
And the church has not been untouched by these same issues. The church is faced with the question, “Who is worth listening to? Who speaks for God? Who is a true prophet, and who is a false prophet?” We have the Bible as a base line, and for those who take it seriously it helps with the discernment process. If their words do not come true, they are a false prophet. If they lead the people away to other gods and goddesses, they are false. Throughout the centuries the church has assembled a number of criteria for testing the words of “prophets”, of those who stand and say, “Thus says the Lord.” The New Testament, like the Old, is full of warnings about false prophets who have popped up from time to time challenging us to examine closely what is really true. We, in our personal and religious lives are never free from the ongoing work of sorting truth from error.
Obviously, the ability to discern hucksters from true prophets has become increasingly difficult and has become more complicated by folks who have less than a third grader’s Sunday School understanding of theology. To complicate things even more these “theologians” have been joined up with politicians who also have just a third grader’s understanding of history and civics. Woven together these charlatans have the potential to take down both the church and the government.
In an old Peanuts comic strip, it’s the first day of school. The students are told to write an essay about returning to class. Lucy wrote, "Vacations are nice, but it's good to get back to school. There is nothing more satisfying or challenging than education, and I look forward to a year of expanding knowledge." The teacher was pleased and complimented Lucy’s fine essay. In the final frame, Lucy leans over and whispers to Charlie Brown, "After a while you learn what sells."
Comfortable Christianity is what sells and as we have come to experience it and expect it from too many preachers, it is a big, fat lie. If it’s not a battle, it’s not the real thing. If it’s not hard, then it’s hollow. Easy, wide, comfortable, attractive, smooth, low demand and popular are the wrong set of adjectives if you are looking for the way to the life Jesus offers. Jesus’ guidance of how to determine who is “authentic” is summed up with the phrase “You will know them by their fruits.” For Matthew this was the crucial test of who and who not to listen to. Root determines fruit; actions reveal character. The good fruit of grapes and figs does not come from thorns and thistles. Good fruit is about love and character. It’s about following Jesus and actually obeying his teaching so that we become a new kind of people. Do we love our enemies? Do we practice the disciplines of giving and praying with integrity? Are we quick to criticize and judge? Are we kind and wise? Is our speech simple and honest? Are we peacemakers? Are we quick to apologize and make restitution, and do we prize unity? Do we hold grudges? Are we laying up treasures in heaven?
Here is the test of a prophet for Matthew. Lay their life alongside the Sermon on the Mount, and if you cannot find increasing points of contact, don’t listen to them, even if they work miracles. Comfortable Christianity is a big, fat lie. The mercy of God is not that the way is easy; the mercy is that we have been instructed ahead of time that it is narrow and hard and treacherous and lined with false prophets. The Four Gospels are clear. Everywhere Jesus goes, he breaks into lives and forces a choice: for him and his way, or against him and his way. There is no neutral ground; all is occupied by one spiritual power or the other, and Christ has come to displace the alien kingdom by the rule of his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Thy kingdom come,” in the first part of the Lord’s Prayer is paralleled in the second part by the petition to “deliver us from the Evil One.” It is a battle, and your choice matters. “Enter,” Jesus invites us all, but then he immediately warns us, less we misunderstand, that it is only “by the narrow gate... that leads to the hard way... that leads to life.
There is a cross involved – not just the one Jesus died on nor the replicas that people like to wear around their necks. The cross he challenges us to carry is one which will separate us from all those who are simply talking heads. We are to be doers of the word. Be one of the minority,” he says, “that finds good root and bears good fruit that passes inspection. In a world of deceivers, be one who spots false prophets and avoids them.” The invitation is to all, and the warning is clear that the costs are high.
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 4, 2022
The Cost of Discipleship
Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Poor planning will do a person in every time. A gang of robbers back the 1930s planned to rob a Midwestern bank.They laid out a nearly perfect plan--but the operative word is “nearly.” They decided to break into the bank late at night and to make their escape via a complex route through back alleys and darkened lots. The day of the robbery came and the initial phases went perfectly. As the alarms pierced the quiet Midwestern night, the three men ran off into the cover of darkness. In the darkness and the confusion that followed, the police lost the robbers and assumed they got away. Early the next morning it was discovered that the three men had gotten sidetracked, fell into a water-filled ravine, and were drowned.
Even the best-laid plans of mice and men, said the poet, go awry. But you don’t have to be a criminal to be poor at planning. You could be a bureaucrat. Vladimir Putin thought that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be completed in 48 hours. Here we are six months later and the war goes on. Donald Trump’s entourage of mouthpieces all said that the Covid virus would be conquered in a matter of a couple of months…and here we are two and a half years later hearing about the release of a new vaccine to combat the most recent variants. It’s a story told time and time again. Somebody didn’t look ahead. As someone has said, Let’s all sing that wonderful old hymn about the church that spent $140,000 for a new building and didn’t have enough left over to buy pews. It’s called: Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus!
As the gospel for today goes, a large crowd was following Jesus. Some of them probably followed out of curiosity. Jesus was the best show in town. An exciting communicator, he performed amazing works of healing and he used every opportunity to embarrass the Pharisees besides. What more could you ask for in a preacher and teacher? He was the best in entertainment of his time!
Some people go to church for the entertainment. When we were at 350 we always had a supportive music program. As times changed our music staff were able to introduce new ideas and music to the congregation in non-offensive ways. We always tried to keep some balance of the “old” with the “new”. I had a sheet at my desk which listed all the old “chestnuts” that we sang with their dates at the ready for when someone might complain that we never sing any of the old hymns. (Yes, I did have to pull it to show a few people who showed up to complain.) But when we could no longer financially support the staffing and the building there was a group of people who did not move on with us. They were there for the music and not the message – groupies I guess.
When planning worship, the question must always be asked, “Is it entertainment, amusement, self-serving pleasure, or truly worshipping God?” Sometimes those of us who are planning for worship are able to keep it all in balance – sometimes it has even surprised me. But, admittedly, there have been times when I have missed the mark and have not provided the full body of what worship of God should be – at least in my opinion. Large crowds were following Jesus, but some of them were there for the wrong reasons. It’s time to get serious. And so Jesus says, “And whoever does not take up a cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” Say what? This wasn’t what most of the crowd had come to hear. “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower,” Jesus continued. “Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ (Just ask Rex Humbard.) “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. (There may be some advice here for Putin.) “In the same way,” Jesus declares, “any of you who does not give up everything he (or she) has cannot be my disciple.” Whoa! That will sure thin the crowd in a hurry. Before you jump into this Christianity thing, Jesus is saying to them and to us, be sure you understand what you are getting into.
Well, what are we getting into? There are three basic aspects: worship God, love people and live responsibly. You and I might add many more items to our list of what practical Christianity is all about, but certainly these three attributes would be at the front: worship God, love people and live responsibly. This is a holy triad--a three-legged stool if you will. Subtract a leg and inevitably you fall off. Worship God, love people and live responsibly. Easily said, hard to put into practice.
But this is what Jesus calls us to do. It’s up to each of us as to how we follow him. In essence we are called to plan our lives in a manner which does not rely on a “change of heart” as we are about to take our last breath but to live the faith with every breath we take. But I’m preaching to the choir (I hope).
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 21, 2022
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
The term, “Progressive” has become a suspicious and negative word in our modern-day society. Progressives have always been regarded with some suspicion but today that suspicion has been moved to accusations of distrust and people who are out to harm society and “law abiding” citizens. And that is where one of the problems is quickly identified -- Progressives are just as law abiding as any others in society. And there are names that are made up like “Antifa” to serve as an anchor upon Progressives. Politicians like to spout out about Antifa and how harmful it is to society and how frightening it is to “good” citizens. But the term “Antifa” is short for Anti-Fascist and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that movement? Sadly, I have checked Google and I can’t find a link on how to join up –because “Antifa” does not really exist – it is a made up term.
Teachers and children are heading back to school after a summer break that has been active with frenzied legislatures and governors creating legislation and new rules about what can be said and not said in the classroom. An elementary teacher reported that a picture that had hung in their classroom of Sojourner Truth, yes the Sojourner Truth that the city of Akron broke ground on a memorial plaza this week, that picture was taken down by a school administrator because “it wasn’t age appropriate.” It is reported that 70% of the teachers in Texas are thinking about leaving their profession – at least in Texas. Unfortunately, churches, church leaders and church members of the conservative arm of the church have contributed to these difficult situations. I did have a small bit of comfort this evening (Saturday) when I read an editorial calling out church leaders and churches for not properly teaching the gospel and for not challenging members like Marjorie Taylor Green who are calling for the deaths of law enforcement.
The gospel for today certainly reflects a moment when Jesus had to make such a challenge. The story opens with Jesus teaching in a synagogue where services were normally informal: primarily prayers, reading of scripture, comments, and offerings for the poor. Any man in attendance could read from scripture and then teach or preach if he were so inclined, and on this day apparently, Jesus was. He noticed a woman, identified in scripture as only "crippled" and "bent over" — some disease that deteriorated the spine, maybe osteoporosis or scoliosis — a condition she had suffered for eighteen years. Jesus called to her to come forward. "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity" (Luke 13:12). Jesus touched her and, voilá, immediately she straightened up and praised God. Ta-dah!
Of course, we know there is more to the story. Enter the rabbi in charge. He thundered to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the sabbath" (Luke 13:14). Threatened by the potential influence of Jesus on these common folks this “leader” condemns Jesus’ actions by condemning the crowd.
Truth be told, what Jesus did was bound to cause a stir. He had healed this woman on the sabbath. One has to wonder if the leader’s condemnation been as intense had Jesus healed a man rather than a woman. I suspect that the healing of a woman was as troubling as the healing itself. Why? Because this is an instance of religion being repressive not just on the Sunday prohibition but because women were not worthy.
Healing is work; ask any doctor or nurse. Orthodox Jews to this day are scrupulous about what may and may not be done on the sabbath. Some of the rules may sound nitpicky, but the tradition goes back to the days when the nation was in exile. Sabbath-keeping was the way Jews then and Jews now assured themselves a unique identity. Through the centuries, the rabbis had set up all sorts of "fences" around the sabbath to assure its special place. By the time of Christ, there were 1,521 things one could not do on the sabbath. Then Jesus did this healing defined as work. It wasn’t even an emergency healing. It could have waited until the next day. In fact, the woman had not even asked to be healed. But Jesus did it anyway. It is not much of a stretch to conclude that he did it on purpose. Of course, he did…he was a progressive. He knew the rules and that was his camouflage among the rule keepers. They figured he would just follow them along. However, being knowledgeable also made him all too aware of how corrupt they were and how corrupt adherence to them really was. He knew how repressive the rules had become. "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the sabbath day from what bound her?" — Luke 13:15-16 There was not much the local synagogue leaders could say. In fact, the gospel writer sums the story up with, "... all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing" (Luke 13:17).
Generally, when people are stuck in a system or a particular way of understanding, they need to be shocked out of the old and into the new. Logic and reason usually does not work. Jesus could have spent all day arguing with the synagogue leader about whether or not it was legal to heal this woman on the sabbath while she remained ill. It is similar to so many situations that arise where it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It is such a shame that something that can do so much good — religion — can be made to do so much that is so bad. Why is there any repressive religion in the world? Part of the answer is that folks take religion seriously and some leaders learn and practice using that loyalty as a leverage for their own power. Is concern for a suffering woman what Jesus wanted to convey that day in the synagogue? Not really. The word we are to hear is about religion, or better, about religiosity, and how seriously we are to take it. The point is that there is such a thing as too much. Mae West, in her inimitable style, once said, "Too much of a good thing is ... wonderful!" But most of us know that anything good can be pushed beyond its appropriate limits. Be careful.
Tenth Sunday After the Pentecost
August 14, 2022
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:
father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
For several years I enjoyed being a codirector of a week of summer camp for elementary age kids. Even though my work in the church setting was with youth spending a week with elementary kids was a welcome change because I didn’t have to negotiate whatever plans we had because at the elementary age kids were more inclined to just do what they were told. It was as nice change. One of the most meaningful things I learned was the importance of campfires. Most every evening at camp (if it wasn’t raining) we gathered the group around a campfire for snacks, singing, reflection on the day, planning for tomorrow, teaching and worship. The lesson I learned was not to have a campfire on Friday night since the last night of camp was loaded with emotion of preparing to say “goodbye” to friends made during the week. The order went out – NO CAMPFIRES ON FRIDAY NIGHT!!!! By having the final campfire of Thursday night we seemed to avoid the tears and sobs and no sleep night. While serving as a campus minister at The University of Akron I read of a study conducted with many then leaders of government, business, and the church who, upon reflection, could remember a “campfire moment” which was instrumental in their dedication to public service.
There is something mysterious and provocative about fire. Since my 160 year old home has electric heat (expensive) I have two woodstoves in the house and an additional one in the barn. I have learned the intricacies of each one to get it lit and keep it burning – trust me where there is smoke does not always mean there is a fire. And for my birthday I got a new campfire ring for outside which I tried out earlier this week since it was finally cool enough one evening to be appreciated. I sat and watched as the unit heated up and the magic moment when it got hot enough to begin the secondary catalytic burn creating many different dancing flames around the edge. It was hypnotic.
Fire is certainly prominent in ancient folklore and ancient religions. Several old mythologies of various peoples say that fire is a special gift of the gods. Remember the tale of Prometheus, the god who felt sorry for humans? He stole fire from the gods’ altar and gave it to man. Such stories suggest man’s reverence toward the mystery of fire. In Roman temples there was the central fire that burned continually, fueled and kept alive by men and women whose special duties were to see that the fire never went out. Fire and spiritual experience are never widely separated.
As we turn to the Biblical record we also notice the prominent place of fire in religious experience. A burning bush caught the attention of Moses until he began to hear the voice of God. At the Jerusalem temple, fire consumed the cereal and animal sacrifices offered by the people and priests, speaking of atonement and forgiveness and reconciliation between God and people. The Lukan Pentecost account tells of "tongues of fire" sent by the Holy Spirit as gifts to enable proclaiming the gospel in word and deed.
In the Luke scripture for today we find Jesus saying, "I came to cast fire upon the earth." Throughout the years of Christianity these words were used to conjure up an image of judgment with reward or punishment. The threat of judgment has been used by the church to manipulate people and setting itself up as the spokesperson for God/Jesus.
The image of Christ in late medieval Catholic Christianity had this note of the fiery judgment of Christ which I fear we are seeing a return of with the addition of the Evangelical churches that foresee the union of Christianity and Nationalism. It was the spiritual struggle of the young Martin Luther and other reformers to ease the terrors of this theology. The challenge is now passed to us to preach of a Christ who is the figure of acceptance, forgiveness, gentleness, kindness, correction and warmth. I don’t believe that Christ wants us to be in fear of him but to be friends with him. And any judgments that Christ may direct at us are meant to help us and make our lives more worth living.
And this connects back to the “campfire moments” I mentioned earlier. If we are going to live lives which are not threatened by eternally burning in hell then what is left of the fire that Jesus brought into the world? Simply put it is the fire that burns within us to live lives dedicated to being the servants that Christ set for us the example of being. We are to live the affirmation that God can create a new warmth and glow within us through the fire of Christ’s spirit.
We don’t always realize what the fire of the Spirit is doing with and for us. Often an experience like this is undramatic and occurs without notice. Only afterwards do we see what Christ’s spirit has been doing to our lives. This seems to have been the experience of the disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion. The gospels say that they fled to Galilee and presumably began to take up their former lives. They were deeply shattered by Jesus’ death and began to think that it had all been for nothing. So they resumed their fishing, their tax collecting, their trades and whatever ways of life had been theirs before going off with Jesus. Then they began to discover something strange about themselves. It became apparent that they were not the same persons they had seen before Jesus. Somehow, they couldn’t settle down again to their former way of life. Something seemed to be different. Indeed, they were different persons. In personal meditation, or in coversation with the other followers of Jesus, they found themselves professing that they really did trust God, that they did forgive others, that they had an intense desire to please God. Most of all, they felt compelled to take up the message and work of Christ again. Without fanfare, the second fire of Christ’s spirit had done its work of change.
If we have any gospel good news at all, it will not neglect to speak about this and our actions will be a demonstration of the same acceptance, forgiveness, gentleness, kindness, correction and warmth for others that Christ has been for us. But it doesn’t end there – the act is complete when others come to see and understand the source which has brought us to this point.
Ninth Sunday after the Pentecost
August 7, 2022
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
The Meaning of Faith
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
The Faith of Abraham
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
One night this past week a group of friends gathered with Linda and me for dinner. We get together almost weekly. We enjoy each other’s company and we tell stories of our past and present. We talk about lessons learned and once in a while we also talk about our visions and dreams. We’re not just friends filling our pie holes but a supportive circle which listens and encourages.
A funny thing happened this past week. Our sever was quite jovial and talkative and in the short time of being seated, reviewing menus, placing drink, appetizer and dinner orders we learned a lot about each other. He must have felt that he was in a safe enough position to ask if we were “retired”. I responded that we were all old enough to be retired but we all still worked. Being younger than those of us who were seated at the table I got the notion that he thought we were all a little odd since we did not take advantage of not working in our “golden years”.
One of the expressions my grandfather would say is, “I’d rather wear out and not rust out.” Like our server from the other evening these words made no sense to me when I was younger. But now that I am older – or maybe just plain old – I have an increasing understanding of what he meant. He worked in the family electrical business beyond the normal retirement age. And even when he and my grandmother moved to Fairhaven Home, a UCC retirement facility, he didn’t stop. He tinkered at little repairs, gardened, served on the Resident Council, and led a weekly hymn sing. I was informed by the administrator that, “Your grandfather is a pain in my butt” and I’m pretty sure that my grandfather was probably pleased that he was recognized as such. He died at 96.
I have colleagues who ask me why I continue to work the way I do. Let me be clear, its nice to still collect a salary – thank you. But more importantly The Market Path and the Rustin House continue to fulfill hopes and dreams. Not just mine but yours’ as well as you support and volunteer in these missions.
Paul says in his Letter to the Hebrews that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I have many colleagues who have ended their ministries on a sad note of disappointment. I would suggest that there were no hopes and visions left – just problems and obstacles. And part of what was dragging the congregation down was their building which gobbled up their hope and dampened their faith.
Recently we have marveled at the images that have been provided to us by the Webb telescope. Going and seeing beyond where any person has gone before the Webb has shared phenomenal pictures which challenge old ideas and spark imaginative thinking. While some view these as revealing more of the beauty of God others feel threatened by them thinking that they will drive people away from God and toward “science”. What they really mean is that they fear the pictures will drive people away from their church which does not accept science as a God given tool for our benefit and greater understanding.
The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence has been ongoing to contact life forms for fifty years and sustained by hope and speculation. The search has been ongoing to contact life forms out in space. The Webb has added another dimension to our research. But let us remember the warning of Stephen Hawking who once remarked that “Such advanced aliens might be looking to conquer or colonize whatever planets they can reach.” In other words “you don’t always get what you wish for!”
Faith is something that transforms, not merely adorns. In this week’s epistle text “faith” puts Abraham on the road. Faith keeps his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob on that same road trip. Faith didn’t lead Abraham to a grand mansion in a fertile, watered, lush promised land. Faith kept Abraham in a one-room, pull-down, camel-smelling tent for his entire life. The faith of Abraham, or Abrahamic faith, was not a comfortable faith. Faith didn’t bring Sarah a life of rest and ease. Faith gave the elderly, post-menopausal Sarah an unexpected pregnancy. Faith gave Sarah the opportunity to be pregnant and bear a child — at the age of eighty or so! This was not an adorning faith but a transforming faith.
There is a difference between faith and hope. Hope hurries to make things better right now. Faith isn’t focused on the right now. Faith has long-distance vision. Hope hurriedly sweeps out all the garbage accumulating under your feet and takes it to the garbage can. Faith composts and “cooks” raw materials to become compost in supporting living ideas. And what eventually emerges is rich and full of life, for each new generation. And even though we have lives filled with hopes and dreams our focus needs to be on lives lived by faith.
With the scientific mind-set we say, “Show me and I will believe it.” With a spiritual mind-set God says, “Believe in me and I will show you.” If you can believe it, God can do it. While some see things as they are and ask why, the faithful dream of things that never were and ask why not? That is the story of the faithful. Faith is the ability to see. It is a set of eyes through which we see the world, but faith is also something more.
Faith is the courage to act on what we see. There is an old story about a tight rope walker who stretched a cable across Niagara Falls all the way from the American side to the Canadian side. To the applause of a growing crowd, the acrobat walked the tightrope above the rushing, cascading waters that thundered underneath. Then he went back up and rode a bicycle across and even walked it blindfolded. For his grand finale he took a wheelbarrow and playing to the crowd said, “Do you think I can push this wheelbarrow across Niagara Falls?” “Sure you can,” came the thunderous response. To which he said, “Well, which one of you will volunteer to ride in the wheelbarrow?”
It seems no one took him up on his offer, but he dressed up like and ape and pushed the wheelbarrow across to the other side.
People could think that he could cross over the Falls without having to be part of the proof. Not everyone is called to be the proof of another person’s faith (or daring stupidity). However, if someone needed to get to the other side, the offer of a wheelbarrow ride may be taken to their benefit.
What we are all called to do is to join together in celebrating all that God can do with and through us in ministries that serve others (with or without a wheelbarrow).
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 31, 2022
The Parable of the Rich Fool
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
One of the daily news stories the past couple of weeks has been what the current prize amount was for the Mega Million Lottery which may have been won the $1.2 billion on Friday night. I suspect many people who have never played or seldom play the lottery gave serious consideration to doing so as the dollar amounts increased. Along with the daily watch of these numbers there have been many people who have shared what they would do with the money if they won. Welcome to the world of dreams – only one will come true. Truth is that all of us have had the fantasy dream of what we would do if a large sum of money came our way. We all have a list of ideas of what we would do with it and allow for some variation depending on what the sum total of the award works out to be.
Motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins in his book Money Master the Game tells about a man named Adolf Merckle. In 2007 Merckle was the 94th richest man in the world. He was the richest man in Germany, with a net worth of $12 billion. He owned the largest pharmaceutical company in Europe. He also had interests in manufacturing and construction. He took great pride in his accomplishments. But then he made a big mistake. In 2008 he decided to make a bet in the stock market. He was so certain that stock in Volkswagen was going down, he decided to short the company. Just one problem: Porsche made a move to buy Volkswagen, and the stock price shot up, not down. Almost overnight, Merckle lost nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. To make matters worse, he desperately needed some cash to pay off a huge loan. But this was in 2008. Some of you will remember that the year 2008 saw the worst global economic disaster since the Great Depression. Banks weren’t loaning money to anyone—even billionaires. “When he realized he’d lost a total of $3 billion and was no longer the richest man in Germany . . . [Merckle] wrote a suicide note and walked in front of a speeding train. That’s right. He killed himself. In a tragic irony, his family discovered only a few days later that the loans he sought had come through, and his companies were saved.” He was still a very wealthy man, but his obsession with wealth cost him his life.
Those of us who are always juggling the difference between our bills and our checkbook balances probably shake our heads that Merckle focused more on the $3 billion he lost rather than rejoicing over the $9 billion he still had. Most of us would agree that this man was a “fool” and acted foolishly.
There are a lot of similarities between this man and the story from Luke. Both men die when they had more possessions than most other folks could imagine. But the volume of those possessions meant little or nothing as their stories played out. Both men could be called “fools” as their stories end. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus said that God called him a fool—not a sinner, not a reprobate—but a fool? Then Jesus adds, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
God may have called him a fool because he paid too high a price physically, emotionally, and spiritually for his great wealth. What good is a bank full of money if your health has been ruined amassing it, if the people you love turn their back on you, if you are not right with God? That could certainly be one reason God would call him a fool. People have been known to sacrifice their health, their marriage, their relationships with their children, their respect and reputation in the community—people have been known to create all kinds of havoc in their lives in the race to grab the almighty dollar. This man was, at the least, meeting his maker far sooner than he had expected. It is obvious that he thought he had many years left. Maybe, as we sometimes say, he worked himself to an early grave.
We have all known people who wound up in the grave too early. We have known folks who have amassed wealth and possessions through honest work but there was a toll on their health. In the end their wealth and possessions were of no value as they collapsed from the pressure of over-working to make more. Perhaps they were driven by the notion that there would never be enough.
Maybe the rich man in our parable was so obsessed with making money that he sacrificed his health or something equally as important to obtain it. That would make him foolish, wouldn’t it? That is one possibility. Maybe he paid too high a price physically, emotionally and spiritually for his great wealth.
Now, may be a good time to ponder the Old Testament quote about “Eat, Drink and Be Merry for tomorrow we die.” This line is as “selfish” as the positions of Merckle and the farmer with the bigger barn. Both positions do not make any judgement against being wealthy but they both identify a big void. Neither position acknowledges the role of God in our lives and how we live responsibly with all that we have. And therein is the challenge to spend less on our partying and free up some of our wealth to the good of our neighbors. Over the years of my ministry, I have often been surprised by those who are able to keep party and giving in balance. And some of them are reading this.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 24, 2022
Judgement on the Deceitful
To the leader.
A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him,
‘David has come to the house of Ahimelech.’
Why do you boast, O mighty one,
of mischief done against the godly?
All day long you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor,
you worker of treachery.
You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue.
But God will break you down for ever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living.
The righteous will see, and fear,
and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
‘See the one who would not take refuge in God,
but trusted in abundant riches,
and sought refuge in wealth!’
But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
for ever and ever.
I will thank you for ever,
because of what you have done.
In the presence of the faithful
I will proclaim your name, for it is good.
Centuries ago, the great philosopher, Socrates, asked a question which troubles the sensitive conscience: "How can people know what is good but do what is bad?" The question has been pondered through the ages. The Psalmist makes the accusation that, “You love evil more than good.”
The January 6 House Committee continues to reveal to the nation all that makes up “The Big Lie.” I am in awe at how many people continue to believe the lie. The word “Lie” was used again this week by Ohio Representative Gym Jordan and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost who used it when told that a ten-year-old girl from Ohio was pregnant from a rape and had to go out of the state of Ohio to have an abortion. Yes, they went right to FOX and told the viewers that this was a lie told by liberals. And once the story was sadly confirmed, they still would not admit that what they said was untrue but tried to shift the blame on to the doctor who performed the procedure for not following protocol to report the abortion. This too was a lie.
I have a daughter and six granddaughters. My heart breaks at the thought that they are caught in this whole new view of abortion and the law. And this afternoon the Senate Republicans blocked any assurance of freedom of travel should any woman travel across state lines in order to seek medical care for a troubled pregnancy or an abortion. It angers me how many lies have been told to get us to this point and my sadness is holding hands with anger right now.
On the other hand it does my heart good to know how many conservative leaning Christians are busy today converting the empty rooms of their homes into bedrooms to receive all the children they say people are waiting to adopt. I can just see them painting the walls with bright primary colors, putting up drapes with nursery rhyme characters printed on them and with bed covers to match. Hooray for the highchair, crib and car seat industries who will profit from the sales of limited useful products. Just think of all the new jobs for childcare and hospital staffs. What a great day! But you know as well as I that this is another big lie. In 2021 there were 117,000 children waiting for a permanent home. Additionally, there were 407,000 children in the foster care system. And now we will add thousands to that number each year. Is that not inherently evil? And now we have state school boards reconsidering what should be taught and what books should be used. The notion that the teaching of history should always be a comfortable process does not give students the tools to critically think and realize for themselves what evil has been done in the past, how it was manipu-lated by people with power and how to prevent it from happening again.
Some say that evil is an aberration, an exception to the rule. We know what is right, they say and we choose right most of the time, but sometimes we slip. Most of us are basically good, but we sometimes we fall into evil, so we have to pick ourselves up and try a little harder to be good again.
Again, this is not a satisfactory answer to the question of evil. It's not just a matter of falling off the bandwagon of good once in a while. It's not just a matter of trying harder to resume doing the good we usually do. Our own lives and all of human history prove otherwise announced.! We are fundamentally estranged from God - in our souls and in society - and the misery and sorrow which fill the earth are ample testimony. There is simply too much evil and injustice too deeply embedded in the world to call it an aberration or an exception to the rule.
The Bible strips away all self-serving delusions and wishful thinking and gives a straight answer in very simple terms. People choose evil because they love evil more than good! They love "lying more than speaking the truth.” People like to think that they get what they want with evil. They pursue it and know what they are doing as they do it. It’s enjoyable and it feels good. There is an addictive quality to lying which makes it easier to tell more lies after the first one. That's the way it is with our sin. We hate ourselves and we suffer because of our estrangement from God, but we love what we are doing too much to change. We love our own comfortable patterns and familiar prejudices, our small visions and narrow minds. We love our own ways more than we love the ways of God. In spite of our love of evil, and our attraction to liars, God loves us anyway. God forgives us in spite of ourselves. It's just astounding! But even this bit of “Good News” has been the victim of lies told by charlatans in the pulpit who lead people to believe that there is some procedural process that must be gone through (often the offering plate) to receive God’s love. Throughout the centuries that has been one of the “Big Lies” of the church -- a lie that several over the past fifty years have tried to revive – a lie which we continue to deny in the presence of our loving God. Amen.
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
July 10, 2022
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
When the original settlers arrived on my property in the late 1860’s they chose a fairly isolated area to live. The closest neighbors were up at what is now Copley Circle – 1.8 miles away. They were the first of the four farms which eventually comprised this “neighborhood”. The original house was a log cabin. The original barn was a mere shelter for the livestock. But when the time came in 1881 to build the barn, I imagine that “neighbors” showed up from far and wide to provide the necessary skill and muscle to build the 40’X70’ structure. The barn stone walls in the basement were of a significant weight which had to be cut, shaped, and set. One hundred and forty years later the walls still stand straight. And while admiring the walls if you go to the center of the basement and look up you will see the two eighteen inch on each side of the roughhewn beams that run the full seventy foot length. There is no way that only a couple of men, no matter how fit they were, would be able to lift and manipulate those beams into place. The gathering of neighbors from near and far was the typical method as to how barns got built. And after the “build” was complete and the meal had been served neighbors returned home – some to a distance where it was unlikely they would all see each other again unless there was another build. And I imagine that every time the first owners of this property looked out the kitchen door towards their barn, they had a clear definition of what it meant to be neighbor. Several years later the brother and family arrived from the East, and he too had a barn built probably with some of the same neighbors.
When I worked in urban Cleveland I became acquainted with the existence of several ethnic neighborhoods that divided the city into several smaller communities: Italians, Germans, Chinese, Ukrainians, Orthodox Jews, Irish neighborhoods eventually were squeezed to admit African, Hispanic and Latino elements near the city’s central area. The neighborhoods were marked with churches, cemeteries, ethnic food stores and restaurants. After WW2 centralized cities were eroded with the rise of people of many cultures moving to the suburbs. “Neighbors” became the people just over the fence, those circling station wagons in the same cul-de-sac. Very often these suburban “neighbors” were unknown and unconnected to each other. From neighborhoods where every mom and dad on the street was the parent of every kid on the block this change led to the erection of psychological and emotional barriers, with no front porches to greet passerbys, only back patios, private decks and finished wreck rooms in the basement.
In today’s gospel text Jesus is confronted by a legal expert, sent specifically to “test” him on the orthodoxy of his views. This lawyer begins by asking about what he can “do” to ensure his inheritance of eternal life. When Jesus directs this legal mind to the instructions of the Law, this lawyer can immediately call to mind the correct answers: to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,” and “your neighbor as yourself.” But then this legal beagle said the words out loud that showed his true intent to trip up Jesus. He follows up this “loving” answer with the qualifying question: “Who is my neighbor?” How inclusive must my “circle” be? Who can I legitimately “exclude,” exorcise, eradicate, from “neighbor” status?
Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan’s response to a total stranger. It is hard for us today to imagine how startling this story was to those who first heard it. To say that the parable of the Good Samaritan was shocking would be a gross understatement. Jesus portrayed the Priest and the Levite, those who considered themselves as righteous, as looking incredibly bad, as both completely abandon the horribly wounded victim on the road, crossing to the other side in order to avoid him.
In Jesus’ portrayal of their fixation on their religious duties at the expense of human need, there is an implied critique of the religious establishment of Jesus day (and throughout history including the present).
The “hero” of Jesus’ story is a doubly dubious character. First, he is Samaritan — an individual firmly outside the “neighborhood.” Samaritans rejected the Temple culture and the centrality of Jerusalem. Second, and somewhat more subtly, this Samaritan traveler is obviously well-off, “rich” even. He is traveling with means. Here in the “Good Samaritan” parable the righteous, kingdom-embracing rich individual is not only a Samaritan but is a rich man. He has supplies, a ride, cash-on-hand. He knows where to stay and who to contact. The Samaritan’s monetary abilities make it possible for him to rescue, treat, transport, and provide long term care, for the wounded stranger he rescues from the road. Nothing motivates the Samaritan rescuer but compassion. In short, Jesus’ story includes a positive image of a poor man, and a positive image of a rich man.
Jesus makes the point that the answer to the question of “Who is my neighbor?” is also “Everyone is your neighbor.” Jesus turns over the label-makers’ tables and gives this answer to the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor?” “Your neighbor is Everyman. Your neighbor is Everywoman. Your neighbor is Everyone.” But at the heart of this parable of “The Good Samaritan” is not a lesson about who is my neighbor (the lawyer’s question). It is about how to be a neighbor. Jesus’ answer to his lawyer interrogator is the same both times. Do, act and love are the action words of being neighbor. We are not to spend our lives determining who is our neighbor. We are to spend our lives being the neighbor to all those we encounter.
This past week some Akron neighbors poured out of their homes to demonstrate with neighbors for neighbors and became neighborhood to others. Through all the turmoil, confusion and confrontation we have witnessed the best and the worst of what it means to be “neighbor”. On Friday morning a discussion of reactions of events in Akron this past week invited listeners to message questions for consideration. One person suggested that since High Street was closed why don’t they (I presume city leaders was intended) put up round tables and chairs and provide the opportunity for people to talk things out. What a marvelous idea. What a push for a new definition of neighborliness – a modern day version of barn raising. Amen.
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
July 3, 2022
Bear One Another’s Burdens
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.
Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
Final Admonitions and Benediction
See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
This past week there was a meme the popped up on Facebook with some frequency that said, “Frankly I don’t think America deserves a birthday party this year.” As the week went on the frequency of it being posted increased. Although I understood where the persons who posted this were coming from, it kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Until I was eighteen, I had the option to choose my citizenship. My father was a U.S. citizen and my mother was a Canadian. Even though the Vietnam War was raging at the time I chose to claim U.S. citizenship since most of my life and all of my education had been spent here. Although I had great respect for Canada and Canadians, I felt obligated to make the choice I made. Perhaps my “happy” feelings about the Fourth of July is that it is the eve of my birthday and I always joked about the fireworks being in celebration of my birth. But admittedly, I am not all that excited this year and given the rapid turn that the Supreme Court rulings have made over the past week I fully understand why some folks don’t think there should be a celebration this year.
The truth is that it seems our country has taken a few steps closer to being a theocracy rather than a democracy. As a nation we have always claimed to be a democratic republic but I’m not sure that claim is as valid as it once was. The Supreme Court’s recent rulings have taken away any sense of security we may have had that guns are owned only by persons who have reason to own them, that constitutional interpretations around the sanctity of a woman’s body and health can be turned back to days of chattel and that fetuses’ rights overrule those of women, prayer by an authority figure can be publicly offered and that schools operated by church’s can be reimbursed through the tax system.
Some may argue that my concern about a growing movement towards theocracy is an overreaction. Attempts at theocracy have a history in our past. Authoritarian rule was introduced by the Puritans in 17th century American colonies. Make no mistake, a non-Puritan and someone who didn't agree with Puritan laws would not have been able to live in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Win-throp, a Puritan attorney and its governor, sought to instill a magisterial government that prohibited anyone from voting unless the magistrate approved the specific Christian men who fit its criteria. Winthrop opposed codifying laws, believing that democracy was "the meanest and worst of all forms of government." The "City on a Hill" to which Winthrop referred in an often quoted sermon, ended up being a place that excluded anyone who disagreed with magisterial rule. His colony effectively illustrated the very nonbiblical values that restrain freedom and liberty—and the opposite of meaning of the teaching he referenced. It also instituted the very type of control the Puritans claimed to be escaping from in England and Europe. Upon arrival to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, English clergyman and lawyer Roger Williams opposed Winthrop's form of government. But the Colony's rulers didn't allow for free thought or speech. They rejected his notion of "freedom of conscience." First the magistrates placed Williams under house arrest. He was forbidden from discussing his ideas. But when he continued to speak his mind—in his own home—the magistrates banished him from the colony. Next, they changed their mind and sought to kill him. Where we are heading it seems possible that a story like this could be repeated in the years ahead.
Another attempt at theocracy involved the Mormons. They were chased from states like Ohio and settled in Utah where they tried to have their religious movement control the governing of the state. Forty years ago, the Mormon Church was identified among most of Christianity as a cult. Today, that title has been removed but there remain some elements of their church doctrine which most Christians would dispute.
Can we not forget the furor that erupted when John Kennedy ran for the presidency? There had always been a sense in the nation that a Catholic would be run by the Pope thereby bringing Catholic and foreign interference into the rule of government. Kennedy won the election and although he did not seem to allow his faith to dictate his governance, I think there has been a turn in that direction.
Six of the nine members of the Supreme Court are Roman Catholics and one who is a practicing Episcopalian was raised Catholic. This court does not reflect the claimed faiths of the United States since only twenty-two percent claim to be Catholics. Was their vote on the Mississippi abortion case and the overturning of Roe simply a coincidence or something else? The President and Speaker of the House are born and raised Roman Catholics but recently Catholic Bishops and Cardinals have tried to restrict their ability to receive communion. I’m not convinced that it could be argued that this is not an attempt to control them and their positions. And in locations where the Catholic church is not dominant there are plenty of conservative, evangelical churches working the same messages. I recently heard a reporter who has done extensive research into those churches who says that some of them do not even have crosses, but symbols made from swords (Game of Thrones style?) and linkages to The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Every once in a while, I see a flag imprinted with “Jesus Is My Savior But Donald Trump Is My President.” Any blended confusion here? Lauren Boebert identifies herself as a chief spokesperson for this movement and says, “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church.” I find such a position frightening because the “church” is so divided that there is no possible way for a consensus on how the government should be run by the church.
I’m not suggesting that we should engage in a “Holy War” here. However, I think that we should be aware that one religious group has pretty well taken control of the Supreme Court and that people who claim to be “Evangelical Christians” are taking control of the Congress thanks, in part, to the gerrymandered districts set by state Republicans who are an active part of this “MAGA” movement. And there were reports that there were jubilant celebrations in some of those settings over the past ten days. Now, before we start pointing our finger at those who have been celebrating the Supreme Court’s recent decisions let us take a few deep breaths and remember back over the past fifty years. Were there celebrations for the Roe decision? Yes. Were there celebrations with the Marriage Equality ruling? Yes. It would be wrong of us to condemn those who are celebrating today even though they rub it in by claiming that God is exclusively on their side. But there is a distinct difference between then and now: Roe and Marriage Equality were gifts to individuals to make their own decisions, chart their lives, and decide what is in the scope of their relationship with God. When Roe was affirmed it allowed for a woman to choose, within certain parameters, what she believed was best for her life. With the overturning of Roe it is no longer a matter of choice but of dictate being made by persons who are strangers to the woman. It is now a matter of being controlled by others rather than controlling their own body. The threat that there are those who with this “win” will turn their sites on Same Sex Marriage and birth control next is very real. Again, there is a group who have wedeled their way into positions of power and decision making who want to dictate to others. If they want to pull this off they probably will be able to. But “Freedom” is not just an “American” concept. Freedom comes right from the Bible. And it stands against those who want to punish those who do not behave the way they the authorities do. God gives us all freedom to make our own choices even if those choices may be wrong. If there are consequences, they are of our own making but do not have to come at us through the Penal Code. As far as God is concerned, we are forgiven and that seems to be something the Legislatures, the Congress and the Supreme Court find hard to understand.
I have accepted that I may not live to see the day when individuals are once again given the freedom to make decisions on these matters for themselves, but I am not willing to surrender and let people be trampled on without a fight. As long as these new rules are in place the term “Freedom” is less than it was and can be. For me, the nation’s birthday will not have all the excitement it once had. With that said I wish that I had another fifty years to tell the Good News of Christ which does not bring judgement but wraps the world with love. And maybe America will come to the realization that God’s love is for everyone as a free gift and a gift of freedom. God help us. Amen.
Second Sunday After Pentecost
June 19, 2022
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Do you know who you are? Before you start rehearsing all the ways you have identified yourself over the years allow me to point you in the direction I want you to go for the purposes of this sermon: You are a child of God. But that is only a part of the purpose of this sermon. The broader conclusion for this sermon will be that everyone is a child of God.
Really, nothing else in this world matters. Are you male? Irrelevant. Female? It doesn’t matter. Are you from a family of wealth? Good for you. That gives you many advantages in our society. But it means nothing when you stand before God. Is your skin color white? That also comes with certain advantages. It eliminates most excuses for not doing well. Will it get you inside the gates of the kingdom, though? Not at all. Jesus Christ died for our sins. He has accepted you as part of his family. That is all that matters. Because of his amazing grace, you and I are siblings of Jesus and children of God.
Howard Thurman was dean of the chapel and the first African American professor at Boston University. He inspired many of the leaders of the civil rights movement. Thurman attributed much of his own sense of dignity and vocation to his grandmother, a former slave. His grandmother repeated to Howard a message she had heard in worship. Over and over she told him, “You are somebody!”
Professor Tom Long tells about an occasion in the 1950s when Thurman and his family were traveling through the South. They stopped to rest a few moments at a park along the highway. His daughters spotted a swing set on a playground in the park and pulled their father toward it to swing. They were too young to read the sign which warned that this playground was for “whites only.” Sadly but patiently, Thurman told his little girls that they could not play there and explained why. This was their first encounter with racism, and they burst into tears. So, much as his grandmother had done when he was a child, Thurman gathered his children into a warm embrace and said to them, “Listen, you little girls are somebody. In fact, you are so important and so valuable to God and so powerful that it takes the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the whole state police force to keep you little girls off those swings!”
You are somebody! It’s terrible when a person believes that his or her life doesn’t count. We see it all the time. The teenager who feels he or she doesn’t fit in. The adult loner who keeps sabotaging his or her relationships. The older person who wonders if it wouldn’t be better for everyone if he or she went ahead and died. The LGBTQ person who still must hide in the closet because family, friends and church claim that there is only one (or is it two) acceptable form(s) of sexuality. There are many, many people in this world who don’t think their lives matter in the great order of things and they are always on the verge of giving up trying to be somebody.
ABC News’ science editor Michael Guillen tells about being part of a famous experiment in cooperation with the former anchor of ABC news, the late Peter Jennings. The subject of the study was racial prejudice. In one of the segments, they did an experiment featuring a schoolteacher and a large group of students. The teacher began by dividing the kids into two camps: Blue Eyes, or “Bluies,” and Brown Eyes. Then she proceeded to explain that Bluies tend to be slower, clumsier, and dumber than other kids. To reinforce the lesson, every time a blue‑eyed kid made the slightest mistake-‑much to the delight of all the Brown Eyes‑-the teacher said something disparaging like, “What else would you expect from a Bluie?” Amazingly, after just a few minutes of this, most of the blue‑eyed kids were thoroughly cowed, and some were even in tears.
None of us are looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Not only do we know that Bluies of the world are the victims of discrimination, but we have actually put ourselves in settings where we personally know the Bluies who are being beaten down. For them we may be the only conduit they have left to the promise of their importance to themselves and to us. And more importantly, for those who have been rejected by so many “God fearing people” we may be the only remaining available conduit of faith, hope and love. Because there are those who claim to be our brothers and sisters in Christ who have proclaimed distorted views of God and God’s purposes which have caused harm to so many Bluies, we have a heavy lift to do.
Through the joint mission of First Grace and Akron AIDS Collaborative the Bayard Rustin House has become a place where so many stories of rejection appear in living flesh. And let no one be confused – the numbers are overwhelming. What the Rustin House is revealing is what had been kept secret for so many years is now coming to light – there is a huge number of homeless and nearly broken people in Akron, Ohio. And many of them are sadly too young to have fallen this far. Make no mistake – they were pushed down. And how can such behavior be justified if we take to heart that there is ‘neither male nor female, Greek or Jew, slave or free’?
Here is what the much-respected writer Henri Nouwen says about this: "The world tells you many lies about who you are and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended or rejected you have to dare to say to yourself, these feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I can't feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace." It is this “hug” that we are called, by God, to give to all around us.
I saw a picture this week of a banner that hangs outside a church that reads: “We Share God’s Love through People not a Steeple.” It caught my attention but I got to think how we may be able to modify that message to something like: “We Share God’s Love With People Without a Steeple.” Think about it and let me know what you think. Amen
June 12, 2022
‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
On January 31, 1829, Governor Martin Van Buren of New York wrote this letter to President Andrew Jackson. “As you know, Mr. President, railroad carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 mph by engines which roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.” Do you remember when a mouse was a rodent that liked cheese and a chip was a piece of wood? Remember when grass was what you mowed, coke was a cold drink, and pot was a container in which you boiled spaghetti?
As much as we may not like it and as much as change may frighten us change happens with each passing day. And there are those who take advantage of that fear and take the public stage to cheer lead against change. Trump claimed he would make America Great Again while Putin is now claiming that it is his destiny to return all historic lands to Mother Russia gathered under Peter the Great. Instead of death by stoning a preacher in Texas has proclaimed that gay people should be shot in the back of the head. The United Methodist Church is splitting over the “gay issue” while several churches refuse to ordain women. In each of these situations leaders are manipulating the emotions of fear that people have against change to stoke their power. But things do change with the intention that change is good for people. Because change is often difficult, Jesus promised that God would give us a PCA - a personal change agent - to help us navigate our way through life. Jesus did not promise the gifting of the Holy Spirit to serve as an anchor to the past but as a guide to the future. A guide whose purpose is to walk along side us and give us comfort through the changes that we are experiencing.
We, as a people of faith, are challenged to accept that change is certain and necessary and natural. As I have said before, change can also be frightening. But frightening or not change is inevitable.
This is the season of graduations. Students are walking across stages to receive their diplomas and to turn the tassel on their mortar boards representing the change that is going on in their lives. And the featured speaker will repeat the same words heard by generations about the fears and joys life from this point on. Some will graduate on to a next level of education. Others will be seeking employment in that scary world of earning a living for the next forty years. But with whatever amount of knowledge they have attained they may still not be able to deal with change.
Change can be sudden. I will never forget the Midpark High School graduation weekend that was devastated by the deaths of two graduates who were killed in a car accident on their way home from after prom activities at Cedar Point. A truck had careened across the divide and hit them head on. What had been a time of graduation fun was turned to sadness and mourning.
There might have been time when job security was a reasonable thing to expect from a company in exchange for loyalty but does anyone get a gold watch anymore? And then there is that thing they call down-sizing. It does not feel any different than being fired.
Bad news from scans, troubling news from tests, the gnawing dis-ease that comes from disease is no respecter of persons. It has no regard for our personal plans.
We need the counsel of the Holy Spirit to face the changes of life. Only the Holy Spirit can comfort us, help us, and heal us. As the old hymn proclaims, “When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.” Despite what others may try to tell us the Holy Spirit helps us see the need for change. Vision is the God-given ability to see the better road. It is the task of every visionary to articulate the vision in such a way that other people can understand and follow. With the help of the Holy Spirit, first century Christians convinced entire countries that a Roman criminal was the Savior of humankind. Is that visionary or not? The Holy Spirit empowers us to take the plunge. We can hesitate to make up our minds, but it is the encouragement of the Holy Spirit that gentles us to envision and accept the changes that work for God’s purposes. Jesus assures us that he and God the father and the Holy Spirit are one – all working for the same good – all instrumental in the changes that are necessary for the betterment of the creation. The Holy Spirit reveals the future. “He will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).
There are many things about tomorrow I do not pretend to understand. Nobody knows the price of gas tomorrow. Nobody has the promise of health beyond today or when a new pandemic will come our way. Nobody knows how many children will be killed in a hail of bullets as they huddle under their school desks or when soldiers invade their town and shoot, blow up or starve them and their families.
Likewise, nobody knows if the flowers we plant will bloom or the meal we give to a hungry person will sustain them for more than one day. Nobody knows if the story of Fair Trade will affect how a person looks at the world. Nobody knows if a young person who has been shoved out of their home because their “family” cannot accept what the young person knows about their life will be able to find the support that will ultimately save their life.Yes, we don’t know with specificity what the future will be but we can know the One who holds tomorrow and we can trust the Holy Spirit to guide us day by day. Amen.
June 5, 2022
Life in the Spirit
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Spring is the season of new lives. Living in the country I have all sorts of opportunities to witness new life coming into being. The first night we hear the “peepers” is always one of the early signals. Whoever has been outside announces it to others when they come in. Birds in nesting boxes, turtles crossing the road to lay their eggs, baby bunnies “nested” in the high grass, tree toads singing back and forth to each other and new lambs in the field at Jacob’s Farm as we drive past are all confirma- tions that Spring has come. Anywhere that there are small bodies of water provides an opportunity to see the young in their familiar habitat. Most folks I know slow down when they come upon a clutch of small ducklings following in lockstep with their parent bird. It isn’t love that keeps those baby ducks so obediently bounded behind their mother. Flocking birds like ducks and geese are genetically programmed to “imprint” on the first creature they see after cracking out of their eggshell. Of course, that first creature would normally always be the baby duck’s mom or dad. Imprinting on their parents keeps the hatchlings from wandering off on their own or trying to make up-close and personal friends with a cat or a KIA.
Many of our fellow Americans live with the confusion thinking that being American also makes them Christian. It’s as if they have been imprinted by a culture that calls itself “Christian,” and they simply follow in lockstep down a path of culture and not faith. Such a claim is falsely made because following some accepted line of “Christian” behavior is not the same as following Christ. For centuries the church carried out bloody Crusades and Inquisitions, all in the name of Christ. The violence was part of a terrible, twisted imprinting that confused Christ with culture. Racial prejudice imprinted on the soul of the church kept Christians embracing Jim Crow laws and apartheid through the twentieth century and today we hear this same confusion around the “right to bear arms”. This kind of “imprinted” behavior develops its own “quack” theology. “Quack” theology is what allowed the Nazis to enjoy church on Sunday after a long week manning the crematorium at their concentration camps. “Quack” theology found it reasonable to burn heretics, drown witches, and slaughter saints. “Quack” theology blindly supports the Second Amendment while denying that Jesus would have us do unto others as we would have them do to us. “Quack” theology would deny women their role in society, the church, and their own bedroom.
In today’s epistle text Paul gives us a way to avoid being imprinted by the world and senselessly following in its shellfish and sinful ways. Those who have come to faith in the resurrected Christ are not just “imprinted” with an idea, they are “implanted” with Christ himself. “Christ is in you,” Paul insists. The living presence of the living Spirit resides within each and every disciple. That presence is what sets the faithful free from following in the lock-step wickedness of the world — that forced march towards death — and instead implants a new way of living, the way of “life and peace.”
Christianity allows us to each be different from the other all while being one in Christ. We are called to be a living presence of Christ in this world. If the indwelling of “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” is real in us, then it is no less than the presence of the resurrected Christ that we are to bring to life. Paul didn’t see Christians as some pale “imitations of Christ.” He saw the genuine incarnation of a “little Christ” (C.S. Lewis’ phrase) in every Spirit-filled believer.
When Jesus preached about the “reign of God” he spoke of a reign that was both “now” and “not yet.” As the ruler of that reign, Jesus himself is both present “now” but is also “not yet.” The glorified, ascended Christ who reigns in heaven is Jesus with a “big J.” The Christ who lives in us, whose Spirit we are encouraged to birth into this world, is Jesus with a “little j.”
The “big J” and “little j” letters have the same sound. But they have different forms and functions. That’s how it is with the glorified Jesus with a “Big J,” and our incarnated presence of Jesus’ Spirit, our “little j.” We are NOT the “Big J” Jesus. But the world will only get to know the Jesus who is “not yet” by first being introduced to the “now” presence, the “little j” presence, that lives within us. Because we are implanted with a person, not imprinted with a principle, our “little j” Spirit can grow throughout our lives. Imprinted behavior never grows, never adapts, never learns. Implanted faithfulness is an organic, living thing. It must grow, it must adapt, it must learn. The purpose of our discipleship is always to be increasing the size, expanding the reach, of our “little j” until we come into the fullness of God’s kingdom and the glorified presence of the “Big J.” But it is really just the making of our “little j” bigger, bit by bit, throughout our lives.
William J. Locke has a novel about a woman who has every amount of money imaginable. She has spent half a lifetime on touring the sights and galleries of the world’s greatest art. And she has now become bored and weary. Then she meets a Frenchman who has no money but a love for beauty and a self-acquired knowledge of art. And in his company, with the two of them traveling together, suddenly things became different. In her words, “I never knew what things were like until you taught me how to look at them.” It is the indwelling Jesus who helps us to open our eyes to the world and see it differently than those who are simply imprinted with the life of Christ. They have a tendency to see the world through lenses of creeds and rules and fear whereas we who sense the indwelling Jesus within us see the world through Christ’s own eyes.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 28, 2022
Paul and Silas in Prison
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
Centuries ago, when the earth was still considered “flat”, Portugal adopted a national motto. The motto read: “No More Beyond.” It was an appropriate statement since Portugal, at the time, was the end of the world. But later some adventurous persons sailed beyond Portugal and discovered a whole new world. Since the national motto had been proven no longer true it seemed that there needed to be some correction or change. After much debate, one person simply scratched out a word, and the new motto became: “More Beyond.”
Whenever life tumbles in upon us, it is easy to have a “No more beyond” attitude. While facing what appear to be insurmountable challenges, we may say to ourselves or begin to think that there is no way out. Without a lot of faith and prayer and activity we may begin to feel that we are being sucked under. Coming out of two years of Pandemic with great uncertainty where we are standing now and where we are headed it should come as no surprise that incidence of diagnosed depression among us has increased significantly.
I am sure Paul and Silas were tempted to wallow in their own pity when they were locked up in a dark, dingy prison cell, facing the grim reality that they might not see another tomorrow. But Paul and Silas reflected a spirit far beyond their circumstance. The hymns they sang while shackled in chains testified to their inner assurance that God was bigger than the challenge they faced. At this moment that may have seemed like “No More Beyond” God shook the foundations of the prison, tore apart their shackles, and flung wide the prison doors. They were free! Use your spiritual imagination and see Paul and Silas running from their destroyed prison into our twenty-first-century. They appear lifting high torches of light and shouting, “Whatever challenge you face, it is not the end! There is something more beyond it! We have experienced it. For we know a God who is greater than pain, greater than tragedy, and greater than death. We know a God who frees those who are beaten down, shut up in physical or mental prisons or feeling abandoned in the pit of despair.
Who would have thought that we would give up two years (or more) of our lives because of a virus which thirty percent of our neighbors do not take seriously? Who would have thought that a young man (always a man) can get his hands on an AR-15 rifle and indiscriminately pulverize the bodies of worshippers, grocery shoppers or elementary children? Guess what, every one of us has the right to feel depressed by such circumstances. And what compounds this is that all of us know that something needs to be done to change these circumstances, but we are held hostage to an empire of “Rights” that ultimately violate our ability to live in true freedom.
Scripture does not teach that Christians will escape the tragedies and turmoil of life. In fact, scripture teaches that hardship is inevitable. Paul gives a litany of trials and tribulations that he and others, like you and me, have to endure. Take a look at the list: “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). The one in that list that stands out for me is the “sleepless nights”. Who among us does not experience our fears and worries as the clock ticks through the night? Paul knew that he would face oppression. However, what is important to remember is that he did not cower from this fact. His resolve remained strong. In fact, later in the same letter Paul’s rhetoric is on the offensive:“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as un- known, and yet are well known; as dying, and see — we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”— 2 Corinthians 6:8-10
Paul knew that Christians would be treated badly but he believed they were empowered by a towering faith that enabled them to endure and rise victoriously above any opposition.
As he sat in that dark prison cell with Silas, I am confident he was comforted by the promise which he wrote about in his letter to his friends in Rome: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38- 39). This is the promise which gave Paul the capability to survive and overcome opposition. He knew that he had a source of strength that could sustain and empower him. As he faced the dark hours of persecution, he was certain that God was with him, giving him the courage to face the ugliest of terrors. He had the confidence that the same power which was with him in darkness would lead him into the light. Paul was absolutely persuaded that with God there was nothing strong enough, evil enough, or powerful enough that could defeat him, not even death. And so it is with us. When the storms of life rage and roar, God is near, caring and encouraging, making sure we do not face the darkness alone. But most importantly, God gives us the gift of light which pierces our darkness and liberates us to bloom again.
The biblical scholar William Barclay wrote, “Endurance is not just bearing rough times, but turning rough times into glory!” I believe this was what Paul was declaring when he wrote, “We are more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37). Not only can we overcome the tragedies of life, but with the help of God, we can turn trouble into triumph! In Romans 8, Paul declared it another way: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
The Chinese language affirms a similar principle. The word “crisis” in Chinese has two characters: one represents “danger” and the other “opportunity.” When we are faced with opposition, the same truth applies. God can take the worst evil and transform it into an opportunity for victorious change and we have the capacity to go along with this transformation. Jesus’ work on the cross is the ultimate example of opposition being transformed into opportunity. Before Jesus, the cross represented suffering, shame, punishment, and death. But he came and transformed it into the symbol of forgiveness, victory, love, and life! So whenever we gaze upon the cross, we are reinforced by the reality that God in Christ takes what is ugly and makes it beautiful. Paul and Silas were faced with opposition and, yet, with God’s help were able to seize an opportunity. They transformed their cell into a sanctuary, and their jailer came to the altar. They did not fight evil with evil but overcame evil with good.
Paul and Silas had a choice, and now we have a choice. We can stay locked up in the prisons of our own making, or we can seize the opportunity that God has created out of opposition. Let us pray that God will help each of us to look opposition in the face with the courage God gives.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 21, 2022
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.
There's a story of the man who was lost on a desert island for a decade. When he was finally rescued people were astounded to discover he had built an entire town out of palm branches. There was a movie theater — with no movies, of course — a grocery story with empty shelves, an apartment building, a department store, several houses, and at each end of the little town he had built a church.
Why had he done it, he was asked. "To keep sane," he replied. Why two churches?
"Well," the man said, "this church over here is the place where I worshiped my Creator.
Though I was cast adrift, cut off from all human contact, I never felt alone because God is with me, and even though the pews were empty I felt that the communion of saints, believers both past and present, were never more than a breath away. I needed this church more than I needed life itself."
"So what about the other church?" he was asked. "Oh, that," he replied curtly. "That's the church I wouldn't be caught dead in."
We can all name places we wouldn’t want to be caught dead in and on that list we probably have a few churches. The only times I was in Rex Humbard’s “Cathedral” was when I was in elementary school and we were bused there from school to hear a concert performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. I enjoy classical music and those field trips were probably a part of my music education, but not once did I ever think it would be nice to go on a Sunday morning. I have toured the St. John the Divine and St. Patrick’s Cathedrals in New York City and I have worshipped at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C, but never have I thought that they would be the type of church I would want to be a member of.
My seminary training focused on what was defined as the “family church.” Mostly small congregations whose stability was found in generations being always present. They were not a laboratory for change and were great defenders of the “we never did it that way before.” During my forty-five years of ministry the “family church” essentially fell apart and the churches that were growing were quite different. In a world where people were more mobile, strangers found each other growing in their faith among persons who had like interests rather than being among relatives.
What was popular for about thirty years was the freedom to shop around for a church. People felt free to check out churches even on Saturday afternoons and evenings. They experimented with megachurches, seeker churches, urban/suburban, “big production” churches and small gatherings in people’s homes. And then came Covid and we have had two years of all sorts of experimentation except for those churches that refused to take any Covid precautions. One thing for sure, churches have had to learn how to be adaptable or die and among those that are still around there is an offering of something for everyone.
The first-century church was not only composed mostly of house churches, but it was also a city church. Throughout the Old and New Testaments are stories of suspicion of the cities which are often viewed as a place of sin and separation from God, yet pretty much all the letters of Paul are written to city churches. Christianity was a city religion for most of the first three centuries of its existence. Indeed the term "pagan" is taken from the Latin term for country folk. Pagans came from the country. Christians came from the city.
Paul's pattern when arriving at city was to go first to its synagogue to meet with those whose faith he shared. In Philippi there was no synagogue, perhaps because there weren't the ten men required as a minimum for worship. In this text Paul goes to the river to find believers because there is no synagogue in this town, and he finds believers who cannot form a church because they do not conform to the standards of that time. They are Gentiles, they are single women, they are believers whose belief is not accepted by others. In this instance, the prayer group consisted entirely of women, (can you imagine?), and their worship leader was also a woman. Lydia, perhaps named after the region from which she came, was a wealthy individual with a business in purple cloth, a highly prized commodity in the ancient world. The purple dye might have been part of an imperial monopoly granted to Lydia's family because of service to Rome in times past. She would have had a great deal of social importance, for normally in that time women were not named in public, but what she seems to have craved more than anything else was acceptance into the family of God. There was nothing to stop them from becoming Christians. They did not need to be attached to a male to join. Lydia and her household, including servants, were baptized, and as the head of a house, she probably became the worship leader for the house church. This was evidently not unusual in early Christianity. Frescos illustrating the ancient practice of the love feast show women, presumably the homeowners, administering the rite.
Lydia's home becomes Paul's home. She wants to give back, and Paul has the good grace to receive. Her response to her baptism is to open her home as a church. Make no mistake. This is not a case of a lonely single woman who wants to have a couple of men share the house with her. On the contrary, as a head of household there would have been layers of relatives and servants who lived in her large-scale villa. Paul and Silas would have had quarters of their own, which would become the base of operations for Paul and his company as they began the evangelization of Macedonia.
Luke is a participant in Paul’s mission of bringing the gospel to foreign territories. However, he does not proclaim his own role but instead gives testimony to what God is doing, and that is why he wants to tell us about Lydia, and the river, and the good things that come when we push ourselves beyond the comfort zone and reach out to those who others aren't interested in. Because when we act as God's ambassadors among the lost, there is no telling what will happen next and what church looks like.And when we're finally in a place where there's no telling what will happen next -- That's when we're really in a church. May God continue to challenge us and bless us as we pursue new meanings for church. Amen.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2022
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,
saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"
Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"
When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
There are many ways to categorize people. We, in our infinite wisdom, may say there are those who ______ and those who ________. Those blanks could be filled in with words like “count” and “don’t count,” “fight” and “surrender,” “work” and “play,” etc. One way to name this division is between those who are rule keepers and those who are rule breakers. Some people’s destiny is to follow the rules, even if those rules are questionable. There are others who seem only to enjoy life when they are breaking the rules.
There’s an old joke about a little boy named Johnny whose mother had just returned from the grocery story. Johnny pulled a box of animal crackers out of her grocery bag and spread those animal crackers all over the table. “What are you doing?” the mother asked. “I’m looking for the seal,” Johnny explained. “It says not to eat them if the seal is broken.”
Little Johnny is definitely a rule-keeper. I can respect that. People like him keep society from descending into chaos. But sometimes we keep rules that no longer serve any purpose. Sometimes our rules only serve to put up walls between ourselves and others. For instance, how many Christians—consciously or unconsciously—make up rules to decide who is or is not acceptable to God?
Pastor Joe McKeever shares an experience from his early days in the ministry, sometime in the late 1970s. (This story could have happened to me.) A visitor to one of his church services had said to one of the deacons, “Your pastor is going to hell.” The deacon replied, “My pastor is going to hell? May I ask why?” The man said, “His hair is too long.” The deacon thought he’d have a little fun with this guy, so he asked, “And how long should his hair be?” The man said, “About like mine.”
For this fellow the only acceptable standard for hair length is that it be like his own. A hair longer, no pun intended, and he was headed toward hell. Since the pastor’s hair was longer than his, the man decided that he would be going to hell. Some of you remember those absurd days just a few years ago when people would fight over the length of a man’s hair. This man obviously felt he had the perfect length of hair ordained by God. Holy hair. And any man who dared to let his hair grow longer was destined for Satan’s domain as determined by his peers. (I guess I know where I’m headed.)
Can anyone read the teachings of Jesus Christ and really believe such nonsense? Sometimes rules keep us from descending into chaos, but sometimes rules keep us from understanding the awesomeness of God. Actually, that’s not a new problem. Our scripture lesson today is about the new and growing community of Jesus-followers that sprang up after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ apostles were leaders in this young community of faith. They were doing exactly what they thought Jesus called them to do: spread the good news of Jesus the Savior beginning with the nation of Israel first. But then somebody broke the rules. It was Simon Peter—the leader of the apostles who broke the rules. He actually went into a non-Jewish home, ate a meal with those uncircumcised heathen and shared with them the message of Jesus! What was he thinking? And when Peter got back to Jerusalem, he was in for a heap of criticism from the Jewish believers. He only needed to tell them what God had done for him. While praying, Peter had a vision of a large sheet that came down from heaven. In that sheet were all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds, both clean and unclean. In Leviticus 11, we read that God commanded the Hebrew people not to eat certain animals, birds and reptiles as a sign of their holy relationship with God. Peter and the other circumcised believers would never consider breaking this rule. But in Peter’s vision, a voice from heaven commanded him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat.” Peter protested. “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth. The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.” Then, as soon as Peter saw this vision, he was approached by men from Caesarea and asked to come share the message of Jesus with a Gentile family. What was he to do? When Peter began preaching to the Gentile family, they received the Holy Spirit. Gentiles! Received the Holy Spirit! What will God think of next?!? And suddenly the walls that kept Gentiles out of the early church started tumbling down.
I want us to focus today on Peter’s response because it’s a powerful example of how to pivot our mindset from being God’s bouncer to being God’s ambassador. Peter ends his story by saying, “So if God gave them the same gift He gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” He was referring, of course to the gift of the Holy Spirit. If God gave Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter is saying, how could they be excluded from the church? In the Acts story Peter argued for their inclusion in the church because God had spoken to him in ways that made it clear that God’s gift of grace was for everyone and could not be held exclusively for a single group. The “home church” in Jerusalem was shocked by his actions and completely opposed any notion of Gentiles being their equals in God’s eyes. The “home church” was made up of Jesus followers who had all come from Judaic backgrounds. As first century “Christians” they also claimed their Jewish heritage and that heritage was always based on exclusivity. They believed themselves to be God’s chosen among all others.
Now, let’s take this down another road: This past week the nation became aware that there was a critical shortage of infant formula and that parents were beginning to panic because they could not find formula for their children. The normal reaction of raiding store shelves and hoarding the product ensued. A press report from Florida said that there were supplies of formula at the immigrant shelters along the Texas border and that the Federal government was favoring distribution to immigrants rather than citizens. It later turned out that the containers that the report said were infant formula turned out to be apple sauce – food but not formula. Texas governor Greg Abbot took advantage of this crisis and stated that he thought immigrant family infants should not be given the formula, and it should only be available to citizen children. Instead of pushing for greater production yields and better shipping methods he suggested that one group be starved for the preservation of others.
Of course, we know that this is not a Christian value. And yet, some politicians generate these kinds of “solutions” all the time not once promoting a faith based resolution to such a problem.
And unlike the Gentiles in the Acts story where outsiders were challenged about being a part of the church – many of the immigrant infants are already baptized and members of the church and as such are our sisters and brothers in the faith. But it would seem that Abbot and many like him are eager to ignore our commonality in faith with the masses of people at our Southern Border and are all united in the “repentance that leads to life.” Amen
Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 8, 2022
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’
In today’s scripture John says that Jesus was walking in the temple and that it was winter which suggests that it was around the time of Hanukkah. Jesus is approached by the Pharisees…the first-century religion police and keepers of tradition. They always had an agenda. One leaned in close enough to Jesus and rudely asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus gave a four part answer: 1. “I have told you, and you do not believe. 2.The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me”… 3. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me”… “No one will snatch them out of my hand”… 4. “The Father and I are one” (vv. 24b-25, 27-28, 30).
I don’t think the Pharisees really wanted to know “if” Jesus was the messiah. Jesus had already answered that question. The question on the whole group’s mind was what type of messiah he planned to be. Was Jesus going to be in the mold of Judah Maccabee a fierce soldier, leader, defender of the faith? Did Jesus plan to drive out the Romans the way Judah Maccabee drove out the Greeks? Did he support the Pharisees and the religion police in their efforts to purge society of every religiously impure person and negative influence? If that was Jesus’ objective, the Pharisees just might support him. Their concern was that Jesus had not shown much interest in purging the ones who were impure by their definition. He had drawn his closest followers from the lowest ranks of ordinary people. He associated with tax collectors and Gentiles. He treated women as valued children of God. He failed to condemn the Romans with sufficient enthusiasm. He seemed not concerned about keeping sabbath rules.
To paraphrase Jesus’ response: “Hey fellows, I just preach and people respond. Like sheep respond to the voice of the shepherd, they hear my voice and come. Rather than judging, I welcome people as children of a loving God and I base that welcome simply on the fact they come.” Jesus did not exclude those the Pharisees judged as impure but welcomed anyone who wanted to join in.
Jesus continued by saying, “The Father and I are one.” In this context, I take that to mean, “God and I are on the same page on this matter.” Notice the critical difference between the approach of the Pharisees and the approach of Jesus. The Pharisees wanted to emphasize purging the impure…building a wall based on religiosity to keep some people out. Jesus wanted to emphasize reaching out and even welcoming the imperfect. As the American poet, Edwin Markham put it in his little verse, “Outwitted.”
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!
The Pharisees wanted to draw the circle to shut some out. They wanted to say, “You and you and you are all right — but you can’t come in.” Jesus, on the other hand, wanted to draw the circle to include all people. Jesus was a “y’all come” sort of fellow. His circle, like the universe, was always increasing in size.
He wasn’t very popular in his day and age. He would not (really) be very popular today as well. Even though Christian churches claim his name they would not welcome him to their pulpits. Exclusion has always had roots in the American Christian church. LGBTQ folk are excluded from some churches the same way slaves and former slaves were prohibited from church membership. Dog whistles, memes and slogans from the white wealthy class are all providing a message of division and blockage. This week a leaked document from the keyboard of Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito gave us better insight into this agenda. Through President Trump’s nominations of underqualified people, Mitch McConnel’s manipulation of the hearing and voting process and the outright and cleverly crafted lies of Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Comey-Barret in their confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court was packed with judges with intent to fulfill the wishes of the white, wealthy, religiously flawed class. And with a packed court it appears that the plans of the “Dividerers” is in motion and stamped with a seal of approval by the highest court in the land.
I have great sadness with the possible overturning of Roe and I will participate in efforts to leave women’s bodies to their personal care with the advice of their own conscience, physicians, faith leaders and families I am also concerned for the potential of other rights using the same legal construct that is being built around this ruling.
"Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion," Alito wrote. I wish I could believe him but because he lied at his Senate confirmation hearing saying ‘Roe was settled law,” I have no reason to believe him now. Furthermore, the only case before the court was this one on abortion but that does not mean that cases may come, sooner than later, regarding healthcare (affordable), LGBTQ marriage rights, public education, etc. [By the way, even though there were three Supreme Court challenges to Social Security there is no reason to believe that it is exempt from any new suit brought against it and a ruling that ‘it was not specifically mentioned in the Constitution.’]
In “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham seems pretty smug in responding to those who draw a circle to keep some people out. Those who exclude others behave like first-century Pharisees that are not all that certain they even want to include Jesus in their group And yet, the scripture teaches us that we are all children of the same parent God and we are called to love one another. By faith we are called to be on the side of drawing ever wider circles to include rather than to exclude. But it seems certain that, in the near future, there will be a great deal of energy breathing life into evils of exclusion and we, a church that clearly welcomes all, will be challenged to not just advocate but actively welcome all of the sheep of Jesus’ flock. Amen.
April 17, 2022
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
On June 18, 1815, the combined forces of Austria, Russia, Great Britain, and Prussia under the leadership of the British General Arthur Wellesly Wellington, engaged the army of the French Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte in a climactic battle to decide the outcome of the war for the European continent. There, near the Belgium town of Waterloo, those two armies collided in fierce combat. By prearranged agreement, the British army at the end of the day was to signal back to the coast the outcome of that battle through a series of smoke signals. The message would then be communicated across the English Channel and hand delivered to the King of England in the city of London. As evening approached at the end of that day's fierce fighting, in which more than 25,000 men lost their lives, English communication experts on the coast awaited the smoke signals declaring either victory over that dreaded foe or defeat of their army — either hope for the future or despair in their battle for freedom for the entire European continent.
Soon their wait came to an end. Over the top of a distant hillside, they were able to make out the distinctive smoke signal message from Waterloo, and they began to translate it. The first word was unmistakable: "Wellington." The second word also soon followed, and it said, "defeated." However, as soon as those two words were received, the wind suddenly shifted, and the sky was filled with dark, low clouds. It was impossible to determine if there was any more to the message or not. They were left with the message, "Wellington defeated." In great sorrow, they turned and communicated that fact across the English Channel and on to King George and the people of England. That night, all of England lay in deep sorrow, heartbroken to receive the news that their general, Arthur Wellington, had been defeated by the French emperor, Napoleon — for now it seemed that there was no hope of stopping the expansion of Napoleon's power and no hope for them for the future. They had only but to wait until Napoleon's forces crossed the channel, invaded their homeland and placed them as well under the cruel slavery of his rule.
After a dark night of despair, the following morning British soldiers once again searched the skies for messages. And once again they saw the word, "Wellington," signaled to them. The next word was also the same, "defeated." But this time, in the bright blue skies of a morning sun, a third word appeared, a word that made all the difference in the world, a word that changed their sadness into joy, their grief into rejoicing. For the third word read, "Napoleon." You see, the correct message, the complete message that they were unable to receive the night before read "Wellington defeated Napoleon." And the rest is history. Napoleon's army was conquered and freedom for the European continent was secured. For Napoleon had met his Waterloo.
It seems that what happened at Waterloo so many years ago also happened in Jerusalem at the death of Christ. The scriptures tell us that early in the morning on the first day of the week, Mary went to the tomb of Jesus to grieve his death. The message on her heart was: Jesus defeated. Death had done him in. Death had won over the Savior. For he was dead and gone. Now, I suppose that's an understandable feeling. I suppose we can forgive her mistake. Religion says that death is a passage to a new life. But when death comes to a loved one, when death visits someone near, when it is the death of a friend we cherish, it's hard to see the whole message. Death obscures our sight. Death clouds our vision. Death puts us in a fog and keeps us from seeing. That's how it was for Mary — and even worse. For Jesus was more than friend to her, more than just a loved one. He was the one she believed in. He was the one she hoped was the Savior. So, when Mary made her way to the tomb where Jesus had been laid on Friday, she returns on Sunday convinced that it was over. She was certain it was done. Gone were her hopes for the future. She came to finish the burial customs that could not be completed on Friday. When she arrived at the tomb, the stone had been rolled away. Based on that evidence alone Mary’s conclusion is that Jesus’ body has been removed by agents she does not know and to where she also does not know. Her reaction is to run and raise the alarm among the disciples. In response, Peter and the young John ran to see for themselves, but they do not stop by just seeing the rolled away stone but take the additional step to look inside. They can now confirm that the tomb is empty. They too do not “know” where the body is. Peter leaves confused. John leaves trusting faith but keeping it to himself. At this point in the story the signals seem to indicate that Jesus is defeated – the religious leaders win – the Empire wins – the devil, who had been waiting since his tempting of Jesus in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, wins.
However, when Peter and John had run to the tomb, Mary tagged along. After the men left to return to the others Mary was alone in the garden. Or she thought she was alone. Because it was then that she had an encounter with the risen Jesus whom she at first thought was a groundskeeper. Soon she realized that this person was the resurrected Jesus who instructs her to go to the disciples and tell them he is ascending to God.
It was through her first experience that her witness was that Jesus had been defeated. Now, her second experience gives her a totally different view that the religious leaders, the Empire and the devil have all met their Waterloo. Jesus is back (resurrected) and they are the ones who are defeated.
As we celebrate Easter in 2022, we are tasked with telling the whole story. For a great part of the world’s Easter worshippers will be drawn to displays of lilies, tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. They will feel elevated by choral pieces that have been rehearsed (to death). And they will hear a sermon that will be intentionally short so that everyone can get to their Easter Brunch. And many will not travel back to church until Christmas. But the whole story is that the risen Christ has not only called us but has also enlisted us in being a force for good in a world that says Jesus is the “Big Lie”. Our role is to live as ones who are telling the whole story of Easter every day. A story that is told with our actions as well as our words.
He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Amen.
April 10, 2022
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’
So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
Well, here we are again remembering Jesus’ triumphal entering the city of Jerusalem. Jesus knew that the end of his life was quickly approaching. The man who had repeatedly told his followers to be quiet and to not tell anyone what they had just witnessed is now allowing and encouraging a whole crowd of people, both known to him and total strangers, to gather in celebration, waving palms and shouting for joy at his arrival.
For the Pharisees, this scene is troubling. They do not want the shouts of this crowd to wake up the rest of the city – to make them “woke” to what Jesus means for the world and the systems that have been put in place to keep the religious leaders in charge. They know that the crowd is too large for them to control on their own, so they take their complaint directly to the one in charge, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Jesus’ response was most likely one they did not expect, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
What a confusing response. Would it really be possible for stones to make noise? My first thought has always been that even if the crowd became silent the echoes of their voices would still be heard as they continued to bounce off the walls and buildings of stone. Ironically, when many of the same voices will be shouting “Crucify” by the end of the week the Pharisees will not ask that they be silenced but will serve as cheerleaders of the chant. Similar to the one who complained about the voices that were part of the Black Lives Matter movement when they were protesting in the streets but hyped and allowed voices to chant “Hang Mike Pence” without intervening. Voices united are a powerful tool.
The idea of rocks crying out in praise to the Lord is poetic, startling imagery. Throughout Scripture are similar poetic passages that present inanimate objects praising God. For example, in Psalm 114:6, the mountains leap. Isaiah 55:12 says, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Throughout Psalm 148, there are numerous examples of created things praising their Creator—the sun, moon, stars, heavens, water, sky, animals, and people. Everyone and everything was created for the pleasure of the sovereign Lord. This imagery of the natural order praising God undergirds our faith. Who does not see a magnificent sunrise or sunset and is not thankful for its beauty? Who does not marvel at the scene of the ocean’s waves or the water spilling over Niagara Falls? -- The beauty of a forest or the majesty of mountains? All of these “speak” to us of the awesome God we identify as “Creator.”
They do shout out.
All Creation cries out in praise of Love.
All Creation defies the threats of tyrants
and the certainty of merchants,
shouts out for fragile beauty and the giving of life.
The forests cry out, the rivers cry out.
The stones do cry out,
the stones in walls separating rich from poor,
the stones carved with cruel laws,
the stones piled up ready for the next heretic,
the stones desecrated by greed-spilled oil.
(Your brother’s blood cries out to God
from the ground. The stones cry out.)
All Creation cries out in praise of love,
in defiance of injustice,
in mourning for our violence.
Listen to the cries.
Listen to what the earth, even as we wave our palms, cries out.
Listen to the stones.
The piles of stone and rubble that litter the cities and countryside of Ukraine “speak” to us of the evil that Russia is causing. Nations outside of Russia are able to see for themselves exactly what is going on while Russian media lies to its people. These stones will remain as a witness long after this war ends and will be the evidence the world will continue to use to judge Russia for this crime. The stones will not be silenced!
In part, that is the significance of the tombstones we find in cemeteries. They stand as witnesses to the lives of persons who have died and are buried there. Perhaps in brief, they mark the birth and death dates of the person buried there. Who they were is the story between those two dates. There is a practice among Jews and is growing among Christians of placing a small stone or pebble on a tombstone when they have visited the grave. There is no precise explanation for the custom – there is no clarity of where this began. As the stones pile up it is as if they join into a chorus in memory of the life lived – long after the flowers have died.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say, "His steadfast love endures forever."
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Jesus, the stone that was rejected by the Pharisees mocked the Pharisees and Temple keepers with his claim that the very stones would not keep silence. Again, they and the Roman occupiers will be mocked when the stone that had been used to seal his tomb is rolled away to make Jesus’ escape back into the world. But that is a week away. In the meantime, don’t just sit there stone faced. You have a story to tell. Amen.
Fifth Sunday of Lent March
April 3, 2020
Mary Anoints Jesus
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Our sense of sight has been overloaded the past several weeks as we observed on our television screens the devastation that has come about with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Imagine how overwhelmed our senses would be if we could not only see but also experience it with all of our senses of all the bombed-out buildings, the streets filled with holes and the smoking carcasses of tanks and other vehicles which have been bombed into oblivion. Imagine the stench of war – the smells of gunpowder and disrupted earth and the stench of rotting dead bodies – the bodies of Russian soldiers abandoned by their comrades in arms and the bodies of civilians which cannot be properly buried because their families and neighbors are afraid to leave the shelters where they are waiting out the bombardments. Imagine the tens of thousands of children and youth who will grow up with the never-ending smells of war at the back of their throats.
What does death smell like? Historically, humans have tried to avoid that smell. Over time flowers, especially heavily pungent ones were used to cover the smell of death. Today, our embalming processes have changed the need for flowers and families may purposely suggest “in lieu of flowers” other ways of memorializing a loved one. But try as we might there are odors that are still reminders to us of death.
In the first century, and still in the Jewish tradition, a body must be buried the day of its death. This was not only a hygienic custom, but one that honored the dead. The worst imaginable fate would have been for animals and birds to feast on the corpses of family and friends. Loved ones therefore would gather the body of their dead relative or friend and quickly prepare it for burial. Tradition called for the body to be cleansed and then wrapped in linens soaked in spices and perfumed oils. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion has many of these same elements with the request to remove his body from the cross before sunset on that Friday being prompted by religious observance but also the fear that dogs would jump to tear the flesh from his lifeless feet and legs.
It has been over a half of a year since the shingles disrupted my life but still my fingers and hand “tingle” with pin prick pains. One of the remedies I use for the pain is an ointment that has a frankincense and myrrh base which, in ancient times, was used for both healing and for final honors after death. The odor is appealing and transfers from my hand to the sheets and blankets of my bed while I sleep. The entire night and next day the bedroom has that familiar, pleasant smell.
Spikenard, one of the most expensive but common of oils used for burial, was an amber colored oil derived from a flowering plant from the honeysuckle family, grown in the east, primarily in India and the Himalayas. No doubt, Mary bought it as an import, perhaps from a ship merchant in Capernaum during one of the disciples’ travels. We learn in our scripture for today that Jesus himself saw the nard as put aside for his eventual burial. When Mary poured the liquid resin over Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, an extremely intimate gesture, Jesus sees her as preparing his body for death. In doing so, she honored him beyond measure, but also demonstrated the depth of her faith and commitment to him and his mission. Mary, who in a prior story sits at Jesus’ feet enthralled with who he was. Mary, who believed that Jesus could heal and raise her brother Lazarus from the dead just days before this dinner. Mary, whose faith was so deep and so pure that she took Jesus at his word, and instead of trying to coax him from his fate, she anointed him in his mission.
Mary, who prepared Jesus for burial, honoring him and preparing him for the struggle ahead with every ounce of her perfume and every corner of her heart. Mary, who sent Jesus on his heart-breaking, difficult, arduous journey with the memory of that intimate, loving moment forever locked in his heart and mind, evoked by the sweet smell of lingering spikenard. No matter how long that journey takes or how many clothes the guards strip away, the smell of that oil on Jesus’ skin will remain with him to the moment of his death. The feet that trudge through dirt and stone, carrying that wooden cross with every step, send wafts of perfume through the air, reminding him of her care. Even when he is hoisted onto the cross, the memory of Mary, of her faithfulness, her gentleness, and her love, will stay with him, just as though she were right there beside him, comforting him in his grief. Her presence is forever preserved in the lingering scent of spikenard.
For Jesus, the scent of that perfume as he faces his death is his greatest salve. It may be the scent of death, but for Jesus, it is also the scent of love, honor, commitment, and comfort.
For Judas however, the smell of spikenard weighs on him as he is already planning to make his move against Jesus by betraying him. Smelling that spikenard must have not just reminded him of death but of betrayal and murder and his role in it. For Judas, the scent of spikenard is the scent, not just of death but murder. For Judas, the scent of spikenard is the sickening sweet scent of betrayal.
He comes out swinging accusing Mary of wasting what was meant for the poor. Even the author of the scriptures reminds us just how false that statement was, as Judas was known to have pilfered money from the ministry chest, money he could easily replace with the silver with which he had bought Jesus’ death.
Smells evoke memories, feelings, and thoughts within us. For Judas, that smell would haunt him from that day forward, as every whiff he took, he would breathe in the stale, oppressive air of his own betrayal.Think about the smells of your life which bring you pleasant memories and comfort. Allow them to bring you through these closing days of Lent to the entry gate of Jerusalem. Amen.
Third Sunday of Lent
March 20, 2022
Luke 13: 1-9
Repent or Perish
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
The story is told of a man in Liverpool, Ohio, whose oil well caught fire. It was one of those uncontrollable fires and the man offered a $3000 reward to whomever could put it out. Well, all the fire departments from the surrounding cities and villages came and tried, but the fire was so intense that no one could get near enough to begin to work on it. Then a volunteer fire department from the village of Calcutta arrived on the scene. They had one fire truck, one ladder, three buckets of sand, two buckets of water and one blanket. They came wheeling into the oil field and, to everyone’s surprise (they didn’t stop at some distance from the raging fire; boldly and bravely, risking the fires of hell), they rolled right up to the blaze; in fact, almost into the blaze. They jumped out, climbed their ladder, threw on their buckets of water and sand and their blanket, and put the fire out. The owner asked them how they would spend their $3000 and they said, “First of all, we’re going to put new brakes on our truck.”
One point of this story is that not everything is as it first appears. What seemed to be reckless abandon and dedicated service on the part of the volunteer firefighters was, in reality, the result of a truck with brakes that were unable to stop the truck a reasonable distance away.
Something seeming to be something but in reality is not is in line with the parable from Luke which is introduced by a question about sin and its consequences. Jesus is baited by some in a crowd who ask him about the abhorrent actions of the Romans who mixed the blood of Galilean Jews with that of animal sacrifices. To make their point the questioners neglected to identify the Romans as being the perpetrators of an inhumane act. Instead, they make the point that the Galileans were punished in this way because of their sins and God was willing to look away while they were being killed. “The reporters of the outrage apparently hoped to receive from Jesus an endorsement of their conviction that the victims had induced this violent death by their sins. It was a current doctrine that misfortune was the nemesis of transgression…the theory is inviting—at least to those spared by adversity, for it exempts them from the pain of sympathy and reckons them among the virtuous. No form of self-complacency is more noxious. Jesus meets it with a ruthless truth: “You think these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans? I tell you No: But unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.”
The attitude here is similar to that of those in our present day who would try to hide the vicious assaults of the Russians troops who are killing innocent people in the cities of Ukraine while targeting hospitals, schools and other non-military targets. Not only is it cruel to suggest that the Ukrainians are getting what they deserve but the witness and perseverance of the Ukrainians defies any such argument. Jesus was certain that the rains fell on the just as well as on the unjust. He taught us that the best among us does not escape suffering and misfortune. As is the case with every parable of Jesus, he tells a story with a roundabout purpose. In this one he tells about a fellow who had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. When other fig trees were producing fruit, he came to get some figs from his tree, but he found none. He found the keeper of the vineyard and he said to him, “This tree is no good. I’ve given it three years—every year for three years, I’ve come seeking fruit but have found none. I’m tired of it, cut it down, it’s not worth the space that it occupies; in fact, it’s detracting from the vineyard. It’s robbing the other plants of nutrients and the setting to make them healthy.”
Jesus’ words imply that unfruitfulness is not allowed in God’s vineyard. Now that’s the most obvious truth in the parable, so there is no way to diminish the judgment sounded by Christ impersonating the owner of the vineyard, “Cut it down.”
There is a poem from 1849 by Joshua Reminger which begins with:
There are a number of us who creep into the world
to eat and sleep and know no reason why we are born
Save only to consume the corn, Devour the cattle flesh and fish
and leave behind an empty dish.
That kind of unfruitfulness is not the purpose of God’s vineyard. What does it mean to be fruitful as Christians in the vineyard of God? At least this: One, that because of you, the milk of human kindness is readily available to someone. A second thing that it means to be fruitful as Christians in the vineyard of God is that because of you the Spirit of Christ is daily set loose in the world; because of you, persons sense Christ’s presence. It means that because of you some person will know that there is a Way, a Truth and a Life that can give them meaning in this life and secure them for eternal life. But the story takes a turn. The worthless tree has its intercessor in the person of the gardener, and more than a hint of God’s grace is here. To be sure there is a law of uselessness that induces death, but there is another law, maybe a deeper law in the economy of God. The law of pitying grace.
“Unless you repent,” Jesus said, “You will all likewise perish.” That’s the resounding note of judgment—but the plea comes, “Give it another year.” The plea of Grace, and for sure, because Christ is all grace, grace will be his response…when we repent and seek that second chance.
Second Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2022
Triumphant Song of Confidence Of David.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh—my adversaries and foes—they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my
life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with
shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his
face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they
are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
Its so difficult to accept that the circumstances in Ukraine have deteriorated as they have over the past week. Last week there were threats of war. Last week there was safety in the cities. Last week we were cheering on the brave Ukrainian people who had taken up the call to defend their country and families from the evil assault of the Russians. Last week we were pondering what it meant that the Russian army had not been able to overrun their neighbor. But a week later, things have gone from bad to worse. The Russian army has made its move against the cities. They have bombed hospitals, schools, orphanages, and residential areas. They have laid mines along major escape routes preventing people from making a run for it to find safety down the road or in another nation. It is so difficult to grasp the mobilization of more than two million people to leave the treasures of their lifetimes and family members who will not or cannot flee to another place where they have no family, no jobs, no money, no homes. As we watch the stories of their lives flash across our television screens, we may at times sense that we are standing next to them as we try in our minds to place ourselves in their plight. It’s not difficult seeing ourselves in our mind’s eye slogging down the road with only a few possessions bundled on our backs –or-- herded into ques waiting our turn for a bus or a train – or—cheering on a ten-year-old boy crossing a border with a phone number of relatives written on the back of his hand. And, as if this was not enough, the whole world has been dragged into this fog of fear when Russian troops overtook Chernobyl and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant with threats of worldwide disaster. For the first time in several decades the fear of nuclear annihilation is once again very real.
At night, we lay our heads on our pillows with concern and fear about all of this and we wake up to the news that the situation did not get better overnight. And then there are the liars who say the Russians aren’t bombarding the cities or this is not a war. Times like these confirm for us humanity’s inhumanity to others and how putting trust and allegiance in human leaders has an inherent flaw of failure. And there is no shortage of jerk politicians and news personalities who have jumped on the wagon to make remarkable claims that Putin is “smart” and Zelinsky is “a thug.” What good are these leaders to us and the world? Shame!
Through all of this, what do we do? Obviously, one option would be to give up. To turn off any interest in what is going on. To turn off the television, not listen to the radio (do they still exist?), not read the paper or magazines, and not talk to anyone about what is going on. “Out of sight, out of mind” could become our mantra. Pretend that it doesn’t exist and we won’t be bothered by it.
Another similar option would be to simply collapse under the weight of these events. We don’t have any direct control over any of it so we become completely immobilized. Overwhelmed by situations we are unable to exert any control over we simply turn out the light and pull the blankets up over our heads. Both of these options are very much human and are ones that people all over the globe are doing each day and night. A third option accepts that the fears that drive these decisions to give up or collapse are legitimate but provide renewed strength to sustain us through whatever happens in Ukraine – FAITH.
If one expects God to intervene directly into the Ukraine War – that’s not likely to happen. God’s history with human wars is clear that God does not pull the strings in human hate. God allows (expects) us to deal with the consequences of our own making not because God doesn’t care but because free will is a hard lesson to learn and live with.
Only if the nuclear option is used is this war going to end quickly. Wars take time and unfortunately, soldiers are not the only ones who are wounded and die. This war is destined to go on for an extended period of time. (Don’t go back under the covers again.) In past wars people have learned that human pain and suffering is inevitable and in our shame we, like God, wait.
For me, many of the Psalms are examples of waiting. Look at the movement of Psalm 27 in the last four verses. "Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!"
You see the Psalmist has not been delivered from trouble -- but he knows an ultimate protection. His enemies may destroy his body, but not his soul. The Psalmist has learned and teaches what God promises -- confidence in every situation of life. The Psalms are full of this expression of trust which makes us confident of protection. The classic, best-known, is the 23rd Psalm with that bold affirmation, "I will fear no evil for Thou art with me." What does it mean? It means what it says. The Lord will protect us, will save us, in the way that matters -- ultimately. God may not protect us from trouble by shielding us from it -- but God will protect us in trouble.
First Sunday of Lent
March 6, 2022
The Temptation of Jesus
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
When I send this to you on Saturday the Russian invasion of Ukraine will be in its tenth day. In that short time over one million people have left the familiarity of their homes and families and communities seeking safety. If anyone can identify with Jesus being in the wilderness it would be these new refugees whose lives are being threatened by a distant cousin who seems determined to destroy their native land. I can only guess that the people of Ukraine have lost all sense of calm and stability. In every sense of the term, they are surrounded by wilderness. For the past week we have heard President Zelensky plead with the world’s leaders and peoples to help the Ukrainians in any way possible. Unfortunately, treaties and rules have limited a response. There is also the lingering fear that actively supporting or coming to the aid of Ukraine would run the risk of giving the Russians the excuse to escalate their invasion. As the Russians cut electric and gas and water supplies, the people who remain must sense the wilderness closing in on them.
Our story for today tells us that when Jesus “retreated” to the wilderness he was met there by the great tempter. He was challenged to turn stones into bread to nourish his body, to worship Satan to guarantee his personal oligarchy, and to jump from the top of the Temple to see whether God would save him from harm. Each of these ambitious notions are ones which ordinary people face on a daily basis – we want to be assured that there is something to eat – we are willing to risk our very souls to follow someone who offers us the reward of power – we are willing to do things which risk our very health and safety in order to see if God really cares. And Jesus says, "Ah, life is more than that. Life is more than the latest gimmick and gadget and the mere accumulation of material things. Life is more than material toys and trinkets, more than bread for the belly and the accumulation of more stuff. Life is all about the soul, the heart, the spirit. It's about a Word coming from the very mouth of God." In response to the temptation to throw himself into the rat race of material satisfaction, Jesus finds a calm center, an anchor in the Word of God. And that centered faith will enable him to deal with all the other temptations to come. So it was with Jesus. And so it is with us.
Unlike prior wars where people had to hear reports from the field after many hours or days of delay this war is much different. It has been labeled the Tik-Tok war since social media in the hands of almost every person under the age of fifty is providing immediate and current news. Our televisions are able to provide us with live updates on the battles that are happening throughout Ukraine. Video shot with handheld cameras on cell phones show us not only the most recent damage but also images of people who are taping the news of the day with cell phone in hand.
As the sun was dawning on the first day of the bombing of Kiev one of the most remarkable responses to the wilderness that would be closing in on people was a small cluster of people who had gathered in front of St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Church (the cathedral church in Kiev) kneeling in prayer. With the air raid sirens moaning around them they assembled in the wilderness to put their faith in God. Unsure of the wild that would soon be confronting them and drawing them into the chaos of their world at war they came together and, hopefully, found God’s purpose for them.
As I think of the chaos, anger and heartlessness that has been evident at our Southern Border over the past two decades I am in awe by the heartwarming, open-arms welcome that the Ukrainian refugees are receiving as they literally “pour” over the borders of nations to their West. It is amazing how without high levels of government coordination from these welcoming nations people are voluntarily arriving at train stations and border crossings with food and clothes and offers of bedrooms in their own homes where refuges can find shelter. Of course, the European situation is different because color is not an issue as opposed to how color plays against those arriving at our Southern Border.
As we observe and soak in the horrors of what is happening in Ukraine, we need to find the time and space to travel into the wilderness of our own lives and minds and souls to be confronted and to deal with the tempter(s) in our own lives. We need to seek meaning and identity and God’s presence in our lives as we wrestle with the temptation to “mind our own business.” Jesus went into the wilderness to prepare himself to be both sacrificial lamb and Messiah – an identity that would lead to a cross. In order to really seek meaning, identity and God’s presence in our lives, we need to remove ourselves for a while. We need to go to and grow into our “wild place.” To prepare, Jesus needed to dive into his imagination, unpack his base emotions and raw fears, deal with anything that could trip him up in the days, months, and years to come. Jesus entered into his “wild place” for a month and a half or more (40 days and 40 nights as it were), and he came out ready.
And so shall we.
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 20, 2022
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’
There is a story told about Abe Lincoln and his boys. The boys were both crying and a neighbor asked Abe what the problem was. And Abe answered, "The same problem that is wrong with the whole world. I have three walnuts, and each of my boys wants two." That sort of hits the nail on the head doesn't it? And it kind of makes us all want to squirm. We know all too well that most people, including ourselves at times, feel that we deserve more than what we have been given. We may celebrate the acquisition of a “prize” only until we come upon someone who has a bigger and better one.
For the past couple of weeks representatives of the world’s athletes have gathered in China hoping to win the honors of gold, silver or bronze in their field of competition. Since covid has made it impossible for travelers to attend the Olympics as spectators the world has had to rely on television to bring the competitions into our living rooms. As a kid I can remember my family gathering in front of our Zenith television to watch the skating and skiing events. If you had asked me then I would have said that those were the only two competitions. Not so today. In recent years events have been added including snowboarding and did I see an event this year where skiers were sliding down the ski jump backwards? I don’t remember that one from my childhood unless the skier was headed for a pile up.
I have a confession to make. I have not watched much of this winter’s Olympics. Maybe it’s tied in with my covid fatigue. Maybe there were just too many other options of what to watch. Maybe it’s because my attention has been drawn to other events like the build up of Russian troops on the Ukraine border and the notes (government documents) that Trump tore up and tried to flush down the toilet. This year the Olympics had to “compete” with the news. There have been a few moments when I have given in to my curiosity and did take a look at what was happening at the Olympics. I didn’t focus on the medal counts but instead, simply watched the interactions of the contestants. Where it seems that nations are in competition with each other and are trying to amass the greater number of medals I have had a different view of the contestants. Often, even though at one time they were trying to “beat” each other during the event at the end, when they are they have completed their task, I was pleased to see so much comradery and encouragement. Despite personal disappointment for not winning, they seemed to display honest joy for the ones who did win a medal. Yes, there were some poor sports but for the most part there seemed to be a lot of admiration for each other’s talents.
I’ve never been one for competition. “Sport” to me is more like fishing than racing. Sure, there are fishing tournaments among fishermen but most often the competition of fishing is found in the difference between the one on the stringer or the one who got away. I wonder what would happen if the Olympics set aside the medals and just let athletes come and put on a demonstration (rather than a competition) of what skills they have and at the end they all get a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble or some other not billionaire managed company. Such an Olympics would allow for athletes to focus on competing with themselves rather than always triumphing over others.
So, why have I gone on this wild word salad this week? Well, it seems to me that much of the Christian church’s life has been one of competition – between preachers, congregations, and individuals – all competing for the “heavenly reward”. Over the centuries the church has used the bait of “getting into heaven” as a reward for those who toe the line, who run the race according to custom, who swear allegiance to a particular geography (S. Portage Path and W Exchange for example), and who are willing to edge out others in order to “win”. This week thousands of Roman Catholics in New Mexico were informed that their baptisms were not valid because for twenty years the priest used the phrase, “We baptize you…” instead of “I baptize you…” Current thinking in the Diocese is that the baptisms are all invalid. And to whom does the word switch really matter? Do you think God got out the sharpie and started crossing names of the list? I suspect that some in the Catholic hierarchy think that they can “guilt” people back into the church by denying the validity of their baptisms and, since baptism is a primary question of their marriage service, all marriages performed in the Catholic Churches of persons caught in this baptism question are also at risk.
Take the option of winning the reward of heaven out of the concept of church and there will be some who will shrug their shoulders and walk away. Competition is in their blood and they believe that they deserve their just reward. And without that prize they have no interest in participating.
From today’s lesson from Luke Jesus doesn’t say anything about competing for a heavenly goal but, instead, living in harmonious relationships: “But love your enemies [competitors], do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High…”
In these words I do not picture a winners’ platform with the playing of national anthems and handing out of medals which separate people(s) from each other.
It would seem that the church is continuing to work on what it means to be a loving community, not withholding or handing out the prize of heaven. I think First Grace is an example of a congregation working on the concept. Perhaps there are lessons we can take from the Olympians who have been living in peace for the past couple of weeks and who are going home not always with medals but with a sense of pride in their work and personal achievement and improvement.
In God’s kingdom the prize will be found as a benefit for the whole creation which celebrates a unity of peace for all.
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 5, 2022
A Vision of God in the Temple
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not
look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and
Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly
desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the
land. Even if a tenth part remains in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
Linda and I live in a Century Plus home. The original structure was built around 1867 with several additions and modifications made over the years. Even today, I have projects lined out to make further modifications which previous owners wouldn’t have even thought of. Future owners will probably wonder what I was thinking of when I put the dishwasher over there. When winter comes one of the things we have to deal with in this old house is that the cold outside seems to penetrate through the walls and windows. There are days, several recently here in January and February, when Linda or I will say, “The house has taken a chill.” Throughout its history, five chimneys or their remnants tell the story of how the house was heated. Today, electricity is the primary source of heat but there are times, like tonight, when a boost is needed from a wood burning stove in the den to keep the chill off. Without this additional heat source the house would simply be cold.
Not only is the woodstove a source of heat but it also provides a comforting ambiance of the flames flickering and the coals glowing red. That ambiance is replicated by three electric fireplaces in the house which also supplement the heat needs on days and nights that the existing electric heat cannot keep up.
The Bayard Rustin Center, the drop-in center that First Grace has opened in partnership with Akron AIDS Collaborative is another Century Home that has been dedicated to a new purpose. I can hardly wait for you to see the place. “Homey” is not just a word but an adequate description. Steve Arrington and his staff have taken an empty shell, turned it into a service center which does not have a sterile “office” appearance but looks more like a home. And what could be more appropriate for the houseless who come to the door seeking a connection to “home”? Upon entering one of the first features that one encounters is the ornate fireplace in the living room. And then there is another equally intricate fireplace in the dining room and one more in Steve’s office. I’m sure none of them are still functional but their ambiance could be enhanced with the addition of electric logs. “Home.”
Since it’s “soft” opening on January 17th, the Rustin Center has welcomed folks needing referral and caring follow up for housing and food. Three Wednesday night meals have been served. As the center comes more up to speed HIV and Covid testing will be provided. Covid vaccines will be offered. A Food Pantry and Clothing Pantry will be made available as well as a washer and dryer. Mental health services and crisis counseling will be provided by third parties partnering with the center. The Bayard Rustin Center will be a safe space where families can be reunited after tense splits over the questioning or announced sexual identification of their children. Earl Grey wrote of his father, a former Governor-General of Canada, "He lit so many fires in cold rooms." What a beautiful eulogy to have earned. There are so many cold rooms in life. Some are cold for lack of wood and gas and electricity. But most are cold for lack of sympathy, meaning, humility, friendship, and hope.
Today we find our inspiration in thinking of a young Isaiah who went into the temple at Jerusalem with a dejected spirit. Fearful problems faced his world and the man who was supposed to deal with them, King Uzziah, had just died. Isaiah's world was like a cold, dark room. In that temple he apparently found a soul-reviving warmth that redirected his whole purpose. Perhaps we can do the same as we examine our own reason for being in a house of worship as the future unfolds.
Today’s text for those who are perplexed by what is offered to them by the materialistic churches in search of the most spectacular worship production. They come asking, "Is there any word coming from the Lord?" It is a text for those who experience moral incompetence, aching fears, and a life whose structures are becoming twisted. It is a text for those who need a soul-reviving warmth and a mind-edifying illumination.
Isaiah's vision happened "in the year that King Uzziah died." That great king had raised the kingdom of Judah to its highest levels of peace and prosperity since the glory days of David and Solomon. The proud young Isaiah must have had great dreams of the future for his nation.
Unfortunately, King Uzziah spoiled all that. King Uzziah was a religious man. But he was also a man who loved power. One day, swollen with his importance, he marched into the temple and decided he would act like a priest. Taking a golden censer filled with incense, he went into the Holy Place, where only the priest had a right to go. When the officiating priest told King Uzziah that wasn't how things were done (separation of church and state?). Uzziah became enraged. He never attended worship after that. He quit when the priest and his associates challenged his intent to light the fire, swing the incense, and smoke up the Holy Place for his own ends. Uzziah, full of self-sufficiency, marched into the temple trying to be his own priest. He was, in his own mind, God's representative on earth. He felt comfortable in his successes. Uzziah, full of power, demanded to go into the throne room of God and worship for his own sake
The call, vision, and response of Isaiah contrasts sharply with the lack of call, lack of vision, and lack of response on the part of Uzziah. Isaiah entered the temple with a feeling of darkness, coldness, and desperate need. He felt uncomfortable with earthquake disturbances deep in his soul. He did not come to claim any authority or power. Isaiah found himself stripped of all human ego. He looked up and saw himself in the presence of the King of kings and Lord of lords. In spite of the crumbling of earthly thrones, Isaiah saw God still on God's throne. Any pride he had disappeared before the holiness of God. "Woe is me!" he cried. He saw deep in his soul a self-centeredness that needed to be cleansed. When the voice of God was heard to ask, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" Isaiah’s response came without any second thought of what he was committing to. "Here am I. Send me." And he emerged with the mark of the prophet on his head and a fire in his mouth which could never be put out.
The text points us toward powerful contrasts in the motivations of two men, both of whom considered themselves religious. One tried to light a fire as a sign of his power, and the other found the fire purging him of his coldness, darkness, and despair. The church is important for the relationships and settings it provides. Even in this day of automation and mass media, there is still a need for us to worship with our brothers and sisters. We have been tested over the past couple of years and yet, we still stay in contact. Faithfully, we have envisioned and prayed for the day when we will be able to be in each other’s presence again.
We know that the pandemic has ebbed and flowed and can do so again. But we have lived with the trust that we will again be together. Who would have thought that an old house on West Market Street could become a new home with a hearth where we can gather in each other’s warmth? A place where hands joined in worship also joins hands with mission in our own community through the Bayard Rustin Center and around the world through The Market Path.
I guess it’s time to put another log on the fire.
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 23, 2022
The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to
proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure
yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And
he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in
Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
There are many ways to get started on a project. Some people are observant -- they check out their surroundings and evaluate when and where to begin. Other people are boisterous and rambunctious ready to move in a takeover. Another group may be planners – trying to anticipate how each piece of the puzzle will fall into place. Others work their way up from the bottom learning on each rung of the ladder how to take the next step up.
In every case, people will react to the person taking a lead role. Some will wonder. Some will react with skepticism. Some will simply walk away.
In Jesus’ case people tried to walk him right off the cliff. Now, they didn’t attempt to do that simply because they were bored.
The scene reminds me of the day not so long ago when the Vice President of the United States was chased from his perch in the Senate Chamber by a crowd of people chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.” Jesus didn’t rile up the crowd with inflammatory rhetoric. He simply summed up a reading from the Book of Isaiah with the words, “Today these scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing.” These few words turned the crowd into an angry mob. ‘How dare he talk that way to the people of his home town. Who does he think he is – this son of the carpenter. Throw him over the edge with the rest of the trash.
Helen Keller, the blind and deaf woman who grew up to be a living example of how to overcome adversity and stand up to peril once said, "Life is a daring adventure or it is nothing." She was saying that life is to be lived on the edge, or not at all.
There is a difference between living on the edge and being what we call an "edgy" or irritable person. Jesus was on the edge at all times but was edgy only a few. But that is why he upset people so much: in his life he dragged the artificial margin boundaries of race, creed, and color to include all people. He upset people when he knocked down the marginalizing boundaries that people had created to keep their “zones” comfortable. When he proclaimed that the scriptures were being fulfilled that very day, Jesus was dragged to the edge of a cliff to be put out of the lives of his townspeople because no one wants the margins of daily living to be inclusive of strangers.
Jesus did not get into trouble for reading the word but for interpreting the word. It is one thing to read the "word." It is another to be "the word" that brings God's grace, judgment, and ethical obedience into focus. The one whose words and deeds are the same makes people edgy and makes people want to push them over the edge and run them out of their temples that have long been tamed and tranquilized into manageable form.
On the other hand, I look at the living of others and cannot forget the life they invite me to in their living out the word. In India Gandhi stepped on the train one day, and one of his shoes slipped off and landed on the track. He was unable to retrieve it as the train took off. To the amazement of his companions, Gandhi calmly took off his other shoe and threw it back along the track near the other shoe. Asked by the folks aboard the train why he did it, Gandhi smiled and said, "The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use." This is living on the edge that challenges so deeply the way we have been known to live that we want to edge the source of that way out of our lives forever.
I remember the story of Theophane the Monk. He was traveling along a path one day and ran into a young man. He asked the young man where he was going. The young man replied, "I am looking for the pearl of great price." Theophane said calmly, "Well, look no more. I have it." Theophane produced the pearl of great price. The young man was in pure delight to see and find what he was looking for. Then Theophane said, "Here, take it." And he gave the young man the pearl of great price. The young man was delighted and danced for a while and then sat under a tree to contemplate. "The pearl of great price! I have it! But is it better to have it or to have the ability to give it away like Theophane the Monk? How long will this question rob me of my joy?"
God calls us to live on the edge. To be well aware of what peril may await us because we are living on the edge. We must be willing to put our lives on the line sometimes with a living word to be given away in us and recited in the rituals of daily life. In what ways are the scriptures lived out in your life? In what ways are you living on the edge with this edgy teacher Jesus?
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 15, 2022
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
Remember when gas stations were called “Service Stations?” The only remnant of that name that comes to mind is travelling down the West Virginia Turnpike and coming upon a “Service Plaza” where not only gas but usually food and coffee from a couple of popular drive through type restaurants are available. Today, we have to get out and pump the gas ourselves. When they were called “Service Stations” someone (or sometimes even more than one) raced out to greet you, ask what you needed, and proceeded to fill your gas tank with fuel. While you sat, warm and comfy in your car, the “service station” attendant washed your windows, checked your oil and water, even checked your tire pressure. After filling up the tank they took your payment, walked it inside to ring it up, returned with your receipt and wished you well and waved you off. “Service stations” also used to give out gifts after so many gallons of gas had been purchased (unbelievable, right?!) When Linda and I were married forty-nine years ago our first dinner place settings were from a service station that she had frequented.
Just as there was a time of “Service Stations” there was also a time of “The Postal Service.” Mail carriers were often consistent and knew and were known in the neighborhood. Mr. Rogers shared his wading pool with the letter carrier in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood so that they could sit and soak their hot and tired feet. Today, many of us would argue that the notion of “service” at the Post Office has sunk to a new low – recently, a letter sent to the church and postmarked from Baltimore Maryland on January 4th arrived on January 13th.
One of the first television series Linda and I got involved in was the PBS Masterpiece Theatre “Upstairs Downstairs.” (Can you hear the trumpet fanfare for Masterpiece Theatre in your head?) The series told the stories of two groups of people – the ones who lived in the upstairs area of the house and those who lived in the downstairs. It was the story of those who were the servants (downstairs dwellers) and those who were served (the upstairs family). Of course, those who took care of the operation of the house were “servants” to the others. “In the service” meant a life lived in service to others whether that service was being a butler, a governess, a cook, a maid, a footman, or a working, serving part of a larger whole, and probably not receiving a whole lot of accolades for doing what you’re doing. Service has always been part and parcel of being “in the service.”
Similarly, if you are a baptized Christian you are “in the service.” No matter what your background whether you have wealth or rely on a food pantry we are one community in service to each other and to the world. Paul’s lesson on “spiritual gifts” in this week’s epistle reading wasn’t about the variety of spiritual gifts that might be available. Paul loved lists, and his lists of “giftings” were not meant to be exhaustive and definitive, but expressive and suggestive. Paul’s lesson on “spiritual gifts” was to teach the community that whatever their individual gifts might be, they all came from the same source, the Holy Spirit the that calls us all to be “in the service.” There is an old saying: Many folks want to serve God, but only as advisers. Paul would have none of that.
All Christians receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of their baptism. The giftings of the Spirit are not to make us feel good, or feel superior to others in our faith community. Whatever is graced and gifted to us is for one purpose only — for “the common good.” We are graced and gifted not for ourselves but for a life “in the service” … “In The Service” of others, for the common good, with the Body of Christ. We are still nervous in speaking about “spiritual gifts.” As hard as Paul tried to disarm the Corinthians’ claim to “special gifts,” that particular stigma has been historically hard to un-stick. In the twenty-first century, claiming a “spiritual gift” may sound aloof.
Paul showed the new Christian community of believers in Corinth (almost all of them Gentiles) that the Spirit of God they had received at the moment of their baptism transformed them, gifted them, by making them into “body builders.” Baptism is a moment in time when we put service over self. At baptism, the question changes from “What can I get out of this? What about being a member of a faith community benefits me? to “How can my faith help me to serve God, the body of Christ and the common good?”
Every Christian, when asked if they have been or are “in the service” should answer, “YES!” At the moment of our baptism we are all joined together into a community of service — we only await the directive from the Spirit to lead us into our path of service. In fact, there is an old slogan that needs to be resurrected: “Doctrine divides, service unites.” Maybe it was with that slogan in mind that in the 1972 “Book of Worship” published by the United Methodist Church, the “Great Thanksgiving” recited at the Lord’s Table ends with this line: “Make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in service to all mankind.”
A room-service waiter at a Marriott hotel learned that the sister of a guest had just died. The waiter, named Charles, bought a sympathy card, had hotel staff members sign it, and gave it to the distraught guest with a piece of hot apple pie.
“Mr. Marriott,” the guest later wrote to the president of Marriott Hotels, “I’ll never meet you. And I don’t need to meet you. Because I met Charles. I know what you stand for . . . I want to assure you that as long as I live, I will stay at your hotels. And I will tell my friends to stay at your hotels.” (Told in Turned On by Roger Dow and Susan Cook [Harper Business, 1996].)
I love how we used to call our coming together each week: not “worship” so much as “Sunday service.” This week, even though we are unable to meet face to face, don’t use the language of “worship,” use the language of “service.” That word keeps us mindful of what this adventure is all about. Amen.
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
January 9, 2022
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be
made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
The Baptism of Jesus
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying, “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” It may have been the catch phrase that propelled him into the presidency. The application of his words was how he viewed foreign policy. He was all about appearing to be nice and considerate and mannerly (or so he thought of himself) but he wanted a strong and prepared military as a tool for him to use if necessary.
It would seem to me that if this had not already been the general United States approach to foreign policy it certainly has been policy ever since Teddy. And the proof of that is the enormous amount of money that is spent to “protect” us from others. Our “defense” budget is the highest in the world weighing in at $753 billion dollars for fiscal 2021. As a matter of fact, the Senate values the “big stick” so much that it is willing to modify its rules in order to pass the military portion of the budget. The same Senate and the same rules that it is unlikely to change in order to pass legislation to guarantee the right to vote or to provide a base line of support for families.
Today we have the familiar story of John the Baptizer calling people to repentance. His big stick is the tongue lashing he gives to the “brood of vipers” who came to hear what he was preaching. My image of John the Baptizer is not one of a person who spoke softly. I see him as bold and brash and loud and threatening. I don’t see him as the father or grandfather that a young child would want to read them a bedtime story. His voice was too gruff and frightening. His message was a promise of a messiah to come and his threat was that the messiah would separate the grain from the chaff and that the chaff would be consumed by an unquenchable fire (Hell).
And yet, people were attracted to this strange man and what he had to say. He seemed so sure of himself, and the people, people of every generation, seem to need to hear from someone who presents themselves as a person of authority who has within easy reach a “big stick” to use as an enforcer. We have experienced such a person who got elected president of the United States by speaking with a big voice and a willingness to use big sticks (walls, smears, lies, etc.) to enforce his big words. And then there are all those “evangelists” who tagged along with him in order to feather their nests with the contributions from those hoping to avoid the unquenchable fire. But once we take our eyes and ears off of John and look over to the side where Jesus is quietly praying after being baptized, we are shown new images of soft voices and big sticks. Jesus is not walking about barking orders or threatening others. Instead, we are challenged to imagine a dove descending upon Jesus and a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The way this is described it would seem that God’s words were intended for just one listener and not for the whole crowd. It’s as if God is giving Jesus an “that-a-boy” intended for only Jesus’ ears. Could any words be more softly spoken than this that only one person hears them?
But what were the big sticks of Jesus’ ministry? Unlike Teddy Roosevelt he didn’t have a strong military to back him up. The big stick(s) that Jesus used were the two sticks that were lashed together forming the cross on which he was hung and where he died. Jesus does not expect us to beat ourselves up over our past sins, our acts of harm to others, our indifference to the unfortunate events in people’s lives, our denial of responsibility…you get the point. Instead, Jesus offers us the opportunity to not see the big stick as a threat but to use the stick to point to a new way of life. Sticks do not need to be weapons. Instead, they can become the walking sticks we use while walking the path of faith.
Somewhere I read about a meeting of a group of software designers. They were using typical technical jargon to discuss a data exchange interface with a vendor. One engineer said the programming that had been ordered was delayed because the vendor was suffering from a “severe nonlinear waterfowl issue.” Curious, the team leader raised his eyebrows and asked, “What exactly is a severe nonlinear waterfowl issue?” The engineer replied, “They don’t have all their ducks in a row.”
Getting our ducks in a row is a pretty good summary of the messages of both John and Jesus. They both challenge us to listen for the voice of God in our lives and to think more clearly about what it is that God would have us do with our own lives and while interacting with others as well.
Second Sunday after Christmas Day
January 2, 2022
The Word Became Flesh
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me'.”
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Today is January 2nd. Two days ago, we said goodbye (without any remorse) to 2021 which was a year we seem to have been dragged through. Now we are two days into the new year of 2022. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could come in to a new year and actually jettison all the negative events and sadness that we experienced in the old year and truly start out with a clean slate? But it’s not that simple. We know from past experience that what was going on in our lives at 11:59 pm on December 31, continues into January 1. Given how one year spills in to another it is probably a good thing that the Season of Christmas spans over the junction of both years. Yes, today is January 2nd of the new year 2022 but it is also the Ninth Day of Christmas with three more days to come. And because the Season of Christmas spans the old and new years, we can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that despite the same ole same ole from one year to the next there is reason for us to live with hope.
A year ago, when we were entering into 2021, there were many menacing situations that snuck through the threshold from 2020 to 2021. Let’s just focus for a few minutes on one of those – the Covid 19 virus. In 2020 we experienced the deaths of millions around the world as we trembled in fear. A year ago today we were given new hope as the vaccines were becoming available and we were able to identify when our age bracket will allow us to get ours. (Linda got a “flashback” on her phone that it was a year ago December 31, that she received her first shot). Throughout January, February and into March we shared information with each other as to where appointments were being made available to get the shots. Even though the Pandemic was not fully halted we did “breathe easier” with a sense that we were better off than the prior year. But there have been some new twists and turns. First it was Delta and then it was Omicron. And we entered 2022 feeling like we were not all that far ahead of 2020.
Amidst all of this confusion thank God for Christmas! Yes, we will be living in near isolation, wearing masks, washing our hands, using sanitizer, staying away from crowds, probably getting more boosters, keeping an ear out for health reports from relatives and friends and continue praying for their safety. But being in the Season of Christmas we are reminded that it is in the darkest of times that God has come to people like you and me. For centuries the prophets had promised that God’s messiah would enter history and make it possible for the world to be changed. Regardless of the calendar they were using and regardless of when the new year was defined, they lived in expectation that something better would come. And year after year they hoped that the new year would be that time because the passing year was so disappointing. And so our current situation is not much different than in past years. We have looked forward to shedding the drudgery of the past year and hope to start with a new slate. Some people even make resolutions to do things differently in order to make their lives better in the new year. Thank God we have twelve days of the Christmas Season in order to help us bridge the years and focus on God’s hoped for purposes of the creation. But we are not abandoned as soon as the twelfth day ends because it is then that we enter the Season of Epiphany – always on January 6th. This year the season lasts eight weeks. Some would call that season the one of “star gazing” because three of the prime characters of Epiphany are the wise men who rely on the guidance of a star to find their way to the birthplace of Jesus.
The notion of “star gazing” also helps us draw our attention away from the murky situations that surround us and to look up into the heavens to consider what is God’s plan for us, others, and the universe. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day will hopefully allow us to experience even more of what God’s intended purposes are.
John the gospel writer describes the coming of Jesus as the coming of light into the darkness. He then talks about the witness of John the “Baptizer.” He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world ( John 1:7-9) Just as the world relied upon the witness of the Baptizer it is in need today for the witness of believers like you and me. Despite the difficulties of the old year and the anticipated difficulties of the new year we are called upon to witness to God’s good news. But how do we witness in times like these?
Last week I explained to a denominational representative that even though we do not own a chunk of land we continue to be a worshipping and serving community. I invited her to shop at The Market Path to support our world mission. And locally, our partnership with Akron AIDS Collaborative will result in a Drop-In Center opening this month to serve houseless persons with a place where they will be able to get Covid 19 testing and vaccinations, masks and hand sanitizer, HIV testing and referrals to agencies to assist them along with food, clothing and home cooked meals. It will be a whole new centralized program in Akron to serve people in need. And if that isn’t testifying to the light, I don’t know what is. And yes, volunteers are welcome.
First Sunday after Christmas Day
December 26, 2021
The Boy Jesus in the Temple
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
Kids sure seem to grow up awfully quick. It seems like just yesterday (or, at least, somewhat recently) that we were singing “Glory to the new born King,” and now today we are seeing this same child, twelve years old, teaching lessons of life to his elders. Time flies and along with it we, the elders, find that our own lives take a spin. We watch as children and grandchildren age while we pretend to be the young and vigorous ones who raised them only to be reminded by the white haired one in the mirror that we too are aging.
The Christmas carol, "Once in Royal David's City," tells the story of Jesus not just frozen in a moment of time in a manger but throughout his growing up times. It is one of the few places where you will find any reference to the fact that he grew up the way we have to. The third verse reads, "Jesus is our childhood's pattern; day by day, like us he grew."The hymn was part of a fascinating project, one of a series of hymns written by Cecil Alexander, back in 1848, to teach children the meaning of the Apostles' Creed. "Once in Royal David's City" was written to explain that article, "Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary," which in theology is called, "The Incarnation." Alexander interprets "The Incarnation" to mean, "He was little, weak, and helpless, tears and smiles like us he knew." Then she explained in the hymn why it is important for us to know that Jesus was like us. "And he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness."
Jesus was like us in all respects, that's the meaning of "The Incarnation." "Day by day, like us he grew." Which is why he is our Savior. He knows what it is like to live our life. "He feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness." He is like us.
Our text for this morning, this childhood scene from Jesus' life, is another example of how he was like us. When I was growing up the common question asked of us was “What do you want to be when you grow up?” From kindergarten on the answers would include cowboy, fireman, doctor, nurse, teacher, etc. But even at high school graduation many of us still did not know what we wanted to do when we grew up. Many of us just slid into college to avoid the war in Vietnam. I remember being told by the president of Ohio State University in the Fall of 1969 that my freshman class was there to get an education and not a job. The same is not true today. Children are “molded” into career paths at early ages. Some are identified as “college bound” while others are left to wander and keep searching.
In Jesus' day growing up was usually held to a strict path. You went literally from childhood into adulthood, and the bridge was called Bar Mitzvah. A boy began his apprenticeship for a trade when he was twelve years old. Girls were betrothed at adolescence, probably about the same age, then married at fourteen or fifteen, beginning their approved vocation in life as wives and mothers.
In Jesus' time you had only one choice. In fact, it is more accurate to say you didn't have any choice. You were destined for a life according to who you were, your gender, your class, your family. For boys, your destiny was probably to be in your father's business.
Our story shows us Jesus at just twelve years old. His parents take him to the Temple in Jerusalem for his Bar Mitzvah. It was a big day in the life of a Jewish family, and still is. At this point in their life the child stands up in the synagogue and reads the Torah from the Hebrew. Then they are accepted into the congregation of elders. There is a big party afterwards After the celebration, they head back to Nazareth. They get a day's journey before they realize that Jesus isn't with them. They retrace their steps to Jerusalem, and after several days, discover him in the Temple, debating theology with the Rabbis. He has found his vocation. Which is what you were supposed to do in that culture when you are twelve years old. Luke makes this point with this marvelous irony. Jesus says, "I must be in my Father's house." At that age, boys entered into their vocations. At that age, Jesus sensed that he had a calling from God.
But then Luke says he went back to Nazareth with his parents, and "he was obedient to them," as the Jewish Law demands, "Honor your father and your mother." That means he went back to apprentice with his father. But I can't help but think, it must be different now. From that time on there must have been tension in that family. You can just imagine it, the tension between parents and son. The son obedient, attempting to fulfill his parents expectation of him, but all the while feeling he should be someplace else, doing something else. Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was around thirty – nearly twenty years after the scene of today’s scripture. Perhaps he remained obedient to Joseph, his human father, and served in the carpentry vocation until Joseph had died. Having fulfilled that obligation, Jesus may have freed himself to do that which he felt called to do.
Luke says that he discovered it the same way that you and I discover it when we grow up. "Day by day, like us, he grew." Luke put it this way, "He increased in wisdom and in stature." Which means, he struggled with the developmental tasks of growing up.
You all know those developmental stages, and in this scene he is in adolescence, that state where we gain self-consciousness, and ask: "What am I going to do?" "Who am I?" "What should I do with my life?" Which is when Jesus went to the Temple, and that's when it hit him. He discovered who it is that he should be.
Norman Cousins wrote a tribute to Albert Schweitzer when he died. He mentioned all the influences on Schweitzer's life, trying to understand why he became such a hero, such a marvelous human being. He talked about the culture in which he grew up. He talked about his family life. He talked about his religious beliefs. Then he concluded with these words. "But beyond these explanations, it seems to me there is something else about Schweitzer. The best way I can say it is that somehow or other, he seemed to understand what God wanted from him, and he responded with a glad and willing heart."
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 19, 2021
Mary Visits Elizabeth
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Mary’s Song of Praise
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, it is customary to read the scripture which tells the story of Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel to announce that she has been chosen, is favored among women, that she will bear God’s child who will be the savior of the world or the story we have today, when Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and how both pregnant women rejoice together over the children they will birth. Little do they fully understand the roles that each will portray in God’s plan for the creation.
God’s plan has always been a mystery. Generations have long pondered what was that plan. Seminary libraries are full of texts which over generations have tried to determine what it was. Let’s be honest, today is another one of those days in this long chain of days. We feel like this year has been unique in the history of the world and in many ways, it has but let’s be clear there have been many moments in time – if not years, decades and centuries – which have been equally (and perhaps even more bleak) than the times in which we live.
It was a difficult decision I made on Thursday to cancel our Christmas Eve (Eve, Eve, Eve, Eve, Eve) gathering at Goodyear Park. Like you, I had been looking forward to this particular time together for a long time hoping that it would mark a turn in this long dark night of fighting Covid. But, once again, we have been thwarted by this crafty virus which has cooked up a new variant. And even since Thursday morning when I sent out the email of cancellation the speed with which the Omicron variant is replicating has picked up speed to the point that our hospitals are near capacity and the governor has ordered the National Guard to report to hospitals on Monday to assist staff who are faltering under the escalating demands of those who are in need of medical care.
Despite the fact that we cannot fully determine or grasp God’s intentions as to how the Creation will become what has been intended, we can learn one lesson – It takes time. Isaiah was a prophet around 700 B.C. What he visioned and proclaimed was not to be fulfilled for decades and yet, those who held on to the hope of his words were willing to wait – even beyond their own deaths.
I guess what I want to put before us today is that the changes that God promises take time. Mary is the bearer of a miracle – one which probably went the full term of nine months. No short cuts here. This child will not appear overnight and it is safe to say Jesus wasn’t found under a cabbage leaf. Jesus’ birth is the beginning of the “fully human” argument of his make-up after the non-human aspect of conceived by God. If we can grasp any understanding of God’s workings the Pandemic may be help us understand helplessness (although we are not fully helpless since we have the vaccines available to us and we can choose to wear masks, wash our hands, and keep social distance in order to try to prevent the virus from gaining access to us) and how the passage of time, although difficult to endure, is how the process unfolds. Yes, we are tired. Some of us are worn out and weary from waiting. And yet, what choice do we have? Generations of faithful people shout, “Welcome to the club!” It seems like each day the Pandemic robs one more fully productive day from our lives and promises to do so for many more days to come. But if we allow the virus to make our days and our lives unproductive then we are living in defeat.
It is here that we find the parallel of God’s purpose for us all. The God of the Bible does things in God’s own way and also does them at God’s own time. We think sometimes that God should do some particular act right now, or at a time that we choose. The Judeans undoubtedly wanted God to save them in the eighth to sixth centuries B.C. But there would be hundreds of years to pass before their (our) Messiah would appear on the scene. First, Israel had a chastening for her sins and a discipline to undergo, as we do also so often before we know our Savior to be with us. God prepares our hearts in many different ways before we are ready to receive Jesus. But the Messiah will come, Micah promises -- that anointed one of the house of David, sent from God, raised up from the people, to do away with evil-doers and to bring to the faithful a realm of justice and righteousness, of peace and security and wholeness and health. Such is the purpose of God’s creation and we who share a vision of what is to come get to wait even if we think that the wait is too long.
And Christmas comes in its own good time.
Third Sunday of Advent
December 12, 2021
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the character of John the Baptizer — he is bold, he is loud, he is energetic. Before he points us down the road of living our faith, he asks us to check our spiritual compass — to check the direction of our lives. He implores us to make sure we know where we are headed. He asks us to make sure that we are clear about which direction we are carrying the message of our lives. And, most importantly, he assures anyone who takes time to hear that it is not too late to repent — to literally turn around. No, it’s not too late to change the direction of our lives so that we won’t miss the new life that God is promising to bring our way. We know that during this season of Advent, this season of new creation, we are called to wait and to watch and to expect but we are also called to participate in what God does in Advent. We are called to participate by preparing ourselves through repentance.
All four gospels introduce us to introduce us to this bristly John the Baptizer and always in early December, when the rest of the world is wrapped in soft, sweet, anticipatory celebration with concerns for trees (ask FOX News), gifts, sweet treats and decorations. Amidst all of our hurried preparations John comes to confront us, to afflict us, to discomfort us, and to remind us that most of our preparations for Christmas don’t prepare us for Christ at all. Luke’s version of the John story begins in the immediacy of what was happening at a particular historic moment when God entered history through this child. Prepare a way for the Lord. Examine your life. Examine your priorities, your values, your behavior. Check out your emotional, your spiritual, and your ethical life. Are you headed in the right direction? Are you headed in the direction of both being good and doing good? Are you headed in the direction of God? And if not, then repent, turn around, and change direction – it’s never too late.
My friends, if we want God to come warmly, humanly, simply into our lives then we need to get ready and John appears as a drill sergeant to shout us into line. We need to prepare. We need to repent. We need to change. Yes, today John speaks uncomfortable words to us in a season where we yearn to be comfortable. It would be easy for us to become frightened by John’s barking as if he is just here to condemn, to judge, to insult. We may think of John as a hostile and stern proclaimer of God’s wrath but his function is to assure his listeners of God’s grace which comes to heal and not harm. How John represents that message can be difficult for us to sort out. Here is the root of the theological tension between grace and law, between acceptance and judgment, between God as lover and God as judge.
All of this confuses our thinking – we have trouble understanding how can judgment and grace co-exist in the same place? It was — and it is — a very good question. It underlines the discomfort we all have with these John the Baptist stories. If God comes freely and graciously for all of us in the full humanity of Jesus -- If God is born in us whether we deserve it or not — how come we have to do something in order to receive it? Why do we have to repent in order to be forgiven? How come we have to change in order to receive God? What right does John — or anyone — have to judge us, to criticize us, to assume that we aren’t okay just the way we are?
Today, the words of John the Baptizer — words crying in the wilderness of our humanity — are not words of criticism. They are words of choice. John was not judging our worth. He was inviting our wholeness. He was not criticizing our past. He was offering our future. John was communicating the paradox of our faith — that the free and lavish grace of God makes no difference unless we are accountable. The unconditional love of God cannot find fertile soil unless we first uproot the weeds in the wilderness of our souls. God does not judge us. John does not judge us. We are not to judge each other.
But the truth of the gospel is that we must judge ourselves — we must face the truth of who we are and claim the hope of who we want to become. And after we judge ourselves — after we honor this call to accountability — then we can receive God, as God recreates us in a holy image. This is the work of Advent. This is the work of preparation. This is the work of repentance. This is the work of turning around to face the direction of God. And the result? Exquisite freedom and abundant life!
There is a medieval legend, adapted from a story told by Thomas Troeger, about a man who was decadent and irresponsible in many ways but who had enough grace in him to want to be good. He went to a costume maker who gave him a costume to wear — complete with a halo wired to his head. As the man walked down the street he was tempted to act in his normal, shiftless way. Then he remembered the halo on his head and he decided to act differently. He gave money to a beggar on the street. He treated his wife well. He refused to cut corners at work. Eventually he returned the halo costume but as he was leaving the costume shop he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and he saw a permanent halo glowing above his head! It seems that he had become what he did — that his repentance had made possible God’s forgiveness and transformation in his life. Yes, by turning around and beginning to behave in a new way this man found a permanent new direction for his life.
Through our baptism we receive a halo that is permanently attached to our soul, but we need to be about the business of looking in the mirror of our days and polishing that halo with repentance and intent. John makes it clear this morning that repentance is what we do so that God will have space and a place to make us into new people — so that God can complete the baptismal blessing of our lives.
Thanks be to God.
Second Sunday of Advent
December 5, 2021
Paul’s Prayer for the Philippians
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
We are living at a time full of conflict. The fabric of our society is as stretched today as it has ever been. The fellow citizens who share this country with us are as conflicted today as at any other time in the nation’s history. Another school shooting resets the barricades between the divided interpreters of the Second Amendment. The anti-maskers and anti-vaxers continue to dig their heels in refusing to accept any responsibility for being the incubators of Covid and its variants. And the Supreme Court this week heard the long anticipated ninety minutes of debate over the abolition of a woman’s right to choose and control her own body and health.
Sadly, and once again, I feel like I am on the loosing side of these conflicts even though on all three of these issues my position is the same as a majority of my fellow citizens. I struggle to understand how it can be that in a democracy its possible that the minority dictates to the majority. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think the majority should railroad legislation, but a democracy is at its best when governance decisions are made through meaningful debate and consideration without the political sleight of hand that some politicians take great pride in. So, as we join in a chorus of, “O God, not again,” what do we do?
First of all, we accept the fact that the times in which we are living are not unique. As we are making our way through Advent, we can relate to a God who was asking the question – “What am I to do to get the attention of people and bring them into the circle of my love?” In our communion liturgies we find a common line every time that rehearses for us that over and over again God tried to reach out and get our attention through prophets who were ignored and killed and through Jesus – who was ignored and killed. What’s that about history repeating itself? But that’s just the point of the Jesus Story – it did not end with his death. His return to the scene makes it possible for us to have hope for the future. And Advent repeated every year gives us the opportunity to pull back from the conflicts we have been involved in and reset our spirits for a new year of conflicts.
Granted, the mere thought of going through this process year after year may be tiring. Some people may become worn down over time. We too may feel worn down from time to time. And we all know people who were once among us in a congregation of committed folks who just grew too tired, lost hope, and bailed. Their celebration of Christmas became symbolic rather than spiritual and, life just became a perpetual plodding into a hopeless future. A future where conflict is avoided rather than challenged with the hope only God can give.
There once was a devoted Christian in the South who produced conflict in the very church in which he was trying to live the commands of Christ. Clarence Jordan was a Baptist preacher who tried during the fifties and sixties to live out the Sermon on the Mount in South Georgia. One day the church there in Americus to which Clarence belonged decided--like too many of our churches reflecting our culture rather than Christ--to have a meeting with him and "church" him--meaning kick him out of the membership--for all the racial stirring up and mixing up he was causing. So they met with Clarence. As they sat there, their chairs in a circle, Clarence handed them his Bible and said he would be glad to correct his ways and quietly remove his membership from the church if anyone could show him from the Book where he was twisting or misinterpreting any doctrine or teaching of Christ. The Bible was silently handed from one man to the next without comment. Finally, one of them angrily responded, "Aw, don’t give us that Bible stuff!"
If we accept that conflict is as certain as death and taxes, then we need to clearly identify the sources of our hope to counter conflict or prepare for surrender. “Bible stuff” is a source of hope for people of faith. Fellowship is another. Trusting God is yet another. Being a Christian is not easy. It will bring conflict into our lives; however, the Good News is that in doing so, you transfer your citizenship from this world to the next.
(9) "And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 14, 2021
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’
Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
The Old and New Testament scriptures frequently speak of a final consummation of human history. Life had a beginning. Life will have an end. The prophets spoke of the "day of the Lord," a final day when God will come in judgment and justice. The early church identified the end with the second coming of the risen Jesus, who will return to complete what he started. Speaking of that day, Jesus is quoted as promising that there would be a separation of the sheep from the goats and those who lived lives worthy would be rewarded.
That event has not yet happened. The fervor of those first century Christians that Jesus would return in their time was not fulfilled. Some may say they waited in vain. The hope was passed to the next generation who also lived and died without its fulfillment. And so it has been to the current age. We wait for this to happen. But as the generations have waited for the end to come there has been a progressive weariness of waiting. As we grow tired, we begin to allow other narratives to creep in to our expectation of how the end will come. Currently, climate change is high on that list.
In today's text, Jesus affirms that the Temple, with its massive stones and seemingly indestructible assembly, would be torn down. Similarly, this world will come to an end. A little while later, four of the disciples pulled him aside asking, "Jesus, what exactly are you talking about?" That began a grim recital of events in the thirteenth chapter of Mark, from which we heard a piece today. Looking ahead, Jesus spoke of earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars, famines, persecution, betrayal, and suffering. "That's how it's going to be," said Jesus, because in some sense, that's the way it is. If asked today Jesus could possibly add climate change.
The key to this passage, however, is that Jesus does not speak about the end of the world, as much as he speaks of a world that is coming to an end. One hopes we can hear the difference. In a world like this, human institutions like the Temple crumble apart stone by stone. It seems an inevitable part of this age. But Jesus claims this worn-out world is passing away. In a world like this, there are people who stand up to tell the truth, who speak good news, and who point to what God is doing.
Even as we wait for the end of the world, Christians are those people who have, in a sense, already seen the end of the world. We have seen it in the cross.
The challenge for us in these difficult times is to live toward that new world as if it's already here. Christians are people who live as if the times have changed. We wait for the Son of Man to come again because we have seen the Son of Man in the power of the cross. We watch for his future reign because, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God's reign is already here. We continue to wait, because it is not yet fully here. Not completely. We live in the tension between "already" and "not yet." We trust God's will ultimately, yet we cope with unfinished suffering. The stakes are high and it's easy to give in. Neill Hamilton, who taught at Drew University for many years, once observed how people in our time lose hope for the future. It happens whenever we let our culture call the shots on how the world is going to end. At this stage of technological advancement, the only way the culture can make sense of the future is through the picture of everything blowing up in a nuclear holocaust or burning wild fire or floods and storms swallowing the land. Many in the world refuse to accept what we “know,” that everything has changed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that the same Christ is coming to judge the world and give birth to a new creation. And so, people lose hope. As Hamilton puts it: This substitution of an image of nuclear holocaust (or other disaster) for the coming of Christ is a parable of what happens to Christians when they cease to believe in their own eschatological heritage. The culture supplies its own images for the end when we default by ceasing to believe in biblical images of God's triumph at the end.
The good news of the gospel is this: when all is said and done, God is going to win. We are invited to live as if God's final victory is a done deal. But can we believe it? I have often wondered why so many wild-eyed prophets of the future end up as television preachers. In the world of religious broadcasting, you have to look long and hard to find a reasonable and faithful voice. I, like too many others, watch them late at night in order to get an idea of the playing field these quacks are laying down. Jack Van Impe and his wife Rexella, are two figures who were made for television. Their hairstyles defy the laws of gravity, their teeth are unreasonably numerous and white, and they act like they know and love every person. Their weekly show, Jack Van Impe Presents, purports to look at world events through the eyes of faith. Contrary to Jesus' warnings in Mark 13, Jack and Rexella point to news items as if they are cogs in God's mechanical plan for the future. They list one earthquake after another famine, and declare "It's God's unfolding will!" Whether Jack and Rexella realize it, their scenarios are also unabashedly pro-American. In all of their end-of-the-world schemes, the devastation and carnage most often takes place in other countries, apparently so Americans can watch it on television while eating Doritos and writing checks to support their drivel. It's easy for us mainline folks to take shots at Jack and his wife Rexella, particularly when it comes to their silly and simplistic views of the future. But what do we have? Could it be that, just maybe, we have given in to the despair and hopelessness of our culture? Have we given up on God's future, left with a hand-wringing pessimism about the state of the world? Have we felt abandoned by God?
We awake each day to face old and new challenges to believe that God is ultimately in charge and we do not need to adhere to any interpretations of current affair signs of the end times. We can trust that when this all comes to its end it will be with God’s intended plan for our future. Amen.
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 7, 2021
Psalm 146 is one of my favorite Psalms. The whole sense that a life lived with purpose and meaning is one which is spent praising God is certainly a challenge. Although we may have spent a good portion of our lives praising God, there have been those few (or more) passages of time when we did not feel much like giving praise to God. We may have felt caught in a circumstance of our own or other’s doing which acted like an anchor or a painful memory. So much life may have been sucked out of us that we did not feel like we had anything more to offer God in praise.
But the challenge to praise God remains. Rather than become unresponsive lumps of skin and bones we are called to give our all to the purpose of God’s kingdom building. We are encouraged to become more aware of what is going on around us – the beauty as well as the pain – the thrill as well as the fear. And it is in these moments when we can discover the true beauty of God. Praise God!
The Psalmist not only calls us to praise God but gives us reason to do so –
(God) made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them
(God) keeps faith forever
(God) executes justice for the oppressed
[that gives a whole new understanding of execution which is focused on providing justice for the oppressed]
(God) gives food to the hungry
(God) sets the prisoners free
(God) opens the eyes of the blind
(God) lifts up those who are bowed down
(God) loves the righteous
(God) watches over strangers
(God) upholds the widow
(God) brings to ruin the way of the wicked
If we are to ask ourselves, “how are we to praise a god such as this” the answer would be to not just observe and appreciate God’s actions but to be a participant in their accomplishment. God does not intend to be alone in this work but created humans as partners in God’s work and invites us to show up and do something. For us to rely solely on God’s energy and effort to get good done would simply allow us to fall into the gutters of society which lay in wait to snare and trip up humans sucking us down the drain into the cease pool of a world gone amuck.
I will be the first to say that it seems like there are too many who seem to fit that way of life. It blew my mind this week that a Supreme Court Justice, while hearing arguments concerning whether concealed carry permits were a violation of Second Amendment Rights, had to concoct a hypothetical situation where everyone in a crowd in Times Square was not only allowed but expected to have a loaded gun in their possession. The judge posed the question as to whether or not those people could gather with a sense of protection. I don’t know about you but I would not want to be in that situation.
But here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century wondering about the person next to us and whether or not they have a loaded gun under their coat. Loaded guns are no way for us to give praise to God. We can try to hide behind the self-preservation argument but the truth is that guns are intended to only bring pain and harm unless they are pointing at a paper target. Who in their right mind can claim that carrying a loaded weapon in a crowd of people who are also armed with guns is a good idea? And yet gun rallies and gun shows persist – Praise God?
The following is a poem from Tim Hansel's book "Holy Sweat" which describes how we should ride through life with Jesus in control:
At first, I saw God as my observer, my judge, keeping track of the things I did wrong, so as to know whether I merited heaven or hell when I die. He was out there sort of like the president. I recognized His picture when I saw it, but I didn't really know Him.
But later on, when I recognized this Higher Power, it seemed as though life was rather like a bike ride, but it was a tandem bike, and I noticed that God was in the back helping me pedal. I don't know just when it was that he suggested we change places, but life has not been the same since—life with my Higher Power, that is. God makes life exciting! But when He took the lead, it was all I could do to hang on! He knew delightful paths, up mountains and through rocky places—and at breakneck speeds. Even though it looked like madness, he said, "Pedal!"
I worried and was anxious and asked, "Where are you taking me?" He laughed and didn't answer, and I started to learn trust. I forgot my boring life and entered into adventure. When I'd say, 'I'm scared," He'd lean back and touch my hand.
He took me to people with gifts that I needed, gifts of healing, acceptance, and joy. They gave me their gifts to take on my journey, our journey, God’s and mine. And we were off again. He said, "Give the gifts away; they're extra baggage, too much weight." So I did, to the people we met, and I found that in giving I received, and our burden became light.
At first, I did not trust Him in control of my life. I thought He'd wreck it, but He knows bike secrets—knows how to make it lean to take sharp corners, dodge large rocks, and speed through scary passages. And I am learning to shut up and pedal in the strangest places. I’m beginning to enjoy the view and the cool breeze on my face with my delightful constant Companion.
And when I'm sure I just can't do any more, He just smiles and says, “Pedal!"
The Psalmist’s list of that which God does and that which God invites us to join in doing stands against every evil we can possibly imagine. How this will all end is a great uncertainty. I suspect that God will be triumphant in the end and is willing to work with us to get things taken care of. The Psalmist’s promise that God will bring the way of the wicked to ruin is pretty much all we need to continue to push forward with a sense of confidence and praise.
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
October 31, 2021
The First Commandment
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 neighbour 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 neighbour 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.
R. J. Dreese
In Mark 12, we discover the Pharisees, the Sadducees and some of the Herodians trying to trap Jesus. They knew he was stirring up the people. They viewed him as a trouble maker and they wanted to find some grounds by which they could bring him up on charges. However, what they discovered was a man who knew the Law better than they did. More importantly, he understood the heart of the Law rather than just a surface view. And some of them were impressed.
One of the teachers of the law heard them debating and asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
In the Old Testament books of the law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy scholars have counted 613 laws. Of these laws, 248 are considered to be positive in nature, while 365 are considered to be negative. That is, some compel the righteous person to do certain things while others forbid certain activities. These 613 laws formed the basis for Jewish belief and practice. In his answer to this teacher of the law, Jesus boils all the Law, the Commandments and all the teachings of the prophets down into one word: Love. Love God; love your neighbor.
What does it mean to love? Christians are called to do more than have warm feeling toward people. As followers of Jesus we are called to seek out people who are hurting and minister to them. The Christian faith is not one of relaxation but one of working to put faith into practice – in this case it is love that we are to make real for others. Some people would claim that attending worship and dropping some money into the offering is all the taxing components that they need to fulfill in order to be followers of Christ. But there are no minimum requirements here. Instead, we are asked and challenged to give love to God and fellow humans at all times and places.
Love requires that somehow we find out who the hurting are and go them. Sometimes it’s hard to identify those who are hurting. Not everyone is willing to tell us what is bothering them or what need(s) they have. There may be times when we are forced to do some guessing while respecting their privacy. Our loving acts are not always delivered by a dump truck of love but sometimes just trickle out a little at a time to allow people to be “not far from the Kingdom of God.” Every time we perform an act of love we glorify Christ. The first commandment is, of course, to love God. When we love somebody in Jesus’ name, we are showing our love for God.
President Abraham Lincoln once said about religion: “When any church,” said Lincoln, “will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and Gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul.” So would a lot of other people in our society with a negative view of religion. I have had the oppor-tunity to visit many church sanctuaries. Of particular interest for me has been the placement of the communion table, its construction and decoration. Many, if not most, usually had the words “Do This In Remembrance” inscribed on the front drop. Important as those words of Jesus are I think that Lincoln’s observation of Jesus’ words “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all they soul, and thy neighbor as thyself.”
A teacher of the law asked Jesus: Of all the commandments, which is the greatest? “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Even though Jesus was pleased with the man’s answer he did not want to give him the sense that he had “graduated” from showing love. It is not a one-time accomplishment but a life long journey. And with each new day we are coming closer to the kingdom of God. Amen
Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost
October 24, 2021
The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
A woman came home one day to find that her house had been broken into. She immediately called the police and told them. The nearest officer to her house happened to be a K-9 unit, so that officer was the one who responded to the call. The officer drove up to the house and proceeded to let the dog out of the car. The woman came running out of the house when she saw the police car but stopped when she saw the dog getting out. She threw up her hands and said, "Great. This is just great. Not only have I been robbed, but now they send me a blind police officer!"
Bartimaeus, the blind man, was sitting in his customary spot. No telling how long it had been his spot. He'd shuffle out every day and sit in the same spot along the busy street leaving Jericho. Those few people who had a conscience and a touch of empathy would toss a coin or two into his begging bowl. And he probably made just enough to feed himself one day at a time. Most people, though, walked on the other side of the street. Afraid that whatever sin God was punishing this blind man for was contagious. That's what they thought back then, that blindness was God's punishment for sin, either yours or your parents. Because he was blind, he was ostracized and cut off from normal society.
When he heard that Jesus was coming, he could hardly wait. It would seem that Jesus’ reputation had preceded him along the way. All Bartimaeus wanted was a “chance to see.” And when Jesus got close, to the embarrassment of all those around, Bartimaeus started hollering at the top of his lungs, hoping to get Jesus' attention. It worked. Jesus paused and asked him what he wanted. Bartimaeus said, "Let me see again." And Jesus did. Jesus gave Bartimaeus a chance to see but Jesus gives the credit to Bartimaeus’ own faith.
Now, as was done for Bartimaeus, Jesus offers us all a chance to see in whatever way we are blind.
But what would have happened had Bartimaeus refused to open his eyes to test the cure? Perhaps he was afraid of being disappointed. Perhaps he was afraid that having sight would not meet his expectations or seeing may not have been as good as he thought he remembered it. All of us have had experiences where we were afraid to test a situation we had hoped for. It won’t be long before we start seeing all the familiar Christmas movies. Christmas Vacation is one; Chevy Chase anticipates a significant bonus check from his employer, and when it’s delivered a day late he holds on to the envelope and shares with his family his big plans for a backyard pool. When he does open the envelope, he finds that it isn’t the check he expected but membership in the Jelly of the Month Club. He rants and raves and through a series of slapstick events he winds up with what he got last year with an increase – and a pool. Or what about that favorite family recipe we had such fond memories of, but when we found the yellowed paper in the book and put it to the test, we found that our memory of the taste was fonder than the reality of the taste in our mouth?
Properly seeing is not just a function of eyesight alone but also requires “assembling” all the available clues in order to make out what something really is. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, told a story about himself. He was waiting for a taxi outside the railway station in Paris. When the taxi pulled up, he put his suitcase in it and then got in the taxi. As he was about to tell the taxi driver where he wanted to go, the driver asked him: "Where can I take you, Mr. Doyle?'' Doyle was astounded. He asked the driver if he knew him by sight. The driver said: "No Sir, I have never seen you before.'' Doyle was puzzled and asked him how he knew he was Arthur Conan Doyle. The driver replied: "This morning's paper had a story that you were on vacation in Marseilles. This is the taxi stand where people who return from Marseilles always wait. Your skin color tells me you have been on vacation. The ink spot on your right index finger suggests to me that you are a writer. Your clothing is very English, and not French. Adding up all those pieces of information, I deduce that you are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.'' Doyle exclaimed, "This is truly amazing. You are a real-life counterpart to my fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes." "There is one other thing,'' the driver said. "What is that?' Doyle asked. "Your name is on the front of your suitcase.''
It wasn't the powers of deduction. It was the power of observation. That taxi driver's lenses were clean enough to observe what was going on around him. He had the proper focus. Being among those who believe Jesus to be who he says, he required that we have a whole new focus on ourselves and the world we live in. One of my seminary professors taught that “the Christ event” (life, death and resurrection) is like a lens constructed at the historical time in which Jesus lived through which all that happened before his ministry and all that has happened since he walked the earth is focused and has meaning. In order to be faithful followers, we have to view the past, present, and future through this same lens and see what is happening through Jesus’ eyes.
That day on the Road to Jericho, Bartimaeus was given a chance to see. And he took it. He opened his eyes, developed the proper focus, gained the spiritual insight he needed, and "immediately followed Jesus." Jesus healed Bartimaeus of his blindness. But the thing is, you don't have to be blind in order to need to see; or, in order to gain new sight. God always gives us new eyes to see through. New eyes, new eyesight, new focus, a new clarity of vision, and a new vision for our lives. All we have to do is ask.
Jesus asks us the same question he asked Bartimaeus, "What do you want me to do for you?" All we have to do is answer saying, "A Chance To See." His love and grace have already provided it for us; all we have to do is ask and take the risk to actually look.
This story ends with Bartimaeus following Jesus “on the way.” The same can be true for us.
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 10, 2021
Being a kid who grew up in Akron, I was not very familiar with tall buildings. Sure, there was Oneil’s and Polsky’s downtown but they were far from being skyscrapers. Both buildings had elevators but they just lifted people a few floors and, when shopping with my parents, we went up and down on either the elevator or the escalator.
It wasn’t until I was a freshman at Ohio State that I became aware of the secret of taller buildings. I lived in Morrel Tower – one of two housing units on the Western edge of the main campus. My room was on the “twenty-third” floor – the top floor. But one day while I was sitting with friends in the grass outside the dorm, I counted only twenty-two rows of windows going up the building. I started to wonder how this was. The lower two floors were the public areas – 1-maintenance, laundry, storage, food services, 2-main lobby, common area, etc. Students used two banks of elevators that went up the central core. The girl’s elevators served the lower floors and floors three through twelve. The boy’s elevators served the lower floors and floors fourteen through twenty-three.
The “secret” was that the building did not have a thirteenth floor – at least it did not have a floor that was identified as the thirteenth floor. The same is true in most tall buildings – the thirteenth floor does not appear on the directory or the elevator panel. It’s an accepted practice.
Located in mid-Manhattan is Trump Tower – a building listed with 68 stories, according to most reference sources. At least that's what the books say. And, in fact, there is a button for the 68th floor in the elevator. Pushing that button takes you to an actual floor whose apartment numbers begin with 68. Yet Trump Tower doesn't have 68 stories; it actually has only 58 stories.
William Poundstone, in his book Biggest Secrets, points out that prices of condos in New York City rise in proportion to height. Therefore, he suspects, someone in the Trump organization fudged by having the top floors of Trump Tower designated 66 through 68 on the elevator. As a result, many buildings in Manhattan are actually taller than Trump Tower, but many of these have fewer listed stories than Trump Tower supposedly does. The General Motors building, for example, located a few blocks up Fifth Avenue is 705 feet high (vs. 664 for Trump Tower), but it has only 50 stories. Sometimes, things are not exactly as they seem.
Mark tells us the story of a day when Jesus was making his way through a community of people when a young man ran up to him and knelt down. The crowd must have been impressed to witness such devotion especially since the young man was wealthy – probably from a family of wealth. This young man was undoubtedly sincere when he asked the wrong question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" As a person of wealth, he may have appeared that he had it made. But his question indicates that he knew that something was missing and he figured he could ask Jesus how he could buy his way into eternal life.
Actually, his mistake is revealed in his question. What must I do TO INHERIT eternal life? If eternal life is an inheritance, by definition, who we are and who we belong to is far more important than what we do. Inheritance is usually a matter of belonging to the right family. If you belong to the right family, you are probably going to receive your inheritance automatically. Your name is going to appear in the will and the Probate Court will acknowledge that you are a rightful heir.
Of course, in the secular world, it is possible to lose your inheritance. For example, you could lose your inheritance if you do something grievous to tick off the person who holds the purse strings. "Be nice to Aunt Sally, children. She might leave us a nice inheritance. If you anger her she may cut you off.”
This young man is unsure whether he is of Christ’s family. He wants to know how he should be “nice” to Jesus in order to guarantee life eternal and it is awarded to him. He assumes that his behavior can, in some way, work to his advantage but he needs it straight from Jesus’ mouth what it is he is to do so that he does not waste his time and effort. Given the information, he wants he would be able to get on with his life trusting that his “after life” is assured.
Jesus doesn’t fall for the young man’s humility act. The kid presents himself assured that he has been following all the rules but he needs this last test answer. Knowing the kid wants the quick answer Jesus lays things out that take the wind out of his sails. Jesus turns to the young man and says to him "You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother." And the young man says, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."
And Mark tells us that Jesus, looking at him, "loved him.” Jesus isn't out to simply trip this young man up. He wants to help this young man to get beyond himself and into the kingdom. So, he got off to a bad start with Jesus by idle flattery. So he asked the wrong question. Jesus prefers someone who is still groping for answers than someone who is so self-satisfied that he or she no longer even bothers to ask. He was a young man with great potential and Jesus loved him.
There was just one insurmountable problem—the young man’s life was built with a few missing floors that he was willing to overlook. You know how the story ends. Jesus says to him, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
This is the only time Jesus makes this particular demand of anyone. It is obvious that Jesus was looking directly into this young man's heart. This young man was a person of obvious sincerity and character. He had everything going for him, but Jesus knew that his privileged upbringing could stand in the way of his discipleship. It's hard to have lots of money and pick up across.
Money is not the only barrier to cross-bearing. Each of us have a few unmarked floors missing from our person and Jesus, in His love for us, is willing to love us and show us the way to filling the voids. Not to eternal life alone but to living our lives to the fullest. And instead of looking the part we can appear to others to be closer to who we really are.
These earrings are made by residents of a community located outside Phom Penh, Cambodia. The artisans recycle bomb shell and bullet casings that were discharged in their country during the sixties and seventies.
"...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;..."
How do we remold ourselves?