Raindrops

June 25, 2020 at 11:14 am | Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment
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Have raindrops ever hurt your skin?

Has the weather forced a reckoning?

Gentle dew upon the hairs,

Doesn’t incite wrathful stares.

If our bodies start to glisten,

To the news we turn to listen.

Our clothes suck tight against our legs,

Nature’s poured out its wrath in dregs.

Moving air at speeds gale force,

Knock our lives off chosen course.

Vision gone, hearing asunder,

Nothing but peals of roaring thunder.

No sure way out of this predicament,

Reviewing how our lives were spent.

A shaft appears between the clouds,

Our frightened souls begin to rouse.

Another breath of sweet, dry air,

Another chance, our world repair.

Words of Encouragement from a Military Spouse

June 24, 2020 at 10:53 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Who likes saying “Goodbye!”? Well, the truthful answer is “It depends.” Sometimes, the separation feels as painful as losing a member of our own family. Other times, we quietly say to ourselves, “This, too, has finally PCSed.”

It is very easy to fall into the sway of the wind which blows the greener grass on the other side of the fence. Those who have had to move often in their young life often look with jealousy at those of us who were allowed to grow roots under our feet, not knowing how we see them as having wings which allow them to fly away when things get rough.

The truth lies, like most things, somewhere in between the extremes. I have known people who have moved every year, and I have known people who have lived in the same house longer than I have been alive. There are pros and cons to both situations. If we have moved a lot, we might have found ourselves not wanting to go too deep in our relationships, knowing the pain of separation was just around the corner. If we have not moved a lot, we may not have developed the natural skill of getting to know new people, preferring to stay with the familiar instead of risking the unfamiliar.

This military life is different. Because we “knew what we were getting into,” we know we will be moving often but we also know everyone else is in the same boat we are. We reach out faster because we have something in common (our service) and we know we don’t have forever (our PCSing). Our human need for social groups often overpower our desire to keep our hearts safe.

Which is why this pandemic and the social distancing requirements have been so painful. We followed our normal routine – getting to know people quickly and well, but now we are not being permitted to give them a proper send off. Both sides of the equation feel cheated and violated. Everyone is hurting, much more so this PCS season. We wonder what can be done differently in order to apply salve to our burns.

If I had an easy answer, I wouldn’t be working as a stay-at-home husband. This is something we will just need to endure. Many of us know this. All of us have had missed opportunities in our lives. We might have been aware of it at the time, or it might have caught us off guard. Either way, healthy closure this time seems out of reach for most, if not all, of us.

Instead of fixing our current pain, perhaps we can ask if the pain is worth it. Was it worth it to become close friends with the airmen and their families who are retiring or moving? For what would we trade their friendship? More time watching TV? More beer or wine drunk alone? Solitary walks along Bayshore Drive? No. As I often said from the funeral pulpit, “Whether we cared for someone two days or a hundred years, we would want more time with them, not less.”

Yes, we could lessen the pain by saying, “See you later!” We could self-medicate by reminding ourselves that the Air Force is small and we are always family. We could swap e-mail addresses, phone numbers, or friend each other on Facebook, but at the end of the day, we must deal with the transition. We must face the pain of separation.

I like to slowly peel off a Band-Aid, while my wife likes to rip it off and get it over with. I advise the second when it comes to transitions and farewells. Don’t stuff the pain and definitely don’t deny the pain. Buried pain grows weeds which will choke our future happiness and obscure our vision of joyful memories. Take care of yourselves by grieving now instead of later. It may feel foolish and it may seem unproductive, but trust me, the alternative is much worse. The tears of loss will wash clear our lenses of memory. Never forget we aren’t losing our friendship. Rather, it is being transformed. It might not be as fun or enjoyable as it was before the move, but it isn’t ending either.

Blessings!

Floating Islands

January 31, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment
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“No man is an island,” at least one man once said,
But when I sail into port, I feel a sense of dread.

The docks are much narrower now,
Only certain ships will fit.
I continue in the harbor bay
Not knowing when I’ll quit.

“You must fit in our rectangle here.
Your ship’s all wrong, we see.
Break the bow and slice the sides,
To become what’s meant to be.”

Hoisting sail, I catch the breeze
And stream out with other boats.
The captains, who, despite their pain,
Clutch tightly to their hopes.

We are all just captains, we are a crew of one.
We’d like to bring our ships to rest, but then we’d be undone.

So floating by each other, we see each other’s eyes.
But leaving our boats behind would hasten our demise.

We choose instead to ride the waves, and share a passing glance
Than find a shore which would fit much more
And give us all a chance.

A Reflection on Christmas Eve

December 24, 2019 at 11:05 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“I love you.”  Three simple words that can mean a world of difference.  When spoken by one’s beloved, the heart can leap from its earthly boundaries to heights never thought possible.  One’s view of the world literally changes.  What was once insurmountable becomes easy.  

Love is the most powerful force on this planet, which is why the Creator of All was not content with being our cosmic pen pal.  Although God had spoken through other humans to God’s children, it just wasn’t the same.  Hearing of one’s love through an intermediary loses its punch after two or three times. 

That night in Bethlehem, Job’s whirlwind became a screaming newborn.  The finger that inscribed the commandments onto stone squeezed Joseph’s hand. The One who feeds all of creation latched on for Mary’s milk.  In that moment, everything we thought we knew about God was turned upside down.  The One whose voice can break cedars was giving butterfly kisses.  The All-Powerful became the Most Vulnerable.  From that time on, God was forever one of us.  It was the only way God could deliver the Word of Love without a go-between.  God’s love for all humanity, and all creation, led to this precious night.  We now know God loves us from the tops of our heads to the bottoms of our feet, and everything in between.  We light the Christ candle this night to remember Christ’s continually abiding presence with us.  The Lord of All is our Loving Brother.  Let us celebrate together God’s incredible love revealed in flesh over two thousand years ago.

A painting next to the location of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

March 29, 2019 at 6:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Texts used: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 and all other quotes are taken from the New Revised Standard Version

Today’s Gospel lesson has been named “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  The name isn’t in the scriptures.  Rather, it is what Tradition has decided to name it.  The difficult thing about Tradition is the fact it is almost impossible to change.  Once, when I was a pastor, I had implemented a new form of worship.  Two years later, when I tried to change it the parishioners exclaimed, “We’ve always done it this way.”

When I was preparing to become a pastor, I thought these well-known stories would be easier to preach.  I was wrong.  Because they are so well known, any deviation to the left or the right is met with skepticism or hostility.  Since I’m not actually preaching this sermon, I have the freedom to chart a new course.

The focus of this sermon is on three stomachs.  We have three adult men whose actions and reactions are used by Jesus to guide us to a certain lesson.  The beauty of parables, however, is their ability to defy a single explanation.  In our story today, we have the freedom to come along side each of the major players.  We do not have to permanently define who the father is, who the older son is, or who the younger son is.  If we are honest with ourselves, we have been in each of these roles at some point in our lives.

So let’s take a look at the younger son.  While his father is still living, he wants him dead to have his money sooner rather than later.  Wow.  That’s pretty cruel.  In the sermons I have heard in my lifetime, the focus has been on his dissolute living.  Priests and pastors have speculated wildly on which sins the younger son committed in order to scare his or her flock into following Christ’s strict commandments.  While the dissolute living is an important component, we need to look deeper into this man’s heart.  His greed was so great, he wanted his father to die so he could have his father’s money.  

How is our society teaching this to us today?  Carpe diem, seize the day, has morphed into YOLO – You Only Live Once.  Gone, it seems, are the values of prudence and wisdom.  Our culture also glorifies the powerful over the weak and the young over the old.  So yes, hurry up and die, old man, I’ve got places to go and things to do.

For some unknown reason, this father looks for his son to return.  This son, who essentially wanted him dead so he could spend his father’s money, is being sought out by the father.  This is prodigal.  Searching for someone who wants you dead is not something our mental health professionals would call sane.  This father could not control his stomach, the seat of compassion.  He had a hunger in his belly for his wayward son.  The craving gnawed at him from the inside, so he continued to scan the horizon for his son’s return.

The younger son’s stomach was also a problem.  At the beginning of the parable he had a hunger.  He had a hunger for all of the vices of life.  He craved having the best life he could have now.  He didn’t seem to value his future.  If it felt good, he did it.  Well, he did it until the money ran out.  He didn’t invest his time, money, or energy in things which would last or had value.  Like we heard Paul say last week, his God was the belly.  This son might have fared well enough without money, but a famine struck the land.  Not only was he out of money, his neighbors had little as well.  It took true hunger pains, the biological signals our stomachs send to our brains to prevent death, which caused this son to come to his senses.  He finally realized living was more important than having the good life.  His stomach led him back to his father’s house.

In all honesty, I find myself walking along with the older son most often when I read or hear this parable.  It seems like I’m always the last to know a party is happening.  I’m usually hard at work while everyone else is singing and dancing.  A fair amount of resentment has built up within me over the years.  I was often picked last when sports teams were being chosen and I wasn’t invited to many parties.  I’m not the life of a party.  While I might go, I’m often the wallflower.

So, we are left with the stomach of the older son.  What is burning in his belly?  For what does he hunger?  Often we interpret this parable with the older son being the bad guy.  We place labels on his actions like “spoiled” or “petty.”  What would happen, though, if we gazed at him with compassionate eyes?  How would this change our understanding?

The key phrase is “all that is mine is yours.”  This is literally true.  The father has sold half of his estate and gave it to the younger son.  Therefore, all the father has will belong to the older son.

It will belong.  Does it belong to the older son at the time the father is speaking to him?  If yes, then the older son is no different than the younger son.  The older son is viewing his father’s property as his, and should have the right to do what he pleases with it.

But this isn’t the case.  The father didn’t ask the older son for permission to throw the party.  He did it on his own volition.  Thus, the property is still the father’s and not the older son’s.  I wish it were this simple, but it isn’t.  There is a sense of both/and in this passage.  The property is both the father’s and the son’s.  This is a foreshadowing of the kingdom of God at work.  The kingdom is here but not yet.  We are its heirs, but not completely.  The older son is heir to all of the father’s property, but not yet.

This parable, as with many parables in Luke, ends on a cliffhanger.  Just like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books in the 1980s, the choice is for the older son and for us as well.  Should we continue to sulk as God throws a party for a repentant sinner, or do we join in the festivities?

I believe how we will answer this question today depends on the condition of our spiritual stomachs.  Being an oldest child myself, I can attest to feeling hungry when my siblings received love and attention from my parents.  I remember feeling slighted when I was expected to do more chores because I was the oldest.  I’m not happy to report that my hunger often turned to resentment, and on occasion, rage.

I’m not sure if this is true for everyone, but when I get angry I stop being hungry.  I know when I get angry, my ability to feel compassion in my gut disappears.

In my time as a Christian in this country, I’ve seen a marked increase in the amount of rage Christians feel.  I see post after post on social media regarding the oppression and persecution of Christians in this country.  Outrage is now the soup de jour, the soup of the day.  Before we eat anything spiritually nutritious like love, peace, kindness, or generosity, we slurp down a steady stream of anger and resentment.  We fill our bellies with the hot liquid of righteous indignation.  Like vampires, we no longer see our own reflections.  We only see those we despise as the ones who are the sinners.

In the midst of mortified stew, God says to us: “forgive them.”  As we ready our arms to push them out of the moving car, God says to us: “we must welcome them home.”  When we have set our place at the kitchen table, God says to us: “share our food.”

Your seat at the table is ready

How is your spiritual stomach?  How is mine?  Have our Lenten practices helped us to become hungry for reconciliation with those who have lost their way?  Paul says it clearly in this passage to the Corinthians: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  This ministry is our inheritance.  It is from God, it is God’s, but it is ours as well.  Have we only let in those whom we want to let in?  Have we only let in those who sin like us, and have we kept out those who sin differently from us?  Is this buffet table, this inheritance of ministry, open to all, or not?  Are we hungry for more to feast at this table of reconciliation?  I sure hope so.  God has prepared the feast.  We have been given our spot at the table.  There’s plenty of food for everyone.  Let’s make room for others.  Amen.

A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

March 22, 2019 at 10:34 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Texts used: Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9 and all other quotes are taken from the New Revised Standard Version

Have you ever spread manure on a garden?  I have, once.  Once was enough to convince me the produce from the garden wasn’t worth the extra effort.  I’ll get my vegetables from the grocery store, thank you very much.

We have some interesting readings today.  In our reading from Exodus, we hear God summoning Moses to lead God’s people from slavery to freedom.  In our Gospel lesson from Luke, we hear Jesus tell us a strange parable about a fig tree in the middle of a vineyard.  There are many parallels one could draw from just these two passages.  Since this is a one point sermon instead of a three point sermon, I’m going to stick to one perspective.

A pomegranate tree in Nazareth

It is orthodox Christian doctrine that God is one.  Sometimes, I think Christians forget this.  After all, it is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend how God can be three persons, yet one God.  What seems to make this more difficult is the tradition that has developed in Christianity regarding the nature of God the Father as opposed to God the Son.  Even as I say this, it sounds incredulous.  How in the world is God three in one, yet the Father is opposed to the Son.

Let’s unpack this a bit.  Church history is not often covered in Sunday school.  I would imagine very few Christians have ever heard of Marcion.  I know I hadn’t before I went to seminary.  Yet, Sunday after Sunday some Christians are exposed to his teachings whether or not they know his name.

This is a gross oversimplification, but essentially, Marcion was deemed a heretic by the Church.  Why?  What was his crime?  His crime was teaching that God the Father was a wrathful God, while God the Son was a loving God.  In order to prove this, Marcion removed what we call the Old Testament from the Bible.  In addition, he only kept portions of Luke’s Gospel and some of Paul’s letters.  It should be obvious to us how one can justify one’s position or doctrine if one removes any offending verses and books from the Bible.

Why was teaching God the Father as wrathful and God the Son as loving deemed heretical?  It is heretical because it denies the oneness of God.  How can God be divided against God’s self?  How could one person be wrathful while another person of the Holy Trinity be loving?

I believe it is our human nature to oversimplify a person.  We miss the mark, harmartia, when we label a person based on only one aspect of his or her personality.  We really miss the mark when we label people simply on his or her relationships to other groups of people.  Regardless, we fail when we label instead of love.

Why am I belaboring this point about God’s oneness?  Simple.  I believe many of us Christians who hear this parable of the fig tree in the vineyard label the owner as God the Father and the vine-dresser as God the Son.  I’m not sure why we do it.  I’m not sure why I did it.  I grew up attending Mass at least twice a week.  I’m almost sure I heard this connection being made in a sermon at some point in my childhood.  However, I am no longer a child, and if you are reading this, you are not a child either.  We are called to a mature faith with wisdom, not perpetuating cliches.  So, knowing God does not have a split personality, let us revisit the parable.

There is a fig tree planted in the vineyard.  It didn’t just happen by chance.  The owner planted it.  The owner has come, possibly daily, to see if the fig tree has produced any fruit.  It has not, and it hasn’t for over 1,000 days.  Could you imagine searching for something daily for 1,000 days and never finding what you are seeking?  Since the tree refuses to make what it is supposed to produce, the owner wants to cut his losses, pun intended, and destroy the tree so it doesn’t continue taking precious nutrients from the soil.  The vines around it, which are producing fruit, would be better served by having the additional nutrients to produce better fruit.  Many of us would call the owner wise, since he was patient for three years but is able to see the bigger picture regarding the rest of his vineyard.

The parable includes a vine-dresser.  Someone who is skilled in tending grapevines is pleading for more time for the fig tree.  This seems strange.  Why would someone whose livelihood is dependent on his or her skills with the vine be willing to spend extra time on a fig tree?  We won’t know the answer to this question.  Indeed, Jesus left us with a cliffhanger in this parable.  The vine-dresser makes an impassioned plea for the fig tree, but we don’t know if the owner went along with it.  Believe it or not, it is up to us to finish this story.  Are we going to heed the pleas of the vine-dresser and give the unfruitful tree more attention and time, or are we going to side with the owner, who hasn’t seen improvement in three, long years?

You see, when we split God into Father and Son, it is easy to read this parable about the wrathful God wanting to destroy a fig tree and a merciful Christ who wants to give the tree more time.  When we split God like this not only are we committing heresy, we fail to heed the warning Jesus is giving us.

How am I coming up with this?  Simple.  Our reading from Exodus does not include the full conversation Moses had with Adonai (the name used instead of saying the Holy Name of God).  Moses continues to make excuses for why God has picked the wrong man.  God continues to reply to Moses’ objections with workarounds.  Finally, in Exodus 4.13, Moses exclaims “O my Lord, please send someone else.”  Even after God has given Moses four ways to overcome his limitations, Moses still pleads for God to send someone else.  It is after this pleading that God’s anger is finally kindled.  Even though God’s anger is kindled, God still provides yet another workaround for Moses, saying that Aaron would speak the words which Moses gives to him.  

In this story of Moses’ call, the patience of God is seen.  God gives Moses a task, but still tries to find ways for Moses to succeed and be fruitful.  This attribute of God is seen also in the vine-dresser.  Even though the tree has been given three years, the vine-dresser still wants to give it one more year with additional help, much like the help God gave to Moses.

We Christians believe in One God, not two.  The God whose name is “I AM” cannot be divided.  Therefore the justice of God and the mercy of God are both attributes of the one God.  There is no separating the supposed “wrathful God of the Old Testament” from the “loving God of the New Testament.” God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  This is true in the Old Testament and it is true in the New Testament.  God is also a judge which is also true in both Testaments.  Our problem as Christians is wanting to make God into one or the other.  Sadly, we want God to be wrathful with our enemies but merciful to us.  Even worse, we want God to be perpetually vengeful to our enemies and forever graceful to us.

Therefore, we ought to approach these readings with some hesitation.  Yes, they remind us of God’s grace being more important than God’s wrath.  However, these readings also tell us we are not free to be perpetually unrepentant.  We are not given a free pass for our entire lives to be unfruitful.  We are called to biblically repent, which means we actually do the hard work of changing our lives to match our words of contrition.  It does us no good to tell God and others we are sorry if we are not actually going to stop doing the things which hurt those around us. 

This is the third Sunday in Lent.  How are we doing on this journey of forty days?  Are we discovering an increased awareness of our spiritual distance from God?  Are we finding out how our behaviors smell worse than manure?  Lent often gets a bad rap.  We aren’t giving up things or habits in order to make ourselves miserable.  We are giving up these things to build up our strength to practice true repentance.  The good news is God, the Holy Trinity, is One.  God is one in justice and God is one in mercy.  God is a person, not a law, a book, or a doctrine.  Through these readings we are reminded of God’s mercy and patience.  Let us not delay in repenting.  As Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6.2b). Let us cease being a barren fig tree.  May we truly turn from that which keeps us from bearing fruit for God and God’s kingdom.  Repentance is worth the effort.  Our sacrifices are the manure to help us produce the fruit of God’s Kingdom.  Amen.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

March 16, 2019 at 8:06 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Texts used: Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13.31-35 and all other quotes are taken from the New Revised Standard Version

Fake News!  It is the mantra of the day here in the United States.    Any time something comes up which contradicts our understanding of God or the world, we want to scream, “Fake News!”

I am a member of Generation X.  A staple in many of our kitchens was oleomargarine.  I remember trying to use real butter at my grandparent’s house.  The butter was very solid, and it always tore my bread when I tried to spread it.  I asked my mom why I could spread margarine on my bread without tearing it, but not Grandma’s butter.  I don’t remember her exact words, but I do remember her saying that margarine was softer than butter.

When I read this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, my brain kept pausing on the words, “join in imitating me”.  While we may say the phrase, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” the word, imitation, does not denote something positive in this culture.  Rather, imitation, in my Midwestern upbringing, seemed to be synonymous with generic.  You could buy Wonder bread, or the generic bread.  You could buy Skippy peanut butter, or the generic peanut butter.  Now, many of us can barely afford generic prescription medicine, and sometimes only the name brand medicines actually work for us.

So, I have to wonder how we hear these words of Paul.  Do we bring in our sense of generic, fake, or less than to this understanding of imitation or is it something else.

Naturally, it is something else, otherwise this wouldn’t be a sermon about the gospel.  The word gospel means good news, not fake news, so there must be something good and true about Paul’s admonition to imitate him.

At first blush, the call of Paul to imitate him seems contradictory to Christian doctrine.  We teach Jesus Christ being our Teacher and Lord.  Why in the world would we want to imitate Paul?  He is just a human being like us, not like Christ, who is divine.  Countless words have been written about Paul and his proclivities.  In his own letters, he has shown how faulty his own memory is with regards to baptizing people.  He’s also a single man who encourages followers of Christ to not marry if possible.  I don’t know about you, but I’m quite fond of marriage and of the connection I share with my wife spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Unlike Paul’s stated preference for Christians to remain single, my spouse has helped me become more faithful in my walk with Christ.

Issues of human sexuality aside, there are indeed ways in which we Christians can, and should, imitate Paul and other saints in the Christian faith.  We need saints, both ancient and living, to help us put into practice the way and teachings of Jesus.

Why?  Why can’t we just rely on our own selves?  Why must we go to worship and join a church?  Can’t I just be a private Christian?  Can’t I just have my own spirituality and call it a day?

Why, indeed.  In my own walk of faith, I have oscillated between being a solitary Christian and a Christian in community.  In this age of social media, many of us have the option to craft a faith which fits us like a homemade glove.  We select which people and groups we want to follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the others.  When we no longer agree with what is being posted, we can unfollow and disconnect.  This is the advantage of Solitary Christianity.  When we practice this form of Christianity, we are in the driver’s seat.  We don’t have to deal with people who disagree with our positions.  We don’t have to pray prayers which fail to resonate with our souls.  We have a sense of peace when practicing our faith the way we see fit.

However, as much as Christians might want this path, it isn’t scriptural.  Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”  The Greek word for you in this passage is plural.  Paul is addressing every member of his audience, and through the span of time, all of us as well.  We do not make up the body of Christ individually.  None of us possess all of the gifts, skills, and attributes of Christ by ourselves.  This is made more clear in the Greek of this passage from Philippians.  When Paul uses the Greek word for imitate, he puts syn- as its prefix.  This is unique to the Greek New Testament, and of supreme importance for us today.

Syn- is a word indicating with.  Synchronicity means acting at the same time.  Without synchronicity, bands and choirs would sound like a jumbled mess.  In order for music to work, each person gives up some of their individuality in order to function as a group.  The same ought to be true for Christians as well.  In order for us to be the true Church, the true Body of Christ, we need to give up a little of our individual preferences and desires for the greater good.  Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ to an a human body serves us well.  In the same chapter I quoted moments ago, Paul states, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”  When we practice Solitary Christianity, we speak these same words of the eye and the head to our fellow Christians.  The truth is there, but so many of us want to deny it.  It really grates on us to know we really are more interconnected than we wish to admit.

Is there a positive side to this interconnectedness?  What perk do we Christians receive for practicing Communal Christianity rather than Solitary Christianity?  These questions are misleading, since Solitary Christianity is a christianity not grounded nor rooted in Scripture.  It is an imitation gospel in the sense of it being fake.  Searching for a so-called perk is a dead end, for if we are following Christ for the perks, we will leave His side the minute the journey gets rough.

We are in the season of Lent.  Last week we heard about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.  This Sunday, we hear about Herod’s desire to kill Jesus.  Jesus responds in two ways.  First, he insults Herod and second, he says he isn’t going to stop doing what he has been called by God to do.

For years, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts from Christians talking smack about others they deem to be evil or sinners.  I’ve seen other Christians chime in on these posts with various affirmations.  This saddens me.  Gathering a following of like-minded people is not the way we reconstitute the Body of Christ, nor is hurling insults the only accomplishment we need to achieve in order to be disciples of Jesus.

To be a Christian is to walk like Christ every moment of every day.  It is not just saying a one and done prayer of repentance.  It is not just getting baptized by the proper method or at the proper age.  Being a disciple literally means being a learner at the feet of the master.

Sadly, Christ isn’t with us in bodily form, nor does he speak in ways our physical ears can hear.  This is why Paul encourages the Philippians to imitate him and others who show in their lives how to follow Christ.  Paul doesn’t tell them to follow individually but communally.  Why?  Because someone who has the gifts and graces of an eye of Christ must learn from others who also have these same gifts and know how to see with the eyes of Christ.  Someone who has the gift of the feet of Christ needs to see others with these gifts who also walk with the feet of Christ.  We cannot be a follower of Christ by ourselves.  We must learn from the cloud of witnesses, both those who came before us and those who are living today.

My plea for all of us is to be more discerning when choosing someone to imitate.  In the United States, the political parties have hijacked Christianity.  Too many Christians have turned the planks of their chosen party into the gospel of Christ rather than having the gospel of Christ guide and critique the policies and platforms.  Name calling, character killing, and party over country has replaced mutual dialogue and treating others with respect and dignity.

Christ showed us a different way.  His way is the way of the cross.  His way denies the use of coercive power and the status of money.  His way inverts the way of the world which tries to teach us that some humans are more important than others.  His way teaches us to love not just ourselves, not just our friends, but our enemies as well.

This way of Jesus is not easy.  It doesn’t spread out easily on bread as if it were margarine.  Imitating Christ is hard work and it is impossible to do without the support of the other members of the Body of Christ.

During this time of Lent, may we continue our journeys to become Butter Christians instead of settling for being Margarine Christians. Join in with other Butter Christians in order to learn from their examples.  Help guide other Christians on their paths of following Jesus more closely.  Being a Butter Christian will cost us more, and it will be tempting to return to our cheaper, margarine ways, but Christ gave us His best.  Don’t settle for imitation gospels.  Accept only the best.  Amen.

A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year C

March 7, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Texts used: Psalm 91.9-16; Luke 4.1-13 and all other quotes taken from the New Revised Standard Version

Several years ago, Snickers had some commercials airing which showed people being so angry they weren’t themselves.  Once they ate a Snickers, however, they went back to being calm and normal.

I imagine Jesus would have liked a Snickers before Satan showed up.  Luke’s Gospel says Jesus was famished.  I don’t know about you, but I am one of those people who get hangry – angry when I’m hungry.  I know I’m not at my best when I am hungry.

If we have grown up in the church, we have heard this story numerous times.  It becomes almost second nature to us, so much so, that we rarely take the time to notice some interesting differences in the story.  First, John’s Gospel doesn’t even talk about the temptations.  Mark’s Gospel mentions that Jesus was tempted, but he doesn’t say how.  Matthew and Luke’s Gospel give us these three temptations, but they offer a different order.  Both start out with the temptation of bread.  As I mentioned earlier, Satan would have had me at round 1.  I imagine I would have looked like Cookie Monster “om nom nomming” the bread.

But Jesus isn’t me, thankfully, so he makes it to round two.  In Luke’s Gospel, he is tempted with wealth and power.  The only catch: worship the devil.  This is so stark of a decision, I think even I could withstand this temptation.  If there is one thing my 46 years of being a Christian has taught me, it is: “Don’t worship the guy with the red horns and the pitchfork.”

This sermon isn’t about round 1 or round 2 – as important as they are.  Rather, my focus today is on round 3.  Why?  Because the devil brings his “A” game to the field, and if we aren’t careful and ready, we will fail every time.

So, what is the big deal, Pastor, about not jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple?  You are right to ask me this question.  My wife will attest that I am scared of heights, if they are outdoor heights.  If I’m enclosed, like in the St. Louis Arch, I’m good.  Put me six feet above ground on a swing set, and I get dizzy.  So, yes, throwing myself off a cliff will always get a big N – O from me.  So why am I saying this is the toughest temptation, especially for Christians in this day and age?

The Bible is a fascinating book, or more specifically, a collection of books.  It’s been a bestseller and has been translated into more languages, I think, than any other work of literature.

I have a question.  What languages were used when the original books of the Bible were written?  Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek with much of the stories being told by word of mouth before being written down.  This is important to remember, because we can sometimes be lulled into thinking Jesus spoke English, then had the writers translate into Hebrew and Greek.

Another question:  How many books in the Bible?  66?  Ah, but our Roman Catholic friends would say 72.  Who is right?  Not our problem for today.

You see, the devil quotes from Psalm 91 in the third temptation.  Every biblical canon I am aware of includes Psalm 91.  It is a noncontroversial Psalm, as far as it being sacred scripture.

So, the devil is quoting Psalm 91.  Now, because of the story of the serpent in Genesis chapter 3, we are expecting the devil to twist the words of God.  Here’s why I say this is the toughest temptation: the devil quotes the Psalm word for word as it is originally written.

This might come as a shock to some of you.  I think our kindly Sunday school teachers taught us the devil always twists the words and quotes them wrong.  I’m sorry, but he doesn’t do that here.  Not only does the devil quote the words correctly, he also uses them in the correct context.  Take a look at verse 14: “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.”  Right before Jesus’ temptations, he had been baptized and received God’s blessing as His Beloved.  Hello.  Jesus loves God, thus God will deliver and protect Jesus.

Gah!  What are we to do?  Satan knows scripture and knows how to quote it!  How can we resist the devil if we can’t even trust our Holy Bible?

We can trust our Bibles.  Jesus shows us this by quoting scripture back at Satan.  Therefore, I’d like us to change our focus from the Bible to ourselves.

In my short life I’ve heard countless humans quoting the Bible.  In almost every instance, the person is quoting Scripture to prove his or her claim about the truth of his or her position.  It really is normal, starting from the first writer of the New Testament, Paul.  Of course we want our positions to be in line with Scripture.  However, as we have seen in our lesson today, Satan can quote Scripture accurately as well.  How do we know when we are on “Team Sheep” or “Team Goat” when we are quoting Scripture?  

Perspective.  Knowing the grounding of the good news of Jesus Christ is the foundation from which we are to quote Scripture.  What is this grounding?  Love.

What is love? “Baby Don’t Hurt Me…”

Seriously, though.  Love is a word which has been abused in our time.  We love everything now.  We love chocolate.  We love shrimp.  We love our yachts, or cars, or houses.  We love things, but the love of things is not the love Christ demonstrated nor what Paul taught.

From Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 5, verses 6-8: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  This is love.  To be willing to die for another, even if the other person is what we call a “sinner.”  

Another warning from Paul, from his letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 5-8: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

  who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

  but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

  he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.”

This is love.  Having a mind which knowing and having power still chooses to not exploit it to rule over others.

A final word from Paul from his letter to the Galatians, chapter 6, verses 1-2: “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. “  This is love.  Restore, not separate.  Restore, and not punish.  Restore in a spirit of gentleness, not wrath.

So, what are we to do my brothers and sisters in Christ?  Shall we never again quote from the Bible?  By no means!  Quote from the Bible, but have the same heart and same mind as Christ when you are quoting it.  Impossible, you say?  No, not impossible, but having the heart and mind of Christ comes from prayer and fasting, which is why we are in the season of Lent.  It takes prayer and fasting to humble us from the need to be right all the time.  It takes prayer and fasting to see my common humanity with the person in front of me.  It takes prayer and fasting to realize how we can still miss the mark, hamartia, in our call to follow Christ daily.

So when we find ourselves wanting to quote the Bible, or to share a meme on social media which uses the Bible, take ten seconds to pray.  As yourself if you have the heart and mind of Christ which Paul describes.  Has God’s love been shed abroad in your hearts?  Have you been fasting from anger, power, and greed?  If not, then leave the Bible closed.  If yes, I’m sure at that moment you will be looking at your fellow human being and saying, “Christ has given me life.  May I show you His love?”

Amen.

A Statue to the Bible located on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University

A Wet Rainbow

December 21, 2018 at 7:31 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It rained most of the day yesterday, so when I saw the sun shining, I thought I’d better get Monk’s walk in before it rained again. I was picking up his duty when I looked toward the sky. I saw a full rainbow to the west. It wasn’t raining, so it was a neat sight to behold. While I was admiring the beauty, I felt it. First it was a sprinkle, but it soon grew to a steady rain. It was bizarre, since the sun was still shining. I looked above my head, and saw a dark cloud above me. I could only assume it was the culprit.

As the sunlight faded behind increasing clouds, I realized how similar this experience was to the glad tidings many of us don’t feel at Christmastime. While we can see the glitter of Christmas decorations, our grief hangs over our head like our own personal storm cloud. We listen to the bright laughter, but inside, our soul is being drenched with memories of those who have left this world. As people rejoice in the salvation of the Scrooges in their lives, some of us see the empty chair where our Tiny Tims once sat.

This Christmas is a new experience for me. I’m still walking around in T-shirts late in December. The weather feels like the springtime of Easter in the Midwest reminding me of the promises of new life, all the while I’m adjusting to being 1,000 miles away from my children and other friends and family. It definitely feels like a wet rainbow: knowing the promise of a protective covenant while still feeling exposed to the elements.

I pray for those like me, for whom this holiday season is more maddening than mirth. In my short life, the worst thing is for someone to tell me I should be happy when I am feeling sad. My hope is for us to begin transforming the season of Christmas from a time of merriment to a time of love. Merry people avoid us sad people, but love bears all things. May we be loving people during this season of joy, offering umbrellas of time and concern for our family, friends, and neighbors who find themselves soaked with grief.

Permanent Ink?

October 16, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

IMG_5072When I was a kid, PaperMate came out with an ink pen that was erasable. I always hated the permanence of ink. It might have contributed to my desire to study mathematics. We used pencil in math because of the increased chance of making mistakes. I never liked essay exams in grade school. We had to use pen, so us perfectionists had to think through our essay before putting it to paper lest we draw the dreaded line through the offending sentence or paragraph.

Tattoos can be offending to some as well. I’m not much of a fan myself for two reasons. First, I hate needles. Second, tattoos are even more painful to erase. Our lives change as do our preferences. Why would we want to make a preference permanent?

There is a tattoo I’ve been considering. I would like to get a tattoo of a semi-colon. In this age of texting, most think of the character as part of the winking emoji. In my case, I’d be joining the throng of people who have gotten the tattoo to symbolize courage during times of mental illness. For those of you who don’t know, the thinking goes like this: Don’t put a period in the sentence that is your life. In other words, do not choose suicide. Do not prematurely end the sentence. Rather, use a semi-colon to pause and then continue writing your story. As one who has struggled with dysthymia (a low level form of depression) since the age of three, I have had many “dark nights of the soul.” I believe having a tangible reminder regarding the changing nature of our lives would help when I find myself in one of those dark episodes.

Perhaps it is my fear of needles. Perhaps it is my fear of making something permanent, but for some reason, I continue to try to find a reason to not get this tattoo of a semi-colon. I’ve recently discovered the source of my hesitation.

The assumption behind the sentiment of the semi-colon tattoo is one of power and agency. By saying that we are the writers of the sentence of our lives, we are assuming we have a level of control which doesn’t exist. I wasn’t the writer when my brother and sister died of congenital heart disease. I wasn’t the editor-in-chief when my mother died of pancreatic cancer nor when my father died of lung cancer. Yes, I wrote stories of compassion and caring when my loved ones were suffering, but I wasn’t the only one writing. It reminds me of the Bugs Bunny cartoon when it is revealed that Bugs is the cartoonist who is drawing perpetual difficulties for Daffy Duck. Some call it fate while some call it “god’s will,” but the poetry of my life is not written by me alone.

So, yes, in times of abandonment and loneliness, this author conjures possible concluding paragraphs. I have heard enough platitudes and pithy sayings to fill an ocean, but a kind word? Times of comfort and compassion are as frequent as oases in the desert.

I’m afraid this tattoo of the semi-colon could backfire in the same way other so-called wise sayings fail. Platitudes fail when they aren’t used with wisdom. Yes, those of us who are depressed need to be reminded we are more powerful than we realize. However, our pessimistic view of our reality might be more real than the pithy Pollyanna prose that spews from our mouths without a moment’s thought.

I wrote down a quote in July. Andrew Solomon states, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.”

For some people who fight depression, the semi-colon is a vital reminder of their self-worth. For others, we need to be reminded how we are vital to others. This must be delivered honestly, and must be coupled with joy and NOT shame. Too often, people think they are helping when actually they are piling more pain onto the shame pile. When shame becomes too overwhelming, the PaperMate pen seems to be the only solution.

I write this today to encourage, not condemn. More people are contemplating suicide, and we can no longer afford to think we can go on with business as usual. Too many people are reaching for the erasable ink. While it is normal for all of us to rewrite parts of our story when the need arises, no one’s story ought to be erased in total. Everyone is unique, and everyone’s story is worthy of writing. Yes, even yours.

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