Sunday, December 30, 2007

Crummy Start - Dec 30 2007

Matthew 2:13-23

Jesus was a refugee from a land torn by hardship and cruelty … warned in a dream of Herod’s plan to kill the child, Joseph takes his family, in the middle of the night, and flees to Egypt.

Matthew’s congregation would have understood … many of them were refugees, too … after the sacking of Jerusalem … the destruction of its Temple in the 70th year of the Christian Era.

Folks fled for their lives … displaced and uncertain.

A story played out in our world too many times … what with war and rumors of war … earthquake and flood.

12 million refugees – those who cross borders in search of safety - 21 million internally displaced because of violence or disaster – 33 million without a home.

It’s a hard life for millions … harder than most of us will ever know … and beyond all imagination.

In the brilliant movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” his rich Texas friend encourages him to do more about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Charlie Wilson is a little slow to move on it, so his rich Texas friend arranges for a flight to Pakistan to see the refugee camps first hand … Charlie Wilson walks through these camps, disease-ridden and teeming with filth, crammed with tens of thousands of desperate, hungry people, an no greater desperation than that written on the face of a child – Charlie Wilson is overwhelmed … he returns to Congress a champion of the Afghani people, working covertly to defeat the Soviets.

I have no idea what it is to be displaced … do you?

I remember the power outage of the summer of 2003; we were living in Detroit.

I was watching TV when the power went out … Donna called me from a nearby community, saying, “The power just went out.”

I remember thinking … power out here … power out there … this is pretty big.

I waited an hour or so, and still no power, so I called Rachel in California – cell phones were still working – I said, “Turn on TV at your office; see if you can find out what’s happening.”

There it was on CNN – the blackout spreading like spilled ink throughout the northeastern part of the nation.

“Is it terrorism?” we all asked.

Only later were we to learn how dangerously close we came to having the entire national grid go down like a series of dominoes.

For three days, no power.

Ten million people in Ontario, 40 million Americans in eight states.

That evening and the next two nights, we cooked out on the grill … neighbors brought stuff over and we sat in the dark … the night skies was clear … no ambient light … the stars were bright … being August, it stayed light until late … and then, like pioneers of old, our wake and sleep patterns followed the sun.

We made do for a few days until power was restored … but I remember thinking: “How much longer could we have gotten on? - no gas at the pump; stores without refrigeration; everything on emergency power; water still in the tap, but drinkable only after boiling … no cell phones, no radio; no internet; no trains or planes … nothing.

This past week, I drove by a building with an indented store front, claimed by a squatter – a shopping cart, an umbrella, tattered cushions and a sleeping bag, the detritus of poverty … and a salvaged Christmas Tree with a few shreds of tinsel and a bow or two.

Everyone wants a home … even the homeless make do as best they can.

Life is hard for millions of people … really hard, desperately hard.

Our LORD had a hard go of it … a crummy start … and it ended poorly … on a Roman cross and a borrowed tomb.

Why would God enter life on such a precarious note?

Why would God take upon Himself the stress and strain of life at its worst?

Why submit to the humiliation of a trial in Herod’s palace and Pilate’s court?

Why the cradle and why the cross?

What is God doing?

God is undoing death! And death’s paymaster – named “sin” … for the wages of sin are death!

Death in all of its hideous versions …

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death …”

The death that comes slowly to a human being without grace … like the movie portrait of Mr. Plainview, “There Will Be Blood” – a man sells his soul for gain … and what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? To trade life for death?

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence and death …

The death of hope in a child beaten by ill-gotten parents and betrayed by a poorly funded safety net that lets too many children slip through the webbing.

The death of faith, hope and love …

The death of a soul long before a body dies …

And death itself … “the final enemy” says Paul the Apostle, against which no human being can stand, no science prevail, no myth soften, and no incantation defeat!

The wages of sin are death … and we’re all gainfully employed in the market place of sin … all of us, great and small; good and bad … nary a one of us can escape:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one …” (Romans 3:10).

“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

Our spirit cries out with Paul: “Who will rescue me?”

Will our own goodness suffice to turn the tide and heal the wound?

But when and how?

Has not the world tried long and hard to heal itself?

Every nostrum fails in the final account … peace talks end one war only to witness the onset of another.

Poverty programs work for a time, and then the machinery of greed and power churns out another generation of haves with too much and have-nots with too little.

Medicine and technology promise the moon, but death still comes a-calling, and we each go off into the dark veil.

Hope cannot not be found within history nor will it be found in the human heart … neither invention nor innovation will lead us out of the vicious circle of temporary hope and bitter disappointment … there is no advanced civilization out there who will visit us one day and save us, nor some genius born today or tomorrow who will lead us to nirvana.

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. No merit of my own I claim But wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

From sin to salvation … from life to death … from fear to faith … delivered, set free and made new.

Salvation received on bended knee … but of what price God paid.

Our salvation cost everything God had and then some.

No easy work for God … undoing the damages of sin; unraveling the twisted cords of sin and sorrow; disentangling us from the web of death.

It was a breeze for God to create the world …
“Let it be,” said God, and so it was. No muss, no fuss.

Speaking of creation …

Do you now the longest day in the Bible? The day Adam was created, because there was no Eve.”

After God had created Adam he noticed that he looked very lonely.

God said "Adam, I've decided to make you a woman. She'll love you, cook for you, be sweet to you, and understand you."

Adam said "Great! How much will she cost me?"
God said, "An arm and a leg."
"Well," said Adam "what can I get for a rib?"

It was a breeze for God to create the heavens and the earth … the far-flung stars and the starfish in the tidal pool …

But sin entered in … a small thing at first – a question, a lie, a misperception, fruit plucked from the tree – and then gathering speed like a freight train - the onset of fear, the dissolution of love and the beginning of death.

God soon learned that an all-out frontal attack did no good … creating a nation and defending it with sword and spear did no good … commanding us to do better, be better and make something of ourselves did no good – neither promise nor threat resolved the issue and undid the damages done by sin.

So God enters into it, goes to the very heart of it … with a crummy start and a terrible end … God tastes every bitter herb we eat; God takes unto Himself horror and loss, fatigue and fear, ever injustice and every betrayal … at the bottom of the heap, the lowest rung of the ladder … to the very heart of death itself.

“For our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The great exchange … the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world by taking every lick of it, absorbing it, by living within it and feeling all it – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
A pure and perfect love hanging on the cross, smeared with blood and spit; the great Son of God, standing in the breech … taking every hit … a refugee at birth … a man without a home … “Foxes have holes,” He said, “and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His Head” (Matthew 8:20).

Joseph took his family in the middle of the night … a crummy start to the hardest work God ever had to do … to undo the damages of sin, right the ship, get the train on track, get the car out of the ditch; save us from our sins … it was the hardest work God ever had to do!

That’s why He’s our Savior … that’s why He’s the King of kings and the LORD of lords … He’s the incomparable sacrifice; the uncontested Prince of Peace … He’s the Bread of Heaven and the Living Water … He’s life eternal and life here and now … He’s the Master who stills the storm and the hand upon the leper … He speaks to the woman at the well and takes little children into his arms … He bears the cross to Calvary and bears the sins of the world upon His shoulders … He dies our death, and death cannot hold Him … the Tomb would claim Him, but the stone is rolled away … He’s the Good Shepherd of the sheep; He’s the Head of the church, the Firstborn of the dead … He’s at the right of Hand God and He’s with us forever.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Odd God - Dec. 23, 2007

Matthew 1:18-25

“Imagine that” we say in response to a surprising bit of news … “wouldn’t have imagined that in a million years.”

“I can’t imagine how she could have done that.”

“I can’t imagine him doing that.”

“Imagine that!”

Advent is a time of imagination!

We imagine a world waiting … a world waiting for the Messiah … a world holding its breath; a world wondering: “What is God doing?” … “When will God deliver the promise? … “What is God up to?”

We imagine the tumultuous days of the first century … Israel occupied and governed by the iron will of Rome … the difficult trek of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the stable behind the inn … shepherds in their fields by night; angels in realms of glory … a star on high … wise men traveling from afar … the vicious plans of Herod to destroy the child threatening his throne … the flight of Mary and Joseph to Egypt … their return when Herod dies … and so on and so forth … the stories that guide our imagination and shape our faith!

Imagination is the heartbeat of faith.

When elders, deacons and pastors are ordained, one of the questions put to them: “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?”

Imagination is vital to a living faith …

But more than imagining the past … imagining the future …

A world that could be … to see beyond the smoke and sorrow, the hurt and pain, the noise and the nonsense … the daily grind of making a living and wondering when death will come.

To imagine the world as God would have it … a world of justice and peace … the world for which Jesus died and rose again … the Bible tells us that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him – the world to be! Jesus died for the world as it is, so that the world might become as it should!

“Imagine that!” we say to one another … imagine a new world …

That’s our calling … it’s our work – never to accept the world as it is, but the world as Jesus would have it!

“Come and follow me,” said Jesus … let’s go to this new world … it’ll be costly, it’ll be hard, it’ll demand of you all that you have, and then some … but it’ll be worth it! Come and follow me!”

“Imagine that!”

Albert Einstein said:

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Imagination … creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are everything in this world.

Carl Sagan:
Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were.

Carl Sandburg:
Nothing happens unless first we dream.

“Imagine that!”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Imagine that!”

Imagination is the enemy of hell … “Let there be no imagination” cries Satan – “only reality - dull, grating, boring, enervating, irritating reality.”
The deluge of daily news – muggings and murders, war and want, disease and disaster, conflict and competition – keep people on edge, wary and weary … don’t ever let their imagination soar toward heaven; don’t ever let their imagination see a new world.”

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography … his journey from atheism to faith … from a lost and bewildered young man to a servant of the Most High God.

It’s all about imagination … being able to see with the eyes of faith what the physical eye will never see …

To see with the heart, with the soul, with the spirit of Christ.

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in Morey Plotkin’s Bible Class for the last few weeks.

What a story … the ghost of an idea, as Dickens says … the tale of a miserly old man, entwined in the heavy chains of greed, a soul bereft of joy … a weary spirit without a shred of imagination.

“Imagine that” said Marley’s ghost to Scrooge one night … three ghosts will visit you … the ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and then, the Ghost of Christmas Future.

“Can’t I have ‘em all at once?” asks Scrooge.

“No,” says Marley. “This will take some time!”

A long dormant imagination wakes slowly from the sleep of death … the process is unrelenting, and it hurts … Scrooge wants to flee, but the Ghosts hold him tight in the grip of love, a violent grace that will not let Scrooge hightail it back into the darkness – the Ghosts drag him, kicking and screaming, into the light … a world of divine imagination!

A world of Christmas joy and delight … parties and dancing … love and family … a world wherein Tiny Tim has a chance … workers given a living wage, charity the preeminent virtue!

“Imagine that.”

I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer languishing in a Nazi prison – he hears Allied planes overhead; he hears distant bombs exploding – freedom is coming. But will it come in time?

It wasn’t in time for Bonhoeffer.

Days before the prison was liberated by the Allies, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was bound and hooded, walked to a scaffold, and hanged, April 9, 1945 … Flossenburg Concentration Camp.

December, 1944, Bonhoeffer writes a poem included in today’s bulletin:

The forces for good in wonder surround us,
Through faith and peace they’ll guard and guide.
And so these days with you I’ll live,
With you, my friends, a new year abide.

And ends with:

The forces for good surround us in wonder;
They firm up our courage for what comes our way,
God’s with us from dawn to the slumber of evening,
The promise of love at the break of each day.

“Imagine that.”

When it comes down to it, we have an odd task … to imagine an odd God … and an odd world, a world charged with the presence and the reality of God!

It’s not so odd to imagine the creator …
Or even the God of Sinai clouded in smoke and fire …
It’s not too odd to imagine the God who smashes the siege works of His enemies, or for that matter, takes His own people into captivity …
We can imagine such things – these are images of power and mastery, control and conquest … images we understand … images that govern much of our world.

But when we come to Bethlehem … God has taken a deep breath, changed courses … comes to us in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger … no crib for a bed.

Paul the Apostle writes forty years later:

He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8).

An odd God … a very odd God.

The poet John Donne wrote:

“Twas much that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more” (Holy Sonnets, #11).

How odd of God …

A very odd God …

And that’s the good news we celebrate … the world is full of ordinary gods who snort and sneer, who conquer and contend … and God said, “Been there, done that.”

“And no more!”

From the flood to the cross … a huge change in the character of God …

To Noah’s world, God said, “I’m tired of you, and I wash my hands of you … let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.”

But the flood didn’t work … all that anger and all that death, didn’t work … never does, never will.

Even God had to learn a few things along the way!

So now it’s Bethlehem …

“O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by,
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fear of all the yeas
Are met in thee tonight.”

A very odd God indeed.

A virgin birth … how odd of God.

Joseph, bewildered and confused … ready to put Mary aside for her indiscretion …

But in the nick of time, an angel comes to Joseph in a dream …

How odd of God … to come to our world this way … but didn’t the prophet long ago say to us: a young lady, a virgin, shall conceive and bear a son … and his name will be Emmanuel … God with us?

So Joseph took Mary as his wife … when the boy is born, Joseph names him Jesus … Jeshua … Joshua … Joshua who fit the battle of Jericho … Joshua who led the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land … Joshua, Jeshua … in the Greek language: Yesus - Jesus.

How very odd of God!

Matthew ends the gospel 28 chapters later with a simple task and a profound promise:

Take this odd God and tell the world … in every nation, make disciples … no barriers, no boundaries – everyone deserves to hear about the odd God …

And you’re not alone in this endeavor … “I am with you always, to the end of the age, till the work is done, and all is made new.”

Imagine that … a very odd God! Amen!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Disappointment - Dec 16 2007

Matthew 11:2-15

You’re six-years old; you just broke the neighbor’s window with a rock, because you were angry at your playmate … your Dad says, “Son, I’m disappointed in you.”

Your favorite teacher calls you into her office and says, “I expect so much more of you. I’m disappointed in you.”

“I’m disappointed in you!”

We’ve all heard it … we’ve all said it.

Speaking of disappointment, I’m thinking about Christmas gifts …

Now that Christmas is nearing, a little advice about gifts for that man in your life:

Rule #1:
When in doubt - buy him a cordless drill. It does not matter if he already has one. I have a friend who owns 17 and he has yet to complain. As a man, you can never have too many cordless drills. No one knows why.

Rule #2:
If you cannot afford a cordless drill, buy him anything with the word ratchet or socket in it. Men love saying those two words. "Hey George, can I borrow your ratchet?" "OK. Bye-the-way, are you through with my 3/8-inch socket yet?" Again, no one knows why.

Rule #3:
If you are really, really broke, buy him anything for his car. A 99-cent ice scraper, a small bottle of deicer or something to hang from his rear view mirror. Men love gifts for their cars. No one knows why.

Rule #4:
Never buy a man anything that says "some assembly required" on the box. It will ruin his Special Day and he’ll always have parts left over.

Rule #5:
Good places to shop for men include Northwest Iron Works, Parr Lumber, Home Depot, John Deere, Valley RV Center, and Les Schwab Tire. (NAPA Auto Parts and Sear's Clearance Centers are also excellent men's stores. It doesn't matter if he doesn't know what it is. "From NAPA Auto, eh? Must be something I need. Hey! Isn't this a starter for a '68 Ford Fairlane? Wow! Thanks.")

Rule #6:
It's hard to beat a really good wheelbarrow or an aluminum extension ladder. Never buy a real man a step ladder. It must be an extension ladder. No one knows why.

Rule #7:
Rope. Men love rope. It takes us back to our cowboy origins, or at least The Boy Scouts. Nothing says love like a hundred feet of 3/8" manilla rope. No one knows why.

Follow these simple rules, and you’re man won’t be disappointed!

Years ago, I read a book about disappointment. It was really disappointing.

Not really … but one thing I learned and one thing I remember about disappointment … look carefully at the word … the heart of it - appointment.

We expect thus and so … we make appointments for folks …

But …

Children go their own way.
Friends leave us in the lurch.
The pink slip arrives on our desk.
A loved one does something so hurtful, we wonder if we’ll ever recover.
The university of our dreams doesn’t want us …
The boss doesn’t think we’re so hot …
The long-anticipated vacation is mostly a flop.

John says to Jesus, “I’m disappointed in you!”

What did John expect?

The Rev. Dr. John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago and editor of the Christian Century, writes:

“What people wanted was a king … who would unify the nation, rally the troops, drive out the occupying Romans and reestablish the monarchy. That’s what a Messiah is supposed to do – make things right by defeating God’s enemies, establish a new order of things based on real power” (Christian Century, Dec. 11, 2007, p.3).

“One who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” said John. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

What did John expect?

We have to be kind with John …
He’s doing jail-time … Herod’s prison - the end of the road for this rough and ready guy.
A man of the desert … camel’s hair clothing, locusts and wild honey for breakfast.
Passionate about God - a voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD!”
Now he’s in the slammer!

“Are you the One?”

Jesus sends back a message:

“The blind receive their sight … the lame walk … lepers are cleansed … the deaf hear … the dead are raised … the poor have good news preached to them.”

This is the work of the Messiah foretold by Isaiah …

But John couldn’t see it … his appointment for Jesus clouded his vision.

Jim and Susie wanted their son to pursue a career in law, because Mom and Dad were lawyers, but the son becomes a photographer instead; has long hair and wears jeans to work … he’s a good photographer, a fine young man, but the parents can’t see it. Every time they’re together, tension and bitterness …

Jesus says to John, “Look carefully at this.”

Like the Ghost of Christmas Present to Scrooge: "Look upon me!”

A second look is warranted … a reconsideration … another go at it.

God is always more … or less … than what we expect, and people are rarely ever what we want them to be!

People are who they are … neither more nor less … innovative and creative, silly and sly … wonderful and loving … self-serving and conniving … mean-spirited and jealous … glorious and gracious … all of that and more in spades!

People are complex … life is full of surprises …

It was the day after Christmas at a church in San Francisco. The pastor of the church was looking over the lawn when he noticed that the baby Jesus was missing from among the figures.

He hurried outside and saw a little boy with a red wagon, and in the wagon was the figure of the little infant Jesus.
So he walked up to the boy and said, "Well, where did you get your passenger, my fine friend?”
The little boy replied, "I got Him at church."
"And why did you take Him?"
The boy explained, "Well, about a week before Christmas I prayed to the little Lord Jesus and I told Him if He would bring me a red wagon for Christmas I would give Him a ride around the block in it” (Thanks to Jan Murphy for this cute story).

Places we never dreamed, experiences we never expected … responsibilities that tax us to the limit and beyond.

“Mom, you never told me it would be like this.”

There’s probably no tougher disappointment than self-disappointment:

We’re going to be a millionaire by the time we’re 30 …
We’ll write a best-seller … join a rock band and go gold … marry the person of our dreams.
We’ll live in exotic lands and see the world …
We’ll have the perfect marriage.
We’ll sign up for great causes and win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Our children will be straight A students and find a cure for cancer.

But life goes its own way …

Perhaps you’re familiar with Bruce Wilkinson, author of The Prayer of Jabeze, a book that transformed the way millions of people pray.
After huge successes on every front, Mr. Wilkinson turned his attention to South Africa … a major effort to take care of the children of AIDs … to promote health and healing, faith and hope … huge dreams, but it all came crashing down … Wilkinson resigned and returned home, heart-stricken and sad.

No one’s immune to disappointment!

What do we do about it?

I think of David & Goliath … David had only a sling & his faith, and on his way to battle, David stopped by a creek bed and gathered up five smooth stones.

When it comes to disappointment, We have spiritual weapons at our disposal … a sling called faith and five smooth stones.


Surrender our life to God … day in and day out … moment-by-moment … everything we are and everything we hope to be … “LORD Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, I give myself to you, in faith and obedience.”


Christ at the center of our heart, so nothing else can get in there … the light of Christ, the love of Christ, the glory of Christ … His kindness and His mercy … His forgiveness and His patience … His hope and His endurance.


To be generous in our estimate of people around us … to let them be more or less of who they are … to appreciate their creative energies and allow them space to a bad day … when I chat with parents, I remind them to let their children have bad day … we all have tough days, and one of the kindest things we can do is make allowances for such things.


To have a sane and sober estimate of life … things happen, things go awry … plans collapse; folks just don’t show up at the all the appointments we make for them, and we fail to meet our self-appointments. A little biblical realism – sin abounds … but so does grace. As Donna says to me: “Get over it!”


A positive mindset:

Life is good; God is good …
Rub the eyes and take a second look.
Determine to see the good, because it’s there
Look for it until you find it … wrestle with it until you get the blessing … Jacob wrestled with the angel all night long and wouldn’t let go until he got the blessing.

Count your blessings and name them one-by-one. Celebrate what you have, not what you’ve lost …
Remember, things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out!

Whatever comes your way, you’ll handle it.
However unusual your pathway, God is right there beside you.
If Goliath stands in your way, sling a smooth stone and send him crashing to the ground in a heap of dust.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Amen!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Violence? December 9 07,

Matthew 3:1-12

Who doesn’t need a fresh start now and then?

Who doesn’t need a second chance?

A do-over?

What do they call it in golf?
A Mulligan!
Hit a bad shot.
Take a Mulligan. Do it again!

Who doesn’t need a Mulligan now and then?

Speaking of golf … a pastor was an avid golfer … played for years … went golfing every chance he had.
Well, one Sunday morning, he gets up … it was a perfect golf day … unable to resist temptation, the pastor calls the Clerk of Session and says, “Stafford, I’m not feeling well today. You’ll have to fill in.”
And with assurances from Stafford that he’ll handle the service, and a little prayer for the pastor’s health, the pastor hightails it out of the house to a golf course 50 miles away … he didn’t want to be seen.
The angels in heaven see this and say to God, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
God says, “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it.”

So the angels sit back to watch.

On the seventh hole, the pastor gets a hole-in-one!

The angels are baffled. “We thought you’d give the pastor a terrible game, but now you give him a hole-in-one.”

“I know,” replied God, “but who’s he going to tell?”

The love of God at work in our lives …

God is at work for good in all things … so in all things, you can find good …

I talked to a man who’s very successful … but who nearly didn’t make it … 25 years ago, a surfer doing drugs, smuggling drugs … on the edge of disaster … but he made it through … and God was there … today, he’s involved in a community of faith … ministers to young people … telling his story.

A man with a giant career in real estate and banking … a shady deal … time in prison … and now he’s got more of God in his life than ever before … he’s battling his third bout with cancer … and he’s till on top of it, still going strong, a man of faith!

A young lady who works for CLUE – Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice – played a key roll in the new labor agreement between hotel workers and the LAX Sheraton – she’s the first in her family to graduate from high school, the first to graduate from college … an inspiring young lady who faced the worst odds … in college, racism; told flat-out by some: “You’re here just because of your color.”

She loves God and she overcomes … and now she’s thinking about seminary.

They all turned it around … defeat into victory, scars into stars … loss into gain … pain into wisdom!

“You can do it!”
You can face anything and overcome it.
You can be handed a lousy set of cards, and still win the game.

Because God is near at hand … close enough for us to feel the mystery of grace …

Like standing close to an oven … you can feel the heat … or opening a refrigerator door on a hot day, the cool air rushes out, and it feels good.

God is close enough for us to feel the mystery of grace …

A message hell doesn’t want us to hear …

The Evil One delivers the message of hell every day:

You’re stuck, and you’ll never get out.
You’ve acted this way for 20 years, and it’ll never change.
Your behavior is shameful and disgusting – you’re a terrible human being.
You’re parents don’t love you; your children are going to hell in hand-basket, and it’s all your fault.
You make poor decisions; you’re a flub, you’re a flop, you’re a failure … and don’t think about changing: it’s too late … it’ll never work … you’re trapped and your goose is cooked.

The tools of hell: discouragement, defeat, frustration, resentment, jealousy, the sense of being cheated, denied and overlooked … hopeless entrapment – stuck forever; no way out.

I saw hell yesterday – In two parking lots - angry, aggressive drivers … honking horns, screeching tires, obscene gestures - everyone on their own personal mission … every car, a threat …

The stuff of hell … to tangle us up and take us down.

God has a life-giving message …
Faith, hope and love;
Grace, mercy and peace;
Patience, courage and endurance!

Because God knows what you’re made of … God knows how good and decent you are; intelligent and gifted … God knows you can do it!

God knows what you can do, even if you don’t know it right now!

I remember teaching Josh how to ride a bike. I knew he could do it. He didn’t know it at the time; only I knew it.

But Josh trusted me.

So there we are in the street … Josh on a bike he can’t ride, and Dad running down the street with him, hand on the bike.

Back and forth a few times … huffin’ and puffin’ until that magic moment … I’m still running beside him, but no longer holding the bike … Josh is riding it, all by himself … he’s doing what I knew he could always do.

And now he knows it, too … “I can ride a bike!”

We find our way through, around, under or over.

We rebuild our lives after disaster … loss of job … the end of a marriage … illness and death … and who knows what else.

Every day I’m amazed at what people endure, how folks make it … find a way to overcome!

Thomas Merton writes about his Father dying of an inoperable brain tumor the summer of 1930.

“All summer we went regularly and faithfully to the hospital once or twice a week. There was nothing we could do but sit there, and look at Father and tell him things which he could not answer. But he understood what we said.
“In fact, if he could not talk, there were other things he could still do. One day I found his bed covered with little sheets of blue notepaper on which he had been drawing. And the drawings were real drawings. But they were unlike anything he had ever done before – pictures of little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.
“Of us all, Father was the only one who really had any kind of a faith. And I do not doubt that he had very much of it, and that behind the walls of his isolation, his intelligence and his will, unimpaired and not hampered in any essential way by the partial obstruction of some of his senses, were turned to God, and communed with God Who was with him and in him, and Who gave him, as I believe, light to understand and to make use of his suffering for his own good, and to perfect his soul. …. And this affliction, this terrible and frightening illness which was relentlessly pressing him down even into the jaws of the tomb, was not destroying him after all.

And then Merton adds:

“… my father was in a fight with this tumor, and none of us understood the battle. We thought he was done for, but it was making him great” (The Seven Story Mountain, p.83).

On the road to Damascus … Saul the Pharisee, intent on great harm … and God would have none of it.

With a bolt of light and firm voice, Saul is tripped up and falls flat on his face …

Saul the Pharisee falls down … Paul the Apostle gets up!

A tough, unrelenting God … who will not let us go … the God of the prophets, Isaiah and Hosea … the God who plunges the knife of love into our hearts … and twists and turns … and it hurts like hell, but it’s the help of heaven … cutting away the old and bringing in the new …

John says to the crowd:

“What I do, I do only with water … but someone is coming after me … more powerful than I am … I’m not fit to carry his sandals …

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”

The threshing floor swept clean … the wheat gathered into the storehouses of God … the chaff burned with an unquenchable fire.

A violent message.

“If God wants children, God will raise them up from the stones at your feet.”

A violent message … shake us … penetrate the layers of discouragement and pride … get to the heart; perform CPR; get it beating again.

In the Book of Revelation, letters to seven churches … the first letter to the church in Ephesus … “You’ve worked hard, but this I hold against you: you have forgotten your first love.”

“Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:1-7).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Not everyone who says, ‘LORD, LORD’ will enter the kingdom of heaven … many will say to me on that day: ‘LORD, LORD, did we not prophecy in your name, and did we not drive our demons and perform miracles.’ Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:21-23).

“You gave me your mouth, you gave me your hands, but you never gave me your heart.”

Violent grace … shake us, penetrate us, strip away the defensive layers – excuses and pretensions … God awakens the heart and gets it beating again.

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a tour of his life – Scrooge watches the scene wherein the woman he loves walks away because Scrooge is more in love with his golden idols.

Scrooge cries out:

“Show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”
“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.
“No more!” cried Scrooge. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”
But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms, and forced him to observe what happened next.

Violent grace …

“You brood of vipers.”

“The axe is already laid at the root of the tree.”

Violent grace …

“Your sins are no more!”
“They’re gone forever!
Washed away.
Done with and over.”

To Nicodemus in the night …

To Zacchaeus up a tree …

To the woman at the well …

To the lepers and to the lame …

To you and to me …

A fresh start … a second chance!

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever!”


Monday, December 3, 2007

Surpise - December 2 07

Matthew 24:36-44

What a fine looking group of people … like Lake Wobegon, where all the men are strong, the women good looking, and all the children above average.

What a fine looking group … although it may have something to do with the fact that I cleaned my glasses before worship … it’s amazing how much better the world looks through clean glasses.

Glasses rarely get dirty all at once … they get dirty over a period of time … slowly … grit and grime … one day at a time … and we get used to it … until one day Donna looks at me and says, “How in the world can you see anything out of those filthy glasses?”

And I’ll take ‘em off and look at ‘em, and she’s right – they’re filthy … so I clean ‘em, put ‘em back on … and the world is a better place … because I cleaned my glasses.

Which reminds me …

John went to visit his 90-year old grandfather in a backwater region of Georgia.

The first morning, John's grandfather prepared bacon, eggs and toast. But John noticed a film on his plate, and asked his grandfather, "Are these plates clean?"

His grandfather replied, "They're as clean as cold water can get ‘em. Just you go ahead and finish your meal, Sonny!"

For lunch the old man made hamburgers. Again, John was concerned about the plates as his appeared to have tiny specks around the edge that looked like dried egg and asked, "Are you sure these plates are clean?"

Without looking up the old man said, "I told you before, Sonny, those dishes are as clean as cold water can get ‘em. Now don't you fret, I don't wanna hear another word about it!"

Later that afternoon, John was on his way to a nearby town and as he was leaving, his grandfather's dog started to growl, and wouldn't let him pass. John yelled out, "Grandfather, your dog won't let me get to my car".

Without diverting his attention from the football game he was watching on TV the old man shouted ...


Clean plates … clean glasses …

Who doesn’t need a little cleaning up now and then … a good scrubbing of the attitude … a little dry cleaning for the mind … stain remover on the soul.

Jesus said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23).

“Healthy eyes” … the Greek word for healthy can also mean generous …

Healthy eyes: I will see things as God sees them … I will look at the world with generous thoughts … I will look at people and give ‘em a break … I will not expect too much, and I will forgive quickly.

By the way, where will the USC Trojans play football next year: at the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl?
A fan who goes to both venues was asked about it: “Well, parking’s bad at both, lots of things are needed … but as long as the concrete doesn’t hit me on the head, I’m okay … I just don’t expect too much, and then I have a good time.”

“I just don’t expect too much, and then I have a good time!”

Expectations …

Two weeks ago, fog cancelled flights out of LA – passengers were outraged … about what? The fog?

Airline travel … smaller seats, and now they’re even taking away the pretzels …

Andrew Robert Thomas, an assistant professor of business at the University of Akron says: “… the cattle-class experience has contributed to the rise and intensity of air rage incidents all over the world.”

“With the cutbacks continuing and the number of air travelers projected to triple in the next 20 years, air rage will be a problem for the foreseeable future.”

Air rage … road rage … what’s next, pew rage?

It’s already with us … at my former church in Detroit, a young family joined the church, enrolled in Bible study, became deacons … served the LORD with gladness.

One day, we were having coffee, and they said, “Tom, we have a funny story to tell you. When we were first started attending, we settled into a pew one Sunday, when along came Peggy, and she looked at us, and said, ‘That’s my pew; you’ll have to move’ and we did.”

Last week, pulled up behind an SUV, a rear-window decal – “Back off, I’m Grumpy” … with the Walt Disney character from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

One of my favorite Civil War writers, Bruce Catton, tells of the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination … how Secretary of War Stanton fanned flames of resentment against the South … Stanton and others couldn’t let go of their ill-will … Catton refers to them as “bitter-enders” … a term from the Boer Wars in South Africa – those who fought to the bitter end.

If any of us want to get upset, we can do it … there are lots of upsetting things …

But I don’t wanna be Grumpy … I don’t wannna be a bitter-ender … I don’t wanna be outraged by the fog!

I want to have a generous eye!

I want to have what Paul had when he wrote: “I have learned to be content with what I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty” (Philippians 4:11-13).

A generous eye … Paul writes to the church in Ephesus:

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up … so that your words may give grace to those who hear … put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander … be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Philippians 4:29-32).

A generous eye …

Everything I read about the character of life: practice now a positive attitude … because you never know when you’ll need it.

“No one knows the day or the hour,” says Jesus.
So be ready … keep awake …
Life is full of surprises …
Good and bad surprises …
So be ready!

Jesus tells a story … ten bridesmaids waiting for the party to begin … it was late, and no party, so they took a nap.

But in the middle of the night, the groom shows up and the party begins.
Five bridesmaids had oil for their lamps, and turned them up …
The other five didn’t
Have enough oil,
So they asked to borrow some.

But the oiled five said, “Can’t do it. If we give our oil to you, no one will have enough. Go out and buy your own.”

Seems harsh … but they illustrate a principle: You can’t borrow a positive attitude.

You have to get your own!

It’s not hard … “go out and buy your own.”

We’re like those bridesmaids – we have oil, or we don’t!

When Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge, he’s bound in chains, ledgers, cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, deeds and heavy purses, all wrought in steel.

Scrooge asks what it means … Marley replies:

“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

To forge a godly life … a generous life … grace, mercy and peace; faith, hope and love; kindness, gentleness and patience.

Mary Oliver writes about prayer:

It doesn’t have to be
The blue iris, it could be
Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
Small stones; just
Pay attention; then patch

A few words together and don’t try
To make them elaborate, this isn’t
A contest, but the doorway

Into thanks, and a silence in which
Another voice may speak.

(from Oprah, Dec. 2007)

The doorway into thanks!

A very dear friend lost his wife to cancer recently, after a 4 1/2 year battle – in an email, he wrote:

“As you can imagine it's been a roller-coaster lately. So many layers to this whole scenario - some more emotional than others (try deleting your wife's voice from your voice mail greeting - it took a couple tries to get through that). At the end of the day, no one wants to be the one left behind, but that is the reality of the deal we enter into. As I told Shirley shortly before her last time in the hospital - I would do it all over again, even knowing the ending. It was that good.”

I think of George and Dorothy Wetters, 58 years married … fit together like peanut butter and jelly … after a time, Dorothy died.

I wondered how it would be for George … I’d stop by his home, or he’d stop by the church … always the same: “How I miss her. But I had her 58 years … I am so grateful.”

George’s mind began to slip; he moved into assisted living … when I visited him, the same words, “How I miss her, but I had her 58 years. I’m so grateful!”

A long-time married man was asked if he had a secret … “Yup, I have a secret … every morning, I stand in front of the mirror and say to myself, ‘Harry, you ain’t no bargain.’”

Joel Osteen recently said about marriage: “The next time you find yourself critical of your wife’s faults, remember, it was those faults that kept her from finding a better husband.”

Build a positive attitude – go out and buy oil for your lambs!

Walk through the doorway of thanks … stay close to Jesus … fill your heart and mind with words of assurance:

“I am with you always.”

“I will never leave you or forsake you.”

“Fear not little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

A generous eye …
A positive attitude …
When life springs a surprise on you,
you’ll be ready …
more than ready,
to live your best life!


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Strange - November 25, 2007

Luke 23:26-43

Happy New Year’s Eve …

New Year’s Eve? You say.

Yup … New Year’s Eve … at least for Christians … this is the last Sunday of the church year … the New Year begins next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent … but today, we linger near the cross … we watch the strange ending of a strange man called Jesus …
Who would have thought?
We call Him King of kings and LORD of lords.
Who would have thought … such a strange ending would have such profound consequences for all the world!

Step back to Noah’s flood for a moment … the world was a mess; God regretted creating us … so let it rain …
Let the waters fall and let the waters rise … humankind failed the test, and they have to pay the price.
So pay we did … all but Noah and his family … and animals two-by-two.
When the waters finally recede, Noah gets right down to business … he plants a vineyard.
Makes wine, gets rip-roaring drunk … so drunk, he passes out in his tent … buck naked.
Ham stops by, sees the old man and laughs …
But Shem & Japheth take a garment and cover their father.
But the family is now divided.

It didn’t take long for things to get back to where they were and worse … and God said, “Now what?”

So God called Abraham and Sarah … “May I have a few moments of your time?”
A new family, a new nation, a new world …

But Abraham tells lies …
Lot lives in Sodom …
Sarah laughs at God …
Abraham fathers a child with a slave girl …
Jacob and Esau are enemies …
Slavery in Egypt …
Wandering in the wilderness …
Fighting for the Promised Land …
King Saul … a failure …
King David … a mighty man of valor, but hands covered in blood …
Solomon … ever-so wise, ever-so foolish; the kingdom collapses into warring factions – north and south – Civil War!
Death and mayhem everywhere …

And God said, “Now what?”

So God conceived a plan … “Mary, may I see you for a few moments?”
“Joseph, it’s all right … take Mary for your wife … she carries a holy child … He will set His people free” … and Joseph named Him Jesus.

30 years later … Jesus goes to the Jordan to be baptized … when John the Baptist sees Him, he cries out: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Takes them away … doesn’t wait for us to give them up, but takes them from us … takes them away … far away.

“As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1).

“Blessed is the one against whom the LORD will not reckon sin” (Romans 4:8).


What’s the big deal?

The church has fussed and fumed too much about sin, that’s for sure … saw-dust trail preachers have frightened children with hellfire and brimstone … sin has been used and abused to fleece folks of their coins and intimidate the crowds.

But if some of the church made too much of sin, it does us no good to offer up a pablum of self-help – a “Christ without a cross in a world without sin.”

I don’t know what sin is precisely … some deep inability to love … an instinctive self-centeredness … hostility in our homes … the wars we fight around the globe … a mugger in a back alley … a white-shirted corporate officer cooking Enron’s books …

I don’t know what sin is precisely … the will to dominate and win … the fear we have of the new … closed neighborhoods and gated communities …

I don’t know what sin is precisely … 40 million Americans uninsured; too many children dying for want of medical care, right here, in America … 30,000 children a day around the world …

I don’t know what sin is precisely … the dark shadows of the soul … shame, guilt and anger … an average of 17 military personnel a day who take their own lives …

I don’t know what sin is precisely … the games we play with God … looking good on the outside and still king of our own little domain …

I don’t know what sin is precisely … the distance between us and God … the boundaries we draw between neighbors … the chasms we dig and the walls we build … the suspicions we hold; the tales we tell …

I don’t know what sin is precisely … hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, factions, envy, self-indulgence.

I don’t know what sin is precisely … but Paul’s words ring true:

“The good I want to do, I don’t do; the evil I despise, I keep on doing … wretched man that I am; who will rescue me from this impasse (see Romans 7:7-25)?

And then, these immortal words: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our LORD.”

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The movie, “Sister Act” … Whoopie Goldberg, working with a youth choir … they’re singing “O Happy Day … when Jesus washed my sin away” … at first, lackluster singing … then Whoopie lights a small fire, and it takes off … and they sing with heart and soul, “O Happy Day” and when they finish, the audience on their feet, cheering madly, Whoopie says to the youth, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now a choir.”

That’s what God wants for this tired and trembling world … to sing a song, to be a choir … every voice represented … every style embraced … all together now, in one voice: “O Happy Day when Jesus washed my sins away.”

Simon of Cyrene … innocent bystander pressed into service … accidental disciple: “Here; you carry this cross and follow Jesus.”

What was Simon doing there?

Part of the Passover crowd … tens of thousands of pilgrims from the steppes of Russia to the shores of Tripoli … from India to the tip of Spain … the dream of every Jew … to see the fabled city and bring a sacrifice to the Temple.

Simon … immortalized in history … a bystander who carried the cross for our LORD.

And Jesus took away his sins.

The women who mourn and wail … not everyone in the crowd is eager for this man’s death … do they know Him? Were some of them healed by Him? Were their children blessed by Him?

And Jesus took away their sins.

The criminals on either side … not just back-alley thugs, but enemies of Rome … rebels, revolutionaries, terrorists … determined to overthrow Rome and rid their homeland of this hated enemy … violent men who lived by the sword.

That’s the charge brought against Jesus … sedition, treason, rabble-rousing - a threat to Roman rule … hence the public execution.
What better way to remind the people of their captivity – this exquisitely painful means of death – slow and agonizing …
And what better time - Passover Eve … let ‘em know who’s boss … Rome rules.

The soldiers throw dice for his garments – they mock Him – “Hey big guy, Mr. King of the Jews … you’re not so smart now, are ya’!” …
How else to break the boredom of a job done thousands of times … all over the empire, rebels, terrorists, instigators, crucified along busy highways; sometimes hundreds at a time … they’ve done this so many times, they can do it in their sleep. They know how to kill; they’re experts at it.
Just another day for these battled-hardened men.

And Jesus took away their sins.

The rulers are there, too … sneering; snide, enjoying their power … “What a fool you are Jesus of Nazareth … you had some good ideas, but you took ‘em too far … too radical … too much of a good thing … you didn’t play by the rules … you healed on the Sabbath; you disregarded our traditions … you forgive sins, but that’s our job, not yours.”
You spent too much time with the down-and-out, Jesus – you should’ve spent more time with us!”

And Jesus took away their sins.

The people were there, too … bystanders; tourists … in town for the Holiday … wondering … bewildered: “Who is this guy?”

“Where’s He from?”

“Nazareth, you say?”

“What did He do?”

And Jesus took away their sins.

Of the two crucified with Jesus, one was thoughtful … in the agony of his own death, he speaks kindly to Jesus … does he see something that everyone else missed?

“Jesus” … he knows the name.
Did someone tell him? … did he overhear it? Was he there at the Sermon on the Mount … did he witness a healing?
He knows the name, “Jesus” – remember me!

“Remember me” – I’m a nobody, and nobody cares about me … I die here alone … I’m a violent man, and I’m dying a violent death.

“Remember me.”

“Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”


Out of this mess? This wretched end to our lives? A kingdom?

And Jesus took away his sins.

“Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.”

A strange ending to a strange life … a place called The Skull, three men dying … the one in the center speaks of paradise.

And He took away the sins of the world.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Steady - Nov 18 2007

Luke 21:5-19

“LORD Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, I give myself to you in faith and obedience.”

Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Anointed One of God … the center of our faith … the anchor of hope … a portrait of life and love … the image of the invisible God … the firstborn over all creation … by Him, all things were created … He is before all things … and in Him all things hold together.

Jesus my LORD: he head of the body; the head of the church … the beginning and the end; the Alpha and the Omega; the firstborn from among the dead … all of God’s fullness dwells in Him … through Him, all things on earth or things in heaven are reconciled to God … through His blood shed on the cross (Colossians 1:15-20; Revelation 22:12).

Jesus my LORD.

Our reading today … Jesus in Jerusalem … the political and spiritual center of God’s people … a city built on a hill … the Temple built by Herod the Great … a thorn in the flesh for Rome … the pinnacle of pride for the people … the City of David.

The boys from Galilee are impressed … “What a place,” they say. “How glorious it is; look at all the big buildings.”

Like Iowa farm boys visiting New York City … or a young lady from Nebraska strolling down Rodeo Drive …

Jerusalem the Golden …

I remember my own journey to Israel … we arrived in Tel Aviv … spent a few days on the Sea of Galilee, and then the bus ride to Jerusalem … following the footsteps of Jesus … from Galilee to the Holy City.

As the bus labored up a steep roadway, we all held our breath … the tour guide alerted us … “You will see the city as Jesus saw it.”
The bus crested the hill, and there it was … in the bright light of mid-morning … gleaming … alabaster white … a golden hue … the city of David … my eyes filled with tears.

The disciples were mightily impressed … why not? … this incredible city - one of the wonders of the world … every Jew dreamed of making pilgrimage there … “Oh to be in Jerusalem” … at ever Passover meal, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

We toured the city for a week … every turn of every corner, a piece of history … a story to be told … a picture to be taken … and finally the Temple Mount itself … the Western Wall … sometimes called the Wailing Wall because of all the tears shed by those mighty stones.

In the niches of the wall, scraps of paper, thousands of them – prayers scribbled … I scribbled mine: for Donna and the children … and I wept by the Western Wall.

In AD 70, the Roman Empire, fed up with Jewish unrest and rebellion, laid waste to the city – demolished the Temple, one stone at a time – nothing left; everything gone.

The gold and the silver, the precious stones and tapestries, hauled off to Rome – war booty - to underwrite the building of a monument … the Coliseum … to celebrate the victories of Emperor Titus …

Jesus foresaw all of these unhappy events … when the boys from Galilee were oohing and awing at the Temple’s splendor, Jesus saw something else … He saw the tragic outcome of the present course … headed for a showdown with Rome, and Rome would win.

It would be the end of the age … the world as the disciples knew it would cease to be … their world would come to an end.

Hardly the news anyone wants to hear … but so it is with life … what we know and those we love soon gives way to the flow of time …

This last week, Donna and I were looking at old slides … goodness … I was once young … and my children were once babies … things change … we move on … we all march to the beat of the same drummer … a rhythm tapping out the days, until we draw our last breath, and life is no more.

Stone-by-stone … the end of the age!

The disciples were unnerved … “When will this be? Will there be any signs? We’d like to know.”

“Beware that you are not led astray,” says Jesus.
Many will come claiming to have all the answers … “Do not go after them,” says Jesus.

Steady as she goes! Don’t be terrified … take advantage of the moment to testify: tell the world about faith, hope and love; grace, mercy and peace.

When you’re up against it, I will give you the words and wisdom you need … to withstand the onslaught of the world …

Steady as she goes … by your endurance, you will gain your souls …

An incredible promise: by your endurance, you will gain your souls …

A promise that makes sense … endure and we gain our souls … because souls are lost, when fear takes hold … when we’re unnerved by circumstance, when we panic, the center collapses, we become prisoners of the immediate … events dictate our state of mind.
Circumstances decide our character …
We’re no longer centered; our point of reference no longer within, but out there somewhere in the swirling sands of time …

Disasters and wars: cutbacks at work … slumping housing market … stocks in decline … a child’s report card … a fateful call from the doctor’s office.

Our stomach churns … sleep is fitful and nightmarish … imagined scenarios race through mind, and everyone of them is bad … trusted members of the family fail us … friends turn the other way, too busy with their own stuff … faith ridiculed by the skeptic; rejected by the cynic.

The end of the age! Or so it seems.

Jesus dares to say: be steady … remain centered; … you will make it through the storm; I will bring you to a better place … it’s going to be all right … not a hair on your head will perish … nothing lost … by your endurance, you will gain your souls.

Talk about the power of positive thinking …

The glass is half-full … a positive spin … roll with the punches … bend with the wind …

Jesus is that kind of person … so is Paul the Apostle … Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. … John and Charles Wesley … Mother Teresa … life is no picnic for any of them, but they make meatloaf sandwiches, fix potato salad and have a picnic anyway.

Things turn our best for those who make the best of how things turn out!

Jesus on the cross … salvation for the world.
Paul in prison … opportunity to sing hymns - witness to the jailor.
Martin Luther tucked away in Wittenberg Castle – a death sentence hanging over his head … he writes the Reformation documents that change the world.
Mother Teresa, the inner burden of spiritual turmoil and doubt … picks up a washcloth and comforts a dying man.

They all trust the fundamental promise of God: “I am at work in ALL things for good.”

A simple faith – there’s good here; I may not see right now, I may not know how it’ll all turn out, but I trust my Father in heaven.
I take God at His word, signed and sealed with the blood of Christ … confirmed on Easter morning … the stone rolled away; the powers of death undone … the old book closed; a new book opened … a new story, a new beginning, a new day.

The power of positive thinking …

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

“The earth is the LORD's, and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24)

“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.” (Psalm 25)

“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27)

The power of positive thinking … Robert Schuller didn’t invent it … Norman Vincent Peale didn’t invent it … Joel Osteen didn’t invent it …
But from the wellsprings of Scripture … the ancient text … the Word of the LORD … “God created the heavens and the earth” … “God at work in all things” … “then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” … “and we will be like Him” … “in the twinkling of an eye.”

Steady as she goes!

The power of prayer … “Jesus my LORD” … “Our Father who art in heaven” … “Now I lay me down to sleep, I the pray the LORD my soul to keep” … “God is great; God is good; let us thank Him for our food” … “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference” … “not my will be done, but thine” … “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever” …

Steady as she goes.

The Holy Spirit … the Counselor, the Advocate; God inside us; God with us … the Holy Spirit instructs us in the things of Jesus, seals the grace of God upon our hearts … brings us into the kingdom of God, centers us in God’s unconditional love; implants God’s unconditional love into the center of our lives …

Steady as she goes.

Jesus knew full well that changing times unnerve us … and times are always changing … we’d like to know a few things, if you please … some inside information.

Jesus replies cryptically … an answer that’s no answer at all … a simple reminder; a reality check: earthquakes there are, and wars rage … natural disasters and human tragedies … small and large … played out in our living rooms and in our workplaces … in the halls of government and on the battlefield … fires roar up a canyon and homes are gone; rain ceases and a city is threatened … a thousand dramas every day … large and small … things change … things come and go … birth and death … hope and sorrow … joy and fear … love and anger …

Jesus says, “So what else is new?”

Steady as she goes!

Hang on to God, because God hangs on to you, and God will never let go.

It’s going to be all right; you’ll make it … the storm will pass; you’ll be the better for it … keep your eyes on God … steady as she goes.

“Do not be afraid little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

“I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

“I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

Steady as she goes!

“Let mutual love continue.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers …
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them …
Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.”

Steady as she goes … easy does it … stay calm … stay focused … stay centered in the love of God … read your Bible; pray often and pray simply …

And by your endurance, you will gain your souls!

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Silly - November 11 2007

Luke 20:27-38

Good morning, dear friends … it’s good to be here … God has something good for us today … a word of hope, some encouragement … forgiveness; inner peace; renewal of spirit … fresh purpose and great confidence.

We’re God’s people; God’s unconditional love for us never changes … God is shaping our lives to be like Christ … day-by-day; year-by-year - to be ambassadors of the gospel … a light to the world … the salt of the earth.

“Come and follow me” says Jesus, and that’s what we do, and that’s who we are … followers of the Master …
Every day of our life,
He calls …
We get out of the boat, leave our nets behind …
We follow Jesus … so closely, we’re covered in His dust, the dust of the rabbi.

“Peter, you’re looking a little dusty today.”
“You bet I am; it’s the dust of my rabbi. Where He goes, I go. If he walks on water, I’ll do it, too!”

Every time we pick up the Bible and read of Jesus, we follow Him … from Galilee to Jerusalem; from Pilate’s chambers to the cross of Calvary; from the empty tomb to the gates of heaven.
We hear His parables; we witness the healings … we watch the powers-that-be challenge Him and plot His removal … we’re amazed at His courage … we’re moved by His compassion … we’re saved by His death … made new by His resurrection.

Jesus my LORD!

“I am who God says I am. I have what God says I have. I can do what God says I can do.”

In our text today, Jesus is confronted by the Sadducees … a group who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

From Abraham to King David, the Hebrew people had no concept of eternal life … this life was good enough … when life was over, everyone went to Sheol, the rich and the famous; the leper and the blind, and everyone in between – to Sheol, the land of the dead.

The nations around Israel had a sense of life after death … look at the pyramids … but not Israel … this life was good enough … nothing more was needed.

To have lived on God’s good earth was sufficient … to love and be loved … to enjoy good food and wine … to be charitable with neighbors; to have friends and be respected; to worship the LORD and sing the songs of Zion.

This life was good enough!

But God had something more in mind … God touched the heart of His people and said, “I have something for you beyond this life.”

The thought of eternal life emerged in the mind and heart of the Hebrew people … a new heaven and new earth … death banished; tears wiped away.
Everything made new!

Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead … but not the Sadducees.

So they confronted Jesus with a question … did they want to learn from Him? Maybe!

But more likely, a less charitable intent … a question to set up Jesus, embarrass Him, discredit Him … a silly question with harmful intent!

A lady on a plan was reading her Bible … a man next to her asked, “Do you believe all of that?”
“Yes, I do!” she said. “It’s the Bible.”
“What about the guy in the whale?” said the man.
“You mean Jonah?” said the lady.
“Yes, three days in the belly of a whale … how could anyone survive?”
The lady paused for a moment, then said, “I don’t know. I’ll ask him when I get to heaven.”
The man said sarcastically, “What if he’s not in heaven.”
“Then you’re gonna have to ask him!” she said.

The Sadducees asked Jesus, “This resurrection stuff. Do you believe that?”

I wonder how long they labored to craft their question … did they meet in counsel earlier in the week? … did they gather that morning? … did they rehearse their lines?

“Here’s a good question … this’ll trip him up for sure!”
“Say it this way Eleazar.”
“Use this tone of voice.”
“All set?”
“Eleazar? Are you ready?”
“Okay, here we go!”

So much time for something so small! Silly!

Earlier this week, on my way to church, coming here on 79th, the light changed, so I stopped – I was on the intersection.

Sepulveda traffic was heavy, and a car had stopped blocking the cross walk to the YMCA.

A man on the southeast corner … the light turned green, the walk sign lit up, the man stood there … looking at the car blocking his way as if it were the Grand Canyon; shook his head with disgust … finally stepped off the curb with a huff, walked two feet out of his way around the car, glared at the driver, and then on to the Y.

I thought: “Silly!”

Time and energy wasted for something so small.

But we all do it.

Someone criticizes your work, and you spend hours fretting about it.

You do your best, but someone questions your motives … and now you can’t sleep at night.

A co-worker irritates the daylights out of you … and you can’t get it out of your mind.

You spend hours explaining yourself … trying to win over your critics … wondering how to get back at them.

Small things!

Silly things … a thousand little silly things thrown into the pathway of our life … 999 of them not worth a second thought.

That car blocking the walkway … not worth a second thought … walk around it, shake it off, who cares? … get on with your life. Don’t sweat the small things.

Stay on the high road … be of good cheer … roll with the punches.

“LORD, silly things will come my way today … little things not worth a second thought … and I’ll not give ‘em the time of day …”

“I’ve got better things to do … higher thoughts and greater ideas.”

LORD, I’ll stay focused on my life … I’ll do the best I can, and let you do the rest.
I trust you, LORD; I know that cars will block my way today … but I’ll walk around ‘em; I’ll not waste time fussing and fretting. I’ve got better things to do.”

The Sadducees fussed and fretted about small things … silly things …

But Jesus didn’t succumb to their game … Jesus didn’t allow silly things to distract Him … He knew what He had to do, and He had to do what He knew.

Stay on the high road … stay focused … we’ve got better things to do.

Sometimes the car blocking my walkway gets to me … I focus on the car, I stare at the driver … I’m bummed, I’m incensed, I’m insulted; my stomach churns.

No, no, no, no … stay on the high road … stay focused … we’ve got better things to do.

A little girl was told repeatedly by her mother, “Don’t climb up on the chair.”

One day, the mother was in the other room; things seemed very quiet. The mother peeked around the corner to see her child climbing up on the chair … but rather than walk into the room, the mother decided to watch.

The little girl climbed up, stood there on the chair, said, “no, no, no, no” and swatted herself.

I have to do that now and then … “no, no, no, no.”

These are not good thoughts … this is a waste of time … it’s a silly thing …

“No, no, no, no!”

I’ll take the high road … I’ll stay focused … I’ve got better things to do.

Jesus stayed focused on the things that count!

Sometimes I ask myself: what really counts? What’s important?

40 Million uninsured Americans?
Environmental degradation?
Humankind’s warring ways?
30,000 children dying every day?

What’s important?

Bad hair day?
The color of the carpet?
You didn’t get your newspaper on time?

What really counts?

Jesus sums it up well: A new commandment I give to you, Love one another as I have loved you.”

Paul writes ten years later: “faith, hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.”

In the film, “Dan in Real Life,” a young man says: “Love isn’t a feeling; it’s an ability.”

Yes, an ability to change the world … by making life better one person at a time!

Johtje Vos died on Oct. 10 in Saugerties, N.Y. She was 97.

During the war years, Mrs. Vos and her husband, Aart, lived in a three-bedroom house on a dead-end road in the town of Laren in the Netherlands, with acres of forest behind it. Mr. Vos, who died in 1990, grew up in Laren and knew every stream and field in the area. That allowed him to lead Jews through the woods to the house at night and back into the woods when the Nazis were coming. Each time a German raid was imminent, a sympathetic Dutch police chief in Laren, a friend of the Voses, would dial their phone, let it ring twice, hang up, then repeat the code.

In all, 36 people were saved by the Voses, with as many as 14 hiding in their home at any one time.

One of the survivors said at Johtje’s funeral:

“If Johtje hadn’t done what she did, my mother wouldn’t have survived and I wouldn’t be alive.”

Mr. and Mrs. Vos resisted the notion that they had done something out of the ordinary. Interviewed for a 1992 book … Mrs. Vos said, “I want to say right away that the words ‘hero’ and ‘righteous gentile’ are terribly misplaced.”

“I don’t feel righteous,” said Mrs. Vos, who, like her husband, was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, “and we are certainly not heroes, because we didn’t sit at the table when the misery started and say, ‘O.K., now we are going to risk our lives to save some people.’ ”

It started one night in 1942 when a Jewish couple asked to be sheltered for just that night as they ran from the Germans. Soon after, another friend asked them to keep a suitcase containing valuables before he was sent to a ghetto.

The Voses were surprised to discover that their friend was Jewish. “We never talked about Jews,” Mrs. Vos recalled. “They were all just Dutch, that’s all.” (New York Times, Nov. 4, 2007).

Love is an ability to stay focused on the things that count … a daily promise:

LORD, I’ll not let the Sadducees get to me … if a car pulls into my walkway, I’ll walk around it …

LORD, I’ll stay positive and hopeful

I’ll not lose sight of the goal.

I’ll take the high road … I have great things to do … life is precious and good …

I am who God says I am. I have what God says I have. I can do what God says I can do.

Jesus my LORD. Amen!

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Tale of Two Robes - Nov 4, 2007

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Mark 12:38-40
Acts 17:21-22

I no longer wear a robe.

It’s more than a sartorial decision – more than simply going to the closet, wondering what to wear.
My story, three chapters:
Unrobed, robed, disrobed.

Chapter One: Unrobed:
I’ve tried to recall what my childhood pastors wore, and I can’t recall any images.
They were good preachers, good pastors, but what they wore, not a clue, though I seem to recall suit and tie more than anything.
When I graduated from seminary – went to West Virginia – wore a suit and tie most of the time, I guess, but no clear recollections!
Went to Altoona, PA, a tough, inner-city sort of place; learned that a clerical collar made hospital calling easier.
I wore the collar during the week, but stayed with suit and tie for Sundays – then began to wear the clerical collar for worship, but stayed with a suit or a sport coat.

Then as an associate at Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh – large congregation, 6 full-time pastors, several part-time – there, the clergy wore robes.
I didn’t own a robe, so I borrowed one from the clergy closet.

From Fox Chapel to Northern Wisconsin – suit and clerical collar.
Trip to Duluth one day, a religious supply house.
Bought an alb (albino, white), with four beautiful hand-made stoles from Montreal, rope cincture for the waist.

Chapter 2: Robed: I wore the alb for ten years.
In 1986, I earned a doctorate; two of my faculty advisors from Western Theological Seminary flew done to Tulsa to conduct Sunday morning graduation ceremonies at the church.
It was grand day, a festive day, and well do I remember it – a fellow-student from Kansas City was there – Christian musician Ken Medema provided incredible music.
The church gave me this ring – something Donna remembered from an earlier visit to a James Avery Jewelry story in Tulsa.
At the store one evening in a mall, I spotted the ring in a display cabinet.
I said, “If ever I were to wear a ring, this would be it.”
When the church asked Donna what to give me, she remembered, and they gave me this ring to me that Sunday.
Then Donna and the children gave me my robe, a Genevan gown, with chevrons on the sleeves, representing the doctorate.
Then, a dramatic moment in the graduation ceremony, the hooding – my chief faculty advisor, the Rev. Dr. Robert Coughenour, put it over my head – gold and blue, the school colors, dominated by the broad swath of red, the color of the degree, the color of theology.
I can’t put into words what it meant to me then, and still means. It’s a precious gift given to me by my family.

I wore the robe for many years, with clerical collar, and many times the hood.
It made the Sunday morning closet easy – and I was comfortable in it.

But times change …

Chapter 3: Disrobed:
About eight years ago, I disrobed!

Behind my decision, prayer & thought.
What are the times in which we live?
What’s the 21st century calling us to be?
What does it mean to be the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”?

If clergy garb served a function, what was it really?
Is it consistent with the New Testament witness? With Jesus our Rabbi? With the early church?

One of the Scripture passages that means much to me in all of this, Mark 12:38-40 …

I’ll read it again:

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

Jesus accepted the title Rabbi easily, but at the same time Jesus warned us:

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:8-12).

Eight years ago, I put my robe away with tenderness … I spoke about it with Donna and the children, because they gave it to me, and they all agreed.
Times change!
“Put it away Dad; it’s a new day for the church!”

Ever since Constantine made Christianity the religion of the realm, the church has struggled with SACERDOTALISM.

“Sacred power” reserved for the few – baptism, communion - the forgiveness of sins.
Only a few folks can do these things. SACERDOTALISM.

The middle ages – YOU were NOT the church – I was the church.
Me and my clergy buddies, we were the church – priest, bishop, arch bishop, cardinal and pope, along with monks and sisters – we were the church, not you.

You were customers of the grace we created every time we did the Mass.

You didn’t need to be there – no one needed to be there, except the priest, and when the words were said, and the bells rung, a little more grace for the world.

The clergy presided over seven sacraments, to cover all your sins.
The clergy held all the cards: we could get you to heaven, or send you to hell.


Let’s think for a moment about the early church.

Everything was done in the home … when Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he was writing to 30 or 40 house churches.
There was no “church” as we know it for 300 years … there were only home-gatherings, or gatherings by a river … informal and powerful; home-based and world-changing. “Not by might nor by power, but by the Spirit of the LORD” (Zechariah 4:6)

For a thousand years, the accretions of power grew upon the church, like lichen on a tree, or moss on a stone … vestments grew heavy with brocade, jewels and precious metals … cathedrals tall and overpowering … property and power … sacerdotalism.

The Protestant Reformation formulated a new teaching that shook the church to its foundation … not really a new teaching; a teaching from the New Testament … bringing the church back to its foundation; restoring the church to its first love; plain and simple.

Anyone hazard a guess?

The Priesthood of all believers!

The church liberated from sacerdotalism.

In our own tradition, the Disciples of Christ formed in the early 1800s in a desire to recover the New Testament model – the priesthood of all believers.
To this day, in the Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church and the Churches of Christ, all off-shoots of the Presbyterian family, the distinction between clergy and laity is far less than in most churches.
The clergy are primarily equippers of the people – as Paul the Apostle wrote: “equipping the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12).

If such were the case today, what might the church look like?

Baptism would be done in the home.
By parents and grandparents, friends and family - a cup of water in the living room - gathered at the beach, by a pool.
I believe any Christian family, gathered together with other Christians, can celebrate baptism – a simple, John-the-Baptist moment … or Paul in the home of Cornelius.

What about the LORD's Supper?

Didn’t Jesus say, “Whenever you eat?”

At home, in a restaurant … with friends, or by yourself – a peace of bread, a cup of anything – it’s the body, it’s the blood – the presence of Christ with His people.

Whenever a group gathers in Jesus’ name, He’s there … and anyone can take a piece of bread, anyone can lift a cup; any believer, any Christian, anywhere.

Every family meal – someone can say: Christ is with us – this is His body, this is His blood. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all.

We can learn from contemporary Judaism: a religion of the home.

The essential rites of Jewish life are done in the home:

The bris – circumcision – done at home.
Passover – at the dinner table, presided over by the parents, and children fully participating. A family affair.

The synagogue is a gathering place for instruction … the rabbi teaches there … the community is strengthened by its gathering – children go to school there - but the essential stuff of being a Jew is done in the home, with friends and family.

We are all one in Christ … there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female … and I would add, neither clergy nor laity.

There are distinctions, distinctions of gifts … some are apostles, some are disciples, some evangelists, some are teachers; some are artisans; some are musicians … some have the gift of hospitality, some the gift of mercy … some are prayer warriors.
Many gifts, one spirit; many gifts, one calling; many gifts, one purpose … many gifts, one people.

We’re all equally close to God … every prayer said is worthy in the sight of God and welcomed at heaven’s gate … every person has a gift, maybe two or three at the most … everyone is equally important in the kingdom of God.

The state church of Norway recently severed its ties to the state, ending centuries of state oversight.
Bishop of Oslo notes, “It belongs to another time than ours.”

There was a time when I thought orange shag carpet was cool … and a purple shirt, with a purple paisley tie ten feet wide … and that ’56 buick of mine could lay a patch of rubber 20 feet long and hit a 120.

But they all belong to another time …

When Donna and I travel by air, as soon as the plane leaves the ground, I set my watch to the new time zone.
Donna keeps her watch on our time zone – which makes for some interesting moments for her.
What time zone are we in?

The energy of change is none other than God!
God always seeks a new place – a new strategy, a new way of communicating His love to the world. God loves change; God is ever creative and creating … making all things new … a new heaven and a new earth …

So I put my robe away … I’ve changed my mind over the years … and I’ll change my mind again before I go home to Jesus.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Stewardship - Oct 28 07

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

# How many evangelists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, but the bulb must repent of its darkness and be willing to be changed.

# How many liberals does it take to change a light bulb?
Ten, but they will need to debate whether or not the bulb actually exists. Even then, they still may not change it, for fear of alienating those who use florescent bulbs.

# How Many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
None. God has predestined when the lights will be on and off.

# How Many Roman Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?
None. They use candles.

# How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb?
Ten, one to change the bulb, and nine to pray against the darkness.

# How many Charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?
Three, one to cast it out, and two more to catch it as it falls.

# How Many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?
At least 15. One to change the light bulb, and two or three committees to approve the change. Oh, and also one to provide a casserole.

# How many Independent Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one, because any more than that would be Ecumenicalism.

# How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?
Three. One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks and one to talk about how much better the old one was.

# How Many Mormons does it take to change a light bulb?
Five. One man to change the bulb, and four wives to tell him how to do it.

# How Many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb, and present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

# How May Amish does it take to change a light bulb?
What's a light bulb??

Did you know that you’re a light bulb … sort of … Jesus said,

“You are the light of the world.”

“Let your light shine, so that folks may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Speaking of good works, how many Presbyterian incomes does it take to support a pastor?


How many Presbyterian incomes to support a building?


How many Presbyterian incomes to support a ministry?


Simple math - based upon God’s math lessons … the tithe, the giving of ten percent …

10 to support one … 20 to support one building … 10 to support a ministry.

Simple math …

Pencil to paper … how much income anticipated? What’s ten percent of that? We begin where God begins.

Simple giving … giving according to God’s principles … a massive celebration of life and love … a celebration of all things good and decent …

A celebration of our mission to the world … every piece of research reveals the church to be efficient, responsible, and consistent.
A celebration of love … for God so loved the world … and with God’s love in us, we love the world, too … one neighbor at a time … down the street, across the town and all around the world.
A celebration of trust … what we give is pleasing in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD will provide all the more for us.
A celebration of our freedom from fear of not having enough, the greed spawned by fear, and the anxiety of fear. Giving sets us free.
A celebration of Christ … we give for Him, we give to Him, and through Him, our gifts – the fish and loaves – are multiplied a thousand fold, a million fold, and His name is exalted.

Now, let’s talk about circumstances …

Sometimes we’re in a pickle … unexpected situations; financial set-backs … too much debt … God understands … God knows our life, through and through … God knows the hard times we face … God knows what can happen … God understands.

Sometimes we’re blessed abundantly, with more than we expected … our cup runneth over; the coffers are full.

Whatever our circumstance, work with it on paper.

It’s important to set a target percentage … will it be three percent, four, five, two, one?

Pencil to paper keeps us alert and thoughtful – pencil to paper makes giving a part of the program, a part of who we are, what we do.

If it’s 3%, 2%, 1% - do it …
If we can half-tithe - do it …
If we can tithe - do it …
If we can add offerings to our tithes, do it.

Bill Evans remembers a pastor saying: “Give until it feels good.”

When we give according to God’s plan, it feels good …
When we give for the sake of Christ and His glory, it feels good …
When we give to set ourselves free from the entrapments of wealth, it feels good …
When we give to relieve suffering, it feels good …
When we join arms with our sisters and brothers at Malibu and in Louisville and in Hungary and in the Sudan and Belize, it feels good …
When we give to keep a church on the corner of 80th and Sepulveda fully functioning, it feels good.

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

“Give and it shall be given unto you is the still the rule about life.”

By the way, how many Presbyterians does it take to change the world?

One! … You! … Amen!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Brave Heart - Oct 21, 2007

Luke 18:1-8

She’s a brave woman!

She single-handedly confronted the judge and demanded justice for the wrong done to her.

What we know about 1st Century Palestine, it was likely a monetary complaint … someone failed to fulfill an obligation, perhaps trying to take advantage of the widow, and who would care; she’s not likely to press her case – women don’t do that!

But to everyone’s surprise, she pushes ahead and pleads her cause … repeatedly, until the judge gives in and agrees to grant her justice.

She stays the course … and prevails.

Jesus tells this parable about our need to pray always, and never lose heart … not because God is some intractable judge to be worn down by our entreaties, but rather, just the opposite … if the judge could be moved, says Jesus, think how much more easily God is moved by the cries of His children.

Our prayers count … every prayer is heard and well-received … our prayers are a part of God’s mighty work … our prayers add to the well-being of the world … prayers offered in good faith, prayers for justice.

God will grant justice, says Jesus, and will do it quickly.

Jesus ends the parable with a question: When the Son of Man comes, will He find this kind of faith on earth?

The kind of faith portrayed in the woman who doesn’t give up … who seeks justice and doesn’t lose heart.

Faith that goes to bat for a better world.

Jesus said it of Himself to His hometown congregation:

The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor (Luke 4:18ff)

To pray without ceasing … to never lose heart!

Several guys were trying to load a moving van, and they were arguing about which box ought to go in first, and while they were arguing, one of them said, “While you’re arguing, I’m going to pray.” And with that, he picked up one of the boxes and moved it into the van.

Practice what our words portray … faith is as faith does.

“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

“That’s just a dream,” you say!

Yes, it’s dream … thank God for dreams … women and men who stand above the crowd and dare to dream …

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Speaking of dreams … Donna told me, "I dreamed last night that you gave me a pearl necklace for our anniversary. What do you think it means?"

"You'll know tonight," I said.

That evening, I came home with a small package and gave it to Donna.

Eagerly, she opened it to find a book entitled "The Meaning of Dreams."

We have our own special dreams …

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

That’s a gutsy dream … a dream worthy of our highest ambitions and our greatest endeavors … a dream worthy of a lifetime and then some … “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” …

The prophet Micah asks (Chapter 6):

“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

The prophet answers the question with these stirring words:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

“Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”

“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?”

“Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”

“Forgive and you will be forgiven.”

“Give and it will be given to you.”

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Dreams all over the place …

My brother recently had some medical tests, and we were anxious … counting the days until the reports were available … and then the phone call …

My brother and his wife were out at the time, so messages were left on their answering machine … two different calls from two different offices.

Bob & Carol got home, the little red light flashing … “you’ve got a message” … and there it was … “The reports are back, Mr. Eggebeen. It’s only a cyst; no malignancy. You’ve a clean bill of health.”

My brother said to me, “Tom, it takes a few days to recover from the anxiety … I left the messages on the answering machine; I play them every day, just to make sure they’re saying what they’re saying. I’ll leave them on the answering machine for a few more days.”

Dear Christian friends, what’s on your answering machine today? … what messages do you play and replay over and again? Messages of hope? Better days? Confidence and faith? God’s love for you and for all the world?

Keep those messages on your answering machine and play them every day:

Play it again, Sam – just to make sure it says what it says.

Someone asked me the other day, “How can we attract new members?”

The answer is simple: “Be an attractive church.”

Filled with faith, hope and love; grace, mercy and peace … filled with Christ and the Holy Spirit … filled with faithful words and kindly deeds.

A church with open doors, open windows, open minds … a church willing to let go of past certainties to embrace the creative uncertainties of the future.

Scripture, Christ, mission … a church on the road … a church in transition, never settled, always seeking … Jesus didn’t say, “Sit down with me!” He said, “Come and follow me!”

Praying constantly and never losing heart … praying for justice … praying the dream of a new world …

Filled with brave hearts … hearts in love with Christ, hearts straining forward to a new day …

A new day soon to be,
When the storm clouds are all past,
And the sun shines on a world that is free.

It’s hard to put this into words … so I think of people who live the dream … brave hearts who never give up.

I think of Mother Teresa - in spite of doubt and many a dark night, she labored humbly and patiently to relieve suffering in her beloved Calcutta.

I think of Gandhi who dreamed of freedom for his beloved India and held the British accountable to their own high ideals and taught his followers peaceful resistance.

I think of Martin Luther King, Jr, sitting in a Selma, Alabama jail cell, formulating plans and programs to help this nation realize it’s greatest dreams – We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I think of film makers like Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney … who hold a mirror up to our soul … reveal our sins and remind us of our goodness.

I think of the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and just recently awarded our highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, which brings me to the prayer shawl I’m wearing - last evening, our Westminster Hall was filled with hundreds of Tibetans celebrating their dreams for a free Tibet – I stopped by, had a splendid time, and they surprised me with this prayer shawl and a book by the Dalai Lama.

I think of a friend now with Jesus … a Presbyterian pastor, who happened to be gay … ordained in the days of “don’t ask; don’t tell,” he fulfilled his calling, he lived faithfully with his partner for 17 years … with gentleness and humility, he helped folks understand that being gay is not some horrible crime against God … he helped folks open their Bibles and re-read the text to discover a different way of thinking about such things … he was a clear and convincing witness for Jesus.

I think of Billy Graham who quietly and forcefully integrated his Crusades … early on, in the deep south, going down the center aisle of the auditorium before the doors were opened – Graham took down the rope that divided white from black.
“The ground at the foot of the cross is level,” said Graham, “and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”

That’s the kind of faith this brave-hearted women lived until her cause was vindicated and justice done.

Will the Son of Man find this kind of faith on earth when He returns?

Of course He will … He will find this kind of faith all around the world, and right here, at Covenant Presbyterian Church.

Brave-hearted women and men who dare to dream the dreams of God. Amen!