Sunday, July 14, 2019

July 14, 2019 "Moved with Pity" - Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Luke 10.25-37

Good Morning Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church … and a good day it is … because we belong to God, and God belongs to us … we are in Christ, and Christ is in us … 

For the few years that are allowed to us, by the grace of God, we do God’s work as best we can … 

We love one another … we forgive the sins of the day … we greet the morning with hope … we pray for the Holy Spirit,  to guide our steps and guard our souls.

We pray that we might fulfill our calling, and finish the race well.

Recently, I came across this wee little poem by Donald Hall, entitled: Summer Kitchen

In June's high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

"It's ready now. Come on," she said.
"You light the candle."
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.

To have the eyes of the poet …

To have the eyes to see, O LORD.
The daily miracles that come our way.
The many moments,
The little moments,
When life bubbles over.
And we can see the glory of it all.

But it’s not all glory, what we open our eyes.
When we look at life, we see sorrow, too.
Tragedy and terror.
Suffering and sadness.

We’re tempted to avert our eyes.
To look away.
Because when we see hurt, we hurt, too.
And we don’t always know what to do with our hurt.
When we hurt for someone else.
When we’re moved with pity.

But here’s a point for prayer:
To not turn away from the sorrow of the world.
To not avert our eyes from someone’s suffering.
To pay attention.
To see it all.
The good and the sweet.
And … the tears of a child, the anguish of a mother.

Jesus tells a story … 
A man on the road, beset by robbers.
Stripped and beaten, left for dead.

By chance, says Jesus, a priest comes along, and when the priest sees the man in the ditch, the priest made sure to step as far away as possible … and the same for a Levite, when he sees the beaten man, he steps to the other side of the road and goes on his way.

And then along comes the Samaritan, and when the Samaritan sees the man in the ditch, Jesus says, the Samaritan was moved with pity … the Samaritan went to the man in the ditch, poured oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them … the Samaritan put the man on his own animal and took him to a nearby inn, paid for his lodging and care, with a promise to the innkeeper that he would return to cover whatever additional expenses were incurred.

Moved with pity … the human heart unlocked … love, like a river, begins to flow … and love requires the deeds of mercy.
It all begins when the Good Samaritan allows himself to see the sorrow and pain of the beaten man … the Good Samaritan is moved with pity, and goes to the man and cares for him …

Lots of things come to mind here …

I think of man, a decent sort of a man, a Christian man, who rejects his nephew, because his nephew is gay … 

I don’t know the man well, but this much I’ve seen: to reject his nephew, he’s hardened his heart … he cannot see his nephew as a human being, but only as a “sinner.”

He tells himself that the Bible has a case against his nephew, but I tell you, dear friends, the man is wrong … I’m not here this morning to go through all the Bible verses, and how they’ve been translated and mistranslated, and misinterpreted, over the centuries, and how God is leading us to better days in the church, with more openness, more kindness, a better understand of these few verses that some have used to hurt and reject their own flesh and blood for being gay or lesbian.

I’m here to tell you that the man is wrong, and what a terrible price he pays for rejecting his nephew.

It takes a lot of work to reject someone … 

It takes a lot of work for the priest and the Levite to walk to the other side of the road … to avert their eyes, harden their hearts, forget about it, pretend that it does’t matter.

The priest and Levite betray the human story, they betray God, they betray all of their highfalutin words … they betray the man in the ditch …they betray themselves, and in their betrayal of all things good and right, they diminish themselves, they shrink their souls, they rob themselves of their own humanity … 

It is the Samaritan, who upon seeing the man in the ditch, is moved with pity …

Moved in spirit and soul, moved toward the man in distress, moved to help him … 

I think, too, these days, of the children and families on the border … the horrible conditions of the concentration camps … children in cages, babies yanked from their mothers arms … fathers separated from their families. 

Just like the priest and the Levite, so many in America avert their eyes, walk to the other side of the road, go on their way, hands over their ears, to muffle the cries of a child, and hands held up like blinders on a horse, to avoid seeing the a mother’s anguished face … hardening the heart, betraying the human story, killing the spirit of pity, citing laws and rules and regulations, as if that were ever a justification for cruelty and inhumanity.

Poisoning the soul, to feel nothing for the people at the border … to despise them, call them names, shame them, hurt them, cage them, beat them and then laugh at them.

This is doing great damage to our nation, and great damage to those who enforce the law … and great damage to those who prefer to ignore it all.

To betray the human story, to deny the instincts of pity, to walk away from the suffering … the soul is damaged, chaos grows, disorder and confusion abound … 

Not even religious behavior, not even the trappings of the church, our words of faith, our Bible reading, our prayers, our creeds and hymns - none of this can cover the failure to be human, none of that can make up for the loss of the soul, the betrayal of pity.

It takes a lot of work to be cruel … what a price is paid: every act of cruelty diminishes the soul … every act of rejection hurts us, every time we turn away, we lose something of ourselves … every time we betray love, the soul becomes smaller.

The man who rejects his nephew is bleeding away his soul, and  it shows … it shows on his face, it shows in his words - there is no peace within him, there is no joy, because the man is betraying his nephew, he’s betraying himself, he’s betraying God.

What we’re doing at the border right now is bleeding away the soul of our nation … it shows in the face of our leaders, it shows in their words, harsh and cruel, using the words of patriotism to hide their crimes, using fear to incite the public to hatred and violence.

When humanity is betrayed, the price is enormous … whether it be the man who rejects his nephew, or a nation that chooses cruelty over compassion

Our task as Christians is to honor the instincts of pity … the instincts created within us by our Creator, to feel pity for the outcast and the broken, to feel pity for those in need, the lonely and the lost.

To be moved by pity … moved to pay attention all the more … moved to action … without judgement, without question … to offer aid, acceptance, kindness and mercy … welcome and hospitality … to make it a better world.

I leave you with a question:

Who is the Good Samaritan? First and foremost?

Is it not Jesus, who is the Good Samaritan, first and foremost?
Is it not the Son of God, the lamb of God, who comes to this world, to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives … and recovery of sight to the blind … to let the oppressed go free … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?

Dear friends, the LORD saw our need, our hurt, our sorrow, our pain … the LORD saw us in the ditch, and came to our aid.

The LORD poured the oil and wine of love upon our wounds and bandaged us with mercy … the LORD took us to the place of safety, and pledged himself to pay the price, for whatever it would take, no questions asked.

It is the LORD Jesus Christ who is the Good Samaritan, the first and the foremost.

And it is he who says to us: Go and do likewise.

Amen and Amen!

Monday, July 1, 2019

June 30, 2019 "The Counsel of God" El Monte Community Presbyterian

Psalm 16; Luke 9.51-62

To walk in the footsteps of Christ …

This is our hope, our dream, our desire …

To walk in the footsteps of Christ … mindful of the good things of life, kind and generous, wise and loving … to give unto others as freely as has been freely given unto us … to open doors, and not close them … build bridges, not walls … welcome everyone; exclude no one … to be brave in our faith, kind in our words, strong to resist the false and the cruel, careful in our prayers … 

Careful in our prayers?

 That we listen more than we talk, receive more than we demand, glorify God with thanksgiving rather than telling God how God ought to manage the world … to be quiet in our prayers, so that we can hear the love of God.

It was 15 or 18 years ago, sitting in my living room in Michigan, saying my prayers; I suddenly had the impression that God was listening, but utterly bored with my laundry list of requests, needs, hopes and dreams … 

God was listening all right … but bored … waiting for me to finish my prayers, and maybe, just maybe, give God a chance to say something to me … or, if God should choose to say nothing, that’s all right, because God has said, again and again, “I am with you! No matter what, no matter where … my love is your constant companion.

God is present in our life, beside us and within us, and all around us … for thou art with me, says the Psalmist … I am with you always to the end of the age, says Jesus … I will never leave you or forsake you … 

I’ve learned simplicity in my prayers … when I pray for someone, a family member, or a friend, when I pray for you, I say the name, and maybe a need, and then I say, Jesus my LORD, and move on to the next prayer.

I have learned to refrain from the laundry list, telling God this and telling God that … God says, I know, I know … you don’t have to tell me … you just have to offer it to me, and then trust - I will do right by you … I will provide, I will guide, I will guard you, and those you love … and the whole wide world, morning, noon and night.

I keep a pryer journal - every prayer concern gets a page, for 40 days of prayer, or longer … sometimes 80 days of prayer, maybe even more … I say their name, note their need, and then say, Jesus my LORD … in that moment, with those words, I render it up to the LORD, trusting in God’s promise to be at work in all things for good … in that moment, with these three words, Jesus my LORD, I give to God my heart, I give to God this moment of prayer, I give to God the people and the needs that lay upon my heart … Jesus my LORD … and then turn the page to the next … most every morning.

To walk in the footsteps of Christ … to learn from him the ways of God, the truth of life, the hope of the Spirit, what it means to be faithful.

In our story this morning, the disciples are walking with Jesus, to Jerusalem … on their way, they pass through Samaria, and want to stay overnight … but the Samaritan town won’t receive them … 

It’s a long story, but this we know, the folks in Samaria and the folks in Judea despised one another … each believing the other to be wrong …

Which is why the Parable of the Good Samaritan is so striking, Jesus tells that parable to the Judeans, who believe that no good could come from Samaria … in the parable, Jesus reverses the expectations of his audience … Jesus tells of the priest and the Levite - good people, we would think, faithful to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, but the priest and the Levite haven’t the time of day for the man in the ditch … they hurry on by.

It’s the Samaritan who stops, who bandages the man’s wounds, who takes him to a nearby inn, with a promise to pay the bills, no matter what.

The Good Samaritan, and the folks in Judea were offended by that story … how can a Samaritan be good? 

Jesus makes it clear that he has a heart for the Samaritans, and that God’s goodness is found all over the place, and it does us no good to think that we, and we alone, have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth … contrary to the pride of religion, God’s truth is found everywhere, even in the Samaritans.

But the disciples are ticked off … how dare those people deny us lodging, shame on them … what shall we do? Shall we call down fire from heaven?

Oooh, that sounds like a good idea … a little shock and awe will teach ‘em a good lesson … we’ll obliterate them … wipe them off the face of the earth … that’ll put the fear of God into ‘em. You bet. A little fire and brimstone will do the trick.

Violence … it’s such a human thing … 

As for the Bible, the disciples could quote the Bible.

Didn’t God bring on the flood? to wipe out the earth?
Didn’t God rain down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah? 
Didn’t Elijah call down fire from heaven, and then with the sword, kill 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Ashera?

Jesus makes it clear, violence is not the kingdom of God … in the moment of his betrayal in the garden of Gethsemene, Roman soldiers and temple police arrest him, Peter draws his sword, but what does Jesus say? Put away your sword Peter. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

Violence serves no cause but it’s own … violence begets violence, bloodshed demands more blood … death is a relentless predator, never satisfied, always hungry. Yes, those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

Even God had to learn some lessons about violence.

How did that flood work out?
It didn’t work at all.
The flood didn’t solve a thing.

How did all that fire and brimstone work on Sodom and Gomorrah? 
Well, it killed a lot of people.
That’s what violence does.
It kills … and though at the time it might seem make some sense, killing doesn’t work!

What about Elijah? the fire he called down, the prophets he killed?
It all went south for Elijah, and by the cave in the wilderness God taught Elijah some lessons - God wasn’t in the violent wind, nor in the deadly earthquake, nor in the raging fire … but in the still small voice … in the sounds of silence … let all the earth keep silence, the LORD is in his holy temple.

Throughout the Old Testament, lots of conversation about violence … parts of the Bible seem to favor violence: take up the sword, kill and destroy … obliterate and wipe out … the conquest of the Holy Land is steeped in blood, and I get the feeling that when it was all done, all that blood wasted, God wasn’t all that happy.

As the history unfolds, things fail and fall apart: with Saul, then David, then Solomon, lots of bloodshed, then the divided kingdom, then war, then defeat, Israel taken into bondage, Judah into captivity … those who live by the sword die by the sword.

It is Isaiah’s hope, Isaiah’s prayer: the nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks … and learn war no more.

Jesus himself sets the record straight … he creates a new day of hope and courage … in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: you have heard it said, but I say unto you.

Jesus sets a new direction, Jesus challenges the way some have interpreted God’s Word … it’s not of violence, but of love … a suffering love, if necessary, but in the Kingdom of God, there is no room for violence, for the love of war, for the drawing of boundaries and the building of walls … there is no fire from heaven, and  there is no vengeance against anyone.

The Prophet Micah says it well:

With what shall I come before the LORD,
      and bow myself before God on high?
      Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
      with calves a year old?
      Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
      with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
      Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
      the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
      He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
      and what does the LORD require of you
      but to do justice, and to love kindness,
      and to walk humbly with your God?

At the end of the story, Jesus goes to the cross … why?

People hated him, feared him, because his words were revolutionary: he offered a God of love when a lot of people wanted a god of power and war.

On the cross, Jesus takes into his heart all of the world’s violence, all of its hatred and fear … there’s no payback, only forgiveness … and the final hope … the final hope in the redemption of all creation, a new heaven and a new earth … without tears and sorrow, with endless light … when we follow Christ, and hear the counsel of God, this is the world to which we commit ourselves, the goals of the Kingdom for which we strive, the quality of life we seek for all God’s creatures, great and small.

Dear friends, we live in a time when some speak of violence so easily, when the drums of war are beating, our blood fired up by it … we want to draw our swords, take up our spears … build walls and draw boundaries … we separate families and put children into cages … we send out aircraft carries and ready our missiles, locked and loaded … some Christians cheer this on, wave the flag without thinking … some Christians want to call down fire from heaven.

But such is not the way of Christ.

Our task, to speak peace, to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth … to welcome the outcast, bless the frightened, speak tenderly to those in need … 

The counsel of God … hallelujah and amen!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

June 23, 2016 - "Taming the Wild Soul" - Palms Westminster

1 Kings 19.1-8; Luke 8.26-33

Two stories of salvation … 
A prophet wild and wonderful … 
A man of the tombs, lost and violent …

The work of God.

Have you ever thought about how hard it must be to be God?

Years ago, reading a book about God … 
Pondering the many stories of the Bible.
How hard it is to be God.

For the first time in my life, I wept for God.
The burdens God carries.
The sorrows of God’s heart.

Because God took a chance creating us.
The flowers and the trees are all good, and give delight to the heart of God.
The soaring mountains and the roaring sea are a pleasure for the eyes of God.
The whole of the universe … billions of years old … distances so vast we cannot comprehend them … 
All of it good, all of it pleasing to God.

And, then, there’s us - the strangest of all God’s creatures … we are dirt and dust, like everything else, and unlike everything else, we are the breath of God.

The Psalmist says: We are created just a little less than the angels.

And speaking of angels, I have often thought of them watching God create the heavens and earth, cheering God on, smiling and celebrating the glories of God’s majesty and the wonders of creation.

And then God said: Let us create humankind in our image.

Did the angels hold their breath?
Wondering about the final drama of creation?
Did the angels offer a word of caution to God?
O God, it won’t work.
Are you sure about this?
Combing dirt and divinity?

What a strange amalgam we are.
The breath of God wrapped up in flesh and bone.
We’re full of will and energy.
We’re finite and mortal, with longings for eternity. 
We dream and desire, yet we’re given to death.
The breath of God within us, yet dust to dust we are.

Created by God to care for the Garden.
Yet so easily misled by the Serpent.

God gave us everything in the Garden.
With the exception of one tree … the Tree of final knowledge, the knowledge of good, and evil.
A tree that belongs exclusively to God.
A tree only God can tend.

But Adam and Eve weren’t satisfied.
They wanted to be like God; they wanted final knowledge.

This one tree.
This luscious fruit.
So Adam and Eve took the fruit, to be like God, and in that desperate moment, the very nature of creation was changed.

Where there was light, there is darkness now.
Where there was hope, there is despair.
Where there was life, there is fear.
Where there was love, there is hatred and blame, scheming and greed, violence and murder and war …

As the story unfolds in the Book of Genesis, we learn that God had second thoughts about everything, and like the song from the musical, South Pacific:

Gonna wash this man right outa my hair …
Don’t try to patch it up.
Tear it up, tear it up!
Wash him out, dry him out.
Push him out, fly him out.
Cancel and let him go.
I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair

The flood, the earth destroyed, but for an ark.
Noah and his family, the animals, two-by-two … saved for another day … when the flood is over, Noah and his family start all over … but it doesn’t take long for the whole thing to fall apart, all over again … the flood created a mess, and it didn’t solve the problem.

Now, what am to do? asks God.
What am I to do?

From the prophet Hosea, these very words:

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
      What shall I do with you, O Judah?
      Your love is like a morning cloud,
      like the dew that goes away early.

It’s not easy being God.
And though we often say to ourselves, If I were God, here’s what I would do.

But we’re not God, though a little bit like God.
We have wild souls.
We are given to all sorts of dark thoughts and mean deeds.
Put us in a mob, and it’s a mess.
The mob cries for death and war.
Crucify him, crucify him, the mob cries.

What is God to do?

The story of Elijah has alway intrigued me.
Elijah, the prophet of God.
Impetuous, impatient, given to violence.

He loves fire and blood.
And sees to the death of all the false prophets: 450 prophets of Baal; 400 prophets Ashera … all killed, dead and gone.

Victory turns unexpectedly to fear.
Queen Jezebel issues a death sentence for Elijah, and Elijah flees for his life into the wilderness, there to be fed by an angle, to find a cave, and there to hide … Elijah no longer the victor, but now the hunted; he’s bitter, full of self-pity: I’m the only one left, he says … the only one who is faithful. Nobody cares but me.

God pays Elijah a visit … No Elijah, you’re not the only one … I have faithful people all over the place … so get a hold of yourself, take a deep breath, and pay attention.

There was a great wind, so strong it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks, but God wasn’t in the wind.

Then an earthquake, and God wasn’t in earthquake, either.

Then a fire, and God wasn’t in the fire.

Then, after all that noise, all that violence, all that raw power … there was silence … sheer silence, unnerving, disturbing … a deep quiet … and therein was God.

Elijah wrapped his mantle around his face … humbled and saved … his wild soul tamed.

By the cave, in the wilderness, Elijah learns something about life: violence leads nowhere, blood spilled, even in the name of God, is not the way to life … the way of the sword is the way of death … Jesus himself said: those who live by the sword die by the sword.

Elijah was tamed that day by the great love of God, tempered a bit, revived and commissioned again … because work needed to be done … his wild soul needed to be tamed.

The second tale we tell is the man of the tombs, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee … and why Jesus is there at that moment, only God knows for sure, but this much we know, it’s the love of God at work … in a man wild and willful, full of demons … a legion of demons, cursing and screaming.

The man rushes to Jesus and cries out in protest … with mercy and kindness, Jesus sets the man free … to return to his home, no longer a wild man, but a man restored to his senses … with a story to tell of Jesus and his goodness … a story to tell to the nations.

Across the pages of Scripture, dramatic stories to highlight the plight of humanity - and the mercy of God …

To keep the story going … the story of life, hope and goodness … there is work to be done, but not the work of a sword, but the work of mercy and peace.

It’s never easy to do the work of God … and in Christ we see the final outworking of what that means … not a sword, but a cross … Jesus takes upon himself the sins of the world, the sorrows of humankind, not by violence, but with mercy.

All of us here today are beneficiaries of that story … here we are, creatures of dirt and divinity … each us, by the Holy Spirit, souls tamed by the love of God, brought close to Christ and close to one another in the great fellowship of faith.

Elijah was recommissioned that day with work to be done … the man of the tombs was sent back home to share his story.

Souls tamed by the mercy of God.

I doubt if any of us here are quite as wild as Elijah … I’m quite sure none of us here are as the man of the tombs.

But each of us in our way has a soul given to the darker side of things … in each of us, there is something of Elijah, in each of us, something of the man of the tombs.

The Holy Spirit comes to us, with the love of Christ, gently and purposefully, to tame our souls, that we might tame the world.

To the glory of God, and for the healing of the nations. Hallelujah and Amen!