Sunday, May 29, 2016

Don't Panic

 Galatians 1:1-12 (CEB)
1 From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead; 2 and from all the brothers and sisters with me.

To the churches in Galatia.

3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 He gave himself for our sins, so he could deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. 5 To God be the glory forever and always! Amen.

6 I’m amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow another gospel. 7 It’s not really another gospel, but certain people are confusing you and they want to change the gospel of Christ. 8 However, even if we ourselves or a heavenly angel should ever preach anything different from what we preached to you, they should be under a curse. 9 I’m repeating what we’ve said before: if anyone preaches something different from what you received, they should be under a curse!

10 Am I trying to win over human beings or God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be Christ’s slave. 11 Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the gospel I preached isn’t human in origin. 12 I didn’t receive it or learn it from a human. It came through a revelation from Jesus Christ.


Have you ever met someone who can be depended upon to agree with the last person they spoke with?  Is that not totally crazy making?  That sort of thing happened to Paul all the time.  He’d go establish a church, hang around for a while to get it going well, make sure they understood who Jesus was and then he’d wander off to the next mission field.   And then someone else would show up, some preacher who didn’t preach the Good News the way Paul understood it, and the congregation would be, all like, “Ooohhh.  So that’s what it means.”  Someone would write to Paul with this fresh insight they’d received and he’d fire back a letter saying, “No!  I can’t believe you are already turning to some other person’s ideas, instead of sticking with the pure Gospel I preached, that I got from Jesus himself!”

To be entirely fair to the people, it’s not like they had anything in writing.  Even the Hebrew Bible as we know it today wasn’t fully defined and agreed upon until 3 or 4 hundred years later - at about the same time as the New Testament, in fact.   And no one was writing down the gospels for distribution yet.  They had to depend on what they heard, and if they didn’t fully understand it when they first heard it, and if they didn’t get a chance to get all the explanations they might need, then when they had questions they had write a letter with all their questions, then wait for a letter to get to where ever he was and back again.  It could take months!   And, since a great many of the people he was preaching to were not Jews to begin with, they had to somehow get a full understanding of the history of the Jewish people and the words of the prophets if they were going to completely understand the context in which Jesus lived and did his ministry, the context that Paul was preaching from.   Paul, you see, was educated in the Law and the history of the people of Israel and the words of Prophets with what I suppose might be the equivalent of a seminary degree, and for those of us with seminary degrees sometimes it’s hard to remember that not everyone we are preaching to understands even the words we are using.     I mean, yes, we are aware that the more specialized terms that we toss around so lightly in seminary are not exactly terms one might encounter in general conversation.  I mean, probably very few of you sit over coffee talking about the hermeneutic of a particular pericope in the deuterocanonical writings  from the a post-millennial apocalyptic viewpoint.  In fact, it’s not  uncommon for a preacher’s first sermon outside of preaching class to include a list of words she promises never again to use in a sermon.   But still, we have been steeped in a  heady broth of historical and cultural studies alongside our biblical studies so that we might more fully understand and appreciate the context in which the words we are preaching from were written.  You all mostly don’t have that advantage, and sometimes we forget that.  Paul might not have forgotten that, exactly, but it may have sometimes escaped him that what he spent a lifetime learning isn’t going to necessarily take root perfectly in new students in a year or so.  So when they grasped at teachings that helped them better understand what Paul had preached, teachings that came from within their own cultural and historical context, they would get excited, and not realize that sometimes this new understanding was the opposite of what Paul originally meant.    

So here they are, having welcomed with open arms this new preacher who helped them understand Jesus, and Paul is pitching fits!   He points out to them, not once, but several times, that the Word he is preaching comes not from having heard other people proclaim the Good News, but from the lips of Jesus himself. And he goes on to tell them that he no longer cares about pleasing people, but only in serving Christ.  He says, those other people are trying to change the Good News!  

Now, we don’t know exactly who the others Paul talks about were or what they were preaching, but we do know that right from the beginning different factions within the body of believers held different understandings of what the Good News actually was.  All of them - all the disciples and apostles, the newest Christians as well as those who had walked away from their fishing boats to follow Jesus,  were in totally new territory and doing new things can be really scary.  

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, alien hitchhiker Ford Prefect sort of kidnaps Englishman Arthur Dent, taking him on a wild adventure through a five book trilogy.   It’s a good thing that Arthur was kidnapped, actually, as the Earth was destroyed to make way for a Galactic Superhighway, but the poor man was suddenly and without any warning totally immersed in something so new and different that he had no context for understanding it.  Although I would think that anyone who understands the rules of cricket can probably figure out just about anything, still, when dropped into something so completely outside all of his prior experience and education, his first reaction was to panic.  Naturally.  Luckily for Arthur Dent, he had access to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a constantly updating ebook, to help him navigate this new reality.  On the cover of the book, in large letters, are the words, “Don’t Panic.”    When he first saw the book he said, “I like the cover.  Don’t Panic.  It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.”  

It was kind of like that for all the new believers.  They have been told the story of a man who died a horrible death, a death reserved for the worst kind of criminals, who was not simply a man but the Son of a God many of them had never heard of before.  They were told stories about wonders this Jesus performed; healings and feedings and raising people from the dead. They were told that he taught his followers to love each other and to love everyone else as well, and that what they needed to do was repent of all their old ways and become totally new people by being baptized in the name of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, and then, that they needed to devote themselves to serving Christ by serving their neighbors.  They were told that Jesus had risen into heaven, and that soon and very soon he would return, bringing about the end of the evil world, and embracing all those who had embraced him.  As long as Paul was there to guide them through, they were ok.  But then he left, and they are left with lots of questions.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the Elders of the church were trying to figure out many things.  Do Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be baptized?  Do Christians who were Gentiles need to follow all the Law, or is it enough that they just follow those two commandments that Jesus left for them - “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself”?  What exactly does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God?  As evangelists listened to this one and that one, they would hear different understandings of the Good News, and they would preach what they had heard.  And people in Roman provinces like Galatia, an area that is what we know as northern Turkey, would hear all of these different interpretations and understandings of the Good News, and they would sort of panic a little. They’re doing this new thing, and then someone comes and tells them new things about the new thing.  They are confused, naturally.  They really could have used a handy book that said “Don’t Panic” on the front cover, and had constantly updating answers to all of their questions.  

Unfortunately, they didn’t.  Nor do we.  I was with a group of preachers the other week, talking about whether or not we use the pulpit.  Some of us are more comfortable carrying on this conversation between us and God from the floor where everyone else is.  Some prefer a pulpit.  One of the preachers said that when he is speaking God’s word he stands in the pulpit, but when he’s just giving his opinion, he will move a little away from it.  I was impressed.  I’d love to know which words are the ones God wants me to say and which are simply my opinion.  I just have to pray for guidance and hope for the best.  

Paul, however, knew for sure what God had said to him.  He was the one struck down on the road to Damascus and blinded for his willful blindness.  He was the one to whom Jesus said, “Why are you persecuting me?  Get up and go into the city, where you will be told what to do.”  And after that, after his blindness was healed, he preached the Good News. He understood with great certainty what Jesus wanted him to say. He was never confused, never panicked.  There would come a time, later, when he and the other apostles began to think perhaps Jesus wasn’t going to return quite as soon as they had hoped.  But just now, in this letter to the churches in Galatia, he was quite certain of what the Good News is, and what the people needed to understand.   Because he had received it as a revelation directly from Jesus.

We are somewhat less fortunate.  We have to rely on this book, which doesn’t have a Don’t Panic button on the front cover.  And we have to try to understand it first as a book written thousands of years ago with direct relevance to the people of that time, but also, as a book filled with wisdom equally applicable to our own time.  We have to read, and study, and pray, so that our understanding of what is written here is not simply a surface understanding, not simply a repetition of whatever the last person we heard talk about it said, but a deeper understanding of the intention each writer had in putting stylus to clay, or pen to scroll.

The story we receive from the Bible is one, full, coherent story. It is the story of God’s relationship with God’s creation and especially with humanity, from the beginning of time.  It is the story of what God’s desires for us; to be reconciled with God and with each other, and to treat one another with compassion and mercy.  It is the story that gives us instructions on how we are to love God and each other, how we are to reach out to those who need us, how we are to put aside the ways the world would have us follow and instead, do as Jesus the Christ actually did.  And, because the words “Do not be afraid” appear in these pages 365 times, I think that it does in fact tell us, “Don’t Panic.”  

Don’t Panic - Do Not Be Afraid - for the Lord our God is with us, now and forever. Do Not Be Afraid - Don’t Panic - for what we need to understand will be given to us, to each of us, so that when we meet another and that other needs to know this story, we will have the words to tell them, of Jesus and his love.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Wait. What?

Psalm 8 (CEB) 

8 Lord, our Lord, how majestic
    is your name throughout the earth!
    You made your glory higher than heaven!
2 From the mouths of nursing babies
    you have laid a strong foundation
    because of your foes,
    in order to stop vengeful enemies.
3 When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
4         what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?
5 You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
    crowning them with glory and grandeur.
6 You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
    putting everything under their feet—
7         all sheep and all cattle,
        the wild animals too,
8         the birds in the sky,
        the fish of the ocean,
        everything that travels the pathways of the sea.
9 Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!


Every week I get to choose between four or more passages of scripture to preach from.  Some weeks it’s easy to choose one.  Some weeks I really hate all of them.  And some weeks they are all so good I am at a loss for which to choose.  This week I chose two.  The psalm which has already been read and sung.  And this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. 

Romans 5:1-5 Common English Bible (CEB)
5 Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Psalm 8 speaks to my soul, always.  When I start reading it I usually sing along, using Michael W Smith’s tune.  How could I not preach on the majesty of God, and the pride of place God has given humans at the top of the food chain, the great responsibility God has given us for the care of the earth?  Then I read Romans, however, and I got to the part that says “we take pride in our problems” I immediately stopped and said “Say what?”   And I knew that this would preach.  But which to choose? 
Sometimes I just have to use both.   
And sometimes I have to wonder why there seems to be contradiction, not just between passages but even within them.

Notice in Psalm 8 that the Psalmist makes it clear that in the grand scheme of things humans are nothing, really, but God has placed them just below divinity, has given them the responsibility for all of the earth and all of the creatures of the earth.  Why put the least of your beings in charge?  Why elevate the most fallible, mistake prone, least predictable creatures of all to a position of near divinity? After all, you can pretty much predict what wolves and cats and elephants and mice are going to do in any given situation.  But you never know what a human is going to decide is a good idea.  So, what was God thinking?

And in Romans, Paul says that, as followers of Jesus, we take pride in our problems . . . Wait.  What?  He says we have peace, faith, grace, and hope.  And then we’re supposed to brag about our problems?  What?  Go around singing “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.  Nobody knows but Jesus.”  or “It takes a troubled man to sing a troubled song.”   Is that what this says?

And just to complicate matters further, today is celebrated throughout the Church as Trinity Sunday, one of the trickiest pieces of theology ever devised.  Christians believe in a triune God; God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Christians believe that somehow, Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.  All this week preachers everywhere have been struggling and wrestling with that concept and trying to work out how to present it to congregations in a form that can be understood.  While in seminary I served for a year as Student Chaplain at a retirement community in Indianapolis. One day a member of the housekeeping staff asked me to join her for her coffee break, as she had a very important question to ask me.  Preening myself a bit, I went to meet her, expecting to be asked about some life issue that was troubling her.  When she asked her question, however, I was totally not prepared.  She wanted me to explain the Holy Trinity to her - on her coffee break.  Theologians have been wrestling with and arguing over that question for roughly 1600 years, ever since the concept was accepted as Church Doctrine.  There was no way I was going to be able to explain it in 10 minutes - or in a 20 minute sermon, for that matter.    A suggestion was made on Facebook that, in order to avoid preaching heresy today, preachers simply give up on trying to explain the Trinity and show pictures of kittens instead.  Since every explanation of the Trinity proposed in the last 1,600 years is considered heresy by one group of Christians or another, that meme makes pretty good sense.  I won’t go so far as to show pictures of kittens, but I will note that some things are meant to be a mystery and the Trinity is one of those things.  

Back to the Psalm and Romans.   What I did in the first bit was look at the one line in each of these readings that seems not to fit, that seems to make a point contrary to what we think we know.  I lifted those lines out of context, highlighted them, and made them my focus.  It’s a natural tendency in humans. An instinct, really.  We notice the thing that doesn’t belong and investigate it.  In our daily life it helps us spot dangerous situations - a car driving the wrong way on the freeway, or an open door that you know you locked when you left.  That instinct also helps us find the things we need to find - the gas station sign sticking up in the distance, the chewing sound coming from under the bed when the puppy is out of sight.  

The practice of lifting words out of context can be a serious problem, as I’m sure all of you know.  There’s the story of the man who, faced with a difficult decision, decided to use the time honored tradition of following the direction he found in the Bible.  So he closed his eyes, opened the Bible to a random page, pointed to a line on that page and, opening his eyes, read the words he found there in Matthew, chapter 27, verse 5.  “and he went and hanged himself.”   He decided to try again.  This time his finger landed on Luke, chapter 10, verse 37.  “Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.”     There are other dangers to this practice, but I think we will save that conversation for another day.  

Lifting lines out of context can also be a good thing, however.  There is a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina - Divine Reading - that uses our natural instinct to notice things that don’t fit and use it to improve our contact with the Divine, to help deepen our understanding of Scripture, and also to help us better understand ourselves in our relationship with God.

As I read through the psalm that phrase, “What are humans that you pay attention to them?” spoke to me.  The psalmist says, When I compare humanity to the stars and planets and all that you have done, what are we, really?  What are humans that you pay attention to them?  Nothing much.  But you, the Lord our God, have placed us above all the other living creatures on the earth.   You are truly worthy of all our praise!   

And because that one line sticks out to me, I say to myself, “Who am I that you should care, that you should love me, that you should give me the great gift of being your servant, caring for your people here in this place?  I know what I have done and been.  I was told all my life that I was not smart enough, not good enough, not worthy of good things.  But you, God, you see me differently.  You see the good in me.  You see my gifts and talents, and you help me to see them, too.  You make me see the blessings that surround me”.   Taking notice of that one line that doesn’t seem to fit, pulling it out of context to examine in this way helps me see more clearly what the psalmist was saying about the relationship between God and humanity.  But even more importantly, it helps me see myself differently. It helps me to understand that even though I am just one person and a not terribly important person in the grand scheme of things, still, in God’s eyes, I am someone. I am worthy. I am loved.  

When I turn to Romans, I find much the same thing.  The line begins by saying, “We take pride in our problems,” but continues on to say, “we know that trouble produces endurance,  endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”   It really isn’t suggesting that we go out and brag out the troubles we are having in our lives, to make ourselves martyrs, as it were.  It even isn’t suggesting that these are tests sent by God we must endure, or attacks by the devil that we must repel, although I know quite a few people who read it in one of those three ways. But when I read that line on its own, “We take pride in our problems” and consider it as it relates to my own life, I realize that I can, in fact, take pride in knowing that today, with God’s help, I can face problems and walk through them. I no longer want to run away from my troubles, or drown them in a bottle of scotch, or find someone else to deal with them for me. although that was the way I lived for many years.  I know that today I can get through whatever trouble faces me, with God’s help.   And yes, it is true that facing troubles helps to develop character - it helps develop patience and tolerance, strength and endurance, hope for the future.  Dealing with life’s difficulties instead of running from them is like physical exercise.  If I give up as soon as it gets a little difficult there will be no results, no improvement in my health and well being, no hope that anything will ever change.   And knowing this, I give thanks and praise to the Lord, my God, with gratitude even for the troubles I experience, because they help me grow in faith and understanding, they help me become a better person, the person that God wants me to be.  

The practice of Lectio Divina is a simple way of reading scripture prayerfully that takes no real training, just a willingness to allow the Word of God to speak to us in a different way, a more personal way, than we might have experienced before.   I’d be happy to spend time with anyone who might want to learn more about this way of prayerful reading.  

Obviously, there is much more to be found in both of these passages than just the few lines I pulled out to consider this morning.  But the essence in both is this: In all things, in all situations, in good times and bad, we praise our God, who is worthy of all glory and honor and praise.  We give thanks to God for blessings and troubles. In our celebrations, we praise God with humility and gratitude for the gifts we have received.  In times of trials, we approach God with hope for the future, and with confidence that the strength we need to continue will be provided.  The Message Version says, “We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles”    

So, let’s do that. No matter what is going on in our lives, let’s shout of God’s love from the mountaintops.  Let’s speak it to all we meet.  Going out from this place, let’s glorify and magnify the Lord our God, every where we go, in every situation, in everything we do.  In the name of his Son, the Risen Christ.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Babel Fish

Genesis 11:1-9 (NRSV)

11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east,[a] they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.


I love Pentecost.  Of all the church’s holy days, this one is my favorite.  Mind you, Easter is amazing.  We celebrate the risen Christ and our liberation from bondage.  Christmas is filled with music and food - how can I not love Christmas?  But Pentecost is the birthday of the church. It’s the day when the Holy Spirit came to be with and in the disciples.  All of the disciples.  Not just the twelve, but every one of the Christ Followers who were gathered in one place in Jerusalem on that Holy Day.  Men and women.  All of them.

You all know the story, I think.  After Jesus’s resurrection he spent 40 days with his disciples, teaching them everything they would need to know to carry the Good News to the ends of the earth.  Then he ascended - rising up from the earth to disappear into the clouds - and just before that happened he told them to go to Jerusalem and wait, for the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would come to them and give them everything else they needed.  So they did what they were told, for a change, and on Pentecost day, when they were all gathered in one place, there came the sound of a great wind, and what looked to be tongues of flame appeared on each one’s head, and they began to speak.  Now Jerusalem was filled to overflowing with Jewish pilgrims from around the world - from every country where Jews had escaped to during the times of conquest and exile - from Ethiopia and Rome and Greece and places no one had ever heard of.   All of those pilgrims spoke different languages but somehow, each one heard the disciples speaking in their own language.  Each one of them understood what was being said.  And 5,000 of those people listening to the disciples on that day were baptized!   I don’t know a single preacher who doesn’t, now and then, pray for that kind of eloquence, that kind of fire and passion.    On that day in Jerusalem, it was as if the events that had happened on the plain of Shinar had never happened.  Once again all the world had one language and the same words.  God had taken away the ability for everyone to understand every other one when they tried to use it against Him.  And now God had given it back through the Holy Spirit. 

I imagine everyone here had to take some sort of language class in school. I started taking French in 6th grade, continued to take it through my junior year of high school, then took 2 more semesters in college.  Can I speak French?  No.   Likewise, during the 12+ years I lived in Southern California I tried several times and a number of different ways to get at least a smattering of Spanish.  I took Spanish for Ministers, and got a couple of different computer programs of the listen and repeat variety.   Mind you, I pronounce the few words I can keep in my mind very well, but I usually can’t even remember how to say Good Morning in Spanish.  Unless, of course, it is afternoon, at which time I can remember Good Morning but not Good Afternoon.   I can understand a lot of what I hear if people speak slowly, but I can not make the words come out of my mouth.  

So when I read about the Babel Fish in Douglass Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” I recognized that this was exactly what I needed!  You see, Ford Prefect was a Galactic Hitchhiker, wandering from planet to planet just for the experience. Sort of the way people used to hitchhike across Europe in the 1960s.  Obviously, someone who comes from a galaxy far, far away might not understand English, so he kept a Babel Fish in his ear.  A Babel Fish is a tiny yellow fish that feeds on brainwave frequencies in such a way that it instantly decodes all language so that you can understand everything being said to you, regardless of the language.   Awesome!   On that day in Jerusalem, it was as if every person present had a Babel Fish in her ear.  Everyone understood every word being said.  And it was, indeed, awesome.

Once, the people of the world all had one language and the same words. They all understood one another easily.  And they chose to use that ability to gain power - to build a great city and a sky scraping tower, to dominate the world and to make a name for themselves.  And because they were misusing the ability God had given them, God took away that ability.   Then on Pentecost, that ability was returned, if only for a brief time.  The Holy Spirit acted as sort of a cosmic Babel Fish, allowing everyone present that day to hear the words of the disciples in their own languages.  And what they were given to understand was the Great Good News of God’s love, of God’s desire to be reconciled with the people of the world.  What they heard was the language of love - true love, the love that God’s people have for God and for one another.

There is another language that is all too readily understood in the world today.  You have heard it. You can’t help but have heard it.  It is the language of hate.  It seems inescapable. It seems to be getting louder every day.   People, politicians mostly, but also ministers, are loudly proclaiming that we need to protect ourselves from “the other.”  That we need to build a wall - like the one that used to divide Berlin, or the one that keeps the Palestinian people from being able to go to school or shopping or to work on their own farms.  We hear people talking about Mexicans as if they are all rapists and other sorts of criminals.  We hear people talking about Muslims as if they are all terrorists, who, if already present in the U.S. need to be registered as if they were sex offenders, and kept out if they want to come here.  We hear people talking about women as if they are all weak and manipulative and not very bright, unable to make decisions about their own bodies and futures so men need to give them good direction.  We hear people talking about African Americans as if they are all lazy, drug addicted and violent.  We hear people claiming that all gay men are pedophiles, as are all transgender women, so our bathrooms must be policed to make sure no one who wasn’t born female can use the ladies room.  

I need you all to understand that none of these things are true.  Some of these things may be true about a few individuals in some of the various groups being denigrated, but none of them are true for everyone being spoken of this way.

There is not just one person saying all these things, although there is one who seems to be closely identified with much of the above, who seems to be inciting his followers to ever greater levels of hate.  But this isn’t so much about him as it is about the seemingly meteoric rise of the language of hate.  He didn’t invent any of these things . . . he only repeated out loud things that people were whispering, fearful people, hate filled people.  The incidence of hate crimes is rising.  The level of hate speech is getting deafening.  And the language that everyone could understand on that Pentecost Day is being drowned out.

Understand this:  “Every time we use religion to draw a line to keep people out, Jesus is with the people on the other side of that line.”   (Hugh Hollowell)  Unfortunately, much of the hate speech we are hearing these days comes out of the mouths of ministers and persons who identify as Christians.  I have to stand against this hate speech.  Any hate speech.  From any person, any organization.  From ministers, politicians, or private individuals.   Hate is not a Christian value.  It is not an American value.  It is not a value, period.  It cannot be allowed to rule our hearts and our nation.

The theme this year for the Pentecost special offering and for our own reception time after worship today is Second Wind.  Second wind, that opportunity and ability to continue just when you think you can’t possibly go on.  It fits, I think.  On that Pentecost Day in Jerusalem, God gave humanity a second chance to get the message right.  God gave us another chance to speak one language, to use the same words so that each of us could understand the other.  It’s not a world language - not Roman or Greek or English or French, not Chinese or Japanese or Arabic, not German or Tagalog or Korean or Spanish. Not even Esperanto.  The one language God would have us all speak and understand is the language of love.  The language of forgiveness.   The language of peace.  The language that ends oppression.   The language Jesus came to teach us.  The language Jesus used when he asked the lame man at the Temple if he wanted to be healed.  The language Jesus used when he told the centurion his faith had enabled his servant to be healed.  The language the disciples used when they told the pilgrims in Jerusalem about God’s forgiveness, and God’s love for not just them, but for all peoples throughout the entire world. 

We have received, this morning, a symbol of peace and solidarity that comes from Palestine.  I know many of us have seen the stories that make it sound like all Palestinians are Muslim terrorists and suicide bombers whose main goal in life to kill Israelis.  We may have heard that the wall is in place simply to protect the people of Israel from them.  It’s not true - the vast majority of Palestinians just want to go to school and work in peace.  Many are Christian. Some are even Jewish.  What we hear about them and what the reality is are very, very different.   

It is the same with all of the hate speech we hear.  I would hope none of us repeat any hateful things being said about our brothers and sisters on this planet without first finding out what is true.  I would hope that we would, at least, try to learn more about people who may be different from us.   I would hope that each of us would be willing to speak up on the side of love when we hear words of anger and hatred spoken.  

On Pentecost the disciples gathered in one place.  And the sound as a great wind came, and what seemed to be tongues of fire appeared above their heads.  And they began to speak, so that everyone present heard them speaking, each in their own language.  And they spoke of God’s love so convincingly that 5,000 came forward and were baptized.  They spoke of God’s love so convincingly that 5,000 came forward to have the hate and greed and lust of power and anger and fear washed from them in the waters of repentance.  They spoke of God’s love, of God’s forgiveness, of Jesus’ commandment to love one another so convincingly that the language of love prevailed, at least for a short time.

May we be given that gift, to speak so convincingly of God’s love, and of the healing of our hearts, our souls, our nation, that is possible only when we love one another, that others hear and understand as well as if they had a Babel Fish in their ears. May we each be so open to the Holy Spirit that our words of love, compassion and healing touch the hearts of every person with whom we interact, so that they may become willing to leave behind their hatred, fear and anger, embracing love, so that this one language may again be heard and understood by all.  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Invitation

Acts 16:9-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 

9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

One of the challenges of preaching to a congregation every week is trying to figure out just how much of what the scripture reading says has to be explained.  You see, when I say things like, “You will know from your reading of Scripture that such and such whatever .  . .” I am usually speaking a teeny bit tongue in cheek.  I realize that you all are not Bible experts.    I know that some of you majored or minored in Religion, many of you at my own alma mater, Chapman University.  Some of you have read the Bible from beginning to end multiple times - maybe even including the Apocrypha.  Some of you have read most of it - although you may have skipped a lot of those boring laws and the “begats."  Some of you have only read the New Testament because someone once told you that the Old Testament is irrelevant to Christians.  (That’s not true, by the way.)  Lots of you have attended some kind  of Bible study class at some point in your lives.  And I am pretty sure that some of you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.   That’s ok.  Because that’s the challenge that makes preaching so much fun.

If you don’t read the Bible every day - if in fact the only Bible reading you do is on Sunday morning while the presider is reading the Scripture I’m preaching from - please don’t feel guilty.  In one of my seminary classes the professor said, “How many of you read the Bible every day?”  Every hand was confidently lifted into the air.  Then he said, “How many of you read something that you are not preaching on that week.”  Let me just say that the confidence level in the room dropped considerably - as did the number of hands in the air.  The only reason my hand stayed up is because that particular semester I was reading a psalm every morning for another class.  

And even if you do read the Bible every day, if you don’t also study the history and culture of the time being written about you will miss some of the context.  Lydia, it says, sold purple cloth.  Ok, so she sold cloth.  No.  She sold purple cloth, which could only be worn by royalty.  She sold cloth that was dyed with the most rare and expensive dye there was.  She was most likely the only person in Philippi who dealt in purple cloth, the only one who had access to the particular shellfish from which that dye was extracted.  Lydia was not a typical wife and mother.  Rather, she was the head of her household, because Luke says “When Lydia and her household were baptized . . .”   There is no mention whatsoever of a husband.  Maybe she inherited the business from her husband or even from her father.  But however it came about, Lydia was a wealthy and therefore relatively powerful woman.  And this wealthy woman invited Paul and whomever else was traveling with him to stay at her home.

Another reason we know Lydia was important, not just in her community, but also in the life of the church, is because she is named.  Most of the women in the Bible are not named, not even some of the important ones - like, Samson’s mother.  Most are simply wife of, mother of, daughter of.  Their entire identity had everything to do with the men to whom they belonged or the sons they bore.  Their worth and value had nothing to do with their own particular gifts and talents, but rather in their ability to have children and carry on their husband’s name.  Childlessness was the number one cause of a woman being put aside, either sent back to her father in disgrace or ignored and tormented within the household.  Sarah, Rachel and Hannah are three of the best known examples - all three were teased and tormented by the other women of the household, and even by their own slaves in some cases, because the slave produced a child for the man of the house but the wife couldn’t.   God intervened and gave these women sons, sons who were vitally important to the story of God’s relationship with Israel.  And so their names are known.  For most of the many women who never had children, however, that disgrace would continue to fill their daily lives.  When they were widowed, if indeed, they had been allowed to remain in their husband’s home, there would have been no son to care for them, and they would be out in the streets, literally.  

Several thousand years later, It’s still hard for childless women.  Days like today, Mother’s Day, make our childless state even more difficult.  There are many reasons today for not having children - we might never have married, we might not be physically able to carry a child, we might have deliberately chosen not to have children.  Whatever the reason, a common response when we admit that we have no children is sympathy.  It is, after all, what is expected of women.  My first husband used to beat me once a month when it became apparent that, once again, I was not pregnant.  As if that would help.  Childless women sometimes wonder, “Who is going to take care of me when I’m old?”  Some things haven’t changed much down through the centuries.

Mother’s Day is a rough day for a lot of people. It’s particularly difficult for families who have lost their mother, who may be living through their first Mother’s Day without her this year.   After decades of gathering around to celebrate her on the 2nd Sunday of May, suddenly the day is bereft of its reason, and grief replaces the celebration.  For others, listening to the celebration of motherhood when their own experience of being mothered is not pleasant, who live with physical and/or emotional scars from their own mother, or who never knew their birth mother, Mother’s Day is a good day to stay home.   I sometimes wonder why we continue. . . and then I look at the faces of families gathering together on this day to celebrate and I understand. 

Lydia was well known in her community, and in the church as it grew up in Philippi.  And the church growing up in Philippi was a direct result of the invitation she extended to Paul and his companion.  “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”   Her home quickly became the center for Paul’s work.  Believers came there to listen to the Good News and share meals.  It’s where they gathered when ever there was important news or something going on that concerned them all.  It became the first of the house churches in Philippi - the place Paul and Silas returned to after they were released from prison later on in the story, and the place where Paul most likely sent his letters later in his travels.  The church in Philippi grew up because Lydia said, “If you find me faithful to God, come stay at my home.”   

In case you were wondering where this is going, it’s all about the invitation.  At the time of this story it was common for Jewish people to gather for prayer someplace outside of whatever city they lived in if there was no synagogue there.  Often they would find a place near a river or some other water source so they could wash themselves - hands and feet - before settling in to pray.  In many cities they were able to have a particular spot designated for their use by the leaders of the city.   Visitors to the city would know this, as it was a quite common practice, and would seek out the place where Sabbath prayer was held, as Paul and the others did.  Because Jews stand to pray, when Paul sat among the people there, it was an indication that he was prepared to preach. And so he told those present the Good News of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  He spoke of God’s great love for humanity and God’s forgiveness, and God’s desire for all people to be reconciled to Him . . . and those present wanted to hear more.  Lydia was so greatly moved that she was immediately baptized, and her entire household with her.   Now, chances are excellent that Lydia was not, in fact, Jewish, but a Gentile believer like Cornelius, because Jews had been expelled from Rome and from Roman military outposts by this time but Gentile believers would have remained in place.  So when she extended her offer to Paul, knowing that Jews generally did not enter the homes of Gentiles, she wasn’t entirely confident that he would accept it.   As we know, he did accept her offer, and as a result the Good News spread out from Lydia’s home all through the city. 

We go out into the world all the time.  Some of us even tell people about our congregation and invite them to come visit with us.  In a couple of weeks some of us will be staffing a table at a Block Party put on by Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life.  We’ll have brochures and invitation cards to hand out, maybe even refrigerator magnets so people will remember us.  I was telling someone from one of the congregations that’s been part of the Block Parties before how excited I am to have a table for the first time, and she said, “How will you get people to stop at your table?”   I still haven’t figured that out.  I really don’t think Chalice shaped lollipops is the answer, even if there was such a thing, but hopefully some of the creative folks around here will have better ideas.  Preferably ideas that are inexpensive. I’m not sure how big our evangelism budget is . . .  What I do know is we will tell people who we are, and what we do, and we will extend an invitation to them.  We will say to the people who visit our table, if you find us faithful to the Lord, please come stay with us.

But the real question is, how will we show others that we are faithful to the Lord, so that they will accept our invitation?  How do we do that in our daily lives?   When people think of First Christian Church, what do they think?  Do they know anything about us beyond where we are located?  And most people in town do know where we are located, ‘cause that big, red, neon cross on top of the building does sort of stand out at night.  

In Biblical times, hospitality was of the utmost importance.  It was expected that visitors would be given a place to sleep, and something to eat, and water to wash with, whether the family hosting them was rich or poor.  The hosts might have to give up their own dinner or their own beds. It didn’t matter, only that every guest who came was treated with equal honor.   Here at First Christian Church we try to live that way.  We say that every one is equally honored here, and we try very hard to be faithful to that statement, so that everyone’s ideas and gifts and talents are celebrated and put to use the best way we can.  

When we go out from this place, let us behave always in such a way that anyone who knows we come from First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Selma will know we practice what we preach.  Let us live faithfully, so that people will be glad to accept our invitation.  And let us be sure to extend that invitation - not just to come worship with us, but to join us in living in such a way that Christ himself would feel welcome among us. . . to join us in working to heal our community, our world . . . to join us in bringing this fragmented world back to a place of wholeness, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Family

John 17:20-26  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)  

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[a] so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”


I have a confession to make.  I swapped lectionary readings.  I know. It’s terrible.  I’m supposed to read them in the order the Lectionary Committee put them.  But it just seemed to me like they were in the wrong order this year  . . . today is the beginning of Christian Family week, and this passage seems to me to be about Christian Family, while next week’s reading from Acts seems like a very Mother’s Day kind of event.

I promise, when they come back around three years from now I won’t mess with the order. . . probably.  :-)

According to John, Jesus prayed to God that his disciples, his followers, might all be made one. He made that request three times in one short passage.  Let them be made one, so that the whole world will know that you love them as you love me and as I love them.  Three times he repeated that same phrase - Let them be made one.

Throughout scripture there are a few common themes that run from the very beginning of time up through the teachings of the Apostles after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.   One of them is teach your children about God.   Another is treat everyone equally - treat your household well, but also treat everyone else well, especially those who have no one to take care of them.  It goes along with “love one another.”  God keeps trying to tell us that what we are supposed to do is love each other the way God loves us - without difference or distinction, without favorites.  So Jesus, whose message is simply a restatement and reiteration of what we find written in the Law and the Prophets, tries to pass along that teaching to his disciples, and thus down the line to us.  

Let these all be made one.  You may remember from your reading of Scripture that the disciples had been known to squabble a bit over rank and precedence.  Who will sit next to you, Lord?  Can it be me?  The Gospel according to John even goes so far as to speak of one disciple in particular whom Jesus loved more than the others.  Most scholars agree that he is talking about himself, although a few radicals seem to think he may have been talking about Mary Magdalene.   But I digress into scholarly discourse, which, while fun, doesn’t really have a lot to do with my point, which is  . . . . Jesus tried to instill in his disciples, in anyone who would listen to him, that all are equal in God’s eyes, that what they are truly required to do is love God and love one another.  He tried to teach them all that the fisherman is equal to the Pharisee is equal to the leper is equal to the Levite is equal to the prostitute is equal to the priest is equal to the robber is equal to the rabbi. . .  and so on through the alphabet.   This was such a radical idea for the time that no one really got it.  

Paul also tried to make this point, more than once.   In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  When he wrote to the Church in Colossi, he changed it up a bit, saying, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people.”  He spent a good portion of his time trying to convince the churches he founded that Jews and Gentiles were all the same in God’s eyes, and even more time trying to remind them that the rich and the poor were also the same.  Don’t give the rich the favored seats while leaving the poor to stand in the back.  Don’t let the rich stuff themselves when you gather while the poor go hungry.  Either share everything equally or no one eat.   but over and over Paul kept saying that in Christ we are all equal, all one, all the same.   All means All. . .   He even has to break up arguments over which of the spiritual gifts are more important. I mean, really.   He had to tell the folks in Corinth, “You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. . . All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All don’t perform miracles, do they? 30 All don’t have gifts of healing, do they? All don’t speak in different tongues, do they? All don’t interpret, do they?

In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that everyone shared everything - all the food and all the property and everything they had.  Of course, we have a hard time believing that because a minute later Ananias and Sapphire are struck dead for withholding some of the proceeds of a land sale, and shortly after that there is a disagreement over whether the Hebrew widows and the Greek widows are receiving equal treatment in the distribution of food.  All of which just goes to prove that people are the same now as they were then . . .   We are really not good at being equal.   

And yet - we are family.   We are the human family.  We are the Christian family.  We don’t get to wonder whether someone is a better Christian than we are, or whether they even are Christian because some of their beliefs and practices differ from ours.  We may have difficulty understanding or even accepting each other, but Jesus told us that we need to all love each other. Jesus prayed to God to allow us to be made one, so that the world would know that his message is from God, that he came from God, that we are people of God.

We are not succeeding at proving that to the world.  I shared a meme on Facebook the other day that says, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”  

 Let them be made one, that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.   It’s not working.  We aren’t doing it right.   We are not behaving like family.  At least, not like the kind of family Jesus had in mind.

Look, I understand family dysfunction.   When those memes come around on Facebook asking everyone to “share this if you had the best Mother in the world,” I don’t share.  Or, “share this if your sister is your best friend.”  Not so much.   Same with cousins - I don’t even know where my cousins are!  I sometimes envy all of you with your whole families right here in Selma or in one of the nearby towns.  My closest family members are in Texas - my niece and her mother.  

But I do have family.  I have a church family.  Last night, after his recital, Christian was shedding tears of gratitude for his Church family, and I was right there with him.  Because even though I may not have a close blood family, I do have people in my life I have met through Church who have become closer than any sister, dearer to me than any cousin, more important to my spiritual welfare than my mother.  There are people in that family with whom I disagree, but we still love each other.  There are people in that family who have caused me pain, and to whom I have caused pain, and we forgive one another.  If push came to shove we would be there for one another.  My Christian family is the kind of family who will go to the very limits of their abilities and beyond to help one another.  

Now, there are some branches of that Christian family that I just don’t understand, I may never understand, and I have to wonder how on earth we are related.

And then I remember - we are related through Christ Jesus.  So even though we disagree, even though some of them preach and live in a way I find difficult to understand, we are still family.  Some of them seem to go out of their way to be as un-Christ-like as is possible, sowing hatred instead of love.  Some seem not to have heard the love commandment at all, or perhaps they simply interpret the word “love” much differently than I do.  I find myself saying things like, “Yeah, well, I’m not like them. I’m an entirely different kind of Christian . . .”   And the world judges us, me and you, and certainly Christ’s church, by the example they see in those.

But the thing is,  I don’t get to disown them, like I could blood family, because we are related through Christ Jesus.   Because All really does mean All - and we are supposed to be all one.  We can, and must, show the world that we are one, Christian family.  A family with differences and dysfunctions, certainly, but still, one family.  Just as we would seek to repair damages caused by members of our biological family to others, so we must do the same when others are damaged by parts of our Christian Family.  We must reach out with even more energy and even more love, to show the world the love that God showers upon us - and to our Christian brothers and sisters with whom we disagree, to remind them that we are, indeed, all family in Christ, all with the one, same goal to heal the world.  

When we leave this place, today, let us go out with determination to mend the rift within our family, within Christ’s family.  Let us go out with love and conviction, to share his love with the world, but especially with those members of the Christian family with whom we may not disagree, so that we may, indeed, be made one.  In Christ’s name.  Amen.