Archive for March 2016

John 20:19-31
1 Corinthians 4:1

One of my favorite paintings is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.”  Thomas is shown sticking his finger fully into the risen Christ’s side. You look closely at the painting (if you dare) and the finger is literally under a flap of Jesus’ skin. But, what I have sometimes failed to see because I am intrigued by Jesus willingness to be examined, is that two other disciples are leaning in, watching what Thomas is doing. Perhaps they, too, have incredulity.

 

That word, incredulity, is well chosen for the painting. We rarely use the word today. Instead we often say that a situation is “incredible,” that is, the thing itself lacks believability. It has a credibility problem. This can be said about a book by Steven King or a movie about Harry Potter. The work has a problem. We don’t trust it. Fiction is supposed to be credible. It is enough to make an author pull his hair out!

 

The word, incredulity, puts the shoe back on the right foot. Thomas and the others have a problem. They are not capable of accepting the mystery of the Risen Christ. They dismiss its joy, the way we often fail to allow ourselves the luxury of immersing ourselves in a good book or movie.

 

Easter afternoon, my wife insisted that we all go out to a movie to relax. We saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Rope.” No, it wasn’t a modern day thriller, like Fast and Furious 14, where you are expected to believe that Vin Diesel can drive his car out of the 30th floor of one building and land safely on the 27th floor of the adjacent skyscraper. No, Hitchcock simply required us to believe that a locked trunk with a body in it could sit in the middle of a room with a dinner party going on all around it without anyone being curious enough to open the trunk. 

 

So Jesus comes into a dinner party filled with people who just saw his dead body being placed in a tomb. Isn’t anyone there going to be curious enough to go over and stick his finger into Jesus’ wounded side. But wait. Its not just a book or a movie that the disciples are finding themselves having a hard time believing. It is instead, the mystery of life, and death, and God, and our hopes to see our loved ones again after we go, and yes, our incredulity that we ourselves might enjoy a life after we die. Admit it, didn’t you have an incredulity problem this past week. Haven’t you had doubts? I’m asking you to own a really big problem. We all have a certain willingness to suspend belief for a little bit and enter into the world of Harry Potter or Alfred Hitchcock. But we all have an incredulity problem when it comes to living our lives trusting in the Risen Christ and our hope of a world to come.

 

Last week, I heard someone say, “We clergy are not explainers of mysteries. We are stewards of mysteries.”  (see I Corinthians 4:1) We have been trusted by Christ to stick our fingers into his side. We have also been trusted by God to say to the world around us, “I believe in the most wonderful thing. I can not explain this mystery — but, there is life beyond the grave.” 

Easter 2
Sunday, April 3, 2016
Are you willing to stick your finger in and believe?
Gladiators, not Politicians, should fight in the arena

Being a Cleveland Cavs fan by marriage, I was intrigued to learn that the Republican convention will be held in their basketball court. Somehow the wood floor that hosts hundreds of hours each year of elbows, shoving, and intentional fouling, will be covered over so that neat rows of chairs and a podium may exist in the midst of the arena. If the Republicans have a contested convention, some are promising that there will be more blood sport happening that week than what even the NBA allows. I pray not. Politics, like religion, should not be a competitive enterprise. Nor should the quest for entertainment drain our contests of their intended purpose.

 

In the church, we should be careful to limit competition to the annual picnic’s egg-toss. When there is a contest between competing visions, leadership, or policies, the focus should be upon building consensus and hearing the concerns of those to meek to lift up their voice.  The purpose of politics is not to give entertainers another stage to strut upon. Similarly, the purpose of our church meetings is not to give competitive individuals another arena in which to one-up their neighbors.

 

Church life is not a chess game, where we silently consider our strategies knowing that every move that benefits me costs my opponent something. The church is organic, a wholistic enterprise that only remains alive through cooperation. Even the most aggressive of her early leaders used the language of competition only to speak of how he disciplined his personal life. Regarding the life of the church, he said:

 

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with [Christ’s church]… and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 

  (I Corinthians 12:12, 23-27)

Psalm 118
John 12, Luke 19:28-40

It is hard to celebrate Palm Sunday, and read Psalm 118, with today’s newspaper in your hand without reflecting upon the term outsider. The stone which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone. Is this being said about Jesus, Christopher Columbus, or Donald Trump? You form a mental picture of Jesus leading his noisy throng up to the gates of Jerusalem. The religious and political leadership of the nation is standing on a parapet high above, and crying out for someone to bar the door. Now shift the mental picture and see the towering glass building of Wall Street, and dodging the yellow cabs below is a parade of Bernie Sanders supporters, shouting about breaking up the big banks and raising the minimum wage to $15. Perhaps we need to step aside from Palm Sunday a moment and consider the role of an outsider, both for our personal religious journey, and for our common good.

 

First, real outsiders are vetted by a wilderness experience.  They come into the political or social arena from another place — a place where they rub shoulders with those that they are called to represent. Moses did not go directly from Pharaoh’s nursery to the burning bush. Instead, he lived on the lam in Midian for forty years, herding sheep. Gandhi left India as a young man to study law in England. The prejudice that he experienced there, as well as later in South Africa, formed the wilderness training which enabled him to be an outsider for his own people. I know of no example of an outsider for good, that didn’t first have to journey into the wilderness where they have nowhere to lay their head. But history is full of bad outsiders — the Hitlers of our era and the Zealots of Jesus’, that knew how to stir populist rebellions and fan the hopes of those who wish to return to a simpler past. 

 

Second, when we follow an outsider we will inevitably be led to a cross. This isn’t always a bad thing. One cannot scramble an egg without breaking its shell. Moses had to unleash his plagues. On Palm Sunday, Jesus spoke not just of his cross, but of a natural rule that applied to all who follow an outsider, that unless a seed dies — gives up the security of being simply what it has always been — it cannot spring into a growing living thing. And further, that if we want eternal life, we have to loosen our grip on this mundane life (John 12:23-24). We hold onto our establishment people and familiar rituals too long. We all need an outsider. We better be careful to choose a good one. Whichever one we choose, though, we will be led to a cross.

Palm Sunday
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
When outsiders become too popular, they become insiders
Rosa Parks for President

I saw a photo of Rosa Parks in a display for International Woman’s Day and thought of the qualities that made her a great leader. We know now that she developed gradually into her role, attending workshops and reflecting carefully about the problem of segregation and how to effectively demonstrate in opposition to it, long before she refused to give up her bus seat on December 1st, 1955. Though she was always clear that “she was tired of giving in” — not physically tired — her demeanor and method of protest fostered sympathy and a consideration of our shared humanity, even among her opponents. Further, she was willing to utilize her strengths as an introvert.  Her whole life exampled dogged determination, as well as, a willingness to let others take the spotlight. Notably, she teamed up with Martin Luther King and complimented his more outgoing leadership gifts.

Lao Tzu writes:

A leader is best

When people barely know they exist

Of a good leader, who talks little,

When his or her work is done, the aim fulfilled,

The whole community will say, “We did this ourselves.”

additional author: 
International Women's Day
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126

There is a wonderful refrain in Isaiah 43, “I will make [for you], a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”  This is the promise that God gives to us just before we launch into a new adventure. This is the promise that we hear just before something traumatic upsets the fruit basket of our lives. It’s Lent and the disciples are following Jesus towards Jerusalem. Things are about to get interesting. For the last three years, the Jesus movement has been enjoying the quiet hills of  Galilee and steadily growing as people come out for picnics with the greatest story teller that ever lived. Now Jesus says that we are going to where he will be betrayed into the hands of angry men and crucified. Trauma. And after trauma, wilderness. When it happens to us, can we remember the promise about streams in the desert? 

 

Life has three phases; growth, maintenance, and wilderness; which one are you in now? Note that trauma often accompanies the shift from one phase to another in life. Boom! We are born. That was pretty traumatic. But, it led to a long phase of growth for us as individuals. Then boom, a trauma, such as going off to war or getting married. Often we move right from growth to wilderness. Sometimes, though, we have a long phase in which we do our career or maintain things on an even keel. Then Jesus says, I’d like to do Jerusalem for the holidays, where I will be betrayed and handed… Boom. Trauma. Could be cancer. Could be the loss of one’s job. On the Saturday after the crucifixion, did the disciples remember the promise that God will provide a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert? Will we?

 

If you want to see more on Wilderness as expressed in Psalm 126, see http://billkemp.info/content/past-present-and-future

Lent 4
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Winter is also a form of Wilderness
How valued are the people in your pews?

Bill Easum recently wrote that the pastors who serve churches that have no hope of growth are wasting their time. This sentiment, often repeated by bishops and leaders who should know better, reminds me of Simon Newman, the college president who urged his staff to "drown them bunnies" when they were dealing with a student who may not make it all the way to their four year degree. The assumption of the college president was that his school existed to profitably collect four years of tuition and maintain an excellent rating with their accreditation agency. Those of us who look for a college education to broaden a person’s life, even if that person doesn’t complete their degree, will find little common ground with Newman. Similarly, I happen to believe that congregations have a higher purpose than longevity or institutional growth.

  

There is something repulsive about the whole exercise of clergy passing judgement on congregations and basing that judgement solely on whether or not a situation can sustain a full-time, ordained, pastor.  I have served situations of various sizes and been the elder in charge of group ministries that involve various clergy categories. I am convinced that vitality can be maintained in situations with limited resources, if the supervising elder is willing to be creative and employ trained laity. Each of the situations that I served were "of God" and remained a part of His overall plan of salvation, even when they weren’t growing. Further, local churches are instruments of a mysterious grace, even when they are ineffective or in the final decade of their lifespan. 

 

Easum’s point about the clergy who feel that they are wasting their time serving certain churches says more about how some have lost their servant’s heart than about the loss of sustainable ministry in poorer rural and inner city situations. Three of these small membership churches that I served, closed some years later (I don't think I had anything to do with it). If the Lord tarries, all of the churches that we serve will eventually close. I reflect back on Winterport UMC (Maine Conference), Prouty UMC (Central PA conference), and Fellowship UMC (Western PA conference) and see them now as instruments of God's Holy Spirit. I cherish their memories as one would a departed loved one. No, my service with them was not a waste. It was an honor. I am humbled.

Luke 15:11-32
Psalm 32

Let’s talk about sin. When the wayward youth in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son takes the money and runs, he sins in three ways: first against the mores of his village and second against his parents, that is, the relationship that he was commanded by God when He spoke through Moses saying, “Honor you father and your mother.” Regarding these first two sins, Jesus would be the first to grant a deferment to the youth if the reason for his trip was to fulfill his inner calling or to come and be a disciple of the Lord. But alas, the kid only wanted to get away to chase fast women and drink sloe gin. The third sin committed that day is one that Jesus never grants us a deferment from; the calling to be compassionate to my neighbor. Young people grow into an ever widening circle of people for whom they must show love and compassion. First it is their siblings and parents, then their playmates, then the people at school, especially those who are being bullied or ostracized. As we enter into adulthood, our calling to compassion must extend to those who are poor, or subject to abuse. The circle widens out, as it becomes for us sin to exclude those who come to our shores because of famine, persecution, or conflict in another land. Jesus challenges us to love even our enemy. To do less, is sin.

 

For each of these three sins, the boy receives appropriate punishment. First, the laws of our state and the customs of this youth’s village have been accumulated through the practical experience of the community. The Palestinian village of the prodigal son knew through experience that a windfall of money shouldn’t be given to an immature person. Nor should one travel or enter into business without making plans. We have banking laws and requirements that people obtain visas and vaccinations. Our laws are probably no better than the customs of his village, but they are better than nothing. The boy soon falls prey to the natural punishments that whack the foolish and the unlawful. Psalm 32 says, “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.”

 

The second form of sin, however, does not relate to the blunt rebuke of the physical world (as in the hangovers one receives from too much gin) or the imperfect laws of society (which often locks up the innocent). It relates to the ought-ness of family relationship. We ought to love our spouse and those in our immediate family, even when they bring pain into our lives. It is hard to make much progress in the rest of life, or spiritually, until we resolve to the best of our ability, the relationships we have with those nearest to us. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we each have a Kansas of the heart. Here the prodigal son may have had the most justification to break God’s laws. Here he is most subtly and completely punished. Strangers treat him worse than his family ever did. Yet when he does return, he receives grace upon grace. 

 

The above two sins are, as mentioned before, the ones where our actual experiences on earth vary the most from the perfection that we will know in the world to come. Sometimes people who break all the laws become rich and run for president. Sometimes we find a peace out in the world that eludes us back home. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

 

About the third sin, earth offers no escape and heaven no place to hide. If we fail to develop ever-widening circles of compassion as we mature, then we will become narrow and bitter people. If we fail to love, we will die alone; and according to my theology, live on beyond death in the torment of regret.

Lent 4
Sunday, March 6, 2016
Punishment often fails to relate to sin