Getting John Doe into Heaven

Jesus once story about how on Judgement Day God will sort us all out, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. John Doe has never spent a day upon a farm. He wonders what is so bad about goats. He gets the bit about how people, who are only nice when they know that there’s something in it for them, deserve Hell. But, what’s this talk about all of humankind being brought before God (Jesus) and given only one chance to make it into heaven? Hey, even Babe Ruth got three strikes before he had to go to the dugout.

Judgement is really not about punishing people for their sins. Its about providing justice for those who are oppressed. A day is coming when nations who go to war with their neighbor for sport will be made to pay for their violence. A day is coming when the masters of slaves will answer for their ownership of other human beings. There will come a day when the racist, the abuser, the usurper, and those who cheat the poor out of their daily bread, will find themselves in torment. Those who have been victims of wicked people will have their day in God’s court.

Jesus’ point is that the judge of all the earth won’t have a hard time distinguishing who is the victim and who is the accused in his courtroom. The two tables are separated by a courtroom aisle, the way shepherds used to separate their sheep from their goats. On that day the distinction between good and evil will be easily made. If you don’t know animals, think about any two other groups that can be easily sorted. The heaven bound and the hellions are as different as eggs and potatoes, Porsches and Yugos, diamonds and coal.

Sunday, November 26, 2017
Pentecost 34
Christ the King Sunday

Speaking about Abusers

I once preached about David and Bathsheba on a dare (II Samuel 11). It was during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. The dare was that I had to preach about the President’s problem at the 11 o’clock worship service where there would be families with young children. The parishioner that challenged me knew that I was the lone Democrat in a congregation of Republican wolves. I don’t recall much of what I said, except that the issue wasn’t sex, but the misuse of power. Whenever someone shows a habit of abusing their status, office, or public trust, they should be considered unfit for that position. That clearly applies to more than just politics. I support all of the victims that are speaking out today.
Abuse of power lies behind: domestic violence, sex trade, lack of political integrity

Don't underestimate the Lord

There is a thread that runs through most Bible stories. Someone is always underestimating God. The prophetess Deborah tells the Israelites that God has their back. They should fight against the Canaanite king and his general Sisera, who are keeping the nation hostage. People underestimate Deborah and Jael, because they are women. In doing so they underestimate God. God gives to Deborah the wisdom to lead the battle. God gives to Jael the strength to drive a tent peg through the sleeping head of General Sisera — you try lifting a sledge and using blunt stick to pierce a watermelon (Judges 4:21).

In Jesus’ famous story of the servants and the silver coins (called “Talents”), the servant with one talent underestimates the expectations the master has of him (Matthew 25:14-30). Jesus urges us to make use of whatever resources God has placed within us to serve his kingdom. Just because you can’t play cello like Yo Yo Ma or play ball like Michael Jordan, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t expect great things from you.

The ultimate story relating to people underestimating God is found in places like Zephaniah 1:7-18 and the book of Revelations. People always underestimate the Day of the Lord — not just how quickly it is coming, but how much they personally will be called to account for. There is a day coming when all who have ever lived on this planet will be called to judgement. The test question then we be, have we used the time and position that God has given us to do good and show compassion to our fellow man?

Sunday, November 19, 2017
Pentecost 24

Let Justice Roll Down

I write this on election day and there are a number of judges on the ballot. There’s a whole book about judges in the Bible. Justice is important to God. It is fair to say that we don’t think about it until we need it. Going to court is a scary thing — I feel fortunate in never having to appear in court for anything that concerned me personally. I have been to court to testify for a parent wanting custody of their child. I have been to court to support friends charged with minor crimes. I have even taken notes for bankruptcy and property title proceedings. I have observed, as you have, a wide variety of court proceedings on TV. As scary as it is to go to court, it is even scarier to be denied the right to go to court and be fairly judged.

In the bible we read about widows who were not allowed to appear in court and receive the inheritance that they needed. Even today, there are those in our society that are denied economic justice.

There are many places in the world where persons can be jailed and/or executed without a trial before a jury of their peers. We should be concerned when our president blusters about denying infamous suspects their day in court. If justice is denied to the those we read about in the newspapers, how long will it be before justice is denied to the rest of us?

Many people of color have a personal story of when our justice system failed them. Our country is not a level playing field. We as a people are engaged in a long march towards a time when gender, race, age, or who you fall in love with, will not effect ones freedom, opportunities, or respect in the eyes of the law.

Sunday, November 12, 2017
Pentecost 27

Generational Theory

I discovered this week that I share certain religious views with Steve Bannon (the man responsible for Trump). Like Bannon, I have a religious appreciation for the work of social historians Strauss and Howell who developed generational theory (the bit about boomers and millennials, etc). S&H wrote in the 1990s about how American culture changes as each generation comes into adulthood and then fades away, and that these generations discharge their leadership in a predictable ways. Generations cycle, according to a great 300 year calendar. There is now an Unraveling and a Fourth Turning (our current era). S&H predicted that a wise elder would leads us out of this chaos. Where I part with Steve Bannon is that he believes that Trump is this messiah.

Lifestyle Matters

In the past week we have witnessed the fall of filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, the humiliation of actor Kevin Spacey, and the arrests of men who may have conspired for treasonous ends. I am not going to speculate if these treasons were against our government or the Ukrainian people, if Spacey’s confession was honest or self-serving, or if Weinstein’s victims deserve a pound of his ample flesh. What I think needs to be said is what Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

Note Jesus’ use of the word “all.” Some pride, is not forgiven. Some misuse of power, is not justified. Some abuse of one’s authority to satisfy one’s own needs, will not long go unnoticed. Why? Because the ends never justify the means. Every great man who gets caught with their pants down reasoned themselves into their compromised lifestyle by thinking that the great project they are undertaking (be it a creative thing like a film, a political thing like a tea party, or simply the accumulation of ungodly riches), justifies them becoming a bad person. The people in the news this week are bad people. Let us be honest.

For the Christian, the means is always love. The end is that our lives be worthy of God's grace. Paul says, “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (I Thessalonians 2:11-12). My parents always encouraged me to be a good person. It is job one. You may strive for great things in this world, but job one is being good.

Sunday, November 5, 2017
Pentecost 26
All Saints Day

Finding Meaning

I have always appreciated Psalm 90, even when I was young and thought the three score and ten endpoint for a standard life to be incredibly far away (Psalm 90:10 KJV). This is one of the few passages of the Bible that justifies keeping a King James Version on your computer. Read aloud, it is sonorous, and justifiably long because of its depth. It doesn’t deserve to be abbreviated by the lectionary or Powerpoint bound preachers, for it speaks to the big question; the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

How can my life have meaning? (and the related question, How can I stop sweating the small stuff?) By viewing it in the context of the eternal. In weekly worship our thoughts are made to return to the one who was before the mountains were born. We wrap our souls in His eternity. (insert blank powerpoint slide here and pause for thirty seconds).

The payoff for taking this psalm slow is found in the last verse, where we forsake lesser translations and find beauty and a firm foundation:
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands for us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands. (90:17)

What we really want and find for the our joy of life, is having what we do matter. I don’t want fame or royalties from my writing, so much as, the sense that I have spoken the truth. That for those who read me, what I have written matters. In every occupation, and even in retirement, there is a quest for meaning.

Sunday, October 29, 2017
Pentecost 25

Paying Taxes

Which is harder? Giving to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, or giving to God the things that belong to God? Until recently, I thought it easy to list the things that belong to Caesar, or in my case, the United States. They are things like paying taxes and… Wait a minute. We now have a president who has taken pride in the fact that he has avoided paying taxes. In Jesus’ day, the tax structure was even more whimsical and unfair than our current one. Rich people paid bribes to avoid higher taxes. This was considered smart, but Jesus was blunt. Simply give to the government your taxes. Being fixated on lowering your tax rate or what deductions you can claim should never distract you from your real debt, which is to God.

Jesus was asked about taxes (Matthew 22:15-22) while he was teaching in the temple during his last week on earth. He knew that his time was short and that his real listeners wanted spiritual truth. We are told that when the Pharisees came to ask Jesus about taxes, he saw through them. He knew that they intended to trap him. For the Pharisees, money was an important thing. Giving it away to Rome, offended them. Not because Rome had stolen their nation’s freedom, but because they wanted to keep the money for themselves. They looked at their tax form and saw themselves as losers. They didn’t see the roads, civic buildings, and financial gains that Roman rule had brought to what was just a hundred years before this, a very backwoods part of the world. When we give our coin to Caesar today, we rarely see social good. A larger portion of our taxes go to that today, than what they did in Jesus’ day.

Sunday, October 22, 2017
Pentecost 24

Character Matters

I like to be the critic. People from time to time will give a list. They will say, “here are the three things you need to know before you set up a blog,” or, “here are ten things I hate about the Patriots.” Paul gives us that kind of list in Philippians 4:8. Being the critic, I ask, is he choosing the right things when he says, “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Here is the top 8 things you should think about: 1) truth 2) honor 3) justice 4) purity 5) being pleasing to God 6) earning the respect of others (commendable) 7) exampling excellence 8) being worshipful (my translation) Why eight, not seven or ten? 2), 6), and 8), are a bit too similar. What about simplicity or charity? That Blogger Paul, he’s a real amateur. But here I miss the point. Paul is saying that Christian character matters. We develop character by focusing on the right things. By setting our minds on always being truthful, just, and excellent in our dealings with others. At the end of the day we evaluate ourselves by how well our behavior has matched the character we hope to develop in ourselves. Today it has become common to make Christianity all about the doctrine. The great theologian Paul, says that character is what really matters. What do you think? More importantly, how do you act?
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Pentecost 19

Take Two Tablets

Whenever I think about the ten commandments, I always picture Moses with two stone tablets in his hands. Traditionally, commandments are shown with numbers one through four on the first tablet, six through ten fit on page two. Newspaper people speak of putting some articles above the fold, and others below it. The above fold commandments deal with how Jewish, Christian, and Moslem people show respect to the God of Moses. The people whose faith harkens back to Mount Sinai (Moslem, Christian, or Jew), honor our God by: 1) Having only one God (Exodus 20:3 - Monotheism) 2) Not worshiping idols (Exodus 20:4) 3) Not using the name of God as a magic spell, or as a way of claiming that we are telling the truth (Exodus 20:7 swearing in God’s Name) 4) Taking a day each week for rest, recreation, and worship (Exodus 20:8 Sabbath) These four commands are important to those of us who are anywhere in the broad traditions of Christianity (whether orthodox, Catholic, Quaker, Mormon, etc.), or Judaism (orthodox, reformed, Hasidic, etc.), or Islamic (Shite, Sunni, Sufi, etc). This is well over half of the people who practice religion on this planet. But, and this is a big BUT, these four commandments do not apply to anyone outside of the above traditions. Sorry. It only would confuse a Hindu for them to try to keep commandment number one. A secular, but patriotic, person who worships the American flag will find it difficult to have no idols. Those who religiously follow their horoscopes will wonder why we have a command dealing with magic. Unfortunately, most Christians entirely ignore commandment number four, dealing with not working on the Sabbath.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Pentecost 22

Question Authority?

We all have complicated a relationship with those who have authority over us. Some of us immediately comply to whatever our boss orders. Others of us have learned to walk the fine line between healthy insubordination and being fired. Some of us take whatever medicine we are prescribed, without question, because we assume physicians to be authorities on our medical conditions. Others of us, double-check every pill on the web. Some people believe whatever their pastor says about the Bible, others have their own interpretation. Jesus gets asked the authority question. In Matthew 21:21, the temple authorities ask him how he came to be an authority on religious practice.

Jesus’ response is illuminating. He pointed to John the Baptist, an un-credentialed peasant prophet. Until his death, John had been speaking out against the religious authorities and politicians of his day. Many people came to believe John to be a better expert on spiritual things than the priests and scholars of Jerusalem. They came out to the wilderness to hear John teach. They applauded John when he denounced Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife. When John was beheaded for questioning the authority of the government (or was it for taking a knee during the National Anthem?) the priests and Pharisees thought that he got what he deserved. Jesus had good reason to be wary of those in authority over him.

How do we know if an authority figure is worthy of our compliance?

Sunday, October 1, 2017
Pentecost 21

Will Work for Love

We have a family member who inserts into every conversation some reference as to how hard she’s working, how under appreciated she is, and/or how much she is doing for the family. We call her the martyr. In this world, her clones are legion. Jesus tells a story that is incomprehensible to anyone afflicted with her condition (Matthew 20:1-16). It deals with a vineyard owner who hires five groups of day-laborers throughout a one hot September day. The first group worked from 7 am to 7 pm, the second from 9 am to 7 pm, the third slept in that morning but got hired to work noon to 7. Needing to get his harvest in, he hired a few more layabouts to join the crew at 3 pm and a final group of workers at 5 pm. This last group of workers only put in two hours in the cool of the evening. Even though the five groups did differing amounts of work, the vineyard owner decides to pay them all the same. What! Don’t we get more for working harder? Not in Jesus’ story. Jesus implies that God doesn’t reward us for how much work we do.

This story reminds me of the Bible duo Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Remember? Martha works all day to serve Jesus a dozen dishes at a meal, Mary avoids the heat of the kitchen and sits at his feet. Jesus says that Mary did okay. Every time that story is told, a dozen martyrdom Martha’s get angry and complain.

Here’s the truth. Deal with it:

God isn’t interested in how hard we work, but in how compassionate we are.

Sunday, September 24, 2017
Pentecost 20

Careful who you call 'Stupid'

There is one thing that I am slow to forgive in this world, that is stupidity. The other day, I’m doing fifty on a crowded, known to be dangerous, stretch of Pittsburgh highway, when a motorcyclist flies by my right side, driving in the breakdown lane. I lay on my horn and call him an idiot. Then it hit me. I have done stupider things. Further, my anger was probably not related to my concern for his safety, but the competitive spirit that fuels road rage.

The mental process that forgives us our own stupidity, while holding others fully accountable is deeply rooted. We want to be right. We’d rather be right — especially concerning whatever is on our plate right now — than be happy. The best way to have ourselves be always right, is to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves. Once we are accustomed to being always superior, it is easy to become consistently unforgiving.

Sunday, September 17, 2017
Pentecost 19

Passover in September?

Because it follows the Exodus story, the Lectionary tells us about Passover just after Labor Day. This seems strange, because this Jewish feast always falls in early spring, often near our Easter. What God tells Moses to do here is a ritual. Many of us flee from ritual. When people do a passover meal, they sometimes call it a “Seder,” which means an order of service or a ritual. God speaks through Moses, saying, do this and you shall live. God is serious about this and Moses must have been persuasive. How else would he get people to splash blood upon the door posts of their house? In some ways, doing ritual is our downpayment on spiritual change. We pray to be made different people. But nothing changes until we make some outward sign of commitment. So a couple wants to change and become more serious about their relationship. He buys her an engagement ring. They set a date. These are ritual things. Let’s sat you want to lose weight. You can wish and hope. Most people find that going down and actually plunking money down as a deposit on having a coach or a weight loss program and clearing your calendar so that you actually are committed to go running at 6am… I’m not endorsing any of this, I’m just saying that these are the kind of things one does. In the Bible, ritual is tied to real sacrifice. This is something you commit yourself to doing, even when it is easier to stay in bed. This is something you do even when it is expensive (Passover lamb wasn’t cheap for the people in Egypt).
Sunday, September 10, 2017
Pentecost 18

Moses and the Second Midlife

Have you ever noticed that Moses’ life was divided into equal thirds — each lasting 40 years. In the first third he was the adopted child of the Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt. We can imagine Moses growing up in the competitive world of the palace. If you asked him what he wanted, more than anything else, I bet Moses would say that he wished to be successful. Many young adults today are driven by the need to be successful. They want to succeed at work, marry the best spouse, and achieve great things before they are 40.

Moses turns 40. We don’t know if he feels like he has achieved his goal. But, one day he sees an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses goes ballistic and kills the Egyptian. Now he’s a fugitive. He goes out into the desert, marries a woman named Zippy, and learns to herd sheep. He herds sheep for the next 40 years. Now ask Moses during this time what he wants from life more than anything else, he’d say he wants security. Now let me ask you — you don’t have to raise your hand — how many of you have noticed that when you shifted from being a young adult to being a more mature adult, that you found yourself looking to play things safe? Wild life is out. Security is in.

Then one day Moses sees a burning bush. At the burning bush, God calls him to leave his security focused life aside. God puts Moses on a new path. The word that describes this new path is significance.

Sunday, September 3, 2017
Pentecost 17
Labor Day Weekend

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