Sunday, February 12, 2017

"I Will Praise God with an Upright Heart" - Feb. 12, 2017, Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Deuteronomy 30.15-18; Psalm 119.1-8; Matthew 5.21-37

I will praise you with an upright heart, says the Psalmist.

I will turn to you, O God, with thanksgiving and devotion.

Praise is simply saying: 
To you, O LORD, I belong.
And how grateful I am.

Though sometimes we’re not so grateful to belong to the LORD.

Jeremiah regretted it.
Lots of others along the way, as well.

Because faith takes us into serious territory.

And we quickly learn: faith can be a burden.

This year, 2017, we celebrate the Birth of the Reformation.
Martin Luther nailed a few papers to the castle door in Wittenberg, Germany, to announce a disputation, a debate … and on those papers, 95 ideas, about faith, the church, and what it means to trust in the love of God.

Luther had no idea where it would all go.
But it didn’t take long for things to go bad.

And when it went bad, it was really bad.
The Pope condemned Luther for heresy.
The Emperor issued a death warrant.

The Pope and the Emperor called on Luther to recant.
Give it up.
Be quiet … go away.
We’ll be friends again.

Some of Luther’s friends gave him the same counsel.
Is it worth it Martin, to go through of all of this?
The brightest minds of the church say you’re wrong.
The emperor wants you dead; the Pope wants you back.
After a thousand years, Martin Luther, how can you now say that the Church has been wrong?
Are you not being a little arrogant about all of this?

Luther had times of great depression, Anfechtung in German - the very word sounds bad, doesn’t it? Anfectung!

Luther was no happy camper in the midst of so many struggles. 
Yes, he had joy, too - joy when he married, joy with his children, and good food and beer. 
He took comfort in the gospel, the pure love of God that can always be trusted … 

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing …

But no one is an Iron Man.
No one is impervious to fear and doubt.
Luther did not always know “the joy of the LORD” … 
His faith took him to serious places … his work required huge burdens … 

Luther knew that somehow or other he was right.
But he didn’t have to be happy and sappy and clappy all the time. 
He didn’t have to sing praise jingles and put on a smile.
He didn’t have to fake it.
Or pretend that everything was wonderful.

My soul is heavy, he said.
My life is burdened.

The burdens of confronting the powers-that-be.
The death of two children.
The death of friends.
And the constant threat of arrest and execution.

But Luther knew he had to do what he was doing.
He was the man of the hour.
Upon whom the mantle of leadership had fallen.

Dear Christian friends, there is joy in knowing the grace of God and the love of our LORD Jesus Christ.

But like it or not, there’s more than one note in the symphony of God’s story.

There is also the discomfort and sting of the cross.
Take up your cross, says Jesus.
Be ready for enemies … ready for hard times.
What they’ve done to me, they’re likely to do to you, too.

Families will be upset.
People of your own household with turn against one another.

It helps to know something of church history.
To be mindful of those for whom the way of Christ has been a hard and difficult road.
American Christianity is far too eager to be happy.
To put on a smily face and play the game, “let’s pretend.”
In churches across America, preachers have become cheerleaders and crowd managers … whipping up the joy noise … and people go home having praised the LORD, but I’ll say to you, they praised without an upright heart … 

Jesus never pretended such nonsense.
And neither did Paul the Apostle, or any of the other great women and men who took up the cross and followed Christ.

Think of the Presbyterian Missionaries who traveled the Trail of Tears with the Cherokee.
Missionaries in far away lands, and day-by-day servants of the LORD, doing good, bearing burdens, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting those in prison, defending the unjustly accused, standing up for civil rights and justice.

Martin Luther, the Reformer.
Martin Luther King, Jr. on Petus Bridge.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer conspiring to take Hitler’s life.

Our own John Calvin in Geneva.
And a host of others who tackled the big stuff.
And paid a big price.

So, let’s be clear.
To praise God with an upright heart is to be real.
Authentic, engaged.
Devoted, ready.

Ready to offer the whole of our lives.
A sweet offering unto God.

As best we can.
From day-to-day, and,
Over the years.

And then, sometimes, not so much.
And then, sometimes.
Maybe not at all.

But God remains faithful - that’s the gospel.
Always and forever faithful.
Faithful to us.
Faithful to the ultimate purpose of God’s love - to restore creation, give life, set the captives free, give sight to the blind, healing to the sick … 

God keeps going.
And, then, in some miraculous way, so do we.

God’s grace at work.
The Holy Spirit within us, around us.
Through the life of the church.
And the life of all who dare to think deeply.

In the novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” author Anthony Doerr tells the tale of a girl gone blind by age 6 … she lives with her father, a widower.
The father builds a miniature of the neighborhood, and she learns how to feel every little street and every little house with her finger tips, and then she walks with her father, with her cane, feeling the sidewalk, the buildings, the gutter drains, learning her neighborhood.
The father takes her out one day on their usual walk, and then, he turns her around several times and says, “Take us home, Marie-Laurie.”
With bumps and bruises, and busy folks bumping into her, she drops her cane and begins to cry.
Her father lifts her up and hugs her tightly.
“It’s so big,” she whispers.
“You can do this Marie.”

At first she can’t.
And then one day …

And for us, too … by the Holy Spirit:
We try, and try again.
People bump into us … we lose our way … 
It’s so big, we cry.
And it is.
And sometimes we can’t.
But in time, something good happens.

We grow in the grace of God.
We learn the power of prayer.
We give and receive love.
We engage and serve.
We weep and we laugh.
We lament and we try again.

Because it is so big.

Jesus speaks of big things:

Murder and judgment.
Adultery and love.
Oath making and truthfulness.

Serious stuff, is it not?

Many years ago, I showed a film to my session, produced by physicians against nuclear war … a stirring presentation of our need to work for peace and oppose war.

Afterward, one of the elders came to me and said, “Well, Tom, if there’s a nuclear war, and we all die, we just go to heaven. What’s wrong with that?”

I don’t know what I said then - I don’t think I managed that one very well.

So the question bounced around in my head for a long time until I came up with a story, of a man who dreamed of going to heaven.

And when the man stood by the pearly gates, St. Peter said to him: “You didn’t care about God’s earth; what makes you think you’ll care about God’s heaven.” And the man was turned away.

Nothing is more important to God then how we live with one another, and how we take care of God’s earth. 

It’s all so big, we cry!
And so it is.
But we can learn to do it.

Because we have to.

For the truth … our own survival, God’s green earth … 

To hear some Christians yak about it, you’d think God didn’t care about the snails and the minnows … but God cares deeply … all living creatures … when the Bible says, God so loved the world, that ain’t just you and me … it’s all of God’s creatures, great and small … the whole shebang, all of it … and that’s the truth … the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The truth that sets us free.
To have an upright heart.
Honest and real.
Serious about the things of God.
Serious about how we live with one another and how we care for God’s creation.

I will praise you with an upright heart.

Amen and Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Eulogy for One Who Took His Own Life

We all face the end of life, though it’s not something we think much about in our youth, yet as the clock ticks on, it gets a little louder as the years pass on, and we’re a bit more mindful of our mortality.

Death comes in so many ways … and for some, it comes by their own decision, their own desire, their own hand. And we’re all left bereft, wondering if might have done something differently … and our tears reflect the gaps that exist in every relationship and in every moment of time.

It’s a hard story … but no need to make it harder than it is.

The Church has not dealt kindly with those who take their own life. They were condemned and refused burial in sacred ground. Their sin, mortal to the core, forever barred them from the gates of Paradise.

Or so it has been said.

For me, the moment of decision came in 1973, Altoona, PA … on a Sunday afternoon, when Thelma called in tears, “Can you please come to the house; George just shot himself.” 

Just around the corner from the manse next to the church, I hurried over … and in the upstairs bedroom, lying on their bed … where it ended for George.

That day, and then for the funeral, I had to decide … and I decided with what I have known all the days of my life: the kindness of God, the wideness of God’s mercy … the welcome and the love of God … for all of God’s creatures … no matter the manner of death … 

That day, in distress, a distress the living cannot fathom, when life has no more meaning, and death becomes the best choice, God is there with infinite love and understanding … on that Sunday afternoon, God said to George, “Come on in. I see that you’ve had a hard time of it. Here, let me get you something to eat.” When God is the perfect Jewish mother.

I celebrate William Ralph Vogel’s life … and I assure you, for those in distress, whatever it is, there is special kindness in God’s heart. Let there be no doubt that God would turn away in the last moment of our sorrow and despair.

In this matter:

The Church was wrong … truly and profoundly wrong.

Can I right the wrong?

Dare I stand against Tradition?

The Church is changing on this question, and a whole lot more than me push for a better understanding … 

And I know - your heart yearns for the mercy of God in such things …

We all know that life can be very hard … and for some, life becomes unbearable, and by their own hand, death is invited in. 

How this comes to be, I do not know … but I know that it does … and I stand firm on this note: that in the end, however it is, the End is God … and God is light, God is love … God is mercy … God is kind … eternally and powerfully kind.

XXX is safe with God.


That’s how it ends … where it begins … in the heart of God … 

That’s the gospel, dear friends … that’s the message … that’s our hope.

Safe at last, safe at last, thank God Almighty, safe at last.

We take leave of our brother, our friend, our companion and fellow-traveler with hearts broken … as it should be … but we leave also with some degree of courage, to live as best we can, with all the love and skill and music we can muster … 

And in the end, all is good, all is God.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Immanuel" - January 15, 2017, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles

Isaiah 49.1-7;  Psalm 40.7-9; 1 Corinthians 1.1-3; John 1.29-31

Good Morning Immanuel.
And God’s Peace to you.
God’s love and mercy.
God’s goodness and grace.

The stuff of life.
That keeps us going.
No matter what.
No matter how hard the road becomes.

And sometimes the road is long and miserable.
Sometimes everything that can go wrong goes wrong.
It happens now and then.
Everything upside down.

A topsy turvy world, it can be.
And we’re not quite sure how to go.
Or what to do.
Or when and where it’ll end.

Such is life for all of us.
Sometimes grand and sometimes not.
Yet here we are.
In this place and time.

A time to worship and lift our voices.
To join in the chorus of God’s People throughout the ages.
If we listen, we can hear them:
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel.

A chorus of faith.
A song of hope.
The vibrant sounds of creation.
The original moment of light breaking out.

The Spirit of God hovers over the primal waters.
When nothing was everything.
And everything was nothing.
Only the Spirit, like a dove, wings beating.

And there it came, in the night.
The light, bright and pure.
By Word of Mouth, a Word spoken.
Let there be light.

In the beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God.
And the Word was God.
And there was light.

Plenty of light.
Lots of light.
Enough light to make things grow.
Light to lead the way.

Down through the ages.
People have believed … strange stuff, this believing stuff:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, 
Maker of Heaven and Earth.

And in Jesus Christ.
God’s only Son our LORD.
Conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Born of the Virgin Mary.

I believe in the Holy Spirit.
The Holy catholic church.
The Communion of Saints.
The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Strange stuff, this believing stuff.
Because some stuff is dangerous.
Really, really dangerous.
Takes us to God …

And God sees to it that our life -
Is no longer our own.
God weaves our lives into the very life of the universe.
God sets the pace of our every step.

And we’re glad to be a part of God.
Glad to know the goodness of Christ.
And sometimes we’re not glad to be a part of God.
Sometimes the calling of God is more than we can bear.

Like Isaiah, the reluctant prophet.
A messenger of faith, hope and love.
That’s what we are.
We’re messengers.

Messengers of a good and godly word.
A transformative word.
A difficult word.
A word that speaks to the deepest places of life.

A word that creates and recreates.
A single word, a string of words.
Words to bless and words to inspire.

Sure, there are plenty of words that deconstruct.
Words that wreck and destroy, maim and malign.
Words that are lies, and lies that are words.
And we don’t know which is what, and what is which.

Because some liars are masters of their craft.
Clever in their deceptions.
Skilled in slander and fake news.
And people will be misled - by these masters of the lie.

Misled - all the way to disaster.
Because of clever lies.
Lies that glitter.
But are not gold.

So God calls Isaiah.
And God calls you and me.
Here and now.
For our time and day.

The message of faith, hope and love.
Grace, mercy and peace.
Christ born in a stable.
And crowned with thorns.

Baptized in the Jordan.
And crucified on a cross.
Dead and buried.
And three days later …

A stone rolled away.
Roman guards knocked senseless.
Women amazed.
Disciples bewildered.

And then the Spirit all over again.
Hovering over those uncertain disciples.
In an upper room.
Full of doubt and fear.

Flames danced upon their heads that day.
And they began to speak.
That strange and Holy Day of Pentecost.

And the people in Jerusalem.
They heard the word in their own tongue.
In their own language.
Words they could understand.
Words of faith, hope and love.

It made sense to them.
And many believed.
Though some thought to themselves:
These clowns are only drunk.

But drunk they were not.
Stone cold sober they were, on that great awakening day.
They spoke of faith and hope.
They made sense of things in a strange and uncertain time.

And these gospel words still makes sense today.
They always have.
And always will.
Because God is truth, and truth is love.

And love defeats the lies.
Love defends the poor
Love finds ways to get along.
And has no need for bluff and bluster.

But love does need justice.
Love needs truth.
Love cannot sit idly by when some want to take it all.
And the children go hungry.

So here we are in faith dear friends.
On the road we go.
The LORD ahead of us, with light and love.
Come follow me, says he … ever strong and ever good … his name, Immanuel.

I love the name.
God with us.
That’s what it means.

The very presence of God.
The God of light and love.
The God always with us.

I don’t know what the future holds.
But I know God holds the future.
And the arc of history bends toward justice.
Love prevails, love wins.

Sometimes the way ahead has to be the cross.
That we know.
And that we believe.
The love of God is forged in hard ways and hammered nails.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 
so wisely noted:
The measure of man is not what he does in comfort, 
But when caught up in challenge and controversy.

Follow Christ?
How easily we throw that notion around.
As if it were a cakewalk.
And sometimes it IS easy.

But Jesus speaks of challenging times.
A cross to be carried.
A plow to be managed, and never, ever again, look back.
To follow Jesus - it can be hard, sometimes.

But hard or not.
What other way might there be?
Where else can we go?
To find such a lasting hope; the one John called, The Lamb of God?

If you’ve seen Rogue One.
You know the line.
“Revolutions are built upon hope.”
And there is no larger hope than Christ.

And no greater revolution than Christianity.
Sure, there are those who would tame Christianity.
Make it docile and quite.
A servant of the rich, or a tool for personal enhancement.

But Christ is the revolution.
The turner of tables and the disrupter of the status quo.
He speaks of love when others cry for hate.
He offers forgiveness when the proud call for judgment.

Christ is our hope and Christ is our peace.
Christ is our voice.
Christ is our revolution.
The way forward; the way to life.

Happy are those who make the LORD their trust.
Who do not turn to the proud.
Those who go after false gods.
And there’s plenty of that these days, dear friends.

False gods galore.
Noise and pride.
Mocking the disabled and damning the poor.
Folks so hungry for power they’ll do and say anything.

Nothing new with any of this.
So let’s not be surprised.
Let’s not be naive.
Let’s keep our eyes upon Christ, instead.

Stay the course and love one another.
Never give up.
Or turn away.
We shall remain engaged and determined.

To bear the cross of hope.
To carry the message of peace.
To challenge the powers that be.
And tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So, help me God.
And that’s the anchor, isn’t it?
God helps us.
God sustains and God guides.

God with us: Immanuel.
The Christ of everlasting glory.

The Christ who refused the easy way out.
And choose the hard way in.
To serve the LORD God Almighty 
And to love the world to the end.

Immanuel: God with us.
Let it be so.
In word and deed.
Song and service.

Let the tower of this church point toward heaven.
To lift the human spirit.
To remind the discouraged and the downtrodden.
That life is worth the living, and the living is worth everything.

To remind the oppressor and the cruel.
That God moves in a mysterious way wonders to perform.
Justice will have the last word.
Goodness will triumph over evil.

Immanuel: God with us.
That’s our message.
And we are the messengers.

To the glory of God.
The transformation of our world.
The healing of the nations.
And the salvation of all nature.

Amen and Amen!