Sunday, July 14, 2019

Looking for a loophole

 Scripture Luke 10:25-37  The Message  

25 Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”
26 He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”
28 “Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”
29 Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

30-32 Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
33-35 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

36 “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

37 “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”


We’ve heard this story at least a million times.  Even non-Christians have a pretty good idea of what this story says.  We have ”Good Samaritan” laws protecting people from being sued when they are trying to help someone they find injured or in distress.  And may I just say how terrible it is that people will sue the person who was trying to help them?   Anyway, in an attempt to get a different look at this very familiar story I decided to try the Message version today.  And sure enough, there it was.  The lawyer - which in Jesus’ time meant an expert in the Laws of Moses - was “looking for a loophole.”   

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, has this to say about that.  "For our parable, the lawyer’s question is … misguided. To ask “Who is my neighbor” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom I can hate?” The answer Jesus gives is, “No one.” Everyone deserves that love—local or alien, Jews or gentile, terrorist or rapist, everyone.   (Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (p. 93). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

It’s easy to pick out the other, depending on which side of an issue you stand on.   It’s what we do when we are at war - we dehumanize the enemy.  In Basic Training soldiers are taught to think of whomever the enemy is right now as somehow sub-human.  This happens in all nations, in all conflicts.  It is lots easier to hate someone enough to shoot them if they are either less than human or completely evil.  Classic Us and Them - we are all things good and holy, they are demon spawn and criminals.  Which is one thing for soldiers, in war time.  But when the divide between us and them gets as deep as it is in our nation right now, even our best friends can suddenly become the enemy, the other, the not-neighbor.  

Today, in many cities around the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are scheduled to begin large scale raids, seeking to arrest and eventually deport thousands of undocumented immigrants.  If you have been following the news you know that some think of the ICE agents as of the devil, while others think the same of the people who are here without proper documents.   I am prepared to state that both opinions are wrong.   

She came to worship one Sunday with her baby daughter Rosie, which of course meant no one heard a word I said all day because, Baby!  We didn’t get a lot babies in worship.  She stayed for coffee fellowship afterwards, and told us she had been an MP in the Marine Corps and was now working for Homeland.  She had been attending her mother’s church which met in our building but preferred an English speaking congregation.  Later she confessed that her job at Homeland was with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and that the people at her mother’s church didn’t trust her.  Many lacked proper documents, you see, and they were afraid she would turn them in and have them deported.   She wouldn’t do that, as long as they were otherwise law abiding people, but they didn’t believe her.   When I think of ICE, I think of her - mother, daughter, Christian, friend.    

For those who may be of the opinion that ICE is heartless and the total bad guy in this situation, this notice was on Twitter yesterday:  “The @CityOfNOLA has confirmed with ICE that immigration enforcement will be temporarily suspended through the weekend in the Hurricane Barry impacted areas of Louisiana & Mississippi. Make all storm preparations to stay safe regardless of your immigration status.  As with all law enforcement agencies, protecting lives is of primary importance. 

He is a Dreamer.  He didn’t even know he wasn’t a citizen until he applied to college.  Then his parents told him they crossed into the US illegally when he was just an infant.   I don’t know for sure why they came here, but probably so their children could have a better life.  His residency has been regularized now, through much hard work on his part.  His younger brother was born here.  Both are college graduates.  But his parents, who have been living and working and paying taxes here for nearly 30 years, are susceptible to deportation.  I think probably everyone here knows or knows of a family like this.  There is a good chance that nearly everyone here knows someone, or lots of someones, who are undocumented and worried, especially today.  

And when we see the horrific conditions in the detention centers where asylum seekers, as well of people caught trying to cross the border unlawfully, are being held, we want to find someone to blame.   Children sleeping on the floor.  Women with no water to drink except the water in toilets.  Hundreds crammed into spaces intended for dozens.   It’s the Government’s fault!  No, it’s Homeland’s fault!  No, it’s the immigrants’ fault!   

It really does not matter whose fault it is.  If we see someone suffering, we are supposed to help.  We are not supposed to worry about whether or not they are deserving.  We are just supposed to help.   We are supposed to find solutions to ease the suffering.  You know - feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, comfort the prisoner.  Don’t care how they got that way.   It would be great if we could solve the problems that caused the refugee crisis all over the globe, but while governments work on that . . . we are to do whatever we can do to help.  There are no loopholes.  

I noticed something else different about this translation.  I am used to seeing Jesus’ question to the lawyer written as “Who was the neighbor to the injured man?”  But here it says, ‘Who became the neighbor?”  Who made a decision to help someone who was so different from themselves that helping them was kind of a big deal?  The Samaritan in this parable provided food and shelter and medical care for someone who would not have sat at the same table with him - who considered him unclean.  He knew that.  He didn’t care.  He saw a person suffering, and he helped.  The image we are using today - a black man helping a white man - could be any one helping an “other.”   An immigrant helping an ICE agent.  A victim helping a rapist.  A parent helping a pedophile.  A Conservative helping a Liberal.  A Liberal helping a Conservative.  This seemingly happens rarely enough that when it does, it becomes a big deal.  And that’s just sad.  It should not be news when people help each other.  There should not have to be laws protecting people who help someone else.  

Our hymn today was written by Carolyn Winfrey-Gillette specifically in response to the planned immigration raids today.   It calls on us to “work for justice for those who live in fear.”    That will mean different things to each of us.  Some may take it as an imperative to help your actual neighbors who are in danger of deportation.  (If that is the case, Leah and I both have links to available resources.)  Others may take it to mean they should work toward changing current policies regarding immigration, especially for asylum seekers.  Still others may hear it as a call to help the responsible agencies in working to ease the conditions in detention centers, where the need is indeed great - because in many cases, the persons working in those facilities are frustrated at not being able to get what they need for the people held in their center (food, water, mattresses, medical care, etc.).  However you hear the words of this hymn, remember that we are to be the neighbor in whatever way we can.  Hear again how the story of the Good Samaritan ends.    

Jesus said, “36 “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?” 37 “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.  Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

And so you, also, go and be the neighbor, in Jesus’ name.   

Hymn     O God, You Give Us Neighbors
tune AURELIA D ("The Church's One Foundation”)

O God, you give us neighbors for whom your love abounds.
They’ve come here seeking refuge; they work here in our towns.
Their children go to school here; they come to church and pray.
O Lord, we grieve when neighbors are being sent away.

O God, you give us neighbors in this world that divides.
We see them at the border; they’re struggling for their lives.
They’re hurting by the roadside, and by the river, too.
You call us to show mercy to neighbors loved by you.

O God, you give us neighbors and call us all to see
our common fears and longings, our shared humanity.
You call us all to listen to burdens they have known,
to hear the truth they tell us, to see the love they’ve shown.

O God, you give us neighbors; and now, what must we do?
This question asked of Jesus is one we ask anew.
May we not make excuses and choose to walk on by
these neighbors fleeing violence— some sent back now to die.

God, may we work for justice for those who live in fear;
may we show Christ’s compassion, and pray and persevere—
and by your Holy Spirit, in all we do and say,
may we stand up for neighbors now being sent away.

Biblical References: Luke 10:25-46; Leviticus 19:33-34; 24:22; Matthew 25:31-46
Tune: Samuel Sebastian Wesley, 1864
Text: Copyright © 2019 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Permission is given for free use of this hymn for congregations
Email: New Hymns:

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Instant Karma?

 Scripture   Galatians 6:1-10  CEB  

Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too. Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are important when they aren’t, they’re fooling themselves. Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others. Each person will have to carry their own load.

Those who are taught the word should share all good things with their teacher.  Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. 10 So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.

This is one of those passages that has so much meat in it that it really deserves to be preached verse by verse.  But that would require 40 minutes or more of your undivided attention, and I think we all know that’s not going to happen.  

Typically, when I am deciding which of four or more possible scripture readings to preach on for each week, I see one phrase or idea that leaps out at me, and I decide at that point where my message is going to go.  I chose a title and a hymn to follow-up the point I want to make, and maybe even the artwork a month or two in advance of when I’m going to preach that message.  Obviously, when I read this one I saw verse 7, “Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant.”  And my mind went immediately to the idea of Instant Karma.

I found this cartoon online and thought, wouldn’t that be nice?   Immediate response from God chastising the person who is literally kicking someone while they are down.  But that’s not how Karma works.  Karma is the way things work out over the long run, and by long run the Hindus and Buddhists meant over a period of lifetimes.   Being a bad person in this life might bring you back as a cockroach, while being a helpless victim in this life might mean you are brought back into a life of ease and pampering - maybe as one of my cats.  Being a Mother Theresa might mean that your cycle through lifetimes was over, and it was time for eternal rest.  (This, by the way, is a very general and only vaguely accurate description of Karma.)   Of course we Christians believe that punishment for bad behavior in this lifetime will come after death, when we come before the Judgment Seat to learn whether we enter into heaven or go the other way.  

But somehow the idea of Instant Karma is alive and well in our culture.  John Lennon may have had something to do with that.  But well before the song Instant Karma was released in 1970, we have used phrases like “What goes around, comes around.”  We somehow fully expect people are good to have good things happen for them, and people who are bad to have bad things happen to them.   For that matter, we expect good looking people to be good, and bad looking people to be bad, and vice versa.  It causes us great discomfort when the opposite happens, when bad things happen to good people, or when perpetrators of horrific crimes against humanity seem to prosper.  Waiting for reward or punishment at the end of our days really doesn’t work for us. We kind of want to see Instant Karma, immediate reward and punishment meted out.  This mindset is not new.   The Book of Job was written in order to try to explain that sometimes bad things do happen to good, devout, God loving people, through no fault of their own.    Y’know, people used to tell me that I should read the Psalms when I was going through stuff, but that never really worked for me.  Then my pastor suggested I read Job.  Yes!  Reading Job always cheered me up.  No matter what was going on in my life, it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to him!  

Of course, if Job had been in their midst, our Puritan forefathers would have been convinced that his bad fortune meant he was not one of the elect.  That no matter how hard he tried, or how good a person he was, he was never going to heaven, because they believed not only that “God freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass”  but that God pre-ordained precisely who would be saved and who wouldn’t.  So your actions in this life mattered not at all.  As a result of these beliefs, they equated success in business with salvation. If you were predestined to be saved then you would succeed.  If you did not succeed or had a terrible life, it was because you were predestined to go to Hell.  Kind of the opposite of Karma, or reaping what you sow.  This is what can happen when you read the Bible line by line instead of holistically.  

If, for example, we looked at this passage line by line . . .  Verse 2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.  But verse 5 says, “Each person will have to carry their own load.   Wait, what?  I am confused.  These seem to be contradictory statements.  The Bible tells us in many places that 1) we are supposed to help each other - remember the Love Commandment? - and 2) we are responsible for and will be judged on our own actions.  Hence verse 4, “Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others.  It is not good or just to say, “Well yeah, I did this, but did you see what that other guy did?  Because each person is responsible for their own actions, we should not try to deflect attention from our own behavior by pointing out the flaws of others.  

Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too.  This is something that is not happening in our world today.  When anyone is even accused of wrongdoing, there is immediate and hateful response.  Ok, I get being angry at a lot of the situations in our world, in our nation, today.   But being hateful, calling names, being violent in our responses to situations is not the answer.  Some months ago, in response to an ongoing and rather ugly disagreement in our City, Jennifer stood up at the beginning of a City Council meeting and gently, spiritually, reminded those present of the need to treat one another with respect and decorum, even though they disagreed.  They listened to her, and behaved better (that night).  That is what we are called to do.  We are called to watch ourselves, to avoid the temptation to get angry back, to repay evil with evil.  We are called to help one another.  Paul says,  Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity”   

I know how frustrating it can be to keep trying to affect change, not seeing any progress.  It can seem like we are chipping away at a rock with a pencil, hoping to create a beautiful sculpture.  The struggle to change the world, to bring God’s kingdom into fruition on earth as it is in heaven - that struggle is real.  We, Christians, have been working for it for nearly 2,000 years!  But it is our job, to proclaim the Good News, to heal those who are sick at heart, to gently and spiritually reprove and change the hearts of those who have done wrong.  And yes, sometimes turning over tables and public whippings are necessary to get people’s attention.  But over the long run, chipping away at stone hard hearts with the pencil of God’s love will result in change.  It has happened, slowly and painfully.  But it has happened.  Slavery was ended.  Voting rights were extended.  Segregation ended - sort of.  We withdrew from Vietnam.  Christians were in the forefront of all of these struggles and are in the forefront of other struggles for change today.  

John Lennon said, 
Instant Karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
(in) Ev’ryone you meet”  

Instant Karma may not be a real thing, as much as we would like it to be, but he was right in that we had better recognize our brothers and sisters in everyone we meet - treat them with respect and love, and “work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity,” in order that we might create a world “where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise”.  (Marian Therese Winter, O For a World, 1987)  In Jesus’ name.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

First Things First

Scripture Luke 9:51-62   (NRSV)  

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Many of you know that I have been gone for the past 9 days at Junior Camp.  Kathleen Schales and I got back around 5:45 yesterday evening.  All day Friday, all the pastors who were there in one capacity or another were asking each other “Are you preaching Sunday?”  Well, yes, we all were.  All of the others said, “I’m preaching about Camp.”  I wasn’t going to do that.  I already had part of a message prepared, and I kept going back to it whenever I had a spare minute all week, because this is an important passage.  It has to lot to say to us right this minute.  I was going preach what I had been working so hard on for well over a week.

Many of you also know that I typically do the final writing of my message in my office, early early on Sunday morning because too often in my early years preaching, I would wake on Sunday morning, after slaving away over a hot sermon all week long, with an entirely different message in my head, courtesy of the Holy Spirit.   So can anyone tell me why I thought this week would be any different?   

So, Camp it is!  I have my water bottle.  I have my bug spray.  And I have my hat.   I am ready!   And I have some camp statistics for you.  

At the Community of the Great Commission in Foresthill, California this past week there were 2 camps.  There were:
15 kids in Junior Camp (4-6 grade) and 21(?) in Chi Rho camp (7-9th grade)
5 ordained ministers and 1 seminary student
2 college students and a high school student (counselor in training)
A college professor
A rancher who homeschools her daughter
A paralegal
A school nurse
And a few others whose occupations are unknown to me

At Camp we played games and made crafts and sang silly songs and yelled a camp chant at mealtimes as loudly as possible.  We ate kid friendly food that was also mostly healthy-ish.  Surprisingly, a lot of salads and fruits were eaten, by everyone. I saw some kids going back for seconds and thirds of salad!  Cereal was served at every meal, and some kids ate cereal with every meal.  It was everything I expected, and so much more.  With the possible exception of swimming, gaga ball, some of the games at Free time, and the Talent/No Talent show, most everything we did every day related to the scripture lessons from the morning.  Pastor Larry Love led us through the Bible, from beginning to end, from Creation to Revelation.  We had colors to go with the day’s lesson - green for creation, blue and orange for the mothers and fathers, black and gold for kings and prophets, purple and white for Jesus, red and yellow for Pentecost and the beginnings of the church.  We made burning bushes and pentecost doves, painted crosses on wooden eggs and made royal crowns.  And through it all were constant reminders of how we are supposed to live together as Christians.   Cabin cleanup included a daily competition for the cleanest, best decorated cabin and was more about cooperation and creativity than winning.  The whole week the staff - the counselors and the directors and the keynoter and the chaplain - kept reminding the campers in subtle and not so subtle ways that camp is a place where we learn to be church, where we learn how to live together in community.  Camp is a place where we learn that Jesus loves everyone. He even loved people who didn’t treat him well, so we need to love everyone and treat them well.  And we learn that always always Jesus has to come first in our lives, before all of the things that we usually think are important.  

This passage reinforces those camp lessons.  Jesus was heading in a direction the Samaritans in that village did not approve of (to Jerusalem), so they did not welcome him.  So James and John said to Jesus, “They are not responding to you the way we think they should. We want to pour down fire and the wrath of heaven upon them.  OK?”  And Jesus said No.  I mean, the text only says he rebuked them, but I can imagine Jesus saying to them, Ok Guys.  Which part of love your neighbor, love your enemy, treat others the way you want to be treated are you having so much trouble with?  I think . . . all of it.  They didn’t quite get that all of us are God’s people.  All of us are God’s beloved.  And that we must therefore love everyone.  Even those who disagree with us.  Even those who reject us, as Jesus was rejected.  

It isn’t always easy to stay focused on Jesus stuff.  Cause there’s life stuff, you know, that is also very important.  “I’ll be right there,” one man said, “after I bury my father.”  And another said, “I’ll follow you, but first I need to go say good-bye to my family.”   And Jesus said, nope, nope, nope.  You have to put me first.  Life stuff and family stuff are much less important than preaching the Good News of God’s kingdom.   That sounds kind of harsh, really.  I mean, what happened to honor your father and mother?   

When Jesus was alive, following him literally meant wandering all over Galilee, Samaria and Judea with him, sleeping and eating with him, 24/7.  It’s not quite like that, today.  Today following Jesus means keeping him and his teachings in the forefront of our minds and hearts all the time.

In 12 Step programs people who are new to recovery sometimes think that there are things that are “Recovery” and every thing else.  So when they are going to meetings or writing Steps or doing other things with people they have met in a meeting they are doing “Recovery related stuff” and the rest of the time they are doing “Life stuff.”   It takes a while before we learn that everything is recovery related.  The spiritual principles and new behaviors we learn when we are in meetings and studying the book and writing about steps are intended to guide every moment of our lives.  Not just our interactions with others in Recovery but our interactions with every person we encounter.  

It’s the same if you are a Christian.  There is not Christian stuff and business stuff or work stuff, or Christian stuff and school stuff or game stuff.  You can be competitive in sports or work or cabin cleaning and still behave like a Christian.  Christian stuff is not and cannot be, separate from anything else in our lives.  Not from business dealings, not from how we treat people at work or school or camp or church, not from games we play, not from how we interact with our families.  Following Jesus, being Christian, is 24/7.  Jesus’ teachings are the guiding principles we live by.  Love one another does not apply only on Sunday mornings.  It applies in the check out line at Walmart or in traffic and on social media.  It applies when we are talking about another person or group of people - no judging, seriously.  Treating others the way we ourselves want to be treated applies to everyone else, regardless of any thing about them.  Maybe, at camp or school or even church events, you just don’t think that person needs to be included in your activities.  You might say to yourselves, oh they wouldn’t be interested in what we are doing, so we won’t even ask.  If they were you, wouldn’t you want to be at least asked, so you can say no if you aren’t interested?  That’s part of treating others as you wish to be treated.  That’s part of following Jesus.  Being Christian is not about church attendance or specific beliefs.  Being Christian is about following Jesus - at camp, at home, at work, in the market, on the highway, everywhere, all the time.  

We’re not going to get it right all the time.  Maybe even most of the time.  The important thing is doing our best, all the time.  Not just some of the time.  Not just when someone is watching.  It’s like not speeding even if you don’t see the Highway Patrol anywhere around . . . because it’s not the about the CHP. It’s about being obedient.   It’s important to always be aware of how we are behaving and what we are saying and asking ourselves whether we are doing as Jesus would have us do.  Are we putting Jesus first in this situation?  Let us remember to keep our eyes opened, to watch our own words and behaviors and even thoughts, so that we may always put first things first.  


Sunday, June 16, 2019

Moving forward (from baptism)

Scripture   Romans 5:1-5  (NRSV)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

In 2001 I was serving as student chaplain to a retirement community.  I had made a point to let the staff know I was available to them as well as the residents, so I wasn’t surprised when one of the housekeepers asked if I would meet with her during her morning break.  I had recently given her a Good News Bible, which she was very excited to see was written in English she could understand, and I thought perhaps she had biblical questions.   As we sat with our coffees and snacks she said that on Sunday her pastor had been preaching about how God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are three persons but also one, and asked me to explain that.  During a 15 minute coffee break!  Not gonna happen!  I told her that many very wise people had been trying to explain that for something like 1600 years, and all I knew for sure is that God and God’s ways are beyond our understanding.  I just believed it was true, I said, and didn’t really worry about how it worked.  She was ok with that, for which I was grateful.

Today is Trinity Sunday and I am even more unwilling now to attempt an explanation of the Trinity in 15 minutes here than when I was a seminary student and knew everything.  According to one article I read this week, any attempt to describe the workings of the Trinity inevitably descends into heresy!  (Not a Disciple theologian, obviously.)  So instead of a deep theological discussion, we are going to look at Romans, and faith, and endurance and what it means to move forward in a life of faith after baptism.  After all, we did have a baptism last week, and even though I was unable to move 3,000 of you to come forward after my sermon, this seems like a really good time to talk about life after baptism.  

Different people have different expectations about their baptism and different reasons for wanting to be baptized.  One young woman come to me asking to be baptized because it would really upset her Buddhist parents.  (I said no.)   Howard, who was one of my neighbors, asked to be baptized because Joel Osteen said he should do that.  Although he did show up on Sundays while going through the baptism classes, and he engaged with the congregation during that time, I was not too surprised afterwards when he chose to attend Joel Osteen’s church in his living room instead of being part of our community.   And then there was Donna, who came up to me a few weeks after her baptism very upset because her life had not changed at all.  She thought God would wash away all her problems once she was baptized.  But she still had overdue bills, she still drank too much, and she still had relationship troubles.   Somehow she missed the part about her commitment to changing her life.  

On the other hand, one day a young mother came to me saying her 7-year old daughter wanted to be baptized and give her life to Jesus.   Although 7 is rather young, I had recently heard Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President at the time, say that she had been baptized at age 7.  So after questioning Abby about her commitment to Jesus and her understanding of what baptism is, I agreed, and she was baptized.  Several months later her mother came to me saying that Abby had clearly taken her baptism seriously.  She was making every effort to be a better person.  She was even being nicer to her little sister!    Abby, at 7 years of age, had understood what baptism meant better than all of those adults.  She committed her self to Christ and to Christ’s people, even showing up after Sunday morning soccer games.  She took part in all of our mission projects.   She went through some significant difficulties, and learned to let Christ help her through whatever life brings.  She learned at a very young age that life is filled with high days, and low days, and lots of days in between.

A side note on liturgical fashion.  Last week was Pentecost and everything was red!  Jeffrey designed this beautiful decor, which technically is only supposed to stay up for one day, but we have kept for another week just cause it’s gorgeous.  The colors we use, the stoles I wear, are not just randomly selected, and I don’t get to just match my stole to my outfit.  These colors tell us what is going on in the church year.   Today is Trinity Sunday, so I am wearing white, because white is the color we wear when we are joyful - Christmas and the season following it, Easter all the way up to Pentecost, and today, the celebration of the Trinity.  Once a year, on Pentecost, we wear red to celebrate the Holy Spirit.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas and Easter - during Advent and Lent - we wear purple symbolizing repentance and preparation.   All the rest of the year is green, symbolizing hope and life and anticipation.   It is the time when church life is filled not with the highs of celebrations and the lows of times of trial and grief, but with the daily life of Christ’s ministry. The green gets really boring. (And I am sorry, but we need switch to green next Sunday.)  

But that’s kind of the point, because the green time in our lives is when we develop endurance as Christians.  We hear the parables and the healing stories and the theological arguments Jesus has with the scribes and Pharisees, over and over again, until they are as familiar as the backs of our hands.  Just as it is in our own lives.  We have no problem celebrating the good times, and we know to ask for help from God in the bad times.  It’s that daily slog through life that can really challenge us.  It’s the musician’s daily practice - scales - to prepare for the performance.  It’s the athlete’s work out routines to prepare for competition.  It is making the bed, doing the dishes, washing the clothes, showing up for work or class over and over even when we don’t feel like it.    

When we move forward from our baptism into the new life in Christ that we have committed ourselves to, we will find there are highs - like the baptism itself - when we can feel the Spirit and we know that God is present, and there will be lows, times of doubt when we may wonder where God is.  And there are all the times in between, when we just do the next indicated thing.  Now that we are Christian, we can’t just sit still and do nothing.  Our faith is strengthened by work, and work is, by definition, not easy.   And when I say work, I don’t mean doing works of charity, or mission trips, or even serving on church boards and teams. All those things are good, and please do them.  Do not stop doing these things.

But what I mean by work is the daily and very difficult work of loving our neighbors and ourselves.  We are baptized because we want to turn our lives over to God, not because we want to upset our parents.  We are baptized because we want to change our lives and make a new beginning.   Moving forward from our baptism means making a daily effort to follow Christ’s teachings and example in every thing we do. It is through this daily effort that we develop endurance, and thus character.   It means that instead of expecting God to miraculously remove her compulsion to drink, or to pay her bills for her, or to suddenly change the family members she had trouble getting along with, Donna needed to work at changing herself to become the person God intends for her to be.   It means that Abby had to work at being nicer to her younger sister - which I know was hard because I have a younger sister.   Don’t get me wrong, God loves them both no matter what.  God loves us all, no matter what.   But if we are to move forward from our baptism into being the kind of Christian that attracts others to Christ, we must work at sharing God’s grace with others - every day, all the time.  We must share God’s love, which has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, even with people we don’t like  - every day.  We must act with mercy and compassion, forgiving as we are forgiven - every day, even if we don’t want to.  We must treat others with respect and care, as we ourselves wish to be treated - every day.  We must endure the green times, the ordinary times, when it seems like nothing much is happening, when it seems like every day is like every other day.   And to do that, we must always keep Jesus in the front of our minds and hearts.   We must begin every day with our minds on Jesus.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

What Disciples Believe

Scripture Acts 2:22-24, 32-42  NRSV  

22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power . .  

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at  the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, 35  until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

36 Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

I can hear you thinking, “Where is our annual Pentecost reading?  The one with all the unpronounceable cities and nations?  Where are the wind and the flames? We love that one!”  I know we all love that one.  But I thought it would be nice, for a change, to hear the part about the baptism of 3,000 newly converted Christ followers, since, you know, we’re having a baptism today.  You see, when Jay and I were setting a date for his baptism, we knew he wasn’t going to be ready in time for Easter so I said, “How about Pentecost?  It’s the birthday of the Church, when three thousand people were baptized, and we have a big celebration!”  He agreed Pentecost would be the perfect day for his  baptism.  So  you can understand why I have to preach on that part of the story.  

In the year 33 of the Common Era, the total population of Jerusalem was only about 30,000 on a normal day, but at this time of year - the season between Passover and Pentecost - that population might be doubled or tripled, so maybe as many as 150,000 extra people from all over the known world would have been in the city.  Imagine any city today hosting the Summer Olympics or the World Cup and you will have an idea of what it might have been like.  The crowds and the noise in the city streets would have been unimaginable - people and animals all trying to get somewhere and yelling (or bleating) and not making a lot of headway.  In the middle of all this Jesus’ disciples begin to preach in every known language which amazed many and irritated a few.  They’re drunk, some said.  But Peter got up on his soap box and said, “They’re not drunk.  They are just filled with God’s Holy Spirit.”   And he began to preach.  And he convicted them with his words, saying “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said . . . what should we do?”  Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  He continued to preach and to exhort them until, at the end of the day, those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were addedThey devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  

One of my favorite hymns is “There is a Balm in Gilead”, and whenever I sing the part that says ‘if you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul this right here is what I think of.  I mean, this is every preacher’s dream!   I can’t preach like this.  I can’t move a crowd’s emotions enough to make even one person come forward wanting to be baptized.  So I take comfort in the rest of that verse, “You can tell the love of Jesus and say, "He died for all”.  Because I can do that.  We can all do that.   Because we are all Christ followers and believers, and we can all preach his love.  

From the very beginning of the church, baptism was a thing that was done in community.  It might be - is, in fact - a personal decision.  But it is not a personal action.  Today’s baptism is not a covenant between God and Jay only.  It is a covenant between God and Jay and all of us here in this place, this whole community of believers. From the very beginning of the Church, church has been community.  Not a bunch of separate individual persons who show up once a week and then wander off to do their thing until the following Sunday, but a true family in Christ, who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”    We, Disciples of Christ,  acknowledge that in a very particular and specific way.  

When the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was founded, it was in large part because there some ministers who did not believe that a creed, that is to say, a statement of specific beliefs, should be required for any individual believer to be permitted to share in the Lord’s Table.  That was (and still is) the reality in many  denominations.   Disciples welcome all believers, regardless of when and where you were baptized, and even of how exactly you believe in Christ’s divinity.  In this congregation there are people who grew up in the Disciples, but there are also folks who started out as Baptists and Catholics and Mennonites and Methodists. . .  In my first church, when people asked about our theology, I would tell them that there were people there who believed everything from God wrote the King James Bible with His own hand to people who believed “God is love” and not much else, and everything in between.  And all were welcome, because we have no creed but Christ.   

We do have an Affirmation.  You all received a copy of our Affirmation today because I think it is important for everyone to know what it is, and I think that maybe you don’t all know what it is.  There are a couple of important differences between our Affirmation and the Nicene Creed that is accepted as being authoritative by the Roman CatholicEastern OrthodoxAnglican, and most major Protestant churches.  The Nicene Creed, which some of you may have memorized as a child the way I did, says “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…” and continues from there through how Jesus was conceived and born and lived and died, and how specifically the Spirit is related to Jesus and to God.  It is required to say this and believe every word in it, as an individual person, if you wish to share in the Lord’s Supper.  It says, I believe in each and every one of these things.   

If you will look at the Disciples Affirmation, it says “We” all the way through.  And it doesn’t ask us to say we believe in all or indeed any of these things specifically, but to confess, rejoice, accept, celebrate, receive, and yield ourselves.   We, together, proclaim Jesus the Christ as Lord and Savior - not our own personal Lord and Savior, but Lord and Savior of the world!  It affirms that we are willing to serve God, to be obedient to Christ, and to be joined together through the Holy Spirit.  It says that through baptism we are made one with the whole people of God.    And so, today, we celebrate as Julian Hernandez becomes one with the whole people of God.  

A Disciples Affirmation

PREAMBLE to the Design of the 
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
As members of the Christian Church,
We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God,
and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.
In Christ’s name and by his grace we accept our mission of witness and service to all people.
We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth, and in God’s covenant of love which binds us to God and to one another.
Through baptism into Christ we enter into newness of life and are made one with the whole people of God.
In the communion of the Holy Spirit we are joined together in discipleship and in obedience to Christ.
At the Table of the Lord we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.
Within the universal church we receive the gift of ministry and the light of scripture.
In the bonds of Christian faith we yield ourselves to God that we may serve the One whose kingdom has no end.
Blessing, glory, and honor be to God forever.   Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Our Family Tree

Scripture John 17:20-26. Common English Bible

“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

“Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 

“Righteous Father, even the world didn’t know you, but I’ve known you, and these believers know that you sent me. I’ve made your name known to them and will continue to make it known so that your love for me will be in them, and I myself will be in them.”


I usually select the title of each message a month or more in advance.  For this one, though, I kept waffling between Christian DNA and Our Family Tree right up until Wednesday of this week.   As you can tell, the tree won.  I kept running into tree imagery all week as I researched this passage.  So, Family Tree it is!   The Tree of Life is an image that spans from the beginning of the Bible until the very end.  It is found in both the Garden of Eden and in New Jerusalem.  If you have ever been to my house you may have noticed a tapestry of the Tree of Life, that I glued onto a Japanese screen and which stands in my living room.  I was ever so tempted to bring it today as an illustration, but it’s too big to fit in my Smart Car.   It’s kind of cool.  It’s a Celtic design, so it’s all interwoven curved lines.  Adam and Eve stand at either side of the tree and in its branches are birds and fish and all kinds of creatures that one doesn’t normally see in a tree.  The Tree of Life is our family tree.  It’s where our story starts - and ends.  

Today’s Gospel story takes us back to the days right before Easter, continuing John’s description of all the things that happened on that last night, the night when Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples, and washed their feet, and prophesied his betrayal and death, and Peter’s denial.  At the very end of the meal, he prayed.  He prayed for his disciples.  He said, in verse 9, “I’m not praying for the world, but for those you gave me.  Not for everyone, but specifically for those who follow him.   And not just those who were in the room with him that night or even his followers who were not present that night.  But also “for those who believe in me because of their word”.  For those who have not yet heard of him, but will over the course of the next couple thousand years.  For us, in fact.   And his prayer is this, “21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 

Jesus was pretty serious about his followers being united. Over and over he exhorted them - us - with words that spoke of how we should treat  each other.  “Love one another.”  “Love your neighbor.’  “Love your enemies.”    In the 10th chapter of Luke we find a story he told in which a man from Samaria helped an injured Israelite, even though they were enemies, and described that Samaritan, that enemy, as “neighbor.”   He was really serious about this.  And here, at the Last Supper, he says, “21 I pray they will be one, Father . . . so that the world will believe that you sent me. 

Why is it so difficult for us to get that right?  I mean, back in 1809 the Reverend Thomas Campbell got himself in serious trouble with the Presbyterians because he insisted that everyone should be welcome at the Lord’s Table.  He didn’t see anywhere in the Bible where Jesus said only people who were baptized in a particular tradition or who believed in one of the creeds used as tests of membership in existing denominations, could share the Lord’s Supper together.  So he and some others, including his son Alexander, started a movement that proclaimed “no creed but Christ,” baptized by immersion, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.  (Sound familiar?) Their dream was that all Christians could worship together in love.  That is why Disciples of Christ say things like “Unity is our polar star,” and call ourselves “A movement for wholeness.”   We believe, strongly, that everyone should be welcome at this Table.   It’s part of our DNA.   Alas, even a movement that stands for unity couldn’t keep it together.  We have split several times, over slavery and organ music and the authority of Scripture . . .   Even though we say,  “Where the Bible speaks, we speak.  Where the Bible is silent, we are silent,”  we can’t seem to agree on what the Bible says when it is speaking!   It is, I fear, the nature of humans.  

Jesus said, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”   If it is in the nature of humans to disagree and split and fragment over details, Jesus’ prayer is for us to do something unnatural.  Because, let’s face it, even when we say something as seemingly innocent as “Loving all children of God,” (which is what the sign out front says today) someone is going to find something wrong with that.  They will think that the phrase “all children of God” is code for a particular group of people.  It doesn’t seem to occur to folks that it means just what it says . . . loving all children of God.   You know, because Jesus commanded us to “love your neighbor.”   There are T-shirts that list a whole lot of different kinds of neighbors, but seriously folks, all really does mean ALL.  We shouldn’t even have to discuss who “all” means!  

How awesome is it, though, that Jesus prayed for us, before we believed?  Before any of us heard the Good News he said, “I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.  I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one.”   Like the prayer of a parent overheard by the child for whom one intercedes, what this prayer reveals is Jesus’ deep love for the disciples, even knowing that Judas would betray him and that Peter would deny him.  This prayer reveals Jesus’ deep love for us, his followers, even knowing that we are stubborn and contentious and argumentative  and disobedient by nature. This great prayer evokes a longing in us to be fully “one” with Jesus, so that his prayer of love for us and his desire for us to be one with him and with one another becomes for us a guide to living.   

Immediately after Jesus prays this prayer, he goes with his disciples to the garden, where he is arrested and taken away to be tried, and ultimately executed.  That cross, now empty, is the trunk of our Family Tree, which is rooted in Adam and Eve, in the Garden, in sin and disobedience, and whose branches, filled with all kinds of unlikely creatures, stretch up into the New Jerusalem, into forgiveness and eternal life.  Our Family Tree is not just the story of humanity as a whole, but also our own individual stories.  For we, humans, are error prone, like Adam and Eve and all who came before us.  But we Christians make a decision to change our lives, and, if already baptized, renew our dedication to serving Christ.  Or we present ourselves for baptism, so that we may become one with Christ and with each other, so that we may begin life anew, knowing that we will still make mistakes, but also knowing that ours is a forgiving God, that we can turn back to this new way of life any time we fall.  And through our unity with Christ and with each other, the world may see the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer, “Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

Let us go from this place today dedicated to being in Christ, fulfilling his prayer, so that the spark of his love may fall from us onto everyone we meet, and that all the world will know that God  loves them.