Sunday, September 17, 2017

All means ALL

Scripture: Romans 14:1-12 Common English Bible (CEB)  

14 Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God.11 Because it is written,
As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me,
    and every tongue will give praise to God.

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.


I just love the way this passage begins.  Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion.  And I love the way it continues.  Some eat meat, some don’t.  Don’t judge!  Some holds certain days especially sacred, some considers every day equally sacred.   Don’t judge!  “Each person must have their own convictions.”

Just in case you are wondering, Paul has nothing against vegetarians.  Or even Vegans. Or pescatarians or carnivores.   Or people who think only certain activities are acceptable on Sunday, because the day is sacred and we should dedicate the whole entire day to worshipping the Lord (and not the NFL). Or who think every day is equally as sacred to God as every other day.  Paul is talking about the cultural clash that was inherent to the Roman church.  

Poor folks in Rome rarely got meat to eat.  They were poor.  Meat was expensive. They ate bread, onions, beans . . .  but hardly any meat.  On certain days the temples to the various gods worshipped in Rome held sacrifices, and then made that meat available to the poor.  Some folks said, “Oh, you can’t eat that because it was part of a pagan religious service!  Eating that would be like worshipping that false God.”  Other folks said, “Hey.  Meat is meat.”  And they fought in the church over that.  “Well, if you eat that pagan meat then you aren’t really a Christian.”  “But if there only is one God, then it’s just meat and anyone can eat it.”  Just to add to the problem, sometimes that meat was pork, and while some folks might not have a problem eating pork, others adhered to the Mosaic law in which the eating of pork was an abomination.  Imagine, fighting in church over whether or not to eat meat.  Silliness!  Am I right?   And yet, the church in Rome was coming to blows over it.   And Paul says, don’t judge. Both of you are doing what you do to honor God.  It is all good.   (Although I think Paul was maybe just a little judge-y when he called the people who don’t eat meat “weak.” Whatever.) 

In many cases, the arguments in those congregations were between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, those who believed one must adhere to the Laws of Moses in order to become Christian, and those who believed faith in God through Jesus Christ was enough.  And Paul kept saying, “All y’all, knock it off.  You are all Christians.  You all serve God.  You all do the best you know how to honor God. So stop judging each other.  That’s God’s job!” 

In our Wednesday evening study of the Book of Acts, we were asked to look at our congregation and see who is missing.  Well, maybe we weren’t asked that, exactly.  We were asked to see what was keeping us from welcoming everyone - who might not be welcome.  And, after some thought, one person said, “We’re not as white as we used to be.”  True.  This congregation was once all white.  The fact that this is no longer true is truly worthy of celebration.  It’s not as old as a lot of congregations.  I mean, yes.  This church is something like 130 years old. Even our building is over 100!.  But as regards the people worshipping here on Sunday mornings, we have this whole section over here of younger folks who show up voluntarily!  Not dragged here by parents or grandparents.   A lot of churches can’t say that.  The congregation is not as straight as it used to be, either.  Another very good thing.   And all these different people are not just pewsitters.  There are women in leadership, and gay and lesbian folks in leadership, and young people in leadership, and people of color in leadership. Not due to any deliberate or intentional “inclusiveness” program - it just happened that way.  Leaders are leaders no matter what wrapping they come in.  

That’s not to say we are perfect.  We aren’t.  We are human.  We judge.  But we are trying.  We seek to be inclusive of everyone who comes. Even if their theology differs from ours.  Even if their commitment to social justice doesn’t match ours.  Even if they voted differently.  Even if they want to do something new and different in worship - or (gasp) change the order of worship.    As we look around here, we can see there are some pretty big gaps  - some groups of people who are clearly absent.  Our building’s very structure keeps some folks away - people in wheelchairs, or and people can’t easily walk up and down steps.  We seem to be lacking young families with small children.  We don’t have a children’s Sunday school group or even a junior high group right now.  There are no homeless folks here, that I know of.   

I’m not saying we need to go out looking for homeless folks to invite to church.  Or start a children’s program with no children.  When the need arises, we’ll do it - whatever it may be.  That’s who we are.   We have a history of doing what we are called to do when the time is right.  We may not always agree on when that time is, but we do eventually do what we need do.  

Here at First Christian Church we proclaim that, “All means ALL!”   It was hard to get to that point, but we have and we are proud of that claim.  We do our best to live up to it.   However, in our denomination there are those who say that “All means ALL!” is simply a step on the way to becoming Open and Affirming, a designation for congregations who have decided through a time of discernment and prayer that all of our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers are welcome to participate fully in the life of our congregation.  Those people believe that we don’t have the courage to take that step, and become truly welcoming.

I beg to differ.  I believe that “All means ALL” is much bigger and more inclusive than that.  And I wore my very best rainbow accessories to make a point this morning.

The rainbow happens when the white light from the sun passes through water (clouds or rain) and is divided, each color from the one next to it in the spectrum. Each wavelength has its own spot.  The rainbow is cool, because when there is a rainbow we can see all the different colors light comes in.  But when all of those light colors, and all of those differences in wavelength come together, what we get is white light -  because, white light consists of all wavelengths of visible light.  So although out there we might be young and old, white and persons of color, men and women and all the genders in between, gay and straight and all the orientations in between, citizens and aliens - documented or not - left and right and center, even vegan and carnivore . . . in here we are one congregation.  Not divided into all those different wave lengths, or groups.  We are one.  One, holy, universal, apostolic church.   In this place, the rainbow comes together.   

(And for those who are reading and not watching - at this point I take off the rainbow belt and the rainbow stole and put on white.)  

In this place, All does mean ALL.  It is not a step toward anything.  It is a way of living that we understand to be God’s will for us.  Welcoming all who come, no matter who they are or where they come from.  If you come here to worship, you are welcome.   All are welcome here.

Paul said, “Each person must have their own convictions.”  Whatever your convictions, if you love the Lord, you are welcome here.  If you are seeking a church home, you are welcome here.  If you are just here for the weekend, you are welcome here.  All are welcome in this place.  And All means ALL.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Your loans are forgiven

Romans 13:8-14 (CEB)

Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.
11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith.12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.
Does anyone besides me get snail mail, emails, and phone calls offering to help you get into one of the many Student Loan forgiveness programs?  The first thing I thought when I read this passage is how much I would love to tell the people I write that large Student Loan check to every month that the Bible says I can’t be in debt to anyone, so I don’t have to pay them.   

Sadly for my checkbook, I am not one who interprets the Bible quite that literally.  I did borrow the money in order to get two degrees.  And I don’t regret a penny of it, because those two degrees brought me here, to this place, to this time in my life.  That debt will eventually be paid off, at a rate of so much a month, because paying our debts is important as an adult and as a Christian.  To do anything other than to pay those financial obligations is to steal, and as Paul notes, the commandments like the one that says, “Do not steal” are prescriptions for how to love one another.   

There is another, deeper, interpretation for “Do not be in debt to anyone,” and that is the matter of forgiveness and atonement.   Paul says, “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.”  If you have done something wrong to another, that debt must be erased.  If you owe another person an amends - that is to say, if you need to apologize for something you have done, or if you need to do something to make up for some damage you have caused another - that must be done.   Obvious examples, of course, come from childhood.  Like - the stereotypical baseball through a neighbor’s window.  Either the parents of the child who hit the ball can pay for the window to be replaced, or the child can do chores for the neighbor until the debt is paid.  Or both.  So long as the child learns about responsibility and managing their own debts, whatever works to satisfy the debt to the neighbor is good.  Teaching a child to be responsible for their own actions is teaching that child to love the neighbor, and that is what it means to be a Christian. 

Hear the words of Jesus, as reported in the Gospel according to Matthew 25:23-24:  “…when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”   

This, along with Jesus’ command to forgive, is one of the  most difficult things to do.  Paying student loans is difficult financially, but it is so much more difficult to go to someone we have wronged and apologize, or make amends.  There was a TV commercial a while back about a group of kids playing ball.  One hit a home run through the window of the old grumpy guy on the block and all the other kids bailed on him.  No one wanted to face the old grumpy guy who lived there and own up to what had been done.  One of the kids did come back and told the batter, “That’s what friends do”.  In a perfect world - or the world of artist Norman Rockwell - the old grumpy guy would have invited those two kids in for lemonade and cookies, and told them amazing stories of when he was young and playing major league baseball.  In a perfectly Christian world, all those other kids would have come along to take responsibility for what was, in fact, a team effort.   Now, it would be totally understandable if the batter was seriously angry with his teammates and friends and wanted to hold a grudge.  But that wouldn’t be loving his neighbor.  He must forgive them for abandoning him, forgive himself for being angry at them (even though being angry was totally justifiable), and make amends for that - possibly by never abandoning a friend to take the blame for some misdeed alone.  

In 12 Step Programs two of the most difficult Steps to take are Step 8, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all” and Step 9, “Made direct amends whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”   Admitting when we have harmed another is difficult enough.  Going to someone we have injured in some way and admitting that, then doing whatever we can to make amends for that debt can be paralyzing.  It’s easy to try to convince ourselves that what we did wasn’t that bad, they probably didn’t even know about it, and anyway, they did worse to us so we don’t really owe them anything.  However, I’m pretty sure Jesus (and Paul) would say it doesn’t matter at all what the other guy did to me.  It’s about my behavior, my relationship with the neighbor, and my relationship with God.  If I would be right with God, I must also be right with my neighbor.   That means if I hold a grudge, I must forgive.  If I feel as if I have been wronged, I need to look at my own behavior, and be certain that I am totally innocent of wrongdoing in the matter.   Don’t be in debt to anyone.”  Ifyour brother or sister has something against you . . . go … be reconciled.”   Nothing about “unless they have hurt you, in which case you don’t need to do anything”.  Last week was “love your enemy” - even the Romans, even the people who mistreat you.  And love includes forgiveness and the making of amends - owing no debt to anyone.  

Another easy thing is to say to myself, “Well, I have plenty of time.  I can do that next year, or the one after, or when I have become reconciled to the idea of forgiving.”  But Paul says, “you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near.”  Paul believed, all of the disciples believed, that Jesus was going to return any minute, in their lifetimes, next week or the one after.  We know that didn’t happen.  We know that Jesus told the disciples, “No one knows when that day will come, only the Father.  We know that eventually Paul stopped saying, “He’s coming next week” and started saying, “Maybe we need to live as if we’ll be here a while.”  

And yet  . . . 

I attended the Selma Ministerial Alliance meeting this week, and the feeling among my colleagues seems to be that the end is near.  That the signs and portents are all clearly in place, and the end of the world is coming any minute.  The storms, the fires and floods and earthquakes, the wars and threats of wars… all of those things are happening, and so we must prepare ourselves and our flocks for the end of days.  I’m not so sure about that, because of that whole “No one knows when that day will come, only the Father” thing.  What I do know, however, is that we weren’t promised tomorrow.  None of us.  In his 1st letter to the Thessalonians, Paul says, “We don’t need to write to you about the timing and dates, brothers and sisters. You know very well that the day of the Lord is going to come like a thief in the night.”  We could have that 8.2 magnitude quake any minute, or an airplane could crash onto the sanctuary during worship, or we could be in a horrific accident on the way to work, or we could be shot and killed at age 15 while hanging out with friends.  We have no idea how long we have.  We have today.  Probably.  

Which means we need to do all this loving and forgiving stuff today.  Right now.  As soon as possible.

Easier said than done, I know.  Loving your neighbor is really so much harder than it looks!  Loving yourself is harder than it looks.   Behave appropriately as people who live in the day.”  Paul names some pretty specific behaviors to avoid - getting drunk, sleeping around, fighting, and obsessions.  These things can cause harm to others, but mostly, these kinds of behaviors cause damage to our own bodies and souls.  Doing anything to excess, even ostensibly good things like exercise, can be damaging.   I have several acquaintances who are body builders.  Some work at being healthy, being careful about diet and not overdoing, living well balanced lives between family, work and exercise.  Others are so focused on how they look that they pay little attention to their families or relationships outside of the gym, take steroids to increase their bulk and have become so over developed they can’t wash their own hair or tie their shoes.  They are obsessed, and obsession of any kind is unhealthy for body and soul.  

Clothe yourself in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Be like him.  At the end, he said to the Lord our God, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  At the very end, when his enemies had put him to death, he called upon God to forgive even them.  

The Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that your loan is forgiven.  All of the sins and debts that you might owe, are forgiven through God’s grace, and God’s faithful and steadfast love for each and every one of us.  Now, you must go out and do the same.   Go out and love one another, clearing away any debts you might owe to the other, for the only real debt you owe, the only real debt any one of us owes, is the debt of love. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

People we hate to love

Romans 12:9-21 (CEB)
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good.10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.


This is such an inspiring passage.  Love everyone.   Help others.  Welcome strangers.  Be happy with those who are happy and cry with those who are crying.  *happy sigh*  Be on fire with the Spirit when you serve the Lord!  Consider everyone as equal!  Live at peace with all people!   Yes!  

Wouldn’t it be lovely if Paul could have left it at that?   Just a list of sweet, inspiring statements to embroider on a pillow, or make into a Facebook meme.  
But no.  Paul has to go and add the hard parts.   Bless the people who harass you - and don’t curse them.   

Really Paul?   But what about that guy who just cut me off on the freeway? Surely it’s ok to respond with just a little sign language?  What about that person who called me names on Facebook?  I don’t have to stand for that, do I?  I can call them names back, right?  I can post something mean about the people who are mean to me and call them names anonymously, can’t I?  *smh*

Even his direction to try to outdo each other in showing honor to each other can get a bit weird.  Like the cartoon characters Chip and Dale.  “After you.” “No, after you.”  “No, no.  After you.”   That can get downright testy if someone doesn’t decide to accept the honor of going first.  Not to mention blocking a doorway for ever so no one else can walk through.   I was planning a wedding some years back, and as I was leaving the bride - who was from Japan - bowed to me.  I bowed a bit lower, as I was a guest in her home.  She bowed again.  I bowed again.  She bowed so deeply she literally touched her knees with her head.  I gave up. I later figured out that she was honoring me as the pastor, according to her traditions.  

Paul says, “Hate evil.”  Easy!  But then he says, “Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions.”  

But Paul.  What about these guys, the ones in the pictures?  What about people who spew hatred and evil?  What about people who attack the innocent, just because they are different in one way or another?   I imagine you all know that when Westboro Baptist Church is expected to show up, one of two things usually happens.  If if it a funeral, a group of people - either people wearing giant angel wings or a group of veterans - will act as a barricade so the family doesn’t have to deal with the ugliness.  If it is another sort of event, people show up to peacefully counter-protest with silly signs like, “God hates signs.”  They have practically become poster children for misplaced rage.   In fact, there is a meme running around on the internet that says, “Live your life in such a way that Westboro Baptist wants to picket your funeral.”  

And the ones in the white robes, burning the cross?  Well . . .  They can’t be made fun of.  But like the members of Westboro Baptist Church, they firmly believe they are right in believing and speaking and acting the way they do.   Many consider their actions to be evil, but Paul says,”Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.“ and “Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

Note, please, that Paul doesn’t say “Don’t get angry.” Nor does he say, “Don’t protect yourself from those who harass you, or do evil actions.”  He says, “Don’t try to get even. Leave revenge to the Lord.”  He says, “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.”    

And then he says what I think is the coolest thing ever.  If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head.  That’s genius. That makes it feel like you are getting revenge without doing anything wrong!   I’ve heard people say that when someone did them wrong in one way or another, they would just smile.  And every time they saw that person, they would smile.  The other guy would then spend his time watching his back, waiting for the revenge to happen. And of course, that  was the revenge.  Which may or may not be what Paul had in mind… But it is what the Samaritan did, stopping to help a Jew, an enemy, and even putting him up in an inn, spending his own money to help him recover from his injuries.

What Paul does here is take Jesus’ teachings about loving your enemies and give us concrete examples of how to do that.  And to answer the person in that cartoon asking whether Jesus meant the Romans….Yes.  Yes, he did.  He meant the Romans and the guy who cheated you on that car he sold you, and the Klan, and the people who talk bad about you, and anyone you might consider “enemy.”  

Repaying evil with good is fighting fire not with fire, but with water.  Sometimes a fire break, removing all the possible fuel in the path of a fire is necessary to keep the fire from spreading further.  That way the fire burns itself out due to lack of fuel.   Likewise, it’s really hard to keep fighting with someone when they won’t fight back.  Turning the other cheek, refusing to respond with anger to anger, finding ways to do good in response to the evil being done by others, that is what Paul says we need to do.  That is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.”   Even the Romans.  Even the Klan.  Even religious people whose understanding of God causes them to hate you.  

Love is wanting the best for others regardless of how they behave or how they treat you.  Love is caring for others when they need care, no matter who they are.  Love is refusing to allow someone else’s anger and hatred spark yours.  When you hear evil, respond with good.  When you hear hateful speech, respond with love.   Love one another, even your enemy.  Especially your enemy, cause it’s easy to love your friends, and being a Christian isn’t supposed to be easy. 


Sunday, August 20, 2017

And God said . . . BANG!

Jeremiah 31: 35-37

Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
    and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
    the Lord of hosts is his name:

If this fixed order were ever to cease
    from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
    to be a nation before me forever.
Thus says the Lord:
If the heavens above can be measured,
    and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will reject all the offspring of Israel
    because of all they have done,
says the Lord.


There is a total eclipse of the sun tomorrow!  Of course, unless you have been living under a rock, you already know that.  A 70 mile wide swath of the North American continent will be able to see it.  The rest of us will have to make do with a partial eclipse.  Darn.   And when I realized that today was the day before the eclipse, I did something I have wanted to do for years!  I declared today “Science Sunday.”   I changed the scripture reading, the sermon title and the music selections, with valuable assistance from Jordan, Jessica, and Leah.   

For those of you who don’t watch network television, the people depicted on this slide are atheist physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper and his fundamentalist Christian mother Mary, from the popular program, “Big Bang Theory”.  These two could be the poster children for “science versus religion” arguments.    

Most of us know and pretty much understand the scientific explanations of a total eclipse of the sun.  However, if you happen to have looked online to discover what Christian folks are saying about the eclipse, or what the Bible has to say about the eclipse, what you will have found mostly are quotes from the Revelation to John or other prophetic writings which certain Christian “scholars” say mean either the United States is being judged and will suffer some great catastrophe or that the end of the world is coming - soon!   None of the ones I could find said anything about science or the natural order of things that God put into play millions of years ago. I don’t know about you, but I tend to get a bit growly when people predict the end of the world, because Jesus said, “35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:35-36)  When it comes to predicting the end of the world, I tend to put much more stock in what Jesus said than in what other people say.  When it comes to people saying, “God is judging America” on the other hand, I don’t believe any of it.  Hurricane Katrina was not a judgement on New Orleans because gay people live there.  Jesus said, “for [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous…” (Matthew 5:45).  Weather happens.  Celestial events happen.  The eclipse does not portend terrible things…although that is what people used to believe.  People used to believe that a total eclipse meant the world was going to end - and they were usually very upset and confused afterward to discover the world continuing on as if nothing had happened.   Or they believed that it predicted a kingdom would fall … before, you know, science.  Although, the ancient Persians - the Magi - and the ancient Aztecs both could and did predict eclipses with great accuracy.  Both of those great civilizations used scientific method long before the “invention” of scientific method.  Anyway . . .

There seems to be a conviction among some - both religious people and scientists - that you can either believe in God or science.   So, either you believe God created the earth and everything in it or you believe that the world and its creatures evolved into their present forms and realities randomly.  Either you believe that climate change is real or you believe that “God is just hugging us a little closer.”   Either you believe in the logic of scientific method or you superstitiously believe that a power which cannot be seen or measured and whose existence cannot be proved in anyway can and does influence your life and the world around you.  I don’t see why it needs to be either/or.  

For example, when I was at camp last month our theme was “Look what God did!” based in Genesis.  One day a counselor asked me if I could mention that science was more accurate than Genesis.  He seemed truly surprised when I responded that a number of scientists have noted the order in which the Bible says things were created aligns very closely with what science thinks, and that I would be happy to mention that when we got to the creation of the animals part.  I already had pointed out to our campers that we no longer believe the earth is flat or that the sky is a great crystal dome from which the stars and planets are suspended.  Although there are still people who DO believe that - who believe the earth is flat, and that the space program is all Hollywood fakery. John met an actual real life Flat Earther just a few weeks ago!  Personally, I don’t think there is a disconnect between science and religion.   And I am in good company.   According to the website “Clarifying, “In the last 100 years (and especially in the last [20]) scientists discovered many proofs that confirm the Bible’s accuracy. Since these proofs support the accuracy of the text we can understand scientifically, it makes sense to trust the Bible’s text that we can not yet understand. “   copyright 2003.     

When I was a student at Chapman University I was forced to take a biology class. (I know, right?  What does a Religious Studies major need biology for?)  Anyway, one day a classmate made a disparaging remark about people who believed in religion instead of science and the professor responded by saying, “I’m a Christian.  And I am a scientist.  I see no conflict.  In fact, physicists have been able to measure time all the way back to (some ridiculously tiny measurement of time that I can’t even fathom, roughly 10 to the negative 44th of a second.) before the Big Bang, but they can’t go any further.  They can’t figure out what caused it.  So I have no problem believing that God said, “Let there be light!” and BANG!”   I loved that. It is reasonable, and logical.   

Of course, he is not the only scientist who believes in God.
Albert Einstein said, “The more I study science, the more I believe in God.”(1)  and “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.”(2)  
Joseph H. Taylor, Jr., who received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the first known binary pulsar, and for his work which supported the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe, said, A scientific discovery is also a religious discovery. There is no conflict between science and religion. Our knowledge of God is made larger with every discovery we make about the world.

According to the prophet Jeremiah, God said “If this fixed order should ever cease, so too shall Israel cease to be.” Well, duh.  If the fixed order of the planets and stars in their courses fails the universe will fail, and nothing will exist as we understand existence.  The prophet also said, “if the heavens are measured and the foundations of the earth are explored, then I will reject my children.”  While some might take these words to mean we shouldn’t even try to measure and explore, for fear of being rejected, I believe God meant that it isn’t possible to fully measure the universe, or fully explore the foundations of the earth.  For God is the foundation of the earth, and God is the totality of the universe, and no human can ever explore or understand God.  God told Israel over and again that they would always be his children, that he would never reject or disown them, and by extension that includes us, for according to Paul,  “the children of the promise are counted as descendants” (Romans 9:8b).  And “God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love.”  (Ephesians 1:5)    Because God knows these things are not possible - to fully measure the heavens and to fully explore the earth’s foundations - God will therefore never reject the children He created.

Our knowledge of God is made larger with every discovery, but we can never know the totality of God.  No matter how good our science gets, no matter how accurate our measurements become, we can never measure the entirety of the heavens or fully explore the foundations of the earth.   For we can never know the fullness of God.  We can never fully unlock the secrets of creation, but we can use the intellect God has given us to understand what is possible for us to understand.   We can stand on the space station or on the moon and see this blue and green marble floating in space.  We can see the world God made for us, and have an inkling of how much we are loved, that we have been placed amid all this beauty.   From space, we can see the wholeness of the earth, with no fragmentation. . . no fences, no walls, no borders, no divisions beyond those natural divisions of mountain, desert and sea.  May we reach out to one another across all those artificial boundaries and differences that cannot be seen from space to love one another as God loves us.  May we use the intellect God has given us to use science to create new ways to feed the hungry, end famines, and cure diseases . . . to discover new ways to love each other, and to create wholeness in this fragmented world.  
(1)  (The Wall Street Journal, Dec 24, 1997, article by Jim Holt, “Science Resurrects God.”)

(2) (From E. Salaman, “A Talk With Einstein,” The Listener 54 (1955), pp. 370-371, quoted in Jammer, p. 123).

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Go Out and Tell Somebody!

Scripture Romans 10:5-15     (NRSV) 

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

A Message From General Minister and President Terri Hord Owens: 
Sisters and brothers, my heart breaks at the violence this weekend in Charlottesville – the loss of life, the dishonoring of children of God, the vile insults hurled and the wounds of history reopened.  I pray for the family of the woman who died. I pray in praise of the peaceful demonstrators. We cannot take backward steps fueled by hatred. We cannot be silent when the humanity of black persons is being assaulted and terrorized.  

The commandment in 1 John 4:20 calls us to account:  "Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."

And so let us love one another as we love God. With such love, we are compelled to stand for justice, and walk in peace.

Yesterday I attended the Appreciation Luncheon that Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life put on for Pastor Seth Pankratz, who is moving back to Pennsylvania in the next few weeks.  At my table were several other local pastors, and one of them asked, “Have you preached on what’s going on in the news?” referring to the situation with North Korea.  We discussed the wisdom China had shown in their response, and we all agreed that this situation is truly terrifying, but that we hadn’t yet said anything from the pulpit except to lift up prayers for peace.  We began to talk about the news from just that morning, the violent clashes at the White Supremacist Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  We knew, by that time, that a State of Emergency had been declared, which most often means martial law, with curfews imposed and the National Guard patrolling the streets.  We agreed that such displays of hatred are antithetical to the gospel message, but then the “Roasting and Toasting” part of the program began so we abandoned our conversation. 

Theologian Karl Barth said that we should always preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.  I usually don’t.  Not because I don’t think it’s important to respond to what’s going on in the world, but because it is much too easy to think that my own prejudices and opinions are in perfect alignment with the gospel.  I try not to get all “preachy” at you about those things, mostly because I tend to believe that if I say, “Love one another means love everyone, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, nationality, etc,  etc., etc.” then I have as good as said, “Hey y’all.  Racism is bad.  Heterosexism is bad. Misogyny is bad. Hating anyone is bad.”  And so on, and so on. I think by using this generalization I have let you know that none of these things align with the commandment to love one another as we love ourselves.  The thing is, I haven’t named those things out loud. I have only hinted at them.  You see, I assume you all can read your Bibles and come to the right conclusion.  Which is wrong headed of me, because lots of people read their Bibles and come to entirely different conclusions than I do!  

My brother read 2 Thessalonians 3:8, “We didn’t eat anyone’s food without paying for it.  Instead we worked night and day with effort and hard work so that we would not impose on you.” and decided that it meant there shouldn’t be anything like welfare or food stamps.  (Not true, in case you were wondering.). Growing up I was taught that some people are black because they are descended from Ham, and that every bad thing that happened to them was punishment for Ham uncovering Noah’s nakedness while he was drunk.  Paul’s letter to Philemon and portions of his other letters were seen as justification for slavery.  And I don’t have to tell you that there are many Christians who believe that women shouldn’t have any position of authority, in the church or outside of it, because Paul said so.   Or how our LGBTQ sisters and brothers are rejected, assaulted and even killed because of those “clobber passages” that so many of our Christian sisters and brothers like to quote.

And it’s easy for me to say, “Well, if they believe that it’s ok to hate then they aren’t really Christian.”  But that’s totally judgmental and I’m not sure it’s an accurate statement.  Because . . . 

In 1986 a family moved from Denver, Colorado to White City, Florida.  Mom, Dad, a son who was going to be on the high school football team and a cute daughter.  When they first moved in two doors down from me I went to their house and took a gift of some bread and salt to welcome them to the neighborhood. They were nice people.  They happened to be black.  A couple of nights later my next door neighbor also dropped by to let them know how welcome they were.  He and his friends were wearing their best white robes and carrying a large wooden cross, some gasoline and matches.  Now, you need to know that my neighbor and his family were faithful members of the Southern Baptist Church around the corner. Their kids went to Christian school.  They both taught Sunday School and always contributed generously to the food pantry downtown.  They would have been terribly upset to hear that I didn’t think much of their brand of Christianity.  Because they were good people - except for that one thing. Except for that racism thing.  And I figured that they would have to work that out with God eventually, just as I and everyone else will have to work out our sins with God eventually.  

The thing is, though, that one thing, that racism thing, and that xenophobic thing, and that anti-Semetic thing that were so evident yesterday aren’t just sins that hurt the person who is guilty of the sin.  They aren’t like gluttony or sloth or lust.  These sins and all of the other hate-type sins, hurt and even kill other people.  Heather Heyer, a 32 year old paralegal, died yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia, because someone was so filled with hate that he drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors on purpose, to kill somebody.   And there’s a good chance that the driver of that car, like so many of the Klansmen and other White Supremacists present at that rally yesterday, and like my neighbor in Florida, was Christian.   Too many of these are Christians for whom the love commandments - the love one another and love your neighbor and love your enemy commandments - lose something in translation when they are faced with someone whose skin is a different color, or speaks a different language, or follows a different religion.

The Jesus I believe in loves all persons.  The God who sent Jesus to save us, to heal us, loves all persons.  Like in that children’s song . . . 
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.  
Jesus loves the little children of the world.  
We are all of us little children, to God.  But not everyone believes in a God of love.  There are those - many - who believe in a judgmental God, an angry God, in that Old Testament God who demanded the deaths of every living being in the cities of Canaan when Joshua brought the exiles into that land.  

 … how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” 

My brothers and sisters, I titled this sermon “Go out and Tell Someone” weeks ago, and the plan, my plan, was to speak about evangelism, to encourage you to go out and speak to your friends and your neighbors about Jesus, about Church.  About this congregation, and the good we do in our community, and about worshipping God in community.  I wanted to send you out to speak to your friends who are not believers, or who are believers who have slipped away and now feel isolated.  And I wanted you to bring them back. I wanted you to bring them home to Jesus.   And then Charlottesville happened.     

I still want you to go out and tell somebody, but I want you to tell them about the love of God for all persons.  ALL persons!  You know - All means ALL!?  And I want you to talk frankly about racism when you see it.   And I want you to speak out against hate, when you hear it.  Because hate isn’t one of those sins that just affects the sinner.  It affects everyone.  Everyone!  I want you to go out in love, to speak with your friends and your neighbors and your enemies, about the love of God.   

But how are we supposed to love our enemies, Pastor?  How are we supposed to love people who hate us?  That’s way hard.  Yes.  Yes, it is.  But here is what I was taught, and what we teach everyone who comes into 12 Step programs.  I might dislike someone.  I might distrust them. I might even hate them. (And if I do, I really need to work on that!)  But regardless of how I feel about them, when they are in need, I am there for them.  When they are in pain, I am there for them.  When they don’t know where to turn in their distress and difficulty, I am there for them.  Whether I like them or not.  Even if they had hurt me in the past.  That’s love.  That’s what God requires of me.  

How can they call on someone in whom they had not believed?”  They can’t.  So we have to teach them.  We have to speak our truth, the truth of God’s love and care for all persons.  Even the haters.  

The Good News - and there is Good News, even today - is that God does, in fact, love everyone.  And that you, each of you, are beautiful in God’s eyes, and you become even more beautiful when you speak God’s love.  For “how beautiful are the feet [and every other part!] of those who bring the good news.   

I would invite you now to come forward, if you are ready to be baptized, or if you are seeking a church home, and want to be part of Christ’s family here at First Christian Church, this family created in love, who believe in our hearts that God loves all persons. 

And then, my sisters and brothers, go out and tell someone that they are beautiful, and beloved, and a child of God.  Go out and tell them to leave behind their hatred, and fear, and anger, and come in to the light of God’s love.  Go out singing of God’s love - for we have a story to tell the nations - a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light.  Let us sing.


A word about the artwork - This is a depiction of the Barmen Declaration Banner.  The Theological Declaration of Barmen 1934  was a document (written mostly by Karl Barth) and adopted by Christians in Nazi Germany who opposed the German Christian movement. In the view of the delegates to the Synod that met in the city of Barmen in May, 1934, the German Christians had corrupted church government by making it subservient to the state and had introduced Nazi ideology into the German Protestant churches that contradicted the Christian gospel.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Wrestling Pros(e)

Genesis 32:22-31        (NRSV)

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel [which means “Face of God], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Jacob.  Arguably one of the most important characters in the Bible, the person through whom God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Father of the 12 Tribes of Israel.    But not one of my favorite people at all.  He seemed to be a bit of a wuss, really.  And he was devious.  His mother talked him into cheating his slightly older twin brother Esau out of their father’s blessing.  Then he ran away because he was afraid of his brother.  He worked for Laban for 7 years to earn the hand of his beloved, Rachel, only to discover on his wedding night that Laban had substituted her older sister, Leah, for his expected bride.  OK.  So he worked another 7 years to earn Rachel.   When he wanted to go home, Laban agreed to give him all the spotted or striped goats as his wages, then removed all those from the flocks and sent them away with his sons.  So Jacob made sure to breed the remaining flocks in such a way as to produce lots of striped or spotted kids.  After 6 years of this, his flocks had increased greatly, so that they actually were stronger and more numerous than Laban’s.  This was upsetting Laban’s sons, so he left secretly with his wives and his flocks while Laban was away shearing sheep.   There was eventually a confrontation, in which God intervened, so Jacob and his wives and children and flocks were allowed to go on their way.  When he came close to the land of his father, where his brother was now the head of the family, he began to worry that Esau just might be holding a grudge.  So he sent an apology in advance, and bribes, and divided his people and his flocks in two so that, if things went poorly for him when he encountered Esau, at least half of them could escape.  Although he kept both wives and concubines and all 11 children with him, and I imagine they would have been killed or enslaved if things went really poorly, so I’m not sure who would have benefited from the escape of half the flocks.   

The night before he anticipated encountering Esau he sent his family ahead, across the fording place over the river, while he stayed behind, perhaps to pray.  Because one thing Jacob was very faithful about - dedication to his God.  While in a foreign land, he prayed to his God, the God of Abraham.  He had taught his wives to love God, and they were quick to give God praise when they were blessed with children.  Even in a time when most gods people believed in were pretty local in nature, ruling over one land or city or even one aspect of life or nature,  Jacob understood that his God was the God of his entire people, and not limited to any particular place.  So he often turned to God to ask for guidance.

On this night, when Jacob was alone and waiting for the morning’s confrontation, a man came and they wrestled.   As far as I know, this is the first recorded wrestling match, taking place some 1,100 years before the first Greek Olympics.    I like wrestling.   I became a fan of Greco-Roman wrestling when I was dating Jimmy Chekowski, the star of our high school wrestling team.   Last year, when the Selma High School girl’s wrestling team was recognized for their excellence at a City Council meeting I was amazed and delighted to learn that girl’s wrestling is a recognized sport.  And even more excited to learn that our girls are acknowledged champions in that sport!  Wrestling requires strength, skill, and determination.  And, in the case of professional wrestling, acting skill.   I was introduced to professional wrestling in the 1970s, and watched in amazement as such luminaries as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Jake the Snake, Hulk Hogan, and Andre the Giant entered the ring, representing the forces of Good or Evil.  At first I was shocked!  This was not beautiful, like the wrestling I was used to.  It was violent!  It all looked so real!  Eventually I learned that these matches are pretty carefully choreographed, and each move is carefully planned, like the staged fights in movies, so that the participants are usually only injured by accident.   That wasn’t the case with Jacob. 

In Jacob’s case, there were no rules.  No care was taken to make sure no one was injured.  Jacob was by no means stronger than his opponent, but he was stubborn enough to refuse to give up, even after his hip was dislocated.  He prevailed in his struggle, and was given the name “Israel” which means “The one who strives with God,” because his struggle that night was way more than just two guys wrestling.    

Jacob was about to face something he had run away from over 20 years earlier.  His history was that of a man who acquiesced to whatever someone else demanded of him - his mother, his father-in-law, his wives.  But now he was going to have to face his brother.  And he was really not good at confrontation.  But God said, “Go home,” and going home meant facing his fears.  Jacob wrestled with his fears that night.  Torn between what he wanted to do and what God wanted him to do, he spent that night wrestling.   And although he prevailed, in that he didn’t give up until he learned the name of the person he contended with, the one who truly prevailed was God, because Jacob went on to face his fear - the brother he had wronged so long ago.  

We all wrestle with God at one time or another.  When things go wrong, we might blame God.   While preparing for a funeral some 10 years back, I spent time with the son of the woman we were burying.  He had stopped coming to church several years earlier, when his teenaged son was killed by a drunk driver.  He hadn’t been able to forgive God for letting it happen.  He was still wrestling with his son’s death last year, when we placed a boutonniere for his son on an empty chair at his daughter’s wedding.   I don’t know how long his wrestling match with God will take, but I know he is still engaged in the process.  And that’s a good thing, that he is still engaged ion the struggle, that he hasn’t give up.  We struggle with God whenever we see ugliness, or encounter hatred, or face cruelty and inhumanity.  How can God let that happen?  How can racism still exist, when we all know that the only actual difference between the races is literally skin deep?   How can God allow one person to murder another because of gender or orientation or ethnicity?  How can God allow parents to abuse their children?  How can anyone be permitted to deliberately injure a helpless kitten or puppy?  We find ourselves wrestling with the commandment to “Love One Another” when that other seems to be manifestly unlovable.   

And like Jacob, we find ourselves wrestling with God when the thing that we know we are supposed to do is really hard to do.  Almost everyone I know who has been called to the ministry tried to fight the call.  Most of us spend some time wondering if we are doing the right thing.  It happens with teachers, police, public defenders, social workers - everyone who has embraced a calling that is about helping others.   I’m pretty sure it happens in lots of occupations and vocations.  We love the work, but there are days in each of our lives when we have to wonder if we made the right choice.  That’s why we take vacations, and sabbaticals and go on retreats.  I imagine there are even days when parents have the same struggle.  I’m pretty sure that the day my mother turned her back on two toddlers for just a minute while she was baking bread may have been one of those  “And I thought having children was a good idea, why?” moments. 

It’s a good thing when we wrestle with God, and when we wrestle with our faith, and when we wrestle with our own character traits that maybe are less than lovable.   Look at Jacob.  He was not the best human who ever lived.  He had some serious character flaws and weaknesses.   But he also had good traits, chief among them his faith that God was with him no matter what.  He fought with God - in his case, physically! - and survived. More than survived.  He was rewarded greatly.  Through him, God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled.  Jacob, Israel, became the actual father of the Twelve Tribes.  Even though he was worried and imperfect.  Just like us.  

My brothers and sisters, the Good News today is twofold.  First, God is always with us, especially when we are wrestling with God, with our faith, and with ourselves.  Second, you are loved, just the way you are.   Go out from this place knowing that.   No matter who you are, you are loved, and God is with you.  Amen.