Monday, August 29, 2016

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

Matthew 11.28-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The holy fellowship of faith … 

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

What is God like? 

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

And it’s not easy to answer … 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen, pay attention, consider this and consider that …

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is God like?

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

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

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

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

I know enough to know how little I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Friends … 

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

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

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

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

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

Pause a beat or two as musicians take their place …

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

Rainbows … bluebirds … and a most wonderful world …

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"What Just Happened?" - January 3, 2016

Calvary Presbyterian Church, Hawthorne, CA

January 3, 2016

John 1.1-9

A loud noise somewhere … “What was that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What just happened?

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

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

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

The darkness is real …

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

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

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

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

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

What just happened?

Something good.

And something in which we can rightly believe

We live by our beliefs, do we not?

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

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

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

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

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The God of Miriam, Deborah and Ruth.

The God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ.

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

From the Prophet Hosea:

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

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

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

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

And then they buy guns and get angry …

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

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

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

To quote Yoda:

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

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

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

Jesus was born to show the world another way … 

And if we wonder what it means,

Micah the Prophet answers our question:

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

James writes:

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

Paul the Apostle writes to the Galatians:

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

And to the Corinthians:

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

Because God is love … and love is God!

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

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

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

And how shall we live together?

What does it mean to follow the Child of Bethlehem?

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

Do we dare to live the ways of peace?

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

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

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

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

What just happened?

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

Hallelujah and Amen!