Archive for 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

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.

John Doe, like most of us, views life as a series of good and bad decisions. You get into heaven if the you put all these choices on a scale and the balance tips, ever so slightly towards good. No! Or, you squeeze in if you happen to be doing something good when you die; like texting ‘I love you’ to your kids. Don’t count on it. Or, you get in if you are a member of the right church and believe the right things. Nice try.

I read Jesus this way. The direction of our hearts, is formed early in life. If our nature is to compete, be cruel, and take advantage of others, then be aware that Judgement Day is coming. The time is short for you to repent. Come to Jesus and he will give you a new heart, as well as, accept you into his kingdom. If you have a good heart, or if you aren’t sure, then come to Jesus and he will give you the Holy Spirit and teach you how to live a compassionate life.

If you, or the John Doe you live with, are still having a problem knowing where you will stand in the Judgement, then ask yourself these questions:
1 Are you spiritually awake?  Yes or No (don’t say maybe)
2 Are you willing to risk everything in order to do the one thing God has called (or made) you to do?
3 Do you live compassionately in this world, disregarding any payback or reward for being nice?

Also see: http://billkemp.info/content/final-lecture

Pentecost 34
Christ the King Sunday
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Sheep & Goats are as different as today's mini-coopers and the classics
Abuse of power lies behind: domestic violence, sex trade, lack of political integrity
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.
additional author: 
Jimmy Carter
Judges 4:1-21
Matthew 25:14-30

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?

So think of a story from today’s newspapers where someone has underestimated the capacity of fate or justice to catch up with their crimes. Multiply that times a 1,000. Think of someone from your own family who you know has great potential, but they keep underestimating themselves. Think of your own life. Weigh your own excuses. How many of them are dependent upon underestimating God?

Pentecost 24
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Be sure and read Judges 4 all the way to verse 21
Amos 5:18-24

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.

Finally, in many states, including Pennsylvania, judges are being asked to step in and undo the mess that has been created by our partisan politics, especially as it relates to gerrymandering, campaign contributions, and the trolling of our social media. If these judges lack courage, or are swayed by their political backers, our whole democracy may be lost.

Justice matters. Not only to us, but to God. God inspired Amos to write:
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The context is Amos 5:18-24, where God is criticizing the way his people practice religion. He says they fill the offering plate with their tithes and they have great church festivals, but they don’t do justice. They don’t go out into the street and try to make their country a better place. They don’t get involved with the real politics of making our society more just for everyone.

Amos is irretrievably political. Even though Amos presents himself as a mere fig farmer, his message concerns the great political and economic forces of his day. He presents himself as an example of how God can use insignificant people to speak a word to the rich and powerful. He would be appalled at the way church today avoids discussing hot topics: LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, universal healthcare, criminal justice reform, gun control, climate change, refugee resettlement, immigration, etc. Strip away social justice concerns from Amos, and you are left with a couple good one liners that carry none of the fire that inspired a simple dresser of vines to step out into the public arena. Strip away from the Bible the urgent call to work to transform our community for good, to do justice, to stand with the poor, and to be a bulwark against oppression, and you are left with the fuzzy impression that shepherds are nice people, and in America, all good boys do fine.

Pentecost 27
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Martin Luther King memorial reminds us that the long march goes on.
Boomers, Busters, Millennials - all predicted
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. See David Kaiser’s article in Time http://time.com/4575780/stephen-bannon-fourth-turning/
additional author: 
Time Magazine
Podcast: The art of Manliness
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

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.

Pentecost 26
All Saints Day
Sunday, November 5, 2017
Powerful people often use religion to justify their misbehavior
Psalm 90:1-17

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.

Pentecost 25
Sunday, October 29, 2017
Mountains often call us to contemplate the eternal
Matthew 22:15-22

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.

I’m sure that Jesus saw the Pharisees question a distraction. We continue to do everything we can to avoid hearing what Jesus came to say. We want to focus on the coins we owe to Caesar. Speak of distractions, do football players owe the government or the NFL league a minute of standing at attention before the game? We get focused on what everybody owes their government and miss the fact that the whole Sunday football thing is a distraction from worship. We constantly use sports metaphors to express the Gospel, never pausing to think that rooting for our modern day gladiators to bang their heads together and get brain trauma, may be the opposite of what Jesus was advocating. Jesus advocated justice, compassion, and financial simplicity. If having someone take a knee reminds us that there is still a battle for social justice and racial equality that needs to be fought, then excuse me for distracting you from the game.

Pentecost 24
Sunday, October 22, 2017
If you think taking a knew is distracting, Jesus took a whip
Philippians 4:1-9
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?
Pentecost 19
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Pandita Ramabai - a christian/hindu change agent with character
Exodus 20:1-17
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. Before we go hanging these ten commandments in our courthouses, we best understand them. God did not tell Moses to go back to Egypt and make the worshipers of Osiris and Nut to obey these new rules. It would be like asking the average American to learn the rules of cricket. If someone is of another religious tradition, we shouldn’t go shoving the first stone tablet down their throats. God always takes us where we are, and then teaches us what we need to know next. Those of us who think of ourselves as Christians need to know our ten commandments better. Before we go forcing them on anyone else, we first need to look at how we keep the Sabbath holy. Do we idolize things or people that we shouldn’t? Do we have another god in our lives, whether it be alcohol, pornography, or political polarity? The other six commandments belong to the world. It is hard to imagine a civil society without rules against murder, stealing, and lying. The last commandment, the one about coveting, is radically un-American. I think this is Jesus’ favorite commandment. Grasping the danger of consumerism can transform your life. What would happen if we each tried to live without coveting? Who would buy all the cars and lottery tickets? Madison Avenue would go bust. So go below the fold, or on to page two, when you talk about the ten commandments with your unchurched friends. Hang 6 through 10 on the courthouse wall. But take 1 through 4 personally.
Pentecost 22
Sunday, October 8, 2017
The goal is to practice all 10 ourselves, and share #6 through #10
Matthew 21:23-32

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?

I think there are three rules:
1) Does what the authority figure ask of me prevent me from living a life of compassion? My highest calling is to show the world the love of Christ. If what the authority says or tweets prevents that, then he or she is a barking dog.
2) Is the authority well informed and do they invite me to check their sources for my self? In today’s internet age there is no excuse for our not fact-checking our authorities. When authorities propagate falsehoods, they should be denounced.
3) Is the authority figure a willing participant of a healthy process? For politicians in American, the process involves a deep respect for the constitution as a living document. For your workplace the process involves building corporate value by meeting customer needs. If your boss wants you to screw the customer over, they are short-sighted and evil. Christian pastors live within the dual confines of scriptural interpretation and their denomination’s process for decision making. For all of the above, the ends never justify the means.

Pentecost 21
Sunday, October 1, 2017
Christ was arrested for refusing to bow to certain authorities
Matthew 20:1-16
Luke 10:38-42

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.

Pentecost 20
Sunday, September 24, 2017
Laborers earn their pay. Pay is not love.
Matthew 18:21-35

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.

Jesus tells a story. In it a man owes a huge amount on his credit card. (I know, I always consider such people to be really stupid. I only owe… ) He calls the bank, pleads his case. Tells the manager that if he is forced to pay he’ll lose his home, and the handicapped child (which he doesn’t have) will be forced to live on the street. The bank forgives his great credit card debt. (this is one of Jesus’ miracle stories) This same man, that very afternoon, runs into a co-worker who owes him for a bet he lost on the Super Bowl. (I always consider people who bet money on sports to be idiots) The man tells his coworker that he must pay up immediately with interest, or else the boss will find out how stupidly this coworker does his job. The people in the surrounding cubicles hear the exchange and go to the boss and tell how the man with the credit card debt regularly pilfers from the coffee donation jar. Careful who you call stupid. (see Matthew 18:21-35)

Extra credit: What happens when we call a person we used to respect, stupid? Have they changed? Or have we simply gone one step further in our need to consider ourselves superior?

Pentecost 19
Sunday, September 17, 2017
When we stop admiring someone, they may not have changed...
Exodus 12:1-14
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). Passover became the central ritual for the God’s people for over 1200 years and continues to be the mark of an observant Jewish family today. Jesus transformed the Passover Seder into communion. In church language, communion is an “ordinance,” something you are commanded to do. It is ritual. It also points to the other rituals that are our downpayment on a spiritual life: 1) Weekly Sabbath - the actual laying aside the normal things that we do; checking email, Facebook posting, presidential tweeting, running amok at the mall, our job. Families and couples should discuss together how they will observe the sabbath and make it a holy time each week. It is traditional to take on something, like visiting those who are shut in, an act of charity, doing a puzzle or cooking a meal together. 2) Study - spiritual reading and prayer time need to be ritually scheduled into your week. 3) Getting out of town - we need rituals where we break the hold that our day to day routine has on us. 4) Other?
Pentecost 18
Sunday, September 10, 2017
Fall is when we really need to set aside time for God
Exodus 3:5-12a

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.

What you need to realize is that this transition from wanting security to wanting to do significant things for God is the 2nd Midlife. Think about your life. Where are you?
Are you seeking success?
Are you trying to find some measure of security and to just get people to stop bothering you?
Or have you had a burning bush experience where you want nothing else from life than to do something significant for God? (Note. Moses was 80 years old when this happens)

Now are you ready for your second Midlife?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it this way: (Aurora Leigh )
Earth is crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries

Pentecost 17
Labor Day Weekend
Sunday, September 3, 2017
From my workshop and book: Finding Shalom
Exodus 1:8-2:10

Most of us have experienced about 1% of Exodus 1:8. We go to work and the person who supervises us changes. Suddenly we have a new boss who doesn’t know how loyal, trustworthy, and super we’ve been. They patronize us. They fail us. They give the good tasks to their friends and don’t give us the review that we need to be promoted. A bad boss is a pain. Some of you have lost a good neighbor and had the house next door bought by people who live like animals. A bad neighbor is a hassle. A bad king or pharaoh or president, however, is a humanitarian disaster. Think of the Hindenburg Zeppelin — “Oh, the humanity!”

Read Exodus 1:8, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

This is how a tragedy begins. Someone has your fate in their hands who doesn’t know you. It can be a new boss, a new neighbor, a new king. They remove the kindness you had come to expect from life. If they are your boss, there may be financial consequences. If they are your neighbor, you might lose sleep, step in dog poo as you get your morning paper, and begin to be concerned for your children’s safety. None of this compares to the problems that arise when the person who rules your land has forgotten the principles of Shalom.

Shalom is the peace, healing, and prosperity that God wishes to bring to every person on this planet. Shalom, often simply translated as peace, appears throughout the Bible. It is often paired with Justice, which is God’s commitment that every person be treated fairly. Human laws can be good or bad, but the divine purpose of human authority is to insure that every person is treated fairly, that no people group or race is disparaged, and that no one is denied life or liberty without due process.

Shalom and Justice should not depend upon who you know. It should not depend upon your financial status, your zip code, your religion, or the color of your skin. It should not be tied to a person being part of the majority class. It should not be denied to a people when they become more numerous than the people who used to be in charge.

This is what happens to the Hebrew people when they are in Egypt. A king ends up on the throne who doesn’t know their history or the relationship that they have with the God of all peoples. He surrounds himself with bigots. He maintains his base by stoking the fears of the mob. To the proto-white supremacists of upper Egypt he says, “Look at those *&%$*&. They are becoming more numerous than we are. They even had a friend in the Pharaoh on the throne before me. What will become of us if we let them become fully a part of our country?” (Exodus 1:9)

So what does Exodus 1:8 have to do with me? I think its important that we see how our own story fits into the story of others. The Hebrew people in Egypt are very different from us, and yet we have each experienced some of what they are going through. The nationalism and racism of ancient Egypt is still a problem in 21st century America. People do get oppressed. Historical monuments can be utilized as expressions of racial superiority. Mobs can be made to be afraid of peaceful people.
But also keep in mind, that God has a plan. He will raise up Moses for the Hebrew people, and leaders who believe in justice and shalom for our own time. It will be a struggle. God has his eye one a making it right in the end. His people will find shelter. His love will conquer all.

Whether you are dealing with a 1% problem person or a Hindenburg disaster this morning, take it to God. He will work his loving plan in your life.

Pentecost 16
Sunday, August 27, 2017
Monuments should honor those who love Justice & Shalom
Isaiah 56:1-8
Matthew 15:10-28

I don’t make this stuff up! The Common Lectionary - a decades old scripture chooser used by many pastors to keep them preaching the whole gospel - has four scriptures and a Psalm for August 20th; every one of these speak of God’s commitment to provide justice and mercy for all people. In Genesis 45, we read of a man who was once a slave and a prisoner becoming the hope and savior of people who once did him wrong. In Psalm 67, we read of how God judges all the people of the world with equity; his love is for every nation. In Romans 11, Paul explains that when God extends his grace to outsiders or a foreign people, he doesn’t diminish he love for those who knew him first. This is the same talk that parents give to their first born when they are expecting or planning to adopt another child. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has to address the Pharisees, whom he says are blind guides. What is the nature of their blindness? Not theology. But a commitment to racism, classism, and the practice of segregation.

If I were to preach in this post-Charlottesville week, I would find my text in Isaiah 56:1-8. I would use the whole text, and point out that like the Eunuchs of old, many who are single, divorced, transgendered, or gay, find themselves shunned today by our “family” oriented church. God says that he will give to such people special honor in his church (verse 5).

The scriptures speak about God’s commitment to Justice. I fear that few Americans think about that word as much as they should. Most people feel that justice is being done when their own property and personal security is being protected by the police and the courts. A few people extend this concept of justice to include honoring their ancestors, their history, their culture and class privileges. Some even march with torches proclaiming that it is time for us tip justice’s scales back towards white privilege. These definitions of justice are self-centered and unethical. Even people who don’t think of themselves as racist, can have a faulty definition of justice.

The justice that God speaks about in Isaiah is one where the rights of every person are protected. It expands the definition of neighbor to include the foreigner. It expands the definition of family to include those people of every race and nation on this planet. It links the doing of Justice with the showing of compassion.

When a community realizes that it has reserved a place of honor for a statue that represents the injustice of slavery, it needs to repent and reflect. It needs to consider what the presence of Robert E. Lee’s statue means to the descendants of former slaves. How can a community go forward in providing justice for all, if it gives a place of honor to a symbol of injustice?

When a statistical study shows that people of color are stopped, detained, and unjustly convicted at a higher rate in a particular city, is it not justice to find out why? When who gets hired and what they get paid for work depends upon being of the right race or gender, doesn’t justice need to be broadened to include our workplace? What about extending justice to housing and ending the segregation of our neighborhoods?

To make one’s definition of justice too small, is to make it wrong.

Pentecost 15
Sunday, August 20, 2017
Justice is an inconvenient goal
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The story of Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt begins by telling us that his father, Jacob, had just brought the family back into the southern region of what is today Israel. Geography is important, here. We have this typical family: father, two wives, two concubines, twelve sons, a couple of daughters, including Dinah who is in the kitchen with somebody, and a mess of sheep. Everybody crosses the Jordan River at night. They come across the border illegally, or at least in fear for their lives, because Uncle Esau plans to do them harm. Jordan at this point looks remarkably similar to the Rio Grande at El Paso.

It is important that you not think that I am importing today’s immigration debate into the Bible. Joseph’s story begins on this note because the people of God are constantly in motion. Some, like Jacob, Moses, Naomi, Elijah, Daniel, the baby Jesus, and the apostle John, leave their homeland as refugees. At the border, there is often tears. Exile is an common element in the biblical story. Compassion for pilgrims and travelers is foundational to biblical ethics. Those nativists, whether they wear white robe and burn crosses, or Armani suits, have not studied their Bible if they think possession is 9/10ths of God’s law.

Geography matters, but not in the way that you think it does. The promised land gets lost and found more times than my car keys. The people God loves are sent off to Egypt. They are imprisoned, like Joseph. Their children are put at risk. They are cut off from social services, like Moses was when he floated in a basket down the Nile. They often weep because their home has been destroyed, as Ezekiel’s companions did. They also learn new things, work hard, and become meaningful contributors to the new land they find themselves in. Joseph ended up saving the Egyptians from starvation. Think of Daniel in Babylon next time you hear some one say that immigration should be restricted to those who speak English good.

The theme that emerges from Joseph’s story, and our own, is that when we reach a place that we think is far from home, God does not forsake us. When we are in the pit. God is with us. When we have lost the place that we hoped to live in forever, God has a new life for us. We must work hard, learn new things, and seek to contribute to the new community we find ourselves in.

Pentecost 14
Sunday, August 13, 2017
Can you tell if this is the border of Texas or Israel?
Genesis 32:22-31

I can still remember my shock when my Old Testament professor called Jacob a coward. “Look at what he does,” Dr. Szikszai said. “He sends his wives and children across the river, giving them as slaves, to save his own miserable skin. He waits in the dark, trying to find a way to sneak away.” This is how one of my favorite Bible Stories begins. Jacob, like us, doesn’t have the courage to live the life he is called to live. God has to wrestle with him. God has to bring pain into his life, putting his hip out of joint. God has to leave him limping with broken-ness. Out of broken-ness comes transformation. A new name. Israel.

 

The other thing that Dr. Szikszai taught me thirty five years ago, was that the name Israel is a pun. God likes puns, the Bible is full of them. This one hinges on the vagueness of the Hebrew language concerning who is doing what for whom. Israel can mean, the one whom God fights for. Showing us that the special relationship we enjoy with our God means that we can depend upon His strength for our earthly battles. The other meaning, however, is just as likely. Jacob the trickster becomes branded as the one that God is constantly fighting with. Our souls are defined by the way we fight with God. Even the great patriarch Israel, fought tooth and nail against God’s will for his life. 

 

A lot could be said about Christian hubris. We are quick to say, “God is on our side.” We are slow to admit that we fight with spiritual doubt, our own lack of courage, and the great temptation to do things the most efficient way, instead of God’s way. Similarly, we rarely speak about the awesomeness of a God who will enter into our darkest night and bring meaning and hope to our lives. God is always with us.

 

Genesis 32 is near the middle of the Jacob/Israel story. Unfortunately, the lectionary moves us on to Joseph next week and most people lack the patience to trudge with Israel into midlife. The narrative, however, is rich and rewarding. Jacob/Israel is both a shining example of faith and a dismal failure. God grace shines through on every page, reminding us that He will never forsake us.

Pentecost 13
Sunday, August 6, 2017
The stuff of life (see chicken) float around as Jacob wrestles with God
Aversion Therapy in Clockwork Orange
Lately I have been struggling to understand the negative emotion, “aversion.” It is never helpful or right to react with our gut to the appearance or behavior of another person. Their choices may be wrong and their use of power unjust. But we must seek first to understand. We must mitigate evil when we can, but not to descend to name calling or shaming. Some of my Facebook friends express an aversion to Democrats, others towards leaders in the Republican party. The partisan affliction that divides our nation has taken up residence in our guts. So, how do I handle my gut reaction towards President Trump. How do I bring myself to a better place than my friends who felt a similar aversion to President Obama? I must intentionally seek for wisdom, understanding, and truth that can be verified. I must consider justice and compassion to be the right of all people. I must speak for the human family, rather than my party or clan. When a politician does something that demeans their office, then I am sad and aware that we will be hard pressed to trust the next person that occupies that office. I should keep silent, though, because my aversion only feeds the media frenzy. But, when a politician acts to hurt our democracy, our security, or the progress of human rights for all people, then I must protest as a Christian, a writer, and a citizen. For example, the Russia Investigation is not about who won the election. It is about our security and the continuance of our democracy. Mueller and those who act as prosecutors on our behalf must treat the Whitehouse fairly and without prejudice (aversion). Some of their witnesses, including President Trump, should be treated as hostile witnesses. There has already been enough smoke for us to suspect a fire. Proving it will take time. In the meantime, I continue to advocate wise policy choices, respect for all those in public service, and a long-term approach to politics.
Psalm 128

I have been thinking a lot about inner peace and happiness lately. Psalm 128 says that everyone who “fears the Lord” will be happy. In the context of the rest of the passage, I think the Hebrew word Shalom is more helpful here. It’s more permanent than happiness. It means real peace, as well as some other aspects of true happiness that we should focus on. But first, what about fearing God?

I thought fearing God was a no brainer until I considered the alternatives. There are those who are caught in addiction. The only way out is to walk a twelve step program which includes these two steps; 1) Admitted to ourselves that we are powerless over our addiction, and 2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. There are flaws in our character — dare I say sins? — that bind us to unhappiness. The only way out is to fear God and walk a path that is dependent upon our higher power.

The Hebrew word Shalom involves both inner and outer peace (see Psalm 128:6). Charity and justice are the pursuit of Shalom’s happiness through public service. Too often, however, the busy-ness of life forces us to lower our expectations. We seek for wholeness and settle for managed pain. We seek for God and settle for Likes on our Facebook page. We give up on real Shalom and attempt to grab fleeting happiness. God calls us back to the meaty things of life: compassion, mercy, justice, and being as generous as we can be to those in need.

Shalom and Psalm 128 also speak about the good life, having peace in our family and enough money to make it to the end of the month. We all struggle to pay the bills and keep our families secure. Our grandparents had a word for living peacefully within ones means. They called it providence and said it was a gift from God. Today, it is more fashionable to talk of luck. Our loss, for being lucky is not the same thing as being peaceful, living simply, or being honest with our soul.

Fearing God is not about making great sacrifices or attending church for hours on end. It is about walking our own recovery program, doing the good that we can do, and trusting in the providence of God.

Pentecost 12
Sunday, July 30, 2017
Shalom involves finding our own beauty
Psalm 139

Life is, in its simplest telling, a journey story. This is why our hearts are drawn to stories like the Hobbit, the Exodus, and Homer’s Odyssey. Psalm 139 tells us that the journey has purpose. It assures me that [God has] searched out my path and my lying down, and is acquainted with all my ways. Such knowledge is overwhelming.

As individuals on life’s journey we each have a unique calling or vocation (Latin word “vocare”). We soberly respond to God’s plan for our lives by doing things which make little sense without our faith in a transcendent component to life: some enter the military, others a monastery, many choose a career whose monetary rewards won’t match their sacrifice, most of us will still choose at to stand before an altar and promise lifelong fidelity to one partner. The fact that an increasing number of people are marrying multiple times doesn’t diminish the religious component of monogamy. Even young adults who are not religious will speak of seeking their “soul-mate.” The important thing to remember about vocare is not its various forms, but the one on one relationship with God that it implies. God intervenes in our life. He says, “I designed you for this.” We feel nudged.

Our faith provides our life with meaning, by stating that God has established both our beginning and our end, within his great loving plan. We as individuals have dignity. Spirituality is an unfolding process of discovering that the journey in between has both beauty and purpose. It all happens for a reason.

Pentecost 11
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Consider the opposite message from Psalm 139
Matthew 13:1-9

Imagine if I were to walk down the aisle of your church with a bag of M and Ms. Or if you prefer, Raisinets. Just like the sower in Jesus’ story, I throw the chocolate pellets out into the congregation. Some people would receive the treat eagerly. Others will let the candy just bounce right off of them.

Back in Bible times, farmers used to waste a lot of seed. It was called broadcast farming. Seed thrown everywhere, like M&Ms from a crazy preacher. I can’t begin to explain why they did it that way. I guess there are things that we do today that are just as crazy. Why do we watch hundreds of hours of TV for just a few moments of enjoyment? Why do we post hundreds of things to Facebook or Snap Chat or maintain a Twitter feed? It all seems pretty wasteful.

Is Jesus accusing God of being wasteful? I think this is one of the points of this story, God is not a fiscal conservative. He shares his wisdom into the world in a multitude of ways… but we are too busy answering our email to notice. He broadcasts his love day by day, but we are working too hard to notice. The Bible says, he sends rain upon the just and the unjust. In other words, he throws m&ms at people whom he knows will just let them bounce off. Why? Why does God allow himself to be rejected?

I like what Anne Dillard says about nature. She says, “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is…  Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.” I was in Cleveland last month and the walls of every building were coated with mayflies. These little creatures that swarm up out of the lake and then die a few days later. Such wastefulness.

Has nature been made in the image of God? Jesus likens God’s evangelism to a farmer who throws most of his seed away (Matthew 13:1-9). Some of the seed falls where there is a beaten path. The hard ground doesn’t let the seed in. This could represent the atheist. Or it could represent the person who is just pretends to be religious. It could even represent the person who is stingy and slow to share with others. Because, I believe that God is generous to the point of being wasteful, because he wants to teach us to be generous and abundant in our giving to, and our forgiveness of, others.

Sunday, July 16, 2017
Flowers and insects are far more beautiful than they need to be
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus breaks the rules. He comes from God like John the Baptist does, but he doesn't sit out in the wilderness eating locust and wearing wild animal skins. He is in the tradition of Isaiah and Moses, yet he doesn’t write long books or tote stone tablets with rules to learn. There are three rules that I have learned from watching Jesus:
1) Always be compassionate.
2) Awareness beats ignorance
3) The ends never justify the means (or always trust the process).

We use many rules each day to stay healthy. We brush our teeth religiously, schedule routine medical appointments, trim toenails, spray sunscreen, and perhaps, floss. Each of these has an embedded mental mantra. Just as we say to ourselves thirty days hath September, so we repeat trite rules to form virtuous habits. Yet, there is something in me that rebels against rules. To have physical health and spiritual shalom I need to intentionally embed a limited number of phrases into my subconscious. I need to make it a rule to keep certain rules.

The point of always be compassionate, is that shalom will lie, not in the place where others say that it is, but in the place our heart, that is fully invested in the rule, finds to be compassionate. So, the father in Jesus story about prodigals, is thought to be violating the rule of compassion towards the vegan village and the older brother when he kills the fatted calf for his lost son. But shalom favors this extravagant gesture of grace. Only when we have the first rule firmly embedded in our mind can we see this.

The point of awareness beats ignorance is to confound the authoritarian public institutions and workplace rules that discourage free thought. Shalom will not be found in a country where elected leaders meet in secret and pass legislations without the consent of the governed. Nor will shalom be found in an family system that keeps its legacy of addiction, abuse, and infidelity locked in a closet. The rules about secrecy aways need to be challenged.

The point of the final rule is speak about the relationship of well written rules and the processes that provide shalom for all. Consider how the democratic process in America functions within a framework of rules, which we know as the constitution. When Nixon obstructed justice following the Watergate break-in, he was setting aside the expected process for the public oversight of his office. He must have felt that the ends justified his means. They didn’t. Shalom could only be restored to Washington when the rules were elevated and shown to apply even to him.

In our individual lives there are also spiritual processes, such as the wilderness-transition process, which have their own rules. We, like Jesus, need to follow our rules in ways that are right for us, even when they cause others to question our sanity.

Pentecost 9
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Jesus broke rules of society in order to be compassionate
Genesis 22:1-14
Micah 6

Abraham, being an exemplar of faith, is quick to obey when he hears God calling him to sacrifice his son on a distant mountain (Genesis 22:1-19). This involves having the kid carry wood up to the summit, so that the old man can build an altar. The boy must then stand still, while ancient Abraham binds him to that altar. Then the boy will die and Abraham will go home to face Sarah. That is the plan. There isn’t a social service agency in the country that wouldn’t convict Abraham of child abuse for even considering it.
Traditionally, Christians have seen this story as an Old Testament precursor to Jesus’ death on the cross. The temple mountain in Jerusalem, where Jesus was bound and sacrificed, is thought to be the same mountain where Abraham brought his sacrifice. The question, “What do you do to please God?” hangs over both stories.
The shalom response to this question, however, is found at the end of the Old Testament in a minor prophet named Micah. He asks the question, “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Then considering everything his faith has taught him about finding shalom in each of the three circles of life, Micah rejects the traditional answers that link religion with sacrifice. He writes: 
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

I believe that the focus of our religion shouldn’t be on erasing our sins. It should instead be upon learning how to live with humility, mercy, and compassion. It should be on making the world a better place through acts of justice and ecological wisdom. We should be compassionate parents, rather than abusive ones. We should be day to day disciples of Jesus, loving people as he loved them. Our reading of scripture should teach us humility, rather than knowledge. Our joy should be in the diversity of God’s blessings, rather than the complexity of our interpretations. This thinking brought about a paradigm shift in how I read the Bible.

Pentecost 8
Sunday, July 2, 2017
Caravaggio's personal angst is seen in this painting
Sen Toomey locking 20K constituents out of his office

I want to thank the many Facebook friends who commented and shared by recent Facebook posts on why I, a conservative christian writer, am standing with PP against Trump-care. One of friends pushed back with a link to an organization that claims PP’s statistics are inflated and that they are only interested in providing more abortions. This bit of fake news was rebutted by the many women who shared personal stories of how they had been helped by Planned Parenthood, and even given the medical care that they needed to successfully become parents. It hit me as I scrolled through these comments that acts of genuine kindness are rarely reported because of privacy concerns. Stories need to be shared. Hope triumphs over hate.

I am a conservative Christian writer and a retired United Methodist minister. Recently I went downtown to join a protest and to stand with Planned Parenthood. Why?
1st) Because the time has come to separate our faith from our prejudices. Justice is a developing concept that God urges us to pursue. Amos chapter 5 is but one example of the Bible’s critique of those who do religion but don’t do compassion. Love is shown in the public arena by our interest in justice for all.
2nd) What we know of justice in America is determined by the consent of the governed and the appropriate judicial process. Reproductive rights and the fair treatment of the mentally ill has been understood as justice in our land since the 60s.
3rd) Democracy depends upon open debate, an informed electorate, and a transparent process. The current political climate is one where the ends (getting a Republican bill passed) justifies the means (secrecy, lies, extortion of moderate republicans by the alt-right).

4th) Healthcare should be universal, equitable, and affordable. The dozen white guys meeting behind close doors do not care about these things. They want to cut funding for medicaid which provides the basic safety net for our poor, especially in the rural areas. If you weren’t invited to the table, you probably are on the menu.

Planned Parenthood
Romans 6:1-11

The salvation of our souls is a process. Paul describes it this way, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). There is a death process, where we release our hold on the things of this world. There is also a mysterious life process, or resurrection. We have to trust that these two processes are linked. If we let go, we also take on. The dying can be an old selfish way of seeing the world. I might have been raised with racial stereotypes or with a competitive attitude about life. If I can let go, God has a process that will fill me with love for others.

I find myself thinking of a caterpillar spinning a cocoon and beginning their transition to butterfly-ness. The caterpillar has to trust the metamorphosis process. Why should he let go of his old life? He was happy feeding his face, munching across the magnolia leaf. Every butterfly that we encounter has made the same choice, to let go of their old life and trust the process. Do we have the courage of this little worm?

Often our default approach to life is to doubt and to be impatient. We know that there is a process for everyone to share the road. If we follow the traffic laws, we can arrive safely at our destination. Yet we speed. If we encounter a detour or construction, we swear. We start looking for ways to use parking lots and shoulder lanes to get ahead of everyone else. The opposite of trusting the process is to look for questionable ways to obtain our own ends. We break the rules. We circumvent processes put in place to help everyone.

Consider the Bible. From beginning to end, it is a book that speaks about trusting the process. In the beginning God works for six days creating the world, then he rests. There is a process. Do your occupation, be busy, and live by a schedule for six days each week. The on the seventh, rest, or sabbath. If you rest with God, your relationships will be more satisfying. If you follow the sabbath process, your work will be more fruitful and creative.

At the end of the Bible, we are told that all of human history is headed towards death. Human hubris will meet its match in the time described by the book of Revelations. If we die with Christ, however, there is another process. We will be resurrected. Trust the process.

Pentecost 7
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Our lives are marked by transition
Healthcare isn’t that hard, but the politics of it is a bear.

We simply want healthcare that is:

Universal — this means that every resident of the United States should be covered to a basic standard without exception.
Equitable — this means that coverage should extend equally to all medical conditions. The cost of a preexisting conditions should not be born by the victim. The reproductive process should be insured irregardless of gender, personal choices about sexuality, or the religious beliefs of others.
Affordable — the final cost of healthcare to the individual should be based on income. It shouldn’t be dependent upon where one lives or the type of work one does.

The support of the above crosses party lines. We are human beings, we deserve nothing less. In transitioning to a more universal, equitable, and affordable healthcare system, we should lay aside the blame game. The goal is not to make something that beats Obamacare or returns us to the hodgepodge system we had before. The goal is Universal, Equitable, and Affordable healthcare.

The transition to whatever the politicians develop should be done in such a way as to honor those who have served our country, provide better protection to our children, and maintain care for the elderly and disabled. All other interests are secondary.

additional author: 
Pat Toomey
Congress
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)

You are never too old to be mindful of the next generation. When the Bible tells us an incredible story of this elderly couple, leaving their home and immigrating to a new land at eighty, and then becoming parents at a hundred, and then learning how to use Pinterest and Snap Chat at a 120… the point is not how old Abraham and Sarah are. The point is that the next generation always matters.

Angels come to visit Abraham and Sarah. Their message, “God is not done with you yet.” I don’t think God is ever done with anyone of us. The move that Abraham and Sarah make to Palestine, and the birth of Isaac and Ishmael to this retired couple, are not things God did to make them happy. He brought about these miracles so that future generations might have a home and a place to prosper.

We in the boomer generation have a hard time remembering that everything is not about us. Sometimes God uses us for purposes that go beyond our lifetimes. I do not have, nor does it look likely in the future for me to have, grandchildren. Yet, I am passionate about the future. It is why the Paris Climate Change Accord really matters. It is why I want to see that democratic process is upheld in our country and that political polarization gets reigned in. It is why immediate tax relief matters little to me, but social justice is everything.

If we want to laugh with Sarah this morning, we have to accept her passion for the next generation. We may not be able to birth that generation, but we can become involved in seeing that they get an education that is better than the one we received. We can’t offer them a less crowded world, but we can work towards one that provides food, housing, and justice for all.

No matter how old you are, there are three questions you should ask yourself each day:
1 What is the nature of human life?
2 Where is the world taking us?
3 What does God require of me?

Pentecost 6
Father's Day
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
She's learning -- wisdom cares for the future
Genesis 1
Psalm 8

As I begin the summer, with all of its activities, I always refresh my commitment to spend some of it simply enjoying creation. This year I hope to continue my pursuit of elusive butterflies and their caterpillars, which I photograph and post to my Facebook page. Learning which caterpillar becomes which butterfly has helped me to appreciate the complexity of God’s creation. Where before I saw woods and meadow, now I see habitat, biodiversity, and adaptation. This is a spiritual maturation that Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 encourage. What lays ahead of us should be a season of wonder.

Genesis gives a simplified, non-scientific, account of the beginning of life on earth. I think it is silly to pit this ancient text against modern understandings of how the world works. Genesis is a gift given to us to inspire awe about our world. We see God declaring everything good; both the darkness and the light, both the sea and the dry ground, both our home turf and the dome of heaven. We are free to explore all of this and to become wise. Evolution and other scientific discoveries, allow us to understand the ongoing dynamics of biology. Knowing these things helps us in our fight against life-threatening pollution and climate change. Only a fool would think science and religion are enemies.

As God creates, he intentionally uses a process that honors diversity. Visit a woodland habitat and start counting how many different plants there are. The air will be filled with a half dozen different butterflies, and if you are lucky, the stream will host both damselflies and dragonflies. An anthropologist will tell you that for a while, both homo sapiens and neanderthals inhabited the same world. Human diversity goes back to creation. Genesis teaches us a lesson when it tells us that both men and women are fashioned in the image of God.

Don’t miss the punchline of the Genesis story of creation; God works for six days making all that is. Then God rests. When we work 24/7, who do we think we are? Are we greater than God? The problem that this ancient text poses to our modern mind is not its impossibly short time frame for creation, but its criticism of our current way of life. One day a week, no matter who we are, we should sabbath. Sabbath means a day to reconnect with our family and close friends. A day to rest our hearts and soul — to rediscover that we are not human doings, but human beings. A day to walk in the woods and wonder at creation — and to be thankful that you left your cellphone behind on its charging cord.

Trinity Sunday
Pentecost 2
Sunday, June 11, 2017
A Pearl Crescent busily pollenates my squash plants
1 Corinthians 12:1-13

Idolatry is a big thing today. I visited Edmonton, Canada a few years back. They have this big silver thing in the middle of town. It’s a reproduction of the Stanley Cup that their hockey team has won a few times. Pittsburgh gets one of them things every once and a while. We try not to make an idol of it. How are we doing?

Ever since Mohamed Ali people have been saying, “I’m the greatest.” Most have been less deserving than Mr. Ali. You may have someone over you at your workplace who thinks that they are the greatest — it has a way of making them a lousy boss. Many people today work for a business that wants them to idolize the company — that is — to sacrifice your thoughts and your family time for its ends. No job should do that.

There are people both commoners and politicians today, who are making an idol out of their political party. They believe that any end that advances their agenda can be justified — whether it means gerrymandering voting districts, or spreading rumors about an opposing candidate, or giving their unqualified relatives and friends a position in office, ahead of those who know something about governing. Political crap and idolatry is ruining American democracy. If we want them to stop it, we best start calling it what it is, idolatry.

Face it, though, from the moment we are born, we are encouraged to worship false idols. As a child, I was taught that people who had lighter skin were superior — I had to unlearn, with great embarrassment and difficulty — the idolatry of racism. Some of us were led to the false idols of alcoholism and drugs. Some of us took on compulsive addictions like pornography and endless hours of computer gaming.

Paul writes in I Corinthians 12:2:

You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.

In Chapters 11, 12, and 13 of I Corinthians, Paul speaks about the role the Holy Spirit plays in the Church. While the 11th chapter doesn’t specifically mention the Spirit, Paul is concerned there about worship and he assumes that there is an ordering spirit that keeps what we do on track. Similarly, in the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, Paul famously talks about Love. He is assuming, however, that there is a spirit within us that teaches us how to love. The Holy Spirit is real. In the 12th chapter, Paul speaks about three things that the Holy Spirit does in the life of every believer.

First, it guides our lives away from dumb idols. We must learn to test every spirit of this age against the true and Holy Spirit of God.

Second, it helps us to grow in our relationship with Jesus. As Paul says in verse three, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

Third, the Holy Spirit gifts each of us with special talents and spiritual capabilities. We are led by the spirit to use our gifts with others.

Pentecost 1
Day of Pentecost
Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Edmonton's idol
John 17:1-13
Just before he was betrayed, captured, and crucified, Jesus warned his disciples that he would be leaving them. In his extended prayer (John 17) Jesus reveals a key concept: just as God was present in the world through Jesus, so also, Jesus will continue to be present in the world through his Church. In John 17:13-17, Jesus says that his Church will be in the world, but not of it. How do we understand Jesus? Simply, he was a man who was in the world, but not of it. He was fully human, but also fully divine. He was a citizen of heaven, yet also a resident of first century Palestine. Imagine three over lapping circles: The top circle represents Jesus’ divine nature (fully God). The bottom left, his life and physical presence among us (fully man). The third circle represents the world he came to save (John 3:16). Now that Jesus has gone back to heaven, his church takes over the bottom left circle — we are now the physical presence of Christ in our community. God is still on top, overlapping our circle. The world is still to our right, overlapping the church and, through the Holy Spirit, the divine circle. The soul of the church lies where the three circles over lap. Note that this Soul is not in the safe part of the circle with the majority of the church’s programs and concerns. It is out in the dangerous intersection of our holy God and the chaotic world. In Reality Check 101, I make a point of stating that churches have souls. By this I mean that each congregation has an intrinsic worth. There is a value to the local church that far exceeds its statistical strength or the value it may have for the denomination that holds the title to its building. Pastors come and go, but a church’s soul remains constant. Like the soul of a human being, the congregation’s soul represents more than the current state of the body.   Where is this soul located? Philosophers speak about the human soul being located at the intersection of the will of the mind and the reality of the flesh. The Bible says that when God breathed the inspiring breath of life into Adam, he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7 KJV). This implies that the soul is a crossroad, where physical context (the mud of the ground) limited by time and mortality intersects spiritual vocation and God’s promise of a continuing existence.   Your church’s soul is located at a similar intersection. It lies where the world of human affairs and aspirations (red circle) intersects with your congregation’s daily life (blue circle). These both intersect with the kingdom of God (green circle). A small triangle represents the common ground of God, Church, and Human Society. No congregation is entirely at one with God’s Kingdom -- I think we do well to overlap the will of God by 30%. The world is never so secular to be without an overlap with God and the church. Where we take the Kingdom of God into the world, there is our soul.
Eastertide 7
Ascension Sunday
Sunday, May 28, 2017
Your church's soul is here
Persig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair
One of the effects of the church growth movement and our current loss of membership is to bring to the fore experts who emphasize goal setting. I like the wisdom offered by Robert M. Persig, “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” As we look for shalom, we’ll keep coming back to this basic concept that inner peace can’t be located elsewhere. It’s not in a future goal, like a paid off mortgage. It’s not over on a Hawaiian beach or up in heaven. Have you ever hiked a wooded path with a friend and just talked and found the conversation to be satisfying? Shalom is in that moment. Churches find shalom by: honoring their past, practicing compassion in the present, and by being non-anxious as we plan for the future. Our religion sits on this tripod.
additional author: 
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (Bantam Books, 1975)
Acts 17:22-31
The Bible is a big book, but much of it is repetition. God speaks common sense in triplicate. But, real self-revelation from the divine is doled out very sparingly. To compensate for this, God has gifted people in every era and location to be storytellers, artists, musicians, and dancers. Wherever an inspired work helps people to live more wisely, to seek for healing in their relationships, and to grasp that there is something beyond this material world, there the voice of God is heard. By being both multicultural and multilingual, God does an end run around our tendency to associate religion with our pet dogmas. When the Apostle Paul paid to visit to Athens, he stood in very spot where Socrates had taught some four hundred years before. Paul made a point of complimenting the Greeks for their diligence in pursuing both philosophy and religion. In his mind the search for shalom was a universal activity something that both united and challenged all human beings. He said, “[God] is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (Acts 17:27-28). In our world of polarization and religious fanaticism, we need to once more speak about the common grace that God gives to all nations.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Raphael's Vatican fresco "The School of Athens"
Luke 24:13-35

Who are these guys and why are they going to Emmaus? Recent archeology puts Emmaus at 19 miles from Jerusalem (160 stadia), not seven (60 stadia).  This agrees with some of the oldest texts. Early scribes dropped the one hundred stadia, perhaps because it seemed incredible that someone was trying to walk that far, in sandals, without GPS or an MP3 player. These dudes were motivated.  Even though the women were saying, “Jesus lives,” they were hitting the road, hard. I guess witnessing a crucifixion does that. Especially when you are afraid of being tarred with the same brush.

 

So, who were these two guys, running away from Jerusalem? It says that they are disciples. The Bible officially names twelve men and none of them are named Cleopas. When Jesus named the twelve guys, Matthew, James, etc… there’s this dude in the back jumping up and down saying, “Pick me!” It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid and picked teams for baseball. Actually, from the beginning, there seems to be a larger group traveling with Jesus than the famous twelve.  We read earlier in Luke 8, about women who not only traveled with Jesus, but picked up the check at the restaurant. In Luke 10, Jesus picks 72 disciples to go out and preach and heal. When he picks the 72 disciples, Cleopas is, once more, back there jumping and saying, “pick me.” He gets picked for number 71, he says ‘Yes!’  So, Cleopas is a disciple and a friend, but he isn’t a member of the inner circle. He’s close enough to Jesus to get worried when Jesus is arrested, but not one of those twelve that Leonardo photographs in the upper room, sitting all on one side of the table.

 

There is also this other disciple, what’s his name? The name of the other guy is“Bill.” I think part of what Luke is asking us to do, is to insert our own name into this passage. Because, we are friends of Jesus. Right? Are we disciples like Cleopas and Bill?  Are we close enough to worry if Christians start to be persecuted? We may not be on Jesus’ payroll, but we are guilty by association.

    I think in every church, the number of disciples is more than 12, but less than the membership role. You don’t automatically become a disciple by joining the membership role. What does it take to be like Cleopas, or Martha, or Mary Magdalene, or Rufus?

    As I preach this passage this week, I’m going to be challenging people to think about their own discipleship and how it is working for them.

Easter 3
Communion
Sunday, April 30, 2017
Here we are -- what are we running from - do we see Jesus?
John 20:19-23

What was Jesus’ first word to his friends when he came to them the evening of Easter? It was Shalom. This is a word that means more than just peace. Wholeness, healing, living a life that has integrity and consistency. Shalom speaks of God’s providence. It means that we are fruitful in our work and loving in our relationships. It means that we have our material needs met, and that we can care for the needs of others. Further, it means that we have this for eternity.

Jesus showed the disciples his hands and side, so that they would know it was him. He had risen from the dead and he wants us to know that there is shalom on the other side. The disciples and women had carried him into the dark, cold, gave on Friday. They saw him alive on Sunday. He showed them that there was a new pattern; life-death-and life again. He said one word, shalom.

Then he gave his disciples and his friends the command that they carry shalom out into the world. He sent them into world that only knew this pattern; life-suffering-death. He gave them good news. There is a new pattern; life-suffering-shalom-suffering-death-shalom. Shalom is the word. It blesses us. It blesses others. When we encounter people suffering in this world, we bring them shalom.

Jesus then gave to his disciples one additional meaning for shalom. Shalom is forgiveness. Shalom is the promise of healing in our relationships. Shalom is the promise of peace between the broken factions of our world. Shalom embraces the ISIS terrorist and the sister who stole money from you. Shalom embraces the boss who abuses his office and the child who is sent to school without lunch money. These are Jesus’ words:

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (John 20:23).

I do not believe that these words are just for the ordained. It’s not just priests and ministers that can offer forgiveness and the assurance of pardon. We each need to learn how to say shalom. We say it by love. We say it by forgiving the things and people that others consider to be unforgivable.

This is why Jesus talks about how sins can be retained if we don’t forgive. The ball is in our court. If someone needs shalom in this world and we don’t offer it, they hold onto their suffering, shame, and sin, until someone more Christian than us comes along and brings them shalom. Further, I believe that when we fail to help someone else find shalom we retain some of that loss as darkness on our own heart. We retain shame when we fail to bring forgiveness, hope, or healing to those whom it was in our power to give shalom.

Easter 2
Sunday, April 23, 2017
I like how Thomas gets fully involved in examining Jesus
John 20:1-18

John tells us the Easter story through three very different sets of eyes. Peter, Mary, and John represent three people who come to accept that Jesus is alive via three very different routes. As we look at each one try to find the one aligns that best tells your own faith journey.

Peter’ day begins with Mary Magdalene pounding on his door. “Wake up. I know you’re in there. Wake up!” She tells him that someone has stolen Jesus’ body. He is off and running. He is now responsible for what is left of the Jesus Movement. Since Jesus died, the women and the disciples have been depending upon Peter to get them out of Jerusalem and safely to Galilee. He is their leader. Don’t think of Peter as impulsive. Having been through what he has been through this week, he is a changed man. A defeated man. People who have had their hopes dashed tend to become real pragmatic. He has probably spent the whole sabbath packing and planning how to go north by way of all the back alleys.

Then Mary is there saying that Jesus’ tomb has been robbed. He runs to see what she is talking about. He knows that half of the crew won’t leave town with him until he investigates and sets this latest problem to rest. So he comes to the tomb and sees nothing. It takes the rest of the day for him to accept the Easter story.

Many of us are like Peter, accommodating the good news bit by bit. We stick to the practical and depend upon others to explain things to us. We may not describe ourselves as religious. But Peter gets to be a part of the Easter story.

Then there is Mary. She believes even when there is no reason to believe. At great risk to herself she comes to the tomb early. When she finally sees Jesus, she clings to him like she’ll never let him go. John says about her, though, that she isn’t willing to stop and think about what she is experiencing. We are called to reflect upon our religion. To think it through. Don’t worry. Faith will always be strong enough to stand up to honest criticism.

John presents himself as the ideal believer. He does this in other places in his Gospel, too. It may not be entirely an ego trip. John is saying that after he is gone, many people, including many of us will experience Easter in the same way that he did. John came to the tomb with Peter and found it empty. Then John looked and saw how the grave clothes had been neatly folded. This was not the work of grave robbers. Then he sees the napkin neatly folded. Folded just the way Jesus did each time he ended a meal. John saw all the signs and concluded that Jesus is alive.

We receive on Easter morning the blessing that Jesus spoke to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but believe.” Reflect upon all that you see. Come to faith, like Peter, or Mary, or John. Just come to faith.

see also http://billkemp.info/content/hearing-and-believing

Easter Morning
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Demons flee and Christ is triumphant -- but this is what the artist sees
Matthew 26:14-30
John 12 - 13

If you read John chapters 12 - 13 and Matthew 26 together, you get a much fuller picture of Judas. It’s almost too good of a snapshot for Judas’ motives and ours line up. Judas values money, security, and always being seen to do the right thing. Hey, those are my values too. While it may be convenient to say “the devil made Judas do it,” or that it was fate, this isn’t biblical.

 

Like a prosecuting DA, we must lay out a case based upon the facts. Unfortunately, Matthew and John have a different order to their stories. But the character of Judas, and its implications for our own propensity for betrayal, has veracity.

 

The events are as follows:

 

  1. Jesus goes to Bethany and raises Lazarus. This miracle is too close to Jerusalem and Judas wonders if he can head off disaster by going to the Sanhedrin. He prides himself on being a negotiator and hopes to save his own life, and perhaps the lives of the other disciples, by cutting a deal. Some speculate that Judas wanted to save Jesus, too. (I wonder if Judas wasn’t reading Trump’s book)
  2. Jesus is anointed, wasting about $10k of perfume. Judas asks why the ointment wasn’t sold and the money wasn’t given to him. He is the treasurer for Jesus. John says that Judas habitually embezzled funds. The other gospels make me wonder if Judas didn’t want the money for a bribe to buy their escape.
  3. Jesus rebukes Judas about the money. He also says that he will be dying soon. Judas realizes that Jesus is crazy enough to get them all killed. Judas may also suspect that Jesus is onto his plans to misappropriate funds from the common purse.
  4. Jesus celebrates Palm Sunday and cleans the temple. Here Jesus is announcing himself as messiah. Judas loses all hope of a negotiated settlement that saves Jesus. It is now every man for himself.
  5. Judas goes to the Sanhedrin. He is surprised to learn that instead of needing a bribe, they are willing to pay him.  He tells them about Jesus’ secret place and promises to help them take Jesus without bloodshed. Judas sees himself as a peacemaker, saving lives.
  6. Jesus makes it known that Judas will betray him. There is this poignant moment in Matthew 26:20-25 where each of the innocent disciples express their fears that they might be capable of this betrayal. Judas is the only one who doesn’t have self-doubts.
  7. Judas leaves to betray Jesus. One wonders if Judas didn’t linger at the Last Supper hoping that Jesus would offer to cooperate. If Jesus would only ask him, Judas could go back and negotiate exile to Egypt or some face-saving, win-win, solution to the legal difficulties he was having with the Sanhedrin. 

If you were a friend of Jesus in the first century, could you see yourself behaving any differently from Judas at any of the above seven points in the story? If we value money, security, and always having ourselves come out on top, then we will betray Jesus. It is only a matter of time.

 

also see: http://billkemp.info/content/thirty-pieces-silver

Sunday, April 9, 2017
Judas was at the last supper, waiting...
John 11:1-45

Jesus is friends with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. It is a relationship that exceeds the one he has with the twelve disciples. The intimate phrase that Martha uses when she calls Jesus to come to Bethany is “the one whom you love…” The disciples don’t question Jesus’ love for Lazarus. They simply think that going to a village two miles away from Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin is insane. Love for our friends can be insane. 

I suspect that Jesus has known these people from childhood. I am currently working on a novel about this friendship titled “Bethany’s People” (look for it in Lent of 2018). John’s Gospel has Jesus going frequently to Jerusalem; and Jesus doesn’t go as a tourist. He seems to know the place like a native. Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem. It was Jesus’ habit to stay there. 

The village name, Bethany, means house of poverty. It lies on the edge of the Negev where the rain fails to come regularly. Jesus has always identified with the poor. Jesus did his ministry in Galilee just outside the posh city of Tiberius. But, we have no record of his ever going inside the place. Instead, he called fishermen to leave their nets and walk with him.

    Such friendship precedes faith. You have to believe that Jesus shares your pain before you can believe that he is Messiah. Many people have a fact-based, I-believe-it-because-I-was-taught-it, belief in Jesus. The Gospels never show Jesus asking for this kind of belief. He instead, looks for those who will be intimate with him. The reason we have communion as frequently as we do, is because friends eat together. Martha cooks and Jesus eats. Who comes to your house for dinner?

    It is the known friendship of Jesus with the Bethany people that makes his going there dangerous during the weeks before his passion. “If we go to Lazarus’ funeral, we will die,” Thomas soberly reflects. This is a high stakes friendship.

    It is in the context of this friendship that Martha verbally slaps Jesus on the face. She says, “Where were you?” Only friends and spouses have the right to say this. It is the deep hurt of someone with high expectations.

    Those who take Jesus into their darkest experiences, and even risk yelling at him when he fails to meet their expectations, are brought to the place where they can believe.

    Jesus asks Martha to believe that he can conquer death. This is the one thing we all want to believe. You hit pause at this point in the scripture. Do I believe this? Without Jesus, we simply die. With Jesus, we die in hope. We rise because He is the resurrection.

Lent 5
Sunday, April 2, 2017
Jesus wept for his friend
John 9:1-17

In the classic Sci-Fi book, Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein imagines a world where people train to become “fair witnesses.”  A fair witness is prohibited from speculating or repeating what they haven't seen for themselves. They only speak about what they know from direct experience. For example, when asked to describe the color of a house seen in the distance, the fair witness responds, “It’s white on this side.” 

 

The blind man who is healed and made to see by Jesus is a “fair witness.” When asked by the Pharisees to explain how he came to see, he says, “Jesus put mud on my eyes. I washed. Now I see.” The Pharisees don’t like this. Mud hasn’t been approved as a treatment for blindness by the FDA. Nor was Jesus a healer they could believed in. 

 

Often what we believe interferes with what we need to see. Life is showing us that we need healing in some area, but we would rather see ourselves as victims. I like Dr. Phil’s question whenever someone is stuck in a rut, “How’s that working for you?”

 

An alcoholic will refuse to see the treatment options that are available for her. A workaholic can’t see that his family really is needs to see him. An anorexic teen may be unable to see the beauty already present in her body. You might have an opportunity to learn a new skill or enter into a better relationship, but the rut of prejudice and self-victimization keeps you from seeing.

 

What would a fair witness say of you? Let’s break it down; body, mind, and soul:

+ Are you caring for your body? Do you eat right, get enough rest, and have a habit of regular exercise?

+ What about mind and heart? Are you a life-long learner? Are you curious and open minded, or do you like being blind? Are you attempting in your relationships to love others as Jesus would? Are you putting mental boundaries around those who want to suck you into a toxic swamp?

+ What about Soul? Jesus asks about your soul. Many of the religious people of his day were spiritually blind.

Close your eyes. Imagine that Jesus has put mud on your eyes and you are not going to wash them off. When you open them you will see yourself as a fair witness would see you. What will cause you return to Jesus and ask to be healed?

Also see: http://billkemp.info/content/seeing

Lent 4
Sunday, March 26, 2017
What do we see when we see ourselves?
John 4:5-42

Martin Buber said, “The world is not an obstacle on the way to God, it is the way.” I am a person who hates interruptions. Telephone solicitors are the worst. Then a friend of mine was out of work. After a year, the only job he could find was in a call center. I encouraged him to take it. “It’s a stepping stone to something better. You need to get back in the process of working everyday.” Sure the job wasn’t his goal. But, it was the next step on the flow of life for this person. Often obstacles and interruptions get demonized, when really they are part of the journey. Often the people who distract us from our task get abused. How hard would it be for us to be compassionate? To see the world, not as an obstacle, but as the way to God?

 

People from Galilee, as Jesus and his men were, saw the territory of Samaria as an obstacle on their way to Jerusalem. The disciples assumed that the people that lived there weren’t worth talking to. Jesus saw things differently. He had compassion for the woman at the well. Jesus’ mission was to save the world. This woman wasn’t an obstacle. She was the way of this work.

 

Three things: 

 

  1. Life is a continuous process of undoing the prejudices and stereotypes that we accumulated in the first eighteen years of our lives. Growing up in a white, upper middle class, suburb of Pittsburgh, I have had to unlearn many of the things I was taught about race, poverty, and the role that immigrants play in our country. Part of why Jesus stopped by the well in Samaria was to challenge the prejudices of his men. When we get to Easter, we will see Jesus revealing himself first to the women. This, I believe, was a lesson to their sexism.
  2. There is never a justification for failing to be compassionate. Jesus pushed back against those who were abusive in his society, but he treated even these “bad hombres” with respect. It is appropriate to warn others when we see someone taking advantage of the system. Our mission is to have a free and safe society for all. When we catch someone misbehaving in our neighborhood, workplace, etc, we call them out and look for the appropriate legal actions. We don’t demonize them. In all things, we must behave compassionately. As the military saying goes, “People first, mission always.”
  3. There is a paradoxical nature to the kingdom of God. The woman with a disastrous home-life becomes the best witness Jesus could have asked for. You never know. Sometimes what we do to quell our fears makes us less secure. How do we treat those whom our culture has taught us to see as obstacles? What if the way to make America safe is to welcome the Moslems who are fleeing the brutality of Syria? We can demonstrate our values by example, or we can stigmatize these victims until they join radical group that hates us. What action furthers our mission? People first, mission always.
Lent 3
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Buber: the great I-thou thinker of human & divine relationships
John 3:1-17

Jesus says in John 3:5 that we come into the Kingdom of God by water and spirit. This makes me think of baptism, both the water kind that is common in worship, and the baptism of Pentecost that is less common these days. Water and spirit, here might also be related to the birth process. Water surrounds a baby for nine months. It gives way at birth to the spirit — in greek the same word also means breath and wind. When a child takes that first breath, they are inspired. We each re-spire until we die, or expire.  The word spirit and the words we use to talk about being creatures of the air, have deep linguistic connections. Think of it sequentially. The world was dark and void and God parted the waters. Then he breathed his breath into each creature and made us born again to a new life.Physical birth and spiritual birth have much in common.

 

Jesus goes on to say about the spirit that it is like an unexplained and unexpected wind. God is constantly involved in our world. We don’t stop to think about this as often as we should. What events are purely natural, and what events are spiritual?

 

In 1938, Enrico Fermi left a highly successful physics lab in Rome, and came to America to escape fascism. Since the early 30s, the Mussolini government had been generously supporting his work. He and his brilliant assistants won a Nobel prize for work at that lab. But since Enrico’s wife was Jewish, he had to flee to America, where he became fundamental to the Manhattan project and the development of the first atomic bomb.

 

So where does the Holy Spirit come in? In 1933 Fermi was doing experiments that should have led him to discover fission. If the process for the bomb had been discovered then, the Italian/German Axis would have had it first and that would have changed everything. Instead, the Holy Spirit allowed two Germans to discover the process just before Fermi left for America. It was published just ahead of the news blackout that would have given the Germans the bomb, first.

 

Am I wrong to see the mysterious moving of God’s Holy Spirit in this?

Lent 2
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Hatred, xenophobia, and anti-semitism sent Enrico Fermi to US
Matthew 4:1-11

There are fifty-nine national parks in our country, but most Americans suffer from a lack of wilderness. Most of us have the ability to skip a meal anytime we want, yet Christianity today is suffering from a great neglect of spiritual disciplines, including fasting. Jesus went into the wilderness, as the song says, to fast and pray for us. We each have people that we should be fasting and praying for. Our spiritual disciplines this lent, should be brave enough to do what ever it takes to gain the moral high ground in our lives.

 

My cousin Giselle recently asked me if Protestant’s fasted for Lent, or if that was just a Catholic thing. I replied as follows:

 

“Good question. Fasting is, as you know, a part of many spiritual traditions, including the Jewish practices that Christianity inherited and continued. For the first 1,000 years, all Christians were Catholic (a word meaning Universal church) and the traditions relating to fasting were accepted by the Protestant reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.) and the Orthodox traditions as they split off. The difference today is that the Roman Catholic church has identified certain days with particular kinds of fasts (meatless Fridays in Lent), but all Christians try to increase their spiritual disciplines durning the forty days leading to Easter.”

 

Jesus, and all of the great teachers of our faith, have made fasting a part of their regular spiritual process. Jesus famously, fasted for forty days in the wilderness. What came to Jesus from the experience was a renewed understanding of his mission on earth. He came to appreciate three things that we all need to know:

 

First: Because God spoke everything into existence, his word is more important for our daily life than bread. Prayer and Scripture study should be like breathing, something we can’t live without.

 

Second: Doing something great doesn’t make you a great person. Instead of jumping off high buildings or trying to be the perfect parent or running in the Boston Marathon, we should simply be who we are meant to be. Character is everything. The daily walk of being in the moment is a crazy thing to lose.

 

Third: Spirit is more important than stuff. Look how shallow we have become. We worshipfully tag our Pinterest wish list of clothing, household decor items, cars, and gizmos. Jesus is deep. Hear, Oh Israel. The Lord your God is one. You shall worship Him with all your heart, and mind, and strength, and all of your soul.

Lent 1
Sunday, March 5, 2017
Set a table to meet with God
Matthew 17:1-9

Last week I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico with my cousin, Ron. The Unitarian Church there always has something interesting on its marquee. Last week the sign had only three words, it read, “Spirituality without God.”  My cousin Ron asks me what that sign meant. I said, “I think they’re just trying to being honest.” The UU church advertises itself as place where people can find spirituality without God. People who enter that church will probably find a warm and loving fellowship. They will find a pastor that listens to their problems and visits them in the hospital. They will find a rich educational program where there are activities for their children and youth. As a visitor to that church passes through the narthex they might see a place where the people drop off donations for the food bank and sign up for work trips and volunteer to knit items for the local nursing home — doing good is probably something that this church in Albuquerque does well.  

 

What is missing?  Is it really possible to have spirituality without God?

 

The twelve disciples had been following Jesus for almost three years. They have watched him heal the sick and walk on water.  In recent months he has been showing them how to do ministry on their own. He wants his disciples to be healers and compassionate like he is. Peter, James, and John are beginning to learn how to be good at caring for others. The crowds have been wonderful. Jesus is a marvelous teacher, though he has a tendency to preach past noon. When he does, he finds a few loaves of bread and he makes everyone share and pretty soon 1,000s of people are fed. Cool trick and the disciples want to know how he does it.

 

What is missing? Jesus could do the things without being God. Miracle workers are not that uncommon in human history. What about the crowds? Do they really need him to be God? No. We’ve all seen on the news stories of people who can draw vast crowds of admirers. They may be rock stars or sports figures. They may be the pope. They may be the president. All these mega-stars can do incredible things. It is possible to build great enthusiasm and not be God. 

 

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. They get to the top as darkness falls. What happens next is the big reveal. Their humble rabbi — this Jesus whom Peter just that morning has seen slip on a stone and fall into the water as they were crossing the creek, this man that they knew to be human — suddenly is transformed. He face and clothing became dazzling white. The dark mountain is lit up like day. Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah. And the thick cloud of God’s glory falls around them and a deep voice booms, “This is my son… listen to him.”

 

Why did this transfiguration happen? Because the next part of the journey which Jesus was going to take his disciples on can’t happen without God. Jesus is about to take his disciples to Jerusalem. They will enter with the crowds on Palm Sunday. Then on Friday, Jesus will die on the cross. This next part of the story only makes sense if Jesus is God.

 

 

Back in ancient times when Arabs with caravans and camels used to cross the desert and go days without seeing green or water, there was near the half way point of the journey always a marker that the caravan leader called the nuqtat tahul (نقطة تحول ) — the turnaround point. When the caravan reached that marker, everyone would stop and go around and count the number of water jugs they had. If there wasn’t enough water, they would turn around and go home.

 

The worse thing you can do in the desert is to keep on going and run out of water. If you drank too much in the first three weeks, turn around. If there was an accident and some was lost, turn around. If you didn’t plan well enough, turn around while there is still time.

 

For the first disciples of Jesus, the Epiphany of the Transfiguration happens at the turnaround point of their journey. Jesus knew that the Lenten journey ahead was dangerous and they couldn’t travel it unless they were sure that they had God. The disciples had to get out and measure Jesus — they had to make sure that they weren’t being spiritual without God.

 

Just before this big reveal to Peter, James, and John, Jesus had taken all of the disciples up to Syria for a vacation  (it wasn’t too long ago that people would do that). While there, Jesus asked them who do you think I am? And Peter said, “You are the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God.” Then Jesus said, Okay — because I am the son of God, we will go to Jerusalem and there I will be crucified.  Then he added, and each of you must pick up your cross daily and follow me.

 

Next week, begins Lent. Forty days… the time it took these disciples to come down off of this mountain and go to Jerusalem and watch Jesus get crucified. This is exactly the time it takes for us to go from seeing God as optional to valuing God the way the Arabs counted their water when they traveled on camels across the desert. The journey is too dangerous 

 

If you think that you can be spiritual without God, then turnaround now. Don’t do Lent.

 

If you want God to be in your Lent. There are four things that you should do for the next forty days:

 

1st - Make daily Bible reading a discipline and try to each day discover how what you just read was relevant to that day. I suggest that you read the Gospel of Mark over the next 40 odd days — Mark is short - 16 chapters - two chapters a week. 

 

2nd - try to pray as if God was actually going to answer your prayer & write down in a notebook or on a piece of paper in your bible each answer to prayer that you experienced. 

 

3rd - Every week, try to tell someone that you believe in Jesus. Nothing goes without saying.

 

4th - When you come to worship and when you participate in the worship, pray for the Holy Spirit to bring inspiration to those in worship. Let’s plan that each Sunday of Lent will be the highpoint of our week. 

 

4 things: Scripture, Prayer, Witness, and Worship — four gallons of water — the things that are needed to put God back in our lives.

Epiphany 8
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Spirituality without God: one cross shy of a full salvation
Matthew 5:38-48

In today’s world, it’s rare for someone to ask you to walk two miles. Nobody has asked for my coat lately, and I can’t remember the last time I was slapped on the cheek. When pastors deal with Matthew 5:38-48, they tend to wax historical and provide details like the Roman laws governing how far you had to carry a pack and how much the ancient people hated to use their left hand. This misses the point. Jesus always draws his examples from the daily lives of the people he was talking to. They knew what it was like to be a minority people group governed by an oppressive occupying force. 

 

Jesus wasn’t born in Rome, he was born a short distance south of modern day Syria. He could have preached revolution, instead he preached love. But then he went further to speak of a costly love. A love that turns the other cheek and goes the second mile with people you would rather ignore. For those of us who aren’t living below the poverty line, this means helping those who are. For those of us who don’t live in an oppressed land, it means taking in those who are refugees from places like Syria and El Salvador.

 

“For if you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect?” (Matthew 5:46)

 

Jesus uses the word ‘you’ a lot. In every line, he speaks about the loving response to an everyday situation. When people get historical and find loop holes, Jesus says, “But you must do…” What follows always demonstrates the power of love as a choice. You choose to help your neighbor, even when there is nothing in it for you. You choose to forgive those that have wronged you. You must give money to those who beg. In every moment of life, you must accept the challenge to do what Jesus would do. Wesleyan people call this, ‘perfection in love.’  It means, choosing love.

Epiphany 7
Sunday, February 19, 2017
I was in prison and you visited me.
Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus sometimes sets the bar so high that it seems out of our reach. He tells us to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to constantly assume the humbler position (wash each other’s feet), and here in Matthew 5:21-37, to take the ten commandments so seriously that we might maim ourselves to find holiness. It seems prudent and scholarly to downplay Jesus’ words. To say that just like the bit about camels going through the eye of a needle, Jesus is using hyperbole. But, not so quick. Jesus is speaking to the simple country folk coming with their families out to a gentle hill for the afternoon picnic and lecture. He doesn’t want to confuse them or us. What he wants is to set them on a pathway towards personal holiness. 

    The threshold to the kingdom of God is extremely low. The kingdom of God is already among us, we only need to believe in order to enter. But the daily life of a Christian is extremely hard. It begins with our family. When we flirt with a coworker, we put at risk multiple families and potentially harm the children in our care. Adultery is such a serious problem that Jesus says pluck out your eyes if you need to. Don’t go down that wrong path.

    The most dangerous sin is hatred. If we call our brother a fool, we are liable to bring hell’s fires into our relationship. Jesus tells us elsewhere that the world will know that we are his disciples by how we love each other. Each day on this upward path to glory is a challenge to love our neighbor as Christ would love them. What we seek, and hope to obtain in this lifetime, is a perfection in love. That means every day, every moment, loving the person we are with.

    What Jesus is talking about here is sanctification. Jesus gives to us, as a gift, salvation and the forgiveness of our sins. This extends into the future. If I fail today and my marriage becomes irreparably broken, I know that I will still be saved. I won’t have to pluck out my eye to atone for my sin. But today, I must walk into the morning with a fresh slate and try in this moment to be perfectly compassionate as Christ was on this earth. I must give my body, mind, and soul to my work of  being a disciple. Nothing less is acceptable.

Epiphany 6
Sunday, February 12, 2017
As disciples we can either go upward and outward or down & in
Luke 2:22-40

It is a New Year. A new broom is sweeping. The fox is in the hen house. We  have this image as we face the New Year of an old man being pushed off of life’s stage by an infant. Meanwhile, in the Bible, we find the baby, Jesus, being brought by his parents to the temple on the first Sunday after Christmas and there are these two old geezers blocking the way to the altar. Simeon and Anna are both older than eight track tapes. Yet, they don’t speak about the past, they tell of the future. God has intruded into our cycle of birth - innocence - rebellion - maturity - midlife - old age - and death. He has given us something eternal. What we see is not a generational division, but a timeless unity.

 

So when Simeon says, “Now dismiss your servant in peace,” he is not giving up. He not passing the baton to Jesus because this child represents the next generation. He is instead speaking about how this God-man is the fulfillment of the hopes of all humankind, old and young. He is thankful that he has been able to remain in the temple throughout his elder hood, because his meditation on the Torah has enabled him to bring truth to those who were seeking, no matter what their age. Now the truth that the ancients scrolls spoke hesitantly about, and the prophets only saw dimly, has become flesh and blood.

 

Anna also, is not notable for her great age, but for her consistent witness to the fact that spiritual things matter. If a person feels called to a religious life, they are neither a nutcase nor a saint. They are merely a person acting out on the fact that all of us should be set-apart for God.

 

In Jesus, the past, the present, and the future are kept in balance. Anyone who attempts to totally forget the past, live only in the present, while heading for the future, is bound to become hopelessly lost. The capacity of human culture to remember across generations, capture stories and images, and weave useful cautionary tales, is one of the things that sets us apart from the animals.  Many self-help gurus and some of our well-meaning friends will encourage us to shed some aspect of our temporal selves. They say, ‘forget the past,’ or ‘live in the moment,’ or ‘sacrifice for the future.’ I, on the other hand, like this image of old and new meeting in the temple.

Presentation of the Lord
Sunday, February 5, 2017
Not everything old is going the way of the dodo
Matthew 5:1-12

In my workshops, I often show a slide of Steve Jobs introducing us to the first iPad. Then I ask the question, “How should we design our life together, as a congregation, so that we become what Christ has in mind?” The analogy is simple. The success of Apple Computer stems from the vision that Steve Jobs had for insanely great products. Jobs was a tyrant, constantly berating people who were content to make “pretty good” computers and cell phones. The corporate culture at Apple, the work habits of each employee, and the image the company presented to the world all grew out of the vision that Jobs expressed in that one phrase, insanely great products. I believe that Jesus also has a powerful new vision for his people. The Beatitudes, which begin Jesus’ teaching ministry in Matthew 5, is Jesus’ insanely great vision.

 

In the beatitudes Jesus describes the Kingdom of God. In plain and simple language he tells us that there is an insanely great reward for having faith. We will live forever with God. With God, the poor are rich. With God, those who mourn are comforted. With God the humble and those who feel weak in faith are blessed. With God, those who choose to live with integrity, maintain their marriage vows and sacred covenants, and hunger to do the right thing, will find their struggle vindicated. With God, the merciful will find forgiveness and see just how important the forgiveness they gave to others was. With God, being pure in heart matters. With God, peacemaking is accomplished with joy, laughter, and tears, for we are the children of the great peacemaker. With God, the hatred we have experienced for wanting serve this new kingdom rather than the plastic crowns of earthly leaders and corporations will end.

 

But the other insane thing about Jesus’ vision, is that it is here already. Today the poor, the mourner, the meek, etc, are blessed. Apple had already established itself as a unique company when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. The culture of design was already there. The urge to make insanely great products had already been woven into the fabric of the company, and Steve’s early passing did not end his vision. When will the beatitudes become woven into the fabric of the church?

Epiphany 4
Sunday, January 29, 2017
The iPad arose out of Steve's vision for a new relationship between man and machine
Psalm 27

This past week was Martin Luther King Day. I think it is important that we remember him, not just as a leader of a minority group in our society, but as an example of how to respond to oppression. Sometimes oppression is systemic, like the racism is that still infects America. Sometimes oppression is personal, as when we are passed over at work because of our gender or age, or when a family member uses cruel manipulation to keep us in our place.The Gospel teaches us to love our neighbor and that no one truly loves God who isn’t in a right relationship with others. Yet Psalm 27 talks about the other side of our religion. There are times when you go it alone. I think of a family member who is struggling with a messy divorce and has a broken relationship with one of his teenage daughters. Perhaps distance, illness, or death has separated you from a loved one. Perhaps you are feeling oppressed. What does this Psalm 27 say to you now?

 

For in the day of trouble

    [The Lord] will keep me safe in his dwelling;

he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent

    and set me high upon a rock.  (Psalm 27:5)

 

Many Psalms speak to the individual’s need to seek God for themselves. We go it alone into the wilderness, knowing that the God we find there is sufficient to make our lives whole. Religion is its own reward. Seeking God, purely in order to know him, is enough.

 

The common book of prayer does an apt thing in the responsive reading of Psalm 27:5, instead of  speaking about God’s tabernacle, it says, “He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...” How important are the secrets of God to us? It is easy to get the wrong idea about our reason for practicing religion. It’s not like we go to church to buy an insurance policy. Instead, we go to church to learn skills for navigating the wilderness. Then, counter to our intuition or commonly held wisdom, we go to the God-forsaken places, or we are thrust into wilderness by trauma, and there we discover the reality of God.

Epiphany 3
Sunday, January 22, 2017
MLK spoke to the issue of systemic oppression
Retreat
Sunday, May 21, 2017 - 5:00pm to Monday, May 22, 2017 - 1:00pm

Relaxed overnight, informal sharing, with teaching session on Monday morning. Bill Kemp will be presenting some systemic change tools that translate over into helping individuals discover a new vision for their lives. Material will come from Bill's next book:

Finding Shalom:
12 Tools for Re-imagining Your Life

Who is Invited : 
Church leaders
Event Sponsor : 
Lake Erie Region Ministry Support Group
Isaiah 49:1-7
John 1:29-42

Back in the days of film, I was very aware of what it meant to say that something was latent. I would take a series of twenty-four pictures in my camera, then carefully wind the film back into its cassette. Perhaps that night, or a week later, I’d go down to the dark room and process the film. In total darkness, I would carefully wind the film onto a spool in the developing tank. Setting the timer, I’d pour in the chemicals. Each little grain of silver-chloride that had been struck by three photons of light in my camera, fixed itself in place and formed a dark image. The other silver-chloride grains are washed away, down the drain. Only then could the film be held up to the light and the images seen.

 

It is possible for a roll of film to go a decade or two without being developed. During that time, the images are invisible. Any attempt to see what is on the film results in erasing the image. Only by carefully processing the film is the photographer’s art brought to light. Often things are hidden away until it is the right time for them to be revealed. A baby is hidden in womb until it is born. An idea is hidden in the mind until it is communicated. The infant Jesus hidden in Egypt until it is time for him to be revealed. John the baptist, his own cousin, finds himself amazed on the day that he comprehends for the first time that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the son of God who takes away the sins of the world.

 

Even today, Jesus seems to be hidden. Isaiah 49 speaks for him, using the language of latent power. Jesus is like a sharp sword which will one day divide the world by the power of his word. Jesus is an arrow that will pierce the wayward heart of humanity. Jesus is the latent image of God, waiting to be developed in our lives. He is for the present unseen. He is right now misjudged. 

 

In today’s digital world, where every instant photo is shared on line and made cheap, Jesus requires a different mindset. That which is hidden is always more powerful than what we see. There is beauty. There is truth. There is the kingdom of God waiting to be developed. There is a new reality awaiting its birthing time.

Epiphany 2
Sunday, January 15, 2017
Are we willing to wait for what develops?
Isaiah 42:1-9

Christopher Columbus noted in his private journals, how the words of Isaiah 42, especially the line “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” kept him going, through the dark times of his life. When no one was willing to back him on his westward quest, the fact that God had given him this vision drove him on, hat in hand, visiting the various courts in Europe looking for a sponsor. When everyone turned against him, Columbus held tighter onto this personal interpretation of Isaiah. The phrase, “I give you as a covenant to the people,” is spelled out in the next line of Isaiah 42:7, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” This sense of mission, Columbus says, and not the search for gold, is what made him return to the Americas for two additional journeys.

 

I don’t mean here to paint Christopher Columbus as some kind of extraordinary saint. Quite the opposite, I think passages such as Isaiah 42 are meant to inspire us to expect more from ourselves, our church, our nation, and our God. We should not pray simply for a prosperous New Year. We should pray to be people of God’s covenant. We are instruments in God’s hands to bring light. We are responsible for people who today are strangers to us. We go into the dungeon to bring the prisoner out. We bring the salve that allows the blind to see. We speak the truth that reveals how many hapless souls are still held in chains by the tyrants of our world.

 

Isaiah 42, however, begins with the fact that God chooses to work through humble people. God says, “Here is my servant… my chosen.” Follow God’s finger and you see him pointing to an ordinary Joe. He points to you and I. He knows how close we come to being run over by those who have more clout in todays world. If you hear God’s call, however, you will not give up. You will “faithfully bring forth justice.”  The power to do this is in God’s hands. 

 

Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus poem flips the image of Isaiah’s light to the nations. At the base of our Statue of Liberty we have covenant for the people of the world that makes America a lighthouse inviting those who are distressed to find refuge:

 

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

My prayer for the New Year is that we don’t give up on being a light to the nations.

Epiphany 1
Sunday, January 8, 2017
Taken near my home - Light to the people of Pittsburgh