Helsinkigate?

I wonder if that is how history will remember July 16, 2018, the day of President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki? Dare we hope that the Helsinki fiasco will finally awaken the sleeping giant of bipartisan patriotism enough for Congress to grow a spine and do their constitutional duty to provide checks and balances on the President?

For those too young to remember Watergate let me describe the parallels I see between the Mueller probe of the 2016 election and 1974, the only time in American history that a unified Congress forced a sitting president out of office. The Watergate affair got its name from the building which housed the Democratic National Committee. President Nixon’s paranoia inspired a botched break in at the DNC to steal information about campaign strategy for the 1972 presidential election. As is often the case Nixon’s flawed attempts to cover up his role in the foolish escapade is what eventually forced him to resign in 1974 before a remarkably bipartisan Congress could impeach him.

The Trump administration should take especial note of the fact that Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” when he fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox who was closing in on him was the final straw that tipped the balance in Congress and in the court of public opinion against Nixon.

It was a truly tragic and foolish ending to a long political career. Watergate wiped out any good Nixon had accomplished. All the 37th President is remembered for is Watergate and being the only President (so far) to be forced out of office.

The whole Watergate escapade was foolish because the Democratic Party was so dysfunctional in 1972 that Nixon would have easily won reelection without whatever information was acquired in the Watergate break in. The Democratic candidate George McGovern was a very good man, seminary trained, a World War II bomber pilot; but he was far too liberal for mainstream America in those bitter Viet Nam war days and only carried one state in the Electoral College. It was one of the most lopsided presidential elections in history.

John Kennedy called people with the moral courage and integrity to stand up for truth, even when it is a very lonely place to stand, “Profiles in Courage” in his Pulitzer Prize book by that title. Times like Watergate and Helsinkigate require such heroines and heroes who are willing to do what is right instead of what is popular; those willing to value their eternal souls and inner peace over political expediency, who care more about country than party or ideology.

That’s a very lonely place to stand as described in some lines from the wonderful play, “Inherit the Wind,” where attorney Drummond gives young teacher Bert Cates some wonderful advice. Cates is the character modeled after John Scopes who was tried for teaching evolution in a famous trial in Tennessee in 1925. Drummond says to Cates: “It’s the loneliest feeling in the world to find yourself standing up when everyone else is sitting down.”

One of my favorite hymns is one we rarely sing in United Methodist circles. It has not been familiar or popular in any of the 8 churches I’ve served. Written by Congregational minister S. Ralph Harlow in 1931 in the early years of the Great Depression some verses of the hymn were omitted from the 1935 and 1966 Methodist Hymnals because they were, as the title suggests, too prophetic. In other words singing these words makes us uncomfortable by holding up the mirror of truth in front of us and challenging us to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

How contemporary these 86 year-old words sound today:
“O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee: your life is still a summons to serve humanity, to make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd, to stand with humble courage for truth with hearts unbowed.

O help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way, where hate and lust and falsehood hold back your holy sway; forbid false love of country, that turns us from your call; who lifts above the nation the neighborhood of all.

Create in us the splendor that dawns when hearts are kind, that knows not race nor station as boundaries of the mind; that learns to value beauty, in heart, or mind, or soul, and longs to see God’s children as sacred, perfect, whole.

Stir up in us a protest against unneeded wealth; for some go starved and hungry who plead for work and health. Once more give us your challenge above our noisy day, and come to lead us forward along your holy way.”

I read a great quote somewhere recently that said, “If you decide to follow Jesus the world will break your heart over and over.” Young and not so young prophets know that pain all too well, but they also know a deeper truth. The God who calls us to be profiles in courage is the great healer of broken hearts. That God is the one who looks at times such as these and says, “Whom shall I send?” And the world is waiting to see who has the courage to respond, “Here am I, send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)

If you are brave enough, read the rest of Isaiah 6 to see what Isaiah predicts for his nation if their hearts are too callous to hear and understand God’s truth and justice. Spoiler alert – it’s not a pretty picture. May we today have better ears to hear hard truth that Isaiah’s Israel did!

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The Sacred Responsibility for Children

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” That’s Jesus in Matthew 18:6, and that verse came to my mind as I reflect on the awesome responsibility of relating to children. My world changed dramatically 47 years ago when my daughter Joy was born. Holding that precious new life and knowing I was responsible for her flipped a switch in me that meant there was no more pretending to be an adult; this was the real thing.

Unfortunately that switch didn’t always stay on, and there were many times I failed to be the kind of father I wanted to be. The fact that both of my kids turned out to be great people is part grace and mostly because they had a wonderful mother.

Jesus doesn’t mess around with describing the seriousness of how we treat children. If we harm a little one we deserve to be drowned “in the depth of the sea.” Thank God there’s also “a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea” to stick with the sea imagery from Frederick Faber’s great hymn.

Like many of you my wife and I have been paying close attention to the rescue efforts of the soccer team. We check our phones for updates just before bed and first thing in the morning, and many times in between. As I write this eight of the 13 have been brought out through the treacherous waters, and we are praying hard that the other 5 can be saved before the monsoon rains can do their deadly deed.

Why is the world so fixed on these 12 children and young coach? None of us had ever heard of them three weeks ago. And yet a huge team of experts from all over the world have rallied around in an amazing show of international and humanitarian collaboration to save these young men. No one is even asking how much all this is costing because you can’t put a price tag on human lives, especially those of children.

Maybe we are so drawn to this story because we are starving for good news in a world gone mad with all sorts of pain and suffering. We are certainly in awe of the sacrificial love of these divers who are risking their lives to bring these kids out, and our hearts ache for the family and friends of the diver who lost his life last week.

I don’t want in any way to dampen the joy we feel for the success of this unbelievable effort, and my fervent prayer is that by tomorrow we will be rejoicing that the other five will be set free from the darkness they have lived in for far too long. But in the midst of all the emotion I feel for the Thai kids I can’t help but raise another painful concern. We simply cannot let this huge news story overshadow or distract us from the millstone being put around the necks of thousands of children by our government’s zero tolerance policy. The very term “zero tolerance” should be repulsive to us.

The separation of children from their families for political purposes, and that’s what this is, is a moral outrage; and we cannot let any other shenanigans by the President or even the Thai rescue take pressure off of Congress to find the political courage to force the administration to make reunification of these families a top priority. If the divers in Thailand can risk their very lives to save the soccer team, surely our elected officials can risk their political future to save thousands of refugee kids.

The big irony of all this is that the psychological damage being done to these kids will push them into the kind of violence and drug use that the administration claims to be so concerned about. Children need to be loved, to feel secure; they need more than basic physical needs to be met to develop into responsible, caring adults that are required when they become parents. Jesus understood how crucial loving families are, not just for now, but for future generations. He was a refugee too, and had parents who risked their lives to care for him.

No one can provide the emotional support kids need better than their families. These refugee parents risked their lives to try and escape the violence in their homeland. They love their children as much as those families waiting outside the cave in Thailand love theirs. If we can move heaven and earth to save those 12 kids and their coach, surely we can muster the compassion and political will to stop separating families and reunite all of those whose kids must feel as isolated and afraid as those trapped in that cave.

For those who don’t care, I’d stay away from millstones.

Reckless Love of Self, Ephesians 2:1-10

Before Lebron James announced his second departure from the Cleveland Cavalier one of the biggest sports stories in Cleveland was all about a basketball shot that was never taken. In game one of the NBA finals last month the Cavs lost a chance to win a critical game against the Golden State Warriors because J.R. Smith held the ball in the closing seconds of the game instead of shooting what could have been the game-winning shot. It appeared that Smith was confused, thinking the Cavs were ahead when in fact the score was tied, and he heard about it from irate sports fans.

Bob Oller, a sports writer for the Columbus Dispatch, took an interesting approach to that story. He went to one of the most admired sports heroes in Buckeye country, the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner and legendary Ohio State running back Archie Griffin. To quote Oller’s article, “Archie knows what it means to extend grace and receive mercy. Arch fumbled his first carry in his first game at Ohio State. It happens. Woody Hayes gave Griffin another chance and he made history with it. Archie also recalled another more glaring error he made when he fumbled a kick off on football’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl.” Archie’s take on JR Smith’s blunder: “It appears he lost track of the specifics of the situation….It’s a human mistake.”

Most of us don’t make our mistakes on national TV, but we all make them. What is something you regret that you wish you could undo? Words spoken in anger? Being self-absorbed with a problem and failing to notice the pain of a friend or loved one? Being distracted while driving and causing an accident or nearly doing so? As someone said recently, doing bad things doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us human.

In this sermon series we’re considering different aspects of love. Last week Pastor Chris talked about the first part of the great commandment – to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. And most of us know the second part of that commandment which is to love your neighbor as yourself. We’re going to deal with the neighbor part of that verse in coming weeks, but today I want to focus on those final two words in the great commandment, “as yourself.” We often put so much attention on love of God and neighbor that we lose sight of those final two words that are a critical prerequisite to doing the other two.

To love anyone else as we love ourselves obviously means we have to first love ourselves, and that may be the hardest part of this whole deal. Loving yourself is hard for several reasons: 1) we are often taught directly or indirectly that it’s not cool to boast or brag about ourselves, that we should be humble; and often we get carried away with that because 2) we alone know the whole truth about all of our own dirty laundry. I believe it was Lincoln who said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

That may be true, but even more true is the fact that you can’t fool God or yourself any of the time. No matter how good we are at hiding our faults from others, deep down our less desirable qualities are always with us like a perpetual bad hair day. Yes, we can rationalize or talk ourselves into doing something we know is not right, but deep down we still know it’s wrong and have to live with the guilt.

One of the biggest barriers to loving ourselves is perfectionism. Most of us don’t expect perfection from other people. We’re willing to cut them some slack, especially if we take time to consider that jerk who cuts us off on the freeway may be hurrying to get to a family emergency, or that rude clerk at the store is worried about her daughter who has run away from home. We know other people are just human, but why is it we often hold ourselves to a higher standard? I read a great line in a murder mystery the other day. The heroine of the story was beating herself up because she got taken in by a bad guy, and an old wise neighbor gave her this great advice. He said, “If I cried over every mistake I made I’d have drowned by now.”

Great advice, but part of the reason we have trouble loving ourselves is because we’ve got this accumulation of bad thoughts and behavior that seems to compound like credit card debt the longer we’re alive. And sometimes the church contributes to the guilt. I often joke that without guilt the church would be out of business. I may have borrowed that idea from the comedian, whose name I can’t remember, who joked about a church called “Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt.” But in all seriousness recklessly loving ourselves doesn’t mean excusing or sweeping our mistakes under the rug. Reckless love means embracing the good, bad and ugly, not just in others but first in ourselves, and that’s not easy to do.

The hard cold truth is that there is an evil streak in human nature. If we look honestly at the violence and suffering humans inflict on one another we have to admit it. Listen to what the writer of Ephesians says in the first part of chapter 2 that we read earlier: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… we were by nature children of wrath.” Those are harsh words to swallow and unfortunately they are the only words some people ever hear from the church. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “The Gospel is bad news before it’s good news.” And because some Christians who don’t love themselves get their jollies beating other people up with the bad news many folks don’t stick around long enough to hear the good news. And can you blame them?

A few weeks back Pastor Mebane preached a very good sermon on integrity and used the analogy from the game of golf about the honesty it takes to call a penalty on yourself. I was sitting up here that day and if you noticed I was squirming a little it was because she was getting too close to home. Anybody else feel that way, or was it just me that got my toes stepped on? Sometimes the truth hurts like when I look in the mirror expecting to see Brad Pitt and this old geezer keeps looking back at me.

I am old enough to remember a couple of previous versions of the United Methodist hymnal, and one thing I remember was that the old communion ritual had a prayer of confession that said, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty.” How’s that for a marketing strategy to attract folks to come to church? I can see the Facebook invitation now, “Come to Northwest this Sunday and bewail your manifold sins and wickedness!” I much prefer Jesus invitation, “Come to me you who are tired and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Another thing I remember from the days when we used that old communion liturgy is that attendance on communion Sundays in many churches was always lower than average. I have no scientific evidence for why but I have a sneaking suspicion that people stayed away to avoid being saddled with a bigger load of guilt than they already had. Now it’s true that if you made it through the confession there was the Good News of salvation offered in the Sacrament itself, but I fear that once the guilt trip was triggered people didn’t hear the Good News of forgiveness. Out of curiosity I asked the office staff to give me the attendance numbers for the last 18 months here at Northwest. I was pleased to learn that over that period our average attendance on communion Sundays is almost identical to non-communion Sundays. I attribute that to the kinder, gentler language we use in celebrating communion that stresses how all are welcome at the Lord’s Table. And yes, ALL does mean ALL.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not saying we don’t need confession as part of worship. We all have plenty to repent of as individuals and as a society, but we have to be very careful to be sure the Good News of the Gospel doesn’t get drowned out by the bad news. We get plenty of bad news all week and in order to recklessly and completely love ourselves we need to not only hear about the radical redeeming love of God, we need to feel it and experience it.

I John chapter 1 is a perfect example of the whole Gospel. Verse 8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” If we stop there loving ourselves is pretty hard to do. But the very next verse says, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Today’s text from Ephesians says the same thing. Once it faces squarely the evil streak in all humans it shows us the way to self-love. Beginning at verse 4 it says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

We can recklessly love ourselves, not in a boastful way, only because of the reckless love of God that saves us from our sin through freely given grace. It’s a love so reckless that Christ is willing to die a horrible death to show us the depth of God’s love; a reckless love that is like a sower who throws the seeds of grace everywhere, not just in “good” soil; a reckless love that runs down a dusty road to meet and embrace every prodigal child who repents and returns home.
In these days when the evil viruses of racism and nationalism and tribalism seem to be spreading like a plague it is easy to lose hope and to fear what the future holds. But fear is the lack of love, a lack of trust in God’s grace. If we trust God completely what have we to fear? As the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” says, “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still,” and that truth is deep unconditional love.
Set free from fear by God’s grace we can stand up and speak up for truth and justice. We can worry less about what others think of us and do what’s right and instead of what’s popular. When we speak and live the truth we have nothing to fear because God has our back.

Think of the saints throughout our faith history who loved themselves enough to boldly love others. I love the women in the Moses story who defied Pharaoh’s authority and conspired to save Moses’ life – the midwives who refused to kill the Hebrew baby boys at birth, Moses’ mother and sister who put him in the bulrushes where Pharaoh’s own daughter would rescue and raise him. Without their courage Moses would never have grown up to lead his people out of slavery.

Where does love of self come from? Or if we’re born with it, what happens to it? One great answer to both those questions is captured in the words of a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte. It’s called “Children Learn What They Live.” Her words should be posted in every nursery and classroom. In part she says:
“If a child lives with criticism, she learns to condemn.
If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.
If a child lives with shame, she learns to feel guilty. (That’s the bad news, but the poem goes on…)

If a child lives with encouragement, she learns to be confident.
If a child lives with acceptance, he learns to love.
If a child lives with approval, she learns to like herself.

Kids are so impressionable that the golden rule is doubly important for them and all of us whenever we interact with them. We can all help instill a healthy love of self by treating the little ones as we want to be treated, with patience, forgiveness and reckless love.

It occurred to me while working on this sermon that reckless love of ourselves boils down to applying the Golden Rule to how we treat ourselves. If I treat myself badly by living with self-criticism, fear and shame, then I’m going to treat others the same way. What if we simply begin by treating ourselves as we want others to treat us?

We can begin to do that by changing the way we do something that all of us do on a daily basis. Who do you see when you look in the mirror, when you really look? Do you see yourself flawed and imperfect physically or morally? Or do you see a child of God saved by grace, flaws and all, set free to serve God and others by the reckless love of God and self? When you look in the mirror from now on don’t compare yourself to people society tells us are beautiful or special, but see yourself through God’s eyes.

Treat yourself with kindness; treat yourself as you want others to treat you. Be like Martin Luther who it is said each day when he bathed rebatptised himself and reminded himself he was a beloved child of God, one who in the words of Ephesians is “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Reckless love is really quite simple: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It all starts with loving that child of God we see in the mirror every day. Amen

Pastoral Prayer July 1

O God of reckless love, we your children come again to drink of your life-giving spirit. We are worn down by the heat and the steady drumbeat of conflict and division in our world. Speak words of life to us in your still small voice. Renew in us the vision you have given us of a world where liberty and justice for all are realities and not just ideals. As you inspired our ancestors to risk their very lives for that dream of freedom, let our celebration of independence be a time of renewal for all who follow him who is the truth that sets us free.

Let the spectacle of fireworks not only fill us with oohs and ahs in their moment of brilliance, but let them reverberate in our hearts to energize us to be the change we want to see; to be agents of compassion and civility in our daily relationships; to build bridges over partisan divides; to brighten our little corner of the world with random acts of kindness.

As we ring the bells of freedom let us also hammer out justice all over our land. We pray for families that are divided by strife, by politics, by geographic or emotional distance. We pray for military families separated by service to our country; for health care workers, first responders, and others for whom July 4th is just another work day. We pray for the families shattered by the shooting in Annapolis and for those broken by terminal illness, dementia, addiction or grief.

Yes, we’re here, loving God, hungry for love, for good news, for community; for all those things Jesus represents for us; for the things we find in bread and cup; in every child touched by Vacation Bible School; in every brown bag lunch packed and delivered with loving hands; in every smile and hug we share with those here today. We praise and thank you for the many signs of love you give us and pray for ears and eyes to recognize those signs even in a broken world. We dare to live as Easter people with resurrection in our hearts because of the one who taught us to pray……