Story/Sermon on Mark 10:17-27

I want to try something different this morning. This sermon will be in the form of a story I’ve written based on this text from Mark’s Gospel. In particular the story deals with the rather shocking response that Jesus gives to the man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. We expect Jesus’ questions about keeping the commandments, but after the man assures Jesus that he’s done what the law requires all his life we come to verse 21. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

So here’s my story:

“I’m afraid I won’t live to tell this tale; so I’m going to write it down.” So begins a journal entry by Marion Browner. I found his journal, a small spiral notebook, sealed in a zip lock bag as I was walking along a Martha’s Vineyard beach. It had apparently been washed ashore by the tide.

The entry dated March 23 continues: “My bed banged into the wall and jolted me awake this morning—seems like a year ago. My first thought was, “Oh, no, an earthquake!” But then as sleep cleared from my head I remembered where I was. I’m still not sure what happened. Our ship must have hit an iceberg or another ship. I don’t know and probably never will.

Obnoxious fog-horn alarms started blaring and mass confusion erupted all over the ship. My stateroom was three levels below the evacuation deck and it was difficult to get up there. Everyone was jamming the passage ways in a state of near panic and the ship was listing rather badly to port. I started out of my room once and heard someone yell that we were taking on water. Fearing we might have to abandon ship I pushed my way back against the flow of the crowd to my room and tried to decide what to take with me. I began throwing some things into a duffle bag—extra clothes, this journal, and a novel I’m writing. Part of the novel was in my laptop, and I hated to lose it. I had just broken through my writer’s block and had done some good writing on this cruise. So I decided to take the computer and put it and my duffle into a carryon suitcase. It was a bit heavy but I couldn’t bear to lose that good work.

I struggled through the crowd of passengers and found pandemonium on deck. It was still dark and cold and the early morning fog made it even harder for crew members to organize the evacuation of the ship. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as everyone jockeyed for position, trying to get to the lifeboats. I’m not sure what happened in the next few minutes, but I finally found myself in a small life raft with several other people and we were quickly lowered over the side into the water.

The cold north Atlantic sloshed over us as we struggled to keep ourselves upright. One man was washed out of the lifeboat, but someone else (I later learned her name was Susan) was able to grab his hand and hold on till the rest of us could pull him back in.
By the time we stabilized ourselves and got our cold wet lifejackets on I realized I could no longer hear other voice. We had drifted away from the ship and the other lifeboats. An hour or two later when the fog lifted there was nothing to see but water—water all around us and ankle deep in our boat.

We are a bedraggled crew: Susan, the lifesaver when John went overboard, is a strong, athletic-looking woman. It turns out she really was a lifeguard in her college days at Duke, and although it wasn’t obvious in the soggy sweat suit she was wearing she is now a professional body builder. Lucky for John—she was probably the only one in the boat strong enough to save him.
John is a CPA for a Madison Ave. conglomerate, an uptight, obsessive-compulsive type. If exposure or thirst doesn’t kill him, having his Brooks Brothers suit ruined probably will.

There are three others in our boat: Brandi, a beautician and wannabe model from New Jersey; Phil, an art museum curator from Montreal, and Carlos, who turned out to be a Roman Catholic priest from Philly—but you would never have guessed it from seeing him in his dripping bathrobe and pjs.

That makes six of us altogether, and the lifeboat could accommodate up to 8 normally, but we are far from a normal crew. In the first few minutes after we realized we had drifted away from the others I knew we had a serious problem. I’m sure most of the others did too, but no one wanted to talk about it.
The lifeboat was still taking on water—in part from the waves washing over the sides, but mostly because we are overloaded—not with people, but with baggage.
I wasn’t the only one who packed before jumping ship. All of my fellow refugees were clutching bags of odd shapes and sizes; and when I pointed out that we really had to lighten our load or we were going to sink, I met with great resistance.
Susan, the body builder, had brought several of her smaller weights with her and was already beginning a limited version of her regular morning workout. The weights are obviously expendable, but after one look at the ease with which she did one-handed curls with a 20-lb. weight, no one was going to tell her so.

John the CPA had a brief case full of important business contracts he was working on, and from the way he was clutching it to his chest like a security blanket, it was obvious he wasn’t going to part with it without a fight.

Brandi had a large suitcase and a matching makeup bag. When I asked her what was in them, she said her make-up, jewelry, clothes, and her portfolio of modelling portraits. She was just beginning to explain why she couldn’t afford to replace any of it because she was only working part-time and none of it was insured when Phil yelled something about what a waste that crap was and lunged across the boat at Brandi. He managed to throw the make-up bag overboard because Brandi couldn’t hold onto both pieces of luggage at once. She would have gone in after it, but Susan grabbed her. So instead Brandi went after Phil and tried to get even by throwing his baggage overboard too.

Phil had a large rectangular package, obviously some kind of painting. He told us later, after the scuffle, that it was a Renoir that had been in his family for generations. But Brandi couldn’t have cared less about art or family heirlooms at that point! She was furious and did her very best to give Phil and his priceless painting a salt-water bath. I thought they were going to capsize us all before order was restored, once again enforced by Susan. We were all relieved when everyone was seated again, but what we failed to notice at the time was that in the struggle the corner of Phil’s picture frame had made a small puncture in the skin of our life raft.

When everyone calmed down a bit I tried again to initiate a rational discussion of which baggage was expendable (hoping no one would notice the suitcase I was sitting on). Everyone of course thought their own prized possessions were more valuable than anyone else’s. Compromise seemed hopeless. Everyone was simply banking on our being rescued before the lifeboat sank of its excessive cargo weight. The best suggestion anyone came up with was to take turns bailing the water out of the boat.

When we started looking for something to bail with we realized that we hadn’t heard a word from one member of our crew. Nobody much cared, except we didn’t know what Carlos had in the small, worn leather bag he had brought with him. We didn’t know yet he was a priest either, but that became very obvious when he showed us the rosary, chalice, Bible and bottle of holy water in his bag.
Phil said sarcastically, “Well, at least he can give us last rites, but this cup will work great for bailing.” Brandi objected and grabbed the chalice from Phil. “You can’t use that, it’s holy!” she said.

Father Carlos smiled and spoke for the first time, “I can’t think of anything holier than saving life. It’s OK Brandi,” he said, making the sign of the cross and handing the chalice to Phil, who started bailing immediately. Carlos continued, “And if we ration this holy water very carefully for drinking it may keep us all alive for a day or two. These other things won’t lighten our load very much, but every little bit will help,” he added as he tossed his rosary and Bible overboard.

“Father! You can’t do that,” screamed Phil as he jumped in after them. Susan did her lifeguard routine once more and fished Phil out, sputtering but empty-handed. While he shivered, John took up the theological debate questioning how Father Carlos could possibly risk doing anything to alienate God at a time like this?
Carlos was still amazingly calm. “At a time like this,” he said, “unless the word of God is in your heart the Bible won’t do you much good anyway. I’m scared too, John, but our situation reminds me of the time someone put a life and death question to Jesus. The six of us are like the man in this story – we want more than anything to be saved. You see, this man asked Jesus, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He was a very good man, but Jesus told him he lacked one thing. Jesus told the man he needed to sell what he had and give to the poor.

The man had a lot because he was very rich. But Jesus knew he needed to let go of what was keeping him from really giving his life to God.

There was a deafening silence in the boat, except for the sloshing and scraping of Phil bailing water with the communion chalice. Finally Susan said, “You mean we need to throw this junk overboard, don’t you Father?” But before Carlos could answer John declared, “I’m not giving up contracts until these two broads give up their weights and make up and Marion gives up that suitcase he’s been sitting on! Those things can be replaced, and what good is a stupid painting when your life’s at stake?
Everyone was ready to gang up on John and throw him overboard, but Fr. Carlos intervened again, quietly. He said, “You know, the person in that Bible story goes away full of sorrow. He wasn’t able to let go of his possessions either, and then Jesus says, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The last page of the journal was scribbled, like Marion wrote it very quickly. As best as I can tell it says: “I think Fr. Carlos was beginning to get through to some of us, but Susan screamed just then because she noticed the tear in the lifeboat. It must have just gotten bigger and the air is rushing out pretty fast. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Everyone’s throwing their stuff overboard now. I just hope it’s not too late…”


Let us pray: O God, what must we do to be saved? Remind us it’s never too late to give ourselves to you. Speak to us the assurance that grace is a free gift, and that there is nothing we can do to earn it. It is difficult to enter your kingdom because it is so hard for us to let go of our security blankets.

In this moment God, help us to honestly confront the idols we worship:
Be they idols of pride in our looks, or in our strength, ability, portfolios, education, status or power.
Help us throw overboard the material possessions – the new cars, X Boxes and fancy toys, our designer clothes and ever-present electronic devices. Unburden us of whatever holds us back or slows us down on our walk with you, O Lord.

Give us strength to win the battle with the demons of coveting, of our pursuit of houses that are bigger and nicer than our neighbor’s, goals that consume us and keep us from seeing the Gospel truth of how we need to live as Jesus followers.
Let us put away the idols of faith in our own achievements or self-righteousness as ways to save ourselves, ideologies and doctrines that divide instead of unite us.

Help us to see clearly Lord how those idols threaten our relationship with you, and our way to eternal life itself. Please give us strength to let go of those idols before it’s too late. We don’t want to be like the person who came to Jesus. We don’t want to go away full of sorrow because of possessions that posses us, but may we go away rejoicing, like camels, who freed of their burdens can slip through the eye of a needle.

We offer these prayers because we know that with you all things are truly possible. Amen

Northwest UMC, October 14, 2018

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Pastoral Prayer for World Communion Sunday

O Holy One who invites ALL who are weary to come and find rest, we the weary have heard your invitation. Rarely have we needed rest and your unifying Holy Spirit more than we do on this World Communion Sunday. We are exhausted by bitter partisan politics that divide families and friends. Some of us feel better because Justice Kavanaugh has been confirmed while others weep in despair for women’s voices that have gone unheeded yet again. But all of us are tired of the lack of civility that threatens our very way of life. When we leave this service today please empower all of us to be ambassadors of kindness and agents of compassion to every stranger we meet at school, work or in our daily lives.

We are tired of natural disasters and pray for their victims in the Carolinas and Indonesia and in places we’ve not even heard about that are often forgotten as soon as the news cycle moves on to a new crisis du jour.

But today we rejoice as the barriers of race, gender, and age disappear as Christians around the world gather at one table. We are neither Republican nor Democrat, female nor male, black, brown, yellow, red or white. We are one race – the human race—one body sharing one common loaf.

We are here to worship not because we deserve to be here, but because we need to be here. We are here because we know that all of us fall short of your glory, O God. This week we have all failed to do Christ-like things. If we pretend to be worthy we know we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us. And yet sinners that we are we come because we believe that your grace is for ALL, even for us, and that if we confess our sins you promise to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.

Our sins are wiped away, all grudges forgotten in the healing community we rejoice to be a small part of today. Around this table we speak different languages and have different customs; but through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we are ALL one today and for as long as we remember who we are and whose we are we carry that holy sense of community with us.

We come, we pray, we go out to serve, in the name of the one who invites ALL who are weary to find rest. Hear our prayers O God in the name of Jesus who taught us how to live, how to build community and how to pray.

Northwest UMC, October 7, 2018

Put in Our Place, a sermon on Psalm:19:1-4a, Mark 8:27-34

Author E.B. White once said “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Our two Scriptures for today suggest that choice is not an either/or but a both/and. They tell us in fact that we can’t do one without the other.

Diana and I were in Colorado this summer for a family wedding. Our nephew acted as social director for the group before and after the wedding and one activity was a trip to a small observatory to do some star gazing. We were at 8000 feet so the air was clear (and cold), and we discovered that they have a lot more stars in Colorado than Ohio!

As we got amazing views through the telescopes of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons we learned some mind-blowing facts from the astronomers about how many billions of stars there are in the universe. They told us that our Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years in diameter, a distance I can’t even imagine. But then they said that the observable universe is estimated to contain 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies. At one point our nephew said to me, “I’m feeling really small.”

I’m guessing that kind of awe is what our psalmist was feeling we she or he wrote, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” This author was having one of those mountain top experiences where we can’t help but savor the universe. Without any words the majesty and power of our creator goes forth and is proclaimed even to those who use different words or symbols to try and describe the sense of wonder and our own smallness in the infinity of God’s universe. In a different but similar way powerful storms like Hurricane Florence and Super Typhoon Mangkhut can also make us realize how powerless we humans really are in the universal scheme of things.

The mystery of creation shows us things in proper perspective and puts us in our place as a very tiny part of creation. And yet as small and insignificant as we feel the creator of the universe so loves every part of creation, including humankind, that God came to our little planet in human form to show us how to savor and save ourselves and the world.

The truth that Jesus lived it is that mountain top experiences are wonderful and necessary, regular worship and prayer feed our souls, but our daily lives still play out in the messy valleys where we know all too much pain and suffering. The trick is to remember to savor God’s majesty and power even when we can’t see or hear the heavens telling the glory of God. When the stuff of life hits the proverbial fan, then more than ever we need to be put in our place so we can keep life in perspective.

To be put in our place is to know who we are and whose we are. That’s the point of Jesus’ question to the disciples in our Gospel lesson for today. The familiar words in Mark 8 that followers of Jesus must take up their cross are so well-known to us that we may not take them seriously. In truth aren’t we more like Peter in this text who makes it clear he’s not really into the cross thing for himself or for Jesus. Mark says when Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed… Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

Most of us have a natural aversion to suffering; it’s just that Peter is bold enough to put those feelings into words. Peter’s response to Jesus’ teaching about his coming death and then Jesus’ reaction to Peter helps explain one of the curious things about Mark’s Gospel. Bible scholars call it the “Messianic Secret” because in Mark Jesus is continually telling people not to tell anyone who he is.

Doesn’t that seem curious? If Jesus is out to save the world, wouldn’t you think He’d want as much positive press as he can get? Maybe he just needed a better PR department? But the strength of Jesus’ angry response to Peter helps us understand the Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus doesn’t want the disciples spouting off yet because they still don’t really understand who he is. They know the right words to describe him; he’s the Messiah, but like students who just know how to feedback what the teachers want to hear on a test, the disciples don’t really get it. They aren’t ready for the final exam because the kind of Messiah they want Jesus to be is very different from the suffering servant Jesus came to be. The disciples are looking for a military savior like Rambo and they got Gandhi instead.

This Gospel story reminds me of Robert Frost’s great poem about the two roads that “diverged in a yellow wood.” Peter and the guys want to take the wide, easy road, the familiar popular path of least resistance. And Jesus has chosen the road less traveled. And this is not like the famous quote from Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This is a real choice. We can’t have it both ways, and the result is misunderstanding, conflict, anger, and some very harsh words. Yes, even within Jesus’ closest band of followers there is conflict. That should not surprise us, but it does. We often naively expect Christians to be immune to disagreement and conflict. But we aren’t.

When Bishop Judy Craig retired several years ago one of her colleagues described her as having a lover’s quarrel with the church, and I like that description. When I used to do pre-marital counseling and a couple would tell me they never argue all kinds of red flags went up for me. In any significant relationship where important matters are at stake there is bound to be disagreement and conflict. After all if two people are exactly alike and agree on everything, one of them is redundant.

And when we’re dealing with ultimate concerns and God stuff, it gets even harder because none of us have the final answers about God. The mystery of God is so vast and incomprehensible that one person said that talking about God is like trying to bite a wall. That’s why the Psalmist says, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

But we mortals still have to use our imperfect words to express our ideas and feelings; so conflict is inevitable. We know Jesus got angry—at the money changers in the temple, at the Pharisees, he called them a brood of vipers at one point, and in this text for today he is obviously angry at Peter. Anger and conflict are not bad things if they are handled in loving and respectful ways, but we can’t do that if we deny the feelings or go away mad.

The bottom line is that like Peter we don’t want to suffer. Buddhists have a basic law that says “Life is suffering.” That’s not a popular platform to run on, as Jesus found out with Peter. Oh, we like crosses, the little gold ones we can wear around our necks or on our lapels, but when it comes to big heavy ones with lots of splinters, we’re willing to let Jesus carry that one for us. That’s why the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is so popular. We let Jesus suffer for us and we reap the benefits. But when Jesus says we have to take up our own crosses too, we are tempted like Peter to argue or at least rationalize. “I’d like to help Jesus, but I just started a new job, I just got married, I have to take care of my aging parents, or I have a new baby to take care of.”

Jesus shows no patience with Peter, in fact he does a very un-Jesus like thing. Peter rebukes Jesus, and does Jesus turn the other cheek? Nope. He rebukes Peter right back. He does to Peter what Peter has done to him. That’s not the way the golden rule works is it? Jesus snaps at Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” That’s worse than an Ohio State fan calling someone a Wolverine!

But let’s look closer at what’s going on here between Jesus and Peter. We know Jesus doesn’t see Peter as an enemy because he tells Peter to get behind him. You want your enemies where you can keep an eye on them, not behind your back. Remember this is the same disciple that Jesus elsewhere says is the rock upon which he will build his church. Peter is the first great post-Pentecost evangelist. The Roman Catholics consider Peter the first Bishop of Rome and first Pope. And legend has it that this Peter who rebukes Jesus and refuses to take up his own cross is the same man who when he faces his own crucifixion years later does so with such courage and humility that he asks to be crucified upside down because he feels unworthy to be crucified as Jesus was.

So Peter is not Jesus’ enemy. This is a lover’s quarrel. And notice another thing about getting “behind” someone. Think about that phrase. When we say we’re getting behind someone we use that phrase to describe supporting that person, to have their back. Could it be that when Jesus says, “Get behind me” he is simply asking Peter for his support?

We know that choosing the road to Calvary was not an easy one for Jesus-it wouldn’t be for anyone. That last night in the Garden of Gethsemane we know Jesus prayed hard for God to deliver him from that horrible death. The temptation to chicken out must have been great; so to have one of your best friends add fuel to that fire and encourage Jesus to take easy way out would only add to the difficulty of staying the course.

All of these things may have been at work in this heated conversation, Jesus struggling with his future and asking for support in keeping this difficult commitment to God. But it seems to me there is another dynamic going on here too. Jesus sees this as a teachable moment. In the very next verse after the “Get behind me Satan” line, Jesus talks about what it takes to be one of his followers. Verse 34 says, “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The central question for us is what does it mean to follow someone? I was leading a group of 6 or 7 cars home from a youth retreat one time at Camp Wesley near Bellefontaine. We headed out from camp on a Sunday afternoon in a big caravan. We took a county road out to state route 68, and I turned north. That would have been fine except we needed to turn south to get back to route 33 and head home. I realized my mistake immediately and looked with horror in my rearview mirror to see that every one of the other six cars had followed me. No one seemed to be thinking for themselves. I don’t know if we qualified for a world record U turn, but when I made one a mile or so down the road, all of my followers did the same.

There are two things about being a follower – 1) you have to be behind someone to follow them, not out front leading your own parade. And 2) it pays to follow someone who knows where he or she is going.

The real point of this Gospel text is that Jesus still needs followers to carry on his work. Rather than putting Peter down Jesus is putting Peter in his place, which is behind the leader so he can follow. Remember the children’s game Follow the Leader? For that game to work everyone has to get behind the leader and do what she/he does. Peter goes on to become a great leader in his own right, but he is not yet ready for that role, and Jesus knows that. Jesus knows he will not be around long to lead the church; so he is preparing followers to carry on.

Good leaders teach by example, not by dictating and laying down the law. That heavy-handed style robs students or followers of learning to be responsible decision makers. I know because I grew up in a law and order household. When my parents said “Jump!” I said “How high?” And for 12 or 14 years that was great. Being obedient kept me out of lots of trouble and gave me protection from peer pressure. I could always blame my parents for not letting me do things I either didn’t want to do or knew were a bad idea. But when I turned 16 and went off on my own in a car and did not have mommy or daddy there to make decisions for me I was lost and unprepared to take responsibility for myself.

Jesus is a never failing compass that won’t leave us lost and unprepared. His example of love and justice is the North Star to guide Christians in every ethical decision. His example is what informs us when we ask “What would Jesus do?” But that’s only the first question and the easy one. We know what Jesus does and would do. The more important question is “what will I do?”

Which road will I choose? The one near the cross or the other one? The hymn by that name says “Jesus keep me near the cross till my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.” Rest, oh yes rest sounds good to the tired and re-tired doesn’t it? So much better than taking up a cross, but what is that “Beyond the river” stuff? That sounds too much like buying the farm to me, but is it about life after death or life after birth? When Jesus says we must “lose our lives in order to save them” don’t’ take that too literally. He means we have to surrender our will, our great desire to call the shots and lead instead of follow. Followers of Christ need to say and really mean, “Not my will but your will be done.” The transforming river in that hymn is the river of baptism where we die to our sin and are reborn as followers of Jesus.

How our lives go, how we deal with conflict and change depends on whose will we choose to follow. Jesus’ path looks harder in the short run, but it’s the only road home. Are we willing to surrender our wills and let Jesus put us in our place, or do we want to lead our own little parade down the wide, smooth path of least resistance – the one Jesus warns us leads to destruction?

The decision to follow Jesus is one we have to make over and over again because we all continually take detours and try to go our own way. But here’s the good news—there is no where we can go that God can’t lead us back home if we choose to follow. The Holy Spirit is our spiritual GPS that keeps recalculating as many times as we get off track.

So when the burdens of life seem too heavy, let’s take time to look to the heavens and be inspired by the mystery and power of creation. We may feel small, but God isn’t. The heavens proclaim and declare the glory of God, and that’s our job too as followers of Jesus.

Robert Frost says, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and the choice makes all the difference.” To choose wisely we need to be put in our place – right behind Jesus.

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, September 16, 2018

Pastoral Prayer for August 26

O Eternal One, we come again today to seek sanctuary from a world that bombards us with continual missiles of bad news: Hurricanes and flooding in Hawaii, gruesome murders in Colorado and Iowa, political turmoil in Washington and serious ethical issues about domestic abuse that raise hard questions in churches, at Ohio State and other places throughout our nation. We pray for all victims of any kind of abuse and for the leaders of society wisdom and compassion. Our hope is that such painful situations will be learning experiences for all of us so we can improve our own relationships and reaffirm the values of human dignity for all.
As we begin another season of classes here and in your churches, synagogues and mosques everywhere, we pray for your blessings on those servants who teach and all who learn that we will grow closer to the kind of world community you envisioned at creation and are continually trying to redeem and renew.

Remind us again O God that conflict and troubles are not new to us – they are a part of the human condition, a price we pay for free will. But remind us also of the saints who surround us like a great cloud of witnesses who have been through stormy seas and came out on the other side. Let us hear again the words of faith and hope like those of the psalmist:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam.”

Remind us that you are the one who says, “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” Let us be still enough to appreciate the beauty and goodness that is still around us even in the darkest times – the compassion and comfort of friends and strangers, the prayers that sustain us in trying times. Let us be still enough to restore our strength and faith – to know we are not called to do more than we can do – to just be still and know your presence…… [silence]

In the holy silence let us hear the still small voice that assures our souls that the tumult of humankind will not have the final word because “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

No where do we draw more strength and confidence than from Jesus the Christ who taught us how to stay calm in the storm and how to pray……

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

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!

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