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!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

September 6, 2015, "It Will Work"

Mark 4.3-9

Disappointment!

Who hasn't been disappointed?

Family, friends … school, career, health, love … you name it …

Things go south.
Life grows dark.
Hopes drift away.

Disappointment?

The crowds on the Galilee Beach know all about disappointment … 

They live under an oppressive Roman Empire … family farms lost to large agri-corporations under contract to Rome … 

Fishermen in the crowd wonder if the next catch of fish will pay the bills … farmers wonder if the rains might come in time. 

Merchants and artisans … tax collectors and soldiers … widows and orphans … life ain’t easy for any of them.

And religion? 

It’s a big business in Jerusalem …

Temple taxes, expensive lambs, bulls, goats and birds …currency traders, money changers, souvenir merchants …
Temple officials in long robes with fancy phylacteries …
The well-to-do make a show of their offerings …
And the widow is ignored.

Disappointment? You bet!

The crowds on the Galilee Beach know all about it.

And to that crowd, Jesus says: “A sower went out to sow.”

A sack of seed slung around the neck … the sower grabs a fistful, flings that seed far and wide …

Hungry birds … rocky ground, shallow soil … thorns and thistles … hot sun and dry winds, they all have their way … the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.

Says Jesus to his disciples: I’m asking a lot of you … take the message of peace into a troubled and troubling world … what you do will be challenged at every turn of the road … some will welcome you with open arms; others will seek your death … there will be hardship and rejection and frustration and tears … a lot of what you do will seemingly go to waste.

In the Kindergarten Classroom across the hall from my office, a sign on the wall: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

Pope Francis said: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Bonhoeffer is hanged in a Nazi Prison just months before the end of the war … who knows what he might have accomplished had he lived, but in his death, the seeds of an amazing witness were sown … every seminary student since those terrible, fateful, days has cut her teeth on Bonhoeffer.

Even deeper goes the story … the whole of the Bible is a response to trauma … from Genesis to Malachi … from Matthew to Revelation … from Assyrian defeat of the Northern Kingdom to the Babylonian conquest of the Southern Kingdom … from the crucifixion of Jesus to the the stoning of Stephen … from Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road to the Fall of Jerusalem … how to make sense of it all … how to find hope in the midst of so much blood and war … and what’s one to do, Give up? grow dour and dark? embrace hedonism: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

The tone is set in the opening verses of Genesis - written during the dark days of the Babylonian Exile, when hope was as rare as rain in Los Angeles … and a Hebrew Poet took up a pen and wrote: the earth a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deepand the wind of God swept over the face of the waters … and God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.

Keep on sowing, says Jesus!

Sun and soil, wind and rain, conspire together, to work their magic … the seed softens, a sprout pushes upward toward the sky, a root reaches downward into the earth.

And then, the harvest … yielding thirty-fold, says Jesus … and that would be a very good harvest … 
And even sixty-fold … farmers in the audience smile and nod at one another … “don’t we wish” … 

And, then, like a good story teller, Jesus offers an exaggeration, “a hundred-fold,” says he … and by then, the audience is clear:

Don’t give up the work of sowing … it will work! 
Don’t count the cost, count the blessing!
Don’t fret about the loss, celebrate the gain.
Don’t grumble about rocky soil, sing a song of joy.
Don’t worry about the birds; they’re hungry, too.

And so the work of God goes on - always a harvest, a harvest of some kind … and sometimes, an incredible harvest, far and beyond what anyone expected …

For all the darkness, there’s light.
For all the loss, there’s gain.
For all the hardship, there’s hope.
For all the sweat, blood and tears, there’s progress.

Joshua fits the battle of Jericho … and down falls the wall.
David slings a well-aimed stone … and down goes Goliath.
Elijah prays to the LORD … and down rains heavenly fire.
Ezekiel prophesies to dry bones … and down comes the breath of God.

Keep on sowing …

Remember 1989? … the Berlin Wall comes down …

More recently, the Supreme Court opens wide the doors of Marriage Equality …

On another note, I’m pulling for the deal with Iran …

Because all of this leads to a perfect world?
A world of peace and joy?
Harmony and flowers?
Shine on harvest moon?
Are you kidding?

No …
More like singing in the rain!
We don’t expect perfection … there is always resistance to the good … always those who choose exclusion rather than welcome, who twist religion into a reason for hatred … and for all of us here, no matter the purity of our commitment, our own foolishness and ineptitude trip us up all the time … but neither do we give up!

The hallmark of all great stories … Harry Potter and Voldemort … Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader … Frodo and Sauron … 

Oh, the price to be paid … the hurt, the tears … the loss of hope when the darkness grows thick …

Yet Harry Potter remains loyal to his friends … Luke Skywalker stays the course … Frodo carries the One Ring to Mount Doom … 

And Jesus says, A sower went out to sow …

Though the land is full of war and rumors of war … sow the seed of peace … 

Though rough weeds choke the harvest … sow the seed of justice …

Though hot blow the winds of hatred … sow the seed of love …

Don’t look for perfection … 
Take some chances …
Be ready for disappointment …
Trust the harvest; it will come …

And so ends our summer sermon series: the parables and stories of Jesus … it’s been a good series, and we’ve learned a lot … and now we move on.

A new season of ministry … First Kids First begins anew next week Sunday … the Cathedral Choir returns well rested and in good voice, our staff is ready go, Steven Colbert is on the Late Show, and Scott is preaching about the hole in the ground and how to put it to good spiritual use … a new season of ministry is upon us.

Keep up your good work First Church, and work all the harder - to make everything all the better … 

Keep on sowing … the harvest is good!


Amen and Amen!