Monday, September 11, 2017

Get Off the Porch

September 10, 2017
Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Matthew 18.15-20

Good Morning Palms Westminster … and what a morning it is … all of us watching Irma … and earlier Harvey … people in harms way … some of us have friends and family at risk, and for them se pray.

Yet, for us here, in this moment, 
it’s a good morning .. because we’re here.

We have a chance, 
all over again, 
to practice the Great Commandment, 
to love God with all that we are, 
and to love one another dearly and deeply.

And practice it is …

Think of a pianist, practicing a piece of music over and over and over again … pencil in hand, making notes … trying this expression and that … to make the music her music … the intent of the composer, her intent … until she’s satisfied with it … 

But that’s not the end of it … the purpose of all that practice, all that sweat, blood and tears … it’s the concert on the weekend … when hundreds, maybe even thousands, show up … to hear great music offered by the pianist …

The practice is utterly important, but the real test of what’s practiced is the audience who hears it … 

Or in our case, what the world sees of us tomorrow morning.

Jesus said it, and said it clearly:
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

What we do here this morning is practice … out there, it’s the concert …

They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they’ll know we’re Christians by our love.

Our text this morning is all about practicing … practicing the ways of love.

Jesus addresses the hard question: what happens when the church fails to love God and fails to love one another?

What happens when another member of the church sins against you.

Who’s the you?

These words directed to the disciples … to the leaders of the church …

And what’s the sin?
The failure to love.

It’s to the leaders that Jesus speaks …
A method of care and kindness … 
go to that person … 
talk about it.
Explore the gospel together.
What does faith in Jesus Christ mean?

If that conversation doesn’t prove helpful, then have another one, but with one or two additional leaders, so that the conversation can be carefully noted … 

The purpose of the meeting is to heal … 
to help someone better understand the purpose of the church;
the meaning of faith.

If that person refuses to listen, then tell it to the church … if the member still refuses to listen … 

Treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector, says Jesus.

That sounds bad doesn’t it?
But it’s not bad; it’s good!

First off, let’s ask: How does Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?

Throughout the gospels, Jesus offers the mercy of God to Gentiles and tax collectors … Jesus heals their children, helps them along the way, eating and drinking with them.

From Matthew 9:

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew himself is a tax collector.

Treat them well, Jesus says; 
start all over with them … 
go back to the beginning, square one … 
never, ever, give up on anyone.

But there’s more to the story.

The whole 18th chapter reveals the way of the gospel for us …

The chapter begins with humility … Jesus calls over a child, and then says to the disciples: unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

And then a warning about causing trouble: those who put stumbling blocks in the way of these little ones.
Who are the little ones?

Children, literally … the vulnerable.

But little ones also means defenseless ones … those who have no voice … folks who cannot defend themselves … folks at the mercy of those bigger than they are … 

Little ones … the trinity of need outlined in the law and the prophets - the orphan, the widow and the alien … 

Little ones … to whom great care must be given … to avoid stumbling blocks.

And what is a stumbling block?

The failure of the church!
The failure to defend the defenseless … 
To offer the cup of cold water.
To cloth the naked and visit those in prison.
To honor God’s creation with care and tenderness.
To say no to lies and bigotry.
To not be covetous of wealth (which seems to be a major problem in American Christianity these days).
To not bear false witness when Tweeting.
To care for the poor and the oppressed.

Every day I read about the decline of the church in America … 

Google, “young people abandon the church,” and you will learn a lot.

Here’s a for-example list:

  • Churches seem overprotective and stifling.
  • Faith and theology feel shallow and small.
  • Lots of churches are antagonistic to science.
  • Attitudes about sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental, especially with regard to gender questions.
  • Young people are put off by the exclusive claims of Christianity.
  • Many young people, especially white evangelical youth, are disappointed in how their parents failed to deal with racism.
  • And these days, young people have little room for a faith that cannot tolerate and understand doubt.

There is nothing more powerful than a living example of faith:
Words and deeds put together 
to make a good and decent life … 
an example that children will always remember.

Walter Cronkite, the great newscaster of the 20th Century, tells a story - when he was young boy in Houston, in the 1920s, Jim Crow laws in effect. Walter’s father was a dentist, and recently hired to teach in a Houston dental school …

A few days after arriving in Houston, the Cronkite family had a dinner invitation to the home of the school’s president, and in those pre-air conditioning days, they were all on the porch after dinner … to catch a bit of the evening breeze, and await the delivery of homemade ice cream from a nearby drugstore.

In Cronkite’s own words:

In those days, there was no air-conditioning and residential refrigeration options were limited. The Jim Crow “rules” of Houston said that African Americans could not approach the home of a Caucasian from the front. Years later, Cronkite recalled what happened next: “The black delivery boy drove up on his motorcycle and looked with his flashlight, clearly for some way to go to the back of the house.” Not finding a driveway or alleyway to deliver the ice cream, the young man started up the sidewalk. When he hit the first step to the porch, Dr. Hight, in Cronkite’s words, “jumped out of his chair like a cat, and hit him right in the middle of his face, wham!—knocked him back into the grass, ice cream cart spilling—and he said, ‘That’ll teach you, nigger, to put your foot on a white man’s front porch!’ My father said, ‘Helen, Walter, we’re leaving.’ ” 

The three Cronkites marched out of Dr. Hight’s house. When the embarrassed host tried to coax them into staying, Dr. Cronkite said “get lost” and kept walking. After that incident, Dr. Hight had the long knives out for Dr. Cronkite because of his “pro-Negro” sympathies. “I was horrified about the incident,” Cronkite recalled. “Terrified by the walk through the oak trees with their long Spanish moss dripping in them. It looked like a Walt Disney forest that I would expect all the animals jumping at us. We finally got a ride from somebody on a street corner. Got back to our hotel. But from that moment on I was wholly aware of the racial bigotry, prejudice, and treatment of blacks in that part of the world.”

Hats off the elder Cronkite who would not countenance such bigotry even from the president of the school … and what an important lesson he taught his son …

Walter Cronkite learned to take a stand against evil … even at the risk of personal wellbeing … it wasn’t easy, I’m sure, for his father to get up and leave, but it would have been a tragedy had his father stayed on the porch and turned a blind eye to evil.

That night, what might have become a stumbling block to young Walter Cronkite became, instead, the Mt. Everest of moral conscience.

Whether it be Walter’s father getting up off the porch, or anyone of us here, we know what know what has to be done.

Jesus has left us enough instruction to figure it out … 
the Beatitudes and all the rest, 
Paul’s letters and the book of Revelation … 
the whole of the Bible, Moses and the prophets, 
and for us Presbyterians, our own creeds and statements of faith - 
The Confession of ’67, he Barmen Declaration of Faith … we know what have to know, and we know what we have to do … 

Dear friends in Christ, Palms Westminster … Presbyterian to the core … with a past for which we can be grateful, and a future for which we can be glad:

Let us agree this morning:
With fervency of heart, 
clarity of mind, 
in Jesus’ name, 
to get off the porch
to set before our children and youth,
the high mountains of faith, hope and love … 
To set before our children memories, strong memories, that will see them through their youth and guide them into adulthood. 

All of this, and more, for the glory of God, and the welfare of the world.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"A Mercy Unto Salvation" August 13, 2017, Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Matthew 14.22-33
August 13, 2017
Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Peter, Peter, Peter …
What are we going to do with you?

You are bold in your affirmations, and foolish in your behavior … you act before you think, and your high thoughts of yourself are more trouble than they’re worth.

Peter’s one of the great ones, but it took him a long time to get there … 

Along the way, plenty of missteps, faux paws … outlandish promises, moral failure … Peter’s not a pretty sight.

Remember when Jesus says that he will go to Jerusalem and there he will suffer and die?

Peter scolds Jesus for such thoughts. Peter doesn’t want to hear any of it.

But the response of Jesus is quick and brutal: Jesus turns on Peter and calls him Satan … because it was Satan who tempted Jesus in the wilderness to avoid pain and sorrow, and do it the easy way … and now it’s Peter who sounds very much like the Devil.

Peter bumbles and fumbles his way through life; he’s a spiritual klutz, full of himself … Peter has a lot of heart, energy and love, and he knows how to fish … but all of these attributes need to honed and sharpened and focused … a whole lot less of himself and whole lot more of God.

So, let’s look at our story today … the disciples on the Sea of Galilee battling unfavorable winds …

Early in the morning, battling the heavy seas, the disciples see Jesus coming toward them on the waves … Matthew says, they were terrified.

And who can blame them?

Anyone of us would have have shared their terror … there, in the midst of rough seas, Jesus on the waves … what is this? An apparition, a ghost, something we ate, the flu? They were terrified.

Jesus speaks! Shouting over the crash of the waves and the rush of winds …

It is I … take heart … it is I.

We need to do some language work here:

Jesus spoke Aramaic … but the gospels are written in Greek … and it’s in the Greek rendition by Matthew, that Jesus says - ego eimi [and that “ego” has nothing to do with Eggo Waffles, but the word Ego in English, meaning “I”] … Jesus literally says: … “I am” … now for some of you familiar with the Old Testament, this may ring a bell.

Remember Moses at the Burning Bush, when Moses wants to know God’s name?

God replies, YahwehI am … I am who I am … if anyone wants to know, tell them I Am has sent you [Exodus 4] …

Jesus literally says to the disciples, I Am … the LORD God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth … the One who sent Moses to set the people free!

Peter knows what Jesus says, that’s why Peter calls him LORD … but understand the theology, if you will, but Peter can restrain himself; Peter wants more …

Peter, once again, like Satan … tempts Jesus to perform, do something spectacular, Jesus, for ME … 

Peter’s words echo the words of the Devil in the wilderness.

If you are the Son of God … turn these stones into bread … If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle … 

Can you hear the similarity between what Satan says to Jesus in the wilderness and what Peter says to Jesus in the storm?

Peter tempts God … If you are who you say are, command me to come to you on the water … it’s not enough that you’re coming to meet us in our time of distress … no, that’s not enough … I want something more … something for me … itty bitty little ol’ me … 

It’s all about Peter!

It’s the original sin … wanting more than what God has already given … in the Garden of Eden, did God stay Eve’s hand from plucking the fruit? Did God intervene to say, “Don’t eat it.”

No … no intervention in the Garden … as terrible as the deed was, God let it happen.

So Jesus says, Give it try Peter … and Peter steps out of the boat.

Was Peter brave?

I don’t think so … Peter was consumed by his own pride … infected with spiritual competition … trying to one-up the others. “Me better Christian than you” … “Me grad-school Christian; you, kindergarten Christian” … “watch me guys, I’m gonna step outta this boat to prove how big my faith is.”

Just like Adam and Eve, it ends badly for Peter. Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden; Peter sinks into the sea.

And God comes to the rescue.

God gives to Peter the second chance, the third chance, and a few more thereafter … and then a few more chances all along the way.

There is no picture more powerful than Jesus reaching out his hand to save Peter in the moment of Peter’s despair … a gracious, powerful, image of God’s mercy … a mercy unto salvation.

To hear some Christians talk these days, you’d think Jesus might might have just stood by, calmly on the waves, and said to Peter, “Bye, bye, Peter, Ol’ Boy … you’re on your own now; it’s sink or swim time; you ought to know better; I’ve told … I’ve given you enough help, more than enough . It’s up to you now to improve your lot in life.” And Jesus walks away to the far shore, and let’s Peter drown.

Which raises a deadly question: Does Peter “deserve” to be saved? 

We hear a lot of that “deserve” talk these days … whether someone is deserving, or not … I can’t think of a more deadly question … whether or not people are deserving is a pathway to a swamp of bad ideas … the very question reveals a heart of pride … a heart convinced of its own worthiness, while finding others unworthy!

The very question of who deserves mercy puts us far away from the heart of God … 

I understand why some folks say these things - “I’ve made mine; too bad for you. I’m on top of the heap, and I got here by myself, by my own wits and strength; see these boot straps? They’re mine, all mine, and I pulled m’self up with ‘em, all by m’self.”

I understand why some folks talk this way. It’s pride, it’s greed, it’s malice, it’s meanness … it’s the way the god Mammon would have us talk to one another … the god Mammon is strong these days … infecting our nation with hideous thoughts.

“There’s no help here; we gotta save our money; we can’t spend so much on your kind, you’re on your own: no health care for you, no school funding, no insuring that everyone has a vote, no safe-guarding of Social Security and Medicare … and if you don’t like your low-wage job, get another job … and if you’re poor, work harder. Tough luck buddy; it’s sink or swim.”

I understand why some folks talk this way … but the way of Christ? the way of Christ is mercy, kindness … and full salvation … 

Jesus saves Peter … God Almighty, the Great I Am … and this is the truth for all of us … we are saved … we are saved by the mighty hand of God … period! … we are saved … from top to bottom, from A to Z … and all the time in between, every day, from birth to death and beyond … as the gospel hymn puts it:

I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,
But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
Love lifted me!
Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help,
Love lifted me!

Such is the love of God for us.

Such must be our love for one another!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven - Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Psalm 86.11-17   Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Who are we?

Well … take a look around … sure, go ahead … look at one another … chuckle, if you want … or cry, if you must … or simply scratch your head in bewilderment … maybe all three …

This is who we are … 

A little of this and a little of that … and each of us with a tale to tell … a timeline of faith, hope and love … sorrow and tears, as well … a beginning and an end, and a muddle in the middle.

Who are we?

We’re beautiful … and sometimes not.
We’re faithful to the LORD … and sometimes not.
We’re open-hearted and open-minded, gracious and wise … and sometimes not.
We love one another, and there isn’t anything we wouldn’t do for one another … and sometimes not.
We’re on top of the world … at the head of the class … and sometimes not.

Who are we?

We are the people of God … but on this piece of the story, we can never ever say, “sometimes not” … 

For we are what we are by the decision of God, God’s will and God’s purpose, from before the foundation of time, to the end of the age and beyond … and God doesn’t change God’s mind when it comes to the world God loves, and the people who share God’s image.

Did not Paul the Apostle say:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 


Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?


No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We may not always behave accordingly, we may even try to forget it, deny it, run away from it …

But however we respond, however we behave, we cannot, and never will, change the identity given to us by God: We are God’s People, and to God we belong.

So … here we are …

In this place, to say our prayers and sing our hymns … to learn of God, to think deeply about love and mercy … to confess our sins and hear anew the words of forgiveness … to ponder our world … honor one another … and find ways to serve Christ.

Some of us have been here a long time, at least in human years … and some of us are of a more recent vintage … but here we are … the People of God, young and old, man and woman, child and adult, gay and straight, of many colors and many stories … called, claimed, cleansed, commissioned, challenged and cherished …

To be the salt of the earth and the light of the world … 

To be people of good cheer … 
Mindful of the needy …
To care for the earth … 
Look after one another …

As for me, I think a nation as large as we are, as rich as we are, blessed by God as we are … we owe something to one another … 

We owe respect and love and kindness and dignity to one another … no matter who or what people are or what they’ve become … we owe one another the basic things of life … food, water, shelter … health care, retirement security, good jobs, fair wages, decent schools, public transit, good housing, sound nutrition, civil rights and voting rights. 

This isn’t the stuff of politics - food, shelter, safety, respect, dignity, kindness, mercy!

This is the stuff of the Bible … 

The Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes … the words of the prophets and the words of Jesus Christ … from creation to covenant, from covenant to the cross, from the cross to the new creation … from beginning to end, from the Alpha to the Omega … from Genesis to the Book of Revelation, it’s called love … love of neighbor and love of God … love for one another, and love for God’s creation … doing unto others what we would hope they might do for us … 

We’ve a story to tell to the nations.
A job a to do.
People to love.
Christ at the center.

In the midst of a sometimes crazy world … dangerous and deadly … lots of lies and half-truths … war and rumors of war …

So Jesus tells a parable … you will work hard, and so will the enemy … you may well tell the truth, but others will tell lies … you may give it your best shot, and others will betray you and betray the very cause for which you work. 

A farmer sows good seed, says Jesus … and along comes the enemy and fills the field with bad seed … and it all starts to grow together … 

Shall we uproot the bad stuff? they ask?
No, says the farmer, you can’t. Uproot the bad, and you’ll uproot the good, too.

There’s no sorting it our right now … 

Just stay with it, says Jesus … 

Keep sowing the good seed … put your hand to the plow and don’t look back … take up your cross and stay with me … and even now, says Jesus, I send you the Holy Spirit …

The Comforter, the Teacher, the Fire, the Fire that consumes the dross and purifies the heart … the Fire of Pentecost … a tongue of flame over the head of every disciple, the gift of language …

To speak intelligibly, to speak kindly to the world … to invite the world to know what it already is and has always been - a creation of God Almighty … good and glorious … 

The language of faith: to help every human being know and receive and live and enjoy what every human being already is and has always been - beloved of God … the creature of God’s own image, given life, and called by God into God’s service.

This morning’s parable is a parable of the kingdom of heaven … the kingdom of heaven is like this, and it’s like that, and then sometimes, it’s like that, or like this … 

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field … 

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …
Or like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with the flour …
Or like a treasure hidden in a field …
Or a merchant searching for fine pearls …
Or like a net thrown into the sea to catch every kind of fish ..
Or like a king who who wished to settle accounts …
Or like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for the vineyard …
Or a king who gave a great banquet …
Or ten bridesmaids waiting for the groom and some had oil enough, and some were lacking …

And what do we learn?

The work isn’t easy … and it’s not all about us … it’s about the world, and everyone and everything in it … and maybe we’re not big enough right now for all of that … so we let God expand the boundaries of heart and mind … to take us from Egypt to the Promised Land … to see us through the Red Sea and across the wilderness of sin and sorrow … manna in the morning and water from a rock, a pillar of fire by night and a bright shining cloud by day … God provides, to see us through and on our way … 

The work is hard … 

And sometimes we get it wrong … sometimes we’re the bad seed … our foolishness, our selfishness … we don’t want to grow; we don’t want to learn … sometimes we’re the bad seed … 

Church history makes that clear:

There was a time when good Christian folk thought the world was flat and the sun revolved around the earth … which wouldn’t be so bad if that’s all they thought … but when scientists said the earth was round, and the earth revolved around the sun, good Christians said, “No you don’t. Recant or die.”

There was time when good Christian folk - at least the white kind, thought that slavery was a good idea, and would quote chapter and verse from “god’s word” to make their point … and that it was okay to kill Native Americans and take their land, because America was just like Israel in the Promised Land, and didn’t god command Israel to kill everyone there, and take their land?

Good Christians thought segregation and separate schools were good … along with poll taxes and other devices to suppress voting rights … 

Good Christians can be in it for themselves, sneaky and snide, nasty and nippy … 

Sometimes we’re the bad seed …

So, we keep on learning … learning how to be the good seed … how to be wise and caring and loving and kind … how to discipline ourselves, and say yes to the best … to live our faith … our integrity. … the grace of God … the salvation of Christ, the glory of redemption and peace.

We learn how to be the good seed.

Dear people, who are we?
The people of God, that’s who we are.

Where do we live?
The kingdom of heaven.

Now let’s get to it, dear friends.
Our purpose, our task, our calling, our commission, our glory and our joy:
Love this world as God loves it.
Speak truth to power.
Shed the lies of pomp and pride.
Be kind to the poor and the broken.
Change the social order.
Seek a government of the people, by the people, for the people, because such a government reflects the kingdom of heaven.
Say yes to the good, and no to evil.

Be of good cheer.
Be faithful to the church.
Show up and be here.
Accountable to one another.
Sing with gusto.
Read our Bible, especially the Beatitudes, again and again.
Trust God, trust God, trust God.

Unto the glory of God, and for the healing of the nations.

Amen and Amen!