Sunday, November 11, 2018

Imitating the Lord

Scripture Psalm 146 NRSV   

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Obedience to the Law

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 NRSV   

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Who's on first?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Camels and Rich Folks

Scripture   Mark 10:17-27  NRSV

10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

10:18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.   10:19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’"  10:20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

I always feel a little bad for the rich man in this story.  I mean, it is possible that he goes away shocked and grieving because he simply doesn’t want to give up the lifestyle of the rich and famous 1st century style.  But given the culture of the time, it is unlikely that this guy is a young, single billionaire buying fancy chariots, maintaining bachelor pads in Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, and frittering away the wealth that was given to him by dear old dad,  like good old Joe Camel here.   Chances are that a wealthy man of Jesus’ time is married with children, and is responsible not only for his immediate family, but also his widowed mother and any unmarried sisters, all the servants in the household, and all the clients and employees who depend upon him for their income.  We might think of him as the owner of a small manufacturing company or a ranch upon whom his extended family and many employees, as well as contractors and suppliers depend for their livelihood.  He has to weigh his desire to serve as Jesus has asked him to against the consequences that would befall all of those people if he just walked away from it all - sold everything and gave it to the poor.   

It is pretty much a given that this particular man, a man who followed the Law of Moses, tithed.  It would have been unthinkable for him NOT to give 10% of his income - and not just 10%, but the very best 10% of what he had.   Not for him the gift of used clothing, dented cans of peaches, and those shoes that somehow never looked as good on my feet as they did that day in the store.  No.  He gave the strongest of his lambs, the choicest cloth his maidservants wove, the juiciest grapes, the most blemish free grains, plus 10% of any cash that had come into his household.  He gave his best - first - before he took any for himself.  Not for him questions of whether to give 10% of his gross or net income.   Because, and this is the part that we usually miss somehow, that 10%, the tithe, is the minimum required giving.  Not the “try to work up to it” giving.  But the minimum required giving.  Quite literally, the Temple tithe was income tax.   The rich man of our story most likely also made gifts and offerings over and above his tithe - clothing for the priests and the poor, incense, money.  And then there were the required sacrifices for himself and his household - doves and rams, cakes of purest flour, jars of extra extra virgin olive oil, and so on.   A Law abiding Jew would have done all of these things.   

So it isn’t like he just popped a check in the offering plate once a month.  But what is being demanded of him now is that he give more.  That he give up everything he holds precious to follow Jesus.   And that was going to be too hard.  So he walked away, grieving.  

This is isn’t the only time Jesus has said that people need to give up everything they care about in order to follow him.  He said, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29).  And even, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)   

Yet, we know from the stories of Jesus’ life that he didn’t hate people with money.  In many ways he depended upon them.  The women who followed him, for the most part, had independent incomes and were able to buy food and so on.  He had friends who owned houses and who put him and his disciples up for the night and fed them all.  Joseph of Arimathea was very rich, and he donated his own tomb to be Jesus’ resting place after the crucifixion.  So if Jesus didn’t hate rich people, what is he really asking of us here?     

You know, most of us are rich people.  I know, we don’t feel rich.  When we think “rich” we look at Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg and the Kardashians and folks like that - and Joe Camel here.   But we, most of us, are rich.  We have enough to eat.  We have a place to live.  We have transportation that gets us where we need to go.  We have families, friends, jobs, hobbies - things that are important to us.  We dedicate our lives to causes that are meaningful to us - Animal Shelters, Cancer funds, children’s programs, feeding programs, literacy programs, prison ministry, social justice work of all sorts.   We do things to help benefit those who are not as well off as we are - and that is pretty much the definition of rich.    What if suddenly we walked away from our parents, grandparents, spouses, children, grandchildren, and walked off our jobs and sold our houses and cars and gave all the money to the poor?  How would we serve Jesus then?  How could we support the church and its ministries?  How could we help the homeless and feed the hungry, if we ourselves became homeless and hungry?   

We couldn’t.  Period.  So what do we do?  How do we, as rich folks, follow Jesus?  Because he said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.  And while there are all kinds of rationalizations about camels and needles - some scholars say Jesus really meant it was hard (but not impossible) for a camel to get through this one very narrow gateway into the city of Jerusalem, thus rich people could get into heaven if they were really really good - I believe he meant exactly what he said.  It is easier for a camel to go through the literal eye of a needle than for those who are attached to their lives and their stuff to be part of the kingdom of heaven.   If you look at all those other things he said, they all boil down to this - if any person or any thing is more important to you than following Jesus is, then you cannot live in the kingdom of heaven.   

First, I guess, it’s important to consider that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven he was not usually talking about in the sky by and by after we die heaven that we usually think of.  He was talking about living on earth as it is in heaven.  Living here, in the world, as if we were sitting at God’s feet with all the citizens of heaven.  Caring for and loving one another - friends and strangers and even enemies.  Reconciling with those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt.  Because I’m pretty sure that in heaven, folks who lived as enemies on earth are no longer filled with the hatred and anger that drove them before.  Living like that here, on earth, in our daily lives, that is living in God’s kingdom.  And it’s really hard to live in God’s kingdom if we are attached to stuff and people more strongly than we are attached to God.

For example:  A customer service rep was helping a customer activate a new phone for a family member.  In the background he could hear much screaming and carrying on by another family member who thought they should get the new phone, and kept threatening to break it so no one could have it.  That person is not living in the kingdom of God.  In the kingdom of God, if one person receives a blessing, her friends and family rejoice for her.   In the kingdom of God, we are grateful for what we have, and we want to share the blessings we have received with others.   

It’s hard to give up our attachment to stuff.   Even if we really want to live simple, uncluttered lives, dedicated to Christ - there’s always that really cool thing, that new piece of tech, that upgrade to our game, that shiny sparkly new something wonderful, that book, that piece of music, that new kitchen gadget, that new power tool  . . . and let’s face it, that new sparkly thing is much sexier than putting the money in the collection plate at church.  Cause we like stuff, and we can see stuff, and use it, or eat it, or wear it.  It’s hard to see where the money in the plate goes.   

The money in the plate keeps the lights on, so we can see each other in here.  It pays all the boring, unsexy, bills and expenses that you have at home - water and gas, property tax, and insurance.  It pays salaries and buys the day to day necessities that come with running an office.  Those are ongoing, all the time, month to month, regular boring expenses that never go away - like you pay at home.  The money in the plate also supports missionaries overseas, church camps in our Region, help agencies right here in Selma, and so much more.   The money in the plate keeps this little part of Christ’s family doing his work in the world.   The money in the plate helps us bring the kingdom of God to earth.    

What would happen if we all behaved like the rich man in the story?  Not the going away grieving cause he couldn’t give up his life part - but the tithing and gifting part?    Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote a song that speaks to that question.  My brothers and sisters, please stand and sing with me “Giving God, We Pause and Wonder.” 

Hymn Giving God, We Pause and Wonder
Tune:  “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
Lyrics: Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
Songs of Grace:  New Hymns for God and Neighbor 2009
Used with permission

Sunday, October 7, 2018

You love US?

Psalm 8 Common English Bible (CEB) 

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


Today is World Communion Sunday, and here, at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Selma, California, we think that’s kind of a big deal.  So today we are doing things a little differently than usual.  We had a processional, carrying in the bread and cup and Bible, to remind ourselves of the importance of Word and the Table.  We are singing songs from all around the world, even in languages we don’t know, to show our relationship with the church where ever it exists.    We have declared today Bring a Friend Sunday, and invited friends and relatives, neighbors and co-workers, to join us for worship.  Today we are celebrating God’s love for humanity.  

What are human beings that you think about them?  
What are human beings that you pay attention to them?  

The Psalmist has a point.  I mean, really?  What are we to the creator of everything?    When we look at the sky, at the planets and stars, at the snow covered mountains, at the immensity of the seas, at the perfection of the tiny atom, when we look at all of the strange and beautiful creatures that God created, we have to wonder why we should even matter?   

We matter because God made us in God’s own image.  Every one of us, every human, is a reflection of God, a child of God.  In the eyes of God, no one, no person, is more important or more beloved than any other.  We may have trouble with that concept because of the way the world sees things, but in God’s eyes, we are all beloved.   In the human realm it is easy to see that some believe themselves to be more important than others.   It is easy to see that some are held to be of greater or lesser worth than others.  But that’s the human world, not God’s world.  In God’s world there are no races or classes or genders - no Gentile or Jew, no slave or free, no man or woman - but only human beings, frail and fallible, but oh so dearly loved.    God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to teach us how to be reconciled with God, how to return God’s love for us, and how to share that love with all of our brothers and sisters.   And because the human world fears and hates that which it does not understand, Jesus died at the hands of men who feared the loss of their own power.    Because Jesus was human like us, his suffering and death on the cross, his sacrifice, became the foundation upon which his Church was built.  

But before he died, he instituted a practice - a sacrament, if you will - sharing a meal with his beloved disciples, and said, “as often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me”.   In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we take those instructions from Jesus very seriously and we share this meal every time we come together for worship.  And we share it with everyone present, just as Jesus did on that last night.  Even with the one who would betray him, who might have been considered unworthy.   Because you see, we don’t believe anyone is unworthy of God’s love. 

Our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was founded around the belief that the Lord’s Table should be open to all who come to share this meal of love.    In about 1808, Thomas Campbell, a Presbyterian minister, was carrying the Good News into small communities on the Western frontier of the US (Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky) where there were no established churches.  He came into these settlements to preach and marry folks and perform baptisms for the children of the folks he had just married (There were no churches on the frontier, remember? Often it had been years since they last saw a preacher.)  But one thing he could not do was offer communion to those who were not Presbyterian in good standing, and could prove their belief in and understanding of the Apostles Creed.   If you were in that frontier community but you were a Baptist or a Methodist or some other sort of Christian, you were not allowed to come to the Table.  That upset him, and so, even though it was against the rules, he began to serve everyone who came.   When the Presbytery who had sent him into the frontier heard this, of course, they kicked him out - suspended his credentials.  Which didn’t stop him, of course.  He started a church where the Table was open, and no creed was required as a test of faith.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, his son Alexander had completed seminary and, with his mother and siblings, was preparing to join his father in the US, when Communion Sunday came around.  Alexander was easily able to prove his belief in and understanding of the Creed and he was given the token that would allow him to receive Communion in the Presbyterian Church.  But there was a man there, who was not able to prove he deserved the privilege of coming to the Table, and Alexander had a problem with that.  So he gave the man his token.  Arriving in the US, he discovered that he and his father had come to similar conclusions about the Table and creeds, and together they founded a movement, a church, in which no one is required to prove they believed the right stuff in order to come to the Lord’s Table.  “No creed but Christ,” they said, and we still hold to that.   Today we proclaim that, “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.  All are welcome, and all means ALL. 

Another difference between Disciples and many other traditions is that no ordained minister is required to preside at the table.   Ordained ministers in the early days of our church were usually itinerant, and might not be there every Sunday.  But we do share Communion every Sunday, whether or not an ordained person is present, so the elders of congregations regularly presided at the table.  That practice varies from congregation to congregation - in some the Elders preside, in others it’s the pastor.   Each congregation does this in the way they prefer.  It is, therefore, well known that you might be a Disciple if whenever you visit a different Disciples congregation you learn a new way to do communion.  In this congregation most weeks the Elders preside and the Deacons serve, although this week things will be a little different.   Today, because we have three stations, where the bread and cup will be available, each representing another part of the world, I will do the words of institution and prayer and serve the bread and cup at the front Table, and the Elders will serve at the other two stations.   The Deacons will help direct you to one station or another, to Africa or Mexico or China, depending on where you sitting.  You will take a piece of the bread that is offered, dip it in the cup, and then eat.  If you cannot come forward, someone will bring it to you, so don’t worry.  No one will be left out of the Lord’s Supper.   Because everyone deserves to participate in this remembrance of God’s love for us.  

Just as we welcome everyone to the Table every Sunday, so too we welcome everyone to worship whom God has made in God’s image, which is all of us.   In some congregations and traditions there are rules about who can participate in various aspects of the life of the church.  But that’s not the case here.  No matter who you are, you are welcome here.  You are worthy.  You are loved.

There are those who say that coming to this Table weekly is too often, that it becomes routine and loses importance.  But really, how often is too often to experience God’s love?   This Table is a way that we remember, every single time that we come together, that we are loved.  This Table is a way that we remember humanity is so important to God that he sent his son to show us the way to him.  This Table is a symbol of God’s “I love you,” just as wedding and engagement and promise rings are symbols of human love for one another.    

The Psalmist asks “who are we, that you should care?”  And God says, you are my children, my beloved, whom I love so much that I sent you my son.   And here, at this Table, we remember that, every week.  Every week, we experience God’s love through the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

My brothers and sisters, please stand and join in singing the words the Psalmist gave us, “How Majestic is your Name!” 

Hymn How Majestic is Your Name Hymnal 63

Sunday, September 30, 2018


James 2:1-10    Common English Bible (CEB)

My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.  But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 

Have I mentioned that I really like James?   He spoke to individuals, rather than congregations.  He said, “this is how you should live, as a person and as a Christ follower,” whereas Paul spoke primarily to congregations, telling folks how to be church together.  In this passage James is asking the listener to pretend for a moment that they are the greeter.   If you make a big fuss over the person who drove up in a Mercedes and has all the stuff, and you put them in the very best seat, but you tell the homeless lady that she has to sit in the narthex where no one will be bothered by her odor, then according to James you have sinned.  You have shown favoritism based in socio-economic status, or class, which in his time was pretty much the main distinction between people.  There were nations, but you couldn’t necessarily tell someone’s nation by looking at them.  You could, however, determine class pretty easily - certain types and colors of clothing were restricted to the upper classes, for example.  Slaves wore particular items of clothing that free persons did not.   In the first century, and indeed for many centuries thereafter, race as a distinction between persons didn’t exist.  Your skin color really didn’t matter.  Class and gender, on the other hand, did.  So when James spoke of favoritism, he spoke in terms of wealthy versus poor.  However, as much fun as it always is to say bad things about rich people, I’m not going to do that today.  I’m not going to talk about the rich and the poor today.  

In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we have a strong Anti-racism/Pro-reconciliation imperative.  All ordained ministers are required to take anti-racism training periodically - in this region where we live it’s every year.  Today and next week we take a collection that benefits our Reconciliation Ministries, which helps pay for our anti-racism trainers to be trained, and for literature to help us all learn how to love one another better.   And it’s kind of funny in a “how did God manage this?” kind of way, that I accidentally skipped this reading at the beginning of the month, where it appears in the lectionary, and had to fit it in here - today - on the day when we look closely at our Anti-Racism/Pro-Reconciliation emphasis, because how much better could this passage fit the day?  Yay, God!  

James said, My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory.. . You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.  But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 

A well dressed African American woman walked into a high end boutique and asked to see a purse that was in a locked case.  The salesclerk told her it was much too expensive for her and wouldn’t take it out of the case, but did suggest she look at other, cheaper purses.  Even though she asked to see the purse several times, the sales clerk was quite insistent on steering her to much less expensive items.   Oprah Winfrey finally left the shop, without the purse.    The owner of the boutique later said it had nothing to do with Oprah’s race . . . .   

But this happens to Persons of Color all the time.  If Oprah had been with a well dressed White friend, I suspect the purse would have come out of the case with no hesitation.   Because somehow having a White person along makes that Person of Color “acceptable” for the moment.   I can tell you from my own experience, from 25 years of marriage to a Navajo, that there was a huge difference in how he was treated when he was alone and when I was with him.  We even sometimes would go into a place separately, so that I could watch and see what happened and learn what White privilege looks like.   In restaurants, small shops, big box stores, even government agencies like the DMV . . .  it didn’t matter what type of place we entered, there was always a difference in the way we were treated.   Store security would follow him around, but not me, and not us when we went into the place as a couple.  He was always asked for his ID when using a credit card.  I rarely was.  Clerks and such would often speak to me when he was the one with the issue, assuming he didn’t understand English.  And have I told you the church story?   When we visited a church in another city one Sunday everyone was happy to welcome us, asked us to stay for coffee, and invite us to come back.  When he went back by himself a few months later none of that happened.   They turned their backs on him.  It was like he was invisible.  

I get catalogs in the mail.  I imagine some of you do, too. This company sends them weekly, I think.  If you are a White person going through your catalog and you can find yourself, but you can’t find your friend from First Friendship Baptist Church or the Korean Church or the Haitian Church or the Truk Island, Samoan, Philipino, Native American or  Hispanic Church - that is privilege in action.  In this particular catalog there is one model who might maybe be Hispanic.

If you are White you may never have noticed, but it’s there. It’s insidious, because, if you are White you don’t notice it unless you are specifically looking for it.   I look for it.  But I only look for it because I spent 25 years married to a Person of Color.  And I still don’t always see it.  But I promise you, a Person of Color notices.   If you are White, you benefit from the fact that the color of your skin is considered the norm in this country.  If you go to buy flesh colored bandaids, no problem.  But until 2015, a person of color could not find bandaids to match her skin tone.   Even now, they’re not easy to find.  Bandaids are a small thing, but they are symptomatic of privilege.  Privilege does not mean your life is easy just because you are White.  But it does mean it could be a lot harder.  

Privilege isn’t something we can do much of anything about, besides simply recognizing it exists as a fact of life in this country.  Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.   Racism, on the other hand, is something we can change.   

Racism is an evil that afflicts our nation and many others.   Racism is a choice we make to treat other people differently based on the color of their skin.  That clerk in the expensive purse store may have said she wasn’t judging Oprah on her race, but she was.  The store security officers who followed Ton’Ee around the store, but not me, were making a judgement about who was likely to be a thief based solely on skin color.  I benefited from White privilege.  Ton’Ee dealt with racism.  The people in that church - totally racist.  And that’s the one that hurts most of all.  Because - they’ll know we are Christians by our love??  

You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.  But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 

When you show favoritism, you are committing a sin.  And what is racism but favoritism?   A particularly terrible, potentially deadly sort of favoritism.   Racism is a sin that strikes at the very heart of the love commandment - and the love commandment is what all the law depends on.  For remember, when Jesus was asked “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Mt. 22:36-40)    Breaking this one commandment then, is as if we are breaking all the commandments.  

It is important to understand that not all White people are racist - but that all White people do benefit from privilege.  It is also important to understand that racism can be insidious.  We may not even realize that what we are seeing, hearing, even thinking or saying, is racist.  We can open our eyes to see racism where we maybe didn’t notice it before.  We can use our privilege to point out racism when we do see it.   And by our example we can teach others what it really means to love our neighbors - all of our neighbors, regardless of skin color, ethnicity or national origin.   

Maybe we, as individuals, can’t do much to change the systemic racism that is deeply rooted in our society, but we can, as individuals, change our own behaviors and beliefs.  We can come to understand that maybe things we have believed are true about other people based on their race or country of origin, aren’t.  And we can work at changing the beliefs of others.  And as each person is changed, as each person comes to love their neighbor as they love themselves, racism and all the other isms, can be eradicated.

My brothers and sisters, if we would live in God’s beloved community, in God’s kingdom on earth, then we must indeed, love one another as God loves us, as we love ourselves.  When we leave this place today, let us go out filled with the knowledge of God’s greatness, so that God’s love can overflow from our hearts in the hearts and souls of all we encounter, today and all days.