Sunday, April 22, 2018

Living in God's Will

1 John 3:16-24   (NRSV)

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Today is Earth Stewardship Sunday - the churchy version of Earth Day.  And there are tons of passages in the Bible that relate and refer to Creation, taking care of the earth, God’s bounty and how we are to use it, and so on.  I even have a Bible in which all of those sorts of passages are written in green, the way some Bibles have all of Jesus’ words written in red.  I could have used one of those Earth Day sort of passages.  But I had a preacher teacher in seminary who taught us that, if we use the lectionary, (which is a calendar of scriptures to use every day of the year, rotating through the Bible over a three year period) regardless of what the secular world is doing, several things will happen.  One - we will not subject our congregations to hearing the same dozen or so of our favorite passages preached on all year long.  Two - we will not be able to cherry pick a passage for the day that will perfectly reflect our personal feelings on what is going on in the world around us.  and Three - we will continually run up against passages that we have to struggle with, just as our congregations have to struggle in their understanding.  So - much as I would have loved to go to Genesis and the creation of the world for today’s message,  because I do use the lectionary almost every Sunday, I chose this passage on Love from 1st John.    

If you are like me, you may have looked at today’s scripture and thought, “Oh. John 3:16.  I know this one.”  Except, it’s not John 3:16.  It’s First John, a letter, possibly from the writer of John’s Gospel and/or the Book of the Revelation to John, to Christians who were dealing with the reality of some who had left the church and whose beliefs diverged from what John believed was the Truth about Jesus - that Jesus came into the world as a human to disclose the truth about God, to deal with the world’s sins and to provide an example of how we are to live.  Eternal life depends upon remaining in the knowledge of this truth.  John’s message revolves around two core beliefs - God is light, and God is love.   If God is light, we must reject sin and live according to Jesus’ example.  And if God is love, then we must love one another the way that Jesus loved, by laying down our lives for each other, and by living in truth and action.  

When I am choosing how to preach on any particular scripture reading on any given Sunday, I begin by reading the passage.  Not once, but several times.  And as I read I try to leave my mind open to the Spirit’s guidance, seeking the sentence or phrase that requires my attention on that particular day.  It’s a practice called Lectio Divina - divine reading - which is also a good way to practice daily meditations on Scripture.  Eventually, if I am paying attention, a phrase or word or sentence will almost seem highlighted, and I have my place to begin.  If that doesn’t happen . . .  well, let me just say I much prefer it when it does happen. I really prefer to follow the Spirit’s lead than my own thoughts on what I should preach.  

With today’s passage, the focus came rather easily.  How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”    

Several of us were in Woodland, California the last few days for the Annual Gathering of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Northern California and Nevada.  Friday afternoon there was pre-event workshop on the Poor People’s Campaign, which is making a National Call for Moral Revival to end systemic racism, poverty, militarism & environmental destruction.  Not everyone involved in the Poor Peoples Campaign has the same political views or religious beliefs - but everyone involved can see the effects of poverty and hatred in their own communities, and wants to find ways to make the kind of changes that will be of substance.   At that Friday workshop I was invited to speak briefly on what we are doing in Selma - with Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life - which, for those of you who may not know, is a coalition of police, faith communities and help agencies to heal our city.  It is the belief of the Chief of Police and the rest of us who are involved that only by all of us working together - loving one another as Jesus taught us to  - can we effect the kind of change that will bring an end to the attraction of gangs to kids who can see nothing good in their own futures, and hope to the poor who see only that no one cares about them, to the homeless, the addicted, to undocumented children who are afraid even to play outdoors, to those with special needs who don’t know how or where to find help, to the sick who cannot afford to get medical care . . .  Here at First Christian this is just one of the ways we try to do more than just talk about loving one another, but act in truth and love.   Here at First Christian, and throughout Selma, we know that those of us who are blessed with enough are required to share what we have with those who do not.  

And what does any of this have to do with Earth Day?  Caring for the poor is more than simply feeding the hungry - which is very important and will always need to continue - but also in making sure there is enough food for everyone, which means making sure there is enough clean water to grow that food.  It is more than helping individuals get medical care for chronic asthma and allergies, but also in making sure that the air is clean so that we all can breathe.  It is more than finding temporary accommodations for the homeless - which we will always need - but also making sure there is affordable housing for all people, because as housing costs increase, so does the number of homeless families.  It is more than participating in a clean up day once a year in April, but making sure our poor neighborhoods receive the city services they need to keep alleyways and empty lots clean so trash buildup doesn’t contribute to major health issues.  It is more than planting a tree - which we all really should be doing! -  but also in making sure there is funding for the forest services so that our forests can keep producing the oxygen we need to survive and protecting the animals that are a critical part of our environment.  Earth Day is great, and all of the Earth Day activities, but if we are to love one another as God would have us do, we must pay attention to these things all year long.   I think that if we are to live in God’s will, the world will one day look again as it did when Adam and Eve were first placed in charge, before they disobeyed the will of God.  That’s why we chose this particular picture for the message slide.  

Jesus came to remind us, to disclose to us, what God’s will is for us and for the world.  Jesus came to remind us, to show us, what it means to live in God’s will.  The Book of Genesis tells us that God put us here to care for the earth, and for each other.  Jesus came to prove to us that God is love, and that if we are to love God as we are loved, then we must also love one another, we must love all of God’s creatures, just as God loves us.  We can see God’s love when we look at the world around us and see the beauty God placed us in the middle of.  I mean, have you driven on the roads around Selma lately? Have you seen the blossoms on the fruit trees, and the green of the grapevines, and the baby goats and sheep and cows and horses?  Have you heard the birds serenading you awake in the morning?  Have you smelled the roses in front of the church?  Have you recognized God’s love manifest in the world around you today?  

And Have you heard a farmer worrying about the bees?  Have you worried when the reservoirs aren’t full, and there’s not enough water for the fruit and nuts?  Or too full and in danger of failing?  Have you felt helpless, listening to a child struggling for breath because the air quality is really bad today?   If we are to live in God’s will, we will do more than talk about these things, and about poverty, and about hatred.  If we are to love one another as God would have us do, we will act in truth, taking whatever action we can, to make the change we want to see in our world.  It might mean taking out your lawn, to make more water available to the farmers.  It might mean car pooling or putting in solar panels, to help keep the air a little cleaner.  It might mean giving money to the people who are researching to find out what is wrong with the bees.  Or voting for people who will work toward those things that you believe will make a difference in education, in housing, in health care . . .  We may not agree on specific ways to care for the earth and for each other, but we don’t have to.  What we must do, however, is live in the way we believe God wills for us to live.  

My brothers and sisters, we live in the world that our God made for us.  If we are to love God, then we will live in God’s will, and care for each other, for the world we have been given, and for all the creatures in it.  Let us stand and sing together, “This is my father’s world.” 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Are you kidding?

Scripture      John 20:1-18  NRSV

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a]into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

I think just about everybody here knows how excited I have been about Easter falling on April Fool’s Day this year.  Honestly, just about anybody who has ever met me knows how excited I have been about this.  I’ve been bouncing on my toes - like I used to be on Christmas morning, standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for my father to go down and turn on the lights and say the word that allowed the rest of us to walk into the space that somehow, overnight, had been transformed from ordinary living room into a Christmas wonderland!  Waiting for Easter has been harder this year than probably ever before!  

Easter is on April Fool’s Day!  How cool is that?  Oh, there are lots of congregations who celebrate Holy Hilarity the week after Easter, which I’ve actually never done or experienced, but apparently it’s all about jokes and such?  But for the most important day of the entire year - of the entire history of the earth! - to fall on a day dedicated to practical jokes and basic silliness - that  is awesome! Because, you see, although we will often talk about how Jesus kept doing things to turn the social order upside down, somehow we always do it so very seriously.   We take Jesus’ words and actions and suck all the life out of them, making them a subject for study and never one to just enjoy.  Consider, for example - “You have heard it said to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I tell you to love your enemy” (Matt 5:44) and . . . ”if your enemy is thirsty, give him a drink.”  (Romans 12:19) We get all serious preaching that, but really - Best joke ever!  It will make him crazy, waiting to figure out what you are going to do!  Waiting for revenge that isn’t coming.  

Another example, this one from a sermon by Kurt Vonnegut! - who was definitely not a minister, but who nonetheless preached by invitation in an Episcopal congregation on Palm Sunday, 1980.  When Judas, was fussing over the woman spending money on ointment to lavish on Jesus, Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.”  Preachers tend to get pretty heavy handed trying to parse out what this actually means, and how we should use it as an example for our lives.  Vonnegut suggests that Jesus wasn’t making a social statement, he was being more than a bit sarcastic, saying (according to Vonnegut) “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” This, Vonnegut says, is a “divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil, but to chide [Judas] about his hypocrisy just the same.”    This example comes from an article in Christian Century magazine by Miles Townes, an author and elder in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), posted online February 21 and titled “When Easter Sunday Falls on April Fool’s Day.”  (  

Among the many jokes in Scripture Townes points out is the mistaken identity joke in today’s scripture reading.  Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener!  And she thought that because there was no way she could believe anything other than that Jesus was, in fact, dead, and that his dead body was missing from the tomb.  And for Jesus it was like, “Psych!”  When he spoke her name, it wasn’t so much compassionately comforting her, but more like, “Mary, it’s me!” like you might say to someone who doesn’t recognize you in a Halloween costume.  The joke, here, Townes says, is about Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus while we, the readers, are totally able to recognize him - like a scene in a Three Stooges movie when you can see the disaster coming, a paint can is going to land upside down on Moe’s head, but Moe can’t see that coming, and it’s even funnier knowing that we know and he doesn’t.   So we get to laugh twice! 

What better joke could be played on the world that thought it was getting rid of Jesus than to have him come back from the grave?   Instead of merely a martyr, a martyr who laughs at death!  “Death, where is thy sting?” is a massive joke, because death is supposed to be final, and yet, it isn’t.  The death that was to have brought darkness and despair to his followers, that was intended to end their movement, instead, gave them hope and power to go forward and continue to preach his upside down version of reality - the way of God instead of the way of the world.  

Everything about Jesus was of the “Hah! Fooled ya!” variety.  He was born of a poor family, not one of the rich and powerful.  He was a simple rabbi, a wandering preacher, not a great king or general or even a priest.  He wasn’t at all the kind of Messiah most people had been expecting.  Even his message was a backwards.  “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”  “You have heard it said, hate you enemies.  But I say, love your enemies.”  “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God.”  “Whoever wishes to be great must be first be servant to all.”   Instead of hanging out with the priests and scholars, he consorted with the outcast and unclean.  Everything about Jesus was backwards.  God planned it that way.

Sometimes I think that we don’t give God enough credit for having a sense of humor.  Yet all we have to do is look around to see that our sense of humor had to have its basis in our Creator.  I mean, kittens.  Puppies.  Hedgehogs.  These and so many other parts of creation make us laugh, bring smiles and joy to our hearts.  We are made in God’s image, and we have a sense of humor - some of us more than others, of course - so it seems to me that God also has a sense of humor.  I mean - camels!  For that matter, humans.   We be pretty funny, just being ourselves. 

The thing that separates us from God’s grace is sin.  And part of our sin is our determination to take everything way too seriously.  It is, perhaps, our Puritan heritage, in which anything that is thought to be worthwhile must be taken very seriously, and anything humorous is considered a waste of time, at best, something that might possibly help us relax, but which certainly has no place in the seriousness of life - or Bible study.  Yet, there are enough teachers and students among us who know that humor is an excellent teaching tool.  So perhaps Jesus, arguably the world’s greatest teacher, in order to bridge the gap between God and humanity, utilizes humor more than we realize.  Townes suggests that in order to really understand the Bible, we have to be able to find and appreciate the jokes found therein (and some of them are seriously for adults only!)  Come to think of it, we do recognize quite a few jokes in the New Testament, because we frequently laugh at the cluelessness of the disciples.  

God is good at jokes, but I still think that me just being here, doing this, is one of God’s sillier jokes.  Because God knows who I am, and who I was, and where I’ve been, and what I’ve done, and still called me to serve.  And for me, that’s all about resurrection, because I woke up one morning knowing I was dead inside.  I had reached the end of what I was able to bear and had to do something different.  And as I made the physical changes I needed to make, and started to learn about how to live and act differently than I had my whole life, I found that spiritual change was happening, too.  My soul, which had been dead and empty, was beginning to fill with a new life.   And in that new life I discovered that some things I had thought were normal - and which, in the eyes of the world, are normal - were no longer the right way to live.  So instead of always thinking that I had to get mine first, I learned to make sure others were cared for first - in as small a thing as to hold open a door for a person behind me instead of going through the door and letting it close in their face, or letting the person with 2 items go ahead of me in the check out line - little stuff that society says we don’t have to do because it’s all about me first and winning, don’t ya know.   Later, as I began to switch sins for virtues - worry for faith, greed for generosity, denial for acceptance, materialism for altruism, gossip/lying for truth, and so on - I discovered that my life was now filled with more light than darkness.  (This switching of sin for virtue, by the way, is more like cleaning the house than building a new one. Pretty much a constant effort, not a once and done kind of thing.)  And when God called me to the ministry, I had to ask “Are you kidding?” because I knew who I had been, but God knows who I am.  The joke, as usual, was on me.  

Townes ends his article saying this.  “We have no problem with the Jesus who wept. This Easter, let’s grapple with the Jesus who laughed.”  I like that.  I like that in our study of Jesus’ ministry, we should be looking for his laughter, his joy, his jokes.  I like that when we say, “He is Risen” we are proclaiming God’s greatest joke.   

So let us go forth, looking for that laughing Jesus in our Bibles, and in our lives.  Let us go forth knowing that He is Risen, indeed!  

Please stand and sing with me, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Do not be afraid.

Scripture: John 12:12-16 NRSV

12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
    the King of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
15  “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
    sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
Do not be afraid . . .  

The crowd is gathered, shouting Hosannahs and covering the street in front of Jesus with their cloaks and palm branches, so the feet of the young donkey he rides on don’t have to touch the ground.  They are celebrating the entry of their king!  Why then, is John ’s telling of this celebratory event interrupted with the words, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.”?  You know, I’m not entirely sure.  Because when I looked up this prophecy, which comes from the 9th chapter of Zechariah, none of the translations I could find said, “Do not be afraid.”  Almost every one began with “Rejoice greatly!”   When John wrote his gospel, some 60 or more years after the  events took place, he knew what was coming, of course.  But he also knew the Scriptures, and the words of the prophets, so it’s hard to say why he chose to report Zechariah’s words just this way.

Zechariah was a prophet living after the fall of Jerusalem, after the exile.  The people were despondent, living far from their homes, enslaved and in despair over whether they would ever see Jerusalem again.   Zechariah knew that they would soon be reunited with their homeland - for God had told him so, and he reported God’s words to the exiles, saying, 
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Stop worrying and celebrate, people of Jerusalem!  For your savior is coming, and you will see an end to war and to your suffering under his rule.  And indeed, they would be liberated when Babylon suffered defeat at the hands of Cyrus the Great, who would return them to their homes and even help them rebuild their temple.   The region would know relative peace for close to 200 years, when Alexander the Great conquered Cyrus’ great empire.  

And in Jesus’ time, Jerusalem, indeed all of Judea, was occupied by the Romans.  The people were oppressed, enslaved, and wondering why they had been abandoned.  They were worried and fearful, waiting for their savior to come, and they couldn’t understand what was taking so long.  They were expecting  someone like David, who had united the tribes and kept them all safe from outside threats, or Elijah who defeated the priests of Baal, or one of the judges who defeated their enemies and kept things going for 40 years or so before the next invasion, or even maybe someone like Cyrus.  They would have been telling each other the prophecies.  They would have been reminding each other that God always always sent someone to save them from their oppressors . . . so when Jesus appeared at the gates of Jerusalem, riding a young donkey . . . here, at last, is the fulfillment of prophecy!  Here is the one who is coming to rescue them - like the judges of old, like David, like Cyrus.  Here is someone who will toss out the Romans and return them to the way things were!  Yay!  We don’t have to worry any more.  Hosannah!   

When John wrote his gospel, he needed to remind the people listening just what a difficult situation Jesus was riding in to, because by the time this gospel was written Rome had destroyed the Temple and much of the city.  In Jesus’ time, the people of Jerusalem had a lot to worry about.  They didn’t know, whenever they left the house, if they would come home safely again, or if the Roman soldiers would decide to rape them, or take them into slavery, or punish, even kill them for some imagined crime, or a crime someone else did.  “A Jew did this thing.  You are a Jew, therefore you are guilty, and it doesn’t really matter at all whether or not you are the actual criminal.”  Jewish lives simply didn’t matter to the Romans.  Even the nobility and the Temple leaders were fearful and could not allow anyone to call their authority into question - for their authority, even their lives, rested in the hands of the Romans, and in their own ability to keep the people pacified.  The people of Jerusalem had a lot to be fearful of - a lot to worry about.  And by the time John wrote his gospel, Roman persecution of Jesus followers had begun.   So, it does make sense that John would replace, “Rejoice!” with “Do not be afraid” in speaking to the people of his time, a time of trouble and great fear. They were worried.

I was kind of amazed to discover that the Wikipedia entry for Alfred E Newman is quite lengthy.  Since he made his first appearance on the cover in 1954, he has appeared on all but two issues of Mad Magazine, a humor magazine which makes fun of pretty much everything and everybody - and which was totally banned in my house!   (Needless to say, I grew up on Mad Magazine.  Because my brother hid it under his bed along with the Playboys he “borrowed" from my father, and was happy to share his contraband with his little sisters.)   But even before that, since the first recorded appearance of this iconic face in an advertisement for mince meat in 1895, he has been symbolic of a person who has not a care in the world.  His tag line,  “What? Me Worry?” is almost as famous as his face is.  He has sailed serenely through a bunch of wars, the Cuban missile crisis, riots, 9/11, lots of elections . . . even 1967’s Summer of Love couldn’t faze this guy.  Given all of that, I can’t imagine any situation in which this face might become worried or fearful or even a bit nervous.   

Alfred E Newman doesn’t worry about anything because he really doesn’t care about anything.  He is, after all, not an actual human.  We, on the other hand, care - about a lot of things.  And we worry - about a lot of things.  We worry about our health, our financial situation, the state of our city, our children, the future of our church - this particular church or the Church as a whole.  We might worry about our relationships, about whether we are ever going to find “the one.”  We might worry about spending our golden years alone or whether we’ll make it through the rest of the semester - or Holy Week.  We all have a lot of things to worry about.  And while there are those who would say that worrying is a sign that you have no faith, that’s not exactly the case.  Worry and fear are feelings. They are physical responses to actual situations, and there is nothing wrong with having those responses.   Faith, however, is seated in our hearts and is that which helps us get through those feelings and emotions.  Even Jesus was fearful and worried about what was to come - we know this from these words in Luke 22:42-44:  42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  Yes, Jesus worried, but at the same time, he had faith that no matter what, God would bring him through to the other side.  He had faith that, no matter what, God would be with him.  His faith enabled him to walk through his worry and fear, and continue on the path that he was about to travel, the path that he knew was ahead of him.  His faith kept him from being paralyzed by his fear and worry.   Just as the angel from heaven strengthened Jesus, our faith can do the same for us.

It would not be good to be like Alfred E. Newman, never knowing fear or worry.  They are things that help us know we are human.  Nor is it good to allow our perfectly legitimate fears and worries to paralyze us.  Again, we look to Jesus for answers and for our example, whose humanity is made so very clear in the events of  this coming week.  The week to come is without doubt the most powerful of the Church year - filled with experiences of joy and celebration and love and fear and worry and great pain and suffering and grief - it is filled with every emotion known to humanity - even jealousy, because surely that is what impelled Judas to betray his Lord.  My sisters and brothers, I invite you to live this week in all of those feelings.  Walk with Jesus from today’s triumphal entry to Friday’s death and entombment.  Allow yourselves to feel those feelings - and know in your heart, in that place where your faith lives - that God will bring us through to the end.  

Let us stand and sing together, the story of the week that is to come.  

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ear witness testimony

Scripture: John 12:20-33 NRSV

 20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Some weeks ago, there was outrage all over the internet about reports that a teenage boy in Hanford had been pushed out of his motorized wheelchair by another kid, and then a bunch of kids ran away from the scene.  He was hurt pretty significantly.  His father posted lots of pictures of his injuries to Facebook and thousands of people were ready to go find those kids and administer “frontier justice.”  But the boy said he hit a rock and fell out of the chair. The police say that if there was a person or persons involved, they want to apprehend him/them, but there simply is no evidence of that, and no credible witnesses.  His father said he might have posted too quickly because of a rumor he heard.    …..  Did it happen?  Or was it gossip?

And who among us can forget the infamous shooting at a Selma High Football game in September, 2016?  - which actually didn’t happen at the football game, but on a nearby street, had nothing to do with the high school at all, and in which no one was injured. Within minutes of the gunshots, my Facebook feed blew up with posts insisting that it happened in the stadium, that there were injuries . . . there was even one post saying “Someone was killed!  The Coroner’s Van is there now!” and which many people believed, but which was totally untrue.  I spoke with someone who was in a position to know what had actually happened, and tried to stem the tide of gossip, but we all know that sensationalism is always more interesting than facts.  *sigh*

And let’s face it . . . most of us find gossip kind of irresistible.  That’s why gossip magazines are so popular.   We want to know what’s going on with everyone we care about, and in the place where we live or work.  And certainly there is nothing wrong with sharing news with each other. It becomes gossip when it is mean spirited, or when it may not be entirely accurate.  For instance, recently Mac and Natalie shared with the whole congregation the joyous news that Gloria is expecting twins!  So when those of us who were present say, “Did you hear?  Gloria is expecting twins!” that is news.  However, if someone notices that some young woman of their acquaintance has put on a little weight, and guesses maybe she might be pregnant, and then shares that guess with someone else, who tells someone else as if it is a fact - that is gossip. It’s an unsubstantiated story, not necessarily true, and depending upon that young woman’s circumstances, could be terribly damaging.   It is important, when we talk about others, that we know whether what we are saying is true.  And even if it is true, is it necessary to tell everyone?  Among the many famous fake Buddha quotes is this, ““If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?  Although this quote does not actually appear in writings attributed to the Buddha, it certainly sounds like something he might have said - or that Jesus might have said, for that matter.  If one is to truly love others, one will not repeat stories that might be hurtful, even if true.  (And please note, I am not speaking of testimony in court or other occasions when even hurtful truth must be told.)  

And please, if you don’t know, don’t guess.  Don’t share your opinion on what might have happened.  If you don’t know, say you don’t know.  “I don’t know.” is actually a good answer, if it happens to be true.   I know how hard it is to stick to your guns when someone pesters you saying, “But what do you think happened?”  But please don’t go there.  

Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable - just ask any police officer.  I imagine ear-witness accounts might be just as bad.  
Verse 3 of the hymn we will be singing in a few minutes is “Open my mouth that I might bear gladly the warm truth everywhere”.   NOT gossip.  Not guesses. Not what we think might be true.  But Truth.    The crowd who were surrounding Jesus all heard exactly the same thing - the voice of God speaking in response to Jesus.  But they all heard it differently.   Some heard thunder, some heard an angel speaking.  None of them really understood what it truly was they were hearing.  Because, really, who would expect God to speak out loud like that?  

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”   And so it had.  Next Sunday we will celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem with palms and psalms.  And then will come that hour Jesus speaks of here, when he says “My soul is troubled.”  He knows what’s ahead.  He also knows he has to go forward to the end, or his work won’t be completed.  Indeed, Jesus speaks about as plainly as he ever does when he says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.“  He is that seed, which indeed bore much fruit.  This is a farming community.  We are surrounded by vineyards and orchards and fields of crops.  We should all be pretty clear about how things grow.   The seeds we plant are dead things, but they have the potential for new life inside them.  So it is with Jesus’ words and actions.  If they are simply words and stories written in a book, they are dead things. Interesting, but dead.  But once they are truly heard, and enter into the fertile soil of our hearts, they can take on new life, changing us and, through us, changing others.   If Jesus had just been another of the many self-proclaimed Messiahs who gathered followers and then died at the hands of the Romans, we wouldn’t know his name any more than we know most of theirs.  Their words have blown away on the wind, like chaff from the threshing floor.  But his still live.  His words continue to spread and to change hearts and lives.    Unlike the words of all those other would-be Messiahs, Jesus’ Word is Truth.  Not always easy to understand.  Not always easy to accept.  But Truth nevertheless.  

So when he says,  “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” he is speaking of the difference between those who are enamored of the ways of the world and those whose love is for spiritual things.  He doesn’t mean that you must go be a hermit someplace and give up bathing and such.   But he does mean that those whose primary focus is on stuff, on gaining wealth, on being popular or powerful for their own gratification, will have a really hard time being faithful.   We know this to be true.  In 1870, in a letter to an Anglican bishop, British historian Sir John Dalberg-Acton said,  "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”    We can easily think of some exceptions which serve to prove the rule, hence his statement that great men are almost always bad men.  For example, I think we can all agree that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Reverend Billy Graham were great men who were not bad men, although each had his faults.  Their faults do not make them bad men, merely humans on a journey.  Their love of Christ and of humanity came well before their love of the trappings of power.   But in general, Sir John’s words bear out what Jesus said. If you would be his follower, you must not love the world and its ways.  You must love God, and God’s Word, and your sisters and brothers, and put them first in your life. 

The difficult Truths that Jesus speaks - like his prediction of his own death - even the voice of God speaking to him, tend to go unheard, or ignored, or passed off as incomprehensible.  “It’s thunder,” say people in the crowd.  “No, it’s the voice of an angel,” say others.  None were able to hear the Truth, that it was God speaking.   Even his followers weren’t able to accept the Truth, that soon he would be gone, that he would die a dreadful, painful, shameful death before he could be resurrected, before the glory of God would be made clear in his resurrection.  Even we, who believe that he is the Son of God and that he was resurrected, have trouble with the death part.  We really would rather not deal with that, thank you very much.  We want to pretend that didn’t happen.     But without his death, there can be no resurrection.  Without his death and resurrection, Jesus would simply have been another of those many would-be Messiahs, forgotten by most everyone.   

My sisters and brothers,  let our words and deeds always reflect our faith in Jesus.   Let us be the sort of eye and ear-witnesses whose words of what we have seen and heard can always be believed, planting the seeds that bring new life in Christ to those who hear the Word we share.  Let us stand and sing together, a prayer that God may open our eyes and ears, so that we may always speak his Truth.  

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Where your heart is . . .

Scripture:    John 2:13-22 NRSV

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 

18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


We all seem to have an idea of what some of the Bible stories must have looked like.  Most of us have a image in our minds, for instance, of a skinny 12 year old boy with a slingshot going up against someone the size of the Jolly Green Giant, only neither green or jolly. Whereas David was actually an adult who had spent years facing down and killing ferocious sheep-eating beasts with that slingshot, and Goliath, who was undoubtedly a greatly renowned warrior, was possibly only as much as 7 feet tall.  A giant, like Andre the Giant of WWE fame and the Princess Bride, but not quite a big as some artwork would have us believe.   

Likewise, from the time we first heard today’s story as children, we have had the impression of a whip wielding Indiana Jesus wading through a crowd of evil moneychangers, snapping his bullwhip with one hand and flipping tables full of gold coins high into the air with the other.  Probably not.    

What the Bible says is that Jesus made a whip of cords or rope, and used it to drive all the sheep and cattle out of the Temple Courtyard.  He also poured out the coins on the money changers’ tables and knocked over their tables.  He told the people with caged doves to take them away.  No humans were whipped in the making of this story.    Which is a good thing, because beating people with a bullwhip just doesn’t seem like something Jesus would do.  Neither does cursing a fig tree, but that’s an adventure for another Sunday.

Tables lined the walkway on the way into the sanctuary.  One was covered with nuts for sale, and one with T-shirts, another had candies, while yet another had pretty things that were all handmade by the ladies of the Ruth Circle.  I always felt like I was running a gauntlet, frankly, because they all knew my name, and although they knew that I rarely had any “extra” money, they also knew I was a sucker for any kind of worthy cause.  And please understand this didn’t happen every now and then, like at Christmas time.  This was weekly.  There were always tables set out for fundraisers, every single Sunday of the year.   I asked the pastor one time if it didn’t kind of remind him of the whole money changers and livestock for sale in the temple thing, and he replied, No.  These are not inside the building, in the narthex. These are outside of the church building.  So it’s nothing like what was going on in the Temple.

Later on, when I had learned a bit about Temple worship, I realized that the tables lining the walkway into worship truly weren’t anything like what was going on in the Temple, because I didn’t need any of those things once I got inside.  I didn’t have to pay upwards of a day and a half’s wages to purchase the dove I needed to sacrifice that day.  I didn’t have to change my foreign currency for Temple currency in order to buy the dove, because foreign currency wasn’t acceptable currency for sanctified things.   If I had any self control at all I could get past the salespeople - oops, I mean church volunteers.  But there were cute little artsy crafty thingies, and chocolate . . . And I could convince myself that I was giving to the church when I bought these things.  After all, the money was going for important ministries, like camp scholarships and the local women’s shelter and new carpeting and curtains in Fellowship Hall . . .

Temple worship was also nothing like the worship that God had decreed in his instructions to Moses.  Because Moses was leading a nation of nomads, herdsmen and hunters.  So when they were asked to sacrifice a dove, they hunted one (probably with a slingshot).  When they were asked to sacrifice a sheep or a calf, they simple took one from their own herds, or bartered with a neighbor.  Cash in the form of coins, etc. was neither readily available nor needed.  But the Temple was built in a city.  Urbanites don’t have livestock, so a trade in the sorts of animals required for sacrifice grew up, with the market taking place in the Temple Courtyard.  And, because the Temple insisted that only its own coinage was acceptable, people had to change their Roman coins for Temple coins in order to buy those animals.  Quite the lucrative business had grown up to support Temple worship, and I imagine the Temple got some sort of “rent” from those merchants.  And Jesus knew that it was distracting from actual worship of God.  He knew that the important things were being overlooked in the constant worry about making sure the right rituals were done in the right way, when God had told the people once already that incense and burnt offerings were not what God wanted - that what God requires from us is justice and kindness and humility.  

By his actions Jesus tried to draw attention to the intended purpose of the Temple, a place to worship God and to be restored to wholeness.   For example, after a woman had given birth, she needed to sacrifice a dove and participate in a ritual bath so that she might be pronounced clean by the priests and once again join her family at meals, go to the well and the marketplace.  Likewise, anyone who had been ill of a skin disease (aka leprosy), or had simply touched someone who had been bleeding, or sick from certain illnesses.  The sacrifice and ritual bathing were necessary to restore them to wholeness, to bring them back into communion and communication with the rest of society.  It was about much more than simply buying a dove or a sheep or a calf.  It was about community, and somehow that meaning had gotten lost.

It’s kind of a normal progression, for people to go from simple worship to all out amazing spectacle!  From tent worship to a Temple filled with gold and treasures, from house worship to great cathedrals with spires reaching into heaven and stained glass bringing the Bible to life with incredible beauty, from simple wooden meeting houses to megachurches made of glass and steel, from simple psalms sung by the congregation to performances by massive choirs accompanied by a full orchestra.  And I hope, although I don’t know, that so long as our focus remains on worship - on what worship is really for - we won’t have to worry too much about Indiana Jesus coming through to straighten us out.  

Mind you, I love the beauty of this place.  The stained glass, the wood, the way the sanctuary is decorated for each season, all of those things fill my heart with joy every time I walk into the room.  I love the congregational singing and the musical performances dedicated to God’s glory.  I love the rituals around the lighting of the candles and the Lord’s Table.  It is easy to feel God’s presence in a place that is so obviously dedicated to worship.  Just as it is easy to feel God’s presence on Thursday mornings at the SMART Center, and anytime at Second Chance Animal Shelter, and Wednesdays at Christian Cafe, and Saturdays at Block Parties, and while making valentines for the patients at the Selma Convalescent Hospital.  Hopefully, what you feel here is what sends you there - out into the world to do good for no reason other than because it is right.  And maybe what you feel there is what brings you back here, to worship and give thanks to the God who fills your life with so many good things.  

We are focusing this week on materialism - the belief that possessions and physical comforts are more important than spiritual values and altruism - the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others.  Materialism, for example, might be giving money for a building (like a school or hospital) and putting your name on it, whereas altruism would be naming it for someone who inspired you, or endowing a scholarship in the name of someone who inspired you - with the important part being not the name recognition, but the help that your gift will provide.  Obviously, most of us here won’t be endowing hospitals or university buildings any time soon - unless there are some billionaires here I don’t know about?  And if there are, can we talk later? —  but we can give of what we do have in terms of money and time to care for others without seeking recognition or reward.  Most of you are already pretty involved in helping others, but just in case anyone needs more ways to serve our community . . . instead of staying in front of the TV or computer on Saturday, we might decide to go help clean up neglected areas of our city with the Selma Beatification Committee.  We might do something as simple as putting our change in a jar for some mission we find important, or giving just a little more when the offering plate comes around on Sundays.  There are so many ways to give of ourselves, so many opportunities to do God’s work in the world - and God’s work isn’t restricted to church stuff.  Helping out at the animal shelter is God’s work.  Giving to the Children’s Hospital is God’s work.  Any donation or action that will help someone else is God’s work.  Any time we reach out to help another, we are doing God’s work.  Church, and God’s work, are about community - all the community, not just the folks inside this place, but all of God’s children.  

My brothers and sisters, like the Temple in Jerusalem, this is the place where we come to worship and to be restored to wholeness, so that we might go out from here and do the same for our neighbors.  Let us leave behind our focus on the things of the world, and go forth to share God’s blessings with everyone.    Let us take time this week to pause and wonder about what it might mean if we give selflessly, caring only about the wellbeing of those who need our help.  And let us do these things in Jesus’ name.  

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Hard Truths

Scripture Mark 8:31-38 NRSV 

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

On February 7th the Polish President put his signature on a piece of legislation that outlaws blaming Poland’s government or its citizens for any crimes committed during the Holocaust.   Over 3 million Polish Jews were killed in camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobib√≥r, andTreblinka.  And while it is true that no Polish nationals were employed at any of these camps, the camps were built only after years of Nazis stripping Polish Jews of their rights and property, which the Polish people did know about.  Many were able to move into much nicer homes because the Jewish families who owned them were carried away, into the ghettos at first, then into the camps.  They knew whose homes they were occupying - these had been their neighbors and friends.  And people who lived near the death camps knew something bad was going on, but not exactly what that something was.   Somehow they were able to convince themselves that it didn’t affect them.   And now, 70+ years later, the government would like to deny that any of those things happened - they would like to claim complete victimhood.

With that said - there are nearly 7,000 names of Polish Christians on Israel’s list of the Righteous of the Nations, Holocaust rescuers, the largest number from any nation.  Some estimates put the number of Poles involved in rescue at up to 3 million, and credit them with saving upwards of 450,000 Jews from certain death.   The rescuers knew that the penalty for helping the Jews was death, not just for themselves but for their entire families!, but they persisted.   So, although there was some complicity by Polish citizens, at the same time there was great courage and sacrifice by Polish citizens.  It’s important to recognize and accept both truths - both sides to a situation.  It’s always important to recognize truth - however hard and unpleasant it may be.    
And . . .  As a sort of “the rest of the story” aside . . . yesterday the Polish government announced  they would not open criminal proceedings against those found breaking the new Holocaust law until Poland’s constitutional court reaches a decision on the legislation.  

Some years back I asked a friend how her son was doing.  I’d heard he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had started chemo.  She snapped at me, “Don’t use that word.  Don’t ever use that word.  If he has that, it means he is going to die.”  She also didn’t know that there was any such thing as a cancer survivor, until I told her that I was.  So her choice up to that moment had been to deny the truth of her son’s illness.   

And Peter - classic denial.   “Rabbi, don’t say those things!  If you talk about bad things happening they’ll come true!  You should only talk about good things, happy things.  Don’t let all these people think you’re worried.”   And Jesus,  “Peter, tempting as it may be to think that everything is going to be wonderful, I know better.  And we have to accept the truth, no matter how hard it is.  We cannot deny what we don’t like, and we can’t change the reality that faces us. So stop tempting me to ignore reality.  Stop tempting me to take the easier, softer  way.   I need to go forward along this path, as hard at is may be to travel.”  (All this dialogue, of course, comes from The Gospel according to Maria.)  

It’s easy for me to see Peter’s denial, and Jesus’ call to accept reality, because I have always been pretty good at denial.  I remember decades ago - around 1975 - I called one of those helplines and said I thought I might have a drug problem because I was spending my grocery money on drugs.  They said, “If you’re still worried about food, you don’t have a problem.”  So I immediately started obsessing over always having lots and lots of canned goods, because that would mean I didn’t have a problem.   Maybe 10 years later, I filled out one of those “Are you an alcoholic?” questionnaires, and had no difficulty proving to myself I was perfectly fine.  “Do you ever drink alone?  No. The cat is always home with me.”  See?  No problem.  Eventually, however, I was able to break through the denial and accept that I did, in fact, have a problem.  Then, and only then, I was able to begin to change my life, with lots of help from God and from people God put into my life.  That’s not to say that I’m still not prone to denial when I don’t want to deal with a situation.   It’s just that today I can (eventually) recognize it for what it is, and I can move beyond that to acceptance of reality - no matter how much I don’t like the hard truths I have to face and accept.

Jesus goes on to speak a phrase that, I think, we maybe haven’t paid enough attention to.  If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”    I think most of us only hear the “take up your cross part.”  Many of us hear Jesus urging us to accept whatever bad things come along - pain, sorrow, grief - and carry that with us as our own personal cross.   We talk about the bad things in our lives as being our cross to bear.   I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus meant here.  Cancer, arthritis, chronic pain -  not crosses.  These are medical conditions, and there are treatments.  Addiction.  Poverty.  Oppression.  Not crosses to be borne, but realities we must first accept as reality, then work to change and heal.  

 In denying ourselves we take up our cross and walk with Jesus.   I was once told (not by anyone here) that because I was the pastor, I was expected to make sacrifices for my congregation - sleep less, work more hours, do without family time and days off in order to serve the congregation better.  That’s not actually true.  (And you may be sure that I was really happy when that person decided to leave the congregation I was serving at the time.) I am not the professional Christian who is supposed to do all those things in your place.  What I am supposed to do is model discipleship, and help all of you learn what it means to take up your crosses.  Peter is not the only one who had to face reality and accept the hard truths.  Each of us is called to do that.   

Lent is the perfect time to remember that we are called to walk alongside Jesus, accepting the hard truths that we would much prefer to ignore.  For these forty days we are reminded of all that Jesus did, and all that he called his disciples to do.  We are given examples and directions on how to live and how to follow him on his journey.  We are called to do as he did, to speaking truth to power, healing the sick, comforting those who suffer, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, standing alongside the oppressed.  We will each find different ways to do that, different ways to deny ourselves, different ways to serve as Jesus’ disciples - followers, students.  Some of us do these things through our work - social workers, teachers, police, public servants of all kinds whose focus is on helping others.  Some of us write publicly, or make financial donations to agencies that help the particular causes that are most important to us, or even join demonstrations.  All of us are expected to do our best to become educated on the needs of the people around us, the people in our community that need our help.  We carry our devotion to the work of the Church- to loving our neighbor - as a cross along the way - heavy yet at the same time liberating.

In Feasting on the Word, Paul C. Shupe notes that our churches all have crosses in them - big ones, small ones, stained glass ones, wooden and stone ones, even flower covered ones - but all of those crosses represent the cross of Jesus.  He suggests it would be a good idea if every church had a multitude of crosses, so that as we leave here on Sunday morning we can pick up our own cross and take it out into the world with us, to our homes and jobs and the grocery store, to where ever we happen to go between now and next Sunday.  

And, you know, we can do that.  We have all these little pieces of burlap with crosses on them.  We gave them to the folks who came on Ash Wednesday, but we can give them out again today.  So when you leave today, take one of these from the basket in the narthex.  Keep it with you - in your pocket or your wallet - so that you will remember that you, too, are walking with Jesus.  You, too, are called to be his disciple.   You, too, are called to be His.

So let us stand and sing, accepting our cross and giving ourselves to Jesus, saying to him, “I’m Yours.”