Monday, February 27, 2023

2.26.23 "The Tempter Came," Sunday Lent 1 - Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, AC

 Genesis 3.1-7; Matthew 4.1-11

Important words point us in the right direction …

Words like love, happiness, mystery, hope, purpose, patience, gratitude  … words they are, just words, but they embody a universe of meaning … 

Words to remind us: 

~ who we are.

~ what life requires of us.

~ how we relate to one another, how we get along, how we mend what has been torn, rebuild what has been broken, recover what has been lost … help one another, along the way.

This morning, let’s talk about sin … an important word, a word we should not set aside, a word we need, as we try to understand ourselves … 

We understand “sin” when it comes to the big stories: children tortured … people starving … murder … mayhem … war … evil on an untold scale …

We understand sin at that level, but there’s another level in need of the word - it’s the day-to-day stuff of life that most of us live … 

We are not free of sin; it’s just harder for us to see it in the usual flow of life - someone said to me the other day, “I’m a good person,” and that’s true - I’d say, most of here are “good persons.”

So, it’s harder for us to see what we all know to be true, when the tempter comes our way: in our quiet moments when dark thoughts emerge … moments when we lose our temper, rage silently with jealousy and pride … in our soul a gloom, a billowing storm cloud on the horizon, things we’d rather not see in ourselves … if our neighbors could see within us, they’d pull the curtains and bolt the doors.

Let me pause for a moment … important words can be destroyed by misusing them … 

Take the word patriotism, for example … I’m a patriot, I love America, I love our story - the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all, from sea to shining sea.

But the word patriot has been hijacked and turned into nationalism … no longer “my country ’tis of thee,” but now, “my country right or wrong - love it or leave it” … 

The Proud Boys claim to be patriots, but they’re not … the Oath Keepers claim to be patriots, but they’re wrong … Christian Nationalists claim to be patriots, but they’re on the road to perdition.

Their love for America isn’t big enough; their love for America is too small, crimped, cramped, crabby … their love is not big enough to include every American, but only a few Americans, who look and talk like they do … small love finally proves to be not love at all, but only a lousy counterfeit …

The word “patriotism” has been turned inside out …

This can happen to important words …

The same has happened to the word “sin” … 

In the hands of many preachers and priests, sin has been used to humiliate and hurt … even someone as grand in thought and heart as Jonathan Edwards failed to grasp the glory of God as he lost himself in the sins of the world, eager for the wrath of God … to break the human spirit, shame the soul, frighten the faithful … “sinners in the hands of an angry god.”

Children have gone to bed imagining themselves burning in hell forever! … adults have gone mad with thoughts of eternal destruction!

A friend of mine was so afraid of God when he was a child, he hid under the pews … when it came time for the LORD’s Supper, he put the bread in his pocket, and kept the grape juice in his mouth, spitting it out when he left the church … afraid of “eating and drinking to his own damnation.”

When I was in seminary, I taught an adult Bible class in a nearby church … we studied the Gospel of Mark … I read the commentaries, worked hard to put something together, for the 25 or 30 adults who showed up for Wednesday evening fellowship.

At some point in time, I suggested that “hell” was not co-equal with heaven … heaven is forever, but hell has its limits - because Jesus descended into hell to break down the doors of hate and fear, to establish, even in the far land of hell, the love of God for all God’s creatures, great and small.

A man stood up - he began to explain to me, and to the class, the importance of hell, eternal damnation, punishment forever, fire and brimstone, suffering and sorrow.

He trembled, his face reddened, bits of saliva flecked his lips - I’ve never forgotten his gleeful, beatific, expression, as he made clear - hell is forever … millions of people are going to hell, to suffer in flames, forever … sinners damned to an eternity of torment! 

This man found bizarre spiritual comfort in the suffering of others. Talk about an upside down world.

Dear friends, God’s love will win the day; hell vanquished; heaven victorious … but until the final victory, we live East of Eden.

Sin is real … 

It’s the opposite of love.

~ Love seeks the welfare of the other; sin uses the other for personal gain and wealth.

~ Love puts God in the center; sin puts me in the center.

~ Love pays attention to the world; sin ignores the world, even hates the world.

~ Love crosses boundaries; sin builds walls.

~ Love welcomes diversity; sin can’t stand it.

~ Love sings; sin curses.

~ Love welcomes; sin excludes.

~ Love admits guilt; sin blames the other.

~ Love trusts wisely; sin is full of suspicion.

~ Love grows up; sin remains infantile.

~ Love gives; sin takes.

It’s important to know these things!

My friend, Jill Hunting, sent me a fine article about angry young men who take up a gun and kill …  

The author uses an important word  … narcissism; “Lost Boys,’ - in love with themselves, fixated on their anger, a deep sense of displacement - blame the world, blame women, blame religion, immigrants, anyone, everything, for their sense of failure … they are out for revenge, some even believe they’re doing good - protecting America from bad people.

Narcissism? Sin? The self above all … me first.

The Genesis story has it right: Adam and Eve had everything … except one tree - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - a tree that belongs exclusively to God … only God has the final knowledge, but that was enough to tempt Adam and Eve … the snake in the grass knew it … played havoc with them …  You’ve been cheated by God, says the snake. God is not to be trusted … you’d better take it yourself, take it while you can, then you’ll be just like God.

And they did, as the story goes …  

A story turned on its head, thankfully, turned right-side up, by Jesus in the wilderness … the Tempter

came to him, with subtle ideas, clever suggestions, Take care of yourself Jesus … take the easy road not the hard road … dazzle the crowds, and you’ll have them eating out of your hand … jump off the Temple roof, and angels will come to your aid … bow down to me, and I’ll give you everything …

Jesus reminds the Tempter - love is costly, salvation demands a lot, there is no easy way to life … and if the way of life takes us to a cross, so be it; if it must be done, it will be done. 

Jesus refuses to dazzle the crowds … Jesus refuses to tempt God with foolish, self-serving, behavior … Jesus will not bow down to the instincts of self-preservation … Jesus will give himself away … for the world … which is more than any of us can do, but each of can give ourselves away for that part of the world - that belongs to us … we do this in the name of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

I can’t be Christ, and neither can you; but in our own way, we can be Christlike, at least some of the time.

So it is: I am a sinner, saved by grace …

Sin is real, so is grace.

Sin is huge, grace is larger.

Yes, saved by grace … that means, we’re free … free to be honest, free too say, “I’m a sinner … saved by grace.”

Sin is an important word, and we needn’t be afraid of it. But it must be handled with care.

In Christ, we have the means by which sin is handled … sin doesn’t go away … it won’t go away until our last breath is taken, and our first breath of eternity drawn.

We are, after all, finally and forever, sinners, saved by grace.

Hallelujah and Amen!

Sunday, February 19, 2023

2.19.23 "Sneak Peak!" Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

Exodus 24.12-18; Matthew 17.1-9 

Important things happen on high mountains … we call them “peak experiences” … 

There are plenty of such moments in the biblical story … 

Mt. Ararat, on which Noah’s ark grounded when the flood waters receded, and a new world emerged …

Mt. Sinai, on which God and Moses had several serious chats, in dark clouds, with lightening and thunder … down from the mountain came Moses with tablets of stone, upon which the hand of God had inscribed The Ten Commandments …

Mt. Nebo, where God took Moses at the end of his life … to see in the distance the Promised Land … as in all things, Moses could only go so far, and then, no further.

Mt. Carmel, on which Elijah the Prophet confronted the priests of Baal, like a shootout at the O.K. Corral … winner take all … the Priests of Baal shouted and danced, whipped themselves, cut themselves, nothing happened … then Elijah prayed … fire came down from heaven to consume the offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, even the water with which Elijah had soaked everything, just to make a point, God’s fiery love is greater than all the sin and sorrow of the world.

The Mt. of Olives, down from which our LORD road into Jerusalem amid the cheers and hopes of a troubled people … palm branches and cloaks laid down on the road, with people singing their hearts out … 

Mt. Zion, on which the city of Jerusalem was founded, and Solomon built the temple … the fabled temple, destroyed and rebuilt … built even greater by King Herod … the very temple in which Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, and overturned the tables of merchandise and coinage.

Mt. Tabor, the mount of transfiguration … our LORD meets Elijah and Moses, the law and the prophets … forging forever the bond between the covenants, old and new … the law and its wisdom; the prophets and their power … and Christ … the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Who doesn’t like a mountain view of things … an easy hairpin drive up to Mt. Wilson gives us a panoramic view of Pasadena … air is bright, breezes cool … there, beneath our feet, the world in which we live.

I’ve never been to Everest, but I’ve read about it … those first climbers, losing their lives, and then the moment when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, in 1953, made the first documented climb to the summit.

I’ve been on Lookout Mountain in Georgia … Pikes Peak in Colorado … California’s High Sierras … the Rock of Gibraltar, to look across the Mediterranean to the coast of North Africa.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said to the world, on the evening of April 3, 1968:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

The next day, the assassin’s bullet found its mark, and killed Dr. King … 

At the center of our faith stands Jesus the Christ … the child of Bethlehem, the boy growing up with wisdom and strength … the young man baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River … driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, there to be tempted, challenged, badgered, by the Evil One … a moment to decide, to make sure, to choose the right from the wrong.

For three years, Jesus wandered the highways and byways of Galilee and Judea … he crossed the sea of Galilee and healed a broken man … he crossed the border into Samaria to give life to a lonely woman … he set his face for Jerusalem, the deep center, where Rome and its military might, and the Temple with its religious power, walked hand-in-hand to work out a deal for the day … 

A deal that was cruel and oppressive … 

The deal that sealed the deal when Jesus entered the Temple and overturned the tables … 

The powers that be decided that no more of this troubling man would be what the doctor ordered … 

They arrest him, beat him, parade him through the noisy streets of a bustling city, to let people know who’s in charge, who’s boss, who calls the shots, and sets the pace … he’s taken to a small outcropping of rock, the Place of the Skull, Golgatha, and there, with two others, he’s crucified, dead, and buried … as the Creed puts it, he descended into hell.

Jesus said to the disciples: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The stakes are set as high as they can get …  

Jesus demands of his disciples everything … all they are, all they hope to be … everything …

Six days later, Jesus takes with him three disciples, Peter, James, John … each different, each in their own way, a representative of the other disciples … a representative of all of us … they went up the mountain, a high mountain, says Matthew … because important things happen on high mountains …

A voice on the mountain, This is my son, the Beloved … with him, I am well pleased … listen to him …

There are high mountains all around us … literally … anyone of them might be enough to inspire our lives and call us to greatness …  

A high mountain might well be a very good book that sends us into the twilight zone, the wilderness, the arms of God.

Maybe it’s music … or art … visit the Huntingdon or Norton Simon - you may well be caught up on a high mountain.

Our trek to church, here in person, or home by the TV … a mountain to climb, a mountain of faith, hope, and love, who knows? … something said, some random thought … a song, a prayer … suddenly we’re there, with Jesus, Elijah, Moses, the disciples.

Within each of us is a mountain, a high mountain … a place within the soul, a pathway within the mind, where the gap between heaven and earth grows thin … God comes down to meet us in the upward reach of our soul … 

A moment in time … just a moment is all it is … comes quickly, closes quickly … and what’s left? who’s left? but Jesus … the Lamb of God.

Come now, says Jesus, there is work to be done.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, February 5, 2023

2.5.23 "Salt & Light" - Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, CA

 Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20

Jesus says to his disciples, you are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world … 

And then asks: what good is salt, if it loses its saltiness? … what good is light, if its covered up?

Salt is salt … light is light … they have purpose … it’s your purpose, says Jesus … so let it happen, let it be … don’t fumble it, don’t stand in it way, don’t mess it up … 

There was a time in America when the church was a powerhouse … after World War 2, Americans went to work, and they went to church … what we would call “mainline” churches - Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, American Baptists, Episcopalians … 

In the earlier part of the 20th century, megachurches came to be - historic Protestant Churches … tall steeples marked the landscape - 4th Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Riverside Church in New York City, Pasadena Presbyterian Church, and Westminster on Lake Avenue … 

The police showed up on Sunday mornings to direct traffic … such was the appeal, the power, the presence, of historic Protestant Churches throughout America … 

After the war, churches sprouted up throughout the suburbs … I was pastor of one such church in Livonia, MI - founded in 1951 … folks came in droves … multiple services.

A colleague of mine said, “We couldn’t have stopped them had we tried.” 

These were the program churches: musicals, mission trips;  pageants and potlucks … a lot of good was done, a lot of fellowship, enjoyed … but danger signs were present … in a society with turbulent undercurrents.

This church, 1961, welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to it’s pulpit for a Saturday morning visit to Pasadena.

Westminster took a stand in favor of school integration … 

And guess what …

Folks walked away from Westminster in droves - the membership drain continued throughout the 60s and 70s … and continued … for lots of reasons … so, here we are today.

From a recent article: 

by 2021 the percent of Americans who claim to be “None” … is at 29% … only about 60% of Americans claim now to be Christians and less than 50% are members of a church. 

The article goes on: 

Many are leaving because they are no longer welcome. Because they have called out how their church acted; or because they don’t like their church’s stances on politically- and socially-important topics (like climate, politics, racism); or they despise how the church treats women and silences their voices; or who can get married in the church and who cannot.

So, here we are, 2023 … a magnificent building, a legacy sanctuary, a glorious organ … with hopes and dreams.

We will never again have thousands in membership … 

The Protestant Era in America is done … but the work of the church continues. 

God is God … salt is salt … light is light.

For Westminster, I see a revitalized presence in the community … centered in the power of this building, a gift from God - yes, the Tower still stands, and it’s up to us to flood it with light, and flavor it with salt.

It will require of us - inventiveness, experimentation … the discipline to let go of the past, thinking outside the box, daring to take some chances.

God will help us.

God will help us, when we engage in the central work of the church: worship, mission, and justice.  

When we sing to the glory of God, for all we’re worth - praise God from whom all blessings flow …

When we celebrate our story - a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right, a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light …

When we take a stand for justice, make justice our mission to the world - and what’s justice, we ask? That’s the salty question. What is justice???

To make things right … to make things right for God’s world, God’s creatures, great and small … for people in war-torn lands, for trees and water, for the weary, and the downtrodden.

What’s justice? we ask!

Gun violence calls for some salt and light - America’s paralysis with regard to sensible laws and legislation. 

The NRA proclaims a gospel of private interests and personal rights - to own guns - arm teachers, police patrols in our schools, active-shooter routines, and more guns … more guns … more guns … 

Misunderstanding the Second Amendment … bowing down to “acceptable” violence and death, as if the violent death of children could ever be acceptable. 

When it comes to laws and legislation, nothing works 100%, but that’s no reason to have no laws and legislation. 

A doctor said to a friend of mine: “We can’t make you any better, but we can keep you from getting worse.”

Right now, gun violence is getting worse … the civilized world shakes its head.

I, for one, do not believe that “more guns” is the answer … I believe that common sense and a commitment to the common good can help us create common-sense laws that will at least keep us from getting worse.

What is justice? we ask.

Climate change calls for some salt and light … scientists agree - human industry has impacted the weather … yes, weather is cyclical … but human endeavor has added to the momentum of global warming - glaciers melting, earth exploited, air, and water, polluted.

Some christians proclaim a gospel of innocence … “god will never allow the worst to happen” they say. 

“It’s god’s purpose for humans to dominate the earth. 

So, go ahead and drill baby. Dig that coal and sink those wells … 

Tempting God, it what it is.

The devil said to Jesus … Go ahead, throw yourself off the roof of the Temple; angels will come to your aid and save you.

Jesus replied: Don’t test God with foolish behavior.

What is justice? we ask.

The diversity of humanity calls for salt and light - 

Gender, life, and love … 

Millions of people, their children and loved ones … trans children, trans adults, gays and lesbians … because gender isn’t binary, it’s on a spectrum from A to Z … 

A young man whom I’ve know for years has recently come out, as a woman - This is who I am, he said; I’ve always been a women; it was my body that went in another direction.

There are those who in the name of their god condemn diversity of gender and life … criminalize homosexuality, prosecute doctors and hospitals who work with families and trans-children … 

The Pope recently said, “Homosexuality isn’t a crime,” and I would add: it isn’t a sin either. It’s just life, in all of its complexity and glory.

What is justice? we ask.

Mounting anti-semitism, anti-Asian violence, the persistence of racism … 

American society is still tilted toward white privilege and power  … millions of children are robbed of a fair chance at life … schools underfunded … private schools, charter schools, home-schooling - so much of it empowered by racism, the protection of white privilege, religious bigotry, even as corporate interests smell money in all of this.

What is justice? we ask.

You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

I’m grateful … grateful for the moment in which we live … it’s a challenge, for sure … even frightening, some of the time, but in just such a moment, we have the opportunity to forge something new, something fit for the future … a new paradigm of faith, hope, and love … to be the church of Jesus Christ, all over again, anew, forever and a day.

Brave and bold as our forebears … to meet the challenge of the day … engage the world, seek the kingdom of God.

The Spirit is powerful … to lift our hearts and minds to the possibilities of greatness … great with love, great with courage and innovation, great with humility and kindness, great in the ways and wonders of justice.

Yes, the Tower on Lake Avenue still stands.

You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world. 

Hallelujah and Amen!