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

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.

For: 
July 2, 2017
Genesis 22:1-14
Micah 6
Pentecost 8

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.

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.

For: 
June 25, 2017
Romans 6:1-11
Pentecost 7

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.

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.

For: 
June 13, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Pentecost 6
Father's Day

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.

For: 
June 11, 2017
Genesis 1
Psalm 8
Trinity Sunday
Pentecost 2

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:

For: 
May 30, 2017
1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Pentecost 1
Day of Pentecost
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.
For: 
May 28, 2017
John 17:1-13
Eastertide 7
Ascension Sunday

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