Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

Philippians 2: 5-11
Luke 2: 1-20

It was rather shocking to realize what I was feeling. To admit it to myself was a little difficult, but it was undeniable.

I was sitting with Donna in the lab area of the oncologists’ office, waiting for the phlebotomist to come take a few vials from Donna to test for various things after her first round of home-administered chemo. I looked up at the television, and they had on a popular show in which a extremely politically active evangelical clergyperson and TV show host was expounding on some subject that highlighted his view that the current governmental administration and the majority view of the country was in fact evil, and evidence of the apocalypse was all around us. At least that’s what I could discern from the pictures that were flashing across, the screen, because the sound was muted.

It was shocking what I felt when I saw that face on the screen; anger and rage, and a disquieting wonder that he and I would share the same faith. We both identify ourselves as Christian. We are both white men. We both carry a book called the Bible, we both are parts of groups of people that meet in a common house on Sundays for worship. And yet our worldview could not be more different. The things he was talking about on television, the graphics behind him on the screen, I assumed automatically to be complete falsehoods, or at the very least the clever twisting of slivers truth to his personal ends.

I don’t know why I reacted this way; whether it was the surroundings, the fact that I was sitting there with my wife in such a place and confronting daily the sort of truth that makes political machinations not only irrelevant but offensive, but suffice it to say that that kind of religion is not my speed; there is no comfort in it for me as my family continues with this experience. I would not choose to be associated with this pastor and his worldview. There is nothing about what he says that builds my faith.

But, (and this I think is God talking) I remembered, standing there, that this guy and I are both going to be going to one church or another the next day, today, to celebrate the birth of the one who was sent by God for us. And I have to take a step back. We both identify ourselves as Christian. We may use different language for what we mean, but we both believe that Jesus was sent for us to know God’s love.

And that tells us a lot about God, doesn’t it? There are many groups around the world who have an understanding of the divine presence in the universe. Some others deny that it exists, on various grounds. Humanity as a whole does not hold much in common with each other. But we, the ones who call themselves Christians, talk about an Omnipotent God who sought to show his love for us, his creations, but taking off his omnipotence, and assuming a physical form that we would recognize. Living a life that begins in childbirth, just like us, proceeds through puberty and adulthood, the learning of a trade, and eventually to begin to speak to the people around him about who God really was.

We talk about it as an act of love. We talk about this choice by the Creator of the Universe as one of love, and when we read the words of the adult human he became, the words all reflect a love of the people he met. Love of both individuals and the collective group. And his teachings were nothing more than the love of the universe put to words, and individualized. It’s not enough to know that he came to earth for us. He came to earth so that each of us, individually, can know that we are loved, are known, and are cared for. It’s not enough to understand that he came to earth for us. It’s that he came to earth for you. And You. And Me. So that we can understand that to be human on this earth, to be what he designed, is to care for each other; to show each other this love when some forget, and to spend our lives showing this love to everyone we meet.

He could have come to earth like a big blue Genie and tell us all, fingers shaking in our faces, that this is how we should act. But he didn’t. Even the way he came showed that he needed to be loved and nurtured first. Because he came as a baby. A thing that needs constant care and nurture. That in itself is a message!

And we celebrate all of that on this evening. The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Somehow, despite my differences with the person I saw on that television, somehow I think he is probably hearing the same thing. And it’s humbling to remember that we are both responsible to care for and nurture that baby. It’s humbling to know that that guy and I somehow have to cooperate enough to keep the promise that that baby represents alive in this time and place, in this world.

And we get a fresh chance every year.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Soccer

Zephaniah 3: 14-20

On Christmas Day 1914, so the story goes, during the first winter of World War 1, there was a soccer game between the opposing armies of the German and English Armies. I know about this, oddly enough, through MTV, because of a video of the song “Pipes of Peace,” by Paul McCartney. The true story was that there were various events that happened across the trenches that first year, only some of which were games of soccer. Some armies exchanged barrels of beer, packets of tobacco and chocolate, others sang Christmas carols across the trenches, a few units took the opportunity to retrieve the bodies of comrades who had fallen in No Man’s land, and some others didn’t stop fighting at all.

The German armies erected small Christmas trees, “tannenbaum”, lit with candles on the front edges of their trenches. As the website notes, “On many stretches of the Front the crack of rifles and the dull thud of shells ploughing into the ground continued, but at a far lighter level than normal. In other sectors there was an unnerving silence that was broken by the singing and shouting drifting over, in the main, from the German trenches.”

This was a war that was to drag on for four more years, only to end in November 1918, and this event was three years before the American Army entered the war. By then, any vestige of humanity had disappeared from both sides, and a repetition of such a peaceful event became impossible. Hope had disappeared, as well. But that it happened was evidence of a spirit that could not be quenched, in the end. Hope never died, and the war did eventually end.

The biblical book of Zephaniah is believed to have been written during the reign of King Josiah of Jerusalem, who was known as the last righteous King of Judah, whose only equal or master was David himself. Josiah came to power in a very chaotic time, when people were not listening to the prophets and indeed, scholars believe, Zehaniah himself was looked down upon. To be true, most prophets were, and still are, but Zephaniah was probably ignored more than most. In the beginning of the book, he takes care to give his family tree, and it is in that place, in the name of his father, that a clue as to why he was ignored. His fathers’ name was Cushi. Those who were called “Cushites” were people who were from Ethiopia. Scholars speculate that Zephaniah’s father was of this nation, and in that time, as now, were people of darker skin than the native Judeans.

In a time of chaos and fear, as the time of Josiah’s reign were, that which is unfamilar is to be shunned. Josiah was the last righteous king of Judah, after him cameonly one or two more, degenerate and spineless, before Judah fell to the Babylonians, and was occupied, and so it would be by various armies until this century.

In a time of chaos and fear, ignorance and anger gain a foothold. The unfamilar breeds contempt and hatred. Something new, unfortunately, often brings a rise in humanity’s baser instincts, and God’s hand is often not recognized, because “we’ve never done it that way before”. But in the midst of chaos, death, ignorance, hatred and fear, peace often does still glimmer, if you have eyes to see. So it is with the Christmas day 1914 truce, and so it is with this scripture this morning, the ninth, utterance by a minor, probably minority prophet in a chaotic time.

Zephaniah’s words of prophecy are not “Woe be to those who are evil,” in this case. Instead, he holds out the hope that the Lord’s time is coming, and God will save Judah from its time of trial. He says: the Lord God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory!” and again: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach from it, I will deal with your oppressors at that time.”

It is a common thing in the prophets to understand the coming savior of Israel and Judah as a military leader, one who will unite the nations of Israel and Judah, lead them to prominence, and protect them from all attacks. Only the prophet Isaiah speaks of the coming savior of the nations in any terms other than victor, military leader, or sword bearer, and that is why Christians highlight those passages of that prophet that describe the coming savior as a suffering servant, or one what will save the nations through his own pain and sacrifice.

It is in the midst of ignorance, anger and fear that the true Spirit of the Lord shines through. Some respond to chaos by withdrawing from the world, reaching back to a time that seemed less chaotic and hateful in a time of nostalgia, and erecting walls designed to protect their lives, families and property. (We see it now, as the election of a new type of American president, while definitely not anything close to a Messiah, is nonetheless accompanied by a surge in the website hits and membership increases of white supremacist groups, and the distrust of and loss of civility by those who oppose him.)

But there is another reaction; one of possibility, and the joy of what is to come. The realization by many, as Christians believe, that the world will be saved not through military might, not through the preservation of the “way things have always been”, but through the birth of a child.

The wonder of such an event, the unlikeliness of a child born in a land occupied by a foreign military force, a second class citizen, who nonetheless will save the world. We as Christians believe that the savior of the world being born as a child tells us something of the Character of God. God does not believe in military conquest; God does not believe in weapons of war and hate to achieve his ends. Because God came to us, Emmanuel, in a form that requires protection, the care of parents, and nurturing over time, we can understand that our acts of faith should be of the same nature. In the past, Christians have said “convert or die”, when it is more properly been said, by our Savior himself, as “come and see”.

The armies of Europe did not listen to that slim expression of the spirit of peace in that first Christmas of the War to end all Wars. What followed was three more years of fighting, the construction of punitive peace that bred the distress that brought a second “World War”on, and a Cold War that followed among former allies.

The voice that cries in the wilderness, the voice of that who will “ bring us home”, who will “exult over us with loud singing,” and “renew us in his love”, is a small, still voice. Sometimes that voice is nothing more than a newborn baby’s cry coming from a little cave used as a stable.

For those who have ears to hear.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Yet Another One More Chance

Psalm 25: 1-10

This is the first Sunday of Advent. Came fast, didn’t it? This is one of those years where it comes right after Thanksgiving. The secular world is on top of it, all right, because the Christmas movies started Friday. Has Magic 93 gone to all Christmas music yet?

There are ministers who will tell you that you really shouldn’t sing the Christmas songs in the hymnal until the Sundays after Christmas; that this time of Advent is a time of waiting and preparing. The church historically considered this another opportunity, like Lent, for repentance and the acknowledgement of sin. In other words, no joy till Christmas Eve. As I’ve gotten more experienced as a pastor, I’ve come to believe that it is hard to repent, and even harder to force others to. It’s not my job to require repentance, it’s just my job to provide the space and conditions, and sometimes even teach the way to a closer relationship, a closer walk with God. And it becomes very weird for me that the people who started Christmas, the Feast of the nativity of our Lord, refuse to sing the music of celebration of the birth of Jesus in the time of preparation of that feast.

There are those who would say that their relationship with God is just fine at arms’ length. You don’t ask much of God, so you don’t want God to ask much of you. After working all day, taking care of the home bills or the cooking for a family, or doing the farm chores, is there really time enough for prayer and reading Scripture? I get it—it’s an honest worry, than if you close your eyes to pray, you might just fall asleep. “I do try to be a good person, isn’t that enough?”

Enough? Enough for what? I think that deep down inside, what we want to know is where we’re going when we die. It all comes down to that. I have no idea where that minimum line is. I don’t think it is a certain number of Sundays that you’ve attended church, I don’t think it is how many lines of Bible you’ve read in a week. I don’t even think it is whether you own a Bible. The Bible is just a tool to increase your relationship with God, it isn’t anything mystical, and it isn’t like buying an insurance policy. Trust me folks, living a good life and being a good person doesn’t ward off cancer.

There is no minimum line, so I default on the Methodist attitude of the virtue of effort. What God wants, I think, isn’t three out of four Sundays in church and more than a dollar a Sunday in the plate. That isn’t what God is looking for. God wants you to listen. God wants you to reach for him (or her, whichever gender is better for your discipleship), in a meaningful way.

I think the psalm I read this morning is a good way to think about how to be with God this Advent, and perhaps even daily all year long; teach me your ways, O God, and forget the way I’ve been in the past. Isn’t that the moral of most Christmas stories? Isn’t that the point of A Christmas Carol, what most folks consider to be the best Christmas story ever? (some of you may be thinking, well, no, the best Christmas story is the story of the birth of our Savior; I would respond to you by saying that the birth of Jesus isn’t a story about Christmas. It is Christmas, and all the other stories are trying to explain the meaning of that central, core story.)

As you listen to this Psalm, what the speaker is saying is that he’s hoping for yet another one more chance. That’s our Advent hook. Advent is a time set aside for Christians to think about how they’ve been, who they want to be, and in a context of goodwill in the society they live in, when people are actually thinking about who to donate money to, perhaps for the first time all year, have the opportunity to really make changes that could last all year.

Now is the opportunity to reconnect with old friends who have drifted away; it just looks like a Christmas card.

Now is the chance to make that phone call with the family member who has driven you nuts for years. It is more easily done under the guise of a Christmas greeting.

Now is the time to send money to that charity you’ve wanted to support, but haven’t found the time.

God is constantly striving for us. God’s grace shows us that God will indeed forgive us our trespasses; we know that if we reach out to God, there will be love and grace. This year, can you reach back?

Are you ready for yet another one more chance? Are you ready to give others yet another one more chance? After all, one is being offered to you.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Matthew 6: 25-33
Psalm 126

This is the time of year when we see people take stock of their lives. A family sits around a table on a TV show, and they have a manufactured conversation about what it is they are thankful for. And the content of that conversation is superficial; kids are thankful for their DS game machines, families are thankful for each other, without elaboration. OK, formalities observed, ritual satisfied, where's the gravy?

I've done that a number of times over the years. But not this year.

This is a holiday that was created very early in our history but was formalized in blood, during the Civil War. It has become a holiday which, wonder of all wonders, does not require presents, and is actually based, even now, on companions and community. There is creeping consumerism and over-indulgence, the bane of American existence, even in this holiday, with the blitz for ingredients for all the dishes, the eating three helpings of everything, and waking up at 3:00 the next morning to make 4:00 sales. There is also the creeping awareness coming to this country that this holiday is not happy for all; Native Americans in this country consider it a national day of mourning, essentially a celebration of the genocide of their nations. But, even with all of those issues, at it's root, we will drive for hours to merely eat a meal and watch football. To merely be with people we love.

This year, it's simply a blessing to go to a friends' house, have a great meal cooked in the style we prefer, be in an environment of good friends, fine wine and beautiful music, and reflect on all that has happened.

The gospel says that "can any of you by worrying add an hour to the span of your life?" Well, yes, if you are worrying bout the levels of meds or other aspects of care to your loved one. But in the sense of what Jesus means, in the minds of healthy and active humans, no. We have been taken care of at almost every step of the way, stepping blindly from one stage to another, and friends have appeared who have guided us to the next steps as they've been needed. EVERY aspect of our lives has been provided for.

We needed to find a way to get Donna radiation, and to care for her during chemo, and an old friend steps forward, an employee of a facility that fits our needs perfectly. Another friend, whose mother passed away a couple years ago, and whose memorial service I helped officiate, tells us she volunteers with a hospice organization, and that is who we arranged to have Donna's home care with.

We have been taken care of, along every step of the way. I do not mean that there has been an avoidance of pain. Lord, no. But, just as I believe about the character of God, I believe that people have come to us who have been companions for each step, not to take away the pain, but to walk with us through it. They've come from Facebook, old friends from high school who have come to mean much more in a short time; they've come from the churches, both my current and former, who have shared their stories and given hope or at least been able to give the benefit of experience; they've come as therapists, doctors, nurses, nurses aides, social workers, administrators, and counselors.

Consider the lilies of the field, indeed.

Today was Donna's hospice intake. There's only one significant step left. We've gone out into this journey weeping, at times literally, but living very day with an unmistakable weight. These people, these companions, these organizations, have sowed in tears the seeds of the coming harvest of joy. I promised Joe the other night that we will be happy again, he and I, and Donna will of course be immersed in liquid joy before too long. There will come a time when we too will come home with shouts of joy and carrying the sheaves of a rich full life, the seeds that have been planted even now.

And for all this sowing, and the reaping to come, I am indeed thankful.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

There's Always a Morning After

Mark 13: 1-13

There's a song that, by modern Rock history measure, probably classifies as a standard. Just as Dave Brubeck's Take Five classifies as one of those songs that everyone into Jazz knows, or Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors for Country, or Amy Grant's El Shaddai for Christian Contemporary, (so well known it is even in the United Methodist hymnal at #123), so this song is so well known by folks that I want you to raise your hand when you recognize the song from the lyrics I will quote.

1. That's great, it starts with an earthquake,
2. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn -
3. Uh oh, overflow,
4. no fear - cavalier, Renegade and steer clear!
5. Leonard Bernstein
6. Jelly Bean Boom!

The name of the song is It's the End of the World as we Know it (and I Feel Fine), by REM. I'm sure that for many of the people who have raised their hands, they can sing the chorus as easy as they can Happy Birthday.

Now, when you read the lyrics to this whole song, it's not easy to make a lot of sense as to what the point is. It's one of those songs that is a list of things, and the general gist seems to be things that are significant change. Lenny Bruce was a comic in the 50's who changed the way a lot of people did comedy, even until now. Leonard Bernstein was the same for 20th century American music. Now as to what jelly bean boom means, sorry, I have no idea.

It's the chorus that I am going for here; It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

When Jesus is coming out of the temple, one of the disciples says, "man, are those some big rocks! These buildings are huge!" Indeed, if you have ever seen pictures of the western wall in Jerusalem, which was the foundation of the temple, the cut stones are indeed very large.

Jesus takes this opportunity in Mark to say that there is going to be a time when this temple is not going to be here anymore. Later, four of the closer disciples ask Jesus in private what the end of the world will look like, because if he can see that the temple will be destroyed someday, that must mean that the end of the world is coming. It would be, I imagine, impossible for a first Century CE Jew to imagine the temple destroyed, and so such a thought must naturally equate with the end of the world.

Jesus' point isn't that they must protect the temple, but rather that it is going to happen, and the important thing to watch for is this; people who will come in the name of Jesus and try to take advantage of the fear and the chaos to gather followers. Jesus is encouraging them to hold fast to him only, that he is enough. They must stay true, but they will be tested, they will be tried, they will be persecuted, some of them may even die, but when it's over, they will be saved.

Now, I'm no apocalyptic scholar. You all know, who have heard me preach before, that I don't have much patience with end of the world prophecies or predictions. I believe that the failure of Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth in the 70's will soon be joined by the Mayan Calendar stopping at 2012. I believe that all prophecies about the end of the world end in the predictors looking like fools. I believe that it is a Christians' duty, and a Methodist's mandate, to prepare for whatever end that may surprise us by working to alleviate suffering and to show God's love, and when Jesus comes, let us be caught doing so.

But for me, this message today has a smaller, more personal message--There will be a day after. Imagine the worst thing to happen in your own life, including your own death or the death of your most loved one, and I will tell you that, somehow, some way, the sun will rise again. Imagine the death of a child, and I will tell you that there will be life for you still the next day. I'm not saying that it will be pleasant, or even that you will want to live into the afterwards at first, but I am saying that the opportunity is there, and God will be there, too. Jesus is saying that the Temple, the location of God on earth for Jews of the first century, will be destroyed, again (this is, you will remember, already the second temple). You'll be tested, you'll be tried. But those who endure will find the other end to be worth it.

We have no temple, but we often do locate God in things mistakenly. In the end, we get to a place where it is just us and God, and if we are looking for our cars, our houses, our bank accounts, even our spouses in that moment, we will be mistaken. The loss of things is often described by people as the end of the world, really isn't, and like the Christian version of Job, there will be more life after we've met God.

The ultimate of this idea, as I was reminded by a friend and classmate from seminary, is Mary Magdalene the third morning after her Lord had been crucified. The world may have ended, but someone still has to take care of the body. So off she goes to the tomb, and what she finds is even worse than she anticipated; an empty tomb. But, unimaginably, the day turns out much differently than she could have imagined when she woke up with cloths and herbs in hand.

So, it's a declaration of faith in God, in Christ, to say this:

There always is a morning after.
There always is a morning after.
There always is a morning after.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Don't Tell Martha Stewart

(This note was originally published in the Center Moreland UMC Nov./Dec. Newsletter, in a slightly different form)

I think a lot about gratitude these days. My family and I have been the recipients of an ocean of gifts. There are so many people from so many of the circles we frequent; the freezer we share with the church is "sharing" at this point in name only, because there are so many dinners in there, dinners, soups, and other items that church members and offsite friends have given us.

We have been supported through these storms by financial gifts, as well, which has allowed us to buy what we need when we need it, from medical equipment and the gas for all the extra driving to being able to buy meals last minute when Donna has wanted us to stay and eat with her wherever she was being cared for. It has also allowed me to arrange our finances in such a way to be able to survive on just my salary, and there is still plenty to be used for the medical bills as they arrive.

The gift of presence has been important, both in visiting us in Philadelphia during Donna's worst days, and coming to visit her during rehab, radiation and chemotherapy in Wilkes Barre, and now that Donna has come home, the gift of presence becomes even more important, to break up the days for her, and for me, too.

There is so much to thank people for, and so few thank you notes have been written. I just have not kept up, and I do regret that. I hope everyone understands the situation we are in, how the shape of our days is constantly changing, and I pray that everyone may know and feel our gratitude, even though we have not been able to express it in a timely or tangible manner.

So, again, thank you!

Drew, Donna, and Josiah Cottle, and Sandy Williams.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Not in the Miracle Business

John 11:32-44

All Saints Sunday, 2009

There was once a man by the name of Mordechai, who lived in Bethany. He was an old man, a merchant who had passed on his business to his sons, and they had prospered. They took good care of their father, Mordechai, keeping him comfortable with good food and would light warm fires on cold nights for him. As he got older and more infirm, they hired young women who would cook and clean for him, and bathe him.

But the inevitable day came, and as all people do, Mordechai died. The proper prayers were said, the mourners hired and the crowd gathered to remember Mordechai. He was a righteous man, and while not sinless in the eyes of God, he was still a good man, full of compassion and charity, living modestly.

It was a close family, and there were many friends who gathered. One family who didn't however, was Lazarus'. His family did not attend Mordechai's funeral because they were conducting one of their own, for Lazarus himself. That is to be forgiven, so the sons did not think any more about it.

Then they began to hear the stories of Lazarus and Jesus, and then saw Lazarus himself when Lazarus came to pay his respects. And they were filled with confusion and anger.

"He was dead, and now he isn't? Why couldn't that happen to our father?" "If this Jesus person could have used Lazarus to make a point about the power of God, why couldn't he make a point with our father as well?"
"If he has this power, could he not come use it to raise our beloved father?"

And so it felt with every person, perhaps, who stood and watched as they opened the tomb, and smelled the stench of the dead, heard Jesus command Lazarus to come out, and saw him indeed do so. And unfortunately, they would miss the point.

Jesus is not in the miracle business. Jesus did not come to earth for us so that we can make requests. He is not our last defense against the consequences of our actions, and he is not here to interrupt the natural courses of our lives. He is not even here to save us from the damage we have perpetrated to our own bodies, the violence and neglect we commit on others, and the shortening of life that results.

Jesus is in the love business. The story of Lazarus shows us that Jesus loved Lazarus. Jesus loved Mary and Martha. And to show them how much he loved them, and therefore how much God loved them and all people of Bethany, he caused God to raise Lazarus from the dead, with the appropriate words spoken around the event. Indeed, if Jesus had come into town before, saying "if you believe, you will see the glory of God", and "I am the Resurrection and the Life, even those who die, they will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die, but live", some folks would have said something like , "Oh, gee isn't that nice", and others would have said something closer to "Yeah, right".

So the point of Lazarus being raised from the dead isn't to bring Lazarus back. It's to show that the power really is present in Jesus, and therefore in God. Resurrection is possible. And for Jesus to do it with tears in his eyes with love for this family is just as important I think; Jesus is the son of God, and while he was on earth, he was the embodiment of God's character. So if Jesus wept over Lazarus, so did God. He knew Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and realized, way back at the beginning of Chapter 11, that Lazarus' death was a good opportunity to show love and power to people. That's why he waits; go back and read it; he does!

Now, the story of Mordechai I told in the beginning is not from the Bible. But the questions the sons ask are the questions we all ask. When our loved ones die, we want to know why. If they have been ill a long time, or were very old, that is one thing, and for most, easier to digest. But we all know stories and people who have died that are not so easy, and we want Jesus to step in and perform the miracle that he performed on Lazarus. We may even want it to be for the same reasons, to show God's glory.

Well, God isn't in the miracle business. He's proved his power over death not once already, but twice. Lazarus, and then Jesus himself. Then Jesus ascended to heaven, and we were given the power of the Holy Spirit. He is in the love business, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, so are we.

Death comes to us all. When one of us dies, what happens? We gather, help out, make a meal, take covered dishes to the family, and other small and loving things that help get people through. We celebrate the lives that have gone. If someone dies in an untimely way, the cause of their death sometimes becomes something to fight against, to focus on defeating.

It is all loving witness.

The names we read this year for All Saints run the gamut, from a full life lived to one cut brutally short. Each one of their stories is known by someone here, and there are stories around their passing that give witness to the love and glory of God, if we have eyes to see.

If we have eyes to see God working in the love business.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Quieter Glory

Mark 10: 35-45

JRR Tolkien wrote several books about a world of fantasy called Middle Earth, populated by various races, only one of whaich was human. There were talking trees called Ents, there were wizards, who were old men of uncertain race, buit seemed to be human; and there were Dwarves and Elves and a race of small people who loved to eat and were content with comfortable small lives called Hobbits.

Tolkien used this world to tell stories about strength, and ambition, and commitment, and integrity, and the power of friendship. The central story of the main set of books, called the Lord of the Rings, is about a young Hobbit named Frodo who is chosen or chooses to destroy a simple gold ring, which turns out to be the most powerful magic ring in the entire world of Middle Earth. It must be destroyed at the fire where it was created, so that an evil being cannot have the power to complete his ambition, which is to conquer the world and rule it all.

Frodo takes on the task, and is accompanied every step of the way by a loyal friend named Sam Gamgee, who, back in the area they are from, a place called the Shire, was his gardener.

The journey that Frodo takes is unbearably long and dangerous. Many things happen to him and to the people who are around him. He is stabbed by a sword that is poised by dark magic and almost dies; he is attacked and almost eaten by a giant evil spider; he is saved from the ghostly riders that chase him constantly for the ring by the race of elves; and he loses the finger that wears the ring because of someone else's obsessive greed. The trip is made in almost constant fear, in cold and hunger, and it changes him, physically and emotionally. There are times he is under the ring's power, becomes obsessed with it as well, and there are many moments when Sam must help him remember his task, and once even physically carries him when Frodo can't continue. It can surely be said that if he had known all that would happen to him and Sam, he would have refused to go.

Anything that is significant in our lives has the potential to change us in the same way. The job we choose to work can change us, can cause change to our bodies and to our minds. Sometimes that's for the good, sometimes it isn't positive at all.

Think of people who used to paint the little marks on watches that glowed in the dark. They would touch the paintbrush to their tongues to moisten it and make the paintbrush point sharper. The stuff that they were painting, the material that glowed in the dark, ended up being carcinogenic, and they all became sick.

Soldiers will often tell you that the choice they made to join the military was the best thing they ever did, because the experience of basic training and a regulated life in the military taught them the way to live their life in an ordered and controlled way.

When people get married, their lives are changed as well. For some, they see the changes as compromises and the loss of freedom in exchange for something dubiously valuable, and perhaps even unnamable. Those types of marriages seldom last.

A good marriage helps us understand the value of living for someone else, helps us understand that when we learn to live for others, our lives truly have meaning. This is the beginning of love, and even the beginning of understanding God's love in sending his Son to us.

There is a self-sacrifice in commitment to someone else. There is a faith in the other person, and a forgiveness when they do not measure up. There is an openness to pain, and a prayer that that pain may somehow be transformative. It's no accident that we say in our wedding service that the model of marriage is the relationship between Christ and the church. When it works, and each partner lives for the other, it is the closest we can come to understanding the love of Jesus for us.

So when James and John ask for the places to the right and the left of Jesus when glory comes, what Jesus means when he says they don't know what they are asking is that they don't get the pain that is coming. They don't know that they are asking to feel the pain of abandonment on the cross, and the pain of the cross itself. All they see are the "starlight and roses" part of the glory.
They don't see the glory that comes from having been open to being changed. They don't see the greatness that comes from being a servant to all, and to God, an allowing themselves to live according to God's will. It's a less visible glory, but at the end of the story, at the end of their lives, outside of our record in the gospels, we can assume that James and John, if they did take a drink from the cup that Jesus drank from, the cup of commitment and sacrificial love, they would see truly what glory is.

There are no parades. There is no confetti and the ceremonially being seated on a throne. There is instead a quiet moment when you look on the face of the person you have devoted your life to, in God's name, and realize that, deep down in your darkest parts, in the deepest recesses of your heart, that you have loved well, have loved as God would love, and that person knows the depth of God's love because you have been that face for them. You have shown them the love of God, and they believe, and they know.

That's true glory.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Many Recipes, Same Burger

Mark 9:38-41

The other day, I was in Valley Seafoods, down in Wilkes Barre. I had been buying shrimp baskets for Donna on the Fridays of her radiation treatments to commemorate the end of each week. I'd gotten to know a particular worker there, enough that we would chat during the cooking process. Somehow, we got onto religion, and I told her that I was a pastor. "Oh," she said, "I was once a Catholic, but now I'm Christian".

I've heard this before, and I have never understood it. Catholics are Christian. They can say with anyone else that Jesus Christ is their savior. They can say that there is a Father, son, and Holy Ghost, and all three of them are one person. Their Bible, though slightly larger, is still recognizably the same Bible we use. Catholics are no less Christian than we are.

I served a church in Trenton, Texas for two years. It was a town of, if I remember correctly, 692 people, and when Josiah was born and we brought him back to Trenton, I considered petitioning the town to change the number on the sign to 693. There were three churches; Southern Baptist, United Methodist and Church of Christ, or what some would call "Campbellite". One Thanksgiving, we wanted to do a community-wide thanksgiving Service, and the Southern Baptist preacher and I called and invited the Church of Christ pastor. "No, I won't be participating", he said. "You all don't preach a true gospel." Wow.

Now, I understand that we as United Methodists are not necessarily the most comfortable place for fundamental preferences, but I was really surprised that he would say that about Southern Baptists! Or maybe he wasn't, I don't know. But it seemed a sweeping generalization to say that because we didn't believe has he believed, we were somehow not Christian. We also believed, as he did, that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and was resurrected again three days later.

The essentials are the same, all over. You go up to a person in one of those churches in Ethiopia that are carved thirty feet straight down into soft volcanic rock, who wear turbans and Jewish prayer shawls, and they'll tell you that they have been redeemed by the cross. You go into a highly painted and gold embossed church in Russia, where there are no seats, and you have to stand for two hours listening to the liturgy, and go to an elderly woman wearing a babushka scarf on her head, and she'll tell you that Jesus Christ died for her.

In the essentials, we are all the same. In the essentials, we are all for Jesus. We all have different practices or habits that give us different flavors, like fast food burgers. I believe that if you were blindfolded, and had one each of a McDonalds, Burger King, and a Wendy's burger put before you, and you took a taste, you'd be able to tell which one was which.

Churches, at their best, are the same way. You can tell what is Catholic by how they talk in church, what the church looks like, how the leader is dressed, and their emphasis on the mother of Jesus. You can tell a Southern Baptist church by the way their church is decorated, what the minister wears to lead worship, and their emphasis on the Bible.

Some of you of course re now wondering "well, what makes us distinctive? We emphasize the Bible, but the preacher wears a robe like a Catholic priest".

United Methodists have a great set of things that make us unique. We understand salvation to be an ongoing process, a matter of growth and development, rather than a simple "once saved, always saved", declaration. Yes, we are justified in Christ, which means that we are covered, just as every other human being on earth, by the sacrifice Christ made in our name. But our focus is on becoming sanctified, or growing into a person, through education and prayer and living a holy life, which resembles Christ on earth. We're darn near the only Christian group that speaks this way this strongly, about striving constantly to become Christ-like.

Our songs are unique, and we have as part of our recipe the strong tradition of music to both teach the faith and bolster the faith of those who sing our songs together. The first UM church I ever joined, Newark UMC in Newark, DE, titled the book of history of that congregation "Those Noisy Methodists on Main Street", because of their habit of singing hymns loudly early on a Sunday morning as many others were sleeping off the night before in the boarding houses around them.

We have a specific recipe, one that, at our best, is as easy to pick out of a crowd as a Burger King burger is from a Wendy's. The Church of Christ is just as Christian as we are, we are just as Christian as Catholics are. Christ is still our savior, God is still thought of in three person, but one being, and the Gospels are still the best way to understand Jesus' life.

Jesus's disciples saw a guy they didn't know going around using Jesus' name casting out demons. They told Jesus they tried to stop the guy, but Jesus said, "Nah, you don't have to do that. I am one of the essentials, and if he is using my name, he'll soon learn more about me, and will be one of my people".

Today is the day (one week late) we are celebrating World Communion Sunday, a day to remember what it is we have in common with the other followers of Christ, the ones who we don't necessarily know, but are working in the name of Christ too. Let's remember that even though they are strange to us, they are not to Jesus, and he has said that we are not to stop them.

Everyone has their favorite recipe, and we congregate on Sunday mornings according to the recipe we like best. There are many recipes, but they are all the same burger, in the end. Jesus Christ is still the core. Clergy robes, music instruments, standing or sitting, all of them are just spices and styles of cooking.

Jesus is the core, the idea, what we all gather for.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Backlash of Love

Psalm 124

This is a hard sermon to write. I'm tired. Not just the sleepy kind of tired at the end of a day, but my mind and body are weary. My body and my soul have been working together in crisis management mode for close to three months now. My body feels like it is working a little off kilter, like an engine that is out of tune. I am short tempered, even more so that usual. I have less patience with irrelevancies, and more and more things are falling under the umbrella of irrelevant. I haven't missed the newspaper. I have to fall back on my professionalism to make myself concerned about church paperwork.

I need a break, and there is not one coming. Because of the way I love, and what is happening to two of the people I love the most, there will be no retreat from what's coming, no running and hiding from the hurt that loving well can cause. My mind wants to rebel--to run away to some high mountain cabin, where there is no phone, no internet and a full refrigerator. There are plenty of warm blankets to sleep under, plenty of warm clothes to go walking through the woods in, and all of the videos and books are comedies.

But I can't go there. I won't go there. I want the evidence clear to the end for her and for him that God's love is paramount, that it is ever present, that there is truth in God. And for someone facing an illness, even a dire one, the concerns become very few--am I loved? Am I being taken care of? Are the people I love and feel responsible for going to be OK? I will do everything I can to make sure that she knows that to the very end.

Since Donna has been sick, Justice Sonja Sotomayor has been named, has been interviewed by Congress, and has been approved and seated on the Supreme Court. Michael Jackson died. People have started losing their minds in public life, even to the point of heckling the President of the United States during a joint session of Congress. I try to keep Donna up on these things, and she does watch TV, but none of it is sinking in. It just doesn't matter.

She wants to know what Joe is doing. She wants to know how his grades are going. She loves seeing pictures of our new chosen family niece, born in Boston three weeks ago. She could care less about Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, but she'll tell you the baby's name is Yaela quick as lightning.

In the end, the final concern is love. They don't care where they will be buried, in the end. They may not even care about the pain they suffer. In the end, they want to know if their child will have every chance to grow into a fully realized, ethical and compassionate human being.

She is being attacked by an enemy that is swallowing her up whole. She is being swept away by a flood. Physically, it will win. There is no avoiding that truth. This is a particularly virulent and stark version of the monster. There will be a time, maybe even soon, when she will be no more. That is true of all of us, by the way. I've come to dislike the term terminal illness, as in, "oh, that's what she's got? So she's a terminal case, then." We're all terminal, and no one has ever given me the location of a line that separates the time frame between terminal and not terminal.

Physically, it will win. Emotionally, it has already lost. The presence of some diseased cells in Donna's brain has caused people to gather together, over 550 strong, to demonstrate their love for her, and her cup runneth over to such a degree that Joe and I are blessed by it, we who are not even sick. It was visible. These sick little cells have caused such a backlash of love that one can't help but marvel.

Blessed be to the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.

There's a quote by Irving Greenberg, a scholar, that goes like this;

"The Holocaust confronts us with unanswerable questions. But let us agree to one principle: no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children."

It's a fair line to have hovering over your shoulder as you write, because it is a warning against traveling down a path that leads to separation and mistrust and ignorance--and from ignorance comes hate and fear.

But the line could be changed very easily to read:
"Cancer confronts us with unanswerable questions. But let us agree to one principle: no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of those who suffer it."

It would seem to be the height of foolishness, the unfortunate stretching of credibility, to claim what this Psalm claims, that God is with us and that we have been victorious. 12 million people died in the Holocaust. Since I have been here at the Center Moreland charge, a fair number of people whom I have helped to memorialize and funeralize have died of cancer. It has been called the plague of the 20th Century, and nothing in the 21st century has shown that it has slowed down.

But out of that, love has been very strongly in evidence. In every case, the wider community, even people who did not know those who died, could see very clearly that people cared, people loved and people supported both the one who was ill and their families. God's love was seen in each action, in each word, in each covered dish and donated check, no matter the amount. It was seen in the participation of people who may not have even known Aimee, but went to Nay Aug Park two weeks ago. It was seen by the need for folding chairs, and in the end a standing room only crowd, for Dave James' memorial service. It was seen in people who may have never met Donna, but came to eat chicken and biscuits.

God did not give Donna cancer. If there is a cause for it, it is much more likely to be some man-made substance or environmental source than God. God has, however, make considerable use of Donna's cancer. Through her being ill, people have changed their minds about each other as they come together to work. I am sure I am not alone in marveling in the outpouring of love and support from far and wide, and acquaintances and long ago friends who have come to mean a lot to me and to Joe in a short time.

It's a paradox, but cancer has caused an increase of love in our lives.

2if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us,
4then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us;
5then over us would have gone the raging waters.
6Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.
8Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's Who You're For

Mark 9: 30-37

It has been a long day. The casting out of demons is hard work, the press of crowds makes it hotter, and Galilee isn't exactly Northeastern PA in the almost-fall.

Jesus had something to say to the disciples, and he wanted the time to be able to teach it properly, so he wanted to keep it secret that they were back in Galilee. He was teaching them that Jesus was not like any other prophet. He had not come to lead Israel to freedom from the Roman occupation; he had come to lead humanity to freedom from everything. But it's a hard task to try to open the minds of people who have been born and raised to understand one thing, and then be taught that what they know is too small for God.

So he tells them, as an opening that the Son of Man is going to be killed by human hands, but that death will not take him; he will return in three days. The Disciples have no clue what he is talking about, their minds are still in the places where they were raised--here is a prophet, he may be the one we've all been waiting for, and isn't going to be great when he pulls it off, and we've been with him the whole time? This if all the prestige! Think of all the honor! Think of the better life we will have when we are helping to rule Israel!

Of course, when such thoughts occupy someone's mind, they are not alone, because also accompanying that thought is this--how much power and prestige will I have? I should have more than that guy; I'm closer to the man, after all. Hm. He's a little closer than I am, Jesus talks to him more, so maybe I should make better friends with him. Be of help, you know what I mean.

Now, as a storyteller, I can't imagine that they are having this argument with Jesus right there in the midst of them, so he must be some distance ahead, far enough that the Disciples are comfortable with the discussion they are having about just who will have the most power next to Jesus in the coming kingdom.

But he knows. Just like little kids who don't know how far their voice carries, Jesus can hear them. He knows, but says nothing, but he starts to think.

At the house they are staying in, he gathers the twelve around, and asks them what they talked about when he was out in front of them. Well, they're busted, and don't say anything. Jesus doesn't try to embarrass anyone, but instead he catches the eye of one of the little ragamuffin kids, one of the sort that are always hanging around Jesus, and brings her into the center of them. It's hard to think of a human being that is farther from what these disciples value than this child, because there is nothing this child can give do or be that can add to their power and prestige.

And then Jesus says; "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." He hugs the child warmly, the child smiles and laughs, and Jesus lets go and the child runs off, her day made. "Whoever welcomes one little kid like this, all dirty and with no value in our society, whoever decides to serve ones as worthless as that little one, serves me. And the one who serves me like this serves not me but the one who sent me."

I have no illusions about this idea. In our world, taking the side of the poor, of the bullied, of the distrusted and "sinful" among us doesn't make us popular with our fellow Christians. We surround ourselves with all of the language of Christianity, listen to all the proper opinions and take all the stands that our upbringing and our families have given us, and expect that it will put us in good stead with Jesus. And then Jesus puts a situation or a person in our midst who challenges all of that, and makes clear that his preference is not that you shun them, but that you choose them over everything you've ever been taught, and it's hard.

It is hard, but it is clear. There are people there are situations in this world that need love, that need defending. People who are killed for who they are, for what they believe. Jesus is telling us here that our place as followers of him is standing with them, standing in front of them, standing between them and their attackers, even to the point of the ruination of all the ambitions we hold for success, prestige and comfort in this world.

Sometimes that even means standing as a believer, a follower of Jesus, against those who use the language of our faith to maintain their own prestige and lifestyle. Sometimes that means standing as an American against those who use the language of patriotism to defend their own privilege.

It doesn't require angry words. It doesn't require political maneuvering. All it requires is simply standing with someone. All it takes is a quiet word of correction or rebuke with someone who has said something mean or hard.

Jesus is our model here. In our story today, he has just finished telling them that he is about to die. Lose his life, and in an ugly, public way. And these doofus disciples behind him are counting all the chickens they're going to have when Jesus becomes King. Does he turn around and blow up at them? No. Does he have the right to? I think so. But he doesn't. He waits for the "teachable moment". He speaks softly. He illustrates his point in love. He doesn't embarrass anyone by calling them out individually. And still one of those twelve eventually get angry enough with his teaching, angry enough with who Jesus chooses to stand with, that he eventually runs to the authorities and betrays Jesus.

One does not accrue power by standing with the weak and the bullied, the demonized and the misunderstood. If those are your goals, being a follower of Jesus is not the way to get there. But if you want to be Christlike, if you want to be like Christ in this world, if you want to witness to his love and grace, then it's clear--it's not who you are against.

It's who you're for.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thank You

Colossians 3: 12-17

It's one of my favorite movies, and one that I can count on seeing every Christmas. It's part of the list; hit Hallmark for the cool ornaments, drink at least one glass of egg nog, listen to The Waitresses' song Christmas Wrapping, and watch It's a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart.

You remember the story; a man named George Bailey is born and raised in a small town. On his way to college, he hears that his father has died. He returns to town, doesn't go to college, and inherits his fathers' little building and loan. Other folks go on to seemingly great accomplishments, after they leave town; his brother is a war hero, and a school friend becomes a millionaire. And there's old George Bailey, still running the building and loan. He marries his high school sweetheart, and moves into an old house that they refurbish to a living loving home.

He makes loans to new immigrants to the town so they can become permanent parts of the community. He slips a little help to a woman who needs to leave town to start a new life, where she doesn't have a reputation. He struggles against the towns' rich guy, who is constantly trying to take over the town so he can run it his way. When there is a rush on the banks in a financial panic, the building and loan survives because George convinces his nervous customers to withdraw just enough money to get them through till the panic is over.

One Christmas Eve (this is the only reason, I think that this is considered a Christmas movie), his uncle, who helps out at the Building and Loan, loses the day's deposit. The uncle has the bad timing to lose this deposit just as the Building and Loan is being inspected by regulators, and it begins to look like George may have been skimming funds. George is desperate, he is in despair, and he decides that his life has been wasted in Bedford Falls, and he jumps off the town bridge into the river.

An apprentice angel named Clarence, who needs his wings to become an official angel, jumps in after him and pulls him out of the river. George tells Clarence it would have been better had he never been born, and so Clarence shows him what that world would have looked like had he not lived; the woman George married would never have been married or have kids, the immigrants are discriminated against, the woman with the reputation gives up and begins to live up to her image, the town would have been taken over by the mean old millionaire, and becomes a sort of Las Vegas.
Convinced of his worth, George is returned to reality by Clarence, and runs back home to apologize to his wife and family for having snapped and yelled at them. There, the town hears of the distress George has been placed in, and turns out en masse to cover the amount of the deposit. People come into the house, on this Christmas eve, and drop off a few coins, a few dollars, but more importantly, celebrate who George has been to all of them. A wire comes from the old school friend--he can have as much as needs. The war hero brother, who George saved from drowning in an icy river when they were kids, comes back and instead of being honored by the townspeople, joins in happily honoring his older brother.

Even the bank regulators toss in some money!

I've never had cause to think about what it felt like to be George, standing there as people kept coming into his house and giving him money. I have been thinking about that, though, this weekend. I think now that while the money was important, it helps him to not go to jail, the story isn't about the money only. What the story is about is the outpouring of love and respect and regard. Donna may not remember what happened Friday night, but as her best friend Nancy says, all of that love has been deposited in there somewhere, and at some level, she is drawing on it for strength and courage.

We've lived in Pennsylvania for less than five years. Donna's worked at Wyoming Seminary the same amount of time. I've only served about two and a half years at each of the appointments I've been sent to. We were not raised here, we are not from here. In some cases, Donna's and my political choices or theological beliefs differ greatly from your own.

All of that is irrelevant; you have shown me the truth and the possibility of how people can live together, and how people can gather in time of need; the words of Colossians ring true; you have clothed yourself with compassion, kindness, and love. You have the peace of Christ ruling in your hearts, to which we indeed have been called.

And I am thankful.

I am thankful to mom for all of her little behind the scenes jobs over the past two plus months; I am thankful to Meg for all of the organization that she has put together for last Friday nights' event. I am thankful to Doug for all of the cooking and the food planning; I am thankful to Northmoreland Volunteer Fire co for the donation of the hall; I am thankful to all the guys at Franklin/Northmoreland Ambulance Co. for making the Donna delivery project a volunteer effort. I am thankful for all of the cooks and servers, the raffle organizers, the cake bakers, and of course to all of the people who came and ate and loved on Donna when she was there.

The money you have donated will come in very handy as Donna's treatments continue, and as she still needs care after radiation and chemo are done. It will be put to good use. But the greater part is the love that you have shown for us, which will sustain us through the tough times that are coming.

With gratitude in my heart, I thank you for reminding me yet again through that dinner Friday night, that the love of God does have hands, faces, and feet, and eats chicken and biscuits!

Thank you.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

That's Why They Call Them Miracles

Mark 7: 24-37

Today marks 2 months since Donna went in for surgery. What was supposed to be an overnight stay, and me assisting her in her fight against brain cancer, has become two months of hospitals, rehab and skilled nursing homes, seizures, medications, injections, with her incapable of many decisions, and me making the majority of decisions for her.

This is not how it is supposed to be. Profoundly, I say that this is not how it is supposed to be.

I live in watchful expectation of the signs of the grace of God, and in these past two months, I have seen so very much. I have seen the love of God come from so many people, shown in their love for Donna and for us. Even people who are not explicitly Christian have raised us up in the language of their own traditions--An old friend from high school who now works for the State department sent us a prayer wheel and beads from Tibet. The first clergyperson on site in Philadelphia when Donna suffered her hemorrhage was a rabbi. People I haven't seen or talked to for years, have barely thought about since we all went to high school together, even elementary school together are following us on One friend that I hadn't talked to for some 15 years before this started, and who I just recently reconnected with on Facebook, sent us cookies yesterday.

Two other boxes came as well, holding a prayer shawl, and a box of homemade baklava, both from Commerce, Texas, the last town we lived in before moving to Pennsylvania. People from every previous church I served have made contact. Donna has 6 prayer shawls, scarves, or knitted squares, a couple from churches we've never been to. People of every faith tradition, and who have no faith tradition have helped us, sent us cards and food, loved us, side by side with the people we share a faith with. It has been glorious, it has been awesome, it has been divine.

I am aware of how this event in our lives has been such strong evidence of the love of God for his people as you and so many others have shown us love. You have been the face of God for us almost constantly for two months. You have lifted me up and helped me continue with your prayers. But I am sure you understand what I mean when I say that I would rather have not seen any of that. I'd rather just have Donna sitting in her usual pew, to my left and 4th row back, in the 11:00 service, trying to settle Joe down.

It is with great interest that I read the gospel text assigned for today. Not the first part, where Jesus may or may not have changed his mind after possibly being corrected like a little boy by the Syrophonecian woman. That is a good conversation to have over lemonade in the backyard of someone's house on Labor Day, but it isn't where I gravitated.

No, I went straight for the healing miracle. The story of the deaf man with the speech impediment. Now, when he says speech impediment, I think Mark refers to the sound that a person's voice makes when they have been deaf all their lives, who have never heard the proper ways words are formed in the mouth and throat in any language. The way that the actress Marlee Matlin sounds. So, Jesus performs two miracles on this man, a foreigner in the foreigners' own land. The first is to restore his hearing. The second is to change his speech to what someone who has heard all their lives would sound like.

We are a people who believe in miracles. We have stories that tell us that Jesus was able to work these miracles because of the belief of the people around him, almost as if he channeled their power into the miraculous act. We have stories of miracles that Jesus couldn't do because of the lack of belief of the people standing around. We have stories of Jesus healing people without any help from the people around him, both of his own ethnicity and nation, and stories like this one of people who are healed despite Jesus foreign status and the distrust the people around him have for this unclean Galilean. We are a people who believe in miracles.

So why is it that I do not believe that Donna will be miraculously healed? Why do I not expect that when we get a post-radiation-and-chemotherapy MRI in late October, they will find nothing there, just healthy brain tissue? Why don't I believe that she will return to full function, and be able to remember people after they have visited, and remember where we live now? Why don't I believe that when Donna comes home, it will be to grow old with me?

What do you think the family of the man the Jesus healed believed? He was an adult. There is no mention of his wife or children, or even of a mother or father. He was an adult, so someone had to have taken care of him. But everyone around him knew who he was, knew his handicap. They did not expect him to be changed. He had adapted to being deaf over the course of his life, and had fit into a role that the community had made for him. No one expected him to receive his hearing. No one expected to be able to understand him plainly when he spoke. No one expected the miracle.

We throw that word, "miracle," around a little too easily. It is a great, glorious, and terrible word, and we use it for basic biological acts like the birth of children to healthy parents. Beautiful yes, worthy to meditate over, marveling at the gloriousness of the design of God, yes, but not a miracle. We use miracle for the catch that David Tyree made that helped the New York Giants in the Super Bowl two years ago. We use it for Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception some thirty years ago.

A miracle is a scientifically unexplainable and unexpected event that shows evidence of the love of God. By definition, we never see them coming. That's why they are called miracles. So I'm going to play my part. I am going to put my trust in God by how the doctors and the nurses care for Donna (with watchfulness, of course), I am going to continue to witness the love of God by seeing how you and so many others from so many places in our lives come together to care for us, to love us. I am going to try my hardest to be the face of God for Donna, to show the strength and love of God to Joe, and sustain both through the grace and the stamina and the power of God. But I am not going to expect a clean MRI at the end of October.

That's why they call them miracles.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some Spring Break

James 1: 17-27
Mark 7: 1-23

Spring break 1996 was coming, and I didn't know what I was going to do. Donna didn't have vacation to burn, and even if she did, we didn't have the scratch to go anywhere much further outside of Dallas than, say, Fort Worth. And if we went that far, we'd not be getting a meal; thank goodness the Kimbell Art Museum was free!

One night at church, I was sitting in a classroom talking with Phil, a friend, and he told me about a trip he was taking. He was going to take a van that he'd arranged to have donated to a mission he was involved in down in Guatemala, a cooperative of Indian widows whose husbands had been "disappeared" (read (assassinated) by the Guatemalan government called Proyecto Ruth y Noemi, or the Ruth and Naomi Project.

Guatemala, as in down south of Mexico. And we'd be driving it down.

Money wouldn't be an issue, most of would be taken care of through donations he had on reserve through his non-profit. I'd have to come up with some meal money, is all.

I was nervous. I'd never done anything like this before. I'd driven long distances. I had even driven all the way across the country solo, but I'd never driven into a foreign country, never mind through one into another. I had to scramble to get my passport done on time, but I did.

And off we went. It took a whole day to get to the Texas-Mexico border at Brownsville, then the second night was spent in Tampico, the third night was in Vera Cruz, the fourth night in San Cristobal de las Casas , and then we rested the fifth night, staying in Palenque which is near San Cristobal, and visiting the Mayan ruins there. Along the way, we were stopped by the Mexican army four times, because two anglos driving an empty van toward Chaipas may be a sign of supporting the rebels there. One guy even tried to steal my driving gloves, but he was a young guy, and seemed to understand that they had been given to me by my Novia, or fiancée. He didn't need to know that I had bought them in the company of a by then ex-girlfriend, now did he?

Then we came to the Mexican-Guatemalan Border. We picked up a Guatemalan border official, who insisted that we be properly inspected at a town an hour away called Quetzaltenango, in the wrong direction from our destination, and he rode with us to that destination.

In Quetzaltenango, the van was impounded, and we were deposited into a ratty hotel that only had hot water between 5-8 in the morning, the toilet was clogged, and you couldn't leave your room after dark for fear of the security dog who would attack anyone in the courtyard, even guests. Diego Chicoj, the director of Ruth y Noemi, had met us at the border, as well as his wife Juana, and had ridden with us and the government official. They were now sitting in the room with us, and we were talking and praying. Around us were every last item out of the inside of the van, even the spare tire. They knew that the van would be looted while it was in impoundment, if we even got the van back.

I was completely a fish out of water--I didn't know the language very well, I could feel Phil's stress and the Chicoj's worry, and I saw Phil hand Diego a pretty big wad of money, and then the Chicoj's left.

As the sun went down, Phil was out in a chair reading his Bible and I was laying in one of the straw mattress beds inside. I had never been in a situation like this before, where I was in a place where the government did not want me here. I was part of an effort to help the native Indians, the Quiche, the descendants of the Mayan, who the government had tried not too many years ago to exterminate. Some Spring Break.

Then Phil starts to laugh, out there in his chair. Back in Texas as he was packing, He'd grabbed a Bible that he didn't normally use, but he was running late. In the front cover of this Bible was the text 1 Peter 1: 6-8. He looked it up, just out of curiosity, and it said:
6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,

There's a goal and a purpose to the endeavors of the followers of Christ. The goal was to deliver the van to the Ruth and Naomi Project. The purpose, however, was to show the love of Christ. To the dispossessed, to the government, to the Mexican soldiers who stopped us so many times, to the people back in Dallas.
Our faith is not practiced in here. So many people think that by going to church, they fulfill the obligation they owe.

They have it wrong. There is no obligation to go to church. There are no obligations to being a Christian--salvation is available to us no matter what we've done to earn it or not, and stays with us no matter whether we work to tell people about God or not.

But spiritual awakening is sometimes nothing more than realizing that we feel gratitude, love, and joy for all that we have been given. And we want to tell others, to show others.

And so often, we abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions. It was the churches who supported the White citizens' councils in the south more than they marched with King. It is in the guise of Christian indignation that so much anti-immigration language is spoken among us now, when it is clear that Jesus, the gospels, Moses, Isaiah and so many other places in the Bible preach hospitality, grace and an obligation to help the stranger and the sojourner. Here's how James says it in today's text:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Let's be clear--coming here on Sunday mornings isn’t what makes you Christian. It's sometimes not even helpful. Loving people, helping them, feeding them, standing between the bullies and the meek, that's how we know we are Christians. And that's how the world knows.

And that's how God knows.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Keeping Our Feathers in our Pillows

Ephesians 5:15-20

One of the books I have been reading lately is called Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. I'm not that far into it yet, but already there is more information that I knew existed about the ways people speak that hurt each other.

He starts with a story I have heard attributed to at least three different faith traditions; Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist. So it must speak a truth, eh?

It goes like this, in Telushkin's version: A man in a town is going around speaking ill of the Rabbi. He comes to regret his words and actions, and goes to make amends with the Rabbi. The rabbi tells him to go to his house, take a feather pillow, and scatter the feathers in the wind. The man does so, and then returns to the Rabbi and ask if he is forgiven. "Almost", says the Rabbi. "Now, I want you to go and gather all the feathers."

It's funny--so, often, we toss out wisdom and knowledge, we discard it, because it is not "ours"; it doesn't come from an explicitly Christian author, so it must not be worth anything.

And so, in our ignorance, we are forced to relearn the wisdom and knowledge. So it is with what we understand as gossip and slander. There are even Hebrew words for what we do, whole classifications for the ways we speak unkindly or imprudently.

Of course, there are ways to talk about people that lift them up. There are things that you can say about people that as Rabbi Telushkin says are "nondefamatory and true."

Then there are negative and true stories, which are called Lashon Ha Ra, or stories which lower everyone else's esteem of someone, and this would include things like tattling, telling folks about something that someone has done, and everyone then thinking less of that person.

Lastly, there are rumors and outright lies, called Motzi Shem Ra.

It is the will of the Lord that we speak to each other and about each other as if the other is Christ. At a practical level, this means that we speak as little as possible about each other--the innocuousness of a plan and seemingly harmless comment can become a weapon for someone who is not inclined to toward goodwill for the person who is the subject of the conversation. And words can blow around like feathers.

Let's talk about Lashon Ha Ra a bit. These are the statements you can make about someone that are negative truth. Telushkin's example goes like this: Imagine two people donate $100 to a charity. One person may find such a sizable donation difficult to manage, and those who are around that person may find themselves admiring them. Another person who makes a lot more may find their reputations lowering, because it is felt that they could have given more. The problem here is that somehow both people's donations became the subject of discussion. That talking these donation totals around, even though it is true, is not complementary toward the richer person, and is Lashon Ha Ra.

Paul writes in this morning's passage that we should be careful how we live, because the days are evil. We are not to contribute to the evilness of the world, but are to combat it with "making melody to the Lord in our hearts". And that something is true is not a high enough bar to speak it.

Unfortunately, we as human beings also engage in just being mean, and saying things about people that are just outright untrue. We all can recall stories about people we've heard that turned out to just be false, but they were spread around anyway; they may have even been embellished, because they may just be so fun to tell, or because we have political or social problems with the person--an ulterior motive, in other words for the focus of our speech to be lessened. A current public example of this is the insistence by certain people that our current President has actually broken the law by being elected; they believe that he was not born in the US. This is the definition of malicious falsehood, of Motzi Shem Ra.

I could engage in speculation of the reason why people are so focused on it, the ulterior motive that is being exhibited by the perpetuation of this lie, but that would actually be an example of Lashon Ha Ra: true, but not complementary.

It is the will of the Lord that, as we are the people of Christ, we speak to each other, and about each other, as if the other person is Christ. After all, Christ is within each of us. It is the Will of God that we acknowledge this truth.

At the end of the story of the man who slandered the Rabbi, after he has scattered the feathers to the wind, and the Rabbi now tells him to go gather the feathers back up, he of course says that such a thing is impossible. And the Rabbi says: Precisely. Though I believe you genuinely regret your words, it is as hard to repair the damage they have caused a it is to gather every last feather back up into your pillow.

It is not the will of God that we speak ill of each other, or even that we speak the truth when it is unnecessary. And "each other" includes more than just the people of our own towns or our own church, the people we actually have to live with every day. It means the people of our nation, and of our world. The will of God is that we be wise; the days are evil, why contribute to them? Why not speak well or not at all?

Let's keep our feathers in our pillows, eh?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Cars in the Parking Lot

There was a crowd of people down at Center Moreland yesterday morning making Welsh Cookies as a fundraiser for Donna's medical costs and our living expenses. This is a rare, terrible, and special place to be, emotionally. Above all, it is humbling.

I wish for everyone the opportunity to feel this kind of love, as we have from every corner of our lives. From churches that I have served where things were bumpy. From churches and synagogues we've attended, served and visited, as well as one's we've never seen. From friends that we have known for decades. From people who just happened to re-string a guitar for us two days ago. I just hope that they can feel it without having to suffer such events as has caused this outpouring for us.

When it happens for you, just know that you will never be able to recipricate all the love you've received. Don't try. The best you can do is express gratitude and let it lift you.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Still Here

Psalm 121
Psalm 130

A sermon is a prepared, edited, and (usually) spoken work of prose or poetry that, ultimately has as one of it's goals the proclamation of an aspect of God. What separates it from a testimony is the preparation. The purpose of both is the same, but a preacher studies the Bible, studies what other people have said about his or her chosen text through the reading of commentaries, and works as a writer of books and articles does in polishing and adjusting what is said until the exact point they want to make is clear.

Folks, today is going to be a testimony day for me. I have been in the presence of God. I did not notice it at the time, I was busy focused elsewhere;
• Focused on the words of doctors;
• Focused on the telemetry screens giving heart rate, intra-cranial pressure, respiration rate and such;
• Focused on signs of movement and of the return of the person I know and love.

It took a conversation with a colleague of mine, a chance meeting when I happened to see her in the parking lot of her church as I drove by, and pulled in, to show me that I was not focused on God because I just knew he was there. I have not focused on the ground much either, or on the air that I breathe. But I know they are there, too.

God has been with me. Has been with Donna, has been with Josiah and my mom. God is with you all too.

We can see the power of God all we want--in an earthquake that moves New Zealand closer to Australia--in a rainstorm that obliterates the view out Donna's hospital room to the degree we can't see the Sheraton 3 blocks away. Seeing God's power is easy.

But I have seen God's grace and love this month, too.
• in the talents and the knowledge of the doctors and nurses who have taken care of Donna so well;
• in the over 11,600 visits to our CaringBridge website by friends and family all over the country, and even a few international entries;
• by the cards and gifts and donations which are such a comfort to me;
• by the love and grace shown to me by Donna's work colleagues, who to a one say that this year's performing Arts' Institute feels different without her there, works a little less well with her not around;
• and lastly, I have seen the face of God through your love and grace and attention to our physical needs. As Sheryl has said, it is time for the congregation to pastor to the pastor.
And through what you have done, what I knew to be true, that the face of God is shown to his people through his other people, has been demonstrated again and again, and again.

I will never believe that it was in God's plan to give Donna a brain tumor. I just do not believe that God is in the business of causing his people pain without their assent, and in the face of Biblical literalism, I say that God does not punish with disease. But God is absolutely in the midst of this trial which has been laid onto us, onto Donna. As I sit with her, encourage her, get mad at her and love her, I hope that I am the face of God for her, and that as her awareness increases, she sees that face in the others around her.

There is a long row to hoe yet. She shows every sign of returning, after a time, to her old self. But soon we will need to begin to attack the brain tumor itself, and her default, her chosen and base attitude is aggressive. We will make it so, in the words of Jean Luc Picard, but it will be harrowing and difficult. God's face will shine even more brightly in the days to come, I have no doubt.

God did not cause this, but God is in the midst of this with us. And because he is still here, we are still here.

This is my testimony.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Go Quakers!

For folks who might be checking here for updates about Donna, please go to I am in the waiting room at the University of Pennsylvania right now, and when I update, it will be to there. Thanks for stopping by here, though!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Posting Delay

Sorry for the delay in posting these, things are a little hairy in Fryer Drew's world. This Sunday I will be preaching the second part of the Acts series, and then there will be no sermon from me on Sunday, July 12.

Becoming a Witness

Acts 1: 21-26

Summer can be a difficult time for schedules. I know that in our house the rhythm is different every week, with Joe going to a different camp or experience, one week he’s at his school for a stage performance camp, and another week he’s building robots at Penn State Wilkes Barre, and another again, he’s at sleepover camp at Sky Lake.

If your lives are like ours in the summer, the absence of rhythm makes it even harder some Sundays to make it out of bed. You want to, I know, but it’s just too hard some days.

So, this summer, I would like to offer some small assistance. I will be preaching a series of seven sermons on the book of Acts, beginning to end. I will also be putting in the bulletin the section of the book I’ll be using the following time I preach (it won’t be every week, for one reason or another). There will be some weeks when preparation will cover seven chapters (which really is still not a large burden, that’s only a little bit longer than a good newspaper article). In addition, in worship, Carolyn and Penny will be picking the hymns they like the most.

If you want to study more about the section of the book coming in the next sermon, I invite you to come to Center Moreland on the Wednesday nights before the Sundays I am preaching, and we will get a little bit more in depth about this important book of the Bible, the only book of story and narrative outside of the Gospels in the New Testament. It answers the question: what happens after Jesus ascends to heaven? How do we get to here from there?

Acts doesn’t give the 2000 year history of the church, but it does tell us how the word began to spread about Jesus after he ascended, how the Jewish followers of Christ started taking in Gentile believers and what that meant for Jewish practice, and where Paul, the writer of a third of the New Testament became a follower of Christ, whom he did not ever meet bodily. In a sense, it is the story of how a group of people changed from following a man around Galilee and points near to it, to becoming witnesses to who that man was and what he did after he was gone. In that story, the story of Acts, lay lessons for us as modern disciples and how we can witness to that same man.

Let me give a little background first. Acts is generally thought to be the second half of a larger story, the first half of which is the Gospel of Luke. You could think of it as the sequel to Luke. Both are addressed to a person named Theophilus, and the writing style is generally thought to be similar. Also, the same thoughts about God pop up in both—there’s an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and on prayer, there’s concern for gentiles understanding what Jewish meal customs are, Luke wants gentiles to make sure they understand that much of what Jesus did and what comes after are fulfillments of Jewish Scriptures, and most importantly, there are lots of occasions where the disciples, as well as others who did not know Jesus, begin to witness to what he has done, not just while in the body, but what Jesus has done for them after his ascent.
This morning’s text is very short. Chapter one has only twenty-six verses, and three things happen. Jesus commissions the Disciples and his followers to witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, then there is an account o the death of Judas, and the last part is about how Judas is replaced by another follower as a disciple.

The 8th verse is the key to understanding the whole book as the way Luke means for us to understand our role as followers of Christ. The whole rest of the book can be seen as the story of how the witness of Christ went from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. It starts with the simple administrative job of replacing a fallen disciple, and end, with Paul, a man who is not yet even Christian in the story, sitting in a jail cell in far off Rome, the very belly of the Empire, witnessing to Christ.

The lesson for us today is HOW the Disciples decide to pick a new disciple. Let’s look at the story again—Peter stands up and says “OK, folks, Judas is dead, and the scriptures were fulfilled by that happening. Someone else needs to take his place, and that someone needs to have been with us from early on, from Jesus’ baptism. The group of about 120 put forth two names, and they pray over them. Then they cast lots (the closest approximation that we can understand is that they flipped a coin, or they cast pieces of wood that worked like dice) to see what God intended.

It’s an interesting thing, this “casting lots”. Rather than argue about qualifications, or allow politics to enter into the decision, they name two well qualified people, and then allow the element of chance to enter in. In their world, introducing the element of uncertainty actually allows God to enter into the proceedings; it’s a way of listening to God’s will. Who knows that the US would be like now if, instead of taking the case to the Supreme Court, the election board of Florida flipped a coin to see who would become the President in 2000.

I am not advocating the throwing of dice or the flipping of coins as a method of making decisions in your life. But I do wonder what role God has in how we make decisions. How do we provide an opening that gives us way to hear God’s will? It’s more than just a gut feeling, as important as the leading of the conscience is.

I think that it is a matter of praying first, and the Disciples did, picking equal solid choices, as the Disciples did, and then seeking the Lord’s will. Casting Lots would be the way they did that. We can seek opinions from friends and others who know something about what we need, and then sit and think about them, mull them over, “let them ferment a bit, and then listen to instinct. If we are truly led by Christ and seek His will, then the answer eventually becomes clear, and sometimes it’s the kind of answer that slaps us in the head, saying “why didn’t I see that from the beginning!”

Careful thought in a spirit of prayer is the way to discern God’s will. Sober and reasoned consideration is itself a witness, sometimes. Living by wise and moderate means is itself evidence of God’s leading.

So, this week, I encourage you to stop and think, if you have to make a decision. Pray first, find out the best options, and then let it sit for a while. Maybe even flip a coin, if the two seem to be equally good choices. The important part isn’t the casting lots; the important part is the prayer at the beginning, the advice listened to, and the time taken to think.

We’ll see this again and again in these stories of the Disciples and others, as we go through Acts. Prayer first, listening second, and what results ends up being a witness to Christ.

Not a bad witness to us, is it?