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.
For: 
October 8, 2017
Exodus 20:1-17
Pentecost 22

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?

For: 
October 1, 2017
Matthew 21:23-32
Pentecost 21

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.

For: 
September 24, 2017
Matthew 20:1-16
Luke 10:38-42
Pentecost 20

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.

For: 
September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35
Pentecost 19

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.

For: 
September 10, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14
Pentecost 18

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.

For: 
September 3, 2017
Exodus 3:5-12a
Pentecost 17
Labor Day Weekend

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.

For: 
August 27, 2017
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Pentecost 16

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).

For: 
August 20, 2017
Isaiah 56:1-8
Matthew 15:10-28
Pentecost 15

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.

For: 
August 13, 2017
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Pentecost 14

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. 

 

For: 
August 6, 2017
Genesis 32:22-31
Pentecost 13
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.

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.

For: 
July 30, 2017
Psalm 128
Pentecost 12

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.

For: 
July 23, 2017
Psalm 139
Pentecost 11

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.

For: 
July 16, 2017
Matthew 13:1-9

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.

For: 
July 9, 2017
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Pentecost 9

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