Archive for 2019

Luke 13:1-9

The events of this past week reminded me of what Thomas Friedman wrote about how people adjusted to the random horror of the civil war in Lebanon. The conflict reached the point where mortar rounds fell indiscriminately on both the rich and the poor neighborhoods of Beirut, on both the Christians and the Muslims, on both the loyalists and the rebel sympathizers. It didn’t matter which side you were on, you died. Jesus was in a similar Middle-eastern city when people asked him to comment the unfortunate victims of Pontus Pilate’s killing spree. Like Thomas Friedman, Jesus was blunt in accepting the total unavoidability of life’s traumas. Whether you are a good person, who never misses church, or a bad person, who sneers at God, a mad gunman may pop out of the darkness and shoot you in the parking lot of Cracker Barrel.

 

The human heart is not built for such randomness. We crave for order in all of life. Friedman describes how the people of Beirut developed complicated folk cures for the daily violence. They said, “Don’t shop between 11 am and 1 pm,” or “Walk on the right hand side of the street when you go   west.” In Kalamazoo, the news interviewed a man who was planning to walk home from a party, but when he heard that someone was shooting people, decided to call for an Uber cab.

 

Jesus said, unless you repent, you will fare just like one of these victims (Luke 13:3). What do I need to repent of? I used to think he meant that I should get saved, but that doesn’t fit the context. Jesus never teaches that his religion will bring certainty to those of us who struggle with life’s randomness. This is an area where evangelical preaching often strays far from Jesus’ whole message. In a nutshell, Jesus calls us to live as people of compassion in every moment. We are not to expect our religion to coat us with teflon so that bullets bounce off. We are instead, to live as if we were a man going up from Jericho to Jerusalem. We do not know if on this journey we will fall victim to random violence, or if we will have an opportunity to bring healing to a broken person that we un-expectantly stumble upon.  The only thing we know for sure, is that the kingdom of God is among us. This is grace.

 

We all share a theological error with the unfortunate people who Pilate killed as they were going into the temple to make their offering. We all seek to join something, sacrifice something, or believe something, that will protect us like an amulet from evil. Will my family be safer if I vote for Trump or Bernie Sanders? Will our jobs be more secure if we unionize? Will I be healthier if I decaffeinate my coffee or put saccharine in my tea? Fanaticism is born in such religious hopes. The Jesus that no one listens to, is the one who blesses us with the paradoxes of the beatitudes, who insists that those who morn will be comforted, and who calls us to love even our enemies.

 

Jesus follows up the question about the random violence in Jerusalem, Beirut, and Kalamazoo, with a parable about a fig tree. This must have been frustrating to his hearers who wanted him to tell them how being saved, baptized as an adult, and voting republican, would prevent them from falling victim to such tragedies. We each are like fig trees that God has planted in fertile ground. We have the constant sunshine of our relationships with others, though often human sin interrupts things, just as storms affect the fig tree. Never the less, most of us get enough love from others to grow into mature adults. What does God expect now? The fruits of compassionate living. I know no other preparation for the coming time of judgement, than to do our best with the spiritual gifts and relationships that God has gifted us with.

To this child, the reason for the shelling doesn't matter
Lent 3
Psalm 27

He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...

Psalm 27 does an odd thing, it has a number of high security phrases like, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life,” and “set me high upon a rock.” It appeals to the fortress mentality of our faith, as if to say that is the reason for religion. It being Lent, I was struck by the wilderness and the 'seeking God for God’s sake' quality of the Psalm. David is saying, I only want to seek the Lord’s face, nothing else matters. What David really found in the wilderness wasn’t security from madman Saul, but the mystery of God in the night. Jesus also retreated into the wilderness and into his all night prayer sessions, not because he found people threatening, but because the mystery of seeking to know God is fundamental to the human experience.

 

The common book of prayer does an apt thing in the responsive reading of Psalm 27:5, instead of  speaking about God’s tabernacle, it says, “He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...” How important are the secrets of God to us? It is easy to get the wrong idea about our reason for practicing religion. It’s not like we go to church to buy an insurance policy. I know this doesn’t preach as easily as the fortress aspects of Psalm 27. Jesus wasn’t going for the easy message when he told Nicodemus that the spirit of God that allows us to be reborn is like the wind, blowing where you do not expect it (John 3:5-9).

 

It is not possible to do Lent without pausing for ecstasy. Young John and Jesus’ mother Mary were not just filled with grief as they watched Jesus die; they were transformed by the mystery of it all. This informs every word John uses to tell the story, from “we have beheld his glory” (John 1:14) to Revelation’s final amen. It is the reason for religion that Job found after all his troubles and seeking to see God. That old seer, melted away repenting in dust and ashes (Job 42:1-6). There are worse ways to do Lent.

The ecstasy of St. Francis by Caravaggio
Lent 2
Luke 4:1-13

One of the ways I worked my way through school was by servicing vending machines in the papermill in Millinocket. I can tell you that making paper is a brutal process. It begins with a lot of steam and grinding great trees into little bits. The shredded wood is further mashed until each fiber is broken and the dirt and bark separated out. It is then thrown into acid and boiled and bleached. When the mash is the consistency of oatmeal, it is spread out on a great rolling felt. This forms the pulp into a continuous ribbon that is sent through a vast series of hot steel rollers, until the paper is thinned to the needed thickness and dry enough to be cut into sheets. All the way along the process, bits are pulled off and rejected. But that is not the end of things for the wrinkled or discolored paper. Every scrap is sent back to the beginning and recycled until its right. And lent, is a similar process.

A process is a series of sequential events that are guided by a master, in this case God, to take raw material, or people, from one way of being and transform them into a more useful end product. A process always involves some experiences that break down the raw material, or us. We go to Ash Wednesday and face our mortality and our own sinfulness. Bleach, steam, and acid. Our pulpy pride is broken down. There is then an endless series of rollers. Pressure until we are conformed to the person we are meant to be. Prayer isn't a passive thing. These forty days are meant to transform us.

Just as wood is processed into paper, so are sinners transformed to saints
Lent 1
Those in the outer circle may be a third of UMC's membership

I think every United Methodist congregation and church leader should prepare for the uncharted territory that lies ahead for our denomination. Those of us who followed the Special General Conference closely, need to be careful to be both realistic about the likely consequences of the adopted Traditional Plan and patient with the ongoing decision-making process of the larger church.

First, we should say that just taking a vote never ends the discussion on significant issues relating to social justice, scriptural interpretation, and individual conscience. Those with a more progressive theology have been put on notice that our denomination will not be accepting homosexual clergy-persons for the foreseeable future. There are judicial council rulings that will affect how this decision applies to current clergy, bishops, and conference practices, but these legalities are unlikely to reverse the direction we are now headed. Anyone who states that this legislation lacks teeth is diminishing the work of the delegates in St. Louis. Like it or not, the 2019 General Conference has set an agenda for the United Methodist Church and its mission. A more conservative wind is blowing.

Second, the delegates seriously explored and prayed about each proposal. They voted with apprehension, knowing that no matter what was chosen there would be undesirable consequences. No one can predict if the denomination will be larger or smaller in five years because of this decision.

The adopted Traditional Plan will force some members, congregations, and church leaders to leave the United Methodist Church. Think of this exodus as three concentric circles. There are those clergy and laity who must leave because the church no longer recognizes the loving and covenantal relationships they have entered into, or because they are being asked to accept a gender identity which they feel is false. Surrounding this small inner circle of people who must leave, is a much larger circle of people who may choose to go with them because they have LGBTQ family members, respected coworkers, and friends, whose personal testimony is more persuasive than the church's teachings on this issue. Then surrounding these two circles is a vast throng that may number a third of the United Methodist Church's total membership. These people view LGBTQ rights as a social justice issue. These people are now making difficult decisions about their future relationship with their church. Whatever we feel about the issues, or the scriptures, or the decades that our church has spent going around and around about human sexuality, we dare not casually dismiss those who find themselves in one of these circles.

Our next steps must be guided by prayer without prejudice. Without bias, we must mourn the loss of every member. Even those we disagree with must know the compassion we have for them.

My friend Joe Fort of the Texas Annual Conference offers what is probably a realistic assessment:

Sadly, I do not believe that any decisions the church renders on this matter are going to cause us to grow.  Had the One Church Plan passed, I think we would have seen a large exodus of conservatives from the worldwide church.  But I also think there could be a mini-exodus now.  Truthfully, I believe most of the progressives, while upset right now, will stay in the game and believe that sooner or later the votes will go the other way.  Passing the Traditional Plan does not end the debate forever.  Even if the Judicial Council rules the amended version to be constitutional (not requiring a “super majority” vote in the Annual Conferences), my guess is that we will continue the fighting in 2020.  It is possible that a few very progressive congregations will want to exit, but I’d be surprised if this is a great number.

My guess is that even though the Traditional Plan passed, there will be a few very conservative pastors and congregations that still want out.  This will be because they sense what happened this week is not going to end the debate, and they are done talking about it.  I can think of a handful of churches in our Conference, particularly because of the theological stances of their pastors, that may be led this way over the months ahead.  But again, the bottom line is:  no matter where you stand on this issue, we aren’t going to have people flocking into the UMC either way.  More likely, we’re going to lose some folks.

(from an email dated 2/28/2019)

The above being said, it is important that local church leaders develop a tool box related to this issue. I'm working with a talented team of transitional leaders to produce a resource we are calling, "Help! My Church is Leaving Me." Available mid-May 2019 from www.notperfectyet.com and Amazon.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
United Methodist General Church
Luke 9:28-36
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

Think of your front door. Imagine that particular spot in your house where inside meets outside. I don't want you to focus on the door, but on the opening. Here is where you welcome friends, family, pets, and gifts, into your house. Here is also where you turn people away because you don't want to deal with them; Jehovah witnesses, "go away." UPS package, "Oh, I'll sign for that." Here is where you pause to button your coat and decide if you need an umbrella. The most important thing about this space is not the door, but the space. You know, religion is like that.

 

There is a Taoist saying: “Cut doors and windows for a room. It is the holes that make it useful.” 

 

The same can also be said about a piece of Tupperware. The most important thing about the plastic bowl or the bag that you put your leftovers in, is not the plastic or the how the little seal at the top takes a yellow stripe and a blue stripe and makes a green one. No. It's the fact that the container has enough space for what you want to put in it. 

 

A beautiful vase is made mostly of space. Without the emptiness inside it, a tennis ball won't bounce. We tend to think that religion is about what we do; the songs that we sing, the offerings that we bring, and the words that the preacher says. Religion is really about the meeting space, the doorway, the emptiness, the wilderness, and the mountaintop where people and God meet. 

 

For about two years, or so, Jesus has been doing things with his disciples. He has been busy. We read about his miracles. We try to make sense of what he taught. He's also been training his disciples to be compassionate and preparing his people to come together and form his church. But Jesus knows what lies ahead. He is really at the mid-point of his mission. And at mid-points it is good to pause, take stock, and reconnect with what matters for the journey.

 

The important things about what happens in 9th chapter of Luke is not how Jesus' appearance is changed. That is the door. Remember, the important thing is the empty space the door passes through.

 

Next week we begin Lent and our focus shifts for forty days to how Jesus went to Jerusalem and did his work on the cross. That's what lies ahead, once we cross the doorway. Pause in this space. Turn around and look behind you. Back there is Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, and Super Bowl Sunday. All those celebrations are like the nick-knacks of our house. Too much clutter, too much junk. We pause for this moment to consider this empty place. We are at the mid-point of our journey with Jesus.

 

So, Jesus takes three of his disciples up on the mountain in the middle of the night. They looked around. They see nothing but darkness and emptiness. Suddenly, Jesus is transfigured before them. That's an odd word. Transfigured. I only get to say it once a year. What does it mean? It doesn't mean the door. It means the empty space the door swings through. The disciples see Jesus changed. Could it also be that they are really seeing God in him for the first time? Just like you meet strangers at your front door. Jesus has swung aside and for a moment. Then mystery: God, Peter, James, John, Moses, Elijah, you and I, are all meeting in this empty space.

 

When do we get to experience transfiguration in our lives? I have enough faith to believe it will happen for each of us when we die. Death itself is only a door, the important thing is the space we pass through. I also know that it can happen in the wilderness places of our lives. When we have a sudden loss. When we fail at something, or do something that we are ashamed of. When we have a serious illness. When we lie alone on a bed of affliction. Each of these things are only doors. It is the empty space that makes for religion.

Being abstract is helpful. Each transformation looks different.
Transfiguration Sunday
Epiphany 8
Luke 6:27-38
Psalm 37

There are three ways for someone to become our enemy. First, they can threaten us or the people we love. Second, they can block our ambitions or dreams. Third, they can lie about us or what we believe. Take a few minutes now to identify experiences you have had with each type of enemy.

Jesus had all three types of enemies. Jesus’ enemies threatened both him and his disciples. In fact, these type one enemies made good on their threats both by crucifying Jesus and threatening his church. Jesus’ enemies sought to block his ambition to bring healing and salvation to the whole world. Jesus’ enemies lied about him and intentionally misrepresented everything that he taught. One could make the case that Jesus’ enemies were a lot more successful than the enemies we face. Very few of us are likely to be threatened with crucifixion. We aren’t likely to totally blocked, as Jesus was, as we attempt to do our life’s work. We may be lied about, but our tormentors will be amateurs compared to the pros that the devil sent to attack Jesus. Even today, the name of Jesus is under attack. But, the wrong people say about us is likely to be buried with our bones, to misquote Shakespeare.

Yet, Jesus both modeled and taught compassion as a response to ones enemies. He walked the talk. He did what he told us to do when he said:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31)

Jesus doesn’t distinguish between type one enemies and type three enemies. He doesn’t distinguish between moderate enemies and total jerks. He doesn’t have one response for those who are merely annoying and another for enemies who are dangerous. He says, “Love them all.”

But to us, enemies are very specific. We enjoy dividing them into types. Sometimes we even take pride in saying that our current enemy is uniquely evil. I may say that I don’t have to love this person because they are unredeemable. That is the meaning of the word “damn,” and Jesus tells us not to use it. I may say that this relationship is too complicated for me to be compassionate. Have I prayed for wisdom that I may be compassionate? Saying that compassion is beyond our ability is a particularly pernicious form of false humility. It is to claim that God is out of control or mistaken in this particular instance. Yet we often put our hand up and say, “Lord this is too complicated for you.”

We feel this way because we are problem solvers. Jesus didn’t solve the problem of his enemies. When they hung him on the cross, he forgave them. In all of his relationships he was compassionate. Some relationship problems cannot be solved. Enemies are complicated. Don’t wait for an answer. Start today to love that person. Follow Jesus, not your pride in being a problem solver.

I don’t know if Jesus was helped as I have been by Psalm 37. There we learn the following:

37:2 That enemies don’t last long. Look for them in a few years and you won’t find them. In fact you may even forget you ever disliked them.

37:7 That patience and waiting for God to act is the only “problem solving” that really works.

37:11 That the meek will inherit the earth. Someone else said the same thing.

37:16 It’s better to be poor and happy that rich and everyone’s enemy.

There’s more, but that’s enough for now. You get the picture that trusting God is the opposite of considering certain people to be beyond our compassion.

MLK is one of the best modern examples of doing what Jesus teaches
Epiphany 7
Luke 6:17-26

If my knees ever give out, I may give up on photography. Thankfully, I currently have good knees and also a real enjoyment for photography. I learned early on that the best pictures were taken on my knees. Get low and close is the rule for taking pictures of children, pets, flowers, and many other living things. If I want to take a picture of a butterfly, I put on my close-up (90 mm macro) lens and position myself at or below a flower that is being frequented by the creatures and wait. A similar process is needed to hear and understand what Jesus teaches. You get low and close. You position yourself and you wait. You still yourself with the understanding that God’s word is a living thing.

I noticed for the first time this week that Jesus’ most important group of teachings, the Beatitudes (Sermon on Mount in Matthew and Sermon on the Plane in Luke) occur immediately after a period in which Jesus is healing and traveling in the midst of common people. Those who were with Jesus when he sat down to teach, already were low, humble, and waiting with expectation. When he said, “Blessed are the poor,” he was mostly surrounded by those who were poor. To those bowed down to meekness by their circumstances, he said, “you are already in position to inherit the earth.” 

Because we aren’t there, in the same place as those crowds, we are reluctant to consider Jesus’ promises of blessing as something that is already happening. Those who were blessed in Jesus’ sermon were the same people who saw the blessings of his healing touch and his compassionate lifestyle. We tend to put these blessings up in heaven. Those who encountered Jesus looked for his blessing to be right now, on this earth. We have a lot to learn from them.

When Jesus says "Blessed are the poor...," he isn't commanding us to give things away and make ourselves poor (he does that elsewhere). He is instead saying that the poor already are blessed with spiritual understandings. We need to learn to position ourselves on their level. The best way to do this is by ministry with the poor. This involves listening and discovering by cooperation how they are already blessed.

Are we in a position to see God's blessings?
Epiphany 6
Luke 5:1-11
"Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."

Those who fish well have certain spiritual gifts. They feel the water and know from the temperature what bait fish will be hungry for. They look at how cloudy the water is and choose the right lure. They view the lake from the fishes’ point of view and know what particular inlets the fish will congregate in according to the hour of the day and the season. These are precisely the skills Jesus was looking for when he chose the first disciples. As we learn to be his disciples today, we must develop a similar sensitivity for those outside the church.

    At the lakeshore, there are two worlds. There is the world of air, bright light, and bipedal locomotion. Then, there is the submerged world where light filters through dimly and diminishes with depth. Sound travels quickly in this world and its creatures are often more sensitive to the direction a word is traveling from than to its content. We live in the airy world of the church. We think that if we say the right things, that is enough. Every action a congregation takes in this world comes from somewhere. If it comes from love and acceptance, we will be effective in bringing people out of the depths of sin. Transparency and authenticity matters more than doctrinal clarity when it comes to speaking to those who are outside the church.

    There is boundary between the world of water and the world of air. It is hard for the fish to imagine the what lies beyond the surface. The air water boundary reflect back to them, like a mirror. Where they have inner fear, they sense only judgement from the church and God above. Even their sense of what is wholesome and beautiful may be distorted by the passage of light through lens of the water’s surface. The pagans of the Roman world accused the early church of being cannibalistic when they celebrated communion. We need today, disciples who will be like scuba divers, passing through the barrier between church and secular world.

    Jesus didn’t start with a blank slate when he called disciples. He started with natural gifts that could be spiritually transformed. May it continue to be so in our lives. May we each become fishers of men.

Good fishing involves crossing the boundary between worlds
Epiphany 5
Luke 4:21-30
No prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.

Luke 4:20-30 invites us to picture Jesus leading worship for the first time back in his home town of Nazareth. He's made a reputation for himself on the road. It's said he's been doing miracles in Capernaum. Making water turn into wine in Canna. Marrying gay folk in California, or whatever the first century equivalent of that would be. People back home are wondering about him. The grumpy old man who once caught a boy he thought looked like Jesus stealing apples from his tree, sits in the back of the sanctuary. He wears a hat that says, "Make Nazareth Great Again."

In that setting, Jesus doesn't need to preach on any hot-button topic to get people angry with him. He just has to appear to be caring more for other people than he does for his own people. As human beings, we expect people to root for the home team. I once almost got beat up for wearing a Steeler shirt in Cleveland. It is as people say, "keep it local." But this is the one thing Jesus failed to do. The verse we teach our children is, "For God so loved the world, that he sent his only son..." (John 3:16). Jesus came as a missionary to the whole planet. His parting words to his disciples were, "Go unto all nations..." (Matthew 28:19). 

In last week's blog, we saw Jesus dealing with the wall that exists between rich and poor (see http://billkemp.info/content/jesus-and-wall). Here he goes over the wall between us and those we consider foreign or different. He does this in two ways: First, by physically placing himself where he encounters the foreigner. Even though his travel was limited to where he could walk, he took his disciples over the border and into what is modern day Lebanon. He sat down and ate with outcasts, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He asked a woman of Samaria to give him a drink from the well, even though his speaking to her violated everything that he had learned growing up in Nazareth. No wonder his own people were angry at him.

Second, Jesus used the scriptures to show that all of the great people of the Old Testament went over the wall and lived with foreigners. Jesus' own stories, which have become our scriptures, always showed foreigners in a good light. We tell the story of the Good Samaritan as if it deals with helping the widow next door get her groceries. If you look at it in context, it has more to do with helping the Guatemalan refugee. Jesus asks us, "Who do you consider to be your neighbor?"(Luke 10:25-37). Every time we draw the circle to wall off those who aren't related to us, or the same race as we are, or of the same political affiliation as we are, Jesus goes over that wall and leaves us alone. Get angry if you want to, I'm just saying it.

We can learn to love those who are different from us
Epiphany 4
Luke 4:14-21
...he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

I have a confession. Throughout my thirty odd years of full-time ministry in the local church, I never had the financial reserves to survive a month without pay. If any of those churches had decided to skip a paycheck or two, I would have been in immediate hardship. I am middle-class and serve a denomination that mandates that its clergy be paid. I have, though, attended poverty simulation seminars, where like someone in a friendly game, I have spent an hour trying to imagine a life without such privilege. As Louis Armstrong sang, "Jeepers creepers Rufus Brown, what you going to do when the rent comes round?"

Jesus didn't have to imagine poverty. He lived it intimately, daily. He also knew the consequences of political oppression, paternalism, militarism, and prejudice. Slavery was common, so was crucifixion. On his first visit back to his home town, he chose to read to the people gathered for worship from the scroll of Isaiah these words, "he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free..." (Luke 4:18). If he were reading that same scroll today, I imagine him not stopping there. I expected him to keep on going, and say, "Oh yes, and recovery of back pay for those employed by the government."

Let me put this into perspective. Since the beginning of time, those with means have shown little restraint in screwing over those who are born poor, or on the wrong side of a border, or to the wrong family. What is different about the current government shut down, is that people with privilege, who once upon a time made a promise to uphold justice, have decided to go one step further and screw over middle-class people. 

I have always loved the local church. That never kept me from needing to get paid. People who work for the government, by in large, love our country. That does not justify withholding what is due to them. Now is not the time to blame them for failing to set aside a cash reserve. Now is not the time to be surprised that they lack the negotiating skills needed to get creditors off their backs.

What would Jesus do? I think Jesus would call this a teachable moment. There is a wall that exists between the middle class and the generationally poor. Statistics show how difficult in America it is for a child born in certain zip codes to get into the middle class. We are no longer the land of opportunity. We have become the land of, "I've got mine and I don't know what your problem is." This wall is immoral. I'm not talking about the one the president wants. I'm talking about the one that already exists between the poor and the middle class. Teachable moments, like the one I had when I realized that I could not have made it through a shut-down of my paycheck when I worked for the church, help us to see this invisible wall.

Further, Jesus doesn't want his church to only care about religion. Martin Luther (the one in the 16th century) said that we are to be Christs to our neighbors. The church, and each of us, must go out into the world and proclaim good news to the poor. Where we see oppression and racism we must act -- the journey of the civil rights movement goes on. Justice delayed is justice denied. When we see those in high office mistreating our workers (people we employ by the payment of our taxes), we should call them into account. Wherever we see injustice in this world, we should proclaim a new day. The day of the Lord's favor begins with us.

A thin wall separates wealth and poverty
Epiphany 3
He asks, "Why are you out there?"

I think of Martin Luther King as a modern prophet. It's been said that if the canon of scripture wasn't closed, his Letter from a Birmingham Jailwould deserve a place beside Isaiah and the Apostle Paul. We are in the midst of a time of mass demonstrations. King wrote that letter to explain why he came from Atlanta to Birmingham to organize the protests there. He wrote it to the clergy-persons, who believed the fake news that those in the streets were being organized by malevolent actors. He writes, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their 'thus says the Lord' far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." As I look at the photo, I am reminded that bringing about real social change is costly. King was a martyr in all the religious connotations of that word. He reminds us that to be faithful we each must be willing to go where our faith sends us.  Read more of the letter at: Letter_Birmingham

John 2:1-11

What causes you to believe? I like watching the old Perry Mason episodes on TV. Perry is defense lawyer and he is always going to court for a client that everyone believes is guilty. The hour of the show works like this: the show begins with one person saying to another, "I wish you were dead." The second person invariably ends up murdered and the police collect evidence that makes it pretty easy for the DA, Mr. Burger, to prove that Perry's client did indeed murder the person that they had wished dead. For some reason, though, Perry believes in his client and has the patience to follow a faint trail of bread crumbs until leads him to the real murderer. In the last fifteen minutes of the show, Perry leads the court through a series of witnesses that prove his client couldn't have done it. The guilty party is then forced into a confession. After the commercial, Perry's secretary always asks him how he believed in the client when no one else did. Perry smiles and shakes his head, as if it would be so logical if they had believed in his client from the beginning like he did.

 

Is faith in Jesus like that? Note that in every Perry Mason episode we, the viewers, find ourselves first believing one thing, then brought to doubt, then brought to believe in something else. This happens relatively rarely in real life. We are all victims of something called confirmation bias. We decide, sometimes on the basis of very little evidence, that something is true. We might use a particular brand of soap, because we believe it works better than another. Even with a side by side test, or an article in Consumer Reports that rates our product last, we remain true believers. We might be in a problematic relationship. They might be abusive. Still, because of this thing that psychologists call confirmation bias, we stick with them. On the other hand, our neighbor might be a good and decent person, yet because of prejudice or a false rumor that we accepted, we might not trust them. 

 

John begins his gospel with a series of seven little miracle stories. John assumes that his reader doesn't believe in Jesus. He has an uphill task, as he writes, for most people in his day and in ours, have a confirmation bias against really believing in Jesus. Oh, most people think Jesus was a great man and had something to do with religion. But few today really see Jesus as the son of the true God sent to earth to save us. John, though, remembers when he overcame his own bias against Jesus. John remembers standing there watching water being taken from a jar and as it is offered to the host of the wedding party, it becomes wine. This is the moment when John's confirmation bias is overcome.

 

For the rest of his gospel John is like Perry Mason. He calls forth his witnesses one by one. The wedding of Cana is the first of seven episodes. In it a few people really see what is happening. Everyone drinks the wine and wonders where it came from. Everyone has a good time. But only John and a few others see both the miracle and the meaning of it. If Jesus makes new wine and offers it abundantly for all, then the era of God's grace must be beginning. The good news is that our dull lives can be changed, just as this wash water can become the finest wine.  

 

All of this is hidden in the first miracle. Not everyone can be Perry Mason and believe from the beginning. But we all can change. There is not a single person who can't give up their prejudice and worldliness and become a believer in Jesus Christ. The last of the seven miracles involves a man who has been dead for four days. Even Jesus' disciples don't believe that he can do anything for the man named Lazarus. John tells us how Jesus had the tombstone rolled away and Lazarus called back into the living. Seeing this, many come to faith. But as we live our lives, we have to deal with our faith and our doubts with such subtle evidence. Like Perry Mason, we need wisdom to accept the truth early, but also, to be willing to dismiss the falsehoods and prejudices that can cause us to make bad decisions.

If you were on the stand, would you witness for Jesus?
Epiphany 2
Isaiah 43:1-7
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you... Do not fear, for I have redeemed you...

The forty-third chapter of Isaiah always reminds me of a rugged lumberjack who used to attend the little church at Prouty in the heart of Pennsylvania’s northern wilderness. He had gotten himself in trouble in the woods many times. Sudden spring rains would swell the brook he needed to cross. The hillsides are steep and it’s easy to slip and find oneself swept down the Sinnemahoning Creek. He always found, though, that "God is a hand in high water.”

Isaiah says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you..."(Isaiah 43:2).  There are two ways of understanding the "you" here, just as God always uses two hands when doing something important like saving us. 

First is the personal you, for each of as individuals keep discovering God to be our only real security in an uncertain world. We remember particular illnesses, accidents, and narrow escapes where we depended upon his hand in our high water. Isaiah's deeper point here is that even when we don't escape injury, God is with us. It's the Lord's steady companionship that as we mature as Christians, we grow to appreciate.

Second, the context of Isaiah implies that God is making these promises to the nation of Israel. They are the ones who are in high water with both their captivity in Babylon and their return to the Promised Land. The neighborhood has become rough, while they were away. It's not certain that they will survive as an independent people.

To this struggling people, God's message is that they should not be afraid, for God has both created and redeemed them. Redemption is the hand in high water. Creation is the relationship that precedes the rescue. Isaiah 43 reminds people that both are at play. God's ownership of us through the fact of his creation insures that He will not let us go.

Each of us have been created twice. On the one hand, we have been birthed into this world as unique individuals. God has a plan for each of us. Unfortunately, everyone else does too. We pray for our creator to help us discern what He has created in us.

On the other hand, we believe that God has both created and owned our nation. We must be careful here, I am not advocating the concept of American exceptionalism, even though Isaiah 43 was a favorite text for the great revivalists of the 1800s. Our experience is that of God making our country uniquely great, just as the people of Israel heard the prophets and thought of their own land. The people of every nation will hear God speaking to them in terms of their own history and polity. Each people of God will have their own struggle to make justice roll down like an ever-flowing stream in their country. We are called to further the freedom of all people, by sacrificing to keep our own nation free. As we work collectively together, we must discern the will of God without political bias.

Most of us will hear God's "I will be with you..." in a third way. God is also the great protector of our current home, the people we love, as well as our family of origin. Further He is present with our particular ethnic people. We must be careful here again, just as American exceptionalism is a problem, so also thoughtless or prejudicial pride in our people is wrong.

We must learn to pray without prejudice and make collective decisions without bias.

We find God in both the still water and the storm
Epiphany 2
Matthew 2:1-10

King Herod wasn’t called the Great for nothing. He was a scrappy outsider who came into his throne by subtly playing the political game more ruthlessly than his rivals. He was a builder, a maker of high fortress towers and the developer of entertainment properties (note he built a Greek style stadium in Jerusalem). His most famous project was the Temple. He demolished the humble structure that had stood on the temple mount — the one that had been constructed by the prayers and sacrifices of the Babylonian refugees under Nehemiah and made pure by the miracle of Hanukah under the Maccabees — Yes, that is the temple that Herod tore down. He built a lavish monument to his own name in its place. The temple that Herod spent forty years building felt so worldly that the Romans couldn’t understand why they couldn’t use it for sacrifices to their emperor. Forty years after Jesus, the Romans grew tired of Herod’s people and destroyed both the temple and the nation. Even though Herod had established a great dynasty and left his descendants in charge of his empire, he didn’t establish a nation built on justice with peace and prosperity for all. Under the Herodians the rich became very rich, but the poor had no friend in high places except Jesus.

 

Like Herod, Jesus was an outsider. His parentage was uncertain. He grew up in the projects, far from the courts and the Temple. He never built anything. He never published a royal decree, let alone a book. All of his teachings were recorded by others. He told stories that involved shepherds and farmers and dealt with everyday life. He never tweeted or took pot-shots at his rivals. He reasoned with his detractors. He healed and answered the prayers of all who came to him, whether they be high born or poor, Romans or Jews, friends or foes.   

 

One key difference between Jesus and Herod the Great was that Jesus had a succession plan. Herod the Great seemed oblivious to the fact that he would die. Jesus came into the world in order to die for sinners. Herod considered anyone who challenged him to be disloyal and a threat. Jesus forgave his enemies and invited them into his kingdom. Herod expected his kingdom to pass to his sons, but he kept murdering family members as soon as they showed any interest in reigning. A few years after Herod the Great died the Romans had to step in and rescue the nation from what remained of the Herodians. They divided the kingdom up and put their Syrian governor (little irony here) in charge of things.  The Herodian family continued to wear crowns and rule on thrones in Galilee and Perea, but the Temple and Jerusalem were in foreign hands and run as a commercial enterprise funneling money to Rome.

 

Jesus had a better plan. From before the creation of the world he planned for his succession. He enlisted the Holy Spirit to rule in the hearts of those would accept his kingdom. We then, are responsible for fulfilling the promises of Isaiah. Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we bring peace and mercy to those around us. We continue Jesus’ rule of compassion and justice. We are a distributed network of righteousness. We are the Davidic rule that will go on forever.

I don't care who sits on the Iron Throne
Epiphany 1