When Ambition becomes Sinful

We all know people like Jesus’ disciples James and John. We find them at our workplace, when everyone is trying to be a team, someone goes and brown-noses with the boss, saying, “I’ve got some ideas for increasing productivity. You should put me in charge.” Or, in whatever social club or volunteer group you belong to, no matter what the bylaws say, there’s always someone who is campaigning to be lead dog. In the local church, there are always two or three people who want to be in charge, and about every 18 months, they get into a battle with each other over some trivial issue. When pastors get together for their holy conferences, there are always several who are actively campaigning to be made bishop. So, Jesus wasn't surprised when James and John come to him and ask to be given the thrones next to his in the Kingdom of God. 

Pentecost 22
Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Psalm for the Fall

I am lucky to live in Pennsylvania, home to some of the finest fall color displays in the world. This week the weather has been unseasonably warm and the changing of the leaves has been put on hold, but it will come -- I hope. In all of life, hope is not related to your reasoned examination of the facts, but your gut-level perception of your place. Does your relationship with your coworkers and superiors inspire you to be a hopeful employee? Does your place within the loving (we hope) circle of your family and friends allow your heart to feel at home? More importantly, does your faith place you securely in God's hand, so that you have hope in all seasons? I love my Pennsylvania home, but my real residence is in God. Psalm 90 begins:

Pentecost 21
Fall Season
Sunday, October 14, 2018

Maya Angelou Poem for Transition

"On the Pulse of Morning" was written for the first inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993. It cautioned the new leader to think first about the long view of history.

What makes a marriage?

Many people are troubled by the passage where Jesus speaks about marriage and divorce. It is important to note, however that Jesus’s words are directly followed by verses that demonstrate Jesus’s concern for the needs of children (Mark10:2-16). I would argue that Jesus is not laying down a law prohibiting divorce, but rather expressing, as he does in all of his teachings, the demands that living a compassionate life places on each of us. Whether we marry or not, we are likely to have someone dependent upon us. They may an elderly parent, a terminally ill neighbor, or the soldiers beside us in a combat unit. At the birth of children and when people enter into the covenant of marriage, we talk about dependency. We say the words, “In sickness and in health.” We promise to neither neglect nor abuse those in our care.

In Jesus’s day, the direction of this dependency was indelibly etched into the culture. Women were always dependent upon men. Wives depended upon their husbands in both financial and legal matters. Children, often in the danger of becoming orphans, could depend upon the whole village to raise them. Today, men and women have equal rights, and when two people marry, one may be earning more than the other, but this situation is unlikely to span their entire marriage. Today people often raise children with little help from their neighbors and at great distances from their extended family. It is what it is. God does not expect us to reject our culture. He expects us to live compassionately within it.

Pentecost 20
Sunday, October 7, 2018

Bending Toward Justice

Martin Luther King famously wrote that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He wrote it in the context of how we, by our mortality, are limited from seeing the full fate of human history. We live a few decades on this planet and then step into the unknown. For someone as intimately involved in lifting oppression as he was, it was important to have faith that our human story was headed towards justice. It reminds me of the mathematical shape known as a parabola. Where we begin the journey seems terribly far from the ideal line. But almost imperceptibly, it bends towards what is good, and faithful, and true. Martin Luther King, and all who truly work for justice, knew that our current experience may give little evidence of how God’s grace governs the whole line. That doesn’t mean that we are on the wrong path, or that evil will win in the end.

Pentecost 19
Sunday, September 30, 2018

Me Too and Proverbs 31

You either love-it or find it embarrassing; the passage in Proverbs 31 that begins, “A capable wife, who can find?” It reminds me of the movie, The Stepford Wives, that came out soon after I was married. Like all good satire, the film had too much underlying truth to be taken purely as fiction. In the 1960-70s patriarchal culture of the American suburb, a model home included a matching model wife, preferably ordered out of the Sears catalogue. A capable wife who can find? Indeed. Today, however, we see the ugly corollary, when men view women as objects they do terrible things to them at work. #MeToo is not just about women being sexually harassed by a few bad apples, it’s about putting a stake in the still beating vampire heart of men seeking Stepford-ish dominance both at work and at home.

Pentecost 18
Sunday, September 23, 2018

God Speaks in Triplicate

Back in the old days of typewriters and carbon paper, the most dreaded words heard by secretaries was, “I want that in triplicate.” Whatever the form or memo, it had to be important if it needed three copies. The process involved carefully aligning three sheets of 24 lb bond paper and two finicky carbon backed tissue in your Remington and striking each letter as hard as you could and spelling the every word perfectly, because corrections were impossible. Psalm 19 says that the creator God, speaks to us in triplicate.

First, He speaks to us through the world he has made. Everything about this world shouts intention and an intelligence beyond our imagination. Science and art join hands as our friends in seeking to understand what God is writing to us in the universe.

Second, God speaks to us through His revealed word. Psalm 19 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.” This passage is talking about something much broader than “the law,” as the Ten Commandments or even the books of Moses. Any inspired speech or written word that we receive as holy and revealed to us for our edification comes from the second page in God’s typewriter. Just as no one can say that God hasn’t spoken to them in creation, so very few people on earth haven’t heard or read some inspired text. The Apostle Paul writes how God’s voice has gone out to the ends of the world, allowing the holy one to be found by even those who were not seeking for God (Romans 10:16-20).

Pentecost 17
Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Long Ways from Jesus

If you want to know how far your congregation has come from the fellowship that first followed Jesus, then take a serious look at the book of James. Last week, I looked at how churches today often chase unicorns and silly superstitions, rather than engaging in pure religion, which according to James 1:27, involves caring for widows and orphans. The second chapter of James goes a step further in helping us to see how what we do with our everyday Christianity today is a long ways from Jesus. James was either a brother or cousin of Jesus, which depends upon your translation. He knew first hand the simplicity of what Jesus actions and practical teachings. What we have lost in our modern sophistication is the love Jesus had for the poor.

James asks a rhetorical question, one that is supposed to be quickly answered, “Yes” or “Of course I do.” How quickly and freely do you say yes to the following? 

“Do you believe that the poor actually have been chosen by God to be rich in faith?” and, “Don’t you realize that the poor have a special place in God’s Kingdom?”James 2:5

Jesus says yes in the following teachings:

Blessed are you who are poor,

    for yours is the kingdom of God. 

And,  

woe to you who are rich,

    for you have already received your comfort

    (Luke 6:20 & 24) 

Pentecost 18
Sunday, September 9, 2018

Chasing Unicorns on Labor Day

There was a time, I’m old enough to remember, when religious people had 84 reasons to believe the world was going to end in 1984. Then there was a time, not long after that, when many churches, my own included, stockpiled batteries, bottled water, and baby diapers, because they were convinced that Y2K would make such things valuable. There was a time when almost every Christian woman I knew, wore a little angel on their shoulder (for protection or advice, I never found out). Unicorn chasing would be in the Christian Olympics, if we ever decided to have our own, because we think the Greek one has too many pagan symbols. Such malarky gives religion a bad name.

Jesus’s brother James is blunt, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

When I was younger, I was taught by well meaning religious people that the “stain of the world” was drugs, sex, and rock&roll. Now that I am mature enough to recognize such teaching as malarky, I see that the stain of the world is populism, greed, and whatever is considered “truth” on cable news.

James is the most practical of the New Testament books, and may give us the clearest view of Jesus’s day to day teaching. James devotes the second chapter of his little book rebuking Christians for bringing the world’s love of the rich, famous, and powerful, into the church. There was in his day a moral majority that thought being poor was a sin. There is today, a majority in many churches who are content to ignore people of color and their concerns about our society. Churches by their silence, paint themselves with the stain of the world that is racism.

Pentecost 15
Sunday, September 2, 2018

Temple? Not my temple!

I have a problem with Psalm 84. It’s one of those poems that doesn’t make sense once you tear it apart. “My temple is a place where even a swallow finds a place to nest,” makes as much sense as, “My love is like a red, red, rose.” Howling, just feet away from the altar in Solomon’s temple, were lines of sacrificial sheep and boxes of doves, ready to be slaughtered. Temple sacrifice, up until 70 AD, was madness, bleating sheep, and nasty priests. Blood flowed on the rock where Abraham once bond Isaac. Did I mention that child abuse is one of the problems that the church is still dealing with?

So what is this psalm really about? It’s not about the church building, even though it mentions courts, doorways, and altars. Like a fine haiku, it speaks about what it doesn’t have words for. It tells us how there was a fellowship among the pilgrims as they walked for days together, over the Negev, to where they could worship. It tells us how the few days they spent crowded together as a congregation, sharing inadequate facilities with people from all over the world, was better than 1,000s of days spent in a nicer, more convenient, location. (By the way, the Hajj has been happening this week for Moslems) Its about a religious experience that the children of our churches often know better than the adults who serve as deacons and trustees. To be with other people of faith is a blessing, pure and simple.

Pentecost 21
Sunday, August 26, 2018

Not Being Smart

God must not like our prayers because he keeps giving us the opposite of what we ask for. We ask for patience and we receive more frustrations. We ask for peace in our household and we receive more conflict. We ask for enough wealth to be secure and we find ourselves jobless and dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I get the feeling that God’s intention is to throw us fully into life, like a baby being thrown into the deep end of the pool. We pray, “Lord give us a firm foundation of truth,” by which we mean that He should make us smart enough to always be right. God responds, “Hey it’s time for your swimming lesson. Keep your head up and remember to breathe.”

The story is that young King Solomon felt totally unprepared for his ascent to the throne. So, he prayed and God said, “Now be careful what you ask for, because I’m only going to grant you one wish.” He could have asked to become so smart that he would never have to worry about ever being wrong. He could have asked to be a great deal maker, always winning. He could have asked to become the self-help guru of his time, so that all his kids and wives and neighbors would seek out his advice. He could have asked to be made a powerful leader, with an arsenal of clever weapons, so that he could defeat whoever dared to disagree with him.

Now, its important that you read I Kings 3:5-12 carefully. Young Solomon does not ask to be made smart or always right, the way we would have. Instead he prays for an understanding heart, so that he might discern what is right in the midst of life’s difficult decisions. God grants him wisdom, which is not the same thing as self-confidence, in fact, the two may be opposites.

Pentecost 15
Sunday, August 19, 2018

Prayer before Dawn

I have a love-hate relationship with mornings. As a self-employed author, I have great flexibility regarding when and where I work. But the Holy Spirit and my own creative whit have their own plans. I have discovered that early morning hours are golden. But rarer than diamonds are the times when the cat, dog, or my bladder wakes me while it is still night, and instead of cursing these intrusions, I grab coffee and write like one possessed. In Psalm 130 we read, “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.” Something has awoken the psalmist to an hour when all he or she can do is pray. Perhaps they are at the bedside of a sick loved one, or a refugees escaping in the dark, or perhaps they stand with the watchman on the wall, keeping guard over a city at peril. They pray soulfully. They pray deep. The Holy Spirit is very much with them.

  There are three content buckets to this morning prayer: First, a humble plea for forgiveness. It is impossible to live fully without at certain points risking our religion for the sake of our love. In the morning, we sometimes wrestle with what we have been passionate about and seek God’s understanding concerning what drives us. Second, there is the plea for one’s nation, whether that be ancient Israel or today’s America. When will we leave our political bubbles and discover again the pure morning air of God’s steadfast love for all people? Finally, beneath all the words of this psalm, and behind those hours that we spend pacing the hallway and watching for the dawn, is a concern for our own soul. For didn’t Jesus once ask, what good is it for one to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s soul? (Matthew 16:26) Pray on!

Pentecost 12
Sunday, August 12, 2018

Unity, All the way to Jail

  It’s helpful to imagine Paul in a prison cell as he writes the book of Ephesians, particularly chapter 4. To be imprisoned is to be divided off from humanity. So, Paul speaks about unity and provides a vision of what brings us together. He says that God considers us all to be one and that when we accept the Christian faith we all have the same baptism, even though some are sprinkled as infants and others dunked under the cold, muddy, waters of the Penobscot River. We are one, in spite of whatever wind of doctrine fills our sails. We are one, no matter what work fills our days, or what economic fortunes have befallen us. We remain united even though deceitful men have imprisoned some of us, have taken property from some, allowed others to be unjustly gunned down. We remain one people in Jesus Christ, even though racism roams our land and those who think themselves white use their political rhetoric to divide us.

  Hear how relevant Pauls words from prison are to today’s American landscape:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)

Pentecost 13
Sunday, August 5, 2018

Ruts & Spiritual Passion

One of the great bug-a-boos of life is our propensity for getting into a rut. As individuals we fall into comfortable habits and become attached to familiar rituals. It may be the routine of eating the same breakfast every day or preferring a particular style of clothing. Our ruts can also have a more sinister side, supporting our prejudices, restricting our generosity, stifling our creativity, derailing our spiritual experience, and instilling within us a reluctance to implement needed changes. Those recovering from dangerous dependencies, such as drug addiction, know how high these walls of routine can be. If we were wise, we would choose our ruts more carefully, for we travel in them a long time.

David and Bathsheba

I'm old, I admit it. The last time I preached about David and Bathsheba was during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. I remember my trepidation. At the 11 o’clock worship service where there would be families with young children. I had been asked to take on the famous Old Testament story by parishioner that knew I was the lone democrat in a congregation of republican wolves.

 

The context of David’s scandal is set with the phrase, “In the spring, when Kings go off to war…” The story, as well as today’s application, begins with the understanding that there are certain things that people in power do. People in authority often feel themselves to be above the rules. This, and not David’s lust for Bathsheba, is the heart of the story.

 

Pentecost 12
Sunday, July 29, 2018

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