“Handling Handoffs” - May 26, 2019

John 14:15-29

            One of the preachers whose sermons I enjoy reading is Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was in his prime about a hundred years ago.  He was the founding pastor of Riverside Church, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Columbia.  That was where John Rockefeller went to church every Sunday.  For the building’s dedication, he wrote the hymn we’re going to sing at the end of the service today: “God of Grace and God of Glory”.  Toward the end of his life, when he wrote his memoirs, he said that one of the things that bothered him most about having had a long and fruitful ministry was that nobody called him “Harry” anymore.  It was always “Dr. Fosdick”.

            That’s why it especially jumped out at me when I was listening to a podcast not long ago that another great preacher, Will Willimon, a now-retired United Methodist bishop, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, Professor of the Practice of Ministry at the Duke University Divinity School, author of I don’t know how many books, said the same thing.  The interviewer was in his early 30’s and kept vacillating between “Bishop” and “Dr. Willimon”, even when he said, “Just call me Will.  It saves syllables.

            Don’t get me wrong.  Respect is a good thing.  We could probably, as a society, do with a bit more of it.  However, there is a point where Christian leaders worthy of respect have to recognize that sometimes they have to step back a bit and let other people exercise their own gifts for ministry in order for the faith to flourish.  Ironically, that was the point that Will was trying to make throughout the podcast I was listening to.  At one point he said this (and remember he is speaking to somebody thirty years his junior):

“The kingdom of God is not limited to one generation, particularly the older generation.  And so I think y’all are going to have to do more stepping up to say, ‘Okay, we’ve done it your way.  Thank you, everybody over fifty, but now we’re going to have to ask, “How is God reaching a new generation, and how can we hitch onto that?”’”[1]

 I have to say, as someone whose age is halfway between Will’s and his interviewer’s, both groups are having a hard time.  It’s like watching a parent teaching a teenager to drive.  It has to happen, they both want it to happen, but one is scared of taking over the wheel and of the oncoming traffic while the other is trying to be encouraging but cannot avoid the occasional obvious intake of breath and the use of the phantom brake.

            It would be good for us to go back to how Jesus handled things when he was preparing the disciples for a time when they would not be able to turn to him anytime they ran into a difficulty and expect him to fix it.  That did happen at times, after all.  Mark tells us of a time when a father brought his son to Jesus to be healed of what sounds like epilepsy who said,  

“‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’” [Mark 9:17-19]

Jesus healed him, of course, but I hear a certain degree of frustration with the disciples.  I also hear a little bit of embarrassment on their part in what followed:

“When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’” [Mark 9:28-29]

 In any form of ministry, any form of service, there has to be both willingness to pass on and to take up responsibility for the work of the kingdom.

            And, yes, it can be especially difficult for those who have seen others do it well before them.  They only see results, not the process, which can be messy and confusing, and sometimes full of guesswork.  I have no idea what went on with Fosdick on a daily basis.  He does talk, in his autobiography, about having had a nervous breakdown at one point early on.  As for Will, I was there in a staff meeting as a student intern when he kept jumping up and down to answer calls and find information that he couldn’t call to mind, to the point where the secretaries went to the closet while he was out of the room and got out a short length of rope that they threw around him when he sat down, and tied him into the chair.  When we turn to someone and say, “We need you to organize an online outreach,” and they think, “I don’t know where to begin,” it doesn’t occur to them that nobody else knows, either, but they stand a better chance of making a good guess.  Do you think I understand Instagram?  I seem to have an account, but I’m unclear how that happened.  I don’t know how to log on, and, frankly, don’t really see the point.  But I don’t do that stuff – none of us does – for ourselves.

            Nor do any of us do ministry on our own.  Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs.  He didn’t send anybody out as a lone ranger.  And those pairs came back and reported to the whole group.  They shared their successes and they talked about their failures.  They had both.  Later on, Paul traveled around with assistants like Luke and Silas, though he had a falling out with Barnabbas at one point and they had to split up.  He also took Timothy along with him, who was a generation younger than him, and accepted help from a runaway slave named Onesimus who was probably about Timothy’s age, too.

            Above all, all of us have always had and will always have recourse to a Helper who knows not only what has worked best in the past to convey the love of God in Christ to a world that needs it desperately, but what is going to work when the way we’ve always done it (or the way we think we’ve always done it) needs to be re-examined.  Before Jesus left the upper room to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Romans would arrest him, he gave his disciples a whole lot of last-minute instructions.  He also told them where to turn if they had questions or qualms.  He said,

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:25-26]

See, for some crazy, inexplicable reason, he trusted them.  Even though he knew they would fail him that night and the next day, he trusted them for the long run.  He trusted them with the news that the kingdom of God had come near.  And for some crazy, inexplicable reason, he trusts us – all of us – with that same message, too. 

So pass it along in your own way.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71JxnaK1DFg&list=PL0Scnp4xkKUw16aFNBkPIsOcx70ebFlSk&index=3


"Love? Really?" - May 19, 2019

John 13:31-35 

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:35]

            That verse is so simple, and such a minefield!

            Just start with the word “everyone”.  There’s no doubt that the world judges Christianity as a whole, and within that specific denominations or local churches or individuals, on the basis of how closely we do or do not live up to the ideals of Jesus.  There’s no doubt that we judge each other by that same standard.  We may even apply it to ourselves.  And we inevitably fail.

            I hate that, especially when it’s used as a pretext for criticism from people who at the same time claim not to care about faith at all.  It begins, often, with someone whose behavior or worldview is called into question by Jesus’ words or by the ideals that the Church espouses becoming defensive, and going on the offense in response.  “Who are you to criticize me?  Look at how you people live!”  Then follows a laundry list of sins and failures and reminders about famous Christians who have done some terrible things.

            I get that.  I really do.  Only a fool would try to excuse all that has happened in the past two thousand years.  If it’s any consolation, I would just point out that we’ve never claimed to get everything right and, at our best, we have had the grace (by which I mean the help of God) to listen to critics both inside and outside of the faith community and to say, “Thank you.  We need your input to stay honest.”  I would point out that the Bible itself talks about the temptations that come when we are anything less than genuine about our witness.  The book of Acts tells how the earliest Christian community included a couple named Ananias and Sapphira who wanted everyone to think that they were the most selfless and sacrificial of givers, whole-hearted supporters of the work of the Kingdom.  When Peter saw through them, he declared,

“You did not lie to us but to God!” [Acts 5:4]

Ananias was suddenly struck down dead and then about three hours later so was Sapphira.  You would think we’d get the message about trying to make ourselves look good by means of religion, but it still goes on, though without the sudden divine punishment.  The only way you can exonerate the Church from sin is by ignoring the Bible and history and probably the witness of your own eyes and ears.

            Any attempt to put the Church up on a pedestal is a form of idolatry.  Of course, when the Church’s critics do exactly that, they are setting up an idol of their own, but doing it so that they have an idol to knock down rather than one to worship.  Whatever the purpose, though, it involves making a false claim that replaces God in someone’s heart or mind.

            So I would say that one of the best things we can do in answer to our critics is to pay attention to them when they have a point, and otherwise to ignore them.  Otherwise we get drawn into a game that we have neither the expertise nor the time nor the energy to play when we have more important and better matters in front of us.  Specifically, there is this whole business of loving one another.

            So let’s be clear about a few points.

            There’s a difference between liking each other and loving one another.  Liking often has to do with the sense of having something in common.  We find that we are “alike”.  We find the same things sad or funny.  We enjoy similar activities or have similar interests.  Our cultural backgrounds are similar.  We share the same references.  I can ask, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow?” and you know to respond, “African or European?”  If you don’t get that, all I have to do is say, “It’s a joke from Monty Python,” and you know to roll your eyes.

            Loving has to do with appreciating another person for being different.  For the most part, men and women fall romantically for someone who works on a vastly different emotional system, influenced by hormonal differences that they learn to manage within their relationships but managing is probably the best they will ever be able to do.  You know that a man is truly in love with a woman when he lets her choose the movie on date night.  You know that a woman is truly in love when she does not suggest that a man use his GPS.  These are stereotypes and generalizations, I know.  Everyone has their own examples, though.

            Non-romantic love works the same way in that it appreciates and honors those who are not in the same column as we are, sometimes in very important ways.  That is where Jesus really puts it on his disciples when he said,

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  [John 13:34]

When he assembled his inner circle of disciples he consciously included people who were very unlike one another.  Simon the Zealot was from a group dedicated to wiping out people like Matthew the tax collector.  John had tremendous faith, and Thomas needed to see things with his own eyes.  They had support from women like Mary and Martha, two sisters who got on each other’s nerves because Martha was a workaholic and considered her sister lazy.

            Once the Holy Spirit got the Church going, the original disciples, who at least all shared a religious and cultural background as Jews, found themselves trying to figure out what to do when Gentiles wanted to join in.  These were people who did not speak their language or have any idea what they were talking about when they referred to people from the scriptures, and who didn’t much care about what happened in Jerusalem.

            We still deal with that kind of challenge.  How do you – how do we – incorporate into our life people who don’t go all gooey when they hear “Just As I Am” or know why we have all kinds of committees or wonder what the connection is between green-bean casseroles and the kingdom of God?  (And, yes, there is a connection, which is a whole different sermon.)  How do people who come down on different sides of political or social issues – MAGA people and Bernie Bros – find themselves required by Jesus himself to love one another?

            Again, we’re supposed to love one another as Jesus loved us.  His love was a costly love.  It wasn’t about what he got out of it, but what he put in, and that was his entire self and his entire life, and ultimately it meant going all the way to a cross.  When we have that kind of love, the trivial stuff drops away.

            Let me read you part of someone’s commentary on that kind of love, a commentary that’s often mistakenly applied to romance. 

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” [I Corinthians 13:4-7]

When that kind of love is there, people see beyond the immediate and obvious faults and flaws that we have.  They know that we are limited, and if we are wise we also admit that.  Instead, they see a deeper and fuller reality that outlasts the rest.  They see a whole that is greater than its parts.  They see a Savior who is bigger than the institutions built by his followers. 

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” [I Corinthians 13:8-13]

"I Know Them" - May 12, 2019

John 10:22-30

            There are some aspects of the Bible that I confess I have trouble connecting with, and one of those is the whole business of God as a shepherd.  I am not running down the beauty and comfort of the Twenty-Third Psalm.  It’s one that I say when I really need to lean on the Lord.  I can certainly appreciate the parable of the shepherd who had one hundred sheep and, when he lost one of them, left the ninety-nine where they were to go and find the stray.  I get all of that.  I can extrapolate, too, from the way my dogs act.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10:27]

That’s not so different from what I find with the chihuahuas.  On Monday, I had a real problem with the oldest one.  He wouldn’t leave me alone.  Every time I opened my office door, he tried to slip out behind me, and he succeeded about four or five times.  It’s not that I don’t want him around, but when the Montessori students see him, they stop doing whatever it is that they are doing on the hallway floor – counting paper clips or fussing with their shoes or whatever – and all start going, “Oh!  Look!  So cute!” and he gets scared.

            I kind of wish I could be that kind of disciple, who wants to follow Jesus that closely.  I confess that I tend more to be the hound-dog type who looks up and says, “Oh, here he is again.  I wonder what he’s up to this time.  Where did I leave that biscuit?  Who keeps moving the sunny spot?” and falls asleep again.

            So how does Jesus deal with someone like me?

            This verse actually has two parts.  If I look at just the part that says, “they follow me”, I miss out on the reason why.  I miss out on the part that says, “I know them.”  What is it like to be known so well by somebody that they don’t even bother with the truly unimportant stuff?  Maybe I should ask, “Who in your life really knows how to speak your language and to cut through everything else enough to really get through to you?”

            Happy Mothers’ Day!  Here are the words to a song by Garrison Keillor that I’m not going to try to sing, but I think we’ll all get it.

One day a child came home from football,

Where he had fumbled, was jeered and booed,

His mother saw that his heart was breaking,

And so she made him his favorite food.


She did not make a garden salad,

She made no rolls nor beans,

It was a sandwich, on toasted white bread,

Of peanut butter creamy style.


The years went by and he was a loser,

He led a useless and wretched life,

And yet she never criticized him,

She smiled as she got out the knife.


She did not make a garden salad,

She made no rolls nor beans,

It was a sandwich, on toasted white bread,

Of peanut butter creamy style.


Then he decided on the basis,

Of a book that he read one fall,

That his problems had resulted,

From excessive cholesterol.


He had some bowls of garden salad,

He ate those rolls and beans,

He gave up sandwiches on toasted white bread,

With peanut butter creamy style.


That night his dog died, he smashed his pick-up,

His sweetheart left him, he lost his hair,

His house caught fire, he went to prison,

His dear old mother came to him there.


She did not bring a garden salad,

She brought no rolls nor beans,

She brought a sandwich on toasted white bread,

Of peanut butter creamy style,


It was a sandwich on toasted white bread,

Of peanut butter creamy style.

            That, my friends, is why we pay attention to Mothers’ Day in church.  In fact, it was a holiday that began with us.  A Methodist woman from West Virginia named Anna Jarvis pushed for a serious recognition of the rough ministry called motherhood, and she succeeded.  At the end of her life, though, she became disenchanted with the way it became (and still is) commercialized.  At one point she wrote,

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”[1]

Anna Jarvis must have been a force of nature.  She moved to Philadelphia and before World War I she became the first female advertising editor at Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance, down on Market St. right where the El goes underground, and was a partner in her brother’s business, the Quaker City Cab Company.  She died in West Chester and is buried at West Laurel Hill in Bala Cynwyd.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the real point, which is that although not all mothers are saints (and some who are martyrs may be the least saintly of all), still, if you want to understand something about how the Lord both knows us and loves us, you don’t have to look very far.

Jesus spoke about himself as a shepherd protecting his sheep.  Listen to this passage, but instead of a shepherd speaking about sheep, hear it as a mother might speak if a child is put in jeopardy.

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” [John 10:28-30]

Don’t get into an argument at a PTA meeting with that parent.

            And also hear this: you are a child of God.  You are the one who is known and understood, loved and corrected, protected and challenged, guided and sent, taught and instructed, heard and hugged.  You know the voice that speaks to you.  You know whose it is.  And you know whose you are.

            So, you be nice to your sisters and brothers.  You watch your language.  Don’t you forget to share, to say “please” and “thank you” and to clean up after yourself. 

And call home.  Jesus wants to hear from you, too.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Jarvis

"Alpha and Omega" - May 5, 2019

Revelation 1:8

            In Revelation 1:8, in one part of one of the string of visions that John describes,

 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 

 That is the source of the symbols in this front window, and that you will see all over Christian art and architecture, of the Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet (hear the “alpha” in that word?), and of the Omega, the last letter (and it sounds like a long “O”, not a “Z”).  The expression comes around again in Revelation 21:6, where in another vision Jesus tells John,

“It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

In the very last chapter of the entire Bible, again we read:

“I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  [Revelation 22:13]

Those two letters are used to express the belief that God is the beginning of all and the end of all.

            Since we’re going down the rabbit hole of Greek language, though, the language of the New Testament, I should point out that when we say God is “the end of all”, the word the Bible uses doesn’t mean “the end” the way we mean it when it flashes up on the screen at “the end” of a movie: “The End”; throw your popcorn bucket away and go home.  The Greek word, “telos”, also means “purpose” or “goal”, as we might say, “To what end are you driving so fast?”  The universe starts because of God, not only because God is its Creator, but also because God is its purpose or reason for being.  God is its goal.

            Now, you can get really tangled up in this stuff.  I looked through a series of TED talks to see what is out there, and came across one called “Why does the universe exist?”[1]  The speaker’s name was Jim Holt and it had over 4 million views.  That says something right there about how compelling the question is.  What also tells me something is the way the talk opens. “Why does the universe exist?” he asks, and the audience breaks out in laughter.  “Okay, okay,” he says, and he’s laughing, too.  “This is a cosmic mystery.  Be solemn.” They laugh because they know – we all know – that we aren’t going to be able to find a satisfactory answer, not in the sense of anything that we can set out philosophically or scientifically.  He goes on to point out that the simple comeback, “There’s a universe because God created one,” isn’t really a complete answer because it just leads back to another question beyond that: “Where did this God come from?” or “Why is there anything rather than nothing at all?”

            That is a good question.  Next?

            Our faith may tell us that we are God’s creation.  We are also told that God is the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end.  Science can tell us that time itself had a beginning, and I don’t pretend to understand the physics of it.  I can follow an explanation as somebody walks me through it, but I cannot hold it in my head – and that’s alright with me. 

“Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” means that God was around before time existed, and so is sort of outside time, and thus is capable of seeing it all at once, along with all possible shapes it could take (not just what we know has happened or is happening).  Paul Tillich expresses that this way:

“Special moments of time are not separated from each other; presence is not swallowed by past and future; yet the eternal keeps the temporal within itself. …If we call God a living God, we affirm that he includes temporality and with this a relation to the modes of time.”[2]

When I ponder that kind of observation, or try to think about what really is meant when we refer to God as “eternal”, one of two things happens.  One: sometimes my mind’s eye begins to glaze over.  I lose track of whatever thought I had three seconds earlier.  Two (and this is how it should be): my sense of awe and wonder at God goes through the roof.

At the end of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, the narrator who is by that time an elderly monk, gives his own summary of what happens to him when he holds up his own existence against the backdrop of God and eternity.

“All I can do now is be silent. O quam salubre, quam iucundum et suave est sedere in solitudine et tacere et loqui cum Deo! [O how healthy and joyful and sweet it is to sit in solitude and be silent and speak with God!] Soon I shall be joined with my beginning, and I no longer believe that it is the God of glory of whom the abbots of my order spoke to me …  Gott ist ein lauter Nichts, ihn rührt kein Nun noch Hier. [God is a nothing, nothing is still stirring here.] … I shall soon enter this broad desert, perfectly level and boundless, where the truly pious heart succumbs in bliss. I shall sink into the divine shadow, in a dumb silence and an ineffable union, and in this sinking all equality and all inequality shall be lost, and in that abyss my spirit will lose itself, and will not know the equal or the unequal, or anything else: and all differences will be forgotten. I shall be in the simple foundation, in the silent desert where diversity is never seen, in the privacy where no one finds himself in his proper place. I shall fall into the silent and uninhabited divinity where there is no work and no image.”[3]

If you are the sort of person for whom thinking and praying sort of blur together, to consider God’s eternity is a good way to draw near to him.  Admittedly, not everyone fits that description, and that is alright.

            For people as a whole, whether that describes them or not, on a day-by-day basis, we do deal with questions of time and its limits more than we realize.  We experience the weight of the past when we have to deal with people’s baggage, or our own, from long ago.  We worry about the future because of all that could go wrong.  Both of those steal our confidence in the present and our enjoyment of the moments we pass through from one to the other.  For God to announce himself as the Eternal One is a blessing.

When life itself is consciously grounded in faith, and faith is consciously grounded in Jesus, God-with-us, though, God enfolds us in a kind of care that transcends everything.  That includes all aspects of life, even time.  I’ll close with words from Paul Tillich again, who seems to have given this a lot of thought.

“‘I am the beginning and the end.’  This is said to us who live in the bondage of time, who have to face the end, who cannot escape the past, who need a present to stand upon.  Each of the modes of time has its particular mystery, each of them carries its particular anxiety.  Each of them drives us to an ultimate question.  There is one answer to these questions – the eternal.  There is one power that surpasses the all-consuming power of time – the eternal: He Who was and is to come, the beginning and the end.  He gives us forgiveness for what has passed.  He gives us courage for what is to come.  He gives us rest in His eternal Presence.”[4]

[1] https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zORUUqJd81M

[2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 274.

[3] http://www.goodwin.ee/ekafoto/tekstid/Eco%20Umberto%20-%20The%20Name%20Of%20The%20Rose.pdf

[4] Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 131-132.

"A Problem Named Jesus" - April 21, 2019 (Easter Day)

Acts 10:34-43

            People sometimes talk about the church as a family.  Now, that may be true.  But you have to remember that not all families are perfect.  The Kardashians are a family.  More to the point, so (at least on screen) were the Huxtables.  The Kardashians put everything out in public and have no real qualms about letting the camera see the whole bit.  The Huxtables, though?  It seems to me that we have more in common with the Huxtables than we like to admit.  On camera, everything looks ideal.  Off camera, there are some awful things happening, and when they come to light, it’s impossible to smile at The Cosby Show the way we once did.

That’s why we go to such lengths to keep things quiet for as long as we can.  When there are problems, we do a pretty good job of managing them instead of fixing them.  (Let’s not even mention the ones we cannot fix.)  When we identify what Al Gore called “An Inconvenient Truth” we know what to do with it.  We ignore it.  We deny it.  We bury it.  Our culture is especially good at it.  We’re the only country in the world that looks at major storms growing stronger and these weird fluctuations of floods and droughts and the ice caps melting and say, “Oh, it’s just a normal statistical variation.  You have to expect this every thousand years or so.”

            It’s a cultural thing, but I would be bold enough to speculate that it’s a more generally human characteristic.  Call it denial, call it avoidance, call it good manners – it’s all the same.  As they say, Jews don’t recognize Jesus, Protestants don’t recognize the pope, and Methodists don’t recognize each other at the state store.  In the long run, though, letting things go unnamed and unaddressed is harmful and destructive.  The whole crisis of abuse that the Catholics are facing right now could easily have been forestalled if it had been dealt with straightforwardly early on.  But scandal is a terrible thing.  Human beings have never, ever been good with scandal.  We have made a habit of burying those who bring it to light.  I mean really burying them.

            Cain and Abel were two brothers who did not get along.  The last straw came, though, when Cain (who was a farmer) offered fruit and vegetables as a burnt sacrifice and Abel (who was a herdsman) offered meat.  Have you ever tried to set fire to a carrot or a cucumber?  The upshot was, according to Genesis,

“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” [Genesis 4:4-5]

It wasn’t that the Lord loved one brother more than the other, but Cain just didn’t connect as well.  His solution was to get rid of his brother, whom he felt had shown him up and made him look bad.  By “get rid of” I mean that he killed him. 

It became a pattern.  It’s all over the Bible.  David served as one of King Saul’s officers and when people commented publicly that he had been more successful than his commander-in-chief, Saul stewed on it to the point where he became so jealous that more than once he threw his spear at David (who eventually realized the problem and cleared out).  The prophets would warn people that they were on a bad path, telling them for their own good, and that would enrage whatever king was running the show, and it did not generally go well for the prophet.  There’s a story of how Jeremiah survived only because when they threw him into a cistern, nobody checked to see that there was any water in it.  He landed in mud, and lived until somebody talked the king into changing his mind and they hauled him out again.  Jesus himself cried over the city where that so often happened:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” [Luke 13:34]

He was very aware of how things went.  It is what would happen to him.  It is how things are done.  I should say add, “at least by us,” because God does not work that way. 

            If the resurrection shows us one thing, it is that God does not play by our rules.

            God created a big problem for us when he sent Jesus.  Even the most faithful of the prophets fell short at some point.  Elijah could confront four hundred priests of the idol Baal and put them to shame.  One man against four hundred.  One man with God on his side, of course.  Then afterward he got word that Queen Jezebel was angry with him, and he ran away.  Moses had his problems with pride, and Jonah held grudges.  Obadiah got mad at some children because they made fun of his bald head, and summoned a bear to eat them. 

            And that’s a problem for us.  We like to say, and we all do say, “I’m only human,” and think and feel that somehow being human means we can be excused from being the human being we are meant to be.  But Jesus?  He was the one human being ever to live without sin.  He was the one person to live totally within God’s vision, spotless from start to finish.  Peter’s speech in Acts that we heard this morning recalls

“how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” [Acts 10:38]

A sinless man, however, shows up a sinful world in ways that fill us with unbearable shame. 

He could and did and does ask those embarrassing questions that break open our agreed-upon silence.  Just by being who he is, he is a sort of truth-teller who says, “How can we say we love God and treat God’s world with contempt and treat God’s children as nothing?”  Sometimes he used humor to make us laugh at ourselves.  He told a parable about how we go around pointing out the speck in each other’s eye while we have a log sticking out of our own. [Luke 6:41]  The folks who were looked down on loved him right away.  Those who did the looking-down, not so much, though.  And when he was serious, he could be very serious.  Just ask the moneychangers in the Temple whose tables he flipped over.  Eventually, he was too much to take.  The conflict was inevitable, and the consequences.

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” [Acts 10:39]

 And if the story stopped there, it would have been just one more example of a good man in a bad world, 

“but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to appear”.  [Acts 10:40]

 That move, of course, totally destroys the effectiveness of our human strategy of pretending that we are in charge.  It ruins our strategy of relying on secretive or not so secretive acts of injustice to cover up our shortcomings, because if Jesus is alive again (and he is), then he’s out there in the world still doing everything he’s ever done: doing good and healing and undoing oppression of every sort, and calling our hearts into question when we settle for anything less than the kingdom of God and his righteousness. 

Yes, he stands in judgment of us, of all of us.  But that’s good news, because he is not judging to condemn, but judging to set right, and there is mercy in everything he does.

“He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” [Acts 10:43]

You can, if you want, see it this way: he is a judge who sentences us to community service, whose way is not to throw anyone away, but to put them to use so that they can be part of something far greater than themselves.  He became like us that we might become like him.

“Soar we now where Christ has led,

Following our exalted head.

Made like him, like him we rise:

Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.


"Crushed" - April 18, 2019 (Maundy Thursday)

 Psalm 143:1-10

            Crushing is a major part of preparing food.


            To make bread, you need flour, and flour is made by taking grain and crushing it to powder between two large, heavy millstones.  To make wine, which was a staple part of the diet in ancient Israel, grapes had to be put into vats and the liquid crushed out of them for fermentation and storage.


            The bread and the wine that were on the table at the Last Supper, the items that Jesus designated for use as an ongoing reminder of his continuing presence among his disciples, were items that intrinsically bear the message of what happened to him in the course of his suffering and death.  His body was beaten, like grain is beaten with a flail to separate the kernels of wheat from the husk, and ground by the weight of the cross that he was forced to carry.  His breathing would be cut off by his own weight pressing down against his lungs and diaphragm in his hours on the cross.  His blood would go everywhere, not just from the nail wounds, but from being whipped and having thorns pressed down onto his scalp, from abrasions and bruises, and eventually from a spear being jabbed into his corpse.


            In the course of all of that, there would be the attempt to crush him not only physically, but also emotionally and mentally. 


“For the enemy has pursued me,
   crushing my life to the ground,
   making me sit in darkness like those long dead. 
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
   my heart within me is appalled.”
[Psalm 143:3-4] 

When Jesus cried out at one point, “I thirst!” it was the physical thirst that comes to anyone with the terrible loss of blood and being exposed in the sun for hours.  I cannot believe it wasn’t also the thirst of the spirit that comes in the midst of torment.


“I stretch out my hands to you;
   my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O Lord;
   my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me,
   or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.”
[Psalm 143:6-7] 


            Yet on that table, too, had probably been another crushed item.  All around the Mediterranean, fresh olives were harvested and taken to presses where they were crushed and the oil that came off them was captured and used for cooking or to dip bread into or just poured onto other food like we might use butter.  And the olives were put through not just one pressing, but were crushed a second and maybe a third time.  Crushing the olives gave oil not only for food, but also to be used in lamps to give light, as Jesus spoke about in his parables.


Moreover, the oil was used ritually by the people of Israel.  Poured on the head of a king or a priest or a prophet, anointing designated someone to a role in the establishment of God’s will upon earth as it is in heaven.  One who was anointed this way was called, in the Greek language of that day, Cristos, “Christ”.  It’s a title of honor, but dependent on the act of crushing, and when applied to Jesus in the way that we have come to apply it to him alone, it connects to what he bore for us.


Only because Jesus also underwent the crushing presented again and again in the broken bread and the full cup would he fulfill his place as the Christ, the Anointed One, as a prophet of God, as the priestly one who offered a sacrifice equal to the sin of the world, as the king who rules from a cross instead of a throne and with love instead of fear.


            Isaiah had spoken of the Suffering Servant, the Christ, the Messiah, as one whose pains would bring healing to others. So


“he was wounded for our transgressions,
   crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
   and by his bruises we are healed.” 
[Isaiah 53:5]


He would face the injustice of the world’s judgment, and it would crush him, but it would also lead to the judgment of the world by God, and that would in turn bring a restoration far beyond what anyone could have foreseen.


“By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
   Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
   stricken for the transgression of my people. 
They made his grave with the wicked
   and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
   and there was no deceit in his mouth. 

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
   he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 
   Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
   The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
   and he shall bear their iniquities. 
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
   and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
   and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
   and made intercession for the transgressors.”
[Isaiah 53:8-12]


"Heights and Depths" - April 14, 2019 (Palm Sunday)

Psalm 130


            Many years ago, when Philadelphia was making a real push to start the redevelopment of the Delaware River waterfront, one of the first, trendy restaurant-plus places that opened up was called the Beach Club.  It was just north of Penn’s Landing, and its big feature was a crane that went out over the water for bungee jumping.  A group of around seven or eight of us who were working together in Frankford at the time were all in our late twenties or early thirties, just the right demographic for that kind of adventure.  I have no idea whose idea it was, but somehow an agreement was reached that one Friday evening we would meet at the Beach Club to hang out and if anybody in the group wanted to bungee jump we would all split the cost evenly among us.


            So there we were at 7:00 or so, watching people lifted up to the top of the crane, almost even with the level of the Ben Franklin Bridge, just off to the left.  Then a horn would blow and off they went, headfirst, almost but not quite hitting the top of the river, and bouncing around upside-down a couple of times before being lowered to a kind of sandbox built for the purpose.  You could see them from where we were, removing their helmets and letting the blood drain back into their bodies from where it had pooled in their skulls.  Of course, these folks were all laughing and you could see how exhilarating it had been, so there was a lot of pointing and nudging in our group.


Around 9:00 we were still debating who wanted to go first.  By that point, the question of whether it was a good idea to bungee jump on a full stomach had been raised.  10:00 came and went, and the quality of the band was more of a preoccupation.  11:00 and the list was probably too full for the rest of the night to bother.  Then people started leaving, and that meant that the cost would go up a little and not everybody would get to watch anyhow.  There was some talk of maybe another time, but it never really got to that point, because there were other things to do and see that summer.


            Maybe there are a few people who are made for that kind of thing, but it wasn’t us.  And we knew it.  You’d have to be trying to do something pretty big to pull a stunt like that, trying to prove something to someone (maybe yourself, even), and none of us in that group were in that boat.  In fact, following through on something that dangerous to impress coworkers would probably have had the opposite effect.  Could you trust the judgment of someone who would bungee jump from a crane on Delaware Avenue?  Probably not.


            Yet everybody there that evening, I feel safe in saying, had already decided to take a longer-term jump in how they would live their lives, consciously taking a step out in faith.  They were all living and working in positions of Christian service that they knew would not put them in control very often.  If they found themselves at the top of things, that might be just when Jesus told them to jump, and it might be just as they thought things were about to end in a destructive landing or, at best, a horrible splash, that would be just when they felt the tug of the safety line catch them and pull them back.


            One man who was there was a brilliant guy who had chosen, very consciously, to go into social work and help children who were at risk.  He understood them, because his own mother, who was single, had died when he was six.  Now there he was, having come through a lot, and doing well when, about a year after this bungee-watching party, one of the parents he worked with was charged with neglect and abuse of a toddler, leading to the child’s death.  He, as the caseworker, went through a very public investigation.  He was totally cleared, but the toll it took on him was incredible.  He looked at his own competence and performance much more rigorously than the official investigators. 


“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

            Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,

            Lord, who could stand?” [Psalm 130:1-3]


What helped was the awareness that if he had not been involved in the situation, there were other children who might have ended up the same way, and he had prevented that. 


“But there is forgiveness with you,

            so that you may be revered.” [Psalm 130:4]


            It took a lot out of him, but God’s grace was there.  That is what allows real discipleship that makes a difference, which always matches Jesus’ pattern of surrendering the glory and the good report and the safety and the warm fuzzies to go into the places that call for healing and the power of God.  Jesus left heaven for earth, and then left this life on earth by way of a cross and the darkness of the grave.  For us.  Those who follow him, follow him.  For others.  Along the way they may call out


“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!

Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my supplications!” [Psalm 130:1-2]


Their voices, their whole being, may scream out like someone bungee jumping, having that stomach-churning second when they suddenly realize what commitment means.


            Don’t think Jesus didn’t have his own second thoughts.  Oh, his last week began well enough, with the crowds cheering him, and waving palms, and shouting his name.  But by Thursday the tide had turned and he was on the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane praying that if he could possibly be spared all that lay before him, that God would take it away.  Even on the cross he called out to ask where God was, why he who had begun in the glory of eternity, the very glory of God the Father, was now turned over to the angry maw of a fearful system that had condemned him to a slow and painful death, surrounded by mockery and filled with a sense of total failure and the weight of the sins of the whole world, with no one able to help.  Only a handful of his friends would even stick around and there would be nothing they could do.  He would quote a different psalm:


“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Psalm 22:1]


And yet, those who cry from the depths are those whom the Lord hears.  Those who cry out from their hearts in real faith, are those on whom the Lord has mercy. 


            On January 7 of this year, that social worker I mentioned, the one who could easily have given up on it all, was sworn in as the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the entire state of California.  He’s sort of taking another dive into service.  He was in the state legislature for four years where he at least had a vote on the budget.  Now he has less actual political power, having chosen to forgo it.  In the speech he gave that day


“He reflected on the fact that the state schools chief does not have direct responsibility for what happens in districts around the state. ‘It’s a hard job,’ he said.  ‘This is the kind of job when you get all the blame for what goes wrong, but you don’t have the resources to fix what needs to be fixed.’

‘I accept those challenges,’ he said.”[1]


Christian discipleship is following a king who rides a mule, not a stallion.  It means walking the way of one who turned his back on life in heaven itself to be with us.  It means going into situations where we know we cannot win or will not succeed – at least in the ways that the world defines winning or success – and going in with our eyes wide open to the realities involved.  It means praying, like Jesus,


“yet, not my will but yours be done.” [Luke 22:42]


Christian discipleship means faith and trust and reliance on God in those times when you are powerless and everything around is turned upside down and you’re hurtling toward who-knows-what but you say,


“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,

            and in his word I hope;

my soul waits for the Lord

            more than those who watch for the morning,

            more than those who watch for the morning.” [Psalm 130:5-6]

[1] https://edsource.org/2019/tony-thurmond-sworn-in-as-new-state-superintendent-of-public-instruction/606761

"Owning Up" - March 31, 2019

            There are only nine out of a hundred and fifty Psalms that have a line at the beginning identifying the occasion of their composition.  This is one of them, and what an occasion it was.


“A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”


Here’s the story as it appears in II Samuel [11:1-13].


“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.


 It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’


 So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’ Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house’, David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’ Then David said to Uriah, ‘Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.” 


David was stuck, and he was desperate.  He sent Uriah back to the combat zone with a letter to his general, Joab.  It said,


“Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” [II Samuel 11:15]


Joab followed orders, and Uriah died, along with several others who were totally uninvolved with the situation.  Back in Jerusalem, shortly after that, David married the grieving widow and she bore him a son.


            The coverup was complete.  A few people had died, but the king’s reputation was intact.  There was no public scandal.  Uriah’s friends and the other officers did not rise in revolt or out of fear what might happen to their own wives while they were on duty.  If there was any suspicion anywhere, David still had full deniability.  All would be forgotten quickly, at least by everyone other than Bathsheba and David.  Life could go on.  New wars could be fought.  New palace intrigues could be planned.  Maybe David would look out from his roof again the following spring, and see an even prettier woman, this time without the marital encumbrances or, as Bathsheba would have by then, a child to care for.


            Nathan the prophet, for instance, could keep bothering David with minor conflicts and problems among the people that they should have been able to sort out for themselves.  For instance,


“He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’” [II Samuel 12:1-6]


That was an easy one.  “Next case!” Then


“Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’” [II Samuel 12:7]


            What do you do?  What do you do when your entire public image is shattered?  What do you do if you suddenly realize that the face you have shown to the world is shown to be a mask?  What do you do if you come face-to-face with the worst deeds of your own life, things that you have tried to put behind you and to bury so that not even you yourself have to look at them?


            What if something you have done somewhere along the line is incapable of being put right with an apology, or even some kind of reparation?  No amount of “Sorry!” could bring Uriah back to life.  No number of “Mistakes were made” could undo the destruction of Bathsheba’s reputation (not that she probably had much choice in any of this) or restore the potential damage to the trust that was vital between David and his army and his subjects as a whole.  He could no longer be the big hero, the giant-killer, the musician-king, without also being the abuser of power, with blood on his hands.


            Do you go out on the palace balcony and give a speech where you say, “People have got to know whether or not their king is a crook.  Well, I’m not a crook.”?  Do you gather all your courtiers around you and say, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Bathsheba.”? Or do you look your accuser directly in the eyes and say,


“I have sinned against the Lord.”? [II Samuel 12:13] 


That’s what David did. 


            None of us is without sin.  Remember the story of how a woman was caught in the act of adultery and dragged in front of Jesus, with the crowd demanding he pronounce sentence on her so that they could stone her.  He did not deny that was the sentence set out in the Law.  But what he said was


“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. …When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.” [John 8:7,9]


So, too, David found himself alone with God, staring at his life, hearing his conscience tell him over and over the story of his failures.  And he owned up to them.


“Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
   and cleanse me from my sin. 

For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is ever before me. 
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
   and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
   and blameless when you pass judgement. 
Indeed, I was born guilty,
   a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
[Psalm 51:1-5]


But he also owned up to God’s power to change his life from what it was to what it could become.


“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Do not cast me away from your presence,
   and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit. 

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
   and sinners will return to you. 
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
   O God of my salvation,
   and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.”
[Psalm 51:10-14] 


            This whole episode marked the beginning of years of struggle for David as king, because there would be fallout and consequences from what he had done.  But it also brought the proclamation of a kind of mercy that he could now speak of in a clear and convincing way, of a kind of genuine righteousness that has nothing to do with our own piety or fitness, but comes directly from God and totally by God’s grace, because


“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
[Psalm 51:17]


"Trust God and ..." - March 24, 2019

Psalm 37:1-9

When I read over Psalm 37 a few weeks ago, the one verse that stuck in my head, or the one part of one verse, was “Trust in God and do right.”  When I read it more closely, I saw that verse three says,

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 

That is something very different, and I will get back to that, but I admit that I was disappointed because I had a hymn all picked out to go with trusting God and doing right, not trusting God and doing good.  In fact, I think that might be where the phrase that was stuck in my head comes from. 

It was written by Norman Mcleod, a Scottish Presbyterian who led a group of highlanders to settle in Nova Scotia in 1817.  The community moved to Cape Breton Island in 1829, and then when the same potato blight that hit Ireland hit them in 1847, they all moved to Australia and a year later to New Zealand.  They must have been a hearty bunch.  Mcleod definitely had a feisty streak, and it shows up in the hymn I was thinking about:

Courage, brother, do not stumble,
Though thy path be dark as night;
There’s a star to guide the humble:
Trust in God and do the right.
Let the road be rough and dreary,
And its end far out of sight,
Foot it bravely; strong or weary,

Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

Perish policy and cunning,
Perish all that fears the light!
Whether losing, whether winning,
Trust in God and do the right.
Trust no party, sect, or faction;
Trust no leaders in the fight;
Put in every word or action,

Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

Some will hate thee, some will love thee,
Some will flatter, some will slight;
Cease from man, and look above thee:
Trust in God and do the right.
Simple rule, and safest guiding,
Inward peace and inward might,
Star upon our path abiding,

Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

The music was written decades later by Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, who also wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, and has that same punchy, go-get-‘em feeling.  Go, follow bravely!  Let’s bring in the kingdom of God!  There’s a whole catalog of those nineteenth-century songs that stir up Christian courage.

“Peal out the watchword! Silence it never!

Song of spirits, rejoicing and free!

Peal out the watchword!  Loyal forever,

King of our lives, by thy grace we will be!”

You’ve got to love that.

“Lord, we are able; our spirits are thine.

Remake them, make us, like thee, divine.

Thy guiding radiance above us shall be

A beacon to God, to love and loyalty.”

I’ll stop.  The reason I’ll stop is that Psalm 37 isn’t telling us to do right, but to do good.

            Now, those two impulses are not in conflict.  But to do good, I would suggest, is the harder of the two, in part because it doesn’t always carry the same sense of satisfaction (or maybe “dignity” would be a better word).  To do good often involves setting yourself aside in ways that call for an internal, rather than an external, struggle.

            I would point to the story of Jesus birth.  Matthew [1:18-19] tells us,

“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Joseph would have been totally within his rights, totally justified, at least at that point, to make a public statement about the whole situation.  Instead, he let kindness and consideration take over, and if you put yourself in that position, it is not an easy thing to do, especially in a society where a pregnancy like that would conceivably end up with the mother becoming, at best, an outcast and, at worst, dead.  Then God called on Joseph to go even one step further, to marry Mary and to raise Jesus as his own, which he did.

“Trust in the Lord and do good.”

            The “trust” part of that is major.  Joseph had to keep on trusting God from that moment.  He had another dream, just after the visit of the Wise Men, where he was warned that Herod would try to kill the baby, so Joseph took the mother and child and they became refugees in Egypt.  He had another message in another dream a few years later, letting him know that the coast was clear, and he uprooted them again to go home.  He and Mary had another scare when Jesus was twelve years old and they took him to the temple and when the family left, Jesus stayed behind without telling anyone.  They had to turn around and search all over Jerusalem until they found him.  Tell me that wouldn’t take trust.  Imagine being entrusted with the care of the Messiah, and losing him.  For that matter, I wonder if Joseph suspected that the people who wanted Jesus dead as a child might have gotten to him then.  I wonder if he thought how careless he had been to let him get anywhere near Jerusalem, the center of danger.  I wonder if he had a hunch somewhere in the back of his mind that it could be in Jerusalem that the Messiah would be killed.  I wonder if Joseph understood that even more would be asked of Jesus than had been asked of himself, both in trust and in doing good, more than had been asked of anyone, ever.

            Back in Jerusalem, while Mary and Joseph were going frantic, Jesus had been discussing the scriptures with the teachers in the temple.  One of the passages that he knew was this psalm.  How do we know that?  He quotes it.  We didn’t read the whole psalm this morning.  We heard verse nine say,

“…those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.”

Two verses later you’ll hear, right there, words that Jesus would point to in the Beatitudes.  It says,

“…the meek shall inherit the land.”

Certainly, then, Jesus knew the rest of this passage, with its urging to trust the Lord and to do good, which he did, but also to trust the Lord when doing good would mean bearing up under injustice without giving into it, to show the ultimate inability of hatred and cruelty to overcome innocence and faith, love and mercy.

“Commit your way to the Lord;
   trust in him, and he will act. 
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   and the justice of your cause like the noonday.”
[Psalm 37:5-6]

For Jesus it would even mean letting them torture and kill him, and the people there that day tossed Jesus’ failure to lash out like them and the rest of us back at him, when that failure was really the greatest success:

“He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to.”  [Matthew 27:42-43]

To do the good he was sent to do, he had to trust as no one else has ever done, committing his way to the Lord, committing his life to the Lord, committing even his dying to the Lord who would vindicate him on Sunday morning, but this was still Friday.

            We, with our enjoyment of being right – let’s even use the word “pride” – want to jump ahead so quickly to the victorious songs and the glory of God, so we rush past the suffering and the trouble that come first, and the ways that we learn the profound lessons of trust and humility.  We miss the songs that say,

“Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh;

teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.

To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,

teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.”

And so I’m going to leave off with that.  I’m going to leave off with the protestors sitting at the lunch counter, holding still while the crowd taunts them and spits.  I’m going to leave off with the parent holding onto the screaming child.  I’m going to stop here with the husband or wife saying, “I’m with you, but if the drinking doesn’t stop, I have to get the kids away.”  I’m going to end with the whistleblower making the phone call.  I’m going to say once more,

“Trust in the Lord and do good,”

and point to someone going us all one better, up on a cross.

"Taking Refuge" - March 17, 2019

Psalm 31

            Everybody needs a place to regroup occasionally.

“When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now

When I come home feelin' tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so …”[1]

 Okay, that works for the end of a difficult day, at least for The Drifters.  Maybe you have a place like that (I hope you do): a golf course or a coffee shop, someplace where you can go to decompress or turn things off for a short while.  I say, “Turn things off,” meaning that you get away from whatever pressures might bend you out of shape.  I might as well say, “Reconnect you,” because sometimes what life’s ups and downs do is disconnect you from the things that matter.

             One of my old friends, who lives in Silicon Valley, went through a double mastectomy two years ago, with aggressive chemotherapy afterward.  As part of her healing, she began to do two things that have helped her immensely.  One is that she started spending every Friday afternoon, as she puts it, “Visiting with the redwoods.”  The other thing she does is that whenever she can, she walks a labyrinth whenever she is near one.  (She has some sort of app on her phone to locate them.)  It focuses her prayers, she says.  Those two activities help her to reconnect to what matters on a more-than-superficial level: to the earth and to God.  The word “religion”, by the way, comes from a Latin word that means to reconnect.

             It’s a part of our humanity that we need those places of safety.

             In extreme cases, it might be a matter of protecting our physical lives.  There is the familiar story about how Martin Luther, after he began to preach about how we are saved by faith in Jesus, and only by that, not by anything good works that we try to do or how pious we are, was hauled in front of Emperor Charles V.  Luther’s theology undercut the notion that it would be possible to get on God’s good side by making offerings to the Church, which was how the Vatican’s building plan was being funded with the backing of German bankers.  (Follow the money.  Luther’s preaching would mean less income for the Emperor, whom those same bankers were supporting as well.)  It was complicated.  Eventually it meant that this professor of New Testament Studies was being told face-to-face to back down by a man who controlled most of Germany, all of Spain and the Netherlands, Mexico and most of South America.  His response was, “My conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.”  He survived.  The way it worked out was that days later one of his supporters faked a kidnapping, and carried Luther off to a castle where he hid for over a year, translating the Bible into German while he was there.

             It was a place of safety, of refuge.  But the real safety, which he had declared before the Emperor, was in his relationship to God through Jesus, a relationship that he was not going to jeopardize.  The places that offer us security and a sense of peace do so insofar as they connect us to the real source of security and peace, which is the Lord.

 “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
   do not let me ever be put to shame;
   in your righteousness deliver me. 
Incline your ear to me;
   rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
   a strong fortress to save me.” 
[Psalm 31:1-2]

 Luther needed those castle walls to keep him safe, though even there he tried to disguise himself, just in case.  His sense of what God could offer him, though, was enough for him to paraphrase this Psalm in a way that we still sing.

“A mighty fortress is our God,

A bulwark never failing,

Our helper he amid the flood

Of mortal ills prevailing.”

            The time came when he had to leave his hiding place and go back to his work, and he knew that for the rest of his life he would be a target.  In some people’s eyes he was a dangerous character and a subversive and to take him out would be as good a thing as it was when the Seals took out bin Laden.  Even so, he kept that awareness that the security God offers us is an eternal security.  We have a permanent refuge which is not a place.  It is God himself. 

“You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
   for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, 
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
   for you are my refuge. 
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
   you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
[Psalm 31:3-5]

 Again, it found its way into “A Mighty Fortress”:

“Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also.

The body they may kill;

God’s truth abideth still.

His kingdom is forever.”

        Since trouble does come in many forms, so do places of refuge.  If you are in fear of physical harm, thank the Lord that there are places and people who can offer protection.  Whenever there is an emotional challenge, I hope your own version of the Redwoods reaches out to you and says, “Come and rest.  Let us show you how to see the long view of things.”  I hope you have a place of prayer where you and God can speak fully and freely with one another.  Remember that you’re sitting in a place like that right now.  If you need space and silence, here it is, and not just on Sundays.  If you need to talk, that’s also fine.  If you just need to stare at the pretty colors in the windows or listen to the band playing from the field down the street, God may reach out to you that way, too.

            Most of all, though, when you need refuge for your soul, from despair or fear or guilt or shame or any of the things that assault your deepest being, there is the ultimate refuge, a person and not a place.  That is Jesus, who is not limited to one place or time and who hears whenever or wherever you call. 

“Love the Lord, all you his saints.
   The Lord preserves the faithful,
   but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. 
Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
   all you who wait for the Lord.”
  [Psalm 31:23-24]

[1] “Up on the Roof” by Carole King and Jerry Goffin.

"Fear of Death" - March 10, 2019

Psalm 6 

            Let’s talk about fibromyalgia.  Let’s talk about rheumatoid arthritis.  Let’s think about multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s and lupus.  Let’s consider what it means to have any of the hundred and one conditions that are chronic and don’t just go away, but linger for weeks or years or longer, until they take the stuffing completely out of someone and leave them not only in pain or incapacitated, but without enough energy to get through the day, and with a dread of the nighttime.  Let’s think about people who hear the words of the psalmist and say, “That’s me!”

“I am weary with my moaning;
   every night I flood my bed with tears;
   I drench my couch with my weeping. 
My eyes waste away because of grief…”
[Psalm 6:6-7]

Let’s think about their caregivers, who have a different kind of pain which is not physical but no less real.  That’s the pain of helplessness and confusion.  Sometimes it’s a strange sense of guilt for being well when someone they love is sick, for waking up rested when their spouse has had one of those horrible nights.  Or maybe there is, after all, the physical toll on them that comes from caregiving and, again, a kind of guilt for considering their own needs when that other person is so much worse off.

            A friend of mine, a retired physician who is himself in the midst of some serious medical issues right now responded to the news this past week that Alex Trebek has stage-4 pancreatic cancer with these words:

“Alex Trebek ‘might retire in 2020.’ Seriously, ‘might.’ And he’s going to ‘fight this.’ Seems to me he’ll live about 6 months if he was just diagnosed, fight or no fight (but admittedly I’m not up to date). Alex says this whether he believes it or not. It’s expected. Even if we’re heading rapidly to the exit, it’s expected. ‘It’s dignified.’

What does this say about him? About us?

How can we deal with the dying with empathy while both they and we are expected, for far too long, to just keep pretending they’ll live forever? That they’ll be better any day and get right back to work.

The standard scenario is that everybody keeps pretending until one day the Hospice Kit arrives…”[1]

 One thing I hear in that is how tired and hurt the writer is, too, and a big part of it is simply that it is hard for people to acknowledge what is happening, and in the denial they distance themselves from the person who most needs them.

            Without someone there, and many times even with someone there, comes a spiritual crisis and an overwhelming fear that God, too, has given up on them and that death itself will be, not a doorway into life, but into oblivion. Faith and trust do emerge, but they can be the Promised Land that lies way over there, through the desert and across the Jordan.  Until then, they cry out:

   “O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. 
My soul also is struck with terror,
   while you, O Lord—how long? 

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
   deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. 
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
   in Sheol who can give you praise?”
[Psalm 6:2b-5]

One of the things that the scriptures do is give us words for this.  They give us the way to pray about it.  They do not exclude the shadows that are as much a part of life as any other – and remember that if there are shadows that means that the sun is still shining somewhere.  But the scriptures do not turn away from the realities the way that people do.  They prepare us for them, and one of those realities is that we are not here on earth forever.  The same day I read my friend’s bitter comments, I also read a quote from Eugene Peterson (who died a few months ago) that says,

“That’s the whole spiritual life.  It’s learning how to die.  And as you learn how to die, you start losing all your illusions, and you start being capable now of true intimacy and love.”[2]

That intimacy and love refer to the people around you, but also to God.  Or at least, it can.

            It may take time, and it is not possible ever to say how much or how little.  That’s why it’s a good idea to start right now, whether you’re young or old, healthy or not; whether you work in a safe situation or one that involves dangerous activities – the thing about dying is that you don’t know when it could happen.  (Woody Allen used to do a routine about what it would be like if we all got a two-minute warning, like the end of a football game.  I don’t remember the whole thing but it included running up to someone and telling them something horrible, finishing, “And if that’s not the truth, may God strike me dead!”)  The Church of England has its people pray a long litany together every year during Lent, that has this passage:

“From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine,

Good Lord, deliver us.

From all oppression, conspiracy and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared,

Good Lord, deliver us.

            So, here’s my advice as a religious professional: before you find yourself in this situation, read over the end of this psalm.

“Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
   for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. 
The Lord has heard my supplication;
   the Lord accepts my prayer. 
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
   they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”
[Psalm 6:8-10]

On the one hand, the writer did survive whatever illness he faced, at least long enough to compose the psalm.  On the other hand, he did eventually die.  But in between, he gained confidence in the Lord’s power to destroy his enemies.

            What greater enemy do we have than death?

            Of that, another biblical writer had this to say:

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:31-39]

[1] Used by permission of the writer.

[2] "Eugene H. Peterson Quotes." BrainyQuote.com. BrainyMedia Inc, 2019. 7 March 2019. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/eugene_h_peterson_528421

"Not Being an Obstacle" - March 6, 2019 (Ash Wednesday)

II Corinthians 5:20a-6:10

            Last week, National Public Radio interviewed Rose Torphy, who was visiting the Grand Canyon with her family in January, where she became a Junior Ranger and was given a Junior Ranger’s badge.  “I promise,” she had repeated, “to discover all I can about Grand Canyon National Park and to share my discoveries with others.”  Since then, she’s been wearing her badge proudly, and she told the radio reporter, “Just talking to people, they see my badge on my coat and ask how come I’m a Junior Ranger.”  That might have something to do with her age, which is 103.[1]

            It’s a great story in its way, but one thing the interviewer never got around to asking, or maybe it didn’t get past the editor, was what Mrs. Torphy had discovered about Grand Canyon National Park that she wanted to share.  That is, after all, the point of becoming a Junior Ranger.  Unfortunately, what got in the way was the reporter’s fascination with her age.  People can become condescending to those of advanced years, which is really too bad, and it can lead to missing out on some valuable interactions.

            Maybe that would have happened, given time, but it was only a five-minute piece and about thirty seconds of it was taken up reporting the number of Mrs. Torphy’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.  So much time went into reporting about the messenger that they never really got to the message.

            The church in Corinth to whom Paul wrote seems to have been full of people who were probably really impressive and admirable.  He talks about all sorts of spiritual gifts being part of their experience.  Some people were prophesying and some people were healing and some people were getting caught up in ecstatic prayer and there were some amazing teachers and some who were so generous he said they would not only give the shirt off their backs, they would give their whole body if they had to.  You need a kidney?  How about a spleen?  That’s why he said things to help them keep these gifts in perspective.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  [I Corinthians 13:1-3]

Pretense can be a terrible obstacle to the gospel, the idea that you have to be some kind of Super Christian to be a follower of Jesus.  What you need is love.  Otherwise you just get in the way.

            In the section of II Corinthians that we heard this evening, Paul tells them again that if they want to let people know what God has done through Jesus and continues to do through the Holy Spirit – which is what the Church’s business is all about – they need to get over themselves.  He goes ahead and mentions his own experiences, but what he highlights are his failures and troubles.  It’s not a catalog of successes.  It’s a list of difficulties.

“We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” [II Corinthians 6:3-5]

What got him through were not gifts that show up easily, and take work to develop, but are some of the most valuable character traits anyone can have.  He pulled through

“by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and,”

he adds,

“the power of God…” [II Corinthians 6:6-7]

            It is the power of God that makes the rest possible.  It’s not us.  In my experience, at least, I can say it’s not me.  If I forgive, it’s not generally because I want to.  It is a lot simpler to hold a grudge.  The world is a whole lot easier to understand and to navigate when I can label everyone very clearly as a Good Guy or a Bad Guy.  It takes work for me to understand a disagreement from your perspective, and it may be a waste of time and energy, when I know that mine opinion is the right one, anyway.  Unless I have that divine nudge, the Holy Spirit, prodding my conscience, I’m not going to do that.  As for

“afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger”

and so forth, I’d really rather avoid them, thanks.  Yet when you follow Jesus closely enough, you end up walking in his footsteps, and he got into a lot of trouble.  Nobody’s life is without trouble and suffering of some sort, for that matter, but what makes it worthwhile is that if we face trouble, not to make ourselves great, but for the sake of God’s ways, then God’s grace will be there from the very beginning, and not just when we get stuck and start shouting for help.

“As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
   and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”
[II Corinthians 6:1-2] 

[1] https://www.npr.org/2019/03/01/699261929/103-year-old-becomes-grand-canyon-ranger

"Italy: The Gift of Art" - March 3, 2019

Luke 9:28-36

“Italy: The Gift of Art”

March 3, 2019


            One of my favorite professors in college was Dr. Gerald Fitzgerald, who introduced himself to his freshman classes, “I’m a poet who teaches to support my habit.”  He had the thickest South Boston accent I’ve ever heard, which I won’t try to reproduce, but after he introduced himself, he asked us, “Why is there poetry?” to which, of course, everyone responded with blank stares and a feeling that we might have signed up for a required course with a lunatic.  After a few seconds of silence, he said, “Okay, then.  How many days are there in April?” 

            Now, I know you’re doing what we did.  You’re saying to yourself, “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.”  Poetry is one of the ways we remember.  Dr. Fitzgerald went on from there to say that poetry is also one of the ways we teach and learn, not only about set facts but also about what it is to be a human being alive within the natural world and living among other human beings and with questions about what other world may lie beyond this one.

            Psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology, even theology are all mind-centered and rational ways of doing the same thing, but the arts are not just helpful, but even necessary for real discussion and learning among people who are thinkers, but more than thinkers.  We respond to ideas and thought, but we even talk about mathematical theories as “beautiful” or “elegant”, and those things move us and speak to us on a deeper level than we often express.

            In practical terms, some people learn through the sciences and some through the arts.  Some people learn visually and some learn by hearing; some learn by reading and some learn by moving.

            There have been times when Christianity has almost lost that awareness.  We grew out of Judaism, with its strong opposition to idolatry.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” [Exodus 20:4-5a]

Familiar?  I hope so.  At the same time, the tabernacle that Moses was commanded to construct and the Temple that later took its place were decorated with carvings of animals and embroidered hangings, so it isn’t all art that is banished.  At the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared in conversation with Jesus, Peter’s impulse as a witness of that moment of pure glory was to offer to build three dwellings or tents or tabernacles (all possible translations of one word) to commemorate what had happened. [Luke 9:33]  Jesus turned it down, but the impulse to build a monument, to create, in response to this indescribable sight, was Peter’s very human thought.

            We face the need to see art for what it is, not worshiping it or making it an idol, but as a tool for communicating the awareness of a creative and redemptive God who does not disdain nor undervalue the material world or the people who live in it. 

            Yet, humans being humans, we do tend to worship our own creations.  At one point in Church history, there were a group of people who looked at the way images of Jesus and of God’s holy people were being treated and said, “Wait a minute.  This is going too far.”  A lot of people who had formerly been pagan still had superstitious ideas about statues and pictures and didn’t always distinguish clearly between the person pictured and the picture itself.  In Constantinople, there riots between “iconoclasts”, who favored banning images and sometimes took matters into their own hands, and “iconodules”, who insisted that they venerated images without worshiping them.  The battles went back and forth for over a century from 726-842.  Eventually, they settled on a compromise that you can still see in Orthodox icons, where they agreed not to produce three-dimensional statues, to avoid strictly realistic portrayals in favor of stylized figures, and to put them on gold backgrounds to symbolize that these icons are glimpses into heaven, not objects of power here on earth divorced from God’s Holy Spirit.

            The Italians perched across the water from Greece looked at this stuff and said, “Wait a minute.”  They didn’t have the same lofty, philosophical approach to art.  For them, as for much of Western Europe then and for the next few centuries, it was a way of teaching people who could not read and letting them get at least a small hint about the contents of the Bible.  They didn’t sign onto the program that Eastern Christianity adopted at that point. 

Now, that isn’t to say that Western Christianity hasn’t had its own excesses of devotion to statues from time to time, and its own arguments about what to do when images threaten to become idols.  On the whole, though, the tradition established by Italian painters of the Middle Ages and those who followed them over the centuries kept the visual arts alive as a means of teaching people about Jesus in a way that says he’s not just as a face staring down from above, but he is the living embodiment of God in human form.

            People like Giotto and Filippo Lippi and Cimabue (don’t worry – there won’t be a test) began to experiment with drawing and painting scenes from the life of Christ in realistic ways, setting them in Italian towns and with people wearing the clothing of their own day.  By painting Bible scenes that way, they were saying, “Don’t try to box Jesus in.”  They set an example of how to use artwork and everything else, for that matter, to set the gospel free in the world.  They pointed to the Transfiguration of Jesus, when the glory of God that lived within him burst out in a miraculous way because it is so wonderful that it just cannot be contained.

“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  [Luke 9:2]

Jesus, for them, and for us, cannot be just an image even though we have an image of him in our minds sometimes or a set idea about him, when instead we are faced with a living Savior and the voice of God himself saying,

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” [Luke 9:35]

Listen to him, because he has good news.  The kingdom of God is at hand, and he brings it to all of us, here and now.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:14]

"Congo: The Gift of Focus" - February 24, 2019

Matthew 25:31-46 

            Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment has a bunch of clueless people standing before the throne of God asking what happened.  Some of them are being led by the angels into paradise and some of them are being herded in the opposite direction, and all of them – those who are blessed and those who are condemned – all say the same thing: “When did we see you, Lord?”

Neither group ever realized the deeper connection that underlies all human interactions.  None of them ever seems to have stopped to wonder whether when they dealt with someone bearing God’s image they might not also be dealing directly with God.  All the same, he was there, whether they knew it or not.  Some of them never realized it because they were too busy caring about themselves, so that they never had the time (or probably even the inclination) to look into anyone else’s eyes and see Jesus looking back.  Some of them never realized it because they were too busy trying to help the person in front of them – but for those people there is hope.

Of course, best of all is to be doing good because we do know that Christ is above all and in all and through all.  As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

            “…Christ plays in ten thousand places.

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

            To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Yet we learn that in the ugliest moments of human life.  We learn it where there is hunger and loneliness and fear and sickness.

            Central Africa and West Africa have been through terrible times in the past few decades.  Ethnic feuds have turned into civil wars and civil wars have sent refugees in all directions, destabilizing otherwise calm nations.  Criminals have taken advantage of the chaos, and the chaos has led normally law-abiding people to become criminals.  Add the occasional outbreak of ebola into the mix, and the friction between Christianity and Islam, and you have serious turmoil.

            In the midst of that, among all the horror stories, we keep hearing accounts of people who are doing things like building orphanages and schools, simply because there are children around who need to be taken care of.  No, not everyone reacts this way.  But some do.  We hear about doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers who cared for people desperately and dangerously sick, simply because the sick cannot take care of themselves.  We hear about people sharing their food and their houses with strangers on the run from war, just because they can see on their faces and in their eyes that there is a need that only time will change and they want to buy them the time if they can.  That is time for God to do the real work.

            It is a gift that the Christians of the Congo are able to focus on the needs of the people around them, needs both physical and spiritual.  It is a gift that they have been teaching specifically to us, and by “us” I mean United Methodist Christians in Eastern Pennsylvania, specifically those of us right here today.

            Every quarter, we take half the loose offering that is in the plate on Sunday morning and designate it for a mission project, local or national or global.  This quarter our giving, and all of the giving on Ash Wednesday, will go to help the eye clinic in Mpasa, Congo, and we are joined in that giving by the other churches in Delaware and Montgomery and Chester Counties that make up our South District.

            We’re going to watch a video that was put together to promote support for that work, but I don’t want anybody to watch it in that spirit this morning.  I want to watch it, instead, simply as a witness to what the Lord has done and what the Lord is doing at this very moment, in and through his people.


“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:37-40]

“Peru: The Gift of Humility” - February 17, 2019

John 13:1-5, 12-16

            In 1611, a group of scholars presented King James I of England a fresh, new translation of the Bible.  He had ordered the work and paid for it, and it came with a dedication page that still appears at the start each reprint of the King James Version. 

 “TO THE MOST HIGH AND MIGHTY PRINCE, JAMES, by the grace of God, KING OF GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE, AND IRELAND, DEFENDER OF THE FAITH, etc. The Translators of the Bible wish Grace, Mercy, and Peace, through JESUS CHRIST our Lord.

 Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the Father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of England, when he first sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us. [Then it talks about how worried they had been about what would happen when Queen Elizabeth died without a direct heir, but then] …the appearance of Your Majesty, as of the Sun in his strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gave unto all that were well affected exceeding cause of comfort; especially when we beheld in Your Highness, and Your hopeful Seed, by an undoubted Title, and this also accompanied with peace and tranquility at home and abroad.”

 Is it any wonder that after a lifetime of being addressed this way, day in and day out, King James became the person who gave the world the phrase “the divine right of kings”?  Is it any wonder that the aristocrats who surrounded him and laid it on every bit as thick came to expect their own underlings to treat them in a similar way?  It was just how things were done, and not just in England.  There were places where it was even more extreme in that day, and one was Peru.

             Like the rest of Latin America at the time, Peru was organized into a rigid class system held together with slavery and racism.  So when in 1579, a former slave of African descent had a son named Martin by a Spanish noble who abandoned her and their children twelve years later. The family was desperately poor, but Martin was lucky to be apprenticed at one point to a barber (remember that in those days they were also the surgeons), so he had a skill to support himself, which he had to do by the age of ten.

             When he was fifteen, a monastery in Lima took him in as a servant, and they gave him the job of begging for the support of the monks’ work with the sick.  Apparently, he was very good at it.  He somehow managed to find enough regular support to provide for 160 people each week, usually with something left over, which was distributed to the poor.  Soon his medical skill as a barber came together with his efforts on behalf of the sick and he began to become known as a healer. 

  Rather than make his fortune as a doctor, Martin felt that was his calling from God to stay among the Dominicans he was already working for and praying with, to carry on the work that he saw himself as part of, so he asked to be admitted as a lay member of the Dominicans.

             The answer was, “No.”  It was bad enough that he was poor.  It was worse that he was born out of wedlock.  Worst of all, though, Martin’s skin was dark.  He could work with them and for them, but he would never be one of them.  The Constitution of the Dominican order in Peru specifically said, “No black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order.”  Case closed. 

             The problem, though, was that God was doing amazing things through Martin de Porres.  His fundraising alone was impressive.  Then he went and founded an orphanage.  But he had an ability the rest of the Dominicans did not to evangelize among people who had no inclination to listen to the Spaniards living in the cloister.  Martin de Porres was able, perhaps because of his skin color, that his own father and the Church used as an excuse to look down on him, to minister directly to the physical and spiritual needs of slaves at the lowest end of the social ladder.  He did all this while still doing chores at the monastery, which is why you can see pictures and statues of him throughout Latin America that show him holding a broom.  In 1603, the monks could no longer not admit him, and they made Martin a lay brother in direct defiance of their own rules because he was clearly showing signs that the Holy Spirit was working through him.

             The gospels tell of a time that Jesus had broken the rules, too: those unwritten rules of conduct that the colonial Peruvians and the scholarly English translators shared.  By the way, we have our own version, that is so familiar we don’t pay attention to it.  It’s what tells us that we don’t have to be polite to someone who is only a waitress, or that the safety regulations that apply to a chemist in a lab aren’t important when it comes to the people on a production line working with the same compounds.  It’s what suggests which neighborhood can be sacrificed for a new stadium or where a new highway should be built.  It’s why we walk past someone sweeping the floor without even nodding.

The way that Jesus broke the rule was that he washed his disciples’ dirty feet instead of leaving it to a servant.  He made them all watch him do it, too.  And when he was done he said,

 “‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”  [John 13:12-16] 

When his followers have taken that to heart, like Martin de Porres, it has opened the doors to show a world where, say, a president might see no shame in putting his building skills to work at a Habitat site, doing carpentry like Jesus, so that someone who needs a home might have one.  It points to a world where somebody like Yo-yo Ma can perform a concert at an elementary school as well as Carnegie Hall, and where critics might decide that it’s okay to appreciate rhythm and blues alongside classical music.  It points to a world where being a gentleman or to be a lady is not a matter of birth, but of how someone treats other people.

             Humility is not humiliation – quite the opposite.  Humility carries a dignity sanctified by Jesus.  Humility points to the reign of God, where we are all children of the King.


“Greece: The Gift of Study” - February 3, 2019

 II Timothy 3:14-17

            Until very recently, literacy has been a rare thing.  According to the U.N., in 2015 the global literacy rate among adults was 86.3%.  In 1970, that was only around 67%, and if you push back to the year 1500, in England only about 10% of men and 2% of women could read.  That seems to have been about the same overall level as in the Roman Empire, although the fact that Roman ruins often show graffiti suggests that the ability to read was spread across classes, like any other skill.  After all, if you can afford a slave to read to you, why waste the time learning to do it yourself?

            But there were scattered groups for whom reading was important on a level that lifted it above other abilities.  One of those was the Jews.  They had, like everybody else, their own alphabet and their own way of writing.  It had developed, as other writing had developed in the Middle East, for religious purposes.  Eventually, when successive empires sent them into exile, they took their writings with them and they eventually translated some of them into the common Greek language that was used all over the Mediterranean world.

            It was that version of the collected books that we now call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures, in a Greek translation, that one Jewish convert to Christianity named Paul, born in the Roman city of Tarsus in what is now Turkey, recommended to a younger Jewish follower named Timothy, born and raised in a similar background.  For the Greeks and Romans and others, to be able to read was useful.  For Paul, it was a tool to reach out to God, and to be transformed. 

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

                                    [II Timothy 3:14-15]

What you can learn from that book, he was saying, can open your mind and prepare you for an encounter with Jesus that will change you for good.  That doesn’t rule out those who cannot read, but if you can read, and have this library of books on hand, you have a head start.

            Not every book is the same, and they don’t all serve the same purpose.  There are legends and there are histories.  There are love poems and there are war chants.  There are lists of people’s ancestors and there are instructions for priests working at a temple that was destroyed long ago.  There are ethical instructions and there are stories about some exceedingly unethical people.  There are declarations of despair and prayers of thanksgiving or expressions of hope.  But when you take them all together, and let them sort of stew together inside you over time, they form a rich nourishment for human life lived in the presence of God himself.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” [II Timothy 3:16-17]

It’s one of those rich ironies of God that the letter where Paul said that, along with a lot of other writings being set down around the same time, give or take a generation, would themselves come to be considered in the same way and treated with the same respect.

            The strong intellectual tradition of Greece came to mingle with that originally Jewish tradition of honoring the scriptures to create the whole stream of Christian theology.  A thousand years later, an Italian living in England, Anselm of Canterbury, said that theology is “faith seeking understanding”, and it was Christians living in that Greek culture who had set the early example.  Start with faith.  Start with the living experience of the living Savior, then use all your mind’s resources to understand his love.  You’ll never entirely succeed, but the effort itself is part of getting to know him and keeping the relationship fresh and exciting. 

The Greeks who played a large part in the earliest centuries of the Church’s life knew how to do that.  The Creeds that we still honor are their efforts to put into words the mystery of God’s being, and to explain how it is that he has come to us in Jesus, and acts among us in the Holy Spirit.  They hashed them out through long and sometimes heated controversies, always coming back to the scriptures to test what they were saying, those scriptures being

“the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” [II Timothy 3:15]

            Studying the Bible is a discipline that keeps our encounters with God in daily life alive. Real study isn’t trying to pile up facts or sound learned.  Real study is honest evaluation of ourselves and our world in a way that keeps us from living entirely in our heads or entirely in our emotions.  The Bible deals with complex humans and a complex God in a balanced and complete way, and forces us to do the same thing.  A theologian trained in philosophical technicalities might warn us not to put God into a box by saying:

“the ambiguity of religion shows its effect on these processes of reductive profanization, just as it shows its effect in the center of religious self-transcendence.”[1]

But if you want to remember that point, if you want to learn humility before the Lord, you go to Isaiah [55:8-9]:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

           nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

            so are my ways higher than your ways

            and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Even Jesus, when tempted to misuse his power, turned to what Deuteronomy had said about finding guidance beyond ourselves.  In a moment of both spiritual and physical vulnerability, he remembered,

“It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,

           but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

                                   [Matthew 4:4]

 We should do as well.  We, who are blessed to be able to read those words, should know them.

So, said a first-century evangelist educated both in Greece and in Jerusalem:

“as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

                                                            [II Timothy 3:14-15]

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 101.