Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Year, Same Stuff

Hebrews 2: 10-18

I’m old enough to remember New Coke. Some of you are too. Remember in the 80’s how Coke decided that they needed to improve the recipe of the drink they’d dominated the market in for so many years? No one knows why—maybe Pepsi was starting to gain on them. Anyway, they did adjust the recipe, the art on the cans and bottles was tweaked ever so slightly, and a very big marketing push was started.

And it sank like a rock. Quickly, Coke re-introduced the old recipe as “Coke Classic”, and recovered. I think it still says “Coke Classic” on the can, though the new Coke has long since disappeared.

Sometimes it happens like that. Once, one of my favorite football teams, the San Francisco 49ers, decided the time had come to change the logo on the side of the helmet. They wanted to go from the red, gold, and black "SF" inside the oval to “49ers” in some odd, jagged lettering. There was one press conference where they introduced it, and the outcry was so strong against the change, even among the press at the conference itself, that they never implemented it. Eagles fans would have done the same thing if they had wanted to take the wings off the helmet. I expect that fans of the Rams, Vikings, and Seahawks would have reacted the same way. Have they ever tried to put a Steelers logo on both sides?

Innovation isn’t always good. Sometimes what is old is precisely that because it can’t be improved on. Cast iron pans for cornbread are still used just like the cowboys did. Canning is still done in glass and with hot water and paraffin.

I do understand the urge to change things, though—if you were raised with something, then it makes sense to me to explore different ways of doing things. And sometimes innovation does make things better. Bill Monroe took old time mountain music, added jazz, and invented bluegrass.

When we talk about Jesus, we can say a lot of things about him that people 100 years ago couldn’t say. We know more about his diet than we did then, we can guess more accurately about what he might have been thinking because we know more about how humans think, and astronomy can tell us more accurately what the star might have been.

But some things really can’t be improved. 40 years ago, the talk was all about how God had died. No one is really arguing that anymore. Now, some people suggest that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier and a young victim named Mary. I expect in 40 years that that discussion will also have fallen by the wayside, too. Innovation is good, because it is always asking questions in order to learn more, but in theology and the things of the faith, the basic answers always come out in the end. That's how we know they are true.

We shouldn’t be afraid of any questions that may be asked, no matter how much they make us uncomfortable, tense, or feel as if they are out of bounds. Slavery would never have been abolished if not for new ways of thinking. Women ministers would never have been allowed if not for innovation.

In fact, it should be easy for us to explore anything that is a little off the wall, because we have a rock-hard foundation.

The author of Hebrews knows this, and is telling it to their audience throughout the letter. For them, the rock hard foundation is that Christ is for us, and for all. He is connected both to God and to us. He is considered the highest of high priests, and in our passage today, is fully human, so that we may understand that God understands us.

There is nothing innovative or new about that. Hebrews is an old text, and the author is already reminding people of what they already know, not telling them something new.

Verse 16 talks about how Jesus didn't come to help the angels, but the descendants of Abraham. The author recalls Psalm 8, where it says that God has created humanity a little lower than God, and just a little lower than the angels, presumably. There's a song that basically asks the question; if we are created a little lower than the angels, then why do we have so much trouble making ends meet? Why do we work so hard, and sacrifice so much? Why do we, to borrow the image from an ad on the radio, sometimes have to choose between diapers and tuna? If we are but a little lower than God, shouldn't this all be easy?

Apparently not. And Jesus' role is to be with us in our struggle, knowing full well what struggle is. No, he may not have needed to buy new snow tires. He may not have had to struggle with a learning disability. But he was the child of a mother who got pregnant before she was married. He may or may not have been the son of the man who claimed to be his father. Growing up the son of a carpenter may have been comfortable, or it may have been hard as work was spotty. And of course, he died in one of the most painful ways humans ever devised to kill each other. Human struggle is not news to Jesus. His humanity is what connects us to him more than how great he is as the son of God.

To put it into another term, though he was the son of God, though he was present at the creation of the universe as "the word", because he was raised as a human being by ordinary human beings, he did have "that common touch". And it's not even to say that he learned anything--if he is the Son of God, and God as well, then he knew already what being human was like. But living through it was, for us, to understand that he knew. We saw him live in the flesh, and that is the basis of our love, not just our worship and adoration.

He "gets" us. There is nothing new about that. The church claims that Jesus is both fully human, flesh and blood, and fully divine, the Son of God and the Word, the Logos. And while we don't necessarily understand the mechanics of that, how it works, we know it to be true. It has been a basic belief ever since he was alive, and 2007 years of questioning and innovation hasn't changed that. We still believe it now.

This is the last week of the old year. We'll be seeing pictures of an old man with a beard wearing a sash that says 2007 soon, if you haven't already. Jesus will be in the New Year as he was in the old. It's a New Year, but it's the same stuff. It's a New Year, but we are carrying our same stuff into it, as well; our same bills, our same problems, our same "baggage". And Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, will be walking with us, just the same as yesterday, last year, and as he has throughout our lives.

My prayer for you this year is that you trust him more than you did last year. That you can stop and listen more. That you find or carve out silence, away from radios and ipods and Nintendo and screaming kids and just listen. Don't worry about flowery language when you pray. Just say what's on your mind, and then just Listen.

He'll still be there, just the same as he's always been.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Not Resolutions, but. . .

It's the time of year when people naturally think about life and what can be done differently, better, etc. I'm not much for resolutions, per se, but I do understand the drive to review one's life. The light is beginning to return to the world, as my friend Audrey commemorated on Dec. 22 with a little campfire at sunrise (a thing I might join her in doing, next year), and it is the time to think about what the new light will find as it grows.

I have little things that I would like to accomplish this coming year, like getting more music by Elton John and Stevie Wonder. I had a song by Stevie Wonder running through my head a good part of the day yesterday, ever since Donna and I stayed up way too late the night before watching "High Fidelity", with John Cusack. As the movie ends, there's a song called "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)". The thing was very sticky!

There's bigger stuff that is coming than that, of course. There are 3 things, and I mention them here because this is where my head is.

  1. It's time to eat differently. I think that if I can drop some of these lovable curves, specific benefits will happen; I'll spend less money on meds, i'll spend less time limping from various knee and ankle pains, i'll have more energy, and i'll feel better.
  2. As we speak, there are two books on how to play Celtic/Irish mandolin in the care of the United States Postal Service. I want to learn more about how to play in that style, and more about picking in general.
  3. Starting January 6, I formally begin a year's novitiate as an Oblate in the Order of St. Benedict, through a Methodist "monastery" called St. Brigid of Kildare in Minnesota. It was created as effort of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in the 80's and has cooked along since then. There are currently about 25 members. As part of this year, I will have a series of conversations about discipline, the Rule of St. Benedict, and I guess how Wesleyanism and this style of submission to a Rule would intersect.

I haven't forgotten about the post(s) about the Golden Compass, I just haven't gotten there yet.

Something’s Here!

Christmas Eve 2007
Isaiah 9: 2-7, Luke 1:26-35, 38, Luke 2: 1-20

So, here we are, at the end of Advent. The candles have been lit, the songs sung, the Scriptures read, and the promise of the Peaceable Kingdom pictured.

We’ve listened to Isaiah’s prophecies of what is coming for God’s people—in the midst of their fear of invasion, of war, of the loss of their connection to God, there is Isaiah, speaking the word of hope to the people.

That in God, there will be grace, when people shall be able to live together and cherish each other, and all shall approach God for judgment upon his holy mountain;

That in God, there will be peace, when guns and bombs will no longer be necessary, and children will be able to play near the den of poisonous snakes;

That, in God, there will be Joy, when weaknesses of body and mind will be lifted and all shall be strong and can dance in the presence of God;

That, in God, there will be Hope, when we can live and love on God’s schedule, and not always be trusting only in our own abilities.

A good friend wrote a poem about what Isaiah was prophesying for us, and it is the poem we’ve been using to light the Advent candles for the past four weeks;

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, as you spoke long ago.
Tell the news that comes from Zion; bring the hope we long to know.
Swords and spears are found in gardens tilling soil and pruning trees.
Schools of war are closed and shuttered; from that madness all are freed.

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, of the one from Jesse’s tree.
Tell us of his thirst for justice and his zeal for equity.
In his realm the wolf is harmless; calves with lions rest secure;
Nursing children feel no danger, peace and amity now endure.

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, how the desert will rejoice
As all the exiles struggle homeward and the ransomed find their voice.
Tell how God will heal the sightless, loose the mute, and heal the lame;
How, when they return to Zion, all will praise God’s Holy Name.

Now we come, o blest Isaiah, to the dawning of the morn
When the God of every nation will appear in human form.
What you saw and spoke so boldly in your great prophetic dream
We now see with jubilation in the simple Nazarene.

The simple Nazarene. The boy who was born in Bethlehem, whose parents were compelled to escape to Egypt, who returned and lived and grew in Nazareth. The God of every nation has now appeared in human form, as a baby in a feedbox in a stable to a poor, young, as-yet-unwed mother.

This, this, is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Come quickly, Come quickly to bring him praise, the baby of Mary.

This is our Christ, the one sent by God to teach us about God’s own love for us. This is Our Christ, the one who grew into a man and a teacher. This is our Christ, who grew into the man who chose to teach us the greatest lesson of love. His death showed us the fullness of the love of God, and his resurrection taught us that God is more powerful even than death. All of this, from birth to death, was all for the love of us, the descendants of the two he originally created to be companions.

Christmas calls us to pay attention to one thing—that God is with us; that God came and was among us for a while. Oh, sure; he wasn’t wearing jeans or a suit, he wore a robe; he didn’t drive a car or fly a plane, he walked or rode a donkey; He didn’t listen to an iPod or play Nintendo, but he did dance to music and laughed at weddings. He wasn’t born into the 21st century, but he did all of the important, eternal things that make us human. He had parents, he went through puberty, he was rebellious a time or two.

Because he was born the way we are, because he grew the way we grow, because he felt pain the way we do, we now know that he knows us. And he started as a baby that we celebrate the birth of, tonight.

All through Advent, something’s been coming—Grace, Peace, Joy and Hope. Well, now, Something’s Here! Immanuel, God with us. We can claim that our God knows us because our Lord became human. And that is worth all the Glory, Praise and Honor we can gather up!

Amen and Alleluia!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Something’s Coming—Hope

Isaiah 7: 10-16

Now we come, o blest Isaiah, to the dawning of the morn
When the God of every nation will appear in human form.
What you saw and spoke so boldly in your great prophetic dream
We now see with jubilation in the simple Nazarene.
--Used with permission of the author, John Thornburg

(2 Kings 16: 1-20)

In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of King Jotham of Judah became King. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was good in the sight of God, but followed in the ways of the kings of Israel. . .

Eyes rolled back in your head yet? Yeah, Not a very Christmassy passage. It's from 2 Kings, and is the historical account of what Isaiah refers to. It’s full of history, it’s full of impending war, geo-political maneuvering, and a ruler who ignores God, trusting to his own instincts. Hmmm. . . .

Yeah, not very Christmassy. Still, there’s a reason why we read this Isaiah passage during Advent. It’s because we, as Christians, understand verse 14 in a special, unique way. We understand that young woman (the most accurate translations do not say virgin) to be Mary, and we understand that child to be Jesus. He is the one who has come to be with us, to be Immanuel.

But there is a more universal reading of this passage. Ahaz’s actions can teach us something all on their own, without our needing to jump right to Isaiah 7:14.

So, back to the history lesson, just a little more concise.

Ahaz. King of Judah, is confronted on two sides by armies. One is the army of Syria, one is the Army of Israel. Both are armies backed by bigger regional powers, and Judah is being told to submit. Ahaz gets it into his mind to ask Assyria for help, the big daddy of all empires at this time in world history. Ahaz will trade Judah’s sovereignty, their independence, for security against these other two powers.

Problem is, he’s doing this against the advice of Isaiah, his prophet, and against the covenant that Judah has with God. Israel at this point is already a foreign country, long gone in terms of faithfulness to God. Judah is heading that way, especially with Ahaz as it’s king. He is the descendant of David, the holder of the covenant with God, and was required to model faith in the face of everything, even something as heavy as this.

And he’s not doing it. In old Texas Honky Tonk language, "he ain't dancing with what brung him." His reason sounds pious and god-fearing: "I refuse to put God to the test”, he says. Great! The problem is that his God-based advisor is telling him to, giving him permission to. So Ahaz' approach to Assyria is a pretty bullheaded, faithless, cynical response hiding behind a pious face. And Isaiah will have none of it. He gives Ahaz the sign anyway—a young woman is going to conceive and bear a son, and by the time that son is old enough to know right from wrong, this danger will be over.

Now, Isaiah may know who the baby is, he may know the mother. It might be Ahaz’ own son, it may just be Isaiah saying that this danger will be soon past. Whatever—It is pretty clear that Isaiah is talking about a specific national crisis at a specific time. He is almost definitely not prophesying about the coming of one of Ahaz's own descendants, a baby born in Bethlehem some 700 years later.

Here is his message—Put your faith in God, not in your own political wrangling. Put your faith in God, not in Assyria, who was a former enemy. Put your faith in God, because God will turn things to the good for His chosen people, on his time.

What was true for Ahaz to remember in his time is true for us in our time. We too live in a time of war, a time when piety and “God talk” hide much more secular motivations, a time when people say that they have trust in God, but their actions show that they trust their own minds much more.

What we forget is that, just like Ahaz, what troubles us is also temporary, and will also soon be taken care of in God’s own time. God took care of us in the birth of his son. God took care that we could know him most fully in the birth of a baby, one that grows over time, God’s time, to become the savior, and the teacher. It is through Christ that we know God’s character.

We know that God does deliver. It isn't according to our schedule, it isn't according to our plan, but we know it happens. That time of waiting patiently and actively for God to reveal God's plan is filled with hope. Hope is something deeper here than "I hope that there is a Nintendo Wii under the Christmas tree." This sort of hope is knowing that what is coming is Good, will benefit the whole world. Hope is knowing that the city on the mountain, the New Jerusalem, the Peaceable Kingdom, is already out there, just out of sight. Hope is living like it has arrived. Ahaz' cynical approach to the crisis of Judah, to submit to a former enemy in order to protect Judah from current ones, went against the national character as the nation of God, distrusted God's own command AND historical precedent, and ignored his own mandate as the King of the nation.

Far too often, we rely more on what we see, tangible items, rather than on God, don't we? We plan according to what we have on hand, rather than on what we are being asked to do. We seek security in the physical, rather than security and trust in the Lord.

Well, folks, behold--A young woman is about to conceive and bear a son, and by the time he knows good from evil, our troubles will have been resolved. That little child's' name is Immanuel--God is with us.

Trust in him, and in God, who has brought you this far, after all! Why not dance with what bring ya!

Friday, December 21, 2007


This is the sermon preached by Carol last week, as promised!

By Carol Folk
Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's, Dec. 16, 2007

Waiting…that’s not a word many of us like, is it? The statistics about waiting are staggering. Someone somewhere has compiled the figures which indicate how many minutes (and hours) we spend waiting in specific places over the course of a year. But, we still don’t do really well, do we?

I once heard a poem about a young boy who couldn’t wait to be a teen-ager, then in his twenties, then thirties, etc. When he was old, he wished he was young again. Like many people of our day and age, he wasn’t satisfied to live in the moment.

What are we waiting for? The retail stores at this time of year are waiting for us to spend our hard-earned money with them.

Children aren’t always patient are they? I often think of my two children beginning a trip with the words, “Are we there yet?”

During Advent, waiting comes to my mind; it is a time of waiting, isn’t it? Waiting for the celebration of the birth of our Savior.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading the book, A Bethlehem Christmas, by Charles Swindoll. In this book, Swindoll tells the stories of Mary, Joseph, and Gabriel in the first person. For me, this book really makes the characters in the Christmas story come to life. He tells us of a young lady who comes from a close knit Jewish family. Mary’s father, Eli, was a stone mason and the family lived in the tiny village of Nazareth. Most of the residents of the town were related, but the town was often used as a base for Roman Soldiers, due to its location. It was a small town, but outsiders often looked down on the Nazarites because of their contact with the Gentile soldiers.

Swindoll’s account tells of Mary meeting Joseph, who was a carpenter from Cana, about two hours from Nazareth, and even though their marriage was arranged, the two fell in love.

After the marriage contract was signed, Mary and Joseph had to wait 12 months for the marriage feast to take place. It was during this time period that an angel appeared to Mary and informed her that she was the “Favored One.” The angel tells Mary that she will become pregnant and bear a Son; not just any son, but the Son of the Most High. Mary suddenly realizes that the baby that she will bear will be the Messiah, the Son of God. Mary had been waiting for one thing, her marriage, but now she knows she is being used by God to bear His Son.

Can you imagine the emotion of Mary’s family, and Joseph, when she told them that she was fulfilling the promise of God that was told to them in Isaiah? We’re told that Joseph left the house and wasn’t heard from for three months and Mary’s father decided that it would be best for her to leave town. Mary went to visit Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who was up in age, but also pregnant. Elizabeth realized as soon as she saw Mary that she was to be the Mother of the Messiah. Mary found comfort in Elizabeth and stayed with her for several months.


After about three months Mary returns home and her father surprises her by taking her to Cana to be re-united with Joseph. Joseph had spent the same three months looking for answers in the temple and praying that he would be led in the right direction. Joseph revealed that an angel had appeared to him during his time in the temple and confirmed what Mary had told him, that she was to be the mother of the Messiah.

I love the way that Swindoll expands upon the ever familiar story of Christ’s birth to the virgin Mary. Mary & Joseph go to Bethlehem , which was Joseph’s ancestral city. Bethlehem was teeming with visitors from near and far and Mary and Joseph were left with a stable to use for their lodging. Swindoll tells us that Mary calms herself while Joseph is away by singing songs from her youth, and, when the baby finally comes, they tear Joseph’s tunic into strips of cloth to wrap the child in.

Can you imagine the shock that Mary & Joseph felt when they were visited by a band of shepherds? Shepherds were treated as outcasts, but they had been given a message of great joy by an angel and were directed to where the baby was laying in a feeding trough. They came looking for the Messiah, the “Son of God.”

Swindoll’s book has made it much easier for me to picture Mary and Joseph in very rough surroundings holding their new baby, the baby that would die for our sins.
And Mary, the new Mom, was left to ponder the meaning of what it would mean for her son to be the “Son of God.” How could she have known what that would mean during the course of His life?

God had prepared Mary & Joseph from their youth to be parents of His Son—they both came from devout families and took their responsibility seriously. How would we react to a challenge such as the one Mary & Joseph were given?

What are we waiting for? Are we waiting for Christ to come again before we spread His love to others? Are we waiting for God to appear to us in a dream before we show forgiveness to someone who may have hurt us? How can we make a special effort during this Christmas season to show Christ’s love in a way that makes His love real to someone that doesn’t know Him?

Psychological Neccessity

In other words, a non-focused, random rant:

  1. Jesus has never been the only reason for the season. He's the reason for my season, sure, but the varied traditions of Christmas have always been a mix of good and bad; as much about marketing and retail, family, and the ancient need to supercede pagan festivals as about celebrating the birth of the Lord. It's a cultural holiday for us in America and Europe, and as far as Christmas goes, it's nowhere near as big a deal in other, less retail-obsessed parts of the world.
  2. We've even screwed up the original meaning of Hanukah, which is even less about retail excess than the Feast of the Nativity. That particular festival is about making do with less, and discovering just how far it will go.
  3. "Happy Holidays" is a reasonable, hospitable greeting in a multicultural, non-Christian nation like the United States. It is perfectly allowable for other religions to share the calendar (a calendar that is already based on when Christ was born, after all). In fact, considering Christ's demand of us that we be hospitable to all children of God, it's actually MORE Christian to greet people with the proper greeting for their tradition, or if you don't know it, to say "Happy Holidays", "Seasons' Greetings", or somesuch. I am actually offended when people in letters to the editor and other venues demand salespeople and other service workers greet them only with "Merry Christmas".
  4. Jessica Simpson can go to any football game she wants. D'jever think that she's not just showing up to watch Tony Romo play, though it is sweet that she did? Don't forget, the woman is from Texas, she grew up in the DFW area during the time when there was just one NFL team in Texas, and they were half an hour away. She might not show up if Romo was playing for, say, Cincinnati. T.O. was just joking, but it didn't apparently transfer well in print. Any Dallas fans threaten her life yet? Eejits.
  5. Nothing promotes solitude in the presence of the Lord like a trip to Arena Hub Plaza/Wyoming Valley Mall (Wilkes Barre's major retail area) between the 15th and the 24th of December. It would make anyone a hermit.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Week Just Past

This past week was a little out of the ordinary. My father had surgery, and I went to help where I could, standing anti-bacterial guard over him, or sitting with my nephews. I got some reading done, and yes, I have finished The Golden Compass. I will post thoughts this week, after I get Christmas Eve and Sunday squared away, and deliver some communion to folks who can't get out.

There is no sermon from me this week, I knew I wouldn't be able to give quality time to it. A good friend from Shavertown, Carol Folk, braved the snow, sleet, and ice to preach at all three services on Sunday. If she assents, I will post her sermon here this week.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Golden Compassing

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from one of my new parishioners. It was a chain-e-mail warning that the movie The Golden Compass was basically a tool to recruit youth to atheism. At that point, I pledged to that parishioner that I would go get the book and read it, and I would try to see the movie, and then, and ONLY then, would I feel qualified to judge the merits of the argument.

Two weeks later, I got a very similar e-mail from another current parishioner. I replied similarly to them, but adding the statement that I hadn't yet gotten the book.

This weekend, I got a third very similar e-mail, this time from a parishioner at a church I used to serve. At that point, I still hadn't gotten the book.

I take the hint! I am going to Delaware this week, and I have a gift card to a bookstore down there. I will use it to buy as much of the series as I can.

After that first e-mail, I read a few articles online about the author, Phillip Pullman. (Don't worry, they were from repuatable sites like regular British newspapers.) Indeed, he is an atheist. From what I gather in the articles, he is a much more genial atheist than guys like Christopher Hitchens. He personally chooses not to believe, but he doesn't seem to mind particularly that others do. His big beef is with a monolithic church that demands assent and seeks to run people's lives. In the books, apparently, he has created a "magisterium", which functions much as the worst parts of organized religion do. And in England, where he's from, the organized church means the state church, the Church of England. That particular church is invovled in the official and governmental life of England in a way that is foreign to us in the US.

A few things about me as I begin this project--I enjoy fantasy, though my patience runs out quickly with certain formulas (Robert Jordan, anyone?). I also enjoy movies. This project will not be entirely a chore. I am not going into it with the attitude that sin and heresy are present, and I am seeking it where it lives and destroying it. I do, however, have the ability to name what I consider to be theologically suspect, even as I enjoy the storytelling.

So, I am going to read the whole series of three, and I will see the movie of the first one. But I will warn people--I approach controversies like this from a very skeptical angle. Often, I believe, books like this, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the like are protested because one particular scene or idea is taken out of context, and made to be heretical. Usually the controversy is kindled by folks who never actually even try to see what the author/moviemaker intended. And the intended statment of the movie turns out to be entirely orthodox, devotional, or something that religious people probably should hear. Don't get me started on one of my favorite TV shows ever, Nothing Sacred, about an inner city Catholic priest, which lasted one season on ABC 15-20 years ago.

It may happen that I will blog periodically as I am trying to fit in reading these books along with the rest of my vocation as a pastor. If they are a quick read, then I will write less.

Who knows?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Something’s Coming—Peace

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, of the one from Jesse's Tree.
Tell us of his thirst for justice and His zeal for equity.
In his realm the wolf is harmless; calves with lions rest secure;
nursing children feel no danger; peace and amity now endure.
Used with permission of the author, John Thornburg

One of the more famous paintings in American Art was painted in 1834 by a Quaker minister and artist named Edward Hicks. He was born and was always based about 2 hours south of here, in Bucks County, PA.

The painting is that extra sheet that came with this morning’s bulletin. It’s called “The Peaceable Kingdom”, and its inspiration is this morning’s Isaiah passage. In the foreground, there are all the animals mentioned in the Bible passage, as well as the child whose hand lays over the snakes’ den. The landscape in the middle is pretty close to some of the scenes you see all down the Susquehanna and the Delaware, and on the left in the distance, you see Indians and other people dressed in colonial manner. That is a representation of William Penn’s signing of his treaty with the Lenni-Lenape tribe when he came to found what is now our state.

Hicks’ claim, through this painting, is that Pennsylvania was founded on peaceful and respectful principles, and that the Quaker commitment to peace was to be practiced and followed. And he chose, as his medium, Isaiah’s statement that peace looks as crazy to us as a baby putting her hand over a cobra’s den.

Crazy is sometimes what we think of peace. It just doesn’t seem realistic, does it? There’s just too many people who are against us, too many countries who seem to want to do us harm, people who are tying to take advantage of us. If we really believe in peace, peace of Christ, we have to care for these people, and their feelings about us are irrelevant. It really is the peace that passes understanding, sometime. As Isaiah shows us, it is a peace that goes against nature, at least the nature we think we understand. The nature that makes us nervous when children get around poisonous snakes, the nature that we observe when we see bears hunting salmon, or wolves hunting deer. That's what nature is, to us.

But Isaiah's vision is another kind of nature. It's the nature of God, the way God designed the world, originally. It's the nature of Eden, the time before Adam and Eve messed things up. You see, Christian theologians, those people who think about God, say that when Adam and Eve ate of the apple and were banished, they didn't just mess themselves up-- they unleashed their sin into the world, and it is that sin that now is in evidence in that natural world, just as it is in evidence in the world of humanity.

It is into that world that Jesus was born, where the negative reactions of some people to his preaching, his teaching, his existence, could have been explained by saying that people were relying on their "animal" instincts. The instinct to fight or to run away, to destroy whatever it is that is threatening you, this is animal instinct all right, but it is from a sort of animal that is "fallen", in a way, no less than humanity. Jesus was born into this way of life, and as a human being, struggled with that same life. Part of our lesson from Jesus is that he did overcome his "animal instinct". He loved those who persecuted him. He did not allow natural fear to guide his actions when he was challenged and threatened.

And I think his lesson for us here was that when you act not out of animal instincts, but instead out of the love of God, you can do things like walk unharmed through a crowd of people intent on hurting you, like he did when he visited Nazareth. When we as Christians say we want to be like Jesus, what I think we mean is to live as if the new world has already come, the new world of a new Eden. I said last week that we should live in the world as if it is already that shining city on a mountain. This story is the same lesson; it is Isaiah teaching the same idea a different way.

Life on earth as a Christian, then is a lifetime struggle between living a life as if Jesus has returned, and contending with the rest of a world that doesn't see it yet. We are caught between the instincts of the peaceable kingdom, a vision of God's will in the natural world, and the instincts of the fallen world we were born into, where wolves hunt and kill weak and young sheep, and are shot in turn by angry farmers. Where animals feel threatened and attack when cornered. Where human beings individually and as societies seek to hurt back when they are hurt, and sometimes we call it revenge, and sometimes we call it by fancier words, like pre-emptive strike or the penalty of death.

Jesus was born to us at Christmas so that we could understand, fully and finally, the idea that in God's world, there is no revenge. There is no food chain. There is no fight or flight. Jesus came as the most vulnerable thing we could think of, a baby, so that we might understand that a baby, with all of it's potential and possibility of growth, is the most powerful thing on the earth. The weakest thing we can see, the most vulnerable, is where God locates himself on earth. That is not "natural" thinking. That is peaceful thinking. It is the thinking of a God that knows the world he created, knows that this world isn't that, and is showing us what that other, original world, could be like.

It's a world that looks very different than ours. But nonetheless, it is the world we are called to live in, to grow into, in the name of God, who created it. Last week, we talked about living in the world with our hearts already living on that high mountain that God has raised up. Now, in another Isaiah passage, we see what the countryside looks like around that high mountain city, and we see that it is as changed as the city is. But even though it is different than what we see as our reality, we are told that in our walk as Christians, the Peaceable kingdom is a reality no less than the new Jerusalem.

In the real world, a little child can play over a nest of snakes, and animals are not food and predator, but live together. In the Peaceable kingdom, the history of Native Americans and whites in America is changed, and both parties stand as one people. Isaiah gave us the vision of what the world really is meant to be. The artist, Edward Hicks, painted what he believed to be true. He painted what he saw as the real world of God. Jesus was born to help bring it about in our hearts and in our lives. To bring the reality of God to our "natural" world.

And in Advent, we can almost see that it is true, by God's grace and peace.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Something’s Coming—Grace

Isaiah 2: 1-5

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, as you spoke long ago.
Tell the news that comes from Zion; bring the hope we long to know.
Swords and spears are found in gardens tilling soil and pruning trees.
Schools of war are closed and shuttered; from that madness all are freed.
-used by permission of the author, John Thornburg

When I was born, my parents lived on the top of a mountain. It was on the eastern range of the two ranges that made, in the middle, the Napa Valley. It was pretty high--they told me that on clear nights, with a telescope, you could see the exterior elevators going up and down on the Fairmount hotel in San Francisco, some 60 miles away. There are pictures of people standing on a rock outcrop, and behind them are vague outlines of the other side of the valley, and far below, the valley floor. They tell me they used to watch clouds float by below them, the fog roll in from the bay, and planes would fly below their level, too.

It's a mountain like that that I see when I imagine this mountain of the Lord's house established as the highest of the mountains. I can see that view.

When Isaiah is speaking about Zion being the mountain all nations climb to receive God's wisdom, he's saying that somehow the actual hill the tourists call the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem, will somehow become the highest of all. He's having a vision, and while the idea of the mountain is interesting, what happens on it is the most important bit. This vision is so strong that both Isaiah and another prophet, Micah, use the same imagery (Micah 4: 1-3)!

All the nations of the earth will come to the lord God, for counsel and guidance and because God is the judge and the teacher for the world. In this vision, there is no more need for the peoples of the earth to argue, fight and war with each other. They will no longer need to learn the proper way to swing a sword. They will no longer need to know how to shoot a machine gun. They will no longer need the algebra and the geometry needed to put a 3000 pound shell on a target 12 miles away, or a intercontinental missile a hemisphere away. Nether shall they learn war anymore.

This, this, is Christ the Lord. This is what we as Christians wait for. The grace to be judged mercifully by God, rather than have to rely on human beings. The grace to be able to approach God and to know that we will be treated fairly, with mercy and forgiveness. Jesus, our Christ, the one who comes at Christmas, is the advocate for us on that mountain. The mountain with the long view, the one I can see in my mind's eye.

It is interesting to note that in Isaiah's view, when we are given instruction by God directly, that is when there will be no more war. When God involves himself in the world, in Isaiah's vision, there will be no more peacekeeping, no more police actions, no more surges. No more war. The baby whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Eve is not coming to provide us the grounds for declaring war on the world. The man that baby grows up to be will not expect us to fight in his name. He will expect us to take cannons, to take bullets, to take armor plating, and make life-giving tools out of them, like tractors, like sprinklers, like plows. Can you imagine an F 16 crop duster?

If faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, then perhaps grace is the willingness to act according to our faith, maybe grace is the action of the people of God in the world. Maybe grace is acting as if we are assured, as if we are convicted of the love of God, and the coming world. Grace is certainly what we received from God when he gave us his son. Our response, in love and gratitude, is to act in grace to the world in God's name. To be a peaceful people. To approach the mountain of Isaiah's vision in our hearts for judgment and mercy, even though it isn't fully arrived on earth yet, and then to act as if it is true, is our grace to the world.

Acting as if something is coming. Maybe that is what grace is.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Something’s Coming

Luke 1: 66-79

Zechariah was one of the more respected priests in his order, and among priests in general. He was given the honor of burning the incense at the holy altar when his order of priests was on duty. This meant that he had to go in alone, and stand near the holy of holies. Everyone in Israel was standing outside, it seemed.

He looked up and there was an angel standing next to the altar. He said the first thing that he had always heard all angels say—“Don’t be afraid.” And then he said something that was really interesting. “You’re going to have a son, and you’re going to name him John. He will give many people, you included, great joy, because he is going to be dedicated for a great work. He’ll never drink alcohol, yet he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth. He’ll be destined to bring many people back to the Lord God, in preparation for the One.”

While Zechariah was one of the more respected priests, this event really shook him up, and he responded most un-priestly. “I can’t have a kid, neither can Elizabeth. I’m old, and she’s barren.”

“Well,” the angel replied, “I am the angel Gabriel. I am a constant presence with God, and I am here, telling you this is true. You don’t believe me? Fine. You will not speak until this boy is born, in God’s time.”

And Zechariah couldn’t speak after that for about 9 months. When he came out of the temple, he was unable to speak, so they knew pretty quickly that something pretty significant had happened in there! But, since he wouldn’t even try to describe what had happened with his hands or by writing it down, they didn’t know what it was. But he did walk around for the next few months with a pretty big grin on his face! Then, Elizabeth, his wife, started to show, and they got a little bit of a clue.

There was one other weird story about this baby. She and this other girl from out Nazareth way had a visit—the must have been some sort of cousin. When the girl walked in, she greeted Elizabeth, and Elizabeth felt her baby kick. Hard. Almost like it was jumping around! The timing was too much to ignore—Elizabeth knew what was up with this girl’s baby, and said so. “You’re the one who is carrying the baby my son is destined to prepare the way for.” Oh, God be praised!

When it came time for Elizabeth to give birth, she had a son, but they didn’t follow custom and name him after a relative. On the eighth day, they were about to name him Zechariah, just like his dad, but Elizabeth said no. Name him John, she said. They motioned Zechariah over, and said, “Well, what is his name?” He still couldn't speak, so he asked for a pad and a pen, and wrote down “His name is John”. And then there was this little whoosh, and Zechariah made a noise, then another one, and then he realized that he was able to speak again!

His first words were amazing. He said:
“Something's coming, folks. God’s will is finally starting to work itself out, and in our time! And with my son! The Messiah is coming, and John is the one who will prepare his way! The Messiah we asked for, the one who comes out of David’s clan, is coming! Every bit of the prophecy we have ever heard is coming true, now! Everything from Abraham on down, every bit of prophecy is going to come true, and we’ll feel like the sun has just risen, it will be all so clear! Everyone will see God, everyone will understand, everyone will get what is truly meant by peace!”

And then, of course, we know the rest of the story. John grew up to be a prophet, and began baptizing people in the Jordan river, the same river that his people had crossed to go to the promised land. One of the people he baptized was Jesus, his cousin, born six months later, and he and John were cousins. John did indeed prepare Jesus’ way, getting all who would hear or believe ready for what was coming by preparing them, teaching them, challenging them to get right with God. "The Messiah is here", he said, "among us, and now is the time. You think what I do is holy and filled with God, well, you just wait. I’m not even able to untie the shoes of the one who is coming. He’s going to know who has truly accepted God, and who is just out here in this river getting baptized because it is the cool thing to do!”

So, here we sit, some 2000 years later, in that week before Advent starts, waiting again. Something's coming, folks. The baby has been born, but we must wait for it to grow up. We must wait for the birth of the baby who was born over 2000 years ago. He was born once on earth, lived, and died. But that death is unique among l of the deaths of humanity, because he died for us. Not just his friends or his family, but for all of humanity. He was placed in that situation and that was the choice he made.

Oh, he’s come and gone, physically, but 2000 years later, we talk about him being present with us in the same Holy Spirit that soaked that little baby named John before he was born. That power is now known by millions of people, because of how God worked in the lives of four unlikely people; a carpenter, and a pregnant young girl, not even married yet; and a priest and a wife who found they were pregnant long after their childbearing years, to bring a son to earth who was the announcement of God’s working in the world. The power John displayed as a baby, leaping in his mothers' womb at the presence of Jesus, and neither of them born yet, is the power that came upon dozens of people on the portico of the temple one Pentecost, a power that was still present long after he’d been killed by Herod.

Now the Holy Spirit resides in us. It is quiet, it is loud, it is polite, it is rambunctious. It keeps us from harm, it takes us places we think are too dangerous to go. It wakes us up, it comforts us. This is how we no Jesus and God, now. Reading the Bible and becoming sensitive to the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit, the breath of God. The Ruach, to use the Hebrew phrase, was present at the creation of the world; it was there with Moses on the mountain; It was with John the Baptist before he was even born; it was with Jesus, it WAS Jesus, then, and at Pentecost, it came to be with the rest of the world. It is still with us, and still pushing people to serve in God's name. We are all called to serve God, and the Holy Spirit knows the what and the how, and pushes us toward that goal.

So something's coming for us, too.

Happy Advent!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Salt, Pepper, and Two Limones

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Thanksgiving Eve, 2007

Last month, I was listening to the radio, and they were doing a story on an inner city ministry, called Homeboy Industries, in Los Angeles. (To listen to the story I refer, to, go in about 25 minutes).

It was a ministry that finds jobs for former gang members, and helps them get their tattoos removed. In the story, the priest who runs the mission, Father Greg Boyle, received a call one morning between Christmas and New Years’ from one of the guys who had left the gang life. His name was Robert. It was a very normal, how are you doing-merry-Christmas-happy-New-year-conversation, until Fr. Boyle got to what Robert did for Christmas. I should say here that Robert, because he had left his gang, had been separated from his family, too.

“So, what did you do for Christmas?”
“I cooked a turkey!”
(surprised) “You cooked a turkey? Wow! How did you do it?”
“Ghetto style; butter, salt, pepper, 2 limones squeezed over it, and then popped it into the oven”
“Wow! Did you eat it by yourself?”
“No, I had other guys from work come over.”
(Boyle often has former enemies working together, and he knew that some of Robert’s former enemies who were also now Homeboy Industries employees were there)
“Well, what else did you have?”
“That’s it, just the turkey.”

Boyle speaks of being struck by the image of 6 former enemies, cut off from their families, standing around in an apartment kitchen, staring at the oven, and then absolutely destroying the turkey when it came out.

With no sides.

Some of us are going to be traveling tomorrow to sit down to eat food with our families. Some of us, frankly, aren’t here because they have already left. Some of us will have people coming to us, and may already be here. Some of us will not be with anyone, because we have to work, or choices we’ve made, or circumstances. But nevertheless, we remember on this day the hardships that we have come through to get to where we are.

Those six “vatos” remembered where they had come from. That silence around the stove was probably filed with memories.
The Pilgrims sat down with food provided by the Wampanoags to give thanks for what they had come through.
Thanksgiving as an observance originated with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War to ask remembrance for what the country had just gone through.
And our Deuteronomy text also gives the sense that when the harvest has come n, the Israelites are to give a portion to God not to reseed the fields, but to remember that the land they are feeding from is not theirs, but was given to them by God.

We have many things to be thankful for. This little spot between the Susquehanna, Bowman’s Creek, along 292 is a gorgeous spot in the world. We live in a country that many other people want to live in. When we feel that the country has lost its way, we can still voice our dissent, though sometimes with difficulty.

Thanksgiving is that day where we can give thanks to God, or Allah, or Jehovah, or Vishnu, if we are religious, give thanks to the country, if patriotism is our religion, and give thanks to our friends and family for their presence in our lives. It is not a Christian holiday, but we, as Christians, gather tonight to give thanks in the way we know—praise in song, thanksgiving in communion. We give thanks for all that we have in our lives. Our faith, our lives, our loves. And perhaps we rededicate ourselves to acting out of that thanks, that love, to make the world better. We have known good, we have it within our power to help others to know good. Thanksgiving is that day when we all stand around the oven, like those “vatos”, those former enemies who are now compadres, and remember what is good. And be thankful for it.

Pastor's Report, Center Moreland Charge Conference 2007

Pastor’s Report, Center Moreland Charge, 2007

Rev. Drew Cottle.

Last Sunday, I preached on the text of 2 Timothy 1: 8-14, which was about the importance of and the cost of passing the faith on to those who come after. It reminds us that we are called to a “holy calling”, that of announcing the faith to all who will hear. As St. Francis of Assisi onc3e said, sometimes, we should even use words.

In the sermon, I said that our particular ways of “preaching and teaching are almost like a franchise, similar to any fast food restaurant. And I mediated on what is distinctive about our franchise—when people come into a United Methodist church, what do they expect to see, beyond the familiar symbol of the cross and flame? I began with what all churches, across the spectrum had in common, comparing them to ingredients, the common ingredients to all Christian cooking; the essentials, or the “staples”:
God, Creator of Heaven and Earth—
Jesus Christ, Crucified, died, and buried, resurrected,
Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and is our connection to God now.

And then I identified what we did that was unique to us, and it was Grace that was our basic ingredient. The way we “cooked” up grace was by following the ordinances of God, according to the Rules of the Methodist Societies, from the Discipline:
1. public worship of God
2. ministry of the Word, read or expounded
3. the supper of the Lord
4. family and private prayer
5. searching the scriptures
6. fasting or abstinence.

I identified what those meant to us, naming what would for most folks be the bare minimum: attending worship takes care of #1 and #2. If you were here for communion, #3 is handled. #4 and #5, Family and private prayer and searching the scriptures are more something I said was done at home. If you say grace before you eat your meals, and if you read your Bible, those were covered. If you set aside a time to pray besides meals, even better! Do you fast or refrain from eating or drinking something? This is the one that many of us, me included ignore, but it is as good a tool as anything else!

But then I ended the sermon with the challenge “where do we go next?” How can we use that special ingredient, that “special sauce”, grace, in even more ways?

Both churches are, in my view, solid and grounded. Both are ready for ideas about how to grow in Christ, become deeper Christians. While each church does have it’s own challenges and opportunities, I am confident that they also have the tools and the faith. Dymond Hollow has before it the possibility of needing youth activities, since there are some Sundays when there can be as many as 8 teenagers in the congregation. Dymond Hollow’s strengths include it’s Sunday Music program. Dave Pearn and Larry Sorber together lead worship in one of the most unique styles in the Conference!

Center Moreland is exploring the challenge of how to answer God’s call in deciding between building a new building or refurbishing the existing schoolhouse. They are also exploring a more contemporary expression of worship. Both churches are exciting to attend and as their minister, I receive energy from them as I serve them.

As we grow in faith, I hope to lead both congregations using the forms given to us by Wesley in the Ordinances of God, asking always; are we in prayer? Are we studying the Scriptures? Are we learning about the ancient practices of the faith, even as we go into the future? How can the ancient practices be useful to us in this new world of websites, e-mail, IM and text-messaging?

Are we truly seeking to serve God without being ashamed of our testimony, relying on the power of God? Are we guarding the good treasure, holding to the sound standard?

Are we using the recipes of the franchise we were given? I seek and pray to lead, teach, enable and encourage this charge into a solid yes!

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Recipes of the Franchise

2 Timothy 1: 8-14

On Tuesday of this week, we’re having the annual meeting that United Methodist Churches have in order to make our reports and demonstrate our health to the greater Body of Christ—kind of like the annual checkup we go to get at the doctor.

Another way to think of it is like the annual inspection they do at most fast food franchises. Someone comes around, once a year, to every McDonalds, Popeye’s or Subway, and checks to see that the bathrooms are clean, the customer service is friendly, and the stores are attractive. The corporation has designed the stores a specific way, and it is in their interest to make sure that each individual store maintains what is distinctive.

A very important part of that inspection is the food itself. Does the burger griller at the Burger King work properly, so that you can recognize the flame grilled taste? Are both mild and spicy recipes of chicken being served the right way at a Popeyes? Does the red beans and rice taste proper?

You may say that a hamburger is just a hamburger, or chicken is just chicken. But it really isn’t. When you see a Subway sandwich, you know exactly how to tell it apart from a Quizno’s sandwich. Taste tests between the French fries at Burger King and McDonald’s are reported by one or the other (whichever one wins that particular round) with all the glee and joy they can muster.

So, here’s the question. If you were to think of us as the local franchise of the United Methodist Church, what would you say are the things that make us distinctive? If the Cross and Flame out on the wall were our “Golden Arches”, what would you find inside that are our selling points? How can you tell us apart from the Baptists, or the Catholics, or the “nondenominational” folks?

Let’s start with what we all have in common; the common ingredients to all Christian cooking; the essentials, or the “staples”:
God, Creator of Heaven and Earth—
Jesus Christ, Crucified, died, and buried, resurrected,
Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and is our connection to God now.

Then there are the things that are different among us, but not essentials, such as;
the Baptists and the Catholics don’t ordain women, we do;
the Catholics don’t have married clergy, and we and the Baptists can, and
the Baptists don’t have Bishops, and we and the Catholics do.
There is a deeper philosophy at work in each faith expression, of course, but that is too much for one sermon. Here’s what I think is the essential bit that is important to us as Methodists, though: The recipe for good Methodist cooking always must include Grace.

Grace is the main ingredient, for us. It’s like Bubba in Forrest Gump naming all those recipes for shrimp; Grace Gumbo, Grace Etouffee, Fried Grace, Grace Cocktail, Grilled Grace, Grace Fettuccine Alfredo. . .

Every expression of faith in the body of Christ is going to have some measure of grace in it. But Methodists have taken grace and run wild with it. We base most of our recipes on it. You might say that grace is like the beef at Wendy’s, and our question should always be, “where’s the Grace?”

God works in everyone’s lives, and it rarely looks the same each time. Think of the person who hears the Apostle’s Creed and says “well, I can go with the God as creator bit, but I am not really comfortable with God as Father. My father was abusive to me and my brothers and sisters, and I just am not sure that I can believe in a God as a father, with that experience.” Grace is that thing that works in their lives that brings them slowly to an understanding that what God means by Father is WAY different than what their experience was.

Or think of the person who progresses from the belief that they could never be a leader, a singer, a speaker in the church, and are slowly led, through experience, courage and encouragement, to preach, to sing a solo, or to become the chair of a committee. That movement, that progression, that growth, is grace.

Grace truly is what we run on. Grace is also the oil that lubricates the machine that is the body of Christ, so that the parts don’t shear each other off and become useless. But grace is also something that has to be accepted so that it can grease the wheels—the wheels have to allow the oil to penetrate. John Wesley knew this, and had a particular medium for getting that penetrating oil into the system. For the early Methodist Societies, which is what he named the small groups and house churches, they were called “Ordinances of God”,
1. public worship of God
2. ministry of the Word, read or expounded
3. the supper of the Lord
4. family and private prayer
5. searching the scriptures
6. fasting or abstinence.

By observing these Ordinances, somehow, grace is generated, which is our distinctive ingredient. As Methodists, if we are following the recipes, these are the ways we cook. And they aren’t hard. If you’re hearing me talk this morning, you’re taking care of #1 and #2. If you were here for communion, #3 is handled. #4 and #5, Family and private prayer and searching the scriptures are more something you do at home. Do you say grace before you eat your meals? That’s good. Do you read your Bible? That’s good. If you set aside a time to pray besides meals, even better! Do you fast or refrain from eating or drinking something? This is the one that many of us, me included ignore, but it is as good a tool as anything else!

When we get together on Tuesday, we will celebrate a pair of churches that are vital and self-sufficient. The missions might be a little different, the cultures of both churches certainly are, but I think both churches can safely say that they are cooking the basic recipes of the Methodist franchise. Now, where can we go with that special ingredient, grace, next?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hacking the Cloak

Veterans' Day, 2007

Deuteronomy 10: 12-13, 17-21.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the "War to End All Wars" ended. The day was officially commemorated beginning in 1926, originally being called “Armistice Day”. In 1954, President Eisenhower changed the name to “Veterans’ Day”, to honor those who had also served in World War II and Korea. Since then it has expanded again to include all those who have served in the military. It is one of two Official holidays for this purpose, Memorial Day being the other.

Interestingly enough, the day we now honor as a secular, non-church holiday also has a religiously military meaning, for November 11 is the day of the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, one of the earliest Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Saints. He lived and died in the 4th century. He’s worth remembering because his legend includes this story;

Once, While Martin was still a soldier (for the Roman Empire) at Amiens, France he experienced the vision that became the most-repeated story about his life. He was at the gates of the city of Amiens with his soldiers when he met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clad me." (Sulpicius, ch 2).

It strikes me, in light of the Deuteronomy passage I read today, that this story of Martin, whose feast day coincidentally is the day we now honor our military, may be the way to navigate our way through some of the uncertainty we feel about war. Gone are the days of clear purpose. In World War II the mission was clear, and defense of the US was the primary task. We had been clearly attacked, we were clearly fighting against foes that would not only destroy our way of life materially; we were, in Hitler, fighting against evil itself. After the war, the best of our character was shown, when our military was then used in the Marshall plan, delivering food and other material to Germany, Italy, Japan and the destroyed areas of our allies. Since then, I would argue that there has not been a clear focus of why we fight. The reasons have been vague, politically motivated, or we have fallen into fights because of a lack of creativity in negotiation.

None of these reasons matter for the soldiers who have fought and died in these wars, police actions and skirmishes. Their bravery has been undimmed, their sense of duty has never flagged. Their country has asked them to fight, and they have, no matter the reasons. They are sent, and they go.

But I know that in some cases, the soldiers who have fought would have much preferred a clear sense of moral purpose. Sometimes, they have had it. Sometimes they haven’t. They would have preferred a plain logical moral reason to fight or to be deployed. They dream of a modern American equivalent of St. Martin’s hacking his cloak in half to clothe the beggar.

They wish to serve God in the way that God is characterized in the Deuteronomy passage:

17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy is the last book of the Torah, the holiest books of the Jewish faith. It is the deathbed speech of Moses, their leader and creator of their nation, and they are going to go into the land to which God promised Abraham, Jacob and Isaac; the Promised Land. It is clear that the Israelites are going to have to fight in many battles, because the Promised Land is not empty. The land which they have been given is occupied by other tribes, who have lived there for generations. But here, Moses is telling the Israelites that their national character is not just military might and skill, their identity isn’t just a matter of victory and defeat. Instead, the people of God will be judged by God on how they provide justice. They will be God’s people as measured by how charitable they are to the people they are about to force off the land they have been promised. And that this is the expectation not just of Moses, but of God, who brought them through the desert, fed them and freed them from slavery.

If we are to be a nation of God, then, we are to be judged along the same standards. If we are a nation of God, then we too are judged by how we treat the strangers. If we too are a nation of God, then we too are judged by how we exercise justice in the name of the weak, meek and poor. Jesus said that all the laws and the sayings of the prophets can be hung on one concept. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

If executing justice was our foreign policy, we would still have enemies. If loving the stranger, providing them food and clothing was our domestic policy, we would still be reviled in quarters of the world. We know this is true because we have done these things, and have seen the responses. Food, clothing, protection, justice have been delivered by our military before. Where we do it now, we are respected by the people we have sought to serve, and reviled by those who should have been taking care of this for their people, but haven’t.

And because we have been hated, we still need a military with which to protect ourselves as a people. Today is the day we honor those who have served this country. But we too often have honored them after we have sent them to do errands that have not been a reflection of this country at its best. Too often now, we have not used these brave men and women in ways that allow them to feel proud about their service. Yes, they can be, should be, proud that they answered the nation’s call to serve. It is that motivation to serve one’s country that makes us proud to know them, to have them as our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters.

We see them as our best and brightest. They serve with their grandparents, their children, their families in mind—they do not serve because there is the possibility of riches or land taken from the defeated as so many armies through history have done. They serve because they love what is best about this nation, and wish to preserve it. They wish to preserve the nations’ identity as the place of refuge for the poor, and the oppressed. They seek to defend the ideal America, the one of religious freedom, of economic opportunity not to be rich, but to simply have enough. The one that exercises justice humbly and with mercy and grace. The one that welcomes the stranger, and doesn’t just give them food, shelter and clothing, but opens up its heart and welcomes them as one of its own.

Those who serve and have served in our military serve an ideal America. That ideal America reflects the words of Moses from Deuteronomy. That ideal America respects and expects them to be the sort of military that finds ways to hack it’s cloak for the poor and the oppressed. The nation and the military expect the best of each other. Let us never forget what the best of each other is, in the name of God.

Monday, November 05, 2007

What We're Pretty Sure They Know

Ephesians 1: 11-23

We're pretty sure that the ones whom we honor today, All Saints Day, are with God. We're pretty sure that they understand, fully, what we know only in part. We're pretty sure that they are a part of God. We're pretty sure that they know what heaven is.

We're pretty sure that they see us struggle to understand how God wants us to live. Sure, we get the being good, being kind, being faithful parts, but we struggle with the daily living of that. How do we go? How to be good in this situation, that circumstance? We're pretty sure they know what's the right way to go.

For them, the journey is over. The river of their lives has come to it's mouth, they have achieved sea level, and have come to rest. Do they look down over us? Perhaps. But I'd like to think that they are facing God, rather than facing us.

We're pretty sure that when we come to the communion table, and we think of the cloud of witnesses that surround us, we're pretty sure that we have been brought to them by God, in love, not that they have come to us. We have joined the chorus of love, somehow, in this act of eating bread and drinking juice, even when it doesn't feel like we have gone anywhere. For a moment, we are in the chorus of love ourselves.

We're pretty sure they know that we still love them. After all, it is love that makes up the entirety of who they are now. No other emotion exists in God, other than love. So the love of God is in the end, all that we are. That is what we mean by "created in the image of God". Not arms, not legs, not eyes, hair or mouth. But so far as we love, we resemble God. We're pretty sure they know.

We're pretty sure that they know that when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened, we too will know what they know. We'll find that the hope to which God has called us is real, is more solid than the hardest rock, the hottest fire, the most delicious food and drink. The riches of God's glorious inheritance among the saints is the assurance that what we hope for is real; that our faith is not misplaced. That God is real, that heaven is being with God eternally, and that everyone we love is there.

We, here on this earth, honor those who have died, praying to God that they are with God, and praying that we will earn the same reward. That the end of our lives is not in a grave or a pile of ashes, but that we are launched into a bright place of love and warmth, where we no longer seek God, because we are with God.

We're pretty sure they know God, now. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. And where we place our hope, even our faith, we're pretty sure they just know. We're pretty sure that what we hope for is spread right out there in front of them.

Monday, October 29, 2007

When God Crops Up

Luke 18: 9-14

Do you think that being Christian is a better way of living life? Do you think that there are people who choose, for some insane reason, not to become a Christian? Why do you think that is? Isn’t living a Christian life the preferred way?

Well, I think so, but I have friends in my life who are not Christian. Some may be of another faith, and are perfectly happy in it, and find it deeply meaningful. They may even wonder why I don’t choose to become like them!

Some may be of no faith at all. Those friends may be of no faith because they were once, they came as the tax collector did, humble and repentant, and somehow ran across someone like the Pharisee, someone in authority who did something hurtful, said something stupid, or otherwise represented Christ differently than what they had read in the Bible or remember being told. Somehow, God wasn’t love, but was instead judgment, or willful ignorance, or fear. And they wonder how I can maintain my membership, never mind my vocation, in an institution that hurts so many people, causes so much pain.

They have chosen to reject the church, and for them, it may have been the right decision.

There are things we want from a life led in the Christian way. Stability. Somewhere that we know will support us and love us, even when we make mistakes. Somewhere that we know will give us the strength to overcome our own failures. Somewhere that will give us the companionship and help to live our lives well. And of course, we want to know, that when we die, we will be going to heaven.

But as we start to adapt to the new way of life, and we begin to have some success, we develop a paradox; we forget that there are people out there who live lives that move along perfectly well without God or the church. And the pride and love that we feel for the people who are with us in God can sometimes turn to judgment against the people who aren’t.

Unconsciously, we can sometimes give off the feeling that those who don’t choose our way are somehow stupid! Sometimes we can get uncomfortable around people who haven’t made the same choices we have. We want to avoid situations that will make us feel less than others, judged by others, or tempt us to behave in ways that aren’t right for us. We find that we have learned how to live life a certain way, and now we get tense around people who stand just a little too close, laugh just a little too loud.

So then, we read in today’s Luke passage that Jesus is warning us against becoming the person who feels superior because they do everything right. It’s not that being right makes you wrong somehow—the sin is not in proper religious observance or being a follower of Christ. Rather, it is in the feeling superior to others who live differently than us. In our pleasure at having success in living a certain way, we spill over into feeling superior.

Arrogance is the sin Jesus is trying to highlight in this parable.

It is very easy to become arrogant when you are a Christian. It’s a twofer; it is one of those great sins that in every case impedes our progress as faithful followers of Christ AND also blocks anyone else from being interested in it for the right reasons.

Do you know what some people see us doing on Sunday mornings? They see us as people who hop out of a perfectly warm bed, put a tie or pantyhose on when they aren’t even going to work, and go sing songs that no one ever listens to, listen to some person stand in a funny robe and talk about a piece of a book that can be as old as 5000 years, and then go home and start their day for real.

How can that possibly be attractive? What is the point of that?
It’s the same way some of us see people who go to bars all the time, drink, smoke, visit with friends, and go home drunk, smelly, and overtired. How can that possibly be attractive? What is the point of that?

We know we do this because we find meaning in it. The words have been around for as long as 5000 years because they have meant something to generations of people, and we find that it means something to us. The songs mean something to us, too. The robes have significance beyond the fashion statement. But all of it pales beside the real reason for gathering. All of those things, plus stuff like the architecture of the church, the windows, the smell in the air, the pads, the seats, are things that hopefully trigger the true reason why we live our lives as Christians.

This is that true reason, I think; there was a time when we realized that we couldn’t do this life alone, that we needed help to live it. And that the best bet we could find was God. Now, we may have doubts now about how the church gets us there. We may find that old hymns leave us cold. We may find that we don’t ever want to sing a new song, because we’ve got what works already. We may find that a preacher’s personality is too cold, or too rambunctious for our taste. A church may be a member of a denomination that makes choices we consider wrong, or misguided. But we’re still here. Why?

Under it all, there is God. God crops up in the kindness of people around us when we are in pain. God crops up in a feeling of peace when we pray. God crops up in the peace of a loved one who is dying. God crops up in the beauty of a hillside blazing with red and yellow trees against a brilliant blue sky. God crops up in the smile, the smell of a baby. God crops up in the unexpected forgiveness when we’ve been idiots. God crops us in a million different ways, and we respond in joy, in awe, in shame, and in seeking forgiveness. We respond in an awareness of our true place. We respond in awe, and humility.

That’s why this parable holds up the tax collector as the proper model. He knows God exists, that’s why he’s in the temple. He knows he’s not perfect, that’s why he’s standing so far away and beating himself up. He believes that God will forgive him, has in the past, so that’s why he’s there again, asking one more time. When Jesus says that the tax collector is the one who goes home justified, rather than the other, what he doesn’t say is that the tax collector probably doesn’t even know it.

None of us are perfect. All of us commit sins. And while it is true that we can sometimes stop habits that are bad for us, other sins do take their place. Smoking or drinking can be replaced with the zealotry of the recovering addict, insisting that everyone is addicted and must get better.

People who mock or heap contempt on the church can become people who mock or heap contempt on those who choose to stay home. There is a certain strong tendency among us all to consider some sort of “other” as fools, as willing disobeyers. Have you ever heard the terms “white trash”, “rednecks”, “longhairs”, “crackers”? We call people of other nations cowards or freeloaders. We call people of other faiths infidels or unbelievers. We call people of other opinions heretics, idiots or fools. We always find ways to call people who are different animals or somehow subhuman. We find ways to consider different as less. And that makes us exactly like the Pharisee.

And that is sin. And our awareness of it and struggle to repent of it is what justifies us, according to this passage. Not our success.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Theological Generosity

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18: 1-8

“be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable”

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

It seems like I have been reading it forever, but I haven’t yet finished the book Christianity for the Rest of Us, by Diana Butler Bass. It’s a fine book about how churches that don’t follow current popular models of church growth or organization are nonetheless thriving. What a lot of these churches have in common is that they are focused not only on growth, but also on the care of souls who are already evangelized. These are places where people who are already Christian, or familiar with the basics of Christianity but have concerns or doubts about how it is currently practiced in American culture can come and express their doubts, and serve the God they know to be true.

She did a survey of a number of churches, nationally, across many different denominations but all Protestant, and all in what is now called the “mainline” traditions, to differentiate them from “evangelical” churches. Many of the people who are in the pews of these churches are people who were perhaps raised in traditions that were once a lot more rigid, expected a lot more often that its members would toe the line. She found that these churches all had some things in common. Many of them were praying churches with different groups that met all week long, in different styles. Some held regular healing services, their worship services grew naturally out of the interested congregants’ interests and talents (none had the cookie cutter praise band, for instance, but instead consisted of the people and the instruments of the people willing to be there).

They were churches that really seemed to be homes for people to explore their faith, in whatever ways that they felt drawn to, rather than show up to church and be spoon-fed their faith.

Bass used a phrase that jumped out at me: theological generosity. These churches had, in a way distinctive to each church, developed ways to be generous to each other and to the strangers whom would be invited or would just walk in cold into their midst. Now, don’t get me wrong—they are orthodox churches. None of them were spiritual Exploration Societies, they are all still churches that in some way identify themselves in Christian ways. It just seemed like, as Bass described them, they seemed to have taken Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” rather seriously.

It’s as if they trusted God and Jesus to be able to withstand whatever study that was applied to them, and that their call to serve Christ also included giving room to people who thought differently. God is at the center, but not everyone needs to use the same map to get there. It is this theological generosity that makes them thrive, according to Bass.

In other words, they could say that they proclaimed their message persistently. They practiced and developed their style of being church in times favorable and unfavorable. Paul’s urging to Timothy to be persistent in proclaiming the message in times favorable and unfavorable is very much the same idea. They developed a practice of prayer, of being together as a church, of worship, that differed in some ways from how many churches spent the 90’s trying to evangelize.

Many books about how to do church out there say that if you want to grow as a church, more authority has to be given to the Bible, and to the pastor. The Bible needed to be interpreted as simply as possible, and where that didn’t make sense, that meant that the reader either didn’t have enough faith, or that God had not made clear what He intended you to know. What they didn’t talk about in those books was that there are many people out there who believe that the Bible is important, but it is also more complex than that, and that part of our journey to grow in Christ includes the study of the parts of the Bible we don’t understand. And as more and more churches went to a simpler understanding of the Bible, to a more authority driven way of being a minister, it became harder and harder for some people to practice their faith. Their community got smaller and smaller, and disappeared in some areas.

Some people left. It is true, that some people leave churches not because they are angry about how money is used, not because of some black and white disagreement over some point of Bible, but instead because the practice of the faith isn’t complex for them. They know that there are areas of knowledge that aren’t known, and they are comfortable with that gray area existing—it is that challenge to know Christ in new, not easy ways that drives their faith. Some of the ones who were persistent found congregations of people, almost refuges or oases. Then they found these special, different kinds of churches that practiced theological generosity. They came and found that their questions, their doubts weren’t sins, but were just journeys that were in mid-path.

Jesus told a parable about needing to pray not lose heart. He spoke of an old woman who asked for justice again and again and again, being an absolute pest about it, until this disrespectful, egotistical judge finally gave her what she wanted because he didn’t want to hear her anymore. God is no unjust judge, so how much more will be given what we ask for if we are persistent with God? If we are persistent, and as Paul tells Timothy, if we proclaim the message in season and out, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, if we make ourselves to be pests, because God is a loving God, we will get what it is that we really want. It may not be what we ask for, but it will be what we want. William Barclay says it this way:
Often a (parent) has to refuse the request of a child, because (they) know that what the child asks would hurt rather than help. God is like that. We do not know what is to happen in the next hour, let alone the next week, or month, or year. Only God sees time whole, and, therefore, only God knows what is good for us in the long run. That is why Jesus said we must never be discouraged in prayer. . . . We will never grow weary in prayer and our faith will never falter if, after we have offered to God our prayers and requests, we add the perfect prayer, “Thy will be done.”
What is true now is that there are now churches who have grown strong and developed new ways of being church that are outside of the mega-church model. They are vital, they may even be growing. They may be messy at times, but they are faithful. But they have come through a time that has been unfavorable, and they have not lost heart.

Let us not lose heart either. There are things about our lives together, and your lives as a congregation before I joined you, that grew faithfully and makes us distinctive now. Remembering them, continuing to do them faithfully as we have done, being persistent in them, even as we seek God’s will and heart even more will be the proper response to God.

And as we do so, we should of course practice theological generosity with each other.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


My mothers' brother died today. He lived in Colorado for most of his life, and was an avid hunter, fisherman, and built blackpowder rifles. That is what he really did. He kept food on the table with work at computer firms and at UPS. He has one grown daughter, my cousin Kris, who lives in Michigan, and two grandkids.

He was a Vietnam Vet, and came back angry and distrustful of all government, but he seemed to hate the Republican party a little bit less than the Democrats. He also fought alcoholism. His was not the shiny happy life.

I wish I could have gotten to be in a better relationship with him, but he was so angry, and his politics were so different than mine, and he lived so far away. We both tried at various times. He once took me to a good wine shop in Denver at Thanksgiving, when I was in my winemaker phase, even though he was an alcoholic. I read Philip Caputo's Rumor of War to try to understand him a little bit. There was just very little in common to build upon.

I think his life could have been defined in terms of "before" and "after" Vietnam. A lot of the people he hung out with were people who were "safe;" people who had also been to Vietnam, other conservative libertarians. People who knew, who he didn't have to try to explain himself to, didn't have to feel judged by. Unfortunately, probably people like me.

He was an example of the people who come home from every war, damaged. They are the part of the cost of all wars. I am pretty sure that the people who get us into wars don't have people like my Uncle Tom around in their lives. They are not counted as cost, because they are still alive. But it is their choices that cause men like my uncle Tom to lose something in their lives, and live unneccesarily difficult lives after they return.

I've been thinking about some half-remembered poetry, and the name Wilfred Owen came out of the mist. So I Googled him, and it came up with the poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Here is the last portion. Though it is written in the context of Owen's experience of the First World War, the end is true of all wars.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

So long, uncle Tom.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Two week Sermon Hiatus

Just to let folks know, there will be no sermon posts on this site again until Oct. 21. Oct 7, the date I had originally scheduled to have my retreat, is covered by one of Center Moreland's layspeakers, and I didn't want to pull that out from under her. October 14 is Laity Sunday. I will probably attend worship both weekends, but I won't be preaching. There may be a blog post or two, though.

Buying Land out from Under the Invaders’ Feet

Jeremiah 1-3a. 6-15

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymoind Hollow United Methodist Churches, Sept. 30, 2007

Did you feel as if your eyes would roll back into your head when you heard this scripture, this morning? Did you hear it as perhaps, a little overspecific? Yeah, me too, a little bit. But if you’ll remember what we’ve talked about when I have read Jeremiah here this far, you might realize that this is a little unusual.—a slightly different tone. We’ve had weeks and weeks of Jeremiah saying that the coming invasion from Babylon isn’t God’s fault, but that Judah has brought this on themselves.

Now the invasion is soon. The army has laid siege on Jerusalem, they are outside the walls. And this prophet, rather than running around, shouting “I Told You So!”, buys land, in the town of Anatoth, which is in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, near Jerusalem to the north. It’s a field. Nothing major, no improved real estate, no houses or hotels, just a field. But he is conducting a real estate transaction about a patch of land that might be visible from the walls. It’s a patch of land that may very well be under the invading army’s feet as he speaks.

It would be exactly the same as if a German Jew were to buy a house in downtown Berlin, mark it properly, document it with the proper witnesses, and then get on the train to Auchwitz.

Just doesn’t seem prudent, does it? Why then?

Hope. Jeremiah has been the bearer of bad news, reminding people that they have broken their covenant with God. And the resulting invasion is the effect to the cause of their disobedience. But he is a prophet of God, among the people of God, and it is also his job to say to them, when all feels lost, that this too shall pass, and that this land is still ours, and that we will once again be a part of this land.

We read exactly that in the next parts of the chapter. Jeremiah prays to God, and God replies to Jeremiah, explaining why he has “allowed” the Babylonian army to come. But then, God also says to Jeremiah in verse 42:
For thus says the Lord: Just as I have brought all this great disaster among the people, so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them. Fields shall be bought in this land. . .

Hope. Jeremiah buying land in the midst of an invasion is a signal that though this is current invasion is catastrophic, terrible, and changes irreparably the way Israel and Judah think of themselves, they will always be the children of God. Still. Everything will have changed, and yet nothing has.

When those of you who are parents think of certain ways your children have been disobedient, and you have been very angry, haven’t you also been somehow clear in stating that you still love your child, even as you punish them?

We, as the people of God, look for ways in which we can be reassured that God still loves us. Ways in which we are reassured that Jesus has saved us, still.

Communion is one of those. We come to the rail, in the midst of whatever is going on in our lives, some of us wondering if we will indeed be able to partake this time, or somehow a great hand will reach in the window saying “NO, not him!” And it never comes.

Or, at Dymond Hollow, today, we have another sign—we baptize a child today. That is another way in which we mark the future, we “buy land in the midst of the invasion”. The world is an inhospitable place for Christians, sometime. It’s actually an inhospitable place for everyone at times.

When we take communion, when we baptize, what we are saying to the world is “we are still here”. When we baptize, we are casting out children forward into that future. We do still believe that we are the children of God, and we expect there to be a time when God’s love will be the order of the day.

We expect that there will be a time when there will be no us and them, no Christians and non Christians, no church, but just people of God, and that will be everyone. We do expect there to be a time when wars cease. We do expect there to be a time when governments do not kill their own citizens for marching in the streets peacefully. We do expect there to be a time when marching in the streets isn’t necessary.

So, when we baptize, when we take communion, when we marry, when we have funerals, when we worship together, when we study the Bible, when we eat together, when we work at soup kitchens, we are expressing our belief in each other and in God’s love. We could meet together as a club and do most of these things. But we wouldn’t be marking our togetherness and expressing our common belief in Jesus Christ, and what he did for us.

When we do those things, especially communion and baptism, it’s as if we are weighing out the money, signing the deed, sealing it, getting witnesses, weighing the money on scales, and sealing the deed in a jar. And then keeping the jar safe. We are counting on the future being what we have been taught, what we have come to believe. We are buying the land out from under the feet of the soldiers besieging our city. This is God’s world, and just as Jeremiah believes it and acts upon it, never mind the current circumstances he’s living through, so too we believe it and act on it, no matter our circumstances. Communion and Baptism are our hope in our current circumstances, no matter what they are. They are our statement of belief that this is God’s world.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Retreat Woes

So, here is my dilemma. I would like to take about four days and spend them in intensive spiritual attention. I've already aranged for the preacher to substitute for me, and the fam has made other plans because I would be away.

I was originally going to go to Minnesota to attend a meeting of the Northumbria Community, as they try to figure out how to live alone together in the US (they are English in origin and Celtic in philosophy), but the costs were too high.

So, with admittedly late notice, I wrote to Weston Priory in Vermont, where I went last year.
I just heard today that they do not have space.

So, I am at a loss to try to do something that is spiritually centered and moderately cheap. Ideally, it would be great to be in a place or a space where there is already a group of people focused on prayer and meditation and study.

I'd prefer not to be on solitary retreat.

Any suggestions?