Sunday, December 9, 2018

Speak of Peace

Scripture   Luke 3:1-6  The Message

3 1-6 In the fifteenth year of the rule of Caesar Tiberius—it was while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod, ruler of Galilee; his brother Philip, ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis; Lysanias, ruler of Abilene; during the Chief-Priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—John, Zachariah’s son, out in the desert at the time, received a message from God. He went all through the country around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins, as described in the words of Isaiah the prophet:
Thunder in the desert!
“Prepare God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out,
The detours straightened out,
All the ruts paved over.
Everyone will be there to see
The parade of God’s salvation.”

You know, on Peace Sunday, the images typically used to illustrate the message are pretty angels or doves or peace signs, or even a peace sign on a Christmas Tree with a dove on top  . . . not a thunderstorm in the desert. I mean, that’s a pretty radical image for Peace Sunday.  Typically, of course, I select a more conventional translation of the scripture.  But this Advent I am using The Message, and the imagery it brings to mind has nothing to do with peace signs or doves or angels.  Nothing peaceful at all, in fact. 

“Thunder in the desert!”   That line, that image, fascinated me, because the usual translations are along the lines of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”  as if Isaiah is speaking sort of generally.  “There will be a voice, a person, who speaks about the coming Messiah and prepares the world for his arrival.”  It’s not really specific or anything.  But this, “Thunder in the desert!  Prepare God’s arrival!”   It is as if Isaiah is speaking directly to John, as if these are not simply a prophesy of something that will happen, but a direct order.   “Thunder in the desert.”  And John did.  He thundered.   He preached “a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins.”  Not, be baptized and your sins will be forgiven.  But change your life, repent what you have done wrong against God and against your neighbor, and you will be forgiven.  He spoke out against the immorality of the leaders of his time.   He seriously thundered!  

It was the fifteenth year of the rule of Caesar Tiberius  . . . that would be around the year 29 AD, making John (and Jesus) around 33.   There was a lot going on.  It was far from a peaceful time in the province the Romans called  Palestine, the country that had been a united Israel under King David.   It wasn’t one country anymore, and hadn’t been for a long time, but three - Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.   Herod was the king of Galilee, serving at the pleasure of the Emperor.  Pilate was governor of Judea, which included Samaria.  No one liked the Romans.  No one liked Herod, king of the Jews but only nominally Jewish.  There was constant unrest.  Bandits making travel unsafe.  Zealots trying to foment armed rebellion against Rome.   A heavy burden of taxes on the poor.  Soldiers doing whatever they wanted to the people of the land - dragging them out of their fields and workplaces to carry burdens, raping the women and casting them aside, taking whatever they wanted from whomever they wanted.  It was a bad time, a hard time - unless you happened to be rich or powerful.    It was not a peaceful time. Oh, there was the Pax Romana - Roman Peace.  But that was “peace” imposed by the might of the Roman Legions.  That was order imposed by occupying forces on an oppressed population, not actual peace.  

So, what is peace? 

 Jane Addams is known as the Mother of Social Work, and recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.   In 1889 she opened Hull House, the first settlement house - like a community center in a poor neighborhood where volunteers lived, and where opportunities for education, exposure to the arts, and so on were made available to the local residents who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these things.  Agencies like All Peoples Community Center in LA and the Oakland Peace Center are pretty much direct descendents of Hull House.  She fought for justice for all people - for women’s right to vote, for poor people’s rights to an education, for access to health care, and the needs of children.  She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1920s, and in 1931 was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  She was a force of nature.  And she said “True Peace is not the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.”  

Many other people have made similar statements.  A Google search for the phrase “peace is not the absence of war” yields 50,300,000 results with quotes attributed to everyone from Pope John Paul II to Albert Schweitzer to Harrison Ford.   The original source was probably the 17th century philosopher Spinoza.  But Jane Addams spent her entire life working for justice, for an end to oppression, and for equity.  Her goad at Hull House was “to practice social democracy, that is, egalitarian social relations across class lines.”   Justice is everyone being treated fairly - equally - under the law.  Money and social standing should not make a difference in having access to education, health care, and legal representation.   

Yesterday I was blessed with the opportunity to spend the morning registering families for the Reality Tour at Selma High School.  It is a drug prevention event  for youth and their parents that is really quite “in your face.”   I was working alongside Selma School district teachers and administrators and listening to their stories about kids and parents and equity.  Because, you see, registration for this event was online.  And a lot of the kids these teachers and administrators were talking about don’t have access to computers.  They don’t have smart phones.  They don’t have email.  These are the kids who don’t get breakfast at home, and don’t have coats when it’s cold.   It’s easy for an event organizer to say, “If we do it on line we won’t miss anyone.  Everyone has access.”  Except everyone doesn’t.  One of the teachers said, “it’s an equity issue.”  And the conversation turned to “How do we make the playing field level?  How do we give those kids access to events like this?”   No one would suggest that every kid be given an iPhone, but making computer access available at the schools is doable (said the folks I was listening to) - and equitable.  

Issues of equity are justice issues.  Issues of equity are loving the neighbor issues.  Because if I love my neighbor, I want her to have the same opportunities I have, regardless of class or race or religion or whatever.  There is a difference between equality and equity.   It’s illustrated in a cartoon where there are three kids of different heights standing at a fence, and on the other side of the fence is a baseball game.  None of them can see over, so they each get an identical box to stand on.  That’s equality.  But two of the kids still can’t see over the fence.  So each kid is given a box that makes them the right height to see over.  That’s equity.  That’s what Jane Addams fought for.  That’s what Jesus preached.  That’s what John was preparing the way for.

You know, I could take the rest of that Isaiah quote and make it about equality. “Every bump smoothed out, the detours straightened out, all the ruts paved over.”   Except I think that’s a bit simplistic.  Because neither John nor Jesus nor anyone else preached that life was going to be a smooth ride all the way from beginning to end.  There will be dips and bumps, and detours and ruts.     Justice is making sure everyone can get past the dips and bumps.  Justice is making sure there are signs clearly indicating where to go for that detour.  Justice is working together to fill in the ruts in the road, so that everyone can travel along it.   Working toward a just world means working toward a world where all those kids’ families can get on the internet to register for events that could make a real difference in their lives.  Working toward a just world means working toward a world where everyone has access to healthy food.  Some people will still get steak and lobster while others get chicken or beans and rice. But everyone gets fed.  Everyone gets to eat.  

Peace is the presence of Justice.  Peace is not the absence of war, but it might be the absence of oppression.  So go from here, my sisters and brothers, to do as John did.  Thunder in the desert of oppression.  Continue to work and speak for justice for all God’s people.  Comfort God’s people, as John did, with the Good News, that Jesus is coming, and has come, and will come again, to heal our world, to pour justice out upon it, and bring peace to every heart.  

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Do Not Despair

Scripture  Luke 21:25-36  The Message   

25-26 “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.

27-28 “And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”

29-33 He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here. Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.

34-36 “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”

I saw a diagram on Facebook the other day showing the difference between Bible translations.   

John 20:17  
From the Greek:    He said to her, Jesus, “not me you touch or cling to.”
New Revised Standard Version:   Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me.” 
Dynamic Interpretation:   Jesus said to her, “You can’t touch this.”

Ok, that’s kind of a joke, but not entirely.   Most of you know that I prefer Bible translations that are more like the second one, scholarly and as accurately translated into English as possible.   But sometimes looking at things a little differently helps us understand them better.   So this year, for the whole of Advent, we will be using The Message for our scripture readings.  

In today’s passage, Jesus warns of the dangers of distraction, of hard times to come, of the very real possibility that we will lose our strength and faith when the world around seems to be falling apart.  It is so easy to all into depression, to think there is nothing we can do to change things, that all of the anger and evil that surrounds us is all there is.  That the end, in fact, is near.  Or, alternatively, that we will be so distracted by our daily lives that we won’t see what’s right in front of us.  

But look at a fig tree - or any tree for that matter.

How do I know there’s a God?  I asked.  Who knew (at age 13) that this was not a good question to ask in my Wednesday night religious education class?   The nun in charge went immediately to get the priest, who chastised me severely and made it very clear that there was to be no questioning of such things. I must simply believe.

You may not know this, but I’m really not good at being told what I must do, or think, or say, or believe.   I wanted to quit going, but I knew Mother would never allow it.    So when I went home I told my father what had happened.  My father, being a very wise man, shook his head, grumbled about bad teachers, and took me outside.  To look at a tree.  We looked at the leaves, with all the veins running through so the sap can bring nutrients.  And we looked at how the bark protects the inside of the trunk and branches from bugs and cold and all sorts of damage.  And we looked at the root system, how it reaches down into the earth searching for every last drop of water the tree needs to grow.  Then he asked me if I thought that these things could all simply happen randomly, or if someone had to have created this tree.   And if someone greater than a human had to have created the tree, the what about all of the other amazing and intricately detailed life forms?   Including humans.   And then he told me that only God could do these things.  And that I would have been much better off being taught by Jesuits, who understood the importance of asking questions.   

When I was in seminary, the apartment downstairs from mine was reserved for students from foreign countries.  During my four years there I had neighbors from Brazil and South Africa and Kenya.  My Kenyan neighbor didn’t understand winter at all.   Well, none of them did.  But with most of them, we just talked about the need to wear hats in extremely cold weather, and the dangers of ice on the sidewalks and road that lurks under snow, and whatever you do, do not turn off the heat when you go away for Christmas break!  (Frozen pipes are bad!)   But my Kenyan neighbor and I had a theological conversation about winter.   We were walking to class one morning and he asked why the seminary didn’t cut down the dead trees on campus.  Where he lived, he said, all of those trees would be firewood by now.   I realized that he was looking at all the trees that had lost their leaves in the Fall and were now dormant until Spring, so we talked about the nature of deciduous trees, the way they only seem to be dead but that in the spring they would be resurrected.   It’s what I grew up with, of course, but coming from Kenya, this was a foreign concept.  Not the resurrection, of course.  He was a Christian.  He believes in the resurrection. But that trees can also reflect the life of Christ, and be used to teach theology - this was new.   To him.

Because using a tree to teach theology was not a new thing.  My father taught me how to do it, but he learned it from Jesus.   And Jesus’ message was this, just as the fig tree gives clear signs of the changing season, so the things happening in the world around us will make it clear that it is almost time for the Son of Man to return.   The disciples believed it would happen in their life times.  It didn’t.  Since that time, the end of days has been predicted over and over again.  People would look at omens, like those we read in today’s scripture, and say “This is it!  All of these things are happening now!  Repent!  For the end is near!  Jesus is coming back next week!”    Specific Dates were set for the Last Day.  Expectations ran high among those who believed the prophets of doom.  People even sold all they owned and wandered off to pray on a mountaintop or something.  Then that day would come, and go, and nothing of any great note would happen.   *sigh*   And the people who had believed would come back from their mountaintop and wonder what to do now.  

Jesus said, “Be on your guard.  Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation be dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”   

This particular piece seems highly appropriate for December, when people start celebrating and running around shopping and worrying about what to give all of their friends and neighbors and family members.  Pretty much the last thing on most minds is that this might really be the End of Days.  But that’s what Advent is - it’s the time when we wait for the return of the King.  Yes, we will celebrate the birth of the Child four weeks from now, but Advent is when we wait with bated breath for the return of the Christ to earth - the end of days.  This year, with fires and floods and famines and wars and refugees all over the earth - it even kind of feels like the end times to me, and I am not much of a “repent, for the end is near” kind of person.  I’m more of a “Try to live every day as if it was your last day on earth” kind of person.  

And I believe that is what Jesus is saying in this passage.   Not so much “get busy preparing for the end of time because it’s coming next week.”  But “stay vigilant in every season.  Whether you are in a season of celebration or a season of despair, know that I am near.  Know that I will be there, no matter what is going on.  And that all you have to do is keep the faith, and you will make it through.”

My article in The Caller this month was about a package I had ordered and how it seemed like it was never going to arrive.  It left Oregon November 6, went to LA, then San Francisco, where it languished for a week, then to Chicago! Then Elk Grove Village, IL for a few days, and then to San Jose.   I had emailed the company and a woman named Jill kept encouraging me to be patient, that surely the package would arrive.  (It did, by the way.  On Thursday.)    I had to think how appropriate her words are to this time of year, when we are waiting both for the birth of the Child and the return of the King.   How appropriate to this time in history, when it “ … seem[s] like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.”  It would be so easy to give in to despair, to decide that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and there is nothing we can do about it.   

But Jesus says, “Help is on the way.  And I say, help is already here.  Because even if it is not the end of days, Jesus is with us.  Isaiah 9:6 tells us that “authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”   And because he is all those things to us, he is always here with us.  His words are in front of us every day.  His teachings are in our hearts every day.  His example on how to live through every situation is right here - in this book, and also in our minds and hearts.  Because we know the stories.  And we know that he was fully divine but also fully human - that he laughed and ate and drank, and suffered and bled and cried, just as we do.  And therefore we can get through any situation, as he did.  Because even when he could have given in to despair, even when he knew that the end of his time on earth was near, he had faith that God, his father, would be with him no matter what happened.  So he kept doing the things he knew needed to be done - feeding the hungry, casting out evil spirits, healing the sick, comforting the comfortless - for as long as he could.  And then he passed the baton to his disciples, to us.   And so we go on doing the work he left us, pouring Christ’s love out on our neighbors, walking forward in hope, working to make our world a better place, a more loving place, a place where Jesus lives.  

Have faith, for he is coming.   Do not despair, for he is with us.  Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, is Emmanuel - God with us.  

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Accepting Christ as King

Scripture Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14  (NRSV)

9 As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
    and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
    and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
    and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
    and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
    and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed.

It is still November, still gratitude month, and we are continuing our series on how to show our gratitude to God.   We have looked at obedience to God’s Law, and imitating God’s good works in the world.  Today, we look at how we show our gratitude to God by accepting his son, Jesus the Christ, as King.

In our hymns and prayers we often speak of Jesus as King.  Today is the Sunday celebrated as Christ the King Sunday in many Christian traditions.  It is not listed in my Disciples of Christ calendar of church holidays.  Probably because we are a homegrown American denomination, and Americans don’t really do “kings”.  We don’t really even know what King means, except perhaps in chess or checkers.  The kings and queens that some European nations have seem more ceremonial than anything.  And of course, there was that whole Revolutionary War thing -  intended to liberate us from kings for all time.   We were going to be self determining and self governing!  And that’s been working pretty well for us for the last 240 years.  

So when we talk about Jesus we tend to prefer the word Lord over King.  But that’s us, and that’s now.   But then  . . .

When the people of Israel demanded a king, Samuel tried to talk them out of it, telling them about taxes and involuntary servitude and being drafted into the army - things that a kingless people didn’t have to deal with.   All the other countries had kings, and even though they could see what that meant for their neighbors, still they insisted.  They wanted a king, so they were given one, and everything Samuel warned them about came to pass.  Kings, it was believed, served at the will of God, ordained and anointed by God to be his representative on earth.  And because it was God’s will that whoever was king, that king had total and complete power over his people.  He could tell them what work to do, where to live, what to wear, even.  People married whomever they were told to marry.  They could be sent off to war, forced into the king’s bed, killed or enslaved at the whim of the king.   The king was to be obeyed in every thing, and the consequences for disobedience could be severe.     Yes, there were good kings and bad kings, strong kings and weak kings, but even the most beloved and compassionate of kings still had the power of life and death over all in the land.  To be king was to have all the power.  Refusing an order, or even an invitation, from the king could get you killed!  

Are you King of the Jews?  When Pilate asked that question, he was trying to determine whether Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire.  Because the King of the Jews was Herod, appointed to that position by the Roman Emperor and answerable to him.  Anything or anyone who was a threat to that state of affairs was a problem for which the solution was death.   But Jesus wasn’t claiming Herod’s throne, and Pilate couldn’t find any reason to execute him - except that for some reason this man seemed to have the Temple leadership very upset.  As far as Pilate could tell it was an internal, religious issue, and he really didn’t want to get involved in an internal, religious matter.  But in order to avoid a riot in the city he was responsible for, he ordered Jesus’ execution anyway.  And on the way, his soldiers crowned Jesus with a crown of thorns, to represent his kinghood.  They thought they were mocking him, but in fact, they were proclaiming the truth.  

Daniel said, “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship.  And the people were not to “believe in him” or “worship him.”  All peoples are to “serve him.”  As the kings of Daniel’s time were served.  Remember, Daniel was hostage to a king who had no problem tossing disobedient Hebrews into a furnace because they insisted on worshiping their own God instead of him!  When Daniel said king, this is the kind of king he meant.   A king whose word was to be obeyed in all things.  A king whose power was second only to that of God.  

The centurion whose servant Jesus healed in Matthew chapter 8 understood the kind of power that Jesus had and from whence it came.   When Jesus offered to come and heal his servant, the centurion said to him, ““Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.     

Jesus as king is no mere figurehead, as are so many European royals, with a Parlaiment to make laws and approve his budget.  Nor is he like the king on a chessboard, whose moves are restricted and who must be protected from attack by all the other pieces.   Jesus has the power, given to him by God.  He needs no knights or pawns, bishops or queens to protect him,.   When he moves, he changes lives.   When we accept him as our King, whose words are to be obeyed, our lives can be changed.

I need to point out that there is a very significant difference between Christ as King and all of those other kings - Saul, David, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod.   Their rule is about power, their power over other humans.  They are obeyed out of fear for the consequences.  Their kingdoms are on and of the world.  Jesus’ rule is based about love.  His rule is about compassion and mercy, in justice.  He is obeyed out of love for him, and for God the Creator.    According to John 18:36, when Jesus responds to Pilate, he says “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Jesus’ reign is over our hearts and souls.  Which doesn’t mean there is any less obligation to be obedient.  It simply means that obeying Jesus is a very different matter from obeying the laws of our nation.  When we disobey Jesus, the consequence is not a jail term, or a fine, or community service as might be the case for disobedience to the laws of the land.  When we disobey Jesus, the consequence is a soul deep pain, a knowledge that we have done that which saddens our Lord and our Savior.  When we disobey Christ the King, we have fallen short in our love for God, for ourselves, and for our neighbors, the two commandments that Jesus has told us are most important.  When we disobey Christ the King, it is because we have allowed the ways of the world or our own selfishness to come between us and our God.   

If w are to show gratitude to God for all that we have received, we will obey the king he has sent us.  The kings of the world last but a short time, the laws that they put in place can be changed as soon as they are gone.  In some cases, evidence of their very existence can be eradicated, as was attempted with some of the pharaohs of Egypt.  But the reign of our King, Christ the King, “is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.  We, as Christians, show our gratitude to God for the gift of his love when we accept Jesus, the Christ, as our King.

I know that it’s fairly easy to say “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.  There are people coming forward at altar calls in churches all over the world probably right this minute proclaiming that very thing.   But when we say that, what do we mean?   Do we mean “I believe and now I will go to heaven”?  Or do we mean, “I am ready to change my life entirely and do my best to do what I believe Jesus would have me do in every situation.”?    What does it mean to accept Jesus the Christ as King, the kind of King that Daniel saw in his vision?   

It means that we will put Christ’s law before the laws of the land.  It means that we will seek justice for all persons. It means that we will treat other humans with love and compassion.  It means that we will seek to determine what it is that Jesus would have us do.  It means that we will listen for his voice in the scriptures, in the voices of others, and in the silence.   

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that we can choose to accept Christ as King over and over again.  We can fall short, and receive forgiveness.  For the Christ, the King of the world, is a merciful and grace-filled king, whose throne comes from a God whose steadfast love endures forever.   As the people of God, let us rejoice in the reign of Christ.  Let us stand and sing together “Rejoice, the Lord is King!” 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Imitating the Lord

Scripture Psalm 146 NRSV   

1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7  who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8  the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!


It has been a difficult, extremely emotional week even for someone like me who does not watch TV news, so I have not been bombarded with images of the fires and the aftermath of the shooting.  But I do follow print media, and the various newspapers I read keep sending updates and breaking news headlines.   13 dead in a mass shooting.  At least 25 dead in fires.  Paradise is lost.   So yesterday I was at an anti-racism training and toward the end someone said how hard it was going to be to preach hope today with all the terrible things happening.  Someone else pointed out that today the Gospel reading is the story of the widow’s mite.  Our trainer, Sandhya Jha, said “Not me!  I’m preaching on Psalm 146!  That’s going to be hard.”  And I agreed, because that’s what I had chosen, too.  Many of you know that I select the scripture reading weeks or even months in advance.  Back when I chose to do a series on Gratitude in November, and selected the scriptures to preach on, I had no way of knowing what this month was going to be like.   The scripture reading I’m preaching on says “Praise the Lord!” and I sat at my computer feeling more like, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

And yet - you know that gratitude list I do every day?  Ok, almost every day?  A friend sent me a text yesterday saying “I found out yesterday that I have termites. I was really frustrated. Then saw the news about Paradise. I'm grateful to have a home to have termites.”   And then she began looking for ways she could help the victims of the fires.   Gratitude tends to make us want to do something to express that gratitude.  And in case you missed the announcements - Donations to Week of Compassion for “fires in California” or gift cards in any amount will be helpful.  Some congregations are making hygiene kits to send.   First Christian Church in Chico is an evacuation center and will be happy for any help they can get. 

If I were to give today’s message its full title, instead of what will fit on the top of my blog page, it would be “Ways we show our gratitude to God Part 2:  Imitating the Lord.”   I was kind of thinking along the lines of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, and flattery is what we do when we find someone attractive in one way or another.  So if we are really attracted to the work of Father Greg Boyle in LA, we might go out and work with gang members.  Or if we are really attracted to the work of Rev. William Barber we might join the Poor Peoples Campaign.  Some of you all worked on political campaigns over the last weeks because you admired a particular person’s stance on issues that are important to you. People who have overcome addictions often work with addicts to help others the way they were helped - showing   So if we are to imitate God because we are grateful for all that, then this is what we have to do:

execute justice for the oppressed;
give food to the hungry.
set the prisoners free;
open the eyes of the blind.
lift up those who are bowed down;
love the righteous.
watch over the strangers;
uphold the orphan and the widow,
bring to ruin the way of the wicked.

Some of those seem pretty easy.  We do feed the hungry at the SMART Center and at Christian Cafe.   We try to help those who are down.  We donate money to  causes that will help the poor.  We collect tomatoes for Selma Cares - to feed families - and hygiene products for the patients in the Selma Convalescent Hospital, who have very little indeed.  We do what we can.  But there are other things we can do, things that aren’t quite so linear as feeding the hungry or singing money to help widows and orphans.  Opening the eyes of the blind, for example, means more than just fixing someone’s eyes.

Ian David Long was 28 years old.  A Marine Corps veteran who had served in Afghanistan.  On Wednesday night he walked up to a bar in Thousand Oaks, California and shot the security guard at the door, then the woman working the desk inside the bar, then 10 more people including a deputy who responded to the call. Then himself.   And the news told us the police went to his house a couple of months back because he was acting out, but not so badly that he had to be sent for psychiatric evaluation.  Some people said, “I don’t understand.  He was such a nice guy.” while others said, “Yeah, he was trouble in high school.”  Some said, ‘Well, obviously he had PTSD and it made him crazy.”  But Thomas Burke, a pastor who served with Long in the same US Marine Corps regiment, which had experienced heavy fighting during their tours of duty, warned against too quickly blaming Long's actions on trauma experienced during war.  "PTSD doesn't create homicidal ideation," Burke said. "We train a generation to be as violent as possible, then we expect them to come home and be OK. It's not mental illness. It's that we're doing something to a generation, and we're not responding to the needs they have.”    (

It’s not mental illness.  It is something we are doing to a generation . . . and we have done it to every generation who has gone to war for us.  We take perfectly nice young people, turn them into killing machines, and ask them to forget all that when they get back without any kind of help at all from the people who trained them in the first place.  I mean, when we “rescue” people from cults there are folks who specialize in de-programming them, so we know it can be done.   If we are to imitate God, we will open the eyes of those who are blind to what’s happening.  We will free the prisoners from the programming that they have been subjected to.  There are agencies trying to help, but so much more is needed.   We celebrate our Veterans one day a year, but how much do we really do to return them to the way they were before, before they were taught to forget about loving each other?  If we are to imitate God, we will find a way to change that. We will lift up our voices to bring to ruin the ways of the wicked until these, our veterans, receive the care they need.  Because it is wicked to take all these nice young people, change them, and then turn them loose to try to make their way back to normalcy on their own.  And if we are not part of the solution, then we are responsible for the problem.

Similarly, in the anti-racism training yesterday, we looked at the various ways even our church by-laws are upholding systemic racism or classism, yet most of us were completely blind to that.  I can tell you, it was not a comfortable feeling to  become aware that white supremacy is alive and well even in the founding documents of our churches.   

If we are truly grateful for what we have received from God, we will imitate the ways of our Lord.  Imitating Christ is not easy.  He did, after all, poke the bear.  He challenged the powers that be to see themselves clearly.  Worse, he spoke revolutionary ideas to the masses and challenged them to see the powers that be clearly.  He looked at the way things were, and saw the way things could be.   If we would imitate our Lord, we would do these things too.  I can pretty much promise that will upset some folks.   Trust me, the clergy folks sitting around looking at our congregational by-laws and the founding documents of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were quite upset at what we were seeing.   We must take off the blinders.  We must speak truth to power - even to ourselves! - because we, ourselves, are the oppressors when we abide by  documents that relegate some to lesser participation in Christ’s family.

If we are grateful, we will imitate our Lord, whose second greatest commandment was to love our neighbors - all our neighbors - as we love ourselves. The victims and the shooters.  The rabble rousers and the oppressors.  The military/industrial complex and the veterans.  Our Lord commanded us to love everyone, just as he, himself, rejected no one.  All are welcome to come to our Lord.  All are welcome to give themselves to him.  All are offered a place at his table.   It is for us to reach out and make sure that offer of unconditional love, is made known to all.  

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Obedience to the Law

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 NRSV   

6:1 Now this is the commandment--the statutes and the ordinances--that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 6:2 so that you and your children and your children's children, may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.

6:3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
6:5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

6:6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  6:7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  6:8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,  6:9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.


According to Mark, some Pharisees and Herodians and Sadducees were debating with Jesus and with each other on a wide range of topics, from paying taxes to the resurrection at the end of times, featuring that well-worn trick question that the Sadducees loved to trip up the Pharisees with, “Whose wife will she be after the resurrection?”  These are things on which none of them agreed with one another, and Jesus had answers that astounded them all.  

One of the things that we need to remember is that the Pharisees and Sadducees were both well educated in the Law, but held different understandings of it.  They were kind of like clergy folk who have gone to different seminaries.  Each seminary teaches it own point of view, its own theological understandings, and the graduates tend to espouse those things which they were taught.   And, in case you aren’t aware of this, there is very little that theologically trained people enjoy more than debating their particular understandings of God and scripture.  Some of the great debates of the middle ages included such life changing topics as “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”  So, when we see that Pharisees and Sadducees and Jesus were all debating various points of the Law (Torah), it wasn’t necessarily a “let’s prove this new guy wrong” situation.  It very easily could have been, “Oh cool.  A new point of view to consider!”  Because they had heard each other’s arguments over and over again.  

So one of the scribes, hearing all this debate and seeing that Jesus looked at things a bit differently, asked one more question.  “Which is the first and greatest commandment?”  And Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;  you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”  The scribe, of course, agreed. 

Because, indeed, this is the first and greatest commandment. This commandment, known as the Shema, is so important that God instructed the Hebrews to teach these words to their children, to talk about them all the time and everywhere, and even write them on the doorways of their homes and wear them on their bodies.  You can tell when you are at the home of a Jewish person because on their front door is a mezuzah - a case containing these words.  The  artwork today is a mezuzah decorated with a Tree of Life, in honor of the 11 people who were shot and killed last week at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.  

Now, as it is November, a month often designated as Gratitude Month, I have planned a sermon series called “How do we show our gratitude to God?”  This week the form of gratitude we will look at is Obedience to the Law.  And the first and most important law is this, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 

We often tend to immediately leap from this statement to the rest of what Jesus said to the scribe that day, “The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”  And while this is indeed important, it is second.  First in importance is “Love the Lord your God”.  First is the requirement to teach this to our children, of talking about it everywhere and always.  Even maybe writing the words on our front doors, so that everyone will know what is most important to us.  

Now this is more than just teaching your children the Bible and bringing them to church, although these are very good and important things to do.  Some of my best memories of childhood are sitting on the couch with the family Bible, reading the stories in it, and talking about them.  What God says, however, is simply “Teach your children to love God.”  They can learn some of that through reading the Bible, but mostly they will learn it through watching us - you - me - other Christians. We all know that, right?  Our actions speak louder than our words.  Our children - and other people around us - will learn more about Christianity through watching us and listening to us than by reading the entire Bible.   It is not enough to just say “I love the Lord!”  We must show it by our obedience to the Law.  This first and greatest law, and the second one.  Which, as we all know is, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'   Jesus went on to say, There is no other commandment greater than these.  And the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher. . .'to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' --this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  

But I know for certain that loving God is not demonstrated by shooting 11 Jews in a synagogue on Shabbat, or 2 African Americans in Kroger’s, or sending pipe bombs to people whose political views you don’t like, or being part of any organization whose stated purpose is to kill or otherwise eliminate any group people.  Or by speaking badly about any individual or group of people.  And I don’t know about you, but I am so ready for the elections to be over so that at least some of the hateful words that invade our space through television and radio and the internet and the Postal Service will stop!    Not loving!  None of it!   Loving God means wanting to please God, and pleasing God means doing things that exhibit love for all of God’s creatures.  We don’t demonstrate our love for a friend by killing their child, or talking trash about their family members, so why would anyone think that killing or hating on another human would please God, who loves all his children, and who grieves when these things happen, just as we grieve. 

I got an email yesterday from a friend who is completing the classroom part of her PhD program and wants input on the question, “What is transformational learning?”   My immediate reaction was, ‘It’s what I wish I could do. I wish I could preach and teach in such a way as to truly change lives and hearts.” Teaching love is a challenge, at best.  Especially if we have to teach it through our actions.  And then there is the whole “What is love?” thing.  We know it is more than a feeling.  Although I say that I love my tiny car and chocolate, that’s not really love.  I love my cats.  I care for them and about them.  I give them good food and keep bad things away from them (like chocolate), and I discipline them (sort of, ’cause, cats.)  I can teach someone how to take care of cats, but I cannot teach anyone how to love cats.   I can preach and give people books to teach them about God, and about how to worship God, but those things will not teach anyone to love God.  That is something I must teach through the way I live my life, and I could do much better.  It is hard to always behave lovingly.   It is hard to always be grateful.

Mere words will not transform lives.  Transformation comes through action, and through gratitude, and through a great desire for a different way of living and being.    My life was transformed when I started spending my time with people who consistently demonstrated God’s love, who tried to practice unconditional love for others, and spoke often of God’s loving care and forgiveness.   They rarely talked about religious practices, but they talked about loving God all the time.  And that is what God says we are to do.   Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. . . . talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

The scribe said to Jesus, “"You are right, Teacher . . .’to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,' --this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”   When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  

May we go from this place today with an attitude of gratitude that leads us to obey God’s Law.   May we speak always of our love for a loving God, and act with love toward our neighbors.   And may we teach love for God through our words and our actions, in everything we do, all the days of our lives.  

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Who's on first?

 Scripture   Mark 10:35-45
10:35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 10:36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?”  10:37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

10:38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

10:39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 10:40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."

10:41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.

10:42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 10:43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Today’s passage is yet another example of the cluelessness some of the disciples could exhibit.  We have to wonder, sometimes, why he picked these guys.  

You know, it is baseball playoff season.  Last night one of the teams in the National League won the pennant, and the World Series is coming up.   I know these things and I don’t even follow baseball.  It is highly possible that baseball has given us one of the best examples of cluelessness outside of the Bible. I give you, “Who’s on First.”   (two people perform a short section of the Abbott and Costello routine.)

James and John really seemed to have no more idea what Jesus was talking about than Costello did in this famous comedy routine.   They thought they were asking to be his closest advisors, his lieutenants, as it were, when he defeated the Romans and became known to the whole world as the King of Israel.  Whether they simply hadn’t been listening or they were just too self absorbed to hear what he had been saying, no one really knows.   Just before they asked this question, Jesus had said to them, “33 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.  And in the moments after this, his third time telling them about his coming death and resurrection, these two come forward and say, “We want to sit at your right and left hands when you come into your glory.”   Reading this, we aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry or just shake our heads.   And the other disciples got mad.   Maybe they were all thinking the same thing, wanting to be the ones closest to Jesus, but James and John were the only ones who had the nerve to go up and ask for what they wanted.  

You know, we laugh - or shake our heads - at these two sons of Zebedee.  But I think we really aren’t that much different from them.  We may not be asking to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands, but how many of us sort of pray that First Christian Church can be restored to its former glory?  We were a big, influential church.  Our Bible study groups overflowed the building - had to meet in other places around town, because even in this big, beautiful building there wasn’t enough room for all who came.  There are pictures in the office of hundreds of people out in front of the building, and that’s just the Sunday school classes - in 1933.  Today, instead of hundreds, we count 35 or 50 in worship, maybe 10 in Sunday School, and we get really excited when a special event fills the sanctuary.   We would love to “grow the church” back to the way it was in 1933 or 1963.  But It is no longer 1933, or 1963, or any of those long ago glory days.  The world has changed.  How people view church membership has changed.  “Regular attendance” no longer means showing up every Sunday like it used to, when I was growing up.  Today it might mean showing up once a month or every other week - because there are so many other demands on our time.   Used to be nothing else happened on Sundays but church.  And if I’m being honest, sometimes I think if I just preached well enough I could fill this building.  Or if Leah managed to recruit half the high school then all their families would come and fill this building.  Or if Bring a Friend Sunday resulted in everyone showing up with at least one person who had never been here before and stayed from that day forward and brought their families, and filled this building . . .  Wait, what if every Sunday was Bring a Friend Sunday?   hmmmm.    We may not ask for these things out loud, as James and John asked to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands.  The other disciples didn’t ask, but I bet they were thinking about it, just like we think about it.  And some of us sit here, you know, and gather in meetings, and we plan ways to stay alive.  Cause we don’t know what the future will bring for a small church that used to be a big one.   And we are afraid for the future.  

The disciples were afraid.  And maybe, just maybe, James and John were just trying to deal with their fear, looking for a future that was secure.  They were on their way to Jerusalem and their rabbi, their Lord, kept telling them, “I’m going to die there.” And they didn’t want to hear it, but they knew that the Temple leaders opposed him.  They knew that his preaching was really upsetting some powerful people.  And they knew that John the Baptist had lost his head not that long ago for preaching against Herod.  They probably weren’t that stupid.  But they were that afraid.  And when we are afraid, we do every thing we can to make ourselves feel safe.  So, James and John asked to be close - at Jesus’ left and right hands - And Jesus said to them, “Can you do what what I’m doing?”  And they said, “sure we can!”  Because they didn’t quite understand what he was asking.  

Many times, when this passage is preached, we look at Jesus’ words to these sons of Zebedee as a threat.  We often interpret “You will drink the cup I am drinking,” as meaning “Being a leader in this group is not what you are hoping for.  Instead of power and wealth, you, too, will die a horrible, painful death.”  But what if Jesus is simply reassuring them?  What if this is not so much a threat as a promise?  What if what Jesus is telling them is actually, “Your fear will not always drive you, as it does now.  You will be empowered by the baptism of the Spirit to follow me into places you cannot imagine right now.  You will drink of the cup I drink from - the cup of salvation, of healing - and you will know peace in your heart.  You will be faithful, no matter what comes to pass.”   What if that is what we are supposed to hear in this passage?  What if Jesus is saying, in yet another way, “Do not be afraid.

Jesus tells them again, as he has told them before, that whoever would be first must be last.   He says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. 

Once again, Jesus is asking his disciples, his followers - us - to give everything, with no promise of a reward of the sort we typically think of.   Not “give and you will be rich and successful,” but “give because you love me.”  Not “go out into the community and do good, and I will fill these pews.”  But “do good because you love me.”  Serve others, because you love them.  Give of yourself - whatever you can give.  If you have money, give money.  If you have time, give your time.  If you have special talents, share those.   

Jesus only wants one thing from us - everything.  Our hearts.  Our love.  Our service.  Our lives.   Jesus gave it all for us, and asks us to do the same.   So ask yourselves, my brothers and sisters, what can I give?