Sunday, July 31, 2022

7.31.22 "The Larger World," Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

Psalm 107.1-9; Luke 12.13-21 

The App Store, on my computer, told me that a program was ready to be updated … I went to the App Store, clicked on the update icon, and the update began … with a little note - to fix bugs and improve performance.

I like that … who doesn’t need an update now and then?

To fix a few bugs, improve performance.

To keep on growing, learning, moving ahead … 

The Rembrandt image on the front of our bulletin says it well … the rich man … lives in a tiny, tiny, world … his whole being devoted to the coin in his hand … surrounded by contracts and ledgers … 

He could use an update, to fix a few bugs and improve performance.

When we were in seminary, Donna and I spent a few weeks in a Miami, FL church - we lived in the manse with the minister and his family … they went on vacation; he said, “Use my study.” So I did … I browsed through his books, and quickly learned: he hadn’t bought a new book since graduation.

He could’ve used an update, to fix a few bugs and improve performance.

Religion, at its best, is all about updates … fix the bugs, improve performance … until the next update is needed … always bugs to fix, improvement needed … as the world turns … as life moves on … 

Next week, we’ll be electing new elders, members of the Session … the “governing board” of a Presbyterian Church.

The new elders will be asked nine questions … nine large questions, nine very large questions … questions that take us back into time, and push us ahead to the future … questions about the foundations of our faith … one of the questions goes like this: 

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

That’s a large question.

Because faith is large.

Life is large … God is large.

When we say: I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth …

That’s large … 

When we pray, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …

That’s large.

When we sing, A mighty fortress is our God …

That’s large.

Religion at its best grows the mind with large ideas … big stories … 

Religion at its best grows the heart with the large love of God, the infinite love of God, the inexhaustible love of God.

Religion at its best lays before us the largest kinds of requirements: love God with all that you, and all that you hope to  be … love your neighbor with all the regard you have for yourself, and your immediate loved ones …

That’s large … infinitely, eternally, large.

Which brings to mind a problem, at least as I see it … I don’t like to dwell on the problem … I’d rather focus on the possibilities, and the promises … but when Jesus teaches, he says, You have heard it said, thus and so, but I say unto you … Jesus is clear about the problems that plague the political and religious world of his time … he’s no starry-eyed dreamer, telling dandy stories to dandy people.

He clear about the problems … one of the problems then, and one the problems now: small religion.

Small ideas, small ideals.

Small doctrines, all the pat answers … the doorways of the mind are closed; the windows of the soul are shut. No updates needed; performance is just fine.

It’s religion, all right, but religion so very small … religion too small for the large God of faith.

Max Morrison … some of you know that name … Morrison Hall here is named after him … Rev. Max Morrison came to Westminster in 1942 and served here for 24 years … he wrote a number of books, one of which is on my desk, Standing Up to Life

Dr. Morrison writes:

This is what going to church and worshiping does for you. It gives you a broader view of the universe in which you live. It puts you in touch through hymns, prayers, anthems and the spoken word with the Creator of that vast universe and of your own life.

The act of worship opens a door through which you glimpse wider spiritual horizons. Or to change the figure, he writes, it takes ‘your thoughts and your dreams to a hilltop where there is room to stretch your soul.’ 

People quit religion for all sorts of reasons!

Folks quit because the god proclaimed is too small … instinctively, folks know when they’re being had - the god proclaimed in the pulpit doesn’t square with the God of the universe … so they leave for the quest of the larger world.

Folks quit religion sometimes because the God proclaimed is too large, too large to fit into their little coin purse, too large for their small ideas and ideals … so they leave, in order to safeguard their dandy little world.

Let me tell you a story from my college days … 1963 or ’64 - an anthropology course … 

Professor Don Wilson told about American missionaries in the Pacific Islands … the women of the islands wore simple clothing - a bit around the waist, and that was all. 

The missionaries were horrified … disgusted with everything native.

The missionaries demanded blouses ... but the only women who wore blouses received them from sailors, for sexual favors.

Those dour and demanding missionaries failed to understand the joy and gift of Christianity - human beings follow Christ in and through their upbringing and their culture ... 

God is at home in all cultures … for the women who wear the blouses … and those who don’t … if those missionaries could have learned to be large in heart and mind. They sure needed an update, some performance improvements.

The Pope’s visit to Canada - to apologize for the horrors visited upon Indigenous families … children neglected, abused, buried in anonymous graves, buried by missionaries, preachers, priests and nuns, Protestant and Catholic alike.

The story of the missionaries in the Pacific Islands shaped me deeply; I’m forever grateful … Professor Wilson helped me step into a larger world ... I’m still doing my best to keep on stepping into that larger world … every time I step ahead, the world around me grows larger, still … sometimes I want to say to the LORD, “Enough already,” and the LORD makes it clear, “Tommy m’boy, we’re only just beginning.”

From the streets of Manhattan to the Pacific islands ... from the far reaches of anywhere to the edge of the known universe ... the Christ of hope and peace, the Christ who lifts the fallen and restores the lost ... the Christ who heals the wounded soul, and brings Lazarus out of the tomb ... the Christ of the World, the Christ of eternity … the Christ of you and me ...

It’s good to live in the larger world of God’s larger love, it’s not always easy, but it’s always good … to be large in the things of Christ … large in kindness, understanding, and love … large in patience, and mercy … the larger world of faith and justice.

God’s larger world.

Dear friends, I’m glad to be here, and I know that you are, too.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, July 24, 2022

July 24, 2022 "Latitude Is Our Style" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Psalm 85; Luke 11.1-13


Justice, Passion, Latitude …

These three words capture the heart and soul of the Christian Faith …

Justice is what we do.

Passion defines our commitment.

Latitude is our style.

I’m a train buff?

Anyone here love trains?

A good afternoon for me is a trip out to Cajon Pass on the 15 … get off at Cleghorn Road, a terrific place to watch trains … huge trains laboring up and over the mountains out of LA, or coming in from the north and the east for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Huge trains … multiple engines … sometimes with DPUs … Distributed Power Units - in the middle of a long train, or at the end, pushing hard … all of those units linked by radio-control - all working together to move tons of cargo across the nation.

It takes energy to move a train.

It takes energy to do justice - call it passion … the passion needed to join with God in the tasks of justice.

Which is why last week’s sermon was all about passion … passion is the energy needed to move justice into the world … just like those huge engines pulling those trains across the land.

Passion defines our commitment … a determination to stay the course, follow the Christ … abide in God’s Word, to be wise in what is good … to work for the good of all.

Passion asks of us everything we are, everything we hope to be … it’s a passionate deal … not for the halfhearted or those weak at the knees … 

Passion is the energy needed to move justice into our world

Which brings me to the third word, Latitude.

If Justice is what we do.

If passion defines our commitment.

Then latitude has to be our style.

Why? Why latitude?

Because Christian history is full of bloodshed and suffering … sad stories, tragic tales … when latitude was rejected, and domination accepted.

In the early 4th Century, the once-persecuted church became the all-powerful church of the Roman Empire - Christianity grew increasingly narrow and judgmental, as it grew more powerful … too many laws, too little love … the once-persecuted church now persecuted others … the Inquisition … the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War … colonial domination and enslavement of millions … the Salem Witch trials, burnings at the stake … the abuse of women and children … Christianity turned an ugly face to the world, to protect and promote its power.

Power is a good thing … it moves trains across the nation, it creates a just society … it wins the Civil War … it defeats fascism in Europe.

But when power is unregulated,  unchecked, when power is allowed to run its course, power runs amok … power becomes an end in itself … more power is needed to protect the power already gained - a vicious cycle that ends badly … that’s why we need latitude, a wideness of mercy … a broader view of the universe and God’s majestic love.

We need latitude … we all do … it makes life possible.

Let me tell you a story - college, 1968, or so, I was a middlin’ sort of a student, B B- kinda student … I took an econ course and had a terrible time with it - more my fault than anything … I was doing poorly, like flunking-poorly. 

One day, in the library, I saw my professor and I told him that I was doing poorly, that I knew it, and somehow or other, I just didn’t get it … I asked for some allowance on the final grade, and then said: “Professor Brouwer, I promise to never ever again take an econ course.” He laughed. 

When the grades came out, there it was … it wasn’t the F I deserved, but a generous C- … I’ve never forgotten him.

He gave me latitude.

I end now with some troubling thoughts about a ten-year old girl in Ohio … 

Abused and pregnant … 

Denied an abortion in Ohio, she and her family traveled to Indiana. 

A tragedy … aided and abetted by those who would force a ten-year old girl to bear a pregnancy … because somehow or other it’s “god’s will.”

An anti-abortion Indiana lawyer said that “his law only provides exceptions when the pregnant person’s life is in danger.”

He goes on: “[The girl] would have had the baby, and as many women who have had babies as a result of rape, we would hope that she would understand the reason and ultimately the benefit of having the child.”

Tell a child with a broken arm: “It’s god’s will for that arm to be broken; it’ll heal on its own, and you’ll learn to live with it. Later on you’ll realize it was all for your benefit.”

Tell the parents of child ill with cancer - “Just pray about it - if it’s god’s will, the child will get better; if not, then accept your child’s death. Medicine is bad. Science is no good. Trust god!”

I, for one, do not want to live in that kind of world.

Latitude has to be our style … open minds, open arms, open hearts …

Flexibility, agility, adaptability … creativity, innovation, risk … doubt, uncertainty, caution … generosity, charity, thoughtfulness … perplexity, bewilderment, confusion … being able to say, “I don’t know” … “I’m not sure” but I’ll do my best to live the love of Christ … 

I’ll leave room, lots of room, for fellow travelers, strangers and stragglers, the world around me, a big world, a world beyond my touch, beyond my understanding, beyond my control … latitude has to be our style. 

Latitude softens the instincts of power … latitude keeps us honest and humble … latitude keeps our passion balanced and patient … 

Latitude finds a way, a reasonable way, a thoughtful, kindly way, a generous way, for that ten-year old girl … we know that life isn’t easy, and too many rules only make it harder. 

Latitude is God’s way … forgiveness and mercy … long-suffering and deep patience, forbearance and calmness; tenderness toward the vulnerable, mindfulness of the overlooked and forsaken … a divine Yes to the realities and challenges of life … more forgiveness than anything else … latitude is God’s way.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,

like the wideness of the sea.

There’s a kindness in God’s justice,

which is more than liberty.

Justice is what we do.

Passion defines our commitment.

Latitude is our style!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, July 17, 2022

7.17.22 "Passion Defines Our Commitment," Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

Psalm 52; Luke 10.38-42 

I have a friend!

He grows sunflowers … he’s been doing it for years … and every September 11, early in the morning,

he brings sunflowers to his local fire station, to commemorate the courage of the first-responders … when the planes crashed into the Towers, and the walls came tumbling down … brave women and men ran into the smoke and dust to save the perishing.

 Every year, my friend does this quietly, anonymously … he needs no recognition … the doing of this deed is sufficient … his wife and children know, and I know, too. And most of all, he knows … in his heart of hearts, he knows … this is a good deed!

 He’s a passionate man … passionate about sunflowers, and passionate about gratitude …

 He inspires me … 

 He inspires me to be passionate, about faith, hope, and love … passionate in grace, mercy, and peace … maybe it’s just to read a book … or have lunch with someone I haven’t seen for awhile … or sign up for a course, watch a good movie, take a day trip … pay attention … pay attention to the news, to the world in which I live, pay attention to what’s going on, who’s making the headlines, who’s making the noise, who’s telling the truth, and who isn’t.

To be passionate about the things of life, things that make a difference, things that count … things centered in the earth and its wonder … the people and cultures of our world … a full moon on a clear night, the welfare of the church and the truth of the gospel.

Last week Sunday we focused on the word Justice …

Today, the word is Passion … the second of our three-part series, J.P.L … Justice, Passion, Latitude.

If Justice is what we do.

Passion defines our commitment …

Passion … the deep and abiding energy of care … 

Focused by the love and care of God.

God cares deeply about God’s creation … God is passionate about you and me … the birds and the bees … the lily of the field, Zacchaeus up a tree, the children at the edge of the crowd.  

Commitment … care … concern … passion.

Not all passion is good.

Those who stormed the Capital on Jan. 6 were passionate all right, but their passions are of a world-view very different from mine, a world-view of fear and panic, bitterness and rage, religious domination, racial supremacy, homophobia, guns and scaffolds.

Christ and his passion is the model we follow … that of Jeremiah and Amos, John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, Mary and Lydia … a thousand examples of compassion, wisdom, courage, and sacrifice … doing the right thing … careful thinking and sound solutions to the ills of the day.

The word passion is often associated with the suffering of Jesus … his trial, his crucifixion, his death … his passion.

Passion involves a deep and profound self-giving … giving ourselves to a cause, a purpose, a need … to those we love.

Love creates a cross … 

To love God with all that we are, to love our neighbor as ourselves … with Christ at the center.

Think of it visually … two vectors … Christ at the center.

The vertical bar - rooted in this earth, stretching toward heaven … the horizontal bar spreading wide around the world … Christ at the center … through Christ, heaven and earth, held together … through Christ, the world of need and hurt, embraced.

To follow Christ is to be with Christ at the center of the cross.

Jesus invites us to carry our own cross!

We turn now to the story of the day … a tale of two sisters.

It’s Martha who welcomes Jesus into her home … 

It’s her sister, Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus.

Mary is a disciple … in a world restricted to men … Mary breaks convention.

Martha is uncomfortable, to the point of anger.

Martha asks Jesus: Don’t you care? Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself. Don’t. you. care?

Tell my sister to get into the kitchen with me to make lunch; tell her to dust the mantle, sweep the floor, wash the dishes … tell her to get off her duff and do something.

Jesus responds pointedly: Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

Preachers and theologians have complimented both Martha and Mary … softening the response of Jesus … suggesting that we need both Martha and Mary … we need Martha in the kitchen, and Mary at the feet of Jesus … we need both of them, because both of them are right, in their own way and world.

That’s true, in general - there’s work to be done - material work, hands-on-work, some assembly required … grocery shopping, lunch to be made, dishes to be washed and put away … we go to work, mind our business, pay the bills, do what we can.

Yes, to all of that.

But the point of the story is this: Martha’s mistaken … Mary makes the right decision … in that critical moment.

Nothing wrong with Martha … but in the moment, she missed the boat … she focused her energies in the wrong direction … she fussed with her many tasks when she should have been at the feet of Jesus.

Martha’s passion was misdirected … which is why she’s upset … when our passion is misdirected, it never works.

Nothing more is said in the story … 

I wonder …

Was Martha afraid to get outta the kitchen? … after all, a woman’s place is in the kitchen, isn’t it? If not in the kitchen, then in the laundry room.

Women had their place in life, and it wasn’t as a follower of a rabbi. Women didn’t go to seminary; women didn’t sit at the feet of a teacher.

A problem still present in our world:

Women denied opportunities of learning and work … suffering the loss of dignity … “men only” - the rule of the day in many a culture, and in much of Christianity.

To this day, issues of equal pay are still debated.

In conservative churches, women are denied their place in God’s kingdom … their voices silenced in the face of abuse and discrimination.

Conservative Presbyterians still believe that women ought not to be ordained to ministry - “men only.”

Around the world, women are treated as second-class human beings, or worse. Beaten and maimed, shunned and killed - in too many places, Christianity fails … fails to embody the passion of Christ.

Maybe Martha was afraid to step outta the kitchen. 

Yet, her frustration is evident …

How many women gave up their dreams? 

Because church and culture said “No!”

Women in ministry often had that calling early in their life … but they didn’t see women in the pulpit, so they had no model to follow … if they said something about it, they were likely told, “it’s for men only.”

Barriers have fallen in the last 100 years … women finding their voice … opportunities to explore their gifts.

We have more ground to cover, progress must continue, and still to be wary, wary of those who discredit women and take away their rights. As far as I can tell, the struggle is not about to end.

Today, we are called by Christ to be passionate in our commitment … nothing lukewarm here … nothing lackluster … nothing halfway will do.

We have models to follow!

Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Rosemary Ruether, Dietrich Bonhoeffer … they knew how to work; they weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, but they knew when to sit at the feet of Jesus, and they didn’t take “no” for an answer.

Sunday morning at Westminster - at the feet of Jesus … to learn of God, recalibrate our souls … ask deep questions … think things through … seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit … open ourselves up to the grace of God … pray and ponder … seek and find … in the far corners of our souls.

Here and now, in this place, in this moment, right now: we’re Mary, we sit at the feet of Jesus … tomorrow, we’ll be Martha, with many tasks to do.

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, July 10, 2022

7.10.22 "Justice Is What We Do" - Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Amos 7.7-17; Luke 10.25-37

Lots of people didn’t like Jesus!

He rubbed folks the wrong way … ruffled lots of feathers.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to upset the apple cart … or overturn a few tables … to set things right, make some adjustments, bring down a few mountains, fill in some of the valleys …

Prepare the way of the LORD, cried the Prophet Isaiah, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

The Prophet Micah proclaimed: The LORD has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

It’s all about justice.

Justice is what we do.

If we wonder what justice looks like, we need look no further than the story of the Good Samaritan … 

A lawyer comes to Jesus to test him.

The lawyer is neither friend nor foe.

The lawyer asks a common question, What must I do to inherit eternal life?

In other words, what kind of life meets God’s approval?

Jesus poses a counter-question to the lawyer, What is written in the law?

In other words, “don’t ask me - you already know!”

The lawyer replies: You shall love the LORD you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus says: That’s right. Do this and you’ll live.

The lawyer isn’t satisfied, so he asks, Who’s my neighbor?

It’s a good question … we ask it all the time - to whom are we responsible? to whom shall we give aid and kindness? 

The homeless under our bridges, immigrants at the border, children in our inner-cities, the people of Ukraine, gays and lesbians, trans-children, their families?

Pundits, politicians, and preachers parse the word “neighbor” all the time … carefully measuring out what our responsibilities might be, or might not be.

Former U.S. president George W. Bush invoked the parable in his first inaugural address: “I can pledge our nation to a goal: when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”

It’s an important story, told in a thousand different ways …  a call to compassion and kindness … 

A reminder that every day, people are set upon by circumstances and conditions, and left for dead, bleeding beside the highway of life.

Every day, the cries of the wounded call us to do what we can, individually, and collectively, from the local level to the highest levels of government, to help the wounded back to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This morning, the first of a three-part series called, JPL …

I mentioned this to the choir a few weeks back, and a few days later, Norm Haynes sent me a note:

He writes: “In the early days of the space program at JPL when our success rate on missions was not great, we had a surprise successful mission. Afterwards , several at JPL said JPL stood for Just Plain Lucky. Fortunately, things improved greatly with experience.”

A three-part sermon series: J.P.L. Justice, passion, latitude.

Justice - is what we do.

Passion - describes our commitment.

Latitude - is our style.

Back to the story of the Good Samaritan - let me ask you a question: “When were you helped out of a ditch by the kindness of a friend, a family member, maybe even a stranger?”

Who was your Good Samaritan?

Let me tell you a story:

When I was a pastor in Oklahoma, a member of my congregation spoke at the local Rotary Club …  he was a successful man - oil, cattle, real estate, insurance … he flew P47s in France during WW2 … he was a husband, a father, an elder of the church … a great cook, and a friend to Donna and me.

At the Rotary Club, he spoke about the “free lunches” he had over the years … 

~ good parents he didn’t choose.

~ good schools in the community.

~ teachers who paid attention and helped him when he needed it.

~ the banker who gave him his first loan … the only collateral he could offer was his word and a handshake.

~ on and on it went - detailing “free lunches” given to him over the years.

For my friend, the notion of a self-made man was not part of the picture … my friend was wise enough to know that we’re all in this together … humble enough to recognize all the help given to him, all along the way … the “free lunches” … 

Albert Schweitzer put it this way: “… we all live, spiritually, by what others have given us in the significant hours of our life.”

My Oklahoma friend died recently at the age of 98, his life devoted to giving “free lunches” to the world around him.

He paid it forward. … he served on countless boards and agencies … he gave back to life some of what life had given to him …

What he couldn’t do by himself, he did with others … 

Lots of things require a community-wide effort … from food-assistance to housing … from rent-controls to good schools … from school boards to the halls of Congress, from the pews of this church to the President’s Oval Office, lots of things require a community-wide effort, a city, a state, a nation, and with climate issues and war, an entire world - to set aside what ordinarily separates us, to build bridges over the ditches dug by others … to stop in our tracks, pay attention to the world, join hands and hearts, to tackle some of the toughest issues facing humanity.

My Oklahoma friend did justice … he put right what was wrong, he paid attention to the overlooked … helped folks outta the ditch, and covered the bills.

We learn from watching such people …  Jesus said, “watch the Samaritan” …  

That would have rankled some of the audience. 

Samaritans, you see, were despised … some thought, “I’d rather die than receive help from one of them.”

It’s a long story, reaching back hundreds of years - originally all of the same family, of Abraham and Sarah, but war and exile separated the people one from the other … 

In time, they grew apart, further and further - looking askance at each other … brothers and sisters no more.

When Jesus goes through Samaria and speaks with the woman at the well, Jesus violates all sorts of social and religious rules. A good Jew would have nothing to do with a Samaritan, especially a Samaritan women …  Samaritans knew full-well to stay outta the way - Samaritans knew where they were not welcomed.

The priest and the Levite fail.

They see the injured man, and continue on their way …  

Maybe they were afraid.

“What will happen to me if I stop to help ?” That’s a real question, isn’t it? - it was a dangerous part of the road. 

We’ve all heard stories, “No good deed goes unpunished.” 

 The Samaritan story poses an alternate question: “What will happen to the man in the ditch if I don’t stop?”

It’s a good question, a hard question … it’s the right question, the sort of question that clears the air, focuses the soul, gets us moving in the right direction. It doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer, but it compels us to think about who we are, what it means to do justice - to set something right.

The LORD has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

And to God be the glory, Hallelujah and Amen!