Archive for 2018

Mark 4:35-41

There are miracles that only Jesus can do, and there are miracles where Jesus is providing an example for us to follow. In Mark 4, Jesus is out in the boat with the disciples and a storm comes up. Time for a miracle which only he can do. Jesus calms the sea. But wait, the story begins with Jesus asleep in the bow and when the disciples wake him and say, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”,  Jesus rebukes their anxiety by saying, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Note the back and forth of that dialogue. Hear it this way: Us, “Don’t you care?” Jesus, “Why are you anxious?”  Substitute whatever crisis you recently went through for the storm that caused the  anxiety in the disciples. I bet your dialogue with Jesus was the same. Jesus does the miracle of calming the sea, so that the disciples might learn to be non-anxious people in the midst of the storms of life.

I recently went through a family crisis. People were shouting. Anxiety was high. I would gladly have traded places with those disciples in the boat tossed by the storm on Galilee. Anxiety is anxiety, fear is fear. It doesn’t matter if we are in a boat, a hospital room, a family crisis, a fox hole. The miracle is that we can learn to be non-anxious people. We can apply the lessons of Jesus and faith. We can step back and rebuke our fears. Further, when we are in the boat with people who are having their own personal storms and are causing us havoc, we can choose to be the non-anxious presence. Being like Jesus, this is the essence of our faith. Where is your faith?

Pentecost 7
Sunday, June 24, 2018
The problem is not the waves, but the readiness of the crew
Mark 4:26-34

Gardening always reconnects me with the grace of God. I have a hard time justifying it during the end of May, when I am busy with so many other things, both in the yard and with church meetings. In spring, time narrows. There a few precious hours to mow, till, plant, and weed, between the rains. And yet now, about a month into it, I find myself pausing and just looking at the vegetable plants. They are vigorous. Each one is a miracle. Jesus uses the pride that farmers have in their crops to talk about the graceful and organic way of the spirit. God scatters the seed of his word to the earth. It is received by the open heart of the soil. Good things spring to life. Everyone anticipates a bountiful harvest.

These images give rural people and gardeners an advantage in understanding the organic process of God’s love. The critical verse is Mark 4:28, “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” Jesus says that the growth of holiness in our lives and in the world is an organic process, like the gradual transition of seed to plant to fruit to the easing of hunger. One could also speak of the process of acorn to oak to wood to house to home.

So the first question to ask may be, is holiness growing in your personal life in an organic and healthy way? You could ask the same question of your church. What about your neighborhood? Is there a healthy process of development; people needing shelter, to houses to homes and schools to young adults who leave the neighborhood to start lives elsewhere, remembering the values, missional mindset, and spirituality that they had been taught?

An organic process is something that occurs over time. Note how a tree branches out. The placement and direction of each branch is determined by the trees innate DNA and the direction the sunshines into that patch of the woods. The health of tree depends on many factors, the most important though involve the water and nutrients the tree has at its roots and the skill set of defense mechanisms the tree has at its disposal. The total process, Jesus tells us, is a miracle.

How do we become spiritual and holy people? Do we want to be saved, healed, or made holy?

Jesus says that this is an organic process. The farmer does a certain amount of work, but he mostly watches his field, and the seed “of itself” produces the plant, which “of itself” produces the wonderful harvest. Like a tree, where we are rooted spiritually matters. We need a healthy church fellowship to grow properly. But our spiritual journey springs up in a mysterious way from within us. Becoming holy is an organic process. We engage in spiritual disciplines, but mostly we observe and try to be a partner with God for the harvest that he alone can bring about.

Pentecost 6
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Note how even the bees are part of the organic process
I Samuel 8:4-20

There is a common proverb that goes, “You better be careful what you ask for; because you just might get it.” This is true in politics, parenting, and in our prayers. I’ve come to believe that more people are impoverished by their wishes than by their misfortunes. We think we know what we want — we are all a bit like King Midas who wished to have everything he touched turn to gold, until he touched his daughter. We want wealth. (Play the lottery, anyone?) God wants us to have inner peace, the satisfaction of work done well, and relationships that don’t depend upon extravagant gift giving. We want to teach our kids the value of money, so we give them an allowance. They go out and compare it with what their friends are getting, and think better or worse of us. So in the end, we have taught them to value us only for our money.

Instead of the value of money, we should be teaching them the value of community, shared labor, and the unconditional nature of family love. The things we need to learn, are exactly the things we need to teach to our kids. When we pray, we ask God to give us our daily bread, so that we can break it and share it in love, rather than being led by our temptations to hoard it or be greedy. Be careful what you ask for.

In ancient Israel, the people of God wished for a king. They wanted a king for the same reason we wanted whoever we voted for in the last election. They wanted a king who would make the country prosperous. They wanted a king who would make the nation so strong that it would win any battles it got into. They wanted a king who would make this little nation of immigrants and former slaves into a global leader, like Egypt, Syria, and Babylon (Iraq). They knew that Kings had made those nations great, and that God’s humble prophets didn’t seem to have the same plan for them. What they didn’t know, is that Kings would also ruin each of those nations.

Wise old Samuel said, “This is what a King will do to you…” (I Samuel 8:4-20) and then he talked about taxes. He talked about how kings take our children and force them to be soldiers. He talked about how kings are in the business of listening to corporations and wealthy donors, no matter which party they represent. Kings pretend to care about our interests, but what they really want to do is create a class of people who are above the law and free from any accountability.

The real law of politics, parenting, and prayer, is the law of unintended consequences. We must learn as parents to give ourselves to our kids along with our money. We must learn as citizens to watch our elected officials closely and hold them to a higher moral standard. And we must learn as people who pray, to say, “Thy will be done, not ours…”, hoping in all this, to learn what God wants to teach us in the life he has given us.

Pentecost 3
Sunday, June 10, 2018
Midas was a king who got what he asked for, not what he needed
Mark 2:23-28, 3:1-6

Our society is getting obsessed by rules. I grew up in 1960s, we broke the rules. Go to Barnes &Noble and just note how many books have the word rules in the title. You’ll find 10 rules for dieting, dating, and getting your dog to behave. One of the best sellers on Amazon this year was  “Robert’s Rules of Order.” Why now?

I’m betting that it has to do with our current political polarization. Whether you are arguing about immigration or the Russia investigation, one or both sides will be running to the rulebook to make their case. The NFL just passed a rule regarding players kneeling during the anthem. Notice that they didn’t pass a rule to prevent hot dogs and beer from the being sold during the anthem, or the announcers speaking over the playing of the anthem, or the coaches using the 10 extra minutes they can get with all the players in the locker room to prep for the game.

All of this has something to do with Jesus. Mark begins his gospel by showing us Jesus breaking the rules. There was a lot of religious rules back then that most people ignored — But if you were a religious teacher, you were expected to keep all the rules, plus make up a few more, just to prove yourself more holy. Jesus didn’t play this game.

For Jesus, religion is not about the rules that we keep, religion is about the compassion that we show. Consider the rule about keeping a Sabbath (rule four of the big ten). Note that in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the commandment states that the sabbath is meant to be applied by the government upon everyone. Migrants are not to be made to care for the fields. Slaves are not to cook your dinner. So, no one should work for you on the sabbath. If you are working in a business where someone has to mind the store on Sunday, if you are a nurse or an EMT, and everyone takes their turn working the sabbath; don’t use your religion to get out of taking your turn.

Jesus goes into a place of worship and notices that there is someone there who needs healed. So he works on the Sabbath. I believe that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus still comes into our places of worship. He still looks around and notes that someone here needs healed. And he heals on the Sabbath.

To repeat:

Religion is not about the rules that we keep, Religion is about the compassion that we show.

Pentecost 3
Sunday, June 3, 2018
Watch out when white dudes in suits limit the free speech of people of color
John 3:1-17

I’m willing to bet that you weren’t born alone. When you came into this world, there was at least one other person in the room. None of us gets born alone. Your birth was work for your mother, that’s why we call it labor. You merely allowed yourself to be pushed. All of this doubly applies to our spiritual birth. God labors to bring us to new life. This may be why Jesus speaks about being born again, instead of using an eastern turn of phrase like, coming to enlightenment.

We often forget this mystery when speak about faith. Some people make a memorial out of the moment they came to believe. They remember the evangelists, music, scriptures, teachers, and books that influenced them. In all these little details, it is easy to forget the wind of God incompressible spirit. It blows where it wills without any dependence upon human communicators. We were not saved by being in that particular church on the night so and so spoke. We are saved by God, who in His prevenient grace stacks the dominoes so that they all fall in the right sequence for us and we get pushed into new life.

Consider Nicodemus. This man had become so thoroughly enmeshed in the brotherhood of the Pharisees that his thoughts rarely returned to the singular relationship he had with God. Ask him about his faith and he will speak for hours about his teachers and the respected elders of his religious order. Jesus silences him with one phrase, “You must be born again.”

This is not a command, but a statement of fact. Nicodemus isn’t being told to adopt a new set of beliefs. Instead, he is being called to return to the place where the only other person in the room is God. There is a purity and mystery to John 3:1-17. It deserves its place as one of the most quoted passages of the Bible.

Our tendency to speak of rebirth as a once in a lifetime decision, however, obfuscates this simple idea. In every spiritual transformation, God does the birthing. Whenever we need it, God will do it again.

Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday
Sunday, May 27, 2018
If you could listen to the whole talk, would it make more sense?
Acts 2

In every parish that I served, I encouraged people to think of Pentecost as one of the three great holidays of the church. There is Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. They are of equal importance and should be celebrated with the same degree of serious preparation. Christmas allows us to speak of the Trinity and the uniqueness of Jesus among men. Our systematic theology goes into high gear as we try to speak about God’s mission to save all of humanity. In Easter we rediscover the passion of God and the wretchedness of humanity. Our theology goes low, as we identify with the people who stood by his cross and then carried our Lord to the grave. Easter is a story filled with transition, the greatest example being the resurrection.

    In Pentecost, we realized that both Christmas and Easter occurred, not simply that individuals might be saved, but that a religious community might be formed. We push people towards the end of the second chapter of acts, when we realized that all this fire and wind resulted in the birth of the church as an organization. The spiritual birth of the church, I believe, was when Jesus gathered people on a hillside and told them that they were already blessed by God (Matthew 5:1-9). Three years later, the day of Pentecost takes this awareness that we are a blessed people, and empowers us to organize to share that blessing. On Pentecost, our theology goes wide.

  •     The Pentecost story begins by putting 120 people into a room built to hold 40. They were all of one accord. This doesn’t mean they were theologically unified. It means that were committed to being one community.
  •     The story goes on to tell of the diversity of people in Jerusalem that day. The church only grows when it honors diversity.
  •      The story heats up when Peter steps out on the porch and confronts the people on the street. In the Pentecost season, we beg the Holy Spirit to send the church out into our neighborhood.

​These are the three points that I will be sharing with the people at Verona and Rosedale. Let us pray that they catch the great significance of Pentecost.

Pentecost Sunday
Sunday, May 20, 2018
Note the large crowd and presence of women
John 17

I have been thinking a lot about small groups lately. Jesus begins with a small group — twelve disciples. At the end of the Last Supper, before he leads his disciples out to the garden where he will be betrayed and taken to his passion, Jesus dedicates this small group to God. The way John remembers that prayer (John 17:1-26), it was filled with references to the importance of this small group. Jesus prays that the spiritual truths that has imparted in the course of his work with this little fellowship might be established. He presents these eleven before God (Judas had left), as if they were a trust, that he has been a steward responsible for. When we join a small group for Bible study today, we are entering into a spiritual trust. We pray for each other as Jesus prayed for his disciples and the Holy Spirit used the group to protect and nurture our souls.

I think that even today, Christians who participate in small groups for spiritual study and prayer, enter into a deeper covenant with God, than those who simply come to worship. Why? How about the following:

  • Character is not learned from lectures or sermons. Discipleship formation happens in small groups.
  • Real physical, psychological, and spiritual Healing happens in small groups
  • Small groups are often the incubators for leadership development and transforming change in the community.

Through small groups, Jesus continues to engage the world today. He says that we are to be in the world, even if we are not to be of it (John 17:15-18). How can we negotiate this narrow path without the support of other Christians who know us well and speak about faith in an intimate context.

Easter 7
Sunday, May 13, 2018
Jesus is calling these folk to be in a small group with him
John 15:1-8
1 John 5:1-6

Scholars may argue about whether the same man wrote the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, but John 15 and 1 John 5 sound like two peas in a pod. John is trying to simplify the relationship with have with each other and with Jesus into two words. The words Abide and Love. I want to go one step further and simplify the whole church experience into this concept of Abiding Love. Church is where people support each other in abiding in the love of God, and where God’s spirit supports us in abiding in love with those close to us. 

 

Did you know that the dictionary definition for church doesn’t contain the word love. It goes as follows: “Church is a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.” (Apple dictionary)

 

I don’t like this definition. Not only does it exclude the love that Jesus says will define us, it includes three institutional words: clergy, buildings, and doctrines. The trouble is that this is exactly how most people in the world around us see the church. In fact, it may be the way most church people view the Church. It may also be the reason most people today say they can be religious perfectly fine without the Church, thank you. This past week, less than 18% of Americans went to church. 

  

Jesus defines his Church by how we love. Did I mention, that the one thing that separates the previous modern epoch from our current postmodern culture is this emphasis on relationships? For the last thousand years, we have been selling church as the place to go to hear a qualified (but often celibate) clergy-person preach, to be in a beautiful building (with an organ), and learn to the right doctrines (orthodox). What if we changed (The Church change?) And began speaking about entering into a discipleship formation process, which we call Church (with a capital ‘C’) and practice there in, love for each other and love for those who are hurting around us?

 

 

I think we need to redefine our church life to support the “abiding in love” that John and Jesus are talking about. In Reality Check 101 I offer this alternative definition that captures the spirit of John 15 and 1 John 5:

 

Church is a gathering of people for prayer, study, and worship,

 who relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires.

 

Perhaps you can think of a way to add the words Abide and Love to this definition — but I think it implies their importance.

Easter 6
Sunday, May 6, 2018
Church isn't defined by building, clergy, or theology
1 John 4:7-21

I always get a chuckle when someone asks me for my home email and I say bill at not-perfect-yet dot com" and they respond “perfect.” They don’t even hear themselves doing it. “Perfect” has entered into our modern vocabulary to replace “okay.”  This is truly ironic. Now putting aside this odd ambiguity, what does the Bible mean when it says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:12). We live in a world that is desperate for real love. When we engage, even momentarily, in an authentic, selfless, other-honoring relationship with another person, we allow them to see God in us. This is real perfection.

We live today in a world where our coffee is ground to perfectly identical grains, where our computer perfectly transmits our ill-conceived emails, and where our phones can perfectly tell us the time the sun will rise on this date in the year 2525 (if humankind survives that long). “Perfect” is possible for any product that doesn’t depend upon human input. We mortals regularly mess up coffee making, misspell emails, and often fail to rise in time to see the sun do its thing, perfectly. We also mess up love; the one thing we flawed creatures can do well which machines will never do at all.

Perfection in love is easy to describe. To be perfect, I must in this moment, be the way Jesus was, or would be, facing the same situation. Since Jesus was fully human, this is achievable by every human being. Since he was also from God, he knew perfectly this aspect of God; God is Love. The Holy One can be mysterious about many things, but divine revelation is generous and perfectly clear about how to love. Love is a humanly doable thing.

We seek perfection in so many things that are beyond us. Why don’t we seek to be perfectly loving?

Easter 5
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Machines can perfect anything but Love.
1John 3:16-24

John asks a tough question: “how can the love of God abide in us, if we have in our hands the things someone else needs to survive, and we don’t offer what we have to help them” (I John 3:17). The context of John’s question is a call for Christians to help other Christians. This verse follows his command, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v16). Obviously, he is writing to people adjacent to people experiencing persecution. In the first three centuries of the church, the sharp focus of physical persecution (imprisonments and executions) was always surrounded by a broader circle of people losing their jobs and homes because of social prejudice, and these sufferers are surrounded in turn by people like you and I who are doing okay, but not sacrificing to help. Could such a thing happen today?

 

John’s question goes hand in hand with the way another John, John the Baptist described the kingdom of heaven, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Jesus said many similar things and he intentionally broadened this command to say that we must even share our coats with our enemies (Luke 6:29). Jesus calls us to be compassionate on both Christians and strangers, and never permitted the kind of circle drawing that we see in today’s church. Many congregations have a rule that they won’t directly help someone who not a member, or at least, a Christian. How can we abide with God and hold onto such narrow minded behavior?

 

The whole book of 1 John rotates around this concept of shaping our behavior so that we live out of our relationship with God. The word “abide” (NRSV/KJV) is translated in various ways by different bibles to speak of the kingdom of God as state of being. We are either lined up with God’s ways or living outside of them. The truth is that we can fall away, both as congregations and individuals without knowing it. We only abide in God, when we love those around us, and are willing to sacrifice on their behalf.

 

Today, racism and sexism grips both our country and our churches. We watch, without any remorse, our neighbors being economically persecuted. Families of color see their children incarcerated, or worse, for no other reason than being black in the wrong place. We have two coats, and yet we build walls and reduce the access of poor and/or rural families to healthcare. It is easy for us to water down the challenge that Jesus and the two Johns make, that we abide in God by committing ourselves to real acts of compassion.

Easter 4
Sunday, April 22, 2018
Songs and scriptures call us to abiding in love, by our love
Luke 24:36-48

Jesus has to do some pretty silly stuff to get people to believe that he’s alive. In John 20, he lets Thomas poke him in the side. In Luke 24:36-48 he eats a bit of fish. Don’t think of a nice salmon broiled with butter. No. The disciples are poor folk in Jerusalem during the height of the tourist season. The city is three days away from the sea. The fish is likely to be boney. Think a pounded piece of perch from Galilee, dried on the dock, packed in salt — the bottom of the barrel. Jesus has a resurrected body. He’s not hungry. He does it so that they will believe.

So believing is really important. We need to believe that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus. That believing in Jesus has the power to change our lives. And that Jesus died, intentionally, to save us from our sins. And that Jesus is alive again, and promises to make us alive again when we die.

Yet believing seems to be something that we can’t control. God knows that real spirituality has to be cultivated slowly and diligently in our lives. He doesn’t overwhelm us with obvious “that’s got to be God” moments. He scatters a few spiritual ah-has over the years. Yet, we are commanded to believe.

While the moment of belief seems to be out of our control, we are responsible for putting ourselves in the right place. Most of the disciples hung together, even though it was difficult, after Jesus was crucified. The came back to the upper room, swimming upstream against their doubts. They put themselves in a place, and with a fellowship, where faith was possible.

And Jesus rewarded them.

Easter 3
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Patient Jesus gets examined by a man who is not a doctor
Psalm 133

Where were you on April 4, 1968? Those of you who were not born yet may be wondering why I ask the question. I was 14 and growing into social, political, and spiritual awareness —the three are woven together — in an all-white suburb of Pittsburgh. Shortly after Dr.Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Hill District erupted in a week-long riot. The clash of police and protestors was the lead story on every news channel across the country. It was my introduction to the racial divide that still plagues our country. In that formative moment, I was prone to accept the views of my all-white friends. I don’t remember what my teachers said, but I suspect they accepted the segregated high school and community they worked in to be part of the natural order. But in a few years, I would begin to notice that the pastor and youth leaders of my church spoke of a different order; a kingdom of God where there was a hard-fought unity among all people, and a respect for diversity.

Scholars are divided about Psalm 133, which says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” They are in agreement that this is a beautiful psalm describing the joys of worship and fellowship. They disagree about whether it was written at the end of David’s life when the country was at peace, or if it was in the turbulent time after the exile, when the nation had been broken into dozens of little ethnic groups by its wars and needed to rebuild its sense of community.

What have I learned in fifty years? There can be no unity without Justice — that is the free and fair access to housing, jobs, and equal protection under the law. There can be no unity without integration — we need to learn to live and worship with people who are different from us. There can be no unity without awareness. We need to take the time to understand why it is that people are taking to the streets in 2018 and shouting Black Lives Matter. There can be no unity until we accept that we still have a problem.

In the early 1970s I read, “The Invisible Man,” by James Baldwin. Today, I would recommend anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates (he coauthored the graphic novel behind the Black Panther movie). As an author, I believe that reading can help build unity. As the adult who looks back on that child in 1968, I wonder how different my life would have been if I had chosen only to listen to the easy voices, the talk of my friends, the talk of my white suburban elders, the talk of the beautiful people, like those who appear on Fox and Friends. Unity isn’t a matter of going with the flow. It’s a struggle for truth and justice.
 

Easter 2
Martin Luther King Assassination 50th
Sunday, April 8, 2018
Peaceful protest April 7, 1968
John 20:1-18

There are two punchlines in John’s story of the first Easter: 1) John enters the tomb, sees and believes (John 20: 8) and 2) Mary Magdalene, after thinking that Jesus is the gardener, hears him call her name, and she believes (John 20:16).  In each of these, a person who is a faithful friend of Jesus, makes a quantum leap. They believe — but this is not the same thing as being saved! — in a way that moves them to a deeper spiritual state. As we celebrate Easter, those in worship are not all in the same place. Part of the duty of the story is to help move each person one step deeper. See John 20:31, where the author tells us that the reason for writing this gospel is so that we might believe in a deeper way.

 

I am indebted to father Felix Just, SJ, for his clear outline of the five stages of believing that John describes in his gospel. These remind me of Fowler, Piaget, and Kolhberg, who talk about stages of moral and spiritual development. What if we keep the five audiences below in our minds as we develop our sermons and try to help people who may be stuck at each level:

 

    1    Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs, yet refuse to believe:

    ◦    "the world"; "chief priests"; most "Jews" and Pharisees (12:37); even the "brothers of Jesus" (7:5)

    2    Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs and begin to believe, but don't fully recognize Jesus' identity:

    ◦    some crowds (6:36); some of the early "disciples" (6:64); some of "the Jews" (8:31; 11:45; 12:11)

    3    Those who come to believe in Jesus, but are evidently afraid to acknowledge their faith publicly:

    ◦    Nicodemus (3:1-10), some of "the Jews" (12:42); the parents of the man born blind (9:18-23)

    4    Those who encounter Jesus and come to believe in him, and are recognized as his disciples:

    ◦    the core group of disciples (1:50), the Samaritans (4:41-42), the man born blind (9:35-38), Thomas (20:24-29)

    5    Those who believe even without seeing signs, on the basis of hearing the words of Jesus and/or other witnesses:

    ◦    the royal official from Capernaum (4:53); Martha (believes before Lazarus is raised, 11:27); later believers, down to today (cf. the Thomas story, 20:19-29; and the first conclusion to the Gospel: 20:30-31)

 

Stage 1 - Hearing and not believing: Yes, some of these people snuck in today — they may be relatives and teens who couldn’t find a way to avoid attending church. We live in an age where religion gets blamed for everything wrong with the world. The story we want these people to see and believe, has nothing to do with politics or organized religion. It is the simple witness of God with us. Let them be John pondering the mystery of a folded napkin, or Mary, embracing the friend she just saw die. 

Stage 2 - Accepting the story of Jesus as a great man: Many of our best church leaders are here, they can’t accept the identity of Jesus as fully God. On Easter, Mary Magdalene has to let go, Jesus is more than she can grasp. Your mission today, should you choose to accept it, is to preach a miracle that goes beyond our ability to reason and pigeon hole.

Stage 3 - The private believer: I was taught that religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed in polite company; see where that got me. Jesus makes his death and resurrection a public event. The post-pentecost church can’t be private. Let this Easter take you out of your comfort zone.

Stage 4 - The recognized disciple: This is where we all pretend to be. It means that what we saw at Easter has set us on a life long challenge to live as instruments of God’s power. Discipleship is a wonderful thing, but let’s all take a moment to recognize that God practically had to knock us over the head with a two by four to get us here. We have been slow learners when it comes to spiritual things. Easter can be very successful if you just help those who are stage four to recommit to being ‘all in’ with their discipleship. We can save the next stage for next week with Doubting Thomas.

Stage 5 -  Those who believe without seeing:  These are those who have a ‘child-like’ faith. They simply know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of by our reasonable religion (Hamlet).

Easter Day
Sunday, March 27, 2016
Spiritual progress is a developmental thing
Mark 11:1-11
John 12:12-16

The story of Jesus falls into two halves; the part before Palm Sunday and the week after it. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus very rarely says or does anything overtly political. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition other than to teach and heal people. Then suddenly he comes to Holy Week and everything he does is political. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus deals with us on the level playing field of interpersonal relationships and the fair exchange of ideas. He teaches in open fields where people can interrupt him and ask him questions. He forms an intimate circle of disciples where everyday life — how are you today, Peter?—is valued. He heals by touching and his favorite miracle is having a few loaves of bread multiply as they are passed from one hungry person to another.

On Palm Sunday he exits the egalitarian world and enters politics as we know it today. As he transitions into the walled and gated city of our newsfeed world, he does three symbolic acts to ask for our vote: 1) He accepts the nomination of his followers who shout that he is Messiah or King of Jews, 2) He rides a donkey through the Eastern Gate, fulfilling prophesies relating to a new political age, 3) He has people wave palm branches, which are symbolic reminders of an earlier revolution when the Maccabeans kicked the Seleucids out of Jerusalem.

In doing this Jesus challenges our hierarchal world. In a world where Caesar is over Pontius Pilate, who is over the people of Judea, Jesus says, “You would have no authority if God hadn’t given it to you.” In the religious world where the High Priest rules over lesser priests who rule over laity, Jesus announces his own unique relationship as the son of God. His very presence in Jerusalem, the capital, circumvents the established authority.

On Palm Sunday, everyone says, “I’ll vote for him.” But having accepted that nomination Jesus is the same person that he was in Galilee. He still heals. He calls us each as individuals to leave our proud positions of honor and live compassionately. By the end of the week he is broken. “Behold the man,” Pilate says. He is hung on a cross. As he hangs there, I picture people walking by him and saying, “I didn’t vote for him either.” 

What do you say? You might be tempted to say, “I want the old Jesus back,” and “give me the Jesus I voted for.” Jesus can’t do what he came to do, without entering the walled city of our culture, our political institutions, our world. He is the same Jesus as he stands before Pilate as he is when he breaks bread with us in Holy Communion. We must live, as Karl Bart once said, with the Gospel of Jesus in one hand and our daily newspaper in the other.

Palm Sunday
Lent 7
Sunday, March 25, 2018
Newspaper in one hand and gospel in the other
Conference with workshops
Tuesday, May 1, 2018 - 6:00pm to Thursday, May 3, 2018 - 1:00pm

May 1-3 at the UMC Conference center in Des Moines, Iowa

Keynote Speaker: REV. DR. ERIC LAW  "HOLY CURRENCIES:
A PROCESS, AN ASSESSMENT TOOL AND EMPOWERMENT"

Who is Invited : 
Any church leader interested in ministry in and through transitions, especially those working as interim ministers.
Event Sponsor : 
TIIMSA
John 12:20-33
Psalm 51

I almost didn't do my blog today. As I awoke, my phone's text screen said that Francis, a family member, had passed. She was a woman of faith. As she lay in Hospice, I was working on the death scene of the novel I am doing. I found myself revisiting about Jesus' words, a seed has to die to being a seed in order to be alive as a plant. Good way to think about death. 

 

In John 12, Jesus gives a profound explanation for our lives: We are seeds. We get planted on this earth as seedy-self-centered beings. What we were before is unknown, and who we have to thank seems an irrelevant question. We live seed-illy, bumping up against other seeds, facing rejection, misunderstandings, and a general shared ignorance about life. Then the hour comes when we are cracked open and transformed. The new life, the miracle, casts our seed-shell aside. Jesus asks, “Shall I say No to this hour?”

 

Jesus is not rationalizing his upcoming death, nor is he saying, “I can’t wait to die so I can go to heaven.” He is speaking of a process. Seeds have a purpose. They are planted in a variety of soils, because spirituality has to be lived out in context. We have to confront our own self-centeredness and learn to be compassionate in our relationships with other seedy-souls. To be a seed is to be human. Life cannot be rushed. The journey is important. Jesus speaks about his death as, his hour. Timing is important. Transition is sacred.

 

I noticed something this morning; Psalm 51 is much more powerful when I hear it in church. Praying, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” and hearing the response, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” adds grace to what can be a difficult time of self awareness. Sin is a shell — I am a seed within that shell. Lord, let me live as someone who has found mercy in your miracle of new life.

 

There are two types of people in this world; those who realize that they are seeds and pray for new life, in whatever form. And, those who say, “Huh?”

Lent 5
Sunday, March 22, 2015
We don't see the big picture
Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Back before we had a treatment for rabies, you had to catch the dog that bit you and put a bit of its hair into a potion. The thinking was that having a little hair of what caused you pain could magically cure you, kind of like a day-after flu vaccine. Magical thinking prevails in the advice that a shot of alcohol in the morning will cure a hangover (Carrie Fisher’s alcohol soaked memoir is titled, “Magical Drinking”). Hence we say, “hair of the dog” when we repeat an action in miniature that got us in trouble the night before. In actuality a heavy drinker would be better off drinking water (they are usually dehydrated), and seeing a counselor (any hangover is a sign of a toxic relationship with booze), rather than taking something that delays their reentry to reality.

Moses might well have said, “hair of the dog,” or its yiddish equivalent, when the people of the Exodus were faced with snakes in the dessert. Moses had them cast a snake in bronze wrapped around a pole. People who were bit by poisonous snakes were told to look upon this snake, lifted up, and they would be cured (Numbers 21:4-9). In an unrelated bit of mythology, the Greek/Roman god of healing, Asclepius, had a pole with a snake around it, which today is the symbol for medicine. The truth behind the magical thinking is that the prayers of Moses brought forgiveness and healing to the people. In looking to the snake and pole, the people were meant to focus on their dependance upon God, and repent from the sins that had broken their faith.

Four hundred years later, that bronze snake makes a reappearance in the story of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18), where we learn that the people had made an idol out of it and were worshipping it instead of God. Magical thinking is a curse, even when it is done religiously. Like the hair of the dog, it is so close to reality that it misses by a mile. Vaccines work by giving us a little bit of the disease — but, they would kill us if they were not developed scientifically.

So we come to John 3:14-21, where we learn that Jesus’ death on the cross will function for our sins like the bronze snake that Moses lifted in the wilderness. Magical thinking transforms the cross into a good luck token around our neck. Crosses are used to kill vampires, magically. But like Moses’ prayers, Jesus’ compassion and sacrifice is really what saves us. The atonement on the cross can never be put into fully rational language, but it can be taken — and here symbols, songs, and great artwork help — into our hearts and made the focus of our faith. Just don’t make it the hair of the dog.

Lent 4
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Snake Doctor -- asclepius
Exodus 20:1-17

A good beginning is needed to carry you to the end. This is true of competitive things, stock car races and swimming. It is true of education, especially in mathematics and science. It is true of marriage and all intimate relationships. It is also true of ethics and our struggle to live as godly people. Ten commandments make a good start. Sincere believers are led from these ten commandments to the great simplification, stated by Jesus as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Because I need things even simpler, I try to follow the mantra, “Always be compassionate.” But, I need to be careful here, the starting point, or good beginning, is to have no gods or idols before the one Holy God.

The small group I was leading got into a side conversation about the sad state of the world. One of the folk summed it up by saying that the last of the Ten Commandments — the one about not coveting — was the hardest, and that our failure to rid our politics, our workplaces, and our personal lives of coveting was ruining everything. To covet means to yearn to possess something that you don’t, or can’t legitimately, own. It is based on the word for greed. We all have something or someone that we covet. Spirituality involves discipling our illegitimate impulses. If we don’t begin by choosing to hold the Holy God above all other idols — oh, the things we think will give our life meaning! — we will gladly exchange a little bit of heavenly mindedness for a chance to acquire what we want today. 

We covet things and steal. We covet other people and commit adultery. We covet freedom and betray our elderly. We covet getting ahead, and work on the Sabbath. We break all of the commandments because of our urge to covet. What breaks coveting? Loving the one true God. It is the foundation of loving the Lord our God, and honoring Him as the only Holy one, that leads us into a compassionate and right life, free of legalism.

Lent 3
Sunday, March 4, 2018
Our honoring of God as Holy leads to compassion in all areas
Mark 8:31-38

Jesus once called Peter, Satan — as in, “Get behind me, Satan.” I’ve come to think of Peter as a mother hen. He wants to protect Jesus. Keep him from any harm. I tell the people I love to be careful when they go out into icy weather. I have not yet resorted to hiding my wife’s keys when she plans to drive in the snow. That would be silly. Jesus is telling Peter that he is more than being silly. Peter’s urge to protect Jesus borders on being traitorous. He is, in this moment, Satan. For Jesus’ mission involves going to the cross. He plans on being harmed. Jesus plans on dying. That is why he reacts to Peter’s concern so dramatically.

Jesus goes on to say that each of us will go to the cross, in our own way. We must plan it into our lives. We must not let our urge to protect ourselves cause us to back away from our mission. We must not let the concerns of our loved ones keep us from doing what we are called to do. If a mother hen stands between us and doing God’s will, we call him or her Satan.

I think of Martin Luther King. As the fight for civil rights intensified, he knew it would cost him his life. He said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Montgomery, April 3, 1963).  I imagine his wife had a hard time listening to that speach. Jesus says that each of us will go on to the cross in our own way.

What does Jesus mean when he says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”?

We each pick up our cross by doing that thing for which we made. We each have our mission. We should know our crosses well. They are unique and represent the intersection of our giftedness and the humanity’s pain. Our mind, soul, and strength, are bound to our cross. But sometimes, our cross is dangerous to us. Still, what do we do? We pick up our cross anyway. 

I think of the students who are planning to walkout of their classes. I think of young people who are planning to protest against those politicians who are owned by the NRA. Surely their parents are concerned that they are doing something that may jepoardize their safety.  And not just them, I think of all the people who have had to pick up some kind of cross to fight against an injustice. I think of those who go to care for people who are sick, even though it puts them at risk. I think of those who work in dangerous occupations. If it is our mission, then we pick up our cross.
 

Lent 2
Sunday, February 25, 2018
Your cross is where your gifts intersect with the world's pain
Fox News watcher

I think a fish could avoid getting caught if he learned to bite the fisherman instead of the bait. With this week’s shooting we have once again become polarized into two camps; some want to ban machine guns, and some of my friends are going out today to buy a gun because they fear that the second amendment is about to be taken out of the constitution. Both camps are thrashing around in someones boat. Our whole society seems caught in a net of polarized madness. Gun control one of two or three issues that are filleting America. This particular hook is baited by a diabolical organization, the NRA. They have taught their members to only vote for candidates that they have approved. They have collected vast sums of money to buy our democracy away from us. Anyone who boils the complexity of who I should vote for down to a single issue is baiting my hook.
    Where else are bad people trolling the American democracy? Around issues of race, immigration, and economic class. Here the fisherman baits the hook by saying, “America used to be the kind of place where….” Whatever is said next is designed to polarize. It pits the class that had some special privilege in 1955 against the people who need today what the constitution promised us all in 1784. Hook baiters always make us look back. But today, we have a handful of people, a less than 1%, who fishing with meanness and an arrogant disregard for truth. They lure us into fighting with each other, rather than learning the ways that make for peace. Learning not to bite the hook is difficult. Learning to bite the fishermen is harder. It will require us to boycott certain products, engage in peaceful protest, and trade in our favorite news shows for something more meaty. 
 

Mark 1:9-12

We recently watched the movie, Molly’s Game. Not to spoil it, but Molly’s story runs on two levels; there is her rise and fall in the competitive world of Olympic ski competition. Then there is her rise and fall — fall, as in criminal indictment — as the runner of a high stakes poker game. In both stories, Molly has the rush of victory and the agony of defeat. While going for a medal at the winter Olympics, she has a fall that nearly kills her. She spent many months in the wilderness of a hospital. Jesus is baptized, sees heaven open up. God claims him as his son (scholars debate about how much he knew before this event described in Mark 1:9-12) and then the Holy Spirit drives him out into the agony of the wilderness, fasting for forty days and being harassed by wild animals and demons.

What are we to learn from this? The higher your jump, the more profound your fall? That is what you think you are seeing when you go to a movie like Molly’s Game. But two greater truths emerge: 1) That her inner sense of character, her soul, comes to the front because of her fall. She has the opportunity to “sell out” and shorten her stay in the wilderness, but she chooses instead the moral high ground. 2) We don’t know ourselves until we go into the dark place. We must either walk through the wilderness or live forever in the shallows of life.

What do we learn from Jesus being driven out into the wilderness? 1) That Jesus chose it. He chose fasting. He completed the full forty days that he had signed up for. We too must choose to be spiritual people, and that means suffering. 2) That the fullness of who we are as people only emerges after we go where we are totally empty.

Lent 1
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Isolation is also a part of wilderness
2 Kings 2:1-15

A man walks into a bar and says, “Make mine a double.” What he means is take a shot of whatever spirits and put it in a glass, then double it by adding another shot. It’s a very literal thing. Instead of one ounce of booze, you have two. I think we should be more literal when talking about the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have one ounce of spirit. Sometimes we have more. When Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, he is imagining a real commodity. I always tell people that spiritual passion is measurable. Our soul is real, as is our God. Religion doesn’t deal with intangibles. In spiritual matters we deal with a substance that matters. In Bible times, every son got one portion of the family estate. But the first born son got a double share of the family farm. This was a real commodity that could be measured in furlongs and feet. Is the Holy Spirit that real to you?

Let that be your starting point in the familiar story of Elijah’s chariot ride to heaven (II Kings 2:1-15. The old prophet’s sidekick, Elisha, gets a double share of the Holy Spirit. The people take a measure of the new kid. Yes, he does have a lot of spirit. So the people accept him as their new spiritual leader. We tend to miss the way this story speaks about the physicality of the Holy Spirit. It picks Elijah up (notice the chariot is made of fire), it falls in the form of a mantle, it splits the water, it manifests itself in a way that is obvious to common folk. Something this real can be doubled.
 
It can also be halved and halved again. This is what is happening to the Holy Spirit today. We barely notice Lent, even though ancient Christians used this forty day period to substantially increase their faith. We hardly ever pray with the expectation that God’s Spirit will do something tangible because of our prayers. We treat the Bible as if it is irrelevant, something you just read on the weekend if you’re into that kind of thing. We don’t speak with joy about how the Spirit connects us with Jesus the son of God. We wish for our worship to be short, not inspiring.

Take out your ruler this Lent. Measure the length, the depth, the height of the Holy Spirit in your life.

Epiphany 6
Transfiguration Sunday
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Just as fuel is quantifiable, so is Spiritual Passion
Mark 1:29-39

Mark is the Tom Clancy of the New Testament. He is an action adventure writer. His gospel moves fast. His favorite word is “immediately.” He hates the passive voice. Jesus is always doing something. As a writer, myself, I recognize the writing problem that Mark gets himself into at the end of his first chapter. Mark wants to keep the story moving, but he also wants to give us details about how Jesus spent his days. The Bible’s other authors would have written a few paragraphs about what Jesus often did, or the nature of his habits. “Often” and “routine” are not in Mark’s adventure packed vocabulary.

Many Bible scholars think that Mark, also known as John-Mark, is Peter’s ghost writer. The impulsive fisherman didn’t have time to put words to paper. Mark didn’t want to waste the reader’s time, or attention span, with talk of what Jesus ate for breakfast or how often he went to the gym. Instead, he gives us a fast paced account of a single day. He implies that this is what its like to follow Jesus. We are left thinking that being a disciple is too high stress, 24/7, type A, a thing for our lives (not that I’m criticizing Mark). Yet, Mark is an antidote to the ho-hum, gentle and mild, church-is-boring, way we have settled into this Christianity thing. 

Lent starts in another week and a half. We do well to remember that the reason Mark rips through the beginning of Jesus’ story is because he wants to take us to the cross. The event that reshapes all of human history doesn’t happen along the quaint Galilean shore, it’s in Jerusalem — bloody and passionate — and there, oddly enough, Mark slows down to bring our work-a-day world to a stop.

So every day with Jesus isn’t like the one described in Mark 1:21-39. But they all contain the same elements:

  • Mark 1:21 - The application of scripture to real life. Jesus taught with authority because he knew that the Bible was relevant to the needs of everyday people like us.
  • Verses 23-27 - A willingness to confront the most difficult spiritual problems of the day, every day, especially on Sunday. 
  • Verse 28 - Going public. Go big or go home. Jesus made news.
  • Verses30-34 - Jesus brought healing everywhere. Who will he be for us today? Our healer.
  • Verse 35 - Prayer, private worship, and checking in with the soul, are the most consistent aspects of daily Christian life.
  • Verses 36-39 - Jesus goes on the road to find new people. We need diversity. We need to go to those who are not like us.
Epiphany 5
Sunday, February 4, 2018
It takes motionless meditation to be as good at action as Jesus was
Mark 1:21-28
Matthew 5:21-32

When Jesus went into the local synagog people were amazed because he taught with authority. They were used to hearing long discussions about what constituted work on the sabbath and who was allowed to marry whom. A meeting began with the phrase, “Rabbi so and so says X, and Rabbi such and such says Y…” and continued until all parties were exhausted. Normal people went home, fed the kids, planted the fields, and watched the sunset. Jesus began differently. “You have heard in the past… I tell you, ‘love your neighbor.’”

Before Jesus, there had been much discussion about what constituted murder. Is abortion murder? Is it murder if you go to war in a far off jungle and set huts on fire to kill the one enemy hiding among a hundred peasants? Is it murder if you allow the industry that you work for to put a cancer causing chemical into the water? But Jesus said, “Anyone who remains angry at another person is committing murder” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Before Jesus there was a raging debate about how much people should donate, that is, pay in temple tax or place upon the altar for distribution to the poor. Jesus came and said, “If you have a broken relationship with another person, go and heal that break before going to worship or working at a charity” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Before Jesus, we used to debate about when to lawyer up and/or sue someone (Matthew 5:25). We had complicated laws about adultery and divorce (Matthew 5:27-32). Jesus came and taught with authority. He told us to always be compassionate. The whole of the Gospel from the first chapter of Mark to the day Jesus ascended into heaven can be stated in one word, love. Jesus had authority because he never compromised or made our moral choices more complicated than they needed to be. If an action can't be done with real compassion and respect for everyone involved, it shouldn't be done. Loving others is the one task of Jesus’ followers.

After Jesus, we went back to business as usual. Demons quietly took charge of our civic organizations, politics, and even our churches. No one had the authority to kick them out. The last thing that Jesus said to his followers was, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Then he gave the Holy Spirit to those he left behind so that they might have his authority to go into this hurting world and be compassionate. Anyone who knows Jesus can be “an authority” by simply choosing to love the people around them without compromise.

That is all that I know.  

Epiphany 4
Sunday, January 28, 2018
What is written is not that hard: be compassionate
Mark 1:14-20

Jesus calls people to follow him. I am always amazed that the first people he called “left everything.” I put myself in their sandals and say, “I wouldn’t follow Jesus today, because it snowed three inches overnight and I have to shovel us out first.” Peter and James may not have had snow, but they had fish to be taken to market, nets to be mended, elderly parents, households to take care of, etc. Looking closely at the story (Mark 1:14-20), I see that John the Baptist had already prepared these people. When we listen to Jesus, our hearts have already been prepared by the scriptures we have learned, the people who lived as Christians before us, the dark traumas of our own lives when God was our only help and consolation. These things are in our past, Jesus is before us, do we follow him?

When people follow him they join up for the same experience the first disciples had:

  1. They become a part of a small group working together to know Jesus. Think the Hobbit. Think of the tightest team you’ve ever been a part of — I ran cross-country and had a very close relationship with the guys on my high school team the year before I became a Christian. If you follow Jesus, he will call you to be a part of a small group.
  2. Hands on experience of helping people. Jesus didn’t ask people to give money to a mission project. He asked people to follow him and do as he did as he met the needs of people. 
  3. A journey to the cross. Lent is coming. Will you follow Jesus more intentionally this year, even if it put some of what you value now at risk? 
Epiphany 3
Sunday, January 21, 2018
They are ready to follow Jesus
John 1:43-51
Psalm 139

John wants to tell us what he found remarkable about Jesus (John 1:43-51). He tells us that Jesus was the invisible word that God used to make the universe, and we say, “Yes, but how is that relevant to me?” John then tells us how John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus, and we say, “Yes, but how is that relevant to me?”  Then John gets right down to it. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. Andrew brings his brother to meet Jesus. Jesus says to Peter, “I know you.” Phillip bring Nathaniel to Jesus. Jesus immediately makes Nathaniel aware that he really knows him well, even though they have never physically met. Now it’s your turn. You are brought to Jesus. And he says, “I know you.” Then you discover that Jesus is the teacher that you need right now. If you choose to walk with Jesus, you will discover that Jesus knows you better than you know yourself.

There is an anonymous saying, possibly originating in eastern mysticism, which says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” These words speak to how we learn things. The process by which we make those quantum leaps in our lives, involves two things; first, our own inner maturity developing to a certain point, and second, an intervention by someone else who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

None of the first disciples were really looking for Jesus when they found him. True, Nathaniel seems to have been very religious and searching for something. Until he came to this moment though, he didn’t know enough to know that he needed Jesus. When he was ready, though, Jesus came to him. Jesus became his teacher. He became a disciple, someone who is ready to learn.

I feel that this has happened to me at a number of pivotal points in my life. When I met the woman who has been my mate for forty-three years, I was actively dating, but I wasn’t really looking for her. A year later, I was ready to move on. But God (yes, I blame him), allowed things to happen in my life that showed me that I had a lot to learn from this relationship. The same thing happened when I became serious about writing. I had dabbled in a variety of creative outlets, but at the right time, God sent into my life the particular teachers and role models that I needed to become an author.

May your prayers on this passage deepen your sense of vocation. 

Epiphany 2
Sunday, January 14, 2018
Jesus interrupts people who don't know that they are looking for him
Genesis 1:1-5

Some people take a long time to get to the point. The Bible takes ten words to get to it. Ten words and we are told that before God spoke the “Word” the earth was a formless nothing. All of creation was face-less. Nothing had any distinction. It was dark. It was meaningless. Total entropy — physics speak for everything being without information, chaotic, and at its lowest energy state. Goo. The pits. 

I’m glad not to have known it. When we have trauma. When we lose a loved one. When our hopes are dashed. When the doctor says “cancer” or “terminal.” We visit the outer most edge of this hell. But God’s spirit has already hovered over this void. The creator came to know the total accumulation of everything that depresses us. It was dark. God said, “Let there be light.”

This is how the Bible begins. It doesn’t begin with an argument against evolution. It begins by telling us that there was once such a deep hopelessness that there could never be anything. God acted. He spoke into being the complexity of creation. I suspect that God used evolution, for Darwin tells us that this process enables there to be diversity. Life is bent on filling every niche. It is bent on being good, because this is what God spoke into existence. 

When we lack purpose in life, here’s the point. In less than ten words the Bible can restore our sense of wonder and hope. I’m glad to have known that.

When bad things happen to us, we poke our minds outside of the created order that God has gifted us with, and for a moment, feel the pre-existent void. We don’t have to stay there. It, however, gives us a new perspective. From this darkness, we can be creative.

Epiphany 1
Sunday, January 7, 2018
beyond creation, only nothing