Sunday, March 31, 2013

March 31, 2013, "For Thine Is the Kingdom"

Luke 12.35-48; Luke 24.1-12 

All around us, again and again.
The dark shadows of death and fear.
The soul of humankind.
Wracked with sorrow and sin.

Hatred fills our history books.
Our stories, bent and broken.
Humankind, created in God’s image.
Has adopted the ways of hell.

We sow our seeds of peace.
But reap only war.
We kill, mostly in god’s name.
Whatever our god may be.

We have high hopes.
And make many a promise.
But often find dust instead.
And bitter at night are the tears.

What’s wrong with us? we ask.
And can anything be done?
Can there be any real hope, anywhere?
Or is hope only our vanity?

And when death comes.
Then what?
Is it all gone?
Is there no more?

Our hearts ache for a better world.
A time when sorrow ceases.
When swords are beaten into plowshares.
And children laugh without fear.

When all might live in safety.
And tables are well-spread.
And to see beyond the march of time.
As days and years roll ahead.

A final hope?
A final peace?
A new heaven and a new earth?
Tears gone and death no more?

As the hymn puts it:

Up from the grave he arose; 
with a mighty triumph o'er his foes; 
he arose a victor from the dark domain, 
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign. 
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

To the risen LORD belongs the day … and to the risen LORD belongs the night … in the brightness of the day or in the darkness of the night … when when time is good and life is sweet … when times are hard and death comes near … when joy fills the heart … when sorrow lays us low … 

To the risen LORD it all belongs: For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

I love Easter … it’s the capstone of our faith.

Christmas is wonderful … but it’s Easter than anchors our hope … a child was born in Bethlehem … but that child became a man, and that man, as no other, is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The dark domain does not have the final word … though powerful that dark domain may be.

A great victory has been won … a heavy stone, sealed and guarded … was rolled away … 

It took three days … it takes some time … but it didn’t take three weeks or three months or three years … there’s an urgency to God’s work here … time it may take, but God is in a hurry … it has to be done, and it has to be done quickly … to anchor history and build hope … to make a few things clear, once and for all … to lay the foundation of a new world … that you and I might even now have the courage to face whatever time brings to us … whatever sorrow or heartache might come our way … and stand firm … and stand with our eyes upon the LORD.

We must yet all cross the threshold of death.

Sin and sorrow remain, and life is hard.

Our bodies, frail and fragile, and mortality always nearby.

Yet, on the far horizon, a glimmer of hope.

The gift of peace … wrought in the agonies of the cross and in the darkness of the tomb.

When it seemed as if God were defeated.

God’s mighty work was proceeding.

And when the time was right … in the span of those three days … that stone was rolled away … with grace, mercy and peace, Jesus stepped out of the tomb … power and violence cannot win the day … death and sorrow do not have the last word.

So, we live in hope.

Hope in things not always seen.

But hope in things promised … promised by the Man from Galilee who calls us still to follow him … to lay aside our nets and boats … to find with him what life truly means … to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves … 

A young couple moves into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside. "That laundry is not very clean; she doesn't know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap." Her husband looks on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hangs her wash to dry, the young woman makes the same comments. A month later, the woman is surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: "Look, she's finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? " The husband replies, "I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows." And so it is with life... What we see when we watch others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

A young lady from Temple City, Alexandria Salazar, writes:

I got asked to Prom my Junior Year by this Guy named James. He has Down Syndrome and nobody wanted to go with him. When he asked me I said of course, not thinking too much into it. I remember when his mom called me on the phone crying and thanking me for going with him. She offered to pay for my dress, hair, and makeup because she said she knew nobody would've wanted to go with him. I told her it was okay and that I was happy to go with him. I remember hanging up the phone crying to my mom about how honored I was, to actually go with him. Prom night was kinda of hard to actually enjoy at first because James was kind of all over the Place, but then I remembered that this was HIS Senior Prom. Not Mine. So after that, I went a long with whatever he wanted to do and I ended up having so much fun! Out of the 4 proms I went to during high school, this was actually my favorite.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

Christ is risen.
He is risen, indeed.
The stone is rolled away.
Light and life prevail.

When we grow weary of the cross … the angels of God whisper to us - Don’t give up, and don’t give in … your work is not in vain … your care for the world is right and good … your labor for justice and peace is God’s mighty work … trust the risen LORD.

When sickness lays claim to us … when our bodies fail … the angels of God whisper to us - Don’t give up, and don’t give in … there may yet be a miracle for you … a healing unexpected … pray much and pray often … trust the risen LORD.

When death comes to a loved one, and death comes to us … when medicine and science reach their limit … when the time has come for the last act and the curtain to fall … the angels of God whisper to us - Don’t give up, and don’t give in … there is still more to come … in the grave, God is at work … your loved ones belong to God, and you do, too … safe and sound are your loved ones; safe and sound are all … for God’s love is expansive and universal … all creatures, great and small, all of life, the whole of creation … don’t give up, and don’t give in … trust the risen LORD.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. 

Christ is risen.

He is risen, indeed.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

March 24, 2013 - "Everyone Loves a Parade"

Zechariah 9.9-10, Luke 19.28-40

Everyone loves a parade.

From the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City …

And small-town extravaganzas with a home-coming queen on a flat-bed trailer pulled by a John Deere fresh off the field.

Marching bands and twirling batons … wads of cotton candy and glo-stick necklaces … cheap trinkets and wonderful memories.

Everyone loves a parade!

On this fateful day in Jerusalem, two parades made their entrance … one from the east, from the Mt. of Olives, a Rabbi from Galilee coming into the city on a donkey - as spelled out in the Scriptures – Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, you king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey [Zechariah 9:9].
A beast of burden, quiet and faithful, a farm animal. 
When the kings came to Jerusalem, they rode donkeys.
As if to say:
This isn’t about power.
This isn’t about war.

The king is a king governed by humility.
The king is a whose purpose is peace.
Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts [Zechariah 4:6].

On this day in Jerusalem, in the spring of the year 30, or thereabouts, the week before Passover, there came a man riding on a donkey.
Rabbi Jesus … and his disciples were shouting.
Some folks saw what was happening and spread their cloaks on the ground to welcome him … Who knows, he might be important … he might be the One!
Other stories tell of palm branches being waved – a salute to royalty.
Is this some future king for Israel?

The people longed for a new day of national glory.
With a mighty king and powerful armies to rid Judah of its enemies.
When the nation would once again be sovereign and free.
There’s a great irony at the end of that fateful week … when Jesus dies, a crucified man … an enemy of the state … Pilate affixes to his cross, The King of the Jews.

They dressed him in robes of purple and plaited a crown of thorns for him - so much of the King of the Jews.
Rome sent a message to the people with the first nail – this is what happens to anyone who threatens Rome… we’re in change, and Caesar is lord, and we have no patience for rabble rousers.

But Rome didn’t act alone; it acted in partnership … a coalition of forces … Rome and Jerusalem… politicians and religious leaders - the powerful and the privileged … for they all found comfort in the status quo - they had theirs to enjoy, and no one, but no one, was going to upset the apple cart.

That the religious officials should cooperate with Rome is no surprise.

Jerusalem’s temple elite enjoyed favorable status … don’t get me wrong; they didn’t like Rome, but they knew what side their bread was buttered on.

Think of Parisians who collaborated during WW 2 with the Nazis – politicians and church leaders signed on and raised their arms in salute to Hitler; they may not have liked the Nazis, but they knew where the power was.

Jerusalem’s temple officials had an agreement with Rome – We’ll keep the people quiet, and you preserve our power.

As the parade enters Jerusalem, the religious leaders quickly assemble to meet Jesus, and tell him, Hush your people up; we don’t need to make a fuss here. We don’t want Rome to notice. 

Jesus enters Jerusalem and goes quickly to the Temple.

Drives out the money-changers and folks selling souvenirs.

And Jesus says to them, It is written,
      ‘My house shall be a house of prayer;
      but you have made it a den of robbers.

I can imagine the response of the temple leaders - horrified they were.
Yikes, there he goes again, quoting the Bible.
Turning it upside down.
Telling us we’ve got it all wrong.
How can we have it all wrong?
Look at this place, this temple; it’s beautiful.
Look at Jerusalem - thousands of Passover pilgrims, spending money, filling our inns and buying our trinkets, what’s wrong with that?

St. Peter’s Square jammed with the faithful.
Churches filled on Easter Sunday.

Hey, we all have to make a living, don’t we?
What’s the big deal, Jesus?
Why are you such a problem?
Our Roman overseers are going to get nervous.
Be quiet.
Hush up.
Stop it.
Let well enough along.
Quit talking about the Bible so much.

In Jerusalem that day, there was another parade.
Coming in from the west.
Pilate’s parade.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria.
Leading a column of imperial cavalry on restless horses trained for war, followed by seasoned foot-soldiers, armed to the teeth.

Think of Moscow’s May Day Parade, soldiers, tanks and mobile missile launchers.
Or a flight of F-16s roaring over a speedway after the National Anthem; the crowd erupts in a great cry.

Pilate’s parade.
From Caesarea Maritima, “Caesarea on the Sea” – a city devoted to Caesar – 60 miles to the west, a port city on the Mediterranean.
Think Malibu, or Newport Beach!
And where was Jerusalem?
In the mountains to the east – think Big Bear.
Pilate enjoyed his Malibu, who wouldn’t?
But when festival time came, Pilate made the journey to the mountains of Jerusalem, a show of force, just to be sure folks knew the lay of the land and didn’t get any dumb ideas.

Here’s how two New Testament scholars describe it - Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their excellent book, The Last Week:

A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust [p.3].

We still have the two parades, don’t we?
Jesus and Pilate.
Pilate and his horses … Jesus and his donkey - still ride into our lives from opposite directions … one of power, the other of peace … the one determined to maintain the status quo of the privileged few; the other, determined to tell the truth and set people free from domination and oppression … two parades that day … always two parades … one of power, one of peace.

And we have to choose … which shall it be?
The rabbi on a donkey or Pilate on a horse?

I think of a hymn, written in 1845, when the United States invaded Mexico … James R. Lowell, the poet wrote:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

I think of Joshua in the latter days of his life, addressing the people now in the Promised Land:
You can’t serve both the LORD and other gods.
Choose today whom you will serve.
As for me and my family, we will serve the LORD.

I think of the Grail Knight who advises Indiana Jones:
Choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.

Two parades that day came to Jerusalem … a man on a humble donkey, Pilate on a prancing horse.

Which parade would I have chosen?
Pilate’s parade catches the eye, doesn’t it?
Who knows, I might have joined Pilate’s parade.
But it’s Jesus who tells us the truth. Amen and Amen! 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

March 17, 2013, "Give Us This Day"

Psalm 119.73-80; Luke 12.13-21

Much of what Jesus says and does flows out of Israel’s story … anchored by the Exodus - I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

When Jesus says, Give us this day our daily bread, what would the disciples have thought of?

That’s right … the Exodus Story … manna in the wilderness … basic and simple, new every morning - enough for everyone!

The manna couldn’t be stockpiled for the next day - some folks tried to store it, and it became infested with worms and it stank … they had to go out every morning, to gather their daily bread - six days you shall labor, says the Commandment… and only on the sixth day, could they gather more for the sabbath day, the day of rest.

When Jesus says, Give us this day our daily bread, Jesus takes the disciples back to the wilderness … a time when God’s people were spiritually formed … prepared for the Promised Land … Here’s what you need to know in order to thrive … God will provide for you what’s needed … there’s more than enough to go around … 

Do not be afraid … trust God … 

Jesus knows full well that if the disciples are going to be of any value to the Kingdom of God, they have to live by two spiritual principles: 1) all that’s needed comes from God … and 2) and whatever the need, God provides.

Jesus frees the disciples from the most debilitating sin of all - the fear of not having enough … and here’s where the rubber hits the road for me - all my life, I’ve feared not having enough … someone might well say, Well, why in the world did ya’ go into the ministry if you were afraid of not having enough?

I was called to the ministry!

But I’ve had to struggle many a sleepless night with the demon of fear, the fear of not having enough.

Perhaps in God’s infinite wisdom, God put me into the ministry, as a place where I would always have to default to God … in the middle of the night, with churning stomach, racing mind, to open my heart with gratitude: O LORD, my God, thank you for what I have, and thank you for your promises to provide. I know that you will give what is needed, and I will trust you all the more.

The fear of not having enough … it’s the Original Sin … the snake said to Adam and Eve, You don’t have enough … take the fruit of the tree while ya’ can … 

Scarcity is the message of many a politician these days … there’s not enough to feed the widow, the orphan and the alien … there isn’t enough for the single mother on welfare, the immigrant who needs medicine, the veteran who lost both legs in the war, the elderly who need special care, the retired, and those who’ve lost their jobs … there isn’t enough to keep up our roads, to keep our schools in good repair and pay our teachers decent salaries … there isn’t enough money; we’re going broke … but what bothers me about that message, there always seems to be enough money for more bombs and missiles and aircraft carriers and tax cuts for the hyper-wealthy … always enough money to wage war, but not enough for Head Start and children’s lunch programs.

The message of scarcity is a lie … it’s not true at all … the only thing lacking is compassion and vision and courage and kindness and daring-do that made this nation great … America is great in the things of God - and when we turn inward, get crabby and fearful and selfish, going after the widow, the orphan and the alien, then we’re the rich fool for sure.

On a personal level, when the fear of not having enough takes hold of me, that’s when greed takes hold of my soul … I start to worry, fret and fuss … and then I get stingy; I get angry … my faith dries up … my soul takes a downward spiral … all I want to do is build bigger barns! And hang on to what I’ve got.

 Jesus tells the parable of a rich man … for whom there was never enough … so the man decides to build bigger barns … and what are the barns for? 

To store the harvest. 

Why store the harvest?

He’s manipulating the market … driving up prices by creating scarcity … more for him, less for others, and others will pay more for it.

The rich man follows the rules of wealth … more for himself and less for others … 

But God says to the man, What a fool you are. Tonight you die, and who, then, will get your wealth? You are rich in the things of life, but you are poor in the things of God.

 The rich man is a fool … he’s missed the point of life … here he is, prosperous enough, plenty for today and more than enough for tomorrow … but he gives in to the message of scarcity, the fearful message - there won’t be enough for me, so I better double down and build bigger barns … he’s a fool … a fool for giving his life to the lie - a message of scarcity, a message of fear, and so he forgets what life is all about.

How different if the rich man had remembered the manna principle … there is always enough … he didn’t need bigger barns … he needed a bigger heart … he didn’t need to store the harvest and drive up prices … he needed to share the harvest, keep prices low, so that everyone could have enough.

In the story of the fives loaves and two fish, the disciples say to Jesus, It’s late in the day, the crowd is hungry. Send ‘em away to find food for themselves. 

Wow … that’s how the disciples saw it … let ‘em fend for themselves; we have only enough for ourselves!

Jesus says to them, No way. You feed them. With what you have … you have enough to feed everyone … and then Jesus says, Bring the food to me, because Jesus knows full well that the disciples weren’t about to let go of the bread and fish to anyone except him, and maybe even then the disciples were reluctant - What is he going to do with our food?

Maybe that’s the great spiritual reality here … give it to Jesus, all of it; get it outta of our hands; let it go.

Jesus gives thanks, blesses what they have, breaks the bread, and gives it all back to the disciples … when all said and done, the crowd is feed, twelve baskets of leftovers … there’s more than enough to take care of the disciples, and more than enough to feed the multitude … when we let go and let God.

In God’s kingdom, there is no scarcity.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool to a man who came to Jesus with a complaint about his brother … a matter of inheritance … nothing like an inheritance to disrupt a family.

The man already knows what he wants and tells Jesus to make it so … he wants Jesus to do the dirty work!

Jesus says to him, What makes you think I’m an arbiter of such things?

Do you not already have enough?

Can you not get along with your brother?

Why ask me to force his hand?

This is a game I won’t play with you, and if you know what’s good for you, you won’t play the game either.

Jesus turns to the crowd and says, Watch out. Guard yourselves against all kinds of greed!

Disciples then, or disciples now, always face the demon of scarcity, because we’re human, and the Snake in the grass still tempts us with the original sin: There won’t be enough for you … but Jesus says, There will always be enough. My Father in heaven provides what’s needed, and what’s needed, my Father provides.

If the disciples are going to be of any value whatsoever, they have to be clear about God’s grace - manna in the morning, quail in the evening, and water from a rock.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

March 10, 2013, "Thy Kingdom Come"

Luke 11.14-26

When children pray:

"Dear God, I went to a wedding and they were kissing right there in church. Is that OK?"

"Dear God, thank You for my baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy."

"Dear God, it must be super hard to love all the people in the world, especially my brother. I don't know how you do it."

"Dear God, I love Christmas and Easter. Could you please put another Holiday in the middle, there's nothing good in there now."

"Dear God, my Grandpa says you were around when he was a little boy. How far back do you go?

"Dear God, if you watch in Church on Sunday I will show you my new shoes."

Jesus takes the disciples to a place where he prays, and when he’s done praying, one of the disciples says to him, LORD, teach us to pray.

Jesus says, When you pray, pray like this.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

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

Jesus reminds the disciples that God is reliable … Ask, and it will be given; knock, and the door will be opened; seek, and you will find.

With a simple illustration - If you know how to give good gifts to your own children, and you’re not even all that good, think of how much more your heavenly Father, who is profoundly good, will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

The Holy Spirit, the love of God …

As the hymn puts it:

Spirit divine, attend our prayer,
And make our heart Thy home;
Descend with all Thy gracious power;
Come, Holy Spirit, come.

And why the Holy Spirit? Because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth … and in a world likes ours, so many different truth-claims: in the time of Jesus: Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes … the Pro-Roman groups and the revolutionary groups … those who loved Herod the King and those who thought the whole thing stunk to high heaven.

How do you sort it all out? 
In our time, pretty much the same: religious groups vie for our attention … political parties want our money … creationists and evolutionists hurl charges against one another.

With huge questions on the table: What role does human activity play in Global Warming ? … shall Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security be cut to ease the nation’s deficit? … what kind of Immigration Reform do we need? … shall the US be using drones in US airspace? … 

And on a more personal level: How do we deal with the hurts and sorrows of our own life? … what about a job, career, education? … what about dating and love and getting married? … how in the world can we sort it out all out?

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.

Spirit divine, attend our prayer;
Make a lost world Thy home;
Descend with all thy gracious powers,
O come, great Spirit, come.

Luke takes us now to a scene of healing … a mute spirit is cast out … and the crowd is amazed … 

But some spoke with bitterness about it all - He does by the devil … this isn’t of God … it’s evil. 

Good grief. How in the world could they be so bitter? Were they jealous? Were they simply out to get Jesus. Maybe they didn’t like the man who was healed; maybe they carried grudges against the man’s family.

Others kept pressing Jesus to do even more … demanding signs from heaven … and what more could Jesus give them? Than the liberation of a human being held prisoner in silence … someone unable to say I love you to a child … unable to say, Blessed be the name of the LORD.

Jesus speaks to the naysayers … negative folks who rarely have a good word to say about anything … critical, negative, complaining, grumping and groaning … refusing to see the good, even when the good stands smack-dab in front of them.

The story gets involved … Jesus replies to the naysayers with something that, I think, would have brought a smile to some faces:

If you say that I do these things by the Devil, then at least we might all agree that the Devil’s kingdom isn’t going to make it, because a kingdom divided against itself will soon fall.

But I do what I do by the hand of God, the kingdom of God … and that’s a kingdom undivided … a kingdom solid and good to the core … a kingdom that cannot fall or fail … a kingdom that endures, no matter what … a kingdom of life and light and love.

To those naysayers, Jesus says, Look, you may think you’re smart and strong, and you may be smart and strong, for sure … but you’re not smart enough or strong enough … sooner or later, someone or something stronger than you will come along, and then what?

Maybe you keep a clean house … but it’s empty … every room is clean, but there’s no life in it … no laughter, no joy … no festive dinners, no guests sleeping … it’s clean, but it’s not a home …

Whenever I tell this story from the Bible, I think of a family from my childhood years - they were nice people, with a very nice home. I remember Sunday afternoon visits at their place  - a home with white carpet, white furniture, all covered in clear plastic, and no one ever sat in the living room, and everyone had to be careful. I remember my folks talking about it: What good is home if ya’ can’t live in it?

Jesus looks at the naysayers - Ya’ have a home, but ya’ can’t live in it. And don’t be surprised when the evil spirits return with all their friends.

It won’t be long before it’s a mess, worse then ever.

Jesus doesn’t mince words: If you are of a critical spirit, it’ll only grow worse … if you love to carp and criticize, your heart will grow hard … if you keep on saying “No!”, pretty soon you won’t know how to say “Yes!” … if you can’t let go of bitterness and negativity, pretty soon bitterness and negativity will bring along all of their friends, and what a mess it’ll be.

Many years ago, a young family came into the life of the church, and we became friends.

In time, the young man told me of some prison time, but now had a good job, a wife and a son … wanting to make something of himself.

The Nominating Committee offered his name up for Ruling Elder … I was pleased, and fully believed he was ready and able, spiritually and otherwise, to take up the mantle of eldership … though I realized, and ignored at the time, that he was a terrible racist.

After his election, it became evident to me that something was wrong … his favorite word at every Session Meeting was “No!” … with other favorite expressions like, “It’ll cost way to much; we don’t have the money for it, and who needs it anyway?”

The Spirit of Negativity … maybe he felt important with it, but this much I know for sure: It’s easy to be negative. Doesn’t require one bit of creativity or intelligence to say No! And it does satisfy some psychological need for attention - how much time and effort we all devote to the negative people in our lives? How we have to watch our words and be careful around them.

About that young man and his family … things ended badly … I won’t go into the details; they’re not important. But the lesson has always been this for me - Negativity doesn’t make for life, it just makes for trouble, and the trouble it makes gets bigger and bigger - negativity will win, if we entertain negativity in our life; if we think we can get away with it; if we believe that a little negativity is okay - but it isn’t okay; it never works, and it has no place in the life of a Christian.

Jesus says: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Dear friends in Christ, is this not the kingdom of God?

Where there is good, celebrate it.

Where there is life, enjoy it.

If someone is doing good, help them.

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

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

March 3, 2013, "Our Father"

Message 1 of 5 on the Lord's Prayer.

Luke 11.1-13

One day, Joe, Bob and Dave were hiking in a wilderness area when they came upon a large, raging, violent river. They needed to get to the other side, but had no idea how to do it. 
Joe prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength to cross this river." 
Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs, and he was able to swim across the river in about two hours, although he almost drowned a couple of times. 
Seeing this, Dave prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength and the tools to cross this river." 
Poof! God gave him a rowboat and he was able to row across the river in about an hour, after almost capsizing the boat a couple of times. 
Bob had seen how this worked out for the other two, so he also prayed to God saying, "Please God, give me the strength and the tools, and the intelligence, to cross this river." 
Poof! God turned him into a woman. She looked at the map, hiked upstream a couple of hundred yards, then walked across the bridge.

Oh well … so it goes … men, remember to check the map! And listen to your wife. It’ll keep ya’ on the straight and narrow!

Prayer … what is it? How does it work? … what should we say?

A disciple ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, as John taught HIS disciples …

Maybe we can pray better … 

All of my pastorate, people have wondered, Is there a better way to pray?

Why would anyone ask this?

I fear that some of this has to do with “getting results.”

If only we say it right … 

Do it right ...

Have the right mindset … get on our knees, fold our hands, hold a cross, bow the head … use a Rosary … a prayer book, bury a statue of St. Joseph in our yard to help our home sell … cry a little … look humble … say holy words like “thee” and “thou” … pray in tongues like Pentecostals do … or like some preachers I knew in my childhood, take on the “preacher tone,” an affected way of speaking, as if prayer required a special way of pronouncing words and pacing the sentences.

It’s human nature to hope for some leverage on the divine.

Our needs are real ...

We need help in getting through life … we need money to pay the bills … we need healing when we’re sick … we pray for friends who are in trouble … we pray for our children to succeed in school and career … 

Things in our lives that we want God to change … we pray for friends in trouble … and we pray for those who trouble us with their troubles.

It’s not entirely selfish on our part to want some leverage on God.

Jesus, teach us how to pray.

Jesus says to the disciples, when you pray, pray like this … always begin with God as our Father … because we’re all in this together … we’re a family.

Brothers and sisters are we all … spiritual mothers and spiritual fathers … uncles and aunts and cousins who make this journey with us … we are family!

Because God is our Father! Your Father … my Father … and all together, our Father.

And where is God?

God is in heaven … our Father, who art in heaven!

Now here is where we have much to learn … heaven is God’s realm of love and mercy; God’s way of doing things.

John the Baptist says: The kingdom of heaven has come near.

Paul says: We are citizens of heaven … 

In the Medieval Church, heaven became a destination, a location somewhere out there, far away, on the other side of death … 

The Church taught us that if we’re really good, really do what we’re taught to do - say our prayers, go to church, read our Bibles … and all the little rules and regulations the church invented over the centuries … if we do as we’re told, then we’ll go to heaven when we die.

The promise of heaven and the threat of hell became powerful tools for popes and bishops, kings and queens, to keep everyone else in line … your life here on earth may be miserable and mean, but when ya’ get to heaven, if you do as we tell ya’, you’ll walk on streets of gold and live in heavenly mansions. 

Don’t object to the fact that bishops and priests rule your life with an iron fist and live in the lap of luxury while you wonder where your next meal comes from.

Don’t be offended that your kings and queens take your best land and your wheat and apples and your children for war … don’t protest the fact that you’re cheated on wages, that you’re humiliated by the employer, that your mistreated and abused.

Don’t rock the boat here; stay the course; be obedient and do as you’re told, and you’ll get to heaven when you die.

Truth be told, when Jesus speaks of heaven, he speaks of God: what God values - what God loves … what God does.

Heaven is the gold standard of faith … heaven is the measuring stick by which we measure reality … heaven is what God loves and what God does … and where the love of God is practice and celebrated and fulfilled, that’s where heaven is.

And in Jesus, the love of God is especially fulfilled … and revealed.

To know something about heaven … know everything we can about Jesus.

Read the Beatitudes … walk with him and watch him heal the sick … watch Jesus welcome those who are rejected by the proud and pompous, condemned by the religious and the self-righteous … the woman at the well, blind Bartimaeus beside the road, Zacchaeus up a tree, and the woman dragged before Jesus whom the crowd had sentenced to death.

There is welcome in his heart … forgiveness in his words … a love pure and good … 

Heaven in our midst … all around us and within us … the ways of God … what God loves and what God does … the presence of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Here’s where it’s helpful to know something about the world in which Jesus lived … a world dominated by the Roman Empire and its military might … and Jerusalem the Golden - religion dominated by temple and priest.

When Jesus says of God, who art in heaven, Jesus makes it clear ...

God is not like the Roman Empire that governs with fear and violence … God is not like Jerusalem and its big buildings, God is not like the priests and the scribes who stroll around in fancy robes, say long prayers, expect special treatment, and hurry on by when they see a victim laying in the ditch beside the road … 

When Jesus says, Our Father, who art in heaven, Jesus tells us that God’s eye is on the sparrow … God clothes the lilies of the field … God loves little children … and of all the things we could ever say about God, GOD is the Good Samaritan … God stops to pick us up, dresses our wounds, takes us to a safe place, and covers the cost. 

If White Europeans had truly prayed like this, there would have never been slavery … never been an American Civil War … nor ever the hideous Jim Crow laws with their “colored only” drinking fountains and theater seats in the balcony … there never would have been a need for President Eisenhower to send Federal Troops to Arkansas in 1957 so that a group of nine black students could attend Little Rock High School … nor the need for a Voting Rights Act of 1965 … if Christians had truly prayed, Our Father, who art in heaven.

If Christians in Germany and France and England had prayed like this, there wouldn’t have been the Crimean War, nor the War to End All Wars, nor World War 2 and all the self-righteous killing that threatens the soul of the United States in this very moment of time, and threatens to undo the whole world, as our killing machines grow evermore sophisticated and powerful … … if Christians had truly prayed, Our Father, who art in heaven.

If Priest and Bishop had prayed like this, there would never have been the ghastly cover-up of predator priests whose reputation was more important than the suffering of their little victims … if Christians had truly prayed, Our Father, who art in heaven.

If you and I truly pray as Jesus teaches us to pray, the power of sin in our lives is diminished … we remain sinners for sure, to the day we die … but a life soaked in prayer as Jesus teaches us to pray is life where the darkness cannot prevail, where hatred is reduced … a life where mountains are brought low and valleys filled in … a life of welcome to one and to all … a life forgetful of the past, eager to welcome the future … a life that doesn’t give up on others … a life devoted to grace, mercy and peace!

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

Jesus goes on: hallowed be thy name … holy is your name … and holy means reliable! Trustworthy! Solid and Good!

God says to Israel, I am a holy God ... You can trust me!

I do what I say, and I say what I do … I am reliable, trustworthy … I stand with you … I see you through … I guide you and I guard you … all the way … no matter what, no matter where … I am the LORD your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage … I parted the sea before you and gave you a way through to the other side … I fed you with manna in the wilderness and I gave you water from a rock … 

Because God is holy, we pray with confidence!

God hears our prayers … God welcomes our prayers, just as they are - prayers sometimes poorly framed … said with haste … filled with anger and fear … sometimes overflowing with tears and broken hearts …  sometimes rich in love and hope and gratitude … sometimes full of self and sometimes selfless … God welcomes every prayer, just as it is, as God welcomes us, just as we are.

God hears every prayer … the prayer of the saint and the prayer of the sinner … the prayer of the lonely and the prayer of the stricken … the prayer of a troubled mind and the prayer of a broken heart … even the prayer of the self-righteous man who stands in the temple thanking God that he’s not like “that other guy over there” … 

Every prayer is heard - every faith, every religion, every status in life … and the voice of every creature, great and small … every prayer is heard by God, and every prayer is faithfully answered:

Sometimes the answer is Yes!

Sometimes the answer is No!

Sometimes the answer - Not yet!

Whatever the answer, we trust, because God is our Father.

Whatever the answer, we abide, because God is in heaven. 

Whatever the answer, we believe, because God’s name is holy.

Jesus said: When you pray, pray like this: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Amen and Amen!

February 17, 2013, "Things that Destroy"

Genesis 3.1-8, 21-24; Romans 7.13-25

By the rivers of Babylon … hearts broken, and there we wept … no music left in us … all is gone … 

Like all good parents, they wondered what their children would believe. 

Will our children opt for the gods of Babylon? Will the power of Babylon win them over?

What can we say?

What good does it do to talk about ancient military victories when our armies are no more?

What good does it do to talk about kings and queens when, in the end, all of their palace politics brought us nothing but sorrow?

What good does it do to talk about the beauty of the temple when that temple lies in ruins?

What good does it do to talk about Yahweh when we languish here in a strange land, the laughing stock of the nations … they look upon us with haughty eyes and ask, Where is your god now?

What can we believe about God, life and hope, faith and love? What can we tell our children? What do we tell ourselves?

Crisis of faith prompted big questions!

And from that crisis of faith flow the words of Genesis.

The ancient writers and poets, taken into Exile crafted the first chapter of Genesis, and then put the whole book together … to express the deepest faith in God … a faith beyond their own personal story … a faith larger than the moment … larger than Babylon … larger than Israel and Judah … larger than tears and sorrow … a god their children can believe in … a god worthy of their time … a god for the best of times, and most importantly, a god for the worst of times.

The ancient writers crafted and assembled a collection of documents that were to become the foundation of Judah’s hope for a new day … the Hebrew Bible … the Bible that Jesus studied, loved and memorized … the Bible that guided Paul the Apostle and his work … the Bible early Christians quoted to one another, and the words they used in prayer and worship … the Hebrew Bible … what we commonly call the Old Testament … 

To answer the big questions:

Is there a story bigger than our own story of sorrow and defeat?

Is there a god bigger than the gods of Israel and Judah … our gods failed, but perhaps we failed to really understand God?

Is there a god bigger than the gods of Babylon, the gods of Alexander the great, and the gods of the Roman Empire and their mighty armies?

Is there a god our children can believe in and trust?

The writers and thinkers and theologians penned Genesis 1, In the beginning … before Abraham and Sarah, before Israel and Judah, before Assyrian and Babylon … before everything and anything, God.

And there is darkness all about … plenty of darkness, and chaos, too … dark waters and darker night.

But God says, Let there be light.

A gentle light for the night - moon and stars … bright light for the day, the sun, golden and warm.

In the darkness, light … 

The biggest story of all … 

But the Hebrews are no one’s fool … light there is, the light of God, and the light of hope, the light of God’s mercy, the light of love … lots of light … but still the darkness.

Death and sorrow, war and hatred … we have a million ways of hurting ourselves, hurting those we love … a million ways for destroying what God made … a million ways to make it dark even when God creates the light.

So the ancient writers told the story of Genesis 3 … a clever creature comes along and raises questions about the trustworthiness of God … 

That’s always the question, isn’t it?

Can God be trusted?

The ancient writers sometimes wondered … just like we do.

Abraham and Sarah wondered if God would deliver on the promise on a son.

Jeremiah the prophet accused God of betrayal.

Job accused God of cruelty.

Jesus hanging on the cross wonders if God has abandoned him?

And in such moments, danger …

The Book of Genesis lays it all out - Judah tries to figure out: What happened to us? Why did we get here, in Babylon, drowning in our own tears?

WHAT went wrong?

We overreached our grasp, they said … we ate the fruit of the tree that rightly belongs only to God.

We wanted more … we loved armies and kings, power and glory; we despised enemies, thought we were better than everyone else, thought we had god on our side.

But it all fell apart … 

Judah had to rewrite its own story … 

And part of the story - things that destroy … 

We thought god would always protect the Holy City and preserve the throne of David … but, no, we were wrong … God is very different than what we thought.

Judah had to come up with a new story to fit the times and build a road to the future … the past was gone; long gone. No since crying over spilled beer, as they say … no sense looking back - look what happens to Lot’s wife … no, the only way out of this is the way forward, new ideas, new ways of doing things … the old is gone; gone forever … and that’s okay … because God is taking us to new places … it hurts to go where God is taking us, but we have to go where God leads.

A local church was having some issues, so they invited a consultant who, they hoped, could help them find new purpose.

The consultant arrived in January, when the Ladies Association was beginning a new year - new officers and a new program booklet for the next twelve months, listing times and places, programs and people, luncheons and dinners and Bible Studies.

And it was their fortieth year.

In the fellowship hall, laid out on a table, all the program booklets from the last forty years - an impressive sight - red booklets, green booklets, yellow booklets and blue.

The consultant picked up the first booklet - an old mimeographed booklet stapled together with red construction paper - and began to read the names of the leaders and the programs for the year to come. The consultant was impressed.

So the consultant read the second booklet … then the third, the 10th booklet, the 25th, and then the last booklet, the 40th booklet on the table … she was shocked to see that in the last 40 years, nothing had changed - same programs, same schedule, same topics, same restaurants - and many of the names were the same, too.

Judah had to face a painful truth:

We didn’t change! 

Our god grew smaller and smaller every year for us … and we grew smaller, too.

Our prophets warned us, but we put ‘em in prison, we drove them out, we killed them. We stopped thinking, we stopped growing.

Judah learned a hard lesson - those who will not CHOOSE the future, are HAMMERED by the future when it arrives … for Judah, the future looked like an enemy, a Babylonian soldier, but God said to the people, Even Babylon is my servant.

In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden, just like Judah driven from Jerusalem - there’s no going back … angels on the east side of the Garden bar the way with flaming swords.

There’s no going back to Eden, no going back to Egypt, no going back to Jerusalem.

But there’s a clue in the text: fertile land OUTSIDE the garden! Good earth! 

We will make it, and so will our children.

God’s people need the greater story … of a god much greater than we could ever imagine.

The creator-god, the god of heaven and earth - greater than our own story, greater than Israel and Judah, greater than David and Solomon … greater than the temple … greater than Calvary Presbyterian Church, greater than the United States of America … greater than all the nations of the world and all the religions of world … greater even than Christianity itself.

As long as God remains big for us, we will be big, too … big in courage, to face the future … with creativity, to find new ways of serving the LORD … and love … love for one another, no matter what … love that transcends boundaries of race and creed … love greater than we could ever imagine.

Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down; fix in us thy humble dwelling; all thy faithful mercies crown!  

Jesus thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art; visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart. 

Amen and Amen!

February 10, 2013, "What Does God Want?"

I leave behind even 
my walking stick. My knife 
is in my pocket, but that 
I have forgot. 
I bring no car, no cell phone, 
no computer, no camera, 
no CD player, no fax, no 

TV, not even a book. I go
into the woods. I sit on
A log provided at no cost.
It is the earth itself, I’ve come to,
the earth itself, sadly
abused by the stupidity 
Only humans are capable of
but, as ever, itself Free.
A bargain! Get it while it lasts.

[“Look It Over” by Wendell Berry. Leavings: Poems (Kindle Location 16). Kindle Edition].

A fine poem by one of America’s leading writers, Wendell Berry … who always reminds me of the basic things of life … stuff that counts … what’s important … truth to live on. 

Creation …

It’s never just dirt and trees and water and storm and snow and oceans …

It’s creation … God’s creation!

And every bit of it is Holy Ground.

Which is why children love to run around without shoes.

Children are smart enough to know that it’s Holy Ground they run on … God’s good earth … 

A little dirt between the toes … a little bit of God’s handwork ground into the soles of their feet … 

Creation … God dreamed it up … and made it so.

God said, Let it be, and it is … full of life.

Creative and creating … 

Beetles and bumblebees … humming birds and hawks … whales and walruses … lions and lemmings … alligators and aardvarks … all in their place, and a place for them all.

And when God was done with it all,

God wondered … can I yet make a creature?

To care for it, up close and personal?

A creature to be my hands and feet and mind and heart?

A creature who will love the world as I love it?

A creature who can take the raw stuff and cook it a little bit … take the clay and mold it … take a tree and cut it down with a prayer, because that tree has life, a part of my life … and with love, create a board to build a home … a plank to build a ship … a stave to build a barrel?

What does God want?

A creature to share God’s heart.

God’s heart for creation … and all of its creatures, great and small …

When it comes to creation, to be mindful … to be thoughtful about consuming … polluting … what we buy and what we throw away … 

When it comes to our politicians, women and men who have a heart for creation, let us pray … they don’t have to be Christians, or Jews, or believe anything at all about God … but if they care about the earth, about air and water and land … how we farm it, how we mine it, how we use it - pay attention to politicians who care about the earth, and give them our support.

When it comes to corporations who mindlessly break the earth to please Wall Street, make our views known … protest irresponsible mining of the Appalachian Mountains for coal … the Niger Delta for oil … Peru for lead and copper … and the terrible smelting factories that belch out pollution sickening the population and killing the children in so many third-world nations.

What does God want?

A creature who shares God’s heart for creation.

A creature who understand justice … how to level the playing field …

A creature who looks upon the whole of the human race and sees only sisters and brothers … we’re all in the same race, if you will, the human race … we all share the same ancestors … our blood is red, our tears salty …

We all love our families and our friends … we all have hopes and dreams … we all lay awake at night fretting … and when someone tells a good joke, we laugh our heads off, and when someone close to us dies, we cry.

Justice … to be sure that everyone has a chance … remember the Year of Jubilee … when God told Israel to start the whole game over again - every 50 years - free the slaves, return property, cancel debt - restart the game, so those who have gotten much won’t have too much, and those who gained little won’t have too little.

We can be mindful of charities and their good work … when it comes to politicians, listen carefully to the message … to whom do their words cater? … is it to the wealthy who make a great show of their wealth as they walk up to the offering box in the temple to put in their bags of gold and demand the best seats in the house?

Or to the widow who gives her last two pennies?

Be mindful of the politicians and what they say … 

What DOES God want?

God wants justice … and kindness.

What can be said about kindness? … we all know it when it happens … kindness heals a broken heart; helps a fallen friend … kindness forgives and kindness gives another chance … kindness rejoices with those who rejoice, and weeps with those who weep … kindness laughs a lot … restrains the mouth, restrains the hand on the keyboard … thinks before it speaks, and speaks with the heart of God.

Kindness …

That’s what God wants.

And to walk humbly with God … to presume nothing, receive everything … 

Whatever we have, it’s been given … no matter how hard we’ve worked, it’s all by grace … call it chance, fate, luck, whatever … 

Never a reason to pat ourselves on the back and look down on anyone else … Paul the Apostle put it well, I am what I am by God’s grace … and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I’ve worked harder than all the others - that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me [1 Corinthians 15.10].

In the Bible, we’re all just takers … as it should be, and God is the Maker, the Supreme Maker, the only maker of all things good and bright … 

What does God want?

A creature who looks at hungry crowds and wonders they can be fed.

Those first disciples looked at the hungry crowd and got frightened … how can we feed so many? We have barely enough for ourselves. Send them away LORD. They can fend for themselves. They weren’t smart enough to bring extra food anyway, so it’s their problem Why should we worry? Send ‘em away. 

And Jesus said, No, you feed them. You have what it takes. Don’t be afraid. You can do it. Take what you have and let it go. Be open-handed, and open-minded, and you’ll be surprised by what can happen. Besides, here I am. Have you no faith in what I can do with what you can give? Give it to me first, and then you can give it away to the hungry throngs, and I tell you this clearly and directly, they will be fed, they will be full, there will be leftovers, twelve baskets worth of leftovers - enough for another day … but nothing will happen if you give in to fear … if you think there won’t be enough for you; believe me, if that’s what you believe, there won’t be enough for you; you will starve to death on your own greed.

A friend of mine tells of the very first Easter Egg she and her young children were in … she went home discouraged, as she watched the children push and shove one another out of the way to get all the eggs they could.

When she became an early-childhood specialist, she arranged Easter Egg hunts with a twist: each child could find eight eggs, only eight, and then help those who hadn’t yet found eight eggs. 
They learned to count, and they learned to help one another … lessons vital to the good life … life truly good, and life truly life.

What does God want?

Disciples who look upon the hunger of others with compassion and a determination to do something about it …

Disciples who don’t blame the hungry for their hunger … the poor for their poverty … the sick for their disease … 

Disciples who look into the face of the naked and the bruised and see the face of Jesus who was himself crucified naked, and bruised by the whips of Rome.

What does God want?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to answer the question … we can read it for ourselves … page after page of Scripture … the rich traditions of the Christian faith … our hymns and prayers … 

Genesis 2.15-20; Micah 6.1-3, 6-16; Matthew 14.13-21   

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist - it does take some courage … to open the doors, and let God have God’s way.

We can run, but we’ll never hide from God … the will of God will never leave us alone … there is no cave in which Elijah could hide … or far-away land where Moses could run … there is no place of hiding for Jacob … no sea big enough to hide Jonah from God’s purpose … 

But it took courage for Moses to leave Midian and return to Egypt to lead his people out … it took courage for Jacob to return home and face his brother Esau … it took courage for Jonah to finally admit that maybe God had a point … it courage for Elijah to leave the cave and get on with the hard work of speaking to dangerous kings and rulers.

What does God want?

A creature to care for creation …

Someone with God’s heart for justice … who loves kindness …

Wise enough to be humble.

May it be said of Calvary Presbyterian Church, that when this church professed its faith in Jesus, it really meant it … you really believed in Jesus and what he said and what he did … may it be said of this place on the Boulevard, it really took Bible seriously … you paid attention to your politics and fed the hungry … you condemned no one and welcomed everyone … you were not proud, but humble … you spent what you had, and what you had, you spent … you were givers for sure … giving time and treasure … reaching deep into you pockets and deep into your hearts, because you trusted God to do great things with what you could do for the love of God.

Amen and Amen!