Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Bethlehem Road

Isaiah 64.1-9; Mark 13.24-37
Advent One
Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Today is the first step … along the Bethlehem Road … it’s Advent … the first Sunday of Advent … the first of four Sundays that take us along the Bethlehem Road.

The Star above … Wise Men from the East, Shepherds in the field, and the angels who sing to them … to Bethlehem we go … 

God is waiting for us, calling us … to make the journey …

Mary and Joseph are already there …

The powers that be ordered Mary and Joseph, and everyone else, to return to their hometowns, to register for taxation … everyone was on the move, and nothing seemed right … all was topsy turvy, the bad guys in charge, and in just such time, and in just such a place, the Son of God is born.

The Bethlehem Road … we’re on it today.

To find goodness and beauty … to find hope and peace … and there, before the manger, to lay down our gifts, our lives, our dreams, our love … all that we are, and all that we hope to be.

In Bethlehem, we find our true selves …

And what’s our true self?

We are children of God, and that means we’re brothers and sisters with one another … and that means we take care of one another.

We have no self without other selves connected to us … “no man is an island” said the poet John Donne. 

We’re created to be with each other, and for each other … every human being is family for us … remember when God questioned the Cain about his brother’s whereabouts, and Cain petulantly asked, “What, am I my brother’s keeper?”

And the answer, “Yes, of course, you are. You are your brother’s keeper.”

We’re all in this together … it’s sin that divides and sets us apart … it’s sin that tells us we’re exceptional and have certain rights over against others … nothing is more painful to watch than a person who believes they’re better then others … it’s a giant ego, we say … and such thoughts are the worst when those thoughts infect nations … as we saw in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia … all of those nations thought they were “exceptional” and what a world of suffering their pride created.

On the Bethlehem Road, we learn the truth about ourselves … we’re all exceptional, because we’re loved of God … and every nation is named by God … everyone and every nation has a place in the scheme of life, and only when we see how deeply connected we are to one another, only then do we learn who we are, what life is all about, and what we have to do.

There have been times in our nations history when this part of the Christian story held sway, and people and churches and synagogues and government took care of one another … and then there are times, when we’ve forgotten how to take care of one another, and then we fought a Civil War because some thought slavery was a good idea … and these days, I fear for our nation, that we are quickly becoming a nation ruled by self-interest and self-glory … led by people who are quick to grab all the clothing off the rack before anyone else has a chance to get even a coat or a pair of pants …

That’s why we need to make this journey to Bethlehem, to find our true selves … to find mercy and kindness and to guide our nation to a better place … to promote peace and not war … to share and not to take … to tell the truth and not use lies and alternate facts to hurt one another.

In Bethlehem, we find our true selves.

In Bethlehem, we find one another … and that’s always the way it is when we find ourselves … we find one another … 

The closer we move to Bethlehem, the closer we become to others … who are on the road to Bethlehem … many roads, from many different directions … everyone of good faith, whatever their faith, is on the road to Bethlehem … every religion, every faith - Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, Sikh and Christian … each in our own way, on the Bethlehem … and the closer we move toward Bethlehem, the closer we move to one another …

Here, in a big city, how close we are to one another … that’s why I love big cities … our neighbors are the world, and the world is our neighbor … the food we eat is different, the ways we dress and talk, the ways we worship god … all different, all wonderfully different … and that’s why we need each other … not one of us is complete by ourselves … no one faith tradition has all the truth, but only a part of it … Christians need to talk with Jews, and Jews with Muslims, and Muslims with Buddhists, and Buddhists with Sikhs … we all need one another to fulfill our own unique calling from God.

On the Bethlehem Road.

And along the way, the poor and the oppressed, the lost and the lonely … God asks us, “Do you see them, too? along the road? 

You can walk, but maybe they can’t … some have been set upon by thieves and left to die beside the road … some are orphans and some are widows who haven’t the means … some of them are strangers in our midst; they belong nowhere and have no home … can you see them on your way to Bethlehem?

Help them, carry them, provide for them … as the Samaritan did for the injured man on the Jericho Road …  “leave no one behind” is the only way for us to follow Christ and be faithful to our calling.

With helping hands and kindly words, we lift one another … and again and again, we remind this nation what it means to be a godly nation, not just with words printed on our money, or in phony prayer breakfasts that look good and stink to high heaven because of their hypocrisy … white washed tombs, said Jesus, beautiful on the outside and full of death inside.

We have to help our nation recover its senses, it’s purpose, it’s character … to leave no one behind, to provide for one another, with fair taxes, and ways and means so that the rich don’t get richer at the expense of the poor, and the poor don’t get poorer because the rich simply don’t care.

The rich and powerful rarely make the journey to Bethlehem - they don’t have the time or the interest, because they know that Bethlehem would change their lives, and they don’t want that kind change. They know it, and they fear it.

But we can do it, we have do it, we have to do it for them, and we have to show them their true selves, we have to help them see those beside the road … 

I’m an American … a proud and grateful American … and I’m a Christian, too … a Christian who wants this nation to recover its sense and regain its purpose … I want America to be great again … but right now, we’re not on a path to greatness; we’re on a highway to disaster.

As for credentials?

For better than 50 years, I’ve been a student of the Bible [sounds like the Apostle Paul] … I’ve read theology … I have a doctorate … I’m well-read in American and world history … if credentials mean anything, I have them … but it’s Christ finally to whom I appeal, on behalf of our nation - we’ve lost our way … our incessant wars, our failure to deal with poverty … the hideous forces of racism and misogyny … an administration mired in doubt and deceit … a tax plan that will hurt millions of Americans … our failure to deal realistically with immigration … the propaganda of fear paralyzing our moral compass … 

America is in the grip of unholy forces, economic and religious … standards of truth compromised … millions of Christians lost, because they have lost touch with Christ … they have traded away the Christ of Bethlehem for King Herod in his palace!

Only on the road to Bethlehem can life be found, only there, do we find ourselves, and only there, find one another.

In Bethlehem, we find ourselves found of God.

It’s not me, LORD; it’s you!

All of this begins with God … in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth … in the beginning, it was the love of God that said, “Let there be light.”

God is always first … the first to speak, the first to act, the first to love … and God is always last … the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in between.

Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, I choose you!”

Which is why I love infant baptism … there’s no chance here for anyone to say, “I chose Christ” … because none of us ever choose Christ … it’s Christ who chooses us, and no better image of this grace, this mercy, than infant baptism.

Because it always starts with an infant … the infant Moses … and infant Samuel … and the infant Jesus … God is always the God of good beginnings, good endings … and even in the middle, in the muddle, good things … at work in all things for good.

We discover the mystery of faith on the Bethlehem Road.

We find ourselves … and we find one another.

On the Bethlehem Road.

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

We Need a Big Story

Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church
Joshua 24.1-13; Matthew 25.1-13

We need a big story.

Something to capture our imagination … something bigger than usual … something so good, so powerful, beautiful, in a strange sort of way, to knock us off our feet … give us pause … start us thinking all over again … 

Thinking about big things:
Who am I?
Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
What’s it all about?

What does it mean to live?
What does it mean to die?

What are the values I cherish?
What kind of a human being am I?
When children look at me, what do they see?
When I’m gone, what will people remember of me?

We need a big story!
Ever wonder why “Star Wars” is so popular?

It’s a big story … big questions … big characters, big ideas … love and hate, good and evil, fear and courage, loyalty and betrayal, hope and despair … and maybe, just maybe, the good will win … if we’re willing to pay the price.

“Star Wars” is a big story.

Same can be said about the Harry Potter books … and the movies that followed … millions of children read these books … dark though they are, because they’re honest stories … big stories, with death close at hand, sadness stalking the night, bad people, really bad people; and faithfulness, too … loyalty, sacrifice, friends and family … some things are worth dying for.

One of the biggest stories of the mid-20th Century, “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” … I’ve seen all the movies, I’ve read all the books … stories that never grow old, stories that dance with light and hope … stories that illumine the darkness that threatens all of us all of the time.

Big stories invite us into their world …
Big stories help us get a little bigger ourselves … 

We wonder:
Could I be so brave?
Would I love with this kind of love?
Would I be a friend, no matter what?
How much would I give of myself in the final test of life?

Big stories:
Talk to us.
Questions us.,
Inspire us.

The power of a big story … even for our children … they love to hear a story … again and again and again … as their little minds develop and turn into big minds … minds big enough to handle the stuff of life.

We all need big stories … books, movies, poetry and art … science, philosophy, history and faith … 

Faith is a big story: I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son our LORD.

That’s a big story … a story bigger than our biggest thoughts … bigger than our hearts and minds, bigger than all of our hopes and dreams … bigger than life and bigger than death.

And within the big story, smaller stories … little chapters … haunting moments … bursts of light … a moment to think …

Jesus tells a story … about the Kingdom of Heaven … 

Like a wedding banquet, says Jesus … a celebration, a party … we’re all invited … put on your best, fire up your lamps, and take along some extra oil.

Ten bridesmaids … 

And then the story turns dark:

The groom is delayed … finally shows up at midnight … a great shout, the bridesmaids trim their lamps to light the way … 

Oh oh … oil is running low … five bridesmaids didn’t plan ahead … and when their lamps began to flicker and go out, they ask the others to share some oil …

With a surprising answer: No! … not now … if we share, there won’t be enough for any of us … you’ll have to go and buy some when you can.

Is this harsh? Aren’t we supposed to share with one another … or is this justification for some hard-nosed economics?

Let’s be careful … some would take this story and turn it into something really mean, something to hurt poor people … to hurt children without lunch money … to hurt widows and orphans, to hurt the immigrant … to hurt people who don’t have enough … and heaven knows this world is full of people who don’t have enough, because some people have too much.

What Jesus tells is crisis-story …

It’s like getting a call to go to Houston or to the Florida Keys with the hurricanes … you’re ready to go, you’ve had your training … your equipment is up-to-date, in working order … everything ready to go … and, then, a friend of yours says, “Hey, I’d like to help, too.” … but your friend isn’t ready … you’re friend has missed the latest training workshops, your friend’s equipment is a little dusty and out-of-date … your friend isn’t ready for the crisis, but wants to come along anyway and use some of your equipment … so you tell your friend, “I need all of this equipment for the crisis; lots of people need my help. Sorry about that. The next time there’s a training workshop, go to it. Get your equipment in shape. There’ll be other times when you can go. But right now, I have to go, and I’m ready. I’ll see ya’ when I come back.”

Thank God there are people ready to go when the call comes … Christians who rise to the occasion with a good word, and deeds of justice and peace.

Missionaries and ministers, elders and deacons … ready to go when the call comes … when the storms hit … when the crisis is at hand.

Reminds me of one of my favorite hymns: “Once to Every Man and Nation” …

It goes like this (some of you know it, I’m sure) …

Once to ev'ry man and nation 
Comes the moment to decide, 
In the strife of truth and falsehood, 
For the good or evil side; 
Some great cause, some great decision, 
Off'ring each the bloom or blight, 
And the choice goes by forever 
'Twixt that darkness and that light. 

Jesus tells a crisis-story … times in life when things go south, hardship comes, all hell breaks loose … the world is turned upside down … 

Jesus reminds the disciples that life isn’t easy … that all of us need to give serious thought for the days ahead … to have extra oil on hand for the day of need.

In the early days of ministry, calling on folks in nursing homes, I was always touched by the hymns they could sing, the poetry they knew … the Bible verses they quoted … 

Over the years, they had stocked up on oil for their lamp … when the night was dark, their lamp burned bright.

The heroes of history … women and men who had oil for their lamps:

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, there were many who said to him: “You’re wrong, Mr. President. You’re dead wrong.” But Abraham Lincoln had oil for his lamp.

When Florence Nightingale went to the Crimea to care for the wounded, she challenged traditional methods of nursing and hygiene, and many said to her, “You’re wrong, young lady. We don’t do things that way.” But Nurse Nightingale had oil for her lamp.

When Susan B. Anthony recognized that women needed the right to vote if America were ever to realize the fullness of democracy, many said to her, “You’re wrong, Ms. Anthony; women are not smart enough to vote.” But Susan Anthony had oil for her lamp.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on Pettus Bridge to challenge America to be better than it’s every been, there were many who said to him: “You’re wrong, Rev. King, you’re dead wrong.” But Rev. King had oil for his lamp.

But it’s more than the heroes … it’s you and me … ministers and missionaries, elders and deacons … musicians and singers … Sunday School teachers and the people sitting here today, who lift up their voices to God in praise, who prepare some food for our gathering … who show up, and share … who rise to the occasion and keep things going … every-day people who aren’t afraid, who dare to think about their world, who pray, and offer kindly advice … everyday folks who follow Christ to the best of their ability … oil for the lamp … to keep it burning.

Dear friends in Christ.
Dear Palms Westminster.
This is our song for life:

Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Keep me burning till the break of day

Amen and Amen!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Get Off the Porch

September 10, 2017
Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Matthew 18.15-20

Good Morning Palms Westminster … and what a morning it is … all of us watching Irma … and earlier Harvey … people in harms way … some of us have friends and family at risk, and for them se pray.

Yet, for us here, in this moment, 
it’s a good morning .. because we’re here.

We have a chance, 
all over again, 
to practice the Great Commandment, 
to love God with all that we are, 
and to love one another dearly and deeply.

And practice it is …

Think of a pianist, practicing a piece of music over and over and over again … pencil in hand, making notes … trying this expression and that … to make the music her music … the intent of the composer, her intent … until she’s satisfied with it … 

But that’s not the end of it … the purpose of all that practice, all that sweat, blood and tears … it’s the concert on the weekend … when hundreds, maybe even thousands, show up … to hear great music offered by the pianist …

The practice is utterly important, but the real test of what’s practiced is the audience who hears it … 

Or in our case, what the world sees of us tomorrow morning.

Jesus said it, and said it clearly:
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

What we do here this morning is practice … out there, it’s the concert …

They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they’ll know we’re Christians by our love.

Our text this morning is all about practicing … practicing the ways of love.

Jesus addresses the hard question: what happens when the church fails to love God and fails to love one another?

What happens when another member of the church sins against you.

Who’s the you?

These words directed to the disciples … to the leaders of the church …

And what’s the sin?
The failure to love.

It’s to the leaders that Jesus speaks …
A method of care and kindness … 
go to that person … 
talk about it.
Explore the gospel together.
What does faith in Jesus Christ mean?

If that conversation doesn’t prove helpful, then have another one, but with one or two additional leaders, so that the conversation can be carefully noted … 

The purpose of the meeting is to heal … 
to help someone better understand the purpose of the church;
the meaning of faith.

If that person refuses to listen, then tell it to the church … if the member still refuses to listen … 

Treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector, says Jesus.

That sounds bad doesn’t it?
But it’s not bad; it’s good!

First off, let’s ask: How does Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?

Throughout the gospels, Jesus offers the mercy of God to Gentiles and tax collectors … Jesus heals their children, helps them along the way, eating and drinking with them.

From Matthew 9:

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew himself is a tax collector.

Treat them well, Jesus says; 
start all over with them … 
go back to the beginning, square one … 
never, ever, give up on anyone.

But there’s more to the story.

The whole 18th chapter reveals the way of the gospel for us …

The chapter begins with humility … Jesus calls over a child, and then says to the disciples: unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

And then a warning about causing trouble: those who put stumbling blocks in the way of these little ones.
Who are the little ones?

Children, literally … the vulnerable.

But little ones also means defenseless ones … those who have no voice … folks who cannot defend themselves … folks at the mercy of those bigger than they are … 

Little ones … the trinity of need outlined in the law and the prophets - the orphan, the widow and the alien … 

Little ones … to whom great care must be given … to avoid stumbling blocks.

And what is a stumbling block?

The failure of the church!
The failure to defend the defenseless … 
To offer the cup of cold water.
To cloth the naked and visit those in prison.
To honor God’s creation with care and tenderness.
To say no to lies and bigotry.
To not be covetous of wealth (which seems to be a major problem in American Christianity these days).
To not bear false witness when Tweeting.
To care for the poor and the oppressed.

Every day I read about the decline of the church in America … 

Google, “young people abandon the church,” and you will learn a lot.

Here’s a for-example list:

  • Churches seem overprotective and stifling.
  • Faith and theology feel shallow and small.
  • Lots of churches are antagonistic to science.
  • Attitudes about sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental, especially with regard to gender questions.
  • Young people are put off by the exclusive claims of Christianity.
  • Many young people, especially white evangelical youth, are disappointed in how their parents failed to deal with racism.
  • And these days, young people have little room for a faith that cannot tolerate and understand doubt.

There is nothing more powerful than a living example of faith:
Words and deeds put together 
to make a good and decent life … 
an example that children will always remember.

Walter Cronkite, the great newscaster of the 20th Century, tells a story - when he was young boy in Houston, in the 1920s, Jim Crow laws in effect. Walter’s father was a dentist, and recently hired to teach in a Houston dental school …

A few days after arriving in Houston, the Cronkite family had a dinner invitation to the home of the school’s president, and in those pre-air conditioning days, they were all on the porch after dinner … to catch a bit of the evening breeze, and await the delivery of homemade ice cream from a nearby drugstore.

In Cronkite’s own words:

In those days, there was no air-conditioning and residential refrigeration options were limited. The Jim Crow “rules” of Houston said that African Americans could not approach the home of a Caucasian from the front. Years later, Cronkite recalled what happened next: “The black delivery boy drove up on his motorcycle and looked with his flashlight, clearly for some way to go to the back of the house.” Not finding a driveway or alleyway to deliver the ice cream, the young man started up the sidewalk. When he hit the first step to the porch, Dr. Hight, in Cronkite’s words, “jumped out of his chair like a cat, and hit him right in the middle of his face, wham!—knocked him back into the grass, ice cream cart spilling—and he said, ‘That’ll teach you, nigger, to put your foot on a white man’s front porch!’ My father said, ‘Helen, Walter, we’re leaving.’ ” 

The three Cronkites marched out of Dr. Hight’s house. When the embarrassed host tried to coax them into staying, Dr. Cronkite said “get lost” and kept walking. After that incident, Dr. Hight had the long knives out for Dr. Cronkite because of his “pro-Negro” sympathies. “I was horrified about the incident,” Cronkite recalled. “Terrified by the walk through the oak trees with their long Spanish moss dripping in them. It looked like a Walt Disney forest that I would expect all the animals jumping at us. We finally got a ride from somebody on a street corner. Got back to our hotel. But from that moment on I was wholly aware of the racial bigotry, prejudice, and treatment of blacks in that part of the world.”

Hats off the elder Cronkite who would not countenance such bigotry even from the president of the school … and what an important lesson he taught his son …

Walter Cronkite learned to take a stand against evil … even at the risk of personal wellbeing … it wasn’t easy, I’m sure, for his father to get up and leave, but it would have been a tragedy had his father stayed on the porch and turned a blind eye to evil.

That night, what might have become a stumbling block to young Walter Cronkite became, instead, the Mt. Everest of moral conscience.

Whether it be Walter’s father getting up off the porch, or anyone of us here, we know what know what has to be done.

Jesus has left us enough instruction to figure it out … 
the Beatitudes and all the rest, 
Paul’s letters and the book of Revelation … 
the whole of the Bible, Moses and the prophets, 
and for us Presbyterians, our own creeds and statements of faith - 
The Confession of ’67, he Barmen Declaration of Faith … we know what have to know, and we know what we have to do … 

Dear friends in Christ, Palms Westminster … Presbyterian to the core … with a past for which we can be grateful, and a future for which we can be glad:

Let us agree this morning:
With fervency of heart, 
clarity of mind, 
in Jesus’ name, 
to get off the porch
to set before our children and youth,
the high mountains of faith, hope and love … 
To set before our children memories, strong memories, that will see them through their youth and guide them into adulthood. 

All of this, and more, for the glory of God, and the welfare of the world.

Amen and Amen!