January 12, 2020 Fall in love
In the reading from Isaiah, we are called to “Arise, shine; for your light has come... a thick darkness still covers the peoples,” he said. He wasn’t thinking of a literal dark night, but instead as sort of lostness, a lack of understanding and purpose. But he foresaw a time when God act to bring light and through God’s followers the light of understanding and purpose would arise in the world.
This darkness had covered the earth for a long time; many had longed for the hope of a new dawn. Isaiah said that when it came the nations would come to this light and kings to its brightness. And that’s what we see in the Gospel lesson, kings on a long journey through the dark. Weighed down with their gifts and riches as they seek the light.
Exactly who these kings were is difficult to discern. They were know as Magi, but are they kings? Or scholarly Persian magicians? Or mystical priests who specialized in interpreting dreams? Contemporary scholars, say they were all three. The Bible translation we used today just calls them “wise men,” though some of them could have been wise women. Our Christian tradition adds a multitude of details – for example, that their names were Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. But the Bible doesn’t even say how many there were, only that there were three gifts. There could have been 30 wise ones squeezing into the little stable at Bethlehem.
And they were not part of the Jewish world, but instead represent the whole world coming to the light. That tells me there is room in their magical caravan for all of us to join them.
The Wise Ones, we are told, have been traveling in the dark, following a star; and as they get closer, they seek council from Herod, the man appointed by the Romans to be king of Judah. They want to know where they can find the baby Jesus, the true King of the Jews. Herod likes the dark he lives under and he’s afraid of this new light. We all know there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful man when he is afraid. It’s the way of the world, and a village full of little boys will die to preserve the dark.
Still he sends Wise Ones off to Bethlehem where they do find the child, and as the Bible says, they paid him “homage.” The word that gets translated as “homage” is a wonderful compound word made of two smaller Greek words; it means “to fall down” and “to kiss.” This is worship at its most pure. They find this child, which is the goal of their life’s journey, and they fall in love. And immediately express that love by giving gifts. Being unwilling to betray their love, they ignore Herod’s commands and go home another way.
These wise ones offer the baby three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is tradition, too, around the meaning of these gifts. They are representative symbols.
The gold is because the baby is a king, and they say just that to Herod and all of Jerusalem – that they are looking for the child who has been born the King of the Jews. Notice, they don’t say born to one day be King of the Jews. He already is the King of the Jews. They say that to Herod, the one who currently claims to be king.
They offer the baby frankincense because he is God, and incense symbolizes their desire for communion with God. Prayers rising to the heavens like smoke link earth to heaven.
And they offer the baby myrrh, which was often used for burials and symbolized death, because even here at the beginning of this story about Jesus as a baby, we remember that this story goes to the cross and beyond.
I suspect the Church saved this story because we are all on our own journeys through the dark, carrying our own gifts within us. We can relate to those Wise Ones. We, too, seek to find the Truth, the one who will give meaning and purpose to our journey through this world of darkness. We, too, bear gifts and are seeking the right place to lay them down, as an expression of our love.
We come bearing gold, our gift for our king. There are many who would demand our allegiance, but who among them is fit to be our king? There are any number of authorities who would eagerly have your obedience and gold. How do we know which loud voice in the clamor of the world should be obeyed?
We come bearing frankincense and seeking what is holy and right in this world. We are looking for the thin space, the gap between this world that we see and touch and the other world that we long for and know to be eternally true. Is it our selves, our families, our nation? Is it our ideologies, our own opinions? Is there anything that makes you fall on your knees in honor of something greater than yourself?
We come bearing myrrh, in all that we mourn. We are all bearing grief in this world, and we are looking for a place to lay it down. What is it that makes you weep? As Jesus died, so shall we. Myrrh was used for the anointing of a dead body. What are you ready to bury? What do you need to let go of and mourn the loss of?
Whom do we obey? What do we worship? Where can we lay our broken hearts?
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church encourages us to think of our own personal faith pilgrimages as an attempt to follow Jesus, walking in The Way of Love. It means giving your allegiance to Jesus as you only King. It means letting him be your constant companion and guide in your daily walk. It means letting go of your grief, giving it to him. It means learning to die, so you may live eternally in the light.
It sounds like loss – the loss of being the center, in control; the loss of all the stuff we treasure and hide in the dark. But we don’t have to see it that way. When the Wise Ones finally found Jesus and could set life’s burdens down, they were overwhelmed with joy.
Those who walk through this dark world in the Way of Love will find themselves becoming tenderhearted and forgiving; overflowing with compassion. They will discover the joy and happiness that comes from living a life of gratitude.
Last week I tried to make the point that we’re all likely in different places on our pilgrimage. Some are new to The Way of Love, some are old hands. It really doesn’t matter how far along you might be, as long as you keep moving.
There is something out there that is so bright and beautiful that it drew the shepherds and the Magi, and it can draw us onward too. Don’t settle for living in the dark, burdened by your treasure, longing to lay it down but afraid to let it go. There is a guiding star, Jesus, follow him.
That is what Epiphany is about – it is a time to look for the light of God shining in unexpected places. And it is a time to fall in love with the light once we find it.
January 5, 2020 Starting to look like Jesus
It’s hard for a non-Christian to know what Christians really believe. The problem is knowing who to listen to. The ones that shout the loudest tend to be from the Christian right. There you will likely hear about undoing cultural or political changes, and sometimes the most extraordinary rejection of many of the achievements of two hundred years of scientific research.
Of course the majority of Christians don’t think like that, but the un-churched are less likely to hear from them since these Christians aren’t shouting a simple-minded dogma that journalists can easily turn into quick sound-bites. If someone wanted to get to know these other Christians, they would have to join them on a life-long pilgrimage. Episcopalians generally fall into this second category.
Robert Webber wrote a wonderful little book called Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. It was his memoir of his personal journey from professor and guiding light in the conservative Christian world to eventual membership in the Episcopal Church.
The son of Baptist missionaries, he rose to become a professor of theology and church history at Wheaton College, the flagship institution of the Evangelical movement. He believed that since the Bible held all the answers to life’s questions; the more you studied it, the more answers you found. Study it long enough and you would have the correct answer to all of life’s questions. So he became an expert at answers; writing books and teaching others the answers. Until there came a moment when none of his answers seemed to fit the questions in his own life.
It was a chance meeting with an Episcopal priest, a woman, that set him on a different road. (You likely don’t appreciate how ironic it was that a mere woman should teach an conservative Evangelical man how to be a Christian.) The essence of what she taught him was that there is no set collection of answers that will fit every person’s life questions.
Our understanding of the Bible is always a work in progress. Every day I keep finding new insights as I read it. Even if the Bible has not changed, I, as the reader, most definitely have changed as I grow and experience life. It is these changes, and our attempts to apply the Bible to them, that keeps bible study fresh and exciting.
My disagreement with conservatives is not that they preach and teach a set of ideas that I don’t agree with. The problem for me is that they insist that their ideas are mandatory and exclusive. The preacher is telling his flock in so many words unless you believe this particular formulation of Christian doctrine, you cannot belong to his church or expect to receive salvation when you die. A single changeless answer -- take it or leave it.
Pilgrims, on the other hand, know that today’s answers will be somewhat provisional, because there’s always something new over the next hill. Any attempt to find Christian truth must be described as a ‘work in progress’.
The author of the Epistle to the Ephesians calls us children of God through adoption. But we are not children who stay childlike. We are supposed to grow and mature, becoming more and more like Jesus. The answers that satisfy a five year old won’t fit when you’re fifty-five.
Paul says that as we travel with God, God provides us with a spirit of wisdom and revelation that effects this maturation. Wisdom and revelation. Those words have a sort of specialized meaning. Wisdom means the ability to see traces of God’s efforts in our lives and the wider world; it’s about finding what God is doing, right now, and joining in. Revelation is related, but is more personal. It’s about hearing God call you to do something in particular. So revelation is the stuff of dreams like Joseph had; like the dreams that lead him to take Mary and Jesus down to Egypt and then bring them home again when it was safe.
A through-going knowledge of the Bible and a degree in theology might help, but they are not required. After all, neither existed for Joseph, the carpenter. Ultimately it is God who provides the wisdom and revelation as needed. Our part is to listen, separate truth from our own passions and fears, and then act on the truth.
Life-long pilgrimage, wisdom, revelation, sifting truth from our own passions and fears. How does talk like this make you feel?
The thought that the same words of Scripture can bring us different meanings at different points in our life, is a very threatening idea for many Christians. For a good portion of his life, Robert Webber believed that his membership in the Church entitled him to be confident and certain in the answers it offered. It was only when the answers no longer worked for him, when uncertainty entered his life, that a way was opened for God to lead him into a richer deeper faith.
My problem with conservative Christianity is that by demanding certainty it closes down the possibility of pilgrimage, and thus spiritual maturity. Common-sense and basic psychology tells me that I should never close down an area of potential growth. But inflexible and fear-laden teachings about God just shuts down growth, both spiritually and creatively. Creativity requires we take risks and learn from our mistakes. Spirituality, as it has been practiced by every tradition of Christianity for 2000 years, has drawn deeply upon all sources of knowledge and human experience. When these infinite possibilities for growth and change are in any way fenced off or restricted, something godly in us dies. Still, many people, in their fear, yearn to do just that.
Parents often think churches are here to provide a solid moral grounding for their children. By this they mean a consistent set of never changing rules. But doing this just stamps out creativity and the sense of mystery and wonder we will need to see God …. and not incidentally, also results in a brain with little resistance to various kinds of indoctrination. The only people who gain from this situation are the less scrupulous in leadership positions.
As a parent and a grand-parent I rejoice to see a child grow in every area of life and in every sense of the word. Sometimes they make wrong turns, but that’s just an opportunity to learn. If given freedom and gentle guidance, in time they will find a unique identity and the role that God has prepared for them.
The question for a Christian is not, “what do you believe?” The important question is… Does what you believe enrich your life, enable you to flourish as a human being, and bring you into touch with the God who gives you hope, love and joy? Of course, the answer to that question is never expressed with words. Instead, the answer is something that can be seen in your expression and demeanour… you are starting to look a little like Jesus.
December 8, 2019 Repent
In every age when God’s people wandered away, got lost in themselves, human prophets appeared to sound warnings of what was to come unless humanity changed its course. They may be humble, untutored individuals like Amos, a common laborer of the eighth century B.C. or learned public figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We usually think of prophecy as foretelling the future – predictions of things to come. But the biblical meaning of prophecy is to speak as the voice of God for a particular time and place. Always it comes as guidance intended to lead us back, and away from the dooming consequences our wandering is taking us toward.
On this second Sunday of Advent, we find ourselves once again on the banks of the River Jordan with John the Baptist, the one Jesus himself described as the greatest of the prophets.
John feared no one, not even Herod or Herod’s wife, who in the end arranged to have John’s head. He was, however, totally devoted to the One for whom he came to prepare the way, saying to his followers, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”
His message is simple and direct, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Crowds from all over flocked to hear him and to be baptized in the Jordan River. Why? Simply put, because they were unhappy with their lives as they were, and they understood his message of change to be their only hope.
To make sense of why they flocked to him we need to understand how the people of that day understood the word repent.
Jewish thinking was deeply shaped by the experience of exile, of being stuck in a place where you don’t belong. They remembered slavery in Egypt and being carried into exile in Babylon, and those experiences became the classic examples of the common ordinary experience of feeling lost and disconnected in your own place and time. They thought that just as God, through the prophets, led the people out of Egypt and Babylon and back to the Promise Land, God is always preparing a way out of our separation and individual exile, and back into reconnection with the God who made us and loves us beyond our understanding. To repent then, is to return to your homeland, to the place where you feel you belong.
But there is more here. John call them to join him in the wilderness – far away from the places of comfort and power. He’s reminding them of how God’s people endured the wilderness – with all its confusions, ill-will, and foolishness – as they fled from Pharaoh’s tyranny. For years, they struggled with God’s call on their lives, often abusing it with their own disobedience. So they wandered far longer than they needed. They responded to God’s gracious leading with faithlessness and there were of course consequences. The wilderness is a place where death is all too close. Why wander there? John reminds the crowd of their ancestors’ struggles, and it allowed them to hear John’s call to repent more as invitation than judgment – as an invitation to come home where they belonged.
To repent doesn’t mean to simply be sorry. Certainly we can be sorry for our faithless and the suffering it causes us and those around us. Certainly we can be sorry for wandering away from the place we belong, but repentance is much more than that. To repent is to begin seeing differently, to begin thinking differently, both of which lead to acting and living differently. To repent is to change, but not for the sake of change itself. Rather, when we change, we become aware when our actions are out of step with God’s dream for all creation, i.e., when they are taking us away from the home God has prepared for us. Thus aware, we can stop and return.
So what is God’s dream for all creation? The answer to that question can be found throughout Scripture. We read one bit just moments ago in the poetry of the prophet Isaiah. God’s dream is for the world to be a place in which peace and equity – rather than fear and hatred – rule the day. God’s dream is for the world to be a place where we view each other with compassion and with love, where all of creation is full of the mercy and the peace of God. That is the home God dreams for us. That is the dream God leading us into, not next year, not ten years from today, but right now.
It is a desire that John himself expresses with the phrase that always comes after the verb “repent.” Why do we need to repent? Because the kingdom of heaven has come near in Jesus. Deciding to try to live and love like Jesus is what Christian repentance is all about; the journey home.
Beloved, what if we choose to hear John’s call - Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near – not as an ominous threat of impending condemnation, but as an invitation to live into God’s dream?
Even now, there are prophets rising up in our midst. Our youth dream of having a future in which they can enjoy God’s creation, but often feel that their dreams are threatened because of climate change and violence. They are demanding change to protect their lives and God’s creation so they and their children may enjoy the abundant life God desires for them, for us all. The vulnerable simply can’t afford to be indifferent, “and a little child shall lead them”, Isaiah said. (Isaiah 11:6b).
God invites us all to dream something beyond what we can presently see – the suffering of migrants, of refugees, the homeless, the hungry, and those who have lost loved ones through acts of violence. Following Jesus home, the dream of God help us set a course. God does not ask us if we are there yet, but rather whether we are headed in the right direction.
We, as children of God, need to heed the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness – the voice that reminds us of God’s dream. We need to take the time to seek God’s vision for us – to ask, “What does God want us to be and to do?” We need to choose one – just one, for now – element of our lives where we see the need for repentance and take advantage of the opportunity to change direction.
Following Paul’s counsel, we who have glimpsed God’s dream must now share that hope. Like John, we must strive to renew the hopes of an exhausted world. With practice, we can be like Isaiah, who can see beyond the mess and dream of a world in which all are ready for the arrival of God.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” - “Repent, live into God’s Dream.” This is John the Baptist’s invitation for us to come home and to be the people God has created us to be.
December 12, 2019 They knew nothing
“They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” That’s how Jesus described all those who watched and ridiculed Noah as he built his ark. Know-Nothings.
That’s also what most people called members of a short-lived political party active in the 1830’s through 50’s. It’s legal name was the Native American Party, though no Native Americans could join. It was a semi-secret association founded during a period of high immigration to America. They were against what they called the “mongrelization” of the United States; “America is for Americans only” was their slogan. They were simply racists and xenophobic, but they were also rabidly anti-catholic. Since so many immigrants were coming from heavily Catholic countries--Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Germany--they thought that the Pope was leading a conspiracy to take over the United States.
Anyway, in their view to hold any governmental office you should be a native—that is, born here (but not as a native American or a slave). Moreover, when it comes to voting, they advocated that only men (of course, only men) who had lived here for at least 21 years should granted suffrage. They figured that if they were unable to stem the flow of immigrants, then they would do anything they could to insure that new immigrants would be legally powerless second-class citizens.
They got the nick-name “Know Nothings” because when asked to justify their party’s policies, the members would typically respond, “I know nothing about that.” One can only presume that they either didn’t know about their party’s platform (highly unlikely) or that they were simply ashamed to talk about their inhospitable and bigoted attitude. They were the Know-Nothings.
Today’s Gospel lesson is about knowledge. How do we know what we know? To make things more complicated our single English word, “to know” translates a couple of distinct and different Hebrew ideas.
Jesus said, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Here the word “know” means to “see, to perceive.”
Likewise, if the owner of the house had only known, i.e., seen, perceived, the thief coming he would have been ready for him. This is knowledge through the senses, a scientific knowledge.
But today’s lesson also uses an idea that takes knowing beyond scientific observations. Those people who ridiculed Noah until the flood came and swept them all away certainly could see what Noah was doing (he was building a very big boat). They also would have heard him talk about the coming flood. In this sense they knew what he was describing, ...but they just didn’t see it ever happening. “It might rain for a few ways, but 40? Flood the whole earth? It’s never happened before. It won’t happen.”
They willfully chose to ignore his warnings, and instead went on living the way they always had… abusing one another and the earth itself. You might think of them as early climate change deniers.
Here’s were we encounter the other sort of knowing. This is a knowing beyond the senses, beyond science. This is knowing God, and knowing what God does, and what God wants from us.
Noah was always going on about how angry God was because of humanity’s sinfulness. They were using and misusing God’s creation. He told his neighbors that if they didn’t change their ways there would surely be consequences.
What Noah saw, perceived, was that God was still active in the world and cared how people treated one another and God’s creation. Noah came to know that in this case there would be more than an unusually long spell of steady rain, God was ready to act to save his creation.
God can be very helpful in the foxhole, but downright inconvenient if God should start making demands about how you live your life, treat one another, and manage creation generally. So it’s just easier to know nothing, to disbelieve.
The know-nothings Jesus talked about are those who choose not to believe in a God who makes inconvenient demands upon them or who might ever have any tangible impact on their lives. They went about their business, caught up in their own desires and pride,... until it is time for them to be swept away. They may have known the weather patterns, but they didn’t know God.
Here knowledge, as the Hebrews thought of it, is synonymous with faith; to know something is to have faith that it is what you believe it to be. Those who have faith in God are conscious of God’s redemptive purposes in the world; this is their knowledge, their wisdom. With such a foundation they are able to act, to build an ark or bind up a neighbor’s wound. They will use the knowledge of a loving God to help them conquer their fears of the neighbor who is different or speaks a different language. Because they believe God loves everyone, they will offer hospitality as God would have them offer it.
The Know-nothing party was gone by the time of the Civil War. President Lincoln was meeting with a delegation of churchmen who had called on him, offering spiritual guidance. (I suppose this is something every President has had to contend with. Thought I question the wisdom of some the guidance Presidents have been given.)
“The Lord is on our side,” the spokesman reassured the President. Lincoln merely nodded silently. “But, Mr. Lincoln, don’t you believe that the Lord is always on the side of the right?”
“Yes,” the President answered, “and, therefore, it is my concern to see that this nation and I stay on the Lord’s side.”
Lincoln understood an important truth. True knowledge expresses itself in godly action, like building arks or caring for the earth, and like working to build a nation in which all people may enjoy the benefits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But to succeed, such action must be grounded in the right attitude, the “purity of heart” of which the Bible speaks. Noah had it, Lincoln had it; it was nothing less than a living faith in our loving sovereign God.
“Know-nothings” abound in our world, even today. Pray that you are not one of them, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” and he’s not coming to commend the know-nothings for their faithlessness.
There are times when going to church doesn’t make any more sense than building an ark, but on the other hand, who in their right mind would want to be left behind or left out when the flood comes?
November 17, 2019 Awaiting the end times
With the liturgical year coming to a close, the lessons turn their attention to the “End Times,” and the anticipation of the “new heaven and a new earth” Isaiah foretold. The challenge for us today is how to incorporate the sense of urgency contained in these passages into our modern spirituality.
In the reading from Luke, the coming of “the great and terrible day of the Lord” is clearly spelled out. It’s depicted as a time of destruction and tremendous upheaval: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and signs from heaven.”
This could be describing our own time, yet the sad thing is that it has sounded that way to every age since Jesus spoke those words. For those who decided that their age was the last age, and went up to mountain tops to greet the Lord, having given up homes and property and even their own families, disappointment has always been their reward. The world never ends when we think it will! (Of course, Jesus also said the end will come when no one expects it, so second guessing God’s time plan is a fools errand.)
Nevertheless, Jesus spoke for a reason and we ought not to disregard what he said. And I don’t think that just because people in the past have misread God’s intentions we should feel free to throw up our hands and not try to understand what our Lord was calling us to do.
Here I think Paul might give us some helpful insights. The Epistle today is from his second letter to the Thessalonians. If you read both of his letters to the people living in Thessalonica, a city in northern Greece, you will learn that what we heard this morning is just part of a much bigger picture concerning the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment of the world.
In his first letter, Paul wrote: “I don’t need to write you about the time or date when all this will happen. You surely know that the Lord’s return will be as a thief coming at night. People will think they are safe and secure. But destruction will suddenly strike them like the pains of a woman about to give birth. And they won’t escape.”(1Thessalonians 5:1-3).
Apparently some people heard what he had to say and drew an unfortunate conclusion. Since Jesus could return any minute, they thought they were excused from doing anything useful with their lives in the meantime. So Paul had to write a second letter. He called them “mere busybodies; not doing any work.” Obviously they had misunderstood his thinking. Rather than do nothing and sit around waiting for the final judgment, Paul suggested they follow the example of his own life and ministry.
Paul worked hard to spread of the Gospel and establish churches, but he also continued to carry on the normal chores of daily life common to everyone. But following Jesus in the Way of Love put a new spin of everything he did. His life was changing and it impacted those around him. In his mind every person he touched, everyone who responded favorably to the Good News, could become a brick in the “new heaven and new earth” God was building.
Paul felt an urgency about this work and perhaps this contributed to the perception that the return of Christ was very near. He knew each one of us only had so much time to accomplish what God had given us to do with our life. And then others, like his disciple Timothy, would take over the continuing construction of the Kingdom of God. Our own time is limited, so don’t waste it. Work hard now, build it one relationship at a time. Paul’s witness is that it will surely come, but according to its own timing. While we work within a single life-span, God’s time frame is eternity.
Paul was agitating for a renewed vision of humanity; we were born to be Children of God, sharing with the Son of God, our brother Jesus, in bringing to fruition God’s great dream for all creation. Jesus didn’t come to share in the glory of any earthly kingdom; his, and ours through him, is to be a far greater glory than creation has thus far ever known.
He likened all this to the many months of preparation for the birth of a baby. The birth will surely come but the exact time the child is to be born is out of our hands. He didn’t know about modern methods for inducing a birth, but he did know that with the birth of the Kingdom there would also be pain.
His own experience taught him that if you diligently work to build up the Kingdom of God, it will be seen as a challenge to the dominance of the earthly kingdoms, the principalities and powers, as Paul described them. They will resist. There will be pain and suffering, labor pains.
Walking with Jesus in the Way of Love is to question the lordship of every earthly emperor. So Paul sought to equip the people of his generation to stand over against the arrogant claims of earthly rulers, to claim citizenship in the larger, all-encompassing realm of God’s love. He advocated living as foreigners in a strange land; as citizens of the Kingdom of God living in a land ruled by the enemies of God. We are to try to fit in as we are able, but not to the point where we are forced to give up our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. The tension this creates will help to clarify what is most important and create in us the same sense of urgency Paul felt.
None of this is easy. Christians many times in the past have been lulled into complacency just as they were in first century Thessalonica. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Germany’s Third Reich built on the church’s basic teaching of obedience. But it was obedience to the state instead of the Kingdom of God; they are never the same. As a consequence many lost the ability to discern the difference between Good and Evil. Lazy spirituality is a very dangerous thing. So Paul warned them and us, “Brothers and sisters, do not weary of doing what is right.”
Christian spirituality, it has been said, is about prioritizing our loves. Love of God, love of neighbor and self, love of our enemies. The demands of love require our constant attention, especially when many others, people and institutions, clamor for our attention and allegiance.
We live in very distressing times. The Scripture for today reminds us to attend to the important things of life, remembering the demands of justice and our commitment to walk in the way of Love. Most importantly, pray. With God a constant companion we will find it much easier to live as citizens of the Kingdom.
November 10, 2019 Heavenly Bliss
Jesus is a rabbi, and therefore a student of the Laws of Moses. In today’s reading some of his enemies challenge him to prove he knows his stuff by posing for him what was in those days a classic trick question with no agreed upon answer. Seven husbands and one wife.
To make sense of this you need to know about the Levirate Marriage laws. This is a practice that happened in many places around the world, particularly in patriarchal societies like Israel. The Bible has lots of fun stuff nobody seems to know about; this is one example.
Suppose a husband dies childless. He could be the richest man in the county, but his widow inherits nothing; she must find a male relative to take her in. A woman has to belong to someone in that culture. Besides, what happens to the dead man’s property if the widow can’t inherit?
Here’s where the Levirate Marriage laws fit in. The scriptures say that if a man dies childless (i.e., without a son -- girls don’t count) then his closest male relative must marry the widow and produce children and provide for them as his own. Further, for legal purposes, the oldest male child of this union is then considered the son of the deceased brother and is therefore eligible to inherit his “father’s” name and belonging.
So this law of Moses, like many of the others, can be considered a gift of mercy: it insures the widow will not be homeless, the deceased husband’s name will continue, and the inheritance, the land, is preserved for the family.
Not a particularly popular law for lots of obvious reasons, but among them is the fact that while a man who complies with the law and will be the biological father and sole support for the boy, he will not receive a share in the first husband’s property. It all goes to the son he produced and supported. So unless he has designs on the widow and wants another wife, Levirate Law is for him a loosing proposition. Those of you with friends who are biblical literalist, might ask them if they are ready to keep this Law of Moses (Deut. 25:5-10) in their own family.
The situation in today’s lesson has one further twist. While many folks in Jesus day believed in some sort of heaven, this particular set of Jesus’ enemies, the ones posing the question, don’t. They want to prove their point by setting up a completely implausible situation involving the Levirate Marriage law.
Suppose there are seven brothers. One marries and dies childless. So his brothers, one after another, take the wife and all die childless. Now assuming there is a heaven and all of them, seven brothers and widow end up there, “Who does she belong to?”
Trick questions won’t stump God. But it did give Jesus an opportunity change the way we think about relationships.
The gift of marriage is for this world. It brings a necessary order; concerning tribal membership, land and the transfer of property. But in heaven no one dies so there is no need for a Levirate Marriage law. In fact, there is no need for marriage itself, since there are no tribes, land and property to worry about passing on to the next generation. So in heaven there are no husbands and wives... only God’s children.
My father-in-law used to say he’d been “married all his life.” I know what he means. Merrill and I were high school sweet-hearts. I had the honor of escorting her to the senior prom (she wore pink and I my first rented tuxedo). This year we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary.
Our life together has been happy and productive. I can’t imagine living without her. But as wonderful as our life in marriage has been, someday it will end. One of us will die. Oddly enough, that death will mark the discovery of our true relationship, our eternal relationship in God. But to use labels like lifelong friend and husband will no longer adequately describe the relationship we will have grown into. We have a history and share a love. That won’t change. The Scriptures say we are brother and sister to Christ. In that sense she is my sister in Christ. But in eternity even those labels, brother and sister, are too narrow.
I count myself very fortunate because I had a similar happy loving relationship with my parents and then with Merrill’s parents. I have the same relationship with my children and their spouses and their own children. We share love and a history that goes ever on, even into eternity. The labels (son, father, grandfather) however eventually become meaningless.
This wonderful set of permanent relationships is not of my own making. One doesn’t choose his or her parents. In a deep sense, I didn’t even choose my wife. They are all “gifts.” My children and grandchildren are gifts. They are all gifts from God.
The line in the Gospel that describes all this is, “He is God, not of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all of them are alive.” God intends for all of us to be in relationship with Him and each other forever. We are alive now and will be for ever because of our relationship with the God who is Love itself.
So what about death? Death is real. We were made by God for eternal love and relationship and yet shattered relationships and brokenness are so much a part of our lives on earth. Generally speaking, they are the consequences of sin, our own and the sins of those around us. The ultimate sign of sin is broken relationships and death. When marriage ends in divorce, we say, “the marriage is dead.” When someone we love dies, we feel in our guts the wrongness of it. Even when no one in particular caused the death, we sense the brokenness of a creation rooted in sin. It shouldn’t be this way, we shouldn’t be suffering the pain of separation, but because sin is real, death is real.
The Levirate Marriage law was one of Moses’ attempts to fix part of the brokenness; in fact all of the Bible’s laws are attempts to fix the world’s brokenness. But laws won’t fix this; in fact they just seem to make matters worse.
A judge once quipped: “When you go into God’s court, He has both the law and the facts on His side, your only hope is to throw yourself on the mercy of the court.”
Well, the whole world is God’s court so the mercy’s there, no matter what. The God of Love only knows us as alive. Through his Son he is constantly calling us to live more fully into that life, become ever more alive. He calls us to open our hearts to his healing power. He calls us to find fullness of life in being what He made us to be. He calls us to join him in rooting out the brokenness in us and our world. Ultimately, He is calling us to grow into our relationship with Him and those around us.
To refuse to heed God’s call to genuine living loving relationships is to choose separation, and ultimately, to choose eternal death. But it doesn’t have to end that way. With God, death is not the end, but rather the way we pass from a broken world into a larger fuller life, a way into that realm where relationships are alive and loving forever. How wonderful is that!
October 27, 2019 The Answer is “Yes!”
I have a sneaking suspicion that all over town there are people saying to themselves, “I don’t feel like going to church today.”
Why go? There are lots of reason I could offer. Statistically speaking, regular attendance at religious services correlates with living longer, healthier, and happier lives. Heck, teenagers that go to church regularly tend to score higher on SATs. A church is a place where people can find and enjoy healthy relationships. People who attend regularly tend to have happier marriages and fewer divorces. Those are just a few practical social reasons for getting up on a Sunday morning and attending church. But there are other, more personal reasons for going to church. Religion shapes, transforms a life, giving meaning and direction to everything we do. And when things get tough it offers a way to find hope and even a reason to live. It’s said that there are no atheists in foxholes.
Yet underneath it all, the reason we go to church is that it answers the most basic of human needs: love. It’s written in our genes; it’s a part of our creaturely nature. We were created for relationships: relationships with others and a relationship with God. It’s not an accident that the Summary of God’s will for us, the Summary of the Law, is all about loving. Church is all about loving.
So from birth Church helps us find ways to build relationships with the people around us and ultimately with God.
In our gospel lesson for today, we hear about two men in the temple making their prayers: one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Lets assume they both go to Church regularly.
The Pharisee stands by himself; he is really quite impressive. Although centuries of sermons have led us to think of the Pharisees as the bad guys; it’s not really fair; they were basically good people. They were dependable, honest, upright, good neighbors, contributors to the community. Probably the sort of people we’d like to see join St. Paul’s.
Anyway, the Pharisee is off by himself praying. But — and this is a big but — in his prayer, he has nothing to ask of God. He’s basically giving God a progress report of all he’s been doing to make himself acceptable to God and the community. As far as he can tell, he’s got it all under control; he’s earned the right to be loved and he’s happy about it. In all likelihood he is respected and loved by his family and community.
Meanwhile, standing off at a distance, is the tax collector. Head down, he’s in great despair.
It helps if you understand the tax collector’s situation. They were often chosen because they had influence or power and a fair amount of money to go with it. You needed to be rich because the Romans set a flat rate on every head in a given area and expected the tax collector to pay everyone’s tax upfront himself. It was then up to him to get his money back by collecting from the individual taxpayers. You can imagine the bind this tax collector was in. He had to collect enough to get his own money back and then a little more to cover his expenses. But what if some people couldn’t pay? It wasn’t as if the Romans would give him any of the upfront money back.
This wasn’t a profession many people sought; you can understand why. Tax collectors were most likely strong-armed into it by the Romans. And as you can imagine such a system led to abuses. Tax collectors who couldn’t squeeze the money out of the people eventually went broke; so all the incentive was to find ways to take as much as you could get away with. Naturally this didn’t make you very popular. That and, the fact that you were working for the enemy, an occupying power. Who loves a quisling?
Well we don’t know the details of why this tax collector’s situation seems to have gotten the better of him this day, but he is clearly full of deep need. He knows he’s unloved and unlovable. There’s no way out, so he makes his prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Notice, he doesn’t promise to shape up and become a really nice tax collector. Given the circumstances he had to work under, perhaps there was simply nothing he could do to change. All he does is ask God for mercy. “I know I don’t deserve anyone’s love, but would you love me?” That’s what mercy is: undeserved love.
The surprise ending of the story is that the Pharisee, receives no commendation from God for his good works. He came asking nothing of God and he goes home getting nothing from God. He was so intent on making sure he was loveable, one wonders if he ever loved God or anyone else.
The tax collector, on the other hand, despicable fellow that he is, shows up empty handed asking for mercy, and goes home assured of God’s love.
We may hear this parable as a lesson on humility: don’t be proud like the Pharisee; be humble like the tax collector. And just like that, we fall into the same old trap the Pharisee was in. We take a lesson about God’s amazing, unconditional grace and acceptance, and turn it into a story about how we can earn or deserve God’s love by being humble. We may even find ourselves praying, “God, I thank thee that I am humble and not proud like that Pharisee.”
The tragedy of all this is that in trying to make ourselves worthy of love through our supposed virtues, we end up like the Pharisee, casting a sideward glance at others and measuring ourselves against them. If I need to earn God’s love, then I will have to be better than the other guy. Instead of being united, living in communion, in love, we find ourselves separated from those around us and consequently from God.
But if we ask the right question, “Will you love me?” then the Gospel gives us an answer. God replies resoundingly and forever “Yes.”
Understand me, now. The tax collector’s humility was not a virtue that earned him God’s love. His humility was just the visible sign of his openness to receiving God’s love.
Ultimately, the Pharisee and the tax collector are the same. They both need God’s love and the love of those around them. The difference is that the Pharisee doesn’t know it. He might just as well have stayed home for all the good church did him. But the tax collector knew he needed the love of God and a loving relationship with those around him. For him going to church made all the difference in the world… and in heaven.
“Will you love me?” we ask. In church as in heaven the answer is always, “Yes.”
October 17, 2019 Poke God in the Eye
Sibling rivalry. Birthright problems. That's what it was. Esau was a whiny, bossy first-born; always conscientious, out hunting daddy's favorite game. Jacob was a crafty, cunning, sneaky little mama's boy. Well, at least, Jacob would have agreed with the first part.
The boys had been locked in a struggle from the beginning. Esau slipped out of mother's womb first, but Jacob was right on his heels—holding onto his heel, in fact. That's how he got the name—Jacob—it literally means “heel-grabber” or “one who overreaches,” i.e., does risky things to get ahead of the competition.”
While Esau was a man’s man, Jacob preferred the kitchen tents. When Esau, who tended to think with his stomach, was caught hungry, Jacob tried to defrauded him of his birthright, his right to an inheritance, for the price of a pot of stew. When their father was old and nearly blind, Jacob disguised himself as Esau and claimed the other’s inheritance early.
Things must have been a little hot after that. Jacob left town for a long time and lived and struggled with his Uncle Laban. Laban was another “heel-grabber, cheating Jacob and being cheated in return. Finally, Jacob left Laban’s territory more sheep and cattle than he should have had and more stolen goods under his wife’s saddle. He gets as far as the ford of the Jabbok River before he realizes that he’s now caught between Uncle Laban and his brother Esau. He can’t go back and ahead Esau is coming with a small army to give him what he so justly deserves. Caught, at the end of his rope, Jacob panicks.
First, he divides his herds, so that, if Esau demanded some, he won’t get all. Then, he even sent his wives and children ahead to serve as a screen between himself and Esau’s wrath. Quite a guy, our forefather, this ancestor of Jesus.
Alone and as prepared as he can be for what will surely come, Jacob tries to get some rest. All night he tosses and turns, struggling with his brother in his dreams. But this time, his heel-grabbing tricks get him no where. He can’t win, and begins to wish he could some lose and be done with it. It’s almost like a prayer that wish.
Then, as often happens in dreams, things changed suddenly. It was no longer Esau he’s wrestling with, but a stranger, a fresh opponent. As dawn approaches the stranger does to him what Jacob had done to Esau and Laban, he cheated. The stranger magically puts Jacob’s hip out of joint and says, “Stop struggling, it’s a new morning and time for you to get on with your life.”
The stranger then says, “You are no longer Jacob, the heel-grabber; you are now Israel, for you have striven with your brother, and you have striven with God.”
Jacob had terrible feeling. The stranger was God; he had been wrestling with God and he was a changed man. He got up, sent gifts to his brother Esau and then begged his forgiveness. Esau wrapped his arms around his brother and they cried. Thereafter they became friends and neighbors.
Life is often difficult. I bet we’ve all had those dreams where we can’t let something go and it won’t let go of us. We struggle, and we need a struggler to show us the way.
Paul tells Timothy, his disciples, that there will good days and bad days, but don’t give up. Good advice for us, too, when our struggles bring night-long dreams and and a waking bathed in sweat?
Jesus tells us that we have God’s permission to struggle, even with God. The widow of Jesus’ parable is a sufferer, but she’s a struggler, too. The corrupt judge is so irritated with her that he doesn’t just say she is “bothering” him, he says—and this is what the Greek word really means—that she is “poking him in the eye.” “Poke God in the eye,” Jesus is suggesting to the disciples. Struggle with Him with the persistence and desperation of Jacob. In effect Jesus is saying, “He can’t ignore you if you keep poking him in the eye day and night.”
Just don’t expect God to magically pull your irons out of the fire when things go “catty wampus.” God has given us work to do and a way live; we are responsible. We are supposed to struggle against the World, but with God. Jesus doesn’t mind struggling with God—after all, Jesus will struggle with God clear to Gethsemane and the cross—and Jesus urges us to struggle as well.
We don’t always have to be meek and polite with God. If it seems that God’s got it all wrong, go ahead and tell God. Even if it seems at times that God cheats, well, feel free to tell God off. It will make you feel better. But whatever you do hang on, don’t give up the struggle, don’t let go of God, for if we hold on with the persistent faith of Jacob—we’ll ultimately receive the blessing.
October 13, 2019 Too busy
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’s a near perfect prayer; it leaves it up to the one who knows what we need to choose how best to respond to our need. The story of the ten lepers makes the point that there is always more we need than we think.
But before we go there, we need to think about what it meant to be a leper. In some ways it was worse than being dead. Not only did you have to suffer with the degenerating effects of this disease, you were excluded from every part of ordinary community life. You couldn’t live with, worship with, eat, walk, or even talk with anyone, even family. You had to keep a certain distance, 40 paces, between you and healthy people. So you lived on the edges of everything and just watched the world you would never be able to experience again. Your only companions were those on the edges like you, other lepers. Imagine, a life without hope.
So anyway, ten lepers called to Jesus from their 40 paces away: “Master, have mercy on us.” Perhaps they had heard of this famous rabbi who heals people, but it’s just as likely that they said the same to whoever wandered within earshot. Mercy was a loaf of bread, a coin, or a used piece of clothing.
But when such an appeal is directed to the Son of God it becomes a simple prayer, a very good prayer. Jesus granted them mercy. No reason is given or needed. Jesus heard their prayer and showed them mercy. He gave them their lives back.
Now, this was more a medical mercy than a religious one. The law was very clear, a cure had to be certified by a priest before the healed individual could return to society. So Jesus told them to present themselves to the priests.
They had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so off they went to find a priest. And as they went, their leprosy went away; they were cured.
Jesus stood there and watched. He gave them their lives back, and he put no conditions on the gift, and he just stood there, and watched and waited. Nine of the ten just kept going.
I know of no clearer picture of what our culture is mostly like, and of what our lives are mostly like, than the picture of Jesus standing there, watching those nine people running just as fast as they can run, watching them get smaller and smaller, the farther away from him they got.
They weren’t ungrateful. There is no way anyone could have such a thing happen to them and not be grateful. It is easy to imagine them, happily making plans, feeling just wonderful, and running just as fast as they could away from Jesus, in a big hurry to get on with their lives.
Perhaps if you could have stopped them long enough to ask, they would have told you what a wonderful person Jesus was, and how grateful they were. But it would have been hard to catch them. There was so much to do, so little time.
That’s our world. That’s our life, in one small, bitter nutshell. How often do we stop, or even slow down, long enough to pay some attention, not only to all we have and all we have to do, but also to the giver, to the source of it all?
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Only one came back. Only one was actually drawn toward Jesus, and not away from him, by the wonderful gift. Only one. And this one alone received the rest of what Jesus had to give.
As sometimes happens our English text doesn’t convey the whole meaning of what Luke wrote. All ten lepers were cured. The word used is a Greek medical term, and it means their disease went away. And all ten stayed cured, whether they came back or not. God gives freely, without conditions.
But to the one who came back, Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well.” Here the Greek for “made you well” is a different word, a theological word; it means “being made whole or complete; i.e. saved.”
All ten were healed, all ten were given their lives back, but Jesus had more to give than that. That’s why he watched and waited, that’s why coming back was so important… because Jesus had more to give. All ten were given their lives back; but only one was given the fullness of life.
I admit I find it mystifying that so many people spend their lives frantically running, running away from God, and don’t realize what they are missing by not stopping and turning to the One who waits patiently to give them the fullness of life they have been missing.
Luke gives us a clue. The one who came back was a foreigner. The one who actually gave thanks, who actually stopped running and turned around was a foreigner.
I think that the really hard part of this story is the realization that if we are ever to discover fully what that tenth leper discovered, we will first have to experience what it means to be a foreigner. The one who made it back to Jesus didn’t fit in quite as well as the others; he didn’t have quite as much to run back to, or quite as much to gain. So he, and he alone, wasn’t so blinded by the cares and occupations of his daily life. He, and he alone, could see beyond the gift to the giver. All the rest were natives, caught up in the busyness of life, and they, ran the wrong direction.
This is hard stuff. We here have long been established in the land, and we are very busy, and we have a lot to lose. It’s hard to imagine what it might mean to be an alien, to stand one step removed from everything that makes us run so fast and so hard.
But remember that only the foreigner looked back; only the foreigner was able to see beyond the gift to the one who gave it. Only the foreigner received all that Jesus had to give. The rest were just too busy, the rest had too much going on. And it is still a matter of life and death.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” That’s a good prayer to know.
October 6, 2019— Mixed Messages
One of Aesop’s Fables: A man was driving a heavy load along a muddy way, when he came to a part of the road where the wheels sank up to their axles. The more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the man threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. “O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress.” Hercules appeared to him, and said: “Tut-tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel.” The moral: “the gods help them that help themselves.”
Now you know where those two expressions come from: “put your shoulder to the wheel” and “the gods help them that help themselves.” Ben Franklin used the same moral in his Poor Richard’s Almanac. He just adapted it to local sensibilities: “God helps them that help themselves.”
If you thought that familiar line about God’s help came from the Bible, you’re not alone. It’s bedrock American morality, if not exactly Christian morality.
That phrase showed up once in a survey I gave a congregation. In the section about sermons, I asked for comments about sermons on various subjects.
One respondent had this to say about sermons dealing with money, “We’re encouraged to be productive: ‘God helps them that help themselves.’ Yet, should one become successful by using his God-given talents, then you hear, ‘It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.’ Success is encouraged, but if we achieve it, we’re condemned. When it comes to money, God seems impossible to please.”
Today’s lesson doesn’t seem to help. Picture the servant who’s done everything his master has asked. How is he rewarded? He’s called a “worthless slave” because he only did what he was supposed to do.
He got about as much sympathy as the man with the wagon stuck in the mud. “Put your shoulder to the wheel,” Hercules says. Aside from offering direction, the Greek god was no help at all. I guess that was Aesop’s point: “If it’s to be done, we must do it ourselves. The gods won’t do our part for us.”
Our confusion in this comes from the mixture of American morality with Christian teaching.
God demands that we use our gifts, that we be productive, but He doesn’t stop there. He expects us go beyond simple productivity; we must be ever enlarging the boundaries of our productivity, always expanding our usefulness. So far, this sounds like the old fashioned work ethic; Aesop said as much.
But here our God takes a sudden turn. He see us as working for Him. We tend to think that we work for ourselves, working to provide ourselves with a comfortable living and a pension for the future.
God doesn’t begrudge us the comfortable living and a pension for the future, but we need to understand that He owns the factory; we have to produce the kind of product He wants. It’s not enough to look after your own interests, God wants you to look after His as well.
The American Dream is a house, a car, a golden retriever, TV’s in every room, and a retirement to fish, play golf, and travel.
God want’s more for us. He want’s us to raise happy, healthy, God fearing children. He wants us to build strong peaceful communities of trust, where everyone sees everyone else as a neighbor to care for and receive care from. He wants us to fully use His creation without at the same time abusing it. He expects us to use every waking moment, 365 days a year, year in year out, and every available resource, human, financial, or material, to get the job done.
Until He gets this kind of production from us, until His world is as it was created to be, we are, from His perspective, indeed “worthless.”
The rich man, who can’t get through the eye of a needle, has let his “things”, his “self-possessed interest”, displace God from His rightful place as humankind’s employer. Only those who are “too big for their britches,” “think too much of themselves,” “have a fat head,” are too big to get through the needle’s eye and so are condemned.
Don’t be afraid of the eye of the needle. God is not unjust, if we apply ourselves and push beyond the American Dream toward the Heavenly Expectations, He will recognize our efforts and sacrifices.
Remember, this employer has the very best retirement plan and unlike so many pension plans, it will never end due to bad management or the vagaries of the stock market.
September 29, 2019 Christian: Consumer or Core
The vast majority of Americans have gradually begun to think of themselves as consumers or customers, even when it comes to our religious practice.
This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. We go out to get our needs met. We shop. We look for bargains. We make choices. We acquire what we need or what we want. And we do this with food, clothing, shelter, health care, insurance policies, automobiles, higher education, we even shop for recreational opportunities. So why not shop for the church you’ll attend?
Is it comfortable for me? Does it “feed” me spiritually? Is it too disturbing or demanding for me? Is it respectable enough? As with any consumable the ultimate question is: “Will it suit my needs and will I get my money’s worth?”
Some of you will find this sort of talk shocking and others think it quite sensible. It just depends on what you think Church is for.
Sociologist have done a fair amount of study about how people relate to churches. Most Americans fall somewhere on the continuum between what are sometimes called the Core Christians and the Nones. The Nones got that title because they answered the survey question “what is your religious tradition?” with “none”. It’s more useful to think of these two extremes as the hard working heavily committed group and the “it doesn’t matter to me, I don’t care” group.
I won’t take the time to break it all down into the subgroups between them, but I do want to talk about “Core Christians.” These people usually have some vision of the life-changing power of their connection with Christ. They pray daily, attend church regularly and cheerfully, and generally look forward to contacts with their fellow Christians. They give more than 75% of the church’s annual budget and some tithe. They hold positions of responsibility in the life of the parish and can usually be counted on to get done what they agreed to do.
In religious language we say this group has a sense of their vocation. Of all those who call themselves Episcopalians, these are the folks who carry the bulk of the church’s ministry. They are the Christian Core.
If the Nones, represent 23% of Americans, then that leaves 77% of us having at least “some” religious tradition. Want to guess how many of those 77% the sociologist put in the Christian Core? About 8%.
Aside from the Christian Core, the remaining folks, the ones who have some level of religious tradition, are called Consumer Christians. They differ from one another only in how much or how often they chose to patronize their church.
So when you think of mission strategy, some church leaders have quite reasonably adopted the Robert Schuller school of church growth which basically says “give the consumer what he wants”. In other words, never say or do anything that will upset anyone. Never ask people to do things they don’t want to do. Put on a good show. Above all, make the customer happy; give them value for their money. When Robert Schuller rewrote the beatitudes of Jesus, he titled them the “be-happy attitudes”; it’s this kind of merchandising that built the Crystal Cathedral. Oh I forgot, the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt; it’s gone now. Oh well, there are plenty of others catering to the consumers.
Consumer Christians. The Latin root for the word consumer is consumere and it means “to use up, waste or destroy”. In economics a consumer is one who uses goods or service to satisfy his own needs rather than to resell them or produce other goods with them. So I guess a Consumer Christian is someone who uses Christ for his or her own purposes, rather than working with the Lord to build up the Kingdom of God.
Moreover the sense of wasting or destroying fits too. Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of the Consumer Christian goes unappreciated, ignored… wasted, and Christ’s plan for salvation of the world through the spread of his Gospel message goes unrealized... at least in so far as the Consumer Christian had a role in it.
In his day, Jesus confronted some folks who sort of fell into that same category… you might call them consumer Jews. He said to them: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your selfish prideful hearts and does not approve.” (Luke 16:15)
Then he told them the story of Dives and Lazarus. Dives is a rich man. He is first and foremost a consumer… and he ends up in hell. It’s not that he robbed banks or threw widows and orphans out into the street. But in everything, he was in it strictly for himself… So consequently he didn’t do what God expects of his children… that they to look after each other.
From his pit of torment Dives says, “I never figured this would happen to me; I led a respectable life, I even kept the letter of the law, but now I see that I’ve missed the whole point point. I should have done more with the time and resources you gave me.
“But it’s not too late for my brothers. Won’t you send someone to warn all the other users and wasters and destroyers and consumers before it’s too late for them?”
Then the voice of God speaks through Abraham: “I have sent them countless warnings, and I continue to warn them… but they are too preoccupied with themselves to listen.” End of story. You can hear the mike drop.
I think those who cater to Consumer Christians do them no favor. They need to hear the warning God sends them before it’s too late.
All of us here need to think about where we sit on the continuum between Consumer to Core.
Our task as a congregation is to help Consumer Christians increase their involvement and commitment until they become a part of the Christian Core. Less active members need to be warned, challenged to move into a deeper spirituality.
We are asked to love the lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and our neighbors as ourselves. That’s not a feeling thing; it’s an active way of life. It’s about willingly submitting ourselves, our choices, our whole lives to God’s direction. God will call us to do things that often seem demanding, trivial, difficult, uncomfortable, unselfish, daring, or just foolish. Further, we are asked to do this in Faith, to walk into the new and unknown trusting in Him rather than in common sense, or our past experience, or society’s expectations.
In the short term, such a calling might not seem like a “good deal” to the Consumer Christian in us. But on the other hand we should remember that Jesus is working with eternity in mind. So should we.
September 22, 2019 Usury
All over the church preachers this week were wrestling with today’s gospel lesson. But before we go there I want to remind us what was going on as Jesus told this story.
He’s still at the same dinner party we’ve heard about for the last two weeks; the outcasts and sinners are still there, as are the Pharisees, the experts on the law, the good people. Jesus tells them several parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son. These three stories are about God’s love for sinners and outcasts. This directly counters the law, as taught by the Pharisees, with its demands for a certain sort of good behavior. Instead of judgment for the outcasts and sinners, with God it’s all about love, about relationships that are restored. So this dinner party could be seen as a microcosm of the world as God would have it be; sinners, outcasts, and the good people-- everyone at table together with Jesus, everyone learning how to live together in peace and harmony. In Jesus, God is bringing the world together.
Then Jesus tells today’s parable. It’s a frontal attack on the thing that most often divides people, that keeps us from learning to live together as God intends,… money. Unfortunately for us, Jesus assumes we know a critical bit of information. It’s something his listeners would have all understood, but we don’t.
Anyway, as the parable unfolds, a servant is about to be dismissed for neglecting his responsibilities. His job was a cross between a loan officer and a bill collector. My guess is that he was fine at lending his master’s money, but lazy about collecting on the loans. Word got out, income was down, so now the account books are about to be audited. A lot of people will be made to pay, and the loan officer is in trouble. So far so good.
Now here’s the part of the story you probably don’t know. God’s law forbids charging interest on loans. I know, loans at interest are a part of our everyday existence. Our world couldn’t function without interest bearing loans. And it turns out, neither could the Israel of Jesus’ day.
The Pharisees, the lawyers of the day, came up with a work around. It’s a bit weird, but it was generally accepted. Suppose you wanted to borrow $100. First of all, you wrote the loan document yourself and you made it for $110, due on a certain date. There was no mention of how much you borrowed. Then the loan officer handed you $100. So as far as the world knew, you were a good law abiding Jew. What usury? There’s no usury here… wink, wink. Only you and the loan officer knew about the $10, that is, the interest owed together with the originating service charge payable to the loan officer.
God might know there was usury involved, but they had another workaround for that, a rationalization based on a proverb. And that’s the truly weird part.
Here’s how it worked. Instead of dollars, the contract was always written in barrels of oil or bushels of wheat. You’re borrowing dollars, but that amount was converted into oil or wheat and the contract expressed in those terms. Why? The perceived problem with usury was that it could leave your neighbor penniless, taking everything he has. God didn’t want that to happen. But since it was thought that even the poorest person had a little oil for their lamp or a bit of flour to bake a loaf… then they couldn’t be destitute… so it wasn’t usury if it was about oil and wheat. I know; it’s a too convenient fiction. Anyway cash loans at interest were commonly written in units of oil or wheat even though there was no oil or wheat involved.
Now back to the parable. So before the books are audited and he’s tossed out, the loan officer calls in some of the debtors, perhaps those he has been too lazy to chase down and collect from. He lets them rewrite the load agreement and tells them to drop the interest and service charge! That makes the borrowers happy; perhaps they will remember him when he’s out of a job. And it does one other thing… it complies with the anti usury law, thus making God happy.
The moral of the story is that we all face decisions all the time. Jesus wants us to see that every choice we make is of the same magnitude as that of the loan officer. Our whole future hangs in the balance. Jesus wants us, like the loan officer, to be willing to sacrifice for the future. But more importantly, he wants us to consider the welfare of our neighbor and whether what we do will please God.
It is very important to see in this parable that Jesus neither condemns or condones having money and possessions. We may have a little, we may have lot; it doesn’t matter. It only becomes a problem when it divides people and separates us from God.
The four sayings that follow the parable are intended as practical advice. For instance: “Use your money to make friends.” In other words, get lots of it; but put it to use in ways that would benefit your neighbors and please God.
Money is not and should never be the end in itself, else it will quickly become more important to you than your neighbor and ultimately than God.
I also think that may be why God felt usury is dangerous. It’s money making money, and in the process seems to separate us from what our money does. Think of owning stock in a pharmaceutical company caught up in the opioid crisis. You didn’t sell the pills, but your money made it all possible.
If we let money displace God, we will be shaped - or should I say stunted - by the values that money for money’s sake engenders. Jesus was no starry-eyed fool. He knew that the servants of mammon frequented the Temple; they were likely sitting at the table with him.
But the only way to “tame” mammon is to deprive it of its idol status and revert it to servant status. The only way to do this is to seek first the Kingdom of God, to commit your identity and your pocketbook with as much earnestness as the crafty loan officer. He’s asking us to put the ways of the world aside, to always act in such a way that sinners, outcasts, and even the good people, can all find a place at the table with Jesus.
We have to choose who will we serve, we can’t serve both God and mammon. We all have an accounting coming.
September 8, 2019: Real Hate
The Gospel today directs us to “hate our father and mother...and even life itself.” This is another time I wish Jesus hadn’t said what he did, the way he did. Or that the meaning of his words didn’t change over time.
Take the word “hate” for instance. Jesus spoke a language called Aramaic. It’s an essentially dead language today. But he was being quoted by some guy who’s native language, the way he thinks, was Hebrew, a different language. But this guy was writing Jesus’ words in a kind of provincial slangy sort of Greek no one uses today. Then those Greek words were translated into Latin several hundred years later and in the 17th Century translated finally into Shakespearian English. We, of course need them translated into modern English, because 17th Century English is like so much Greek to us.
You understand what I’m getting at. When words pass through so many minds and different languages and contexts, even when you are trying to preserve the meaning as best you can, the meaning can get lost or confused. So today we find ourselves reading to our children that Jesus tells them to “hate” their fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers.
Do you see why it’s not safe to read the Bible literally, to always accept the simple surface meaning? That’s how children hear things; and they are certain to misunderstand this passage.
No, I wish Jesus had put it another way or the English version had put it another way. But he didn’t and the translations, for a variety of reasons, some frankly political, didn’t either. So we’re stuck with it.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort to understand what Jesus meant. In Jesus’ day the word he used that we translate here as “hate” was a forceful emphatic word, just as this word often is today. He probably used it for its shock value; it gave emphasis to his point. But the meaning of the word itself has changed dramatically since he spoke it.
Jesus is talking about the demands of discipleship. His point is that for disciples, God’s expectations must come first. Hate was a good word to use then, because it described a willingness to walk away from a given situation, to turn your back on something. By implication it also meant to turn toward something more important or better. It was an action word.
In 2,000 years, the meaning of the word “hate” has changed from an action to an emotion. Do you see the translator’s problem?
Jesus wasn’t talking about the emotion; that would cancel all his calls to love, to care for, to nourish one’s own family and neighbor. To Jesus, hating as we mean it today was the equivalent of murder. Moreover, to emotionally hate life itself would be to reject the gift of life which God has given us, and thus make an enemy of God. That’s the last thing Jesus wanted to say.
No, Jesus didn’t mean hate the way we mean hate. Instead, Jesus was emphatically calling us to action.
For the sake of the Kingdom he wants us to put aside all those familial obligations or attachments when they prevent us from doing what we should be doing as Christians. We don’t stop being good loving sons and daughters, we just put our service to God ahead of family demands.
Think of it this way: You are double scheduled. On a given day you have something God wants you to do and the annual family reunion. God expects you to send your regrets to the folks hosting the family get together, and then get on with the job He’s given you to do. If you’re not double scheduled, there is no problem; you can do both.
Or say you have a different sort of double scheduling. This time God has something for you to do, but it’s during your vacation. God expects you to take care of His business before you get on with the “relaxing thing.”
Pushing this understanding of what Jesus said to its ultimate expression could mean doing what God has for you to do even if it might cost you your life.
Jesus’ point is that God demands our first and best effort. Nothing within our control must be allowed to hinder us or keep us from doing what God expects of us. Nothing.
Not only is the modern understanding of the word “hate” confusing when used in this translation, it is no where near emphatic enough a word to carry Jesus’ intended meaning.
Today, many people move from church to church, looking for an experience that makes them feel close to God. Sooner or later they become disenchanted with each one. While churches are often emotionally uplifting places, they are more than that, they are work houses. Taking up the cross of Jesus is not a matter of uplifting emotional experiences, it’s work.
Further, taking up the cross means carrying that burdens of ministry for a life-time. People who don’t like that idea, move on, searching for an easier way.
But do you know what? God is no fool. Taking up the cross and carrying the burden of ministry for your whole life is in fact the best way to live. God isn’t asking us to throw our lives away; He’s showing us how to live successfully, how to live happy healthy lives.
There’s tons of research that confirms it. Living an active Christian life is associated with good health, happiness and a long meaningful life. The more you invest in Christian living, the more you get out of it.
For the sake of the Kingdom we are called to put emotion aside and pick up our burden, our ministry in Jesus’ name. The strong will carry the weak. The believer will lead the non-believer to faith. Our ministry grounds us, gives weight, meaning and purpose to our lives. Grounded, we don’t get swept away by all the stuff out there and led into self-destructive behaviors and society destroying movements. And so, as the social sciences have confirmed, we live longer happier lives.
And when we take up the burden of our life-long ministry, God is praised, the whole commuity becomes a more life-giving place, and we find we are already living in the Kingdom of God.
August 25, 2019 Sermon: Remember when Sunday was boring
Remember when Sundays were boring? You have to be at least sixty years old to truly remember how boring it was. Nothing was open. You couldn’t go to the store. There were no movies showing. Everything was closed. Even the bowling alley. If you had a television, there was nothing much on but religious or educational programs. So there was nothing to do but nap or talk or read or go for a ride or a walk...and go to church. It was so boring that lots of people went to church... twice, once in the morning and once in the evening.
Then things changed. The movie theaters and restaurants started opening on Sunday afternoon. Then discount stores were built, then malls, then convenience stores—all open on Sundays. Television got more interesting, and sports replaced those boring religious and educational programs.
Sunday wasn’t boring anymore. You didn’t have to nap or talk or read or walk or go for a ride. But there was still church. Most of those Sunday evening church services faded away, losing the ratings race to the Wonderful World of Disney, but there was still Sunday morning church. Boring: hymns, prayers, readings, sermons, and once a month, holy communion,... all pretty much the same, week in, week out.
Over the years, the church service has grown noticeably shorter; several churches have started offering a convenient “family” service — one snappy hymn, a few prayers, a reading with a moment of meditation, an apology for sins— all in twenty minutes. Yet for most what used to take all morning, now takes only an hour. But it’s still church.
“When will the service be over, so we can go to Kmart?” we moan. “When will Sunday be over so we can get back to business?”
The time has come to correct what is probably already your impression. This is not a nostalgia sermon. Nor is it meant to be a cranky sermon about how trashy life is these days.
But it is intended to call your attention to what we have lost: we’ve lost our appreciation for Sabbath time, the ancient festival of peace and quiet in the presence of God, that builds hope and leads to joy.
We’ve lost it, and there are consequences.
It’s not as though this is the first time humanity has lost it’s appreciation for Sabbath time. In Jesus’ day it had been reduced to a bunch of sterile rules, the whole point forgotten. They though it perfectly reasonable that a crippled woman should live another 24 hours with her handicap because healing her would break a blue law.
The weak always suffered when the heart of the Sabbath is neglected. The prophet Amos saw it happen in his generation. When the Sabbath becomes just something to be lived through until business can be resumed, then we are much more likely to, as he said, “trample the needy and bring ruin to the poor.”
The sad fact is that without a sense of the sacred, morality disappears and society looses its sense of direction.
In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is sometimes imagined as a maiden, a bride, for whom a man passionately yearns. This time of rest with God is acknowledged as the heart’s desire; it’s the time we find what we are most desperately looking for. These moments spent in the presence of God give meaning and direction to our life. Most Christians haven’t longed for Sunday in such a way for a long, long time. Or, perhaps we have.
Our hearts long for something; it drives us to search for entertainment in restaurants and shops, theaters and sports events. But what have we found? What is really in shortest supply? It’s not bread or water. As Jay Leno said in that classic Doreto’s commercial, “Buy all you want, we’ll make more.”
What is it we long for; what is it that’s in such short supply? It’s not even time itself; most of us can’t wait to fritter our free time away.
Could it be that underneath it all we yearn with Paul was for “a quiet and peaceable life,” a life permeated by the sacred, the presence of God. Have we not let all the glitter of the world drown out the sound of our own heart’s true yearning?
Benjamin Franklin observed that “Money is a good servant, but a dangerous master.” So dangerous is money that perhaps the surgeon general ought to print a warning on every piece: “this can be hazardous to your soul’s health.” We need to put the whole world, as symbolized by our money, in it’s proper place. We run it; it never should run us. Enough with the distractions already, take charge, rediscover the sacred that you heart longs for so, and put some direction, some meaning, back into your life.
Remember when Sunday was boring? Wasn’t that simply our impatience with the quiet and peace that lie over true riches like the waters of a stream that flow over glittering gold?
The loss of this sacred time, hardens the heart. Our material gain is our spiritual loss. The outward and visible sign of this inward and spiritual loss is the victimization of the poor and needy in the name of greater and greater material wealth for the few.
We don’t need new blue laws; we need a change of heart. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God knows we need it. Why else would he have given it to us.
We’ve got to rediscover the Sabbath. Only then will we rediscover the sacred in our lives and the eternal meaning God gives them. Only then will hope bloom again and joy fill our hearts. And Sundays will be wonderfully and peacefully boring again.
Sermon--I wish Jesus hadn't said August 18, 2019
Have you ever heard of the Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson made his own Bible. He took a couple of Bibles and with his pen knife cut out all the passages he agreed with, could believe. He pasted all those passages in a scrapbook, and that became his Bible, the one he lived by. You can buy printed version today. As you might guess, it tends to be a good bit shorter than a standard Bible.
Sometimes I feel like doing that. If it were up to me, I’d eliminate a lot of stuff in the Bible; all the repetition, the unpronounceable names, and even some of the things Jesus said.
Oh, I wouldn’t touch those things we like to hear— comforting words such as “Those who comes to me I will not cast out.” I wouldn’t tamper with reassuring words like, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I’d leave intact that refreshing invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And of course, I’d leave the good news that God loves us beyond our understanding and strengthens us in time of need.
I’m glad Jesus said all those things, and I believe them. It’s the other things, the difficult things like in today’s reading, that I would just as soon he hadn’t said.
One saying I’d like to red-pencil is that passage in which Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” There’s a parallel saying in Matthew that’s even worse. There he says “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34). How I wish he hadn’t said that! It sounds so harsh, almost cruel; and on first glance, it seem wholly out of keeping with almost everything else Jesus said.
Of course, we all have our bad days, days when nothing goes right, and in our frustration we say things we don’t mean. Maybe this was one of his bad days. But I don’t think it’s that easy. For one thing, we remember that Jesus often used words as a poet uses them. This is why a lot of us have trouble understanding the Bible: knowing when the words are to be taken literally and when they are to be understood poetically or metaphorically. When Jesus said, “I came to bring a sword,” we don’t expect to see him swinging a weapon any more than when he says, “I am the door,” we expect to see him swinging on hinges. He was speaking metaphorically—poetically .
It may seem trivial to make this point, but you would be surprised how often in the course of history, from the Crusades even up to the present day, wars have been justified by just such a simple-minded literal reading of scripture.
I take what he said seriously, which is why I wish he hadn’t said what he said… at least the way he said it. Couldn’t he have softened it somehow?
The Christian life could be so simple if it were all about peace and love and hope. But it isn’t. He was speaking the truth, if more directly and bluntly than I would want. “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” (Matt. 10:35).
In other words, he’s telling us that if follow him there will be conflict, even among those who are near and dear. He came to turn the world around; not everyone wants to be turned around. He was bringing change and change always results in push-back. He’s just being realistic; it’s his ways of saying, “There is no gain without pain.” He’s not saying that conflict is the last word any more than crucifixion is, but he is saying that it’s an unavoidable word, just as is crucifixion.
One of the things I always explore with couples as they prepare to marry is how they feel about conflict. Most are frightened of having any conflict in their relationship and tend to avoid it at all costs. That’s simply not being realistic. Marriage brings change into two people’s lives. There will be conflict, so there needs to be negotiations and compromise and the will to grow together.
A soldier on the battlefront kept getting nagging letters from his wife about stuff around the house that wasn’t getting done, to which he finally responded, “Will you please quit bugging me and let me fight this war in peace!”
Whenever two or more people spend time together there will be conflicts from time to time. That’s especially true when life’s most basic questions are introduced, questions of faith and ultimate meaning, as Jesus was doing, conflict between friends, family, and lovers is virtually unavoidable.
Jesus’ personal experience figures here, I suspect. On at least one occasion, his own family came to take him home because they thought he was deranged. He was proposing changes to the way the world worked, and he got push-back even from his own mother. There can be no doubt he knew what “division” felt like. Jesus was calling his family and his community to leave the old ways behind and follow him into a new way of life, a new understanding of God. Nothing could possibly generate more conflict within a family or a community than something like that.
When a good Jew turned his back on his family’s religion, it was as if he had died. In fact, in certain parts of the world even today when one leaves the family’s faith to become a Christian, the family publicly carries a casket through the streets to symbolize the convert’s death. It’s as if Jesus had come to bring a sword dividing families and communities.
In this world, conflict is inevitable; we can’t pretend it is otherwise, anymore than we can wish Jesus hadn’t been so blunt about telling the truth. But Jesus always told the truth and in this case he told it with sadness. Sadness for all those who will come to their senses too late; who will reject the gospel gift when it is offered and too late come to appreciate what they’ve missed.
Nevertheless, Jesus did not give up. Time and understanding can restore relationships. Patient commitment and a generous spirit can heal broken communities. And while conflict is a part of life, so is love. As followers of Jesus, reconciliation is our goal; we are bringers of reconciliation between all people and between each individual and God.
We have a world to transform, and we do it one relationship at a time. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The peace and unity we long for probably will not come any time soon, but it will be ours in the end. That’s a promise.
Sermon: Investing With God August 4, 2019
There was an old story about a stockbroker who was given one magic wish. So he wished for a copy of the New York Times... a year in advance. He would know what stocks to buy and sell, what properties to purchase. Puff… his wish came true. He rubbed his hands together with glee, the world was his oyster. But then he turned a page and saw a picture of himself under the headline, “Wall Street Wizard Killed in Auto Accident.”
It reminds me of the parable Jesus told about the man who has a bumper crop. It was one of those happy problems; what to do with all the excess. He could have shared it with his neighbors, but he decided to built bigger barns and keep it all for himself. He had visions of spending the rest of his life in lazy days and easy living. Then God spoke: “Fool! Tonight your life will be required of you.”
Notice that word fool; it has a special meaning when used in the Bible. It is reserved for people who don’t trust God, and instead put their trust in themselves. They think only of themselves and give no thought for what God would have them do with what he’s given them. Fools.
I came across an interesting essay on Facebook this week; it first appeared on NPR’s webpage. It was titled “This is what happens when you take Ayn Rand seriously.”
You remember Rand; she wrote the novel Atlas Shrugged and was an advocate for modern libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism.
Anyway, the article is about a investor who was trying to apply Rand’s philosophy of unfettered self-interest to the corporation he controlled. He did this by breaking the company into more than 30 individual units, each with its own management and each measured separately for profit and loss. The idea was to promote competition among the units, which he assumed would lead to higher profits.
A reporter for Bloomberg Business (Mina Kimes ) described the results this way: He thought that “if the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly, they would run their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance. Instead, the divisions turned against each other, and the whole corporation suffered. Interviews with more than 40 former executives, many of whom sat at the highest levels of the company, painted a picture of a business that was being ravaged by infighting. Executives started undermining other units because they knew their bonuses were tied to their individual unit’s performance in comparison to the other’s. They were focused solely on the economic performance of their unit at the expense of the overall brand.”
This was Sears; by 2018 it was in bankruptcy court. Today it survives but it’s just a shadow of itself and is still shrinking. Fools.
What the CEO failed to see is that contrary to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, humans actually have a natural God- given inclination to work for their mutual benefit. And altruism, the selfless concern for the well-being of others, is a natural human trait. We were created to cooperate and collaborate, and we work more productively when we have shared goals we believe in. Take all of that away and you create a company or a nation that will become so divided it will destroy itself.
The One who created us this way rules all tings, so the logical thing to do is to trust God. The truly wise among us are women and men who see what God is doing and choose to cooperate with Him in it. The foolish, on the other hand, are blind to God’s working in the World. In fact, they tend to think they are running everything themselves. They’re fools.
You might call the man in the Jesus’ parable a practical atheist. He had drawn a tight circle of self-interest around himself leaving out God. He conveniently forgot that God had given him the land, or that because he had used the land well, God had enlarged his opportunities even more. The fool misunderstood the situation; it never occurred to him that he had all this so that he might be better able to serve God. All he thought of was himself. He was a practical atheist; he was a fool.
It’s not just ironic that the stockbroker who got his wish and the farmer who built barns both died before they could fully realize their dreams, it is God’s judgment on all those foolish people who put self-interest before God’s purposes.
As far as I know the former CEO of Sears is still alive. He lost a good bit of his massive fortune with his experiment in laissez-faire capitalism and more than 200,000 people lost their livelihood. His hedge fund owns the highly leveraged wreckage of what was in 1990 the largest retail business in US history. Still it’s not all bad news, he still has his 288 foot yacht, named after Ayn Rand’s other novel, Fountainhead.
Everybody dies, and all our earthly success is meaningless at that point isn’t it? Whose 288 foot yacht will the Fountainhead be then?
When it comes to thinking about how we will fill our limited time on earth, I like to think of that little known character from the Old Testament named Jabez. (1 Chron. 4:10) “ Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that thou wouldst bless me and enlarge my border, and that thy hand might be with me, and that thou wouldst keep me from harm.’ And God granted what he asked.”
Bless me and enlarge my border. That’s quite a prayer. It’s like saying “enlarge my world, give me more ways I can serve you, more opportunities, more responsibilities, more work to do. Direct me, Lord, I am yours.”
Then he continues, “Keep your hand on my shoulder, Lord, to guide me and urge me on. All I ask is that as I attempt great things for you, you will keep me focused so I don’t wander into ways you never intended for me to go. I don’t want to end up like that man building bigger barns for himself. If you want bigger barns, Lord, so that I can better serve you with them, that’s one thing, just don’t let me forget who’s I am and who I’m really working for.” That’s the kind of prayer God always grants.
Think about your prayers. Do you get up every morning asking, “What can I do for you today Lord?” We say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” but do we really mean it? Is it His kingdom we spend our days building, or do we put all our energy into building our own? Only a fool thinks he can get along without God.
If you want your prayers answered, pray that God might bless you and enlarge your borders. I have no doubt that He will give you what you ask for: greater opportunities to serve him.
Sermon: Marching Music (on the occasion of the baptism of Korra Faith) July 7, 2019
Sometimes important things don’t start out that way. One Christmas Eve day a vicar discovered that mice had gotten into the church organ. If there would be music they would have to sing to a guitar. He composed a simple little tune to fit a poem he wrote. That’s how we got Silent Night.
It was a Saturday night in 1865 and the vicar, of an English country church needed a simple tune that children could sing unaccompanied by musical instruments. He needed it for tomorrow morning, for a Pentecost Procession to the parish church in the next village. Churches have been doing such seasonal marches for centuries. It was, so to speak, a way to take church to the wider community. Anyway, as he planned it the crucifer would lead them. The children would come next, singing something. And his little congregation would follow waving banners as they marched. The hymn he wrote for the children was Onward Christian Soldiers.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before! Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see, his banners go.
As he imagined this procession, it was the lines of children marching into the future that inspired him. Like little soldiers they marched, but too soon they would be battling with the grown up challenges of everyday life. It was his prayer that they would remember to do so by following in the way Jesus lead. The foe they faced was sin and the devil; all those things that tempt us to lose faith and wander astray. His prayer was that the children would always keep the faith; and with a soldierly sense of duty follow the cross marching through life.
The original tune was dropped a couple of years later when a young Arthur Sullivan, soon to be of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, supplied the one we know. It caught on and became popular in churches around the world. I’m told the Salvation Army is particularly fond of it.
Some of my pastor friends avoid this hymn because of its militaristic language. I have to agree that it’s message can be misunderstood. Though, if we miss it’s real message we’ll find we are in good company.
When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in August 1941 on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales to draft the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Churchill chose the hymns. He explained his thinking this way: “We sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals ... it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”
In Churchill’s mind those children of a Pentecost Procession in 1865 had become soldiers with banners unfurled, following in the way God surly must be leading. I think he had the right of it then, but only partly right. Not every soldier is Christian and few conflicts can ever be said to serve God’s purposes. But still, the Atlantic Charter that Churchill and Roosevelt drafted was our two nations’ promise to build a peaceful world at war’s end, surly a God inspire goal.
I bring all this up today because it’s the Fourth of July weekend and we’ll be singing Onward Christian Soldiers as our last hymn. Further, we have family, soldiers, marching today in hotspots all around the world. And it seemed fitting to remember them.
But I bring it up in particular because Korra Faith will be baptized today. She’s about to join the great parade of Christians, with banners unfurled, following in the way Jesus led. I guess instead of marching she will be crawling for a while yet.
I want to make sure we all understand; she isn’t joining a church, she’s becoming a follower of Jesus. Instead of enlisting for a tour or two, this is a life-time commitment. She’s making Jesus her north star, her guide in life’s journey.
There will likely be side trips; Christ’s foe is ever watching, ready to lead her away by temptations. So she will likely wander in directions harmful to self and others, searching for meaning and finding none. I suspect we’ve all been there at least once. Still the north star remains our ever faithful guide, if we will just look to it. The parade goes ever onward and it’s easy to get back in step.
So today we welcome Korra Faith to join us as we march. We promise to do what we can to help her keep up, on track, and with her eyes fixed on Jesus. But remember, this isn’t so much a church to join, as a way station. It’s a place to recharge or heal, to get your bearings or directions, as you march forward through life. May she ever find it so for her.
Sabine Baring-Gould, that young vicar, reportedly wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in about 15 minutes, later apologizing, “It was written in great haste, and I am afraid that some of the lines are faulty.” He spent years trying to rewrite it, but ultimately the world loved it just the way it was. The Salvation Army has the right of it; it’s good marching music.
Sermon: Disintegrated June 23, 2019
I’m often alone in my office at odd hours. Years ago, in another parish, there was a loud knock at my door, behind it was a rather large intimidating man. He declared that he’d been told at the library that there was a bridge club playing at the church. We were the closest church, just a block away. I told him we didn’t have a bridge club, but he kept repeating that he’d been told there was. Maybe it was one of the other churches.
Anyway, he didn’t seemed the bridge playing type, but he told me he’d started playing bridge while in the army in Vietnam. That explained a lot. You didn’t need a college degree to tell that he was mentally ill and more than a little belligerent. And I was alone with him.
I’ve been in this sort of situation many times, but I don’t mind telling you that it still makes me nervous. I’ve been threatened and I know clergy who’ve faced knives and guns. But I did what I always do, I asked if he wanted a cup coffee. Then we sat down to talk.
He gradually calmed down and we had a pleasant, if somewhat disjointed, chat. He told me his story and how much he enjoyed living in Alpena. Then we moved on to current events. All told we talked for about 30 minutes and then he was ready to move on. We smiled at one another, shook hands, and bid each other a good day.
His leaving brought me both a sense of relief and of shame. He was doing the best he could to hold himself together; he only wanted to be recognized and valued as a human being, and I was afraid of him.
I think we see something similar in today’s Gospel lesson. While my veteran friend was managing to hold himself together, the man Jesus met had lost all sense of self and agency. Today we might say he had a disintegrated personality, what is clinically called dissociative identity disorder. In common parlence-- multiple personalites. He’s come apart, lost control of himself inside. He doesn’t know who or what he is; he can’t remember what’s real and what isn’t. Everything inside is all jumbled up. A disintegrated personality is often associated with some significant trauma. My Vietnam veteran friend’s PTSD might be considered a milder form of this.
The man Jesus met needed help… more importantly wanted help. Finding your self once you’ve completely lost it, that is, reintegrating your sense of self, isn’t something you can do by yourself. He needed help, so God responded. God grounded him in reality, helped him put the pieces back together, and helped him find him self again. We treat it as a miracle, but this is something that happens every day as the mentally ill are put back in their right minds.
Dr. Maurice Buck, a enlightened 19th century psychiatrist, ran an asylum for the mentally ill in London, Ontario. Generally, those were still the days of lock-them-up — strap-them-down treatment, as was the case in the Gospel we read today. Dr. Buck was trying something different. But the local folks feared and shunned the asylum residents, just like the people of Gerasene did the man with a legion of demons.
One day a patient wandered off the asylum grounds. He become lost, and grew panicky. The fearful villagers followed him, becoming ever more menacing in their remarks and attitude. Finally, the poor man crashed through a store window to escape his tormentors. Dr. Buck, like Jesus, arrived just in time; offering words of comfort and reassurance, he cradled the man in his arms like a father comforting his frightened child. The doctor wrote that the sight moved many to see that here was just another frightened human being. In all the ways that count, he was really no different from any of us.
Paul wrote, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Our common Father has made us brother and sister to one another. Fear keeps us from recognizing our kindred. Fear keeps them from recognizing us. “Have no fear,” Jesus said. Do not doubt, but believe,” He said.
As I remember my veteran friend from Alpena I think about Willy Loman, the central character in the play Death of a Salesman. “He’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention must be paid. Attention must be paid.” It’s true of every human being. Attention must be paid.
Sermon: My Dad Is Here June 16, 2019
It was a special day. All the student’s fathers were invited to visit their child’s class. As you would imagine, many fathers were unable to attend because of their busy schedules. So the teacher had the class of second-graders go around and at least say what their father did.
One said, “My father is a doctor and is at his office making sick people well.” Another said her dad was a store owner and couldn’t get away. Another said his dad was a lawyer, he was in court helping people with their problems.
And so it went until the turn came to one little boy whose father had taken time off from work to be there, he proudly shouted: “My dad is here.”
Are there any words more reassuring than, “I’ll be there?” If you’ve ever had to call for a plumber over a weekend, you know how really good these words can feel. Or if you’ve been stranded on the road with car trouble and called a friend, you know how good those words can sound. I’ll be there! “Grandma, I’m graduating in June.” I’ll be there! “Mom, the baby cries all night and if I don’t get some sleep I’ll die!” I’ll be there!
Father’s Day. The apostle Paul tells us that we should address God as “abba.” That’s the same word Jesus used in his prayer, that we translate as father. “Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.” (RSV-Luke 11:2) We are to think of ourselves as God’s children.
But there’s more here than we might realize. There’s a proverb dating from before the time of Christ that says “the first words a child learns are abba and emma,” dad and mom, literally, dada and mama. Our relationship with our heavenly Father is like that… dada. It’s the relationship of a young child completely dependent on a parent for daily needs, as well as the training that will continue to be necessary as the child grows into adulthood and beyond.
It was in recognition of the fact that the disciples had a lot of growing to do that Jesus told them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” In other words, “There are other things you need to know, but you’re just not ready to learn them yet. I’ve got to go now, but the Spirit of truth is coming to take over. The Spirit will teach you and help grow into the Children of God the Father dreamed you’d be.”
Our parent God has carefully provided for the “raising up” of all God’s children, from now until the end of time. In other words, God is saying, “I be there for you.” As Father the plan was established, as Son the process was begun, and as Spirit it continues in each generation. That’s the Trinity.
The disciples were first. Jesus gathered them and taught, but it was the Holy Spirit that helped them grow in understanding, grow into a mature faith, grow into Children of God. They in turn taught what they had learned from Jesus and God the Spirit helped that new generation understand and mature in the faith until they too were Children of God. The process was repeated in each generation down through the centuries. It began with a few dozen and grew until the family of God numbers in the billions today.
So we who are parents, fathers especially today, continue to care for our dependent children and teach them what we were taught. God the Spirit fills in where we were unable to inspire then. Then when the kids are on their own, the Spirit continues to help those who are willing to make room for God in their lives, willing to let the Spirit inspire them.
Sadly not everyone matures in the faith or passes it on to their children. Not every father is as faithful as our God. But unlike, the too busy doctor, or businessman, or lawyer, or whatever, our “dad” is always there for us, here for us. “I tell you, ask, and it will be given you, seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be open to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks find, and him who knocks it will be opened.” God does not give up, nor is God too busy to give us what we need if we ask.
So as Zephaniah wrote, “Sing aloud O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. (Zephaniah 3:14). Paul wrote something similar, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.. . for the Lord is near.”
God is the father who would sacrifice anything to be there for you in that second-grade classroom. God is the one who says “I’ll be there,” and always comes through. Zephaniah and Paul were right, on this Father’s day we do have something to shout about. Amen.
Sermon: Worship June 9, 2019
One traditional analogy for our worship services is that of a symphony orchestra. You all are the players in the orchestra, with many different instruments represented among you. Some voices are high pitched, some low, some loud and some soft, some read smoothly and others haltingly. The score is right here, and I’m the conductor. I’m supposed to lead, keep time, and sort of tie everything together. And who is the audience at this joyous performance? The audience is God, of course.
It’s all supposed to comes together in one glorious effort to respond to our sense of God’s presence here. Jazz musicians call this “blowing soul.” That is, sometimes, when it all comes together as it should, we can step out of ourselves and enter a deeper reality. We sing the praise of God, and sometimes in the praising we find we can experience something of God’s presence. When it all comes together it’s like that first Pentecost for the disciples when they discovered the Holy Spirit all around them.
This analogy illustrates the basic truth that worship in the Episcopal tradition is always participatory. There is intended to be a lot of action on the part of the congregation. Contrast that with some Protestant churches, the sort in which worship is mostly performance by musicians and teaching by pastors, with the congregation serving mainly as audience and students, but not active participants. We want more; we need more; we want to encounter God.
Worship requires everyone’s participation; for a time it will unit us as few other things can. That is, it can. Unfortunately, some Sundays are better than others; not every service is a new Pentecost. Why?
Like many of you, Merrill and I try to have an active role in our grandchildren’s lives. That means going to their school activities. Two of our grands are musical, so we go to their concerts. We’ve watched them progress in band or chorus from just struggling to keep the tempo and avoid squeaking to pulling off a pretty credible performance. Sometimes they’re amazingly good. It’s all about learning to take their part and blending in with everyone else’s to get the desired result. They are learning self discipline and the power of cooperation. All good.
Worship is like that. Some Sundays feel like we’re all distracted, like we’re struggling to keep the tempo and avoid squeaking. But there are other Sundays that move way beyond the “amazingly good” to heavenly highs. On those days the distractions of daily life are forgotten, and for a few moments we feel as if we’ve been transported to the throne room of God in all God’s glory.
Rarely does that sort of thing happen at a concert, even one of your grandchildren’s concerts. But it has been known to happen, as when a Jazzman is blowing soul or certain pieces are play by a capable orchestra.
Think of Handle’s Messiah, especially the portion called the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Handle’s oratorio took its text from the Bible and the chorus describes the first Pentecost and the resulting spread of the gospel through the world. It ends with the definitive statement of God’s glory summarized in the echoing hallelujahs.
At that point the conductor, the orchestra, the soloists, and the full chorus are all working feverishly. Every orchestra member is playing with inspired fervor. The soloists and the chorus are singing at full volume. The conductor, beating time with baton and hand, works exhaustively to tie the pieces of the musical whole together into one intricate, moving entity. He urges forth every last ounce of spirit left in the performers. What comes out all this is a great piece of musical love.
It sends shivers up the spine. It’s said that in 1743 when King George II first heard it he was so moved he stood up. As is the custom in England, when the king stands everyone else does too. At concerts to this day, we all stand up for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The king of England stood before the King of Kings in all his glory and worshipped, and so do we.
As much as we love attending our grandchildren’s concerts they don’t produce worship. They are intended to be entertainment. But put God in the center of the production, with everyone giving their best, and you can get the Hallelujah Chorus.
Certain hymns have a similar effect. Hymn 376, the melody of which comes from the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony titled “Ode to Joy”.
“Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love; hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their sun above.
“All thy works with joy surround thee, earth and heaven reflect thy rays, stars and angels sing around thee, center of unbroken praise. Field and forest, vale and mountain, blooming meadow, flashing sea, chanting bird and flowing fountain, call us to rejoice in thee.
“Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest, well-spring of the joy of living, ocean-depth of happy rest! Thou our Father, Christ our Brother: all who live in love are thine; teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.”
Those words carry a vision of worship -- everybody working intently together, joining with all of creation, to praise the King of Love in our midst.
This is what that first Pentecost must have been like. Suddenly the disciples realized that God was in their midst and so they joined the rest of creation in spreading the joy. They couldn’t help themselves. They stood up before the King of Kings and said, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
That’s why I chose today’s last hymn.
“I, the Lord of wind and flame, I will tend the poor and lame. I will set a feast for them, My hand will save. Finest bread I will provide Till their hearts be satisfied. I will give my life to them. Whom shall I send?
And we respond: Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.”
Worship is no performance or teaching; it’s an encounter with the living God whose very presence moves us to act, to spread the glory we’ve found, to live in love. Hallelujah.
Note: This was written for June 2, 2019, but unused. When I got up to preach it didn't feel right, so I put it aside. Instead, without a written text, I explored the idea of divination, as found in Acts 16:16-34. It is a Christian ideal dating to the first century; something we should working toward. Yet Paul squelched it in the slave girl. Why? It was a better sermon. But read on if you like.
Oh John, you’re almost as bad a Paul. I try to make what they write sound sensible, but sometimes they just don’t follow the same rules of grammar we do. Paul would string clause upon clause until a sentence would stretch half a page… and a lot of the time the clauses don’t seem to have any meaningful connection. Then we have John… He records Jesus as saying, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,... so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Huh?
One thing is clear: through repetition John is putting a strong emphasis on Jesus’ prayer for unity. Unity between the Father and the Son; unity between Jesus and us; unity between you and me. That’s what Jesus prays for; that we all might be one.
Jesus prays; he doesn’t command. He commanded that we love God and one another, but he prays we might find unity. We love naturally, but unity is something human beings just don’t do very well. “God, help them,” Jesus says.
When you look around you soon realize that not everyone wants unity. In politics, divide and conquer is a useful tool, though clearly its not the way God thinks. I just wish we wouldn’t fall for it, but humans, like moths to a flame, just don’t seem to be able to help themselves.
Even when we try to be “one” we soon run into situations that produce conflict, differences of opinion about how things are supposed to be and who gets to decide.
One Friday a Papal Nuncio, an ambassador from the Vatican, came to tour an American parochial school. For that very special event he gave the students a dispensation from the “no meat on Friday” rule. So at lunch, meat was on the menu. But some of the kids were too nervous to eat it. Sure the Nuncio represented the Pope, but did he have the right to just declare that eating meat on Friday was OK? What if their immortal souls were being placed in terrible danger by having meat for lunch. All through lunch some of the kids debated the question. For one boy the tension was simply too much. He threw up! This caused the debate to shift to whether, technically, he had actually eaten meat, or not.
In the great scheme of things dogmas about meat on Friday might sound like a little thing, but little things quickly become big causes of division.
There are dogmas -- those teachings pronounced by some authority as true -- about everything. We live with dogmas that cover the gamut of human life from government and economics to religion and culture. Dogmas do satisfy the cravings of people who need rules to follow, explanations to quote, and implacable authorities to respect. Fine for them, but there are almost always other dogmas, also spoken with absolute authority which if followed will lead to conflict. Where then is the unity Jesus prayed for?
For us, trying to follow the right dogma must be balanced with an effort to have that unity in love that Jesus prayed for. So you won’t typically find Episcopalians supporting either extreme in conflicting dogmas debates. Instead we’ll be trying to live in the middle. Not necessarily in complete accord, of course, and probably tending towards one direction or the other, but nevertheless deliberately avoiding the end zones. There can be spiritual benefit in abstaining from meat on Fridays, but requiring it seems to diminish the benefit, we would say. So the Episcopal Church doesn’t say you should or must… but it wouldn’t hurt and might even help in your spiritual journey. If abstaining from meat on Friday is your gift to creation, go for it.
Can a people who count among their good traits the phrase “comfortable with ambiguity and mystery” also claim to be “one?” Being “one” as the Father and the Son are one doesn’t mean “they are the same.” The Father and the Son are not the same. In fact, it means they support a grand over-arching purpose, each in his own way. They welcome one another, accept one another… as they are. So should we.
For those of us who believe, it also means joining them, gathering together under that great canopy of God’s creative purpose. That’s where the oneness is. God’s creation is an ever expending, evolving, developing phenomenon that attests to God’s dazzling power and forethought. He’s made us part of it and wants us to push it forward with him.
But if there is only one great purpose that unites all creation, does that imply that there is only one way that purpose is to be pursued? Each of us was created to be different; we’re not expected to agree on everything. That must mean we each have something unique to contribute to God’s plan.
The oneness Jesus prays for is that we will offer our uniqueness and join him in creating that perfect city that the Book of Revelation talks about. No that’s too small a thought. What God wants is for us to join Him, each of us in our own small way, in the creation of a perfect universe.
These are thoughts to hold on to in times of division, when deep misunderstandings keep faithful people of differing persuasions at arm’s length, when honest beliefs stray from reality and when home-spun science collides with authentic research. It is easy to find ways to despise what we do not understand, to hate what does not resonate with our own experience, to fear what seems alien. We support these convictions with anecdotal evidence and with snippets of scripture.
It is harder to seek ways to understand, to broaden our experience and to look with fresh eyes at those who differ from us. Yet the eyes that are sometimes fresh to us, are the experienced eyes of Jesus Christ, who calls us to the unity of purpose that is greater than the sum of our selves. It is a unity made both possible and perfect by the extravagant and abundant love of God that is driving all creation.
Sermon: Who Holds the Future? May 26, 2019
During the Easter season the epistles come from the Book of Revelation. It’s probably the strangest book in the Bible--full of odd visions, catastrophic events, a coming judgment, and the end of all things. It’s popularity among Christians waxes and wanes; at the high point everybody’s reading it or talking about it; at other times it is almost forgotten. The last high point was during the decades leading up to the turn of the century. During that period we heard more and more claims, especially from evangelical Christians, that the tribulations the Book of Revelation described were just about to fall on all of us.
In the publishing trade this was particularly obvious. In the 60’s & 70’s there had been one or two books on the end times… generally considered the work of crackpots. Then gradually the numbers swelled as the year 2000 approached, becoming a flood with the best selling “Left Behind” books.
Then when the millennium passed with no more than the usual tribulation, much of that interest died down. So much so that in 2001 when Hollywood got around to trying to cash in on the Left Behind books, the film version dropped from notice almost immediately. But Hollywood didn’t give up and made another version in 2014. Roger Ebert called a “dull groaner”. At that point no one, even the evangelical Christians, were interested.
However, one film series loosely based on the Book of Revelation did have some success. They were horror films released under the general heading The Prophecy. They were about a cosmic battle taking place in heaven and earth between good and evil, angelic and human. Both sides are searching for an otherwise unknown lost chapter to the Book of Revelation, the key to final victory. But this time Hollywood didn’t make the same mistake they did with the Left Behind movies; this time they left God out of this strange mashup of truth and fantasy. For good reason. Without God, the future is always in doubt, and that leaves us tense or fearful, and tension and fear makes for an exciting movie, one that will sell tickets.
I bring all this up to remind us all, that humanity has been through this before, many times. The Book of Revelation seems to attract interest especially during periods when significant parts of the Christian world are anxious about the future. Then, when the threat passes and our fear subsides, the book drops back into obscurity.
Today there is certainly a lot of free-floating anxiety in the world. Will we see a corresponding renewed interest in the Book of Revelation? Not yet, it seems. So does the book have any special value for us today? Can all of the strange visions and the descriptions of heavenly places really speak a meaningful word in our everyday lives? I think so.
It was written to encourage people like us as they faced the challenges of being Christians in an often dangerous world. But before we find encouragement we will first have to get past some of the images. Like the seven headed dragons and a pregnant woman standing on the moon and wearing a crown made of stars. It’s symbolic language, sometimes a code for something else: a dragon for the devil fighting God or the Roman Empire opposing the Christian community. Sometimes an image representing a mood: a pregnant woman representing Israel’s longing for the birth of its deliverer, or the Bride of Christ, the Church, laboring, suffering painfully under persecution by the Empire as she awaits God’s final triumph.
Likewise, leave the violent imagery to the horror movies that terrify and titillate, but have no place for God. Instead consider the message of a film classic from 1951, a time when no one gave a thought to the coming millennium and an uncertain new century. It receive 8 Academy Award nominations. In Quo Vadis we look back into the actual history of the Church, to a time when there was real persecution of the Christian community. In the movie Emperor Nero redirects public anger over his bad administration by scapegoating a minority, the Christians of Rome. For amusement at a dinner party he has some of them tied to stakes and burned, while others are thrown to lions. Later he tours the carnage to see their bodies. He is taken aback by their faces: the Christians had died singing, and now he sees blissful smiles on their still faces. Unable to understand this, he becomes frustrated and angry, because he senses that they have seen what he can not... the heavenly Jerusalem we heard described this morning in the passage from the Book of Revelation.
This is what I take away from the Book of Revelation: We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future! All the symbolism and strange imagery may fascinate us but should not distract us from the message: God alone embraces all of history, from its beginning to its end, and there should be no doubt how the story will end -- it will end in God.
We may wonder about the specifics. We may wonder about the events yet to take place. But at the end of the historical road, we will find a Person, not an event. He is someone we already know, Jesus Christ our Savior.
Sermon--The Glory May 15, 2019
Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” This weeks Bible Study spent time chewing on that sentence. What does it mean to be glorified?
“Glory” is a slippery word. It can mean so many things. We admire the glory of men such as Alexander the Great, huge personalities who shaped whole civilizations. Or we sit stunned before the glory of the riches that adorned the tomb of someone like King Tut. But earthly glory is so ephemeral... Alexander is said to have drown, weighed down by the weight of his glorious armor, and Tutankhamon’s tomb was desecrated by robbers and archeologists seeking his riches. So much for glory.
The Bible uses the word in another way. Here it is most often used to describe God, whose glory is like the sun’s blazing glare on a rippling river, it hides more than it shows, and yet you just know something wonderful is there. Such glory stabs the eye and heart; you feel it transforming you, forcing you to see the world differently.
When Moses saw God face to face, he covered his eyes, it was just too much to bear. Caught in such an overwhelming awareness of God’s might and magnificence, all the Psalmist can do is sing of God’s “glorious splendor.” “Hallelujah!,” he says.
Hallelujah… That’s a word that doesn’t have much of a meaning by itself; it was just an exclamation common in Bible times and southern Baptist churches today. Sort of like on Antique’s Roadshow when the appraiser tells you your Mom’s candy dish is worth $500,000, you say, “O My God, you’ve got to be kidding.” The lucky candy dish owner isn’t offering up a prayer to God; it’s just something that jumps out of your mouth when you have been overwhelmed by something.
In the Bible, Hallelujah is always occasioned by an awareness of the overwhelming near presence of God, it’s the glory of it all. Words just pour out of your mouth; you don’t know what to say. “Praise him you angels,” says the Psalm, “praise him sun and moon, praise him you sea-monsters, praise him fire, hail, snow and fog, praise him all the earth. Hallelujah!” (Ps 148)
When John wrote his gospel, the glory of God was foremost in this thoughts. He sets the theme for the whole Gospel in this beautiful statement: “We have seen His glory; the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love.” (John 1:14, Amplified version)
You’ll notice that in the Bible glory and love are often linked. That’s what Jesus did in today’s Gospel lesson. Unfortunately, we in this world often separate them.
Michael Jackson is a case in point. He was a man who was at one time crowned king of Pop, Rock and Soul music, all at the same time. His album Thriller (that’s its name) is, the last I heard, still the best the selling recording around the world... in history. Regardless of what you think of him, he is even now glorified by millions of people. And yet, in the end he cowered and hid in his fear and pain...and perhaps shame.
Some years ago he was interview by Oprah Winfrey, and throughout he was continually apologizing. Over and over he said “I’m sorry.” And when he wasn’t saying it, his manner was. Why would Jackson, who basked in the glory of fans around the world, need to apologize for his existence? The answer is abuse. He grew up with too little love from an abusive father. Glory, fame and fortune cannot compensate for love denied. Neither, can you buy love from children you coax into your bed.
Babe Ruth had hit 714 home runs during his colorful career, but before he retired, he grew old and lost much of the agility he had known as a wonder-kid. Finally traded to the Boston Braves, he was playing one of his last games against the Cincinnati Reds and having a humiliating day. In one inning alone his errors lead to five Cincinnati runs. When the inning was mercifully over, Ruth trotted off the field to the jeers and boos of the crowd. Suddenly, a young boy jumped over the railing on to the field. With tears in his eyes he ran to Ruth and threw his arms around the aging hero.
Ruth stopped, picked up the young boy, hugged him, set him back down on his feet and patted him on the head. Almost as on cue the booing stopped and a reverent hush settled over the park. In those brief moments the crowd saw a different kind of hero-- a man who still had a glory about him, a glory apart from how many home runs he could hit-- a glory that shown forth in a touch of love for a little boy who could not stand to see his hero crucified by a heartless mob.
Pearl Bailey, the popular singer, she’s gone now; she was asked how it felt when she received the adulation of the people who surged around her after a performance. She replied: “Why do they run to me? What are they seeking? Love. And with outstretched hands, it’s given. The young smile and joke; the old look for hope. Love is so frighteningly beautiful,” she continued. “I see their souls, and I hold them gently in my hands and, because I love them, they weigh nothing. God has set them there so gently I can enjoy their love... I also feel a great healing power, so when they run up to the stage and we touch, I am healed and so are they.”
Glory and love were never more connected than when Jesus had surrendered his will to God and was ready to reflect the glory of God’s love through a horrific display of love on the cross.
Glory and love are made to go together. God’s glory is ultimately reflected in every act of real love. The glory of God is the perfect love forever poured out by the Son and forever manifested by those who receive him into their lives. God’s glory still shines in this world through the love of one person for another. Would that we never become so jaded as to not feel overwhelmed whenever it breaks in upon us, whenever we see it in another. O my God; Hallelujah.
As he said, “A new command, I give you, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Sermon--Lead me to the Waters of Life May 12, 2019
A man went into the Unemployment Office in New York City. When asked his occupation, he told the befuddled clerk, “Shepherd.” Where would a shepherd find work in New York City?
Unfortunately today’s texts about sheep may not speak to us as forcefully as they should; in our supermarket world we’ve little opportunity to learn much first hand about sheep and shepherds.
An experiment was conducted in a college class in behavioral science. Seven pieces of string precisely two feet long were placed side by side on a table. Next to those seven the experimenter placed and an eighth piece of string six inches shorter than the others. Six people were brought into the room. Five of them were plants, the sixth, was the subject of the experiment.
The researcher asked them all several questions, among which was “Are all of these pieces of string the same length?” To this, the first plant answered with an emphatic “Yes!” Then each of the other plants did the same. The subject answered last. Three out of four times the subject went along with the crowd and answered “yes” when he clearly knew that was the wrong answer. And when the experiment was repeated without the plants nine out of ten times the subjects answered “no.” Peer influence is very powerful.
We’ve probably all attended meetings where something similar happens. Everyone tends to agree with the first couple of speakers on an issue. We haven’t gotten far from our childhood games of “follow the leader.”
Human beings can be led and misled... just like sheep. We even have a herd mentality. Sometimes we call it style or fashion or trends, but it’s really herd mentality. Somebody leads and herds of people follow. We can be panicked into a stampede, free-floating anger can turn us into a mob, and in a peaceful environment we tend to wander without much though for the future.
That’s why a good shepherd is so important. Human beings need someone who can lead well; who can lead us to, as the second reading says, “springs of the water of life. ” Good shepherds lead us in directions that are life fulfilling.
Every year or so some pollster takes a survey of historians; asking them list our Presidents from greatest to worst. The names get shuffled around, but three always seem near the top of the list: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. And despite all the rampant partisan feelings present today, the general population seems to agree on these three.
They are recognized for leading the nation as it faced enormous challenge: For Washington, securing the independence of a new nation and providing it with sound political institutions; for Lincoln, preserving the Union and purging it of slavery; for FDR, guiding the country through its greatest economic crisis and its biggest foreign challenge, World War II.
In each instance, what sets them apart is their ability to call a bewildered and straying or scattered people back to the high ideals upon which the country was founded.
But as important as these shepherds were, we’ve shepherds just as important but much closer to home. How old were you when you realized you’d just said or done something the way your father or mother always did it? Whether we’re conscious of them or not, we’ve all had several key people who guided us along the ways of life: spouses, teachers, mentors, pastors, and especially parents. It’s a part of our nature, this need for good leaders. Blessed are those with good shepherds.
Unfortunately, not everyone has been blessed by their circumstances. Those who have experienced the guidance of parents who are good shepherds, may not appreciate how exposed and abandoned it can feel without them. Likewise, if you’ve had inspiring teachers and good mentors--the kind that will teach you how to examine your own assumptions and how to sift truth from fiction-- if you’ve been blessed by such, you might not appreciate the confusion and bad choices you see in those not so blessed. And if you were raised within the Body of Christ and continued into adulthood, you might not appreciate how meaningless life becomes for those who were not so blessed.
A little girl was touring Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico for the first time. Her father was carrying her younger brother as she walked beside him. That arrangement was fine as long as the path was broad and level. But the path grew narrow and a bit steep so her father moved ahead. She said, “Daddy, hold my hand!” Her father reassured, “Honey, you’re just fine. I’m right here with you.”
This calmed her for a time but then it go darker and the trail grew rougher, a bit slick with water dripping from the formations. The little girl again spoke, “Daddy, hold my hand!” “I can’t,” he said. “I’m holding your brother. You’re all right. Why don’t you believe me?” The girl had an instant reply, “Because only my ears know you’re ahead of me. My hand doesn’t.”
Somehow, we always seem to put more faith in leaders who are “hands-on.” Parents to hold us. Teachers who take care about us. A church community to welcome us as friends in a common mission.
That’s why God came in person to lead us, to take our hand in his. That’s why God is our Father and why Jesus is our faithful brother and teacher and why the Holy Spirit is our constant companion. Only when you’ve known a good parent, teacher and shepherd can you appreciate how lost and wandering you were before. Every generation needs the “water of life,” and must be led to it.
We say that together we are the Body of Christ and Jesus is the head of that body. God is our Father and the Holy Spirit gives life to the body. So the Good Shepherd has grown from one man to become a holy community numbered in the billions. None of us walks our paths alone. God, through the community of faith, guides our paths aright. And collectively we are the Light of the World.
On this Mothers Day it is well to remember with praise and thanksgiving all those who lead each generation to the “water of life”.