Sunday, January 14, 2018

Onward and Upward

John 1.43-51    Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Welcome to a New Year.

Some might say, well, it’s just another year … it’s no different than any other day … which is true enough, but we humans have a sense of time … time past, present and future … 

Time for us is fateful … important … we don’t want to be late for an appointment … we don’t want to be too early for a social event … we want to arrive on time, or at least to be fashionably late.

Time marches on, we say, and so it does.

We’re all part of time … we’re born, we live, and then one day, we draw our last breath … and like the Bible puts it, we join our fathers and mothers, and here in this place, we are no more.

Time … the time we have is everything …

We make choices, decisions, commitments … we make our plans and do what we can to follow through …

We make promises to have and to hold …

We make promises to be faithful to Christ … to tell the truth, at least as best we can … and not just the truth, but the truth in love … because truth without love is hardly truth at all … as Paul the Apostle reminds us: without love, our highest endeavors and our finest words mean nothing …

Time is part and parcel of hope … and hope is our greatest strength, our greatest asset … hope in the LORD, and the LORD’s faithfulness, to be at work in all things for good.

Hope for a better day … for new love … for another chance … 

I’ve been thinking of the Pete Seeger song: I Can See a New Day …

I can see a new day
A new day soon to be
When the storm clouds are all passed
And the sun shines on a world that is free.

I can see a new world 
A new world coming fast
When all men are brothers
And hatred forgotten at last

I can see a new man
A new man standing tall
With his head high and his heart proud
And afraid of nothing at all

I can see a new day
A new day soon to be
When the storm clouds are all passed
And the sun shines on a world that is free.

From our gospel this morning …

Jesus said to Nathaniel, Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

I’m thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  … I have a dream, he said.
That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream …

I find myself thinking of Isaiah:

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah said, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
      “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
      the whole earth is full of his glory.”

I think of those who came to Phillip and said, Sir, we would see Jesus.

Can we be hopeful today?

Can we we face the harsh winds of life and be brave?

Can we speak truth to power, because we believe in the truth, the truth of Christ, the truth that really sets people free?

Can we look at the homeless on our streets and demand that the organs of government get their act together and do a better job for the needy and the downcast?

Can we look at our schools and demand that as a nation we stand by our children, we fund our schools, we keep them in repair, and see to it that our children are safe and secure?

Can we look at the elderly in our land and celebrate what Social Security has meant to millions of Americans, hard working Americans, decent and good Americans who need Social Security to avoid the abyss of poverty?

Can we celebrate the goodness of Medicare … for millions of Americans who need decent health care… 

Can we truly be patriots, and care for one another … 

Can we be Christian enough to know that we owe a debt of love to one another … and that God desires good government … God is the god of kings and queens and prime ministers and parliaments, and Senators and Legislators and Presidents, too … and all who hold the reigns of power will be held accountable before the LORD of heaven and earth, not for how much money they saved, but for how much money they spent, to make life better for children, for women and young mothers, for all who have needs, for all who are in want … God will not ask our leaders about walls built to keep people out, but bridges built to welcome the world! Not about war, but about peace. Not about exclusion, but welcome. Not about punishment, but forgiveness … and how we all cared for God’s good earth.

In the early 80s, I showed to my Session a film about nuclear war, and what we can do to prevent it.

Afterward, an elder asked me, “If we all die in a nuclear war, and we go to heaven, what’s wrong with that?”

At the time, I didn’t have answer, and it saddened me. And for a long time, I thought about it.

And came up with this … not a heavy answer, but just little parable of sorts …

A man stood by the gates of heaven, hoping to enter, but St. Peter said to him, “In your life time, you didn’t care about God’s earth. What makes you think you’ll care about God’s heaven?” And the man was turned he away.

The man objected: I have faith, I believe in Jesus … and St. Peter will say, Yes, but you didn’t have love. You didn’t love my green earth, my clean water, my bright air. You didn’t care about children dying. Oh, you did your charity; you gave, but you didn’t put away the tools of destruction and the greed that creates poverty. You sang hymns about Christ, but you failed to follow him.

Without love, faith is nothing.
Without love, charity means nothing.

I so like what Oprah Winfrey said at the Golden Globes:

In my career, she said, what I've always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. 

To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome. 

I've interviewed and portrayed people who've withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. 

So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! 

And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say "Me too" again.

2017 has been a pretty rough year for me … and for our nation, as I see it … and the world around us … but I believe the LORD above yet has a hand upon the engines of history … evil will fail and love will prevail …

And that we here in this place will make a difference when we choose Christ, anew and again.

Something new on the horizon … a new day coming … the fresh winds of faith, hope and love … the sunshine of grace, mercy and peace … the love of Christ … and people, people all around the world, taking a deep breath, rolling up their sleeves, going to work, and working hard, to make this a better world …

In the end, God will look upon us and say Thanks. You cared for my earth, and that means you’ll love heaven. 

In life and in death, now and forever, we belong to a most faithful Savior.

I can see a new day.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Bethlehem Road

Isaiah 64.1-9; Mark 13.24-37
Advent One
Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Today is the first step … along the Bethlehem Road … it’s Advent … the first Sunday of Advent … the first of four Sundays that take us along the Bethlehem Road.

The Star above … Wise Men from the East, Shepherds in the field, and the angels who sing to them … to Bethlehem we go … 

God is waiting for us, calling us … to make the journey …

Mary and Joseph are already there …

The powers that be ordered Mary and Joseph, and everyone else, to return to their hometowns, to register for taxation … everyone was on the move, and nothing seemed right … all was topsy turvy, the bad guys in charge, and in just such time, and in just such a place, the Son of God is born.

The Bethlehem Road … we’re on it today.

To find goodness and beauty … to find hope and peace … and there, before the manger, to lay down our gifts, our lives, our dreams, our love … all that we are, and all that we hope to be.

In Bethlehem, we find our true selves …

And what’s our true self?

We are children of God, and that means we’re brothers and sisters with one another … and that means we take care of one another.

We have no self without other selves connected to us … “no man is an island” said the poet John Donne. 

We’re created to be with each other, and for each other … every human being is family for us … remember when God questioned the Cain about his brother’s whereabouts, and Cain petulantly asked, “What, am I my brother’s keeper?”

And the answer, “Yes, of course, you are. You are your brother’s keeper.”

We’re all in this together … it’s sin that divides and sets us apart … it’s sin that tells us we’re exceptional and have certain rights over against others … nothing is more painful to watch than a person who believes they’re better then others … it’s a giant ego, we say … and such thoughts are the worst when those thoughts infect nations … as we saw in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia … all of those nations thought they were “exceptional” and what a world of suffering their pride created.

On the Bethlehem Road, we learn the truth about ourselves … we’re all exceptional, because we’re loved of God … and every nation is named by God … everyone and every nation has a place in the scheme of life, and only when we see how deeply connected we are to one another, only then do we learn who we are, what life is all about, and what we have to do.

There have been times in our nations history when this part of the Christian story held sway, and people and churches and synagogues and government took care of one another … and then there are times, when we’ve forgotten how to take care of one another, and then we fought a Civil War because some thought slavery was a good idea … and these days, I fear for our nation, that we are quickly becoming a nation ruled by self-interest and self-glory … led by people who are quick to grab all the clothing off the rack before anyone else has a chance to get even a coat or a pair of pants …

That’s why we need to make this journey to Bethlehem, to find our true selves … to find mercy and kindness and to guide our nation to a better place … to promote peace and not war … to share and not to take … to tell the truth and not use lies and alternate facts to hurt one another.

In Bethlehem, we find our true selves.

In Bethlehem, we find one another … and that’s always the way it is when we find ourselves … we find one another … 

The closer we move to Bethlehem, the closer we become to others … who are on the road to Bethlehem … many roads, from many different directions … everyone of good faith, whatever their faith, is on the road to Bethlehem … every religion, every faith - Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, Sikh and Christian … each in our own way, on the Bethlehem … and the closer we move toward Bethlehem, the closer we move to one another …

Here, in a big city, how close we are to one another … that’s why I love big cities … our neighbors are the world, and the world is our neighbor … the food we eat is different, the ways we dress and talk, the ways we worship god … all different, all wonderfully different … and that’s why we need each other … not one of us is complete by ourselves … no one faith tradition has all the truth, but only a part of it … Christians need to talk with Jews, and Jews with Muslims, and Muslims with Buddhists, and Buddhists with Sikhs … we all need one another to fulfill our own unique calling from God.

On the Bethlehem Road.

And along the way, the poor and the oppressed, the lost and the lonely … God asks us, “Do you see them, too? along the road? 

You can walk, but maybe they can’t … some have been set upon by thieves and left to die beside the road … some are orphans and some are widows who haven’t the means … some of them are strangers in our midst; they belong nowhere and have no home … can you see them on your way to Bethlehem?

Help them, carry them, provide for them … as the Samaritan did for the injured man on the Jericho Road …  “leave no one behind” is the only way for us to follow Christ and be faithful to our calling.

With helping hands and kindly words, we lift one another … and again and again, we remind this nation what it means to be a godly nation, not just with words printed on our money, or in phony prayer breakfasts that look good and stink to high heaven because of their hypocrisy … white washed tombs, said Jesus, beautiful on the outside and full of death inside.

We have to help our nation recover its senses, it’s purpose, it’s character … to leave no one behind, to provide for one another, with fair taxes, and ways and means so that the rich don’t get richer at the expense of the poor, and the poor don’t get poorer because the rich simply don’t care.

The rich and powerful rarely make the journey to Bethlehem - they don’t have the time or the interest, because they know that Bethlehem would change their lives, and they don’t want that kind change. They know it, and they fear it.

But we can do it, we have do it, we have to do it for them, and we have to show them their true selves, we have to help them see those beside the road … 

I’m an American … a proud and grateful American … and I’m a Christian, too … a Christian who wants this nation to recover its sense and regain its purpose … I want America to be great again … but right now, we’re not on a path to greatness; we’re on a highway to disaster.

As for credentials?

For better than 50 years, I’ve been a student of the Bible [sounds like the Apostle Paul] … I’ve read theology … I have a doctorate … I’m well-read in American and world history … if credentials mean anything, I have them … but it’s Christ finally to whom I appeal, on behalf of our nation - we’ve lost our way … our incessant wars, our failure to deal with poverty … the hideous forces of racism and misogyny … an administration mired in doubt and deceit … a tax plan that will hurt millions of Americans … our failure to deal realistically with immigration … the propaganda of fear paralyzing our moral compass … 

America is in the grip of unholy forces, economic and religious … standards of truth compromised … millions of Christians lost, because they have lost touch with Christ … they have traded away the Christ of Bethlehem for King Herod in his palace!

Only on the road to Bethlehem can life be found, only there, do we find ourselves, and only there, find one another.

In Bethlehem, we find ourselves found of God.

It’s not me, LORD; it’s you!

All of this begins with God … in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth … in the beginning, it was the love of God that said, “Let there be light.”

God is always first … the first to speak, the first to act, the first to love … and God is always last … the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in between.

Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, I choose you!”

Which is why I love infant baptism … there’s no chance here for anyone to say, “I chose Christ” … because none of us ever choose Christ … it’s Christ who chooses us, and no better image of this grace, this mercy, than infant baptism.

Because it always starts with an infant … the infant Moses … and infant Samuel … and the infant Jesus … God is always the God of good beginnings, good endings … and even in the middle, in the muddle, good things … at work in all things for good.

We discover the mystery of faith on the Bethlehem Road.

We find ourselves … and we find one another.

On the Bethlehem Road.

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

We Need a Big Story

Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church
Joshua 24.1-13; Matthew 25.1-13

We need a big story.

Something to capture our imagination … something bigger than usual … something so good, so powerful, beautiful, in a strange sort of way, to knock us off our feet … give us pause … start us thinking all over again … 

Thinking about big things:
Who am I?
Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
What’s it all about?

What does it mean to live?
What does it mean to die?

What are the values I cherish?
What kind of a human being am I?
When children look at me, what do they see?
When I’m gone, what will people remember of me?

We need a big story!
Ever wonder why “Star Wars” is so popular?

It’s a big story … big questions … big characters, big ideas … love and hate, good and evil, fear and courage, loyalty and betrayal, hope and despair … and maybe, just maybe, the good will win … if we’re willing to pay the price.

“Star Wars” is a big story.

Same can be said about the Harry Potter books … and the movies that followed … millions of children read these books … dark though they are, because they’re honest stories … big stories, with death close at hand, sadness stalking the night, bad people, really bad people; and faithfulness, too … loyalty, sacrifice, friends and family … some things are worth dying for.

One of the biggest stories of the mid-20th Century, “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” … I’ve seen all the movies, I’ve read all the books … stories that never grow old, stories that dance with light and hope … stories that illumine the darkness that threatens all of us all of the time.

Big stories invite us into their world …
Big stories help us get a little bigger ourselves … 

We wonder:
Could I be so brave?
Would I love with this kind of love?
Would I be a friend, no matter what?
How much would I give of myself in the final test of life?

Big stories:
Talk to us.
Questions us.,
Inspire us.

The power of a big story … even for our children … they love to hear a story … again and again and again … as their little minds develop and turn into big minds … minds big enough to handle the stuff of life.

We all need big stories … books, movies, poetry and art … science, philosophy, history and faith … 

Faith is a big story: I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son our LORD.

That’s a big story … a story bigger than our biggest thoughts … bigger than our hearts and minds, bigger than all of our hopes and dreams … bigger than life and bigger than death.

And within the big story, smaller stories … little chapters … haunting moments … bursts of light … a moment to think …

Jesus tells a story … about the Kingdom of Heaven … 

Like a wedding banquet, says Jesus … a celebration, a party … we’re all invited … put on your best, fire up your lamps, and take along some extra oil.

Ten bridesmaids … 

And then the story turns dark:

The groom is delayed … finally shows up at midnight … a great shout, the bridesmaids trim their lamps to light the way … 

Oh oh … oil is running low … five bridesmaids didn’t plan ahead … and when their lamps began to flicker and go out, they ask the others to share some oil …

With a surprising answer: No! … not now … if we share, there won’t be enough for any of us … you’ll have to go and buy some when you can.

Is this harsh? Aren’t we supposed to share with one another … or is this justification for some hard-nosed economics?

Let’s be careful … some would take this story and turn it into something really mean, something to hurt poor people … to hurt children without lunch money … to hurt widows and orphans, to hurt the immigrant … to hurt people who don’t have enough … and heaven knows this world is full of people who don’t have enough, because some people have too much.

What Jesus tells is crisis-story …

It’s like getting a call to go to Houston or to the Florida Keys with the hurricanes … you’re ready to go, you’ve had your training … your equipment is up-to-date, in working order … everything ready to go … and, then, a friend of yours says, “Hey, I’d like to help, too.” … but your friend isn’t ready … you’re friend has missed the latest training workshops, your friend’s equipment is a little dusty and out-of-date … your friend isn’t ready for the crisis, but wants to come along anyway and use some of your equipment … so you tell your friend, “I need all of this equipment for the crisis; lots of people need my help. Sorry about that. The next time there’s a training workshop, go to it. Get your equipment in shape. There’ll be other times when you can go. But right now, I have to go, and I’m ready. I’ll see ya’ when I come back.”

Thank God there are people ready to go when the call comes … Christians who rise to the occasion with a good word, and deeds of justice and peace.

Missionaries and ministers, elders and deacons … ready to go when the call comes … when the storms hit … when the crisis is at hand.

Reminds me of one of my favorite hymns: “Once to Every Man and Nation” …

It goes like this (some of you know it, I’m sure) …

Once to ev'ry man and nation 
Comes the moment to decide, 
In the strife of truth and falsehood, 
For the good or evil side; 
Some great cause, some great decision, 
Off'ring each the bloom or blight, 
And the choice goes by forever 
'Twixt that darkness and that light. 

Jesus tells a crisis-story … times in life when things go south, hardship comes, all hell breaks loose … the world is turned upside down … 

Jesus reminds the disciples that life isn’t easy … that all of us need to give serious thought for the days ahead … to have extra oil on hand for the day of need.

In the early days of ministry, calling on folks in nursing homes, I was always touched by the hymns they could sing, the poetry they knew … the Bible verses they quoted … 

Over the years, they had stocked up on oil for their lamp … when the night was dark, their lamp burned bright.

The heroes of history … women and men who had oil for their lamps:

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, there were many who said to him: “You’re wrong, Mr. President. You’re dead wrong.” But Abraham Lincoln had oil for his lamp.

When Florence Nightingale went to the Crimea to care for the wounded, she challenged traditional methods of nursing and hygiene, and many said to her, “You’re wrong, young lady. We don’t do things that way.” But Nurse Nightingale had oil for her lamp.

When Susan B. Anthony recognized that women needed the right to vote if America were ever to realize the fullness of democracy, many said to her, “You’re wrong, Ms. Anthony; women are not smart enough to vote.” But Susan Anthony had oil for her lamp.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on Pettus Bridge to challenge America to be better than it’s every been, there were many who said to him: “You’re wrong, Rev. King, you’re dead wrong.” But Rev. King had oil for his lamp.

But it’s more than the heroes … it’s you and me … ministers and missionaries, elders and deacons … musicians and singers … Sunday School teachers and the people sitting here today, who lift up their voices to God in praise, who prepare some food for our gathering … who show up, and share … who rise to the occasion and keep things going … every-day people who aren’t afraid, who dare to think about their world, who pray, and offer kindly advice … everyday folks who follow Christ to the best of their ability … oil for the lamp … to keep it burning.

Dear friends in Christ.
Dear Palms Westminster.
This is our song for life:

Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Keep me burning till the break of day

Amen and Amen!