Sunday, December 16, 2018

December 16, 2018 - Palms Westminster - "Do Not Let Your Hands Grow Weak"

Zephaniah 3.14-20; Luke 3.7-18

My granddaughter and her parents live in Amsterdam, and during the winter months, it’s cold and damp.
Her folks picked her up from school the other day, on a cold and blustery day, and asked if she had played outside. “Yes,” said said. 

And, then, they asked: “Were you cold?

She replied, “No! Now I’m hardy!”

Well, she’s learning to be Dutch, learning to be hardy, because the Dutch have battled the waters to make a land … 

With dikes and dams and the latest in engineering, they’ve learned to work together; they’ve learned to be hardy.

As the Dutch put it: “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.”

So, here we are, the Third Sunday of Advent.

Zephaniah says:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

And why exult? … because:

The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

Because we have work to do!

The love of God is never a call to lay down and snooze … to blow off the problems of our world and simply say: “God will take care of us” … no, we’re called to put our hand to the plow and not look back … we’re called to take up our cross and go to work … Jesus says, Come, and follow me … go where I go, do what I do, be as I am … love as your Father in heaven loves … let your light shine before others, so they can see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven … you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

When God created the heavens and the earth, and created you and me, and put us into the garden - it wasn’t to lay around and dream sweet dreams …

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

And when it became obvious that help was needed, God created the woman, to be a partner in the work.

Everyone is called, everyone given a task … everyone has to work.

How many of you have ever kept a garden?

It’s a lot of work.

We prepare the earth … we buy the best seed … we plant with care … we pull the weeds and put on the fertilizer … we water and then we watch the miracle of growth occur … 

When God created us, it wasn’t just for a wee bit of a plot to manage, but the whole wide world … the fish of the sea … the birds of the air … every living thing that moves upon the earth.

God gives the world to us … and gives us the responsibility to care for it.

The whole wide world … that’s why God created us to work together … that’s why gives us the ability to form communities, to build nations … to care for one another … to provide for the weakest of the community … so that no one is left behind, no one abandoned … 

We do this together … 

Yesterday at a wedding, I read 1 Corinthians 13, and thinking about today’s sermon, these words hit me hard:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Whether it be a preacher in a pulpit, a parent with children, or the president of a nation: life requires truth …

To work together, we have to tell the truth … lies disrupt, lies distort, lies destroy … truth builds up, truth encourages us to work well with one another, even if the truth is hard.
Truth builds bridges, not ditches.
Truth builds highways, not walls.

Notice how the Apostle Paul put it?

Love takes no pleasure in wrongdoing … and, then, rather than saying “love rejoices in doing right,” Paul says, Love rejoices in the truth.

Ought we not in this place to be concerned about the truth? 

Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life …  

Of all the places on the face of the earth where truth has to be central, it has to be in the church of Jesus Christ … 

Where truth counts all the time, where lies of any kind have no place: the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, the lies we tell about others, lies about science and creation and immigrants … religious lies, spiritual lies, lies about who’s damned and who’s saved … who’s naughty and who’s nice.

Of all the many lies being told these days, none larger, and none more threatening to God’s creation, than the lies revolving around climate change …  

Our best scientists all agree, thousands and thousands of scientists all around the world, agree, that climate change is real, and it’s related to human activity … 

And it’s all about God’s good earth … 

Many years ago, an elder said to me, and this was in the day when nuclear war seemed so close, “So what,” said the elder; “If we all die, don’t we just go to heaven?”

His question caught me off guard; I don’t know what I said, but his question made me think … and one day, I put it in the form of a story.

A man stood at the pearly gates, and said to St. Peter, “Well, here I am?” 

And St. Peter said, “I have to turn you away?”

The man blustered: “I went to church, I prayed, I read my Bible, I witnessed to others.”

But St. Peter said: “You didn’t care about God’s good earth. What makes you think you’ll care about God’s good heaven.” And St. Peter turned him away.

God created the heavens AND the earth … the earth is precious to God … and it must precious to us, too.

We didn’t know better when it all began … we burned coal and chopped down the trees … we ripped up the soil and dumped our waste into lakes and streams.

But we know better now … God has been good to us: giving us women and men who are called, by the Spirit of God, to study God’s world … 

And they’re telling us, some of the them are shouting at us …

The release of carbon into the atmosphere along with the loss of forests is creating a change in our climate, and the outcome is already evident, all around the world, and it’s going to get worse if we fail to join hands and join efforts to make the needed changes … to keep on caring for God’s good earth.

Zephaniah said: Do not fear, O Zion, do not let your hands grow weak

Like the Dutch: it’s time to be hardy.

Build the dikes and the dams.
Learn new ways of taking care of God’s good earth.
Pay attention to those who tell the truth.
Think carefully, think critically, pray a lot.
Be informed by the truth, and formed by the Spirit of God.

Today, here, at Palms Westminster, the Third Sunday of Advent: shout aloud for joy and never for a moment let your hands grow weary … 

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Last Words" - El Monte Community Presbyterian Church - Nov. 25, 2018

2 Samuel 23.1-7; John 18.33-37

Dear Friends in Christ, today, we celebrate the last day of the year … uh huh … that’s right, today, the last day … and by now, you’re wondering if I’m ok!

Well, I am ok.
And so are you.
And this is the last day of the year.

The church year, that is.

What began last year in Advent ends today … with the Last Word, if you will … the Reign of Christ Sunday!

Next Sunday, we start all over again … with the First Sunday of Advent … to rehearse the story of God’s love … we do this every year, to remind ourselves of the best things in life, the goodness of faith, the love of God, the unceasing care of God that sustains the universe, and watches over you and me.

Today, Last Words, the closing chapter, the final note of the symphony … that for which we long, that for which we pray: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Fittingly, the texts for the day feature last words … 

The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. 

David knows what a good and just ruler is … because David was a just ruler, a good man, a man of courage and kindness, wisdom and truth-telling … a visionary and a man devoted to God, and man after God’s own heart.

But David also walked on the dark side … selfish and violent, greedy and ambitious; David had blood on his hands; his personal life was often a mess, and his family paid the price. 
He wanted what he did, and he did what he wanted, and people died because of it.

David knows, in the last days of his life, looking back, thinking about it, considering God … David knows what Israel’s future requires - the future requires just rulers, like the morning sunlight, to gladden the heart of every citizen and maintain a just society.

Throughout the Old Testament, people grapple with questions of government … just like we do … the governed always wonder about those who govern … why is there so much war? and why so much poverty? What’s going on, and who’s telling the truth? Why can’t we get it all straightened out?

From the Book of Proverbs:

 A ruler who oppresses the poor
      is a beating rain that leaves no food.

 Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
      is a wicked ruler over a poor people.

By justice a king gives stability to the land …

If a king judges the poor with equity,
      his throne will be established forever.

From the prophet Micah:

What does the LORD require of you
 but to do justice, and to love kindness,
 and to walk humbly with your God?

Isaiah writes:

Give counsel,
grant justice;
make your shade like night
at the height of noon;
hide the outcasts,
do not betray the fugitive;
let the outcasts of Moab
settle among you;
be a refuge to them
from the destroyer.

Amos makes it clear:

 I hate, I despise your festivals,
      and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
      I will not accept them;
      and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
      I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
      I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
      and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In a little stable in Bethlehem, God introduced to the world a new kind of ruler … and a kingdom to fit … 

A kingdom not of sword and horse, but a kingdom of mercy and kindness.
A kingdom not of land and thrones, palaces and pleasure … but a kingdom of healing and hope, justice and peace.
A kingdom, not for the few, but for the many … not for the privileged, but for the people.

Jesus is good and kind, gentle and wise … but he’s certainly no wallflower …

From Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus engages the times in which he lives … in his hometown, he preaches a sermon that enrages the congregation so badly they try to kill him …

Jesus speaks truth to power … he challenges the religious elite of Jerusalem, he takes to task those who use their religion to defraud widows and orphans … he calls into question those who look down their noses at the poor, the prostitute, and the “sinner.”

Jesus chides the rich as fools … and reminds us all that wealth  is a snare … Jesus looks at the great buildings of Jerusalem, and he’s not impressed … when the righteous show up with stones in hand, ready to kill a women, Jesus bends down and scribbles in the dirt, and who knows what he wrote? but the stone-wielding proud turn away in shame.

Time and again, his words frustrate the powerful, his kindness to the poor embarrasses the wealthy … his entire life upsets the world around him … is it any wonder that the religious elite of Jerusalem and the political powers of Rome collude with one another, to kill him?

Now, at the end, in Pilate’s courtroom - Pilate and Jesus engage in an uneasy conversation … Pilate wants to know who Jesus really is, and Jesus knows that Pilate really doesn’t care … because Pilate is a man of power and war … a man devoted to himself and his career … 

Jesus plays with Pilate … teases him … tests him … Is that what you think? is that what you’ve heard?

Jesus refuses to get pulled into idle chatter or debate … he makes it clear to Pilate that all the trappings of Rome and the glory of the temple in Jerusalem hold no interest for him … Jesus isn’t intimidated by power, nor tempted by glamor.

And then Jesus says, 

My kingdom is not of this world! … 

Good news for us … if our LORD’s kingdom were of this world, it would be just another violent kingdom, a kingdom of guts and gore, greed and grasping, fire and death, hate and harm, bullets and guns … it’s not that kind of a kingdom, it’s unlike anything Pilate loves …

The gospel, you see, calls us to be alert … to be careful what we love, what we admire, what thrills and delights us … when it comes to government, rulers and nations … 

The kingdom of Christ is not of this world … so that it can be completely and utterly for the sake of this world … to redeem what is lost, to repair what is broken, to lift up the poor, to bring down the proud, to shine the bright light of truth in the darkness of lies, to bandage the wounded, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the all of God’s creatures, great and small … to honor what God has created, to love one another, to forgive and to welcome … with open minds, open hearts, open hands.

So that, in our time, and for our nation; in these days, and for the world, we might fulfill the words of Christ, to be the light of the world and salt of the earth. 

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

"Making Things Better" ... First Presbyterian Santa Monica

John 6.35-40

Every time this church opens its doors,
Something good happens … 
The world’s a wee bit better … 

Every time … the doors are opened.
Good News proclaimed.
People welcomed!

The community around us … the city at our door … the nation and 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 … 

Called by the great God Almighty … to live … to live for the sake of that network … that’s the Church!

When I think about the Church, special words come to mind: big words, powerful words … words like purpose, mission, opportunity, responsibility … liberation, freedom, justice and peace, forgiveness and hope.

All summed up in the highest of ideals - to be the church of Jesus Christ … 

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? 

Look at Christianity around the world and down the street, you’ll find hundreds of answers, thousands of answers … a smorgasbord of faith … 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?
Much of human history is a chronicle of religious warfare … we humans, so determined to know the truth - we’re willing to demonize and kill those who differ from us … can violence ever make for truth? Or only some perversion of it?

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 … for the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica. 

This is what churches do … for good and for ill … sometimes it’s for ill, isn’t it? … churches don’t always end up in good places … 

The churches of Germany that signed on with National Socialism and Herr Hitler made horrible and hideous mistakes … my great friend, John Calvin, gave his consent to the burning of Servetus.

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 the home, that the landed gentry were God’s anointed, and entitled to their elevated status … kings and queens ruled by divine right … the church alone could forgive your sins, and if you didn’t behave, you were condemned to an eternal hell.

The church doesn’t always end up in a good place … but fear not, say the angels … forge ahead anyhow, but pay attention, do your homework, seek, knock and ask.

Jesus asked the disciples: What are folks saying about me?

Well, some are saying this, and some are saying that … but in the end Jesus asks:

What do YOU say about me? 

All we can do is answer the question as best we can … but it requires work … a community of faith, because whatever the truth is, it always involves our love for one another
All of this has been my life … 

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

I went to a Christian High School that gave me a tremendous grounding … and then to a Christian College that expanded my mind and transformed this little white boy racist into something a whole lot better … and then to seminary and to ordination.

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 … 

I answered this question 50 years ago … and 30 years ago … and I’m trying to answer it right now … 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 … 

Yet some essential pieces have remained steady for me:

God is good and God is gracious … God is beautiful and God is bright … 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 … kind enough to heal the leper and strong enough to challenge hypocrisy … just right to hang on a Roman Cross and be tucked away into a tomb … 

Best of all, sized just right to fit my heart … and I would dare say, with joy, sized just right to fit your heart, too.

When Jesus stepped out of the Jordan, a voice from heaven declared, 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.

I am the bread of life, says Jesus. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

This is God … God with us, Emmanuel … the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Sarah and 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 …

What Paul the Apostle said to his friends in Philippi, I say to you this morning:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

What a joy it’s been for me to be with you this morning … you have a strong heritage, and the promise of a vital future here in Santa Monica …

Every day, think of God, pray for the world, be alert to the moving of the Spirit, mindful of those who have little voices, the wee ones, the children … and people around the world who live in terror and sorrow, whose lives are being ripped apart by the rich and the powerful … pay attention people of God … let the world come into your lives, and you’ll find along with the world, there will come into your life the best guest of all: God Almighty, Creator of the heavens and the earth.

To God be the glory.
To all of you, grace, mercy and peace.
Healing for your souls.
To make this a better world. 

Amen and Amen!