Monday, August 29, 2016

"Every Time We Open Our Doors" - August 28, 2106, First Congregational Church of Los Angeles

Matthew 11.28-30

Every time …
Every time we open our doors,
Something good happens … 
Every time we open our doors,
The world - a little bit better … 

The community around us … the city of Los Angeles … the nation and the world … 

Sound preaching.
Vibrant music.
A building, to lift the spirit and inspire our love … our love of God, and our love of the world.

For God so loves the world, the Bible says.
The whole wide world … all its creatures, great and small.
All its forms, and every shape:
From the snows of Mt. Everest to the evergreens of Oregon.
From the Salton Sea to the Bearing Straits.
You and me, brother.
You and me, sister.
And don’t forget:
The tadpole and the panda bear … 
The polar bear and the penguin.
The honey bee and the hummingbird …
The flowers of the field and the fish of the sea.

We’re all in this together … we belong to one another … a vast network of life … 

When I think of First Church, special words come to mind: big words, powerful words … words like purpose, mission, opportunity, responsibility … 

Words like:
Grace, mercy and peace.
Faith, hope and love.

Our banners out front … progressive, joyful, inclusive, creative …

All summed up in the highest of ideals - to be the church of Jesus Christ … the church consecrated … made new every day … by the power of the Holy Spirit … 

To be of God, so thoroughly, we can be of this world comfortably … to be of Christ, so completely, we can be of one another lovingly.

The holy fellowship of faith … 

At the very center of it all - one big question …

What is God like? 

It’s the only question worth our time as those who gather in places like this … it’s the central question, upon which all else depends … 

And it’s not easy to answer … 

Look at Christianity around the world and down the street, and you’ll find hundreds of answers, thousands of answers … a smorgasbord of answers … not to mention all the other religions and expressions of faith found in every land across the vast expanse of this good earth.

Can they all be right?
Are some of them wrong?

Right or wrong, or somewhere in between … it’s up to us to answer the question for ourselves … in this place and in this time … right here, right now … “What is God like?”

This is what churches do … for good or for ill … and sometimes it’s for ill … churches don’t always end up in good places … sometimes the answer to the question about the character of God leads to terrible places with tragic consequences.

The churches of Germany that signed on with National Socialism and Herr Hitler made horrible and hideous mistakes …  

For centuries, the Western Church thought slavery was a part of God’s natural order, that women, naturally weak and unstable, had no place other than in the home, that the landed gentry were God’s anointed, entitled to their elevated status … kings and queens ruled by divine right … there is heaven for people who toe the line, and hell for those who don’t.

The church doesn’t always end up in good places … but fear not, say the angels to us … 

Listen, pay attention, consider this and consider that …

Weigh everything against Christ ... always the Christ, from cradle to cross, from cross to resurrection  …

Jesus asked the disciples: What are folks saying about me? That’s the listening task - what do others say of God?

And when the disciples offered what they were hearing, Jesus then asks, What do YOU say about me? 

That’s our central task … here and now, the task of the church … someone else’s answer won’t do; it has to be our answer, our commitment, our decision.

Which reminds me … if you ask a Roman Catholic a question, they’re likely to answer, “Well, the Pope says….”
If you ask a Baptist, they might answer, “Well, the Bible says….”
If you ask a Congregationalist, they might say, “Well, in my opinion….”

Tradition, Scripture and “my opinion” … it’s all three … working together,  to shape our faith, ground our lives, empower our ethics, and point us, beyond ourselves, to the larger realms of love and peace.

What is God like?

Here’s some of my answer … is it the only answer, the right answer?

I’ve been working at it for a long time … it began in my childhood … sitting in church, going to Sunday School, laying in bed at night … a deep and abiding sense of God … never frightening, always there … a good and kindly presence.

Over the years of ministry … the coal fields of West Virginia, the rail yards of Altoona, the corporate offices of Pittsburgh, the lumber trade of northern Wisconsin, the Oil Patch of Oklahoma, the Auto Industry of Detroit, and now the sunshine of California … 

I’ve done my homework; I’ve had good teachers … yet, the question remains: how much do I know? 

I know enough to know how little I know.

But I cannot evade the question: What is God like? 

None of us can, and none of us should … and to remember, that every answer given is a provisional answer … I answered this question 50 years ago … and 30 years ago … and I’m trying to answer it right now … and it’s all slightly different … I’ve grown, I’ve learned, backtracked and turned, and moved ahead a wee bit I hope … a journey that never ends, and should I live another ten years, my answers will be different even then …

Here and now, in this good place, my answer, for what it’s worth, goes something like this:

God is good and gracious … bright and beautiful … big enough to hold the world in her hands, strong enough to take up the sins of the world … 

Tiny enough to fit into Mary’s womb, small enough to fit into Bethlehem’s cradle … just right to hang on a Roman Cross and then be tucked into a borrowed tomb … 

And best of all, sized just right to fit my heart … and I would dare say, sized just right to fit your heart, too.

When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove … not a Roman Eagle of power, but a dove - the dove released by Noah, the dove that returned to the ark, with an olive leaf in its beak, to let Noah know that the worst of it was over … a new day dawning … creation anew … a world born, fresh from the flood.

When Jesus stepped out of the Jordan, a voice from heaven, This is my beloved son, listen to him.

And when I listen, this is what I hear … Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

This is God … God with us … the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel … the God of Exodus and Sinai … a pillar of cloud by day to provide shade from the burning sun; a pillar of fire by night to bring warmth to weary bones … and all along the way, water from a rock, and manna in the morning … the long journey, the long haul … from death to life, from darkness to light, from bondage to freedom … 

God, the Good Shepherd … God, the open door … God, the living water … the bread of life … the light of the world … the love that makes the world go round …

First Congregational Church, in a great city, be big … big-minded, big-hearted … big in faith and big in kindness …
Big like our city … big like God … big like love … 

And keep the doors open … wide open to all the world … and there’ll always be enough love left for even more … 

And in all of it, God … God in the morning, God in the evening and God all day long … the Great God Almighty who is everlasting, the fount of life, and the hope of the world.

Dear Friends … 

What a joy it’s been for me to walk and talk with you in the journey of faith … side by side with our pastors, Scott and Laura … our remarkable musicians, Jonathan and Christoph, and Stephen and our amazing singers … a staff second to none … Deacons and Trustees who know what they’re doing … a joyous Women’s Association … and all of you, talented and visionary … daring to walk through these doors, to keep them open to the world … to be sure that good things happen.

I’ll be on the road in September, but come October, I’ll be in the Eggebeen Pew, just over there, with Donna and our family … and don’t forget it, that’s the Eggebeen Pew!

I’ll continue doing weddings here … hanging around … because, as they say, old ministers never retire, they just misplace their sermon notes … 

And with prayer and love, I’ll encourage you, to keep on keepin’ on … to be the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, with doors wide open.

Because every time we open our doors, something good happens!

Pause a beat or two as musicians take their place …

And, now, if I may …
A gift to the church …
From my heart to yours …


Rainbows … bluebirds … and a most wonderful world …

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"What Just Happened?" - January 3, 2016

Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hawthorne, CA

January 3, 2016

John 1.1-9


A loud noise somewhere … “What was that?”

A tremor of the earth … the house creaks … “Was that an earthquake?”

We turn on the news midway through some report … everyone looks serious … we wonder to ourselves, “What just happened?”

Newly weds after their first fight, “What just happened?”

Newborn parents come home from the hospital with their little bundle of joy; they look at each other and query, “What just happened?”

Those newborn parents will wonder “What just happened” ten thousand times throughout the course of the years to come … as we all do, much of the time, at work and play, in hard times, and sweet times, “What just happened?”

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echo back their joyous strains.

What just happened?

Something, good, that’s for sure … truly, really, wonderfully, good … something that continues to inspire us with hope … we sing the carols with gusto, tears rise in our eyes … candles burn brightly in the night … a night that cannot overcome the light.

We might well ask, what with all the divine light, why so much darkness? …

Wars and rumors of war, refugees on the road, just like Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt … refugees, then, refugees, still, in a world where there’s so much hatred, so much anger, so much bigotry, so much fear …

The darkness is real …

But it cannot, will not, ever, overcome the light …

The Bethlehem Baby … Shepherds from the fields … Wisemen from afar … the star still shines …

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in the dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light …

Glorious light … abundant light … light to warm the heart, and light to lead the way.

Jesus said: You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

What just happened?

Something good.

And something in which we can rightly believe

We live by our beliefs, do we not?

If we believe the world to be a bad place, it’ll be bad place for us … if we believe the world to be full of goodness, we’ll find goodness around every turn of the road, no matter what, no matter where.

Jesus said, The eye is the lamp of the body … if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.

We choose … we choose what to believe about the world … and we choose how we see it … 

Joshua said to the people in the wilderness, Choose this day whom you’ll serve … the gods of the past, the gods of the day … or …

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The God of Miriam, Deborah and Ruth.

The God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ.

What just happened?
Something good … 
Something to believe …
And something to live.

From the Prophet Hosea:

I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice … the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings …

To put it in contemporary words: Let me see your faith at work … not here on Sunday mornings, but out there, on Monday mornings … let me have more from you than just your prayers; let me see your deeds of mercy, acts of kindness and the works of justice.

Yes, going to church is good.
Reading our Bible.
Saying our prayers.

But lots of people go to church.
Lots of folks read the Bible.
Lots of people pray.

And then they buy guns and get angry …

Guns, guns, and more guns … and so much violence …

Christian Churches in America are full of violent people … people who long for the violent end of the world … the violent end of the United States … violent people - the KKK, the John Birch Society, White Supremacist Groups and all the rest … hateful, bigoted, fearful, ignorant, angry … all in “Jesus’ name!”

I’m heartbroken - the failure of the church to lift up the light … so many Christians have turned to the Dark Side … and opened their hearts to fear and hatred.

To quote Yoda:

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

And how some folks hate our President.
They hate all kinds of people - Muslims, immigrants, refugees, people of color, gays and lesbians, poor people, you name it …

But I say unto you, dear people of God:
Never!
Never ever!
Is this the way of Jesus!

Jesus was born to show the world another way … 

And if we wonder what it means,

Micah the Prophet answers our question:

The LORD has told you what is good …
To do justice,
To love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God!

James writes:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress …

Paul the Apostle writes to the Galatians:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

And to the Corinthians:

Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude … love never ends.

Because God is love … and love is God!

People of God, we have a world on our hands … and never again can we go back to a world of distance … where it took weeks and months to cross a nation, or cross a sea … months to send and receive letters … t’s a world now of porous borders and instant communication; we live next door to one another … Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs … every stripe of race and creed and color … people who believe, and people who don’t … with lots of different holy books and lots of different traditions … 

Shortly before his death, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:

We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together— black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu— a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.

And how shall we live together?

What does it mean to follow the Child of Bethlehem?

In world of crude politics and violent voices … can we not lift up the alternative vision?

Do we dare to live the ways of peace?
Kindness?
Mercy?

Or shall we join the ignorant mob arming itself with fear and hatred?

Of will we take up the cross of compassion and love?

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

For the Christmas Season now past … for the year behind us … for the year ahead of us … for the sake of our world, and our children and grandchildren …

What just happened?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word with with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.


Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"A Refresher Course in Thanksgiving"

First Congregational Church of Los Angeles ...

Philippians 4.4-14


In my seventy-first year of life …
My forty-eighth year of marriage …
My forty-fifth year of ordination …
My third year of grandparenting …

I’ve learned a few things …
In all likelihood, just a few …
But of those lessons learned … 

If I could go back in time, one thing I’d do is pay a little more attention to the people around me …

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker …

And Mrs. Blout … she led opening exercises for Sunday School, every Sunday morning, at the Third Presbyterian Church in Altoona, PA … I would spend a little more time with her … to know her story … what made her laugh, what made her cry … her faithfulness … I’d pay a little more attention to Mrs. Blout.

A spiritual exercise I learned years ago …

Walk a street slowly … look at things … small things … sidewalk paving stones … a gum wrapper tossed aside … a pop can in the gutter … ponder the story in each of them … someone designed that pop can … someone slacked their thirst with its contents … someone threw it aside when they were done with it … were they sad, were they glad … in a rush, or going nowhere at all?

Everything has a story, where it began, where it ends … probe the story, play with it, embellish it, let it grow … all the people behind that pop can … the sugar cane and the farmer, the factory and the worker … the trucker who brought it into town, the teen behind the counter who sold it to the thirsty customer.

Whenever my children went anywhere, I’d always say to them: “Use all of your senses … smell the odors, taste the foods, hear the sounds, see the colors, touch the textures … store it all away in your memories.”

From the smallest of things to the largest of stories … in everything, the whole world … in every person, humanity … in every tree, a forest … in every mountain, a mountain range … in every person, God … 

The stuff of life … all around us … joy, terror; smiles and trials … folks on their way to a hospital bedside, maybe on their way to a new job … off to a wedding - maybe their own … on the first leg of a well-deserved vacation … some on their way to a funeral … some on their way to new beginnings; some on their way to bitter endings.

In Graham Green’s novel, The Power and the Glory, a Mexican priest, jailed for observing the Mass, in a time and place when Catholicism was outlawed … behind bars, the priest reflects:

When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity … that was a quality of God’s image carried with it, writes Green … when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.

Imagination? All of us can use a little imagination now and then … the up-close and personal kind that really sees the eyes of another … to really look at people … and things … and places … to use all of our senses - to really see and truly feel the world around us … 

When I lived in Detroit, I did a lot of bicycling … in two very large cemeteries … great for biking: well-kept roads, little traffic … lovely trees, manicured lawns … 

And acres of tombstones … and all the names … and all the words carved into stone: “devoted mother, loving wife, beloved grandmother.” 

I could always hear the assurance of the dead: “We made it, and you will, too.”

Through thick and thin, sick and sin … from wilderness to Promised land …

The great stories of our faith: a pillar of cloud by day, fire by night … manna in the morning, water from a rock … 

Voices of wisdom: Joshua, Jeremiah … Miriam and Deborah … Matthew, Mark, Luke and John … Paul and Peter … 

Voices to encourage, voices to help … when Pope Francis paid us a visit, he spoke of 20th Century voices, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton …

I could add to that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa …

Writers like John Steinbeck and poets like Robinson Jeffers … 

Artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and David Horsey of the LA Times …

Past political leaders: Teddy Roosevelt and his trust busting … his cousin, FDR with Social Security … Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway system … John F. Kennedy, Ich bin ein Berliner …who was killed this day, 52 years ago in Dallas … Lord, have mercy.

Voices … lots of voices, voices all around us … voices of the dead; voices of the living … voices of hope and voices of healing … voices to challenge our complacencies … point the way ahead … voices to help us take up the work of kindness and mercy … voices to remind us of life’s high ambitions and our great ideals …

Pay attention … and give thanks … for a million small and wonderful things … for big voices and smart people … faith, hope and love; grace, mercy and peace … the gospel of light … folks who believe in you and me … teachers and preachers … and a kajillion other people, and billions of light years and the mystery of space and time.

Paul the Apostle says:

Rejoice in the LORD always … do not worry about anything … but in everything … by prayer … with thanksgiving …

After church today, our Thanksgiving Dinner … later this week, Thanksgiving Day … oh, I know, holidays are sometimes bittersweet … and more the occasion for tears and heartache …

But wherever and however, pay attention to the small things … let your imagination dance … give heed to memories that are good and hopes that are sweet …

And with that, let me close with a poem, of my own writing (LORD, have mercy) an Ode to Mashed Potatoes …

Let me count the ways I love thee …
The common tator … a tuber … from the ground …
Just like you and me …
Maybe we feel something in common with this common ground thing …

They’re not picked, like apples or pears …
They’re dug …
Like good music … or hangin’ out with folks we love …

Lots of different sizes … and colors … in a lot of different places …
We do have a lot in common, don’t we?
With the humble potato …

Peel ‘em … if ya’ want …
But I like to leave the skins on …
Adds texture … as it should be … the whole potato …
As God intended.

Into a pot of water …
Turn on the heat … lots of good things need a little heat …
Cook ‘em not too hard … 
Test ‘em with a fork …
Drain ‘em and put ‘em back into the pot …

And now the good part …
A couple of butter chunks … 
A generous splash of cream … I mean: be generous …
Maybe even some cream cheese …
A little horseradish?
Rosemary?
Thyme?
Salt and pepper …

And a little elbow grease …
Smash and mash these remarkable gifts from God …
Not too much, just enough …
To blend it all together …
Taste to your heart’s content …
That’s what I love about cooking …
We get to sample everything before you do.

Can it get better?
You bet … 
On the plate they go …
A fork-full will satisfy all your desires for comfort …
Just like home … 
But like all good things … these good things go well 
With a chorus of other good things ….
Gravy … 
Giblet gravy …
Corn and slabs of carefully sliced turkey, neat and precise … though I prefer the dark meat … a tad bit unruly …
Cranberry relish on the side …
And how about the country cousin, the sweet potato … with its famous hat, 
The marshmallow … all white on the inside, with golden trim …
And who knows what else … 

Start with potatoes, and who knows where it’ll end.

But start with potatoes … 
A very common thing …

And it will end well …

As all good things do …


Happy Thanksgiving … Amen!