Sunday, April 24, 2022

April 24, 2022, "Stop!" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena

 Psalm 118.14-29; John 20.19-31

Have you ever noticed how many things come in threes?

Grace, mercy, and peace.

Faith, hope, and love.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Mother, The Child, and their love.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah.

How about:

Morning, noon, and night.

Past, present, and future.


We live in three dimensions.

On a personal level, first name, middle name, last name.

By the way, do you know why we give children a middle name?

So they’ll know when we’re angry with them.

Yes, lots of things comes in threes … 

Including my sermons:

Several weeks ago a three-part series: On your mark, get set, go.

And today, a new series: Stop, Look, and Listen.

Today, we stop … sometimes we go … today, we stop!

I stop here for a sidebar comment … a comment about our reading this morning, from John’s Gospel … a little phrase, the doors of the house … were locked - for fear of the Jews.

Who are the Jews? Well, in this case, they're everyone in the story …

Those hiding behind locked doors, those threatening them, and Jesus himself - always and forever, Jews!

So, who are the Jews?

We know the Jews who are hiding behind locked doors - the disciples - from Galilee in the north.

So, who are the "Jews" threatening them? They are the political and religious elite of Jerusalem - cozied up to the Roman Empire, in cahoots with Pontius Pilate. 

By the early 4th Century, after Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity - things changed … the Roman Empire wanted to be “the good guy,” and so an enemy was needed, and no handier enemy than “the Jews” - the Jewish elite of Jerusalem.

It wasn’t long before “Christ Killers” and “filthy Jews” became by-words of the Christian Church.

And all that followed: pogroms, killings, beatings and burnings … the outcome reached in the 20th Century with Nazi Germany and the death camps - 6 million Jews killed by a “christian” nation - with collaboration throughout “christian” Europe - the French, the Dutch; Poland, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, Norway  ... here in the states, our own tragic history of anti-Semitism - Jews excluded from universities and country clubs, denied promotions and homes ... I grew up with expressions ... expressions I never thought about, expressions of contempt for the Jew.

Contempt spreads … it’s a contagion, a virus …

From despising Jews in “christian" Europe to contempt and mistreatment of people all around the world … Portugal and Spain in the Americas … Belgium in the Congo; the British in Rhodesia and South Africa and India … here in the States, many groups have suffered, and continue to suffer: Indigenous Peoples, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans … in this very moment, in churches across the land, LGBTQ persons - despised … trans children and their parents - condemned … and in many “christian” quarters, guess what? Women … women still feel the sting of male domination, male contempt … all in the name of the Jesus, with Bible verses quoted to back it all up.

Is this the gospel of our LORD Jesus Christ? Is this the world we want to live in? Is this what it means to be a Christian?

We face the truth … truth liberates … part of the truth is how we read the Bible, how others read it, and the challenge: to bring a better reading of the Bible to bear upon our times. 

To practice the deep ethics of love: 

To embrace rather than exclude; 

To love rather than condemn.

In our text this morning, nothing about race, or ethnicity - it’s Galileans from the north pitted against the Judeans of the south - all of the same blood, with different perspectives … 

I fault John for not making it clear … I fault the Christian Church all the more for its tragic treatment of the Jews …

We should have done better!

For millions, it’s too late, but we can still change, we can grow, we can do a better of job of it, for the future to come.

With that said, let’s get to the point … a tremendous point:

The love of God moves toward those who are frightened!

God is near to us in the midst of our fear … that’s what John wants to say, and we say it today … God is near to us in the midst of our fear! Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

Yet … we have to be careful … careful for what we expect … remember from a few weeks ago: hope has to be grounded in reality. 

There's no intent in the Bible to minimize danger, to ignore difficulty, pain, sorrow, or suffering, to pretend that the world is anything less than it is … what we have here is an effort to MANAGE the fear.

Fear is a good and healthy response, but fear unmanaged distorts our perceptions ... fear is like a magnifying glass held over a tiny insect - in the glass, the tiny insect seems to be a giant, a monster ... but the image of the insect in the glass is inaccurate.

I awaken in the night; things I fear roll around in my head like bowling balls crashing into the pins, growing larger, and more distressing by the moment … my soul fills with noise, my body perspires … the signs of fear, fear out of control.

Which is why FDR said at the start of WW2, "the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.”

With that, we return to the point of the day: Stop.

The Supremes sang, 1965:

Stop! In the name of love

Before you break my heart

Stop! In the name of love

Before you break my heart

Think it over

Think it over

Let this be a think-it-over moment, a sabbath moment - a deep breath, consider where we’ve been, where we are, where we need to go.

Today, we stop … to hear the words of Jesus, Peace be with you.”

We stop, in the name of love, so no more hearts are broken.

We stop, to start all over again … with a little more insight than we had yesterday; a little more understanding of how things have worked out, how things can be changed, and made better  … a fresh resolve to live well, to be a person of knowledge and wisdom, gratitude and grace, prayer and kindness, conscience and compassion.

The love of God is near … and when we’re afraid, God is nearer still.

Peace be with you!

And let’s build our world anew.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, April 17, 2022

April 17, 2022, "The Tower Still Stands," Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena

 Isaiah 65.17-25; John 20.1-18

It’s been quite the week.

A little of this and a little of that.

A week of good things.

And even some sad things.

We’ve been on top of our game.

And we’ve been kicked around the block.

We knew what we were doing.

And we didn’t have a clue.

We were pleased and happy.

We were disappointed and ticked off.

We ran outta gas.

And a friend helped us.

It’s been quite the week … 

Holy Week we call it … and holiness means special, set aside, noteworthy; calls for our attention; God is holy, and holy smoke and holy mackerel - the smoke of incense rising to heaven, and fish eaten on Friday … 

Holy Week: a special week, a week that calls for our attention, a week that sums up, and gathers in, the ebb and flow of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What a week it’s been.


Christ enters Jerusalem, the people shout their dreams … disappointment sets in, the crowds turn ugly … the powers that be grow uneasy … things get messy real quick.

Pilate takes charge … Jesus is just another political dissident, a trouble maker, one of the usual suspects; better to crucify him now, fast and furious, to show the world some Roman muscle. 

Religious people had their own ideas, too … protect the turf, keep things smooth, don’t upset the applecart … keep the Roman Empire happy … a deal had been worked out - no one liked it, yet everyone lived by it.

The power of Rome and the power of religion!

They got together that week, the infamous week we call holy.

Judas was willing to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver … Pilate was ready to sign the death warrant and wash his hands of the affair.

When political power, and religious domination, come together, we can be sure it’s going to end badly.

From the bloody crusades of the 11th Century to the Inquisition of the 15th Century … from the suppression of Galileo’s scientific work to the burning of witches in Salem … from England’s Oliver Cromwell to Governor George Wallace of Alabama, from Luther’s hatred of Jews to the horror of the Nazi Holocaust.

When hyper-religion and power-politics meet up in the public square, it ends badly - there is blood to be drawn and death to be had.

What a week it’s been.

But time moves on, and so does God … another week:

The Empty Tomb … the surprise of it all, the truth about God’s creation, and our place within it … 

The Empty Tomb shouts to the world: life prevails … love wins!

The Empty Tomb shouts to the world … don’t give up, don’t give in … cry your tears, and look for deliverance … like Mary Magdalene by the tomb, weeping her eyes out, wondering what has happened … alone in that quiet place.

The rest of the disciples scurry away to the safety of their homes … Mary stays the course; she’s willing to weep … she waits in the sorrow of a broken heart. 

All her life, she’s heard the message: Wait for the LORD! And that’s exactly what Mary does … she waits!

And then it happens … a rare and impossible gift … two angels in white … and finally … Jesus himself … 

The angels give Mary a chance to pour out her heart … isn’t that what angels do?

These angels offer no advice; they ask about her tears, and they listen.

Pastoral care at its best - no advice, no preaching, no scolding, no goals to be had - just a question, a question, about her tears, and then, the angels listen. 

A gift for anyone in distress … God’s angels listen to us, and we can be angels for one another: we ask how it is; then we listen … listen for as long as it takes … angels aren’t in a hurry. They listen to a broken heart.

Listen … and be Silent - two powerful words: spelled with the same letters … Listen … Silent … Silent … Listen.

Sometimes I come home with my own little pile of burdens, and say to Donna: “Don’t say anything; just listen to me.”

To listen to someone, we have to be silent.

To be silent, means we can listen.

Mary turns around … wonder why she turned?

Was she done pouring out her heart to the angels? 

Did she hear something? Sense something?

She turns … there’s Jesus.

She thinks it’s the gardener.

I love that moment of misunderstanding.

Jesus IS the gardener … all things through him created, the Word of God … the first Garden of Eden … the Garden of Gethsemane, the Garden Tomb … the final Garden, the Garden of the new heavens and the new earth … the river of life and the tree of life, for the healing of the nations.

Jesus IS the gardener … 

Creating … giving life … making all things new … then and there; here and now … making all things new … here in this place and in our time, our lives, our world .. right here in our midst … in this place, and all around the town.

People of Westminster - the Tower still stands … 

When I drive up Lake Avenue, there it is … shining bright against the mountains to the north … the Tower still stands.

Yes, it’s steel and stone, and it’s so much more.

It embodies the hopes and dreams of every soul that has ever lived … the hopes and dreams of everyone alive today … and all the children still to come … a reminder … a reminder … in our world there IS a place where tears are honored with a holy silence, a place of peace and hope, renewal; a place where truth is told, love given, mercy extended, humility practiced, justice pursued, … with a generous welcome to all.

Dear friends …

The Tower still stands … and Christ is Risen!

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, April 10, 2022

April 10, 2022, "Hope" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena

 Psalm 118.19-29; Luke 19.28-40

Last week Sunday, it was all about Go!”

On your mark, get set, go!

To the future we go … to the work that needs to be done … to be faithful to the LORD, faithful to one another … no matter what the day might bring, or however the night should come … faithful to the LORD, and faithful to one another.

Today, Palm Sunday, we go … we go to the Mount of Olives in ancient Jerusalem, a place of promise and hope … a promise of deliverance, and a promise of God’s mighty presence.

What could go wrong?

But something did go wrong.

That jubilant crowd, shouting their praise and singing their joy, took a turn to the wrong side of the street, in just a few days … shouts of joy turned to cries for crucifixion … 

What went wrong?

As best as we can determine, the people of Jerusalem had long harbored a hope, a good hope, for sure, that God would set them free from the brutal, bloody, Roman Empire … an empire of steel and slavery …where all roads led to Rome, and on those roads, all the money, all the power, all the goods of that vast and terrible empire. 

The people longed for a new King David … to set things right, restore the kingdom, recapture the past, set the people free, from the bloody, brutal, Roman Empire.

The people were ready!

From Galilee comes Jesus, a preacher of wisdom and justice, a miracle worker … could he be the one? Could this be the moment? 

The people shouted and danced … laid down their cloaks to acknowledge his royalty, waved the palms of victory and triumph. 

It took but a few days for the people to realize that Jesus was of a different order, offering hope of a different kind … something deeper … the peace that passes all understanding.

The people were impatient, and who can blame them?

What they wanted, they wanted now … they wanted deliverance, they wanted fireworks, as John the Baptist had said:

Even now, says John, the axe is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“Misplaced hope” I call it. Hope for something that couldn’t happen, something out of line with reality … hope that was more fantasy than faith.

All the hope in the world won’t add two more inches to my stature … I’m 5’ 8”, and that’s that … and so are you when it comes to height … though I may have some control over my width … but here’s the deal: I’m not overweight; I’m under height.

As my friend Howard says, “It is what it is!” 

Nothing can alter the reality of my mortality … though I may try, and should try, to live as well as I can!

Medicine and science and good habits can help, yet a time will come when I draw my last breath; I’ll be no more … I’ll sail away to the everlasting arms of God.

Hope has to be related to reality … 

We can, and we must, pray for peace in Ukraine … but the reality of the times, the twisted history of Russia and the West … WW1, WW2, the Cold War, and all the rest … we have to pray for miracles, but we also have to know the story, the realities, the history … and then pray for leaders of all nations who will choose the pathways of peace rather than the highways of hell.

We can, and we must, pray for miracles … but the reality of this world has to be kept in mind and heart, too … even Lazarus, raised from the dead, still had to die in the end. the little girl raised from her bed of death, still had to die in the end. Dust to dust, earth to earth, ashes to ashes is our reality … that’s a part of what Lent is, Ash Wednesday … our reality … and the love of God, the mercy of God, at work in our reality, at work in all things for the good of God’s creation, and the wellbeing of our souls.

I like to watch dystopian sci-fi movies - everything is falling apart … but always hope - the hope we have with one another, in community, bonds of friendship, loyalty, kindness and mercy - we’re gonna make it, because we’re doing this together. 

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never loose infinite hope” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Everyone of us here has prayed for our share of miracles … healing for a loved one, for ourselves, for the welfare of children and grandchildren … the restoration of a broken love … a better job, a better future … peace and safety in our communities. 

And pray we will, and pray we must.

But pray with care … mindfulness … knowing the difference between hope misplaced, and hope grounded in reality, grounded in God. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

God Almighty has woven hope into the fabric of time.

Hope strong, hope true, hope that cannot be swayed by time or circumstance; hope in the face of sorrow and setback … hope at midnight, and hope by the grave.

Hope endures, hope sings, hope dances, even when there’s no music.

Hope waits for the Monarch to break out of its chrysalis … hope takes time to talk with a child … hope plants a tree for another generation; hope gives someone a second chance, a third, even fourth chance, and seven times seventy … hope walks quietly with the sorrowful … hope holds a hand gently and tenderly … hope points to the bird in the sky and to a little flower growing in a sidewalk crack  … hope knows when to stay put, and when to get up and go … hope can laugh, and hope can cry … hope is the energy of God’s love at work in all things, the heart of God’s creation, and the very life of Jesus the everlasting Christ.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus' blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame

But wholly lean on Jesus' name

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand:

all other ground is sinking sand;

On Christ the solid Rock, I stand.

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, April 3, 2022

April 3, 2022, "Go!" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena

 Isaiah 43.16-21; Philippians 3.1-16

Now it’s official, now it’s real.

As of Friday, April 1 (no fooling), I’ve become your Interim Minister … with joy and pleasure, I accept the task, and gladly promise each of you my very, very best.

It’s fitting and right that this Sunday, a Sunday of beginning, is also the end of my little three-part sermon series, “On Your Mark,” “Get Set,” “Go."

I’ve used the analogy of a race … runners emerge from the locker rooms, shake limbs, stretch muscles, lost in thought, when the announcement comes, “On Your Mark.”

We are the people, and these are the times.

There is no one else here, but you and me.

We’re the runners; this is the race.

It’s our moment.

Others have run the race before us.

Now it’s our turn - we’ll do our best, to push ahead to victory.

It’s the race of faith, which means we do this together … arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand … helping one another to run the race … no one crosses the finish line alone … we cross the finish line together.

Last week Sunday evening, Donna and I watched the Oscars … I was particularly touched by the sense of gratitude that marked most of - I suppose a result of the last two years of Covid … all the challenges, delays, restrictions, disappointments - everyone seemed profoundly grateful and deeply humbled, to stand before their peers with an Oscar in hand - acknowledging everyone who made this moment possible - it takes a village to raise a child … it takes an industry to make a movie.

On your mark, get set, go.

And where shall we go?

We go to the future.

None of us know what the future holds, and that’s scary, but the God we know in Christ Jesus our LORD has made it abundantly clear to us, that the future is ours … and God is clearing the way.

As your Interim Minister, it’s my task to work side-by-side with you, to review and consider everything that has led to this moment … the brightest moments, the unhappy setbacks … every bit of the journey - to be studied, pondered, questioned … where did we do it right? when might we have made better decisions? what do we need to do now?

Very importantly, we’ll examine our neighborhood - demographics - who’s moving in, who’s moving out? What are the schools like, and what are the challenges?

We will consider the powerful cultural changes that now shape our times.

I was ordained in 1970, the First Presbyterian church of Holland, Michigan … when the future of the Presbyterian Church was certain … I went to high school, college, seminary … and expected to serve the church my entire life … the church was here, and so was I, and so were my colleagues …  

In 1990, I became senior minster at a church in Livonia, Michigan, a Detroit suburb … the church was founded in 1951, in the rush of the post-WW2 era - when folks went to church in droves, by the millions, all over America.

The church grew to 2400 members in the late 60s, with a beautiful building, a fine staff, and an elevator … 

One of the former associate ministers of the church said to me, “Those were the days; we couldn’t stop people coming to church. The parking lot was jammed, the Sunday School overflowing … the coffers full; it felt good, and we thought we were great.” 

By 1990, it had declined to 1300 members, on the books at least. In reality, it was more like 500 members. Folks had moved, times had changed.

When Dr. Max Morrison was minister here, along with a huge staff and much excitement, folks got up Sunday mornings, put on their Sunday Best, and made their way to the church … here in Pasadena, and all across the land … 

But all was not sunshine and sugar … the Supreme Court and its landmark decision, Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954 … President Eisenhower sending troops to Little Rock in 1957. 

Westminster Presbyterian Church stands in favor of school integration, invites the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak here in 1962 … and, in time, a thousand members walk out. A serious loss, no doubt.

But God looked upon Westminster and said, “Well done, good and faithful church. You chose the better part. You stood on the right side of history.”

In the 80s and 90s, evangelical churches had a go at it, with praise bands and megachurches, and for a time, they were on top of the heap, even as mainline churches continued to lose membership. Now, evangelicals are in the throes of it, too, torn apart by infighting, scandals, and young people simply moving away from the faith of their parents … 

As for religious affiliation in America, more and more simply check “none” … who knows the outcome?

Yet God makes it clear: There is always a way to be faithful, always a way to serve the LORD, always a way to bear witness to the world for the love of Christ.

We will never return to the heyday of the 50s and 60s … or to any other moment in time … the past is past - it’s gone; we learn from it, build upon it, and then we move on … we do what our forebears did in their time - they innovated, they invested, they took chances. 

Building this church was taking a chance. 

A chance on something new, a Tower on Lake Avenue.

God speaks through the Prophet Isaiah:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

In the months ahead, we will consider how best to serve the LORD in 2022 and 2023; how to bless this neighborhood, welcome everyone, engage in ministry, focus our priorities, care for our campus, revise and renew, and prepare the way … prepare the way for the next installed minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church.

To the glory of God, for the healing of the nations.

On your mark, Get set … Go!

Amen and Amen!