“Peace Be With You,” John 20:19-31

I spent most of the 1980’s doing youth ministry and was blessed to have a whole crowd of wonderful volunteer adult leaders, including one who played guitar and led our youth groups in singing.  One of the songs we did often came to mind this week as I was working on this sermon.  It’s an old Peter, Paul and Mary song called “Day is Done,” that includes these lyrics:

“Tell me why are you crying my child, I know you’re frightened like everyone.  Is it the thunder in the distance you fear?  Will it help if I stay very near?  I am here.  All will be well when the day is done.”

In our Scipture for today Jesus is saying to the disciples, “I am here.”  He says that with the phrase, “Peace be with you.”  In these 13 verses from John’s Gospel Jesus utters those 4 words not once or twice but three times.  And those words are the first thing he says when he appears mysteriously in a room with locked doors.  “Peace be with you.”  Why are those doors locked?  Because of fear.  And what do we need when we’re frightened- we need peace.  Jesus understands that his friends are afraid, and he has come to bring them peace that only he can provide, the peace that passes all human understanding.

Don’t we all yearn for that kind of peace?  Many tomb stones or sympathy cards include the phrase “Rest in Peace” That prompted someone on Facebook to ask recently, “Why do we only rest in peace? Why don’t we live in peace too?”  The good news in this post resurrection text from John is that we can.  We don’t have to die first.

I had an insight on Maundy Thursday this year about the disciples falling asleep while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We worshipped on-line and then I sat down to read.  But I couldn’t stay awake, and I wrote a short blog post about that experience.  In part, I said, “I’m not physically tired, just exhausted with world news overload. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue or just frustration that there seems to be so little I can do to save the world from its warring madness. I can’t not watch the news, and if the scenes from Ukraine or the New York subway shooting aren’t fatiguing enough they are interspersed with incessant mean-spirited and fear-based political ads.

Instead of judging the disciples for napping, maybe they were just worn out from all the weird stuff going on around them. They had to be confused trying to understand Jesus’ determination to put himself in harm’s way and with all his talk about death and resurrection. They had been on an emotional roller coaster from Palm Sunday’s high to this strange trip to the Garden in the dark. Jesus’ strange behavior, insisting on washing their feet, a job only done by servants, not a Messiah. And what did he mean about his broken body and his blood shed for them?

It was too much to comprehend. Maybe their bodies just shut down to get a respite from the confusion in their minds and spirits. They had hoped he was the one to throw off the Roman oppressors and bring them peace, but they were wrong.”

I had stopped at a Tim Horton’s earlier that day which was just two days after the subway shooting in New York.   As I waited for my coffee I found myself looking around for a place to hide if shooting suddenly broke out.  That’s a symptom of the low-grade fear that clings to us like a dryer sheet on a pant leg.  We try to shake it off by turning off the TV and social media, but we can’t unsee those pictures of Putin’s crimes against our sisters and brothers in Mariupol and Kyiv.  We can dress up and have Easter egg hunts and excellent worship to mark Holy Week and Easter (or Passover or Ramadan), but we’re still afraid of what’s happening to our world.  We’re already so awfully tired of COVID.  Wave after wave of extreme weather keeps leaving a path of destruction as they sweep across the country on a weekly basis, and still many people are in denial about climate change. We’re tired, Jesus!  Where is that peace you promised?

I find it helpful to step back and examine this need for peace through the stages of grief developed by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic book, “On Death and Dying.”  She describes 5 stages of grief people go through if they or a loved one are dying:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally a stage of peace she calls acceptance I think the disciples in the Holy week experiences are in the early stages of grief.  Jesus has told them goodbye at their Passover meal, and they are already grieving.  Sleeping in the garden could be a form of denial, an escape from the reality of the moment.  When the soldiers come after Jesus one of the disciples grabs a sword and lops off the ear of a servant – that’s anger, another natural part of the grieving process.  

And now on Easter night John tells us that the disciples have already been told that morning by the women who were first-hand witnesses that Jesus is alive again.  Two of the disciples, being guys who don’t trust a woman’s word, ran to the tomb to see for themselves.

They call Missouri the show me state because people there insist that only seeing is believing. I don’t think any of the disciples were from. Missouri, but they act like it.   The disciples have not yet seen the risen Christ; so who can blame them for still locking the door?  They are like a little girl crying in her bed during a thunder storm.  When her daddy goes in to comfort her he hugs her and reminds her that Jesus is always there with her.  She looks up at him and says, “I know, Daddy, but sometimes I need someone with skin on them.”  Don’t we all?

Peace comes in many shapes and forms; a hug, a kind word, or just a willingness to sit with someone in their sorrow.  

I have had a springtime ritual for years that I’ve ignored during the COVID years.  For many springs before that I have watched Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner in my favorite baseball movie, “Bull Durham.”  I happened to see it listed as I was channel surfing recently and recorded it; and Diana and I watched it about the time baseball season started.  What struck me this time through were some words that Costner’s character, Crash Davis, says to Annie in the final scene.  Crash is a veteran Minor League catcher, which means he’s good, but not quite good enough to make it to the Major Leagues.  He has just quit the game after setting the dubious record for most home runs in the Minors.  He comes back to Durham and to Annie who is a die-hard baseball groupie and intrepid philosopher of the game.  When Crash, bedraggled and exhausted, tells Annie that he’s hung up his catcher’s gear for the final time she launches into one of her treatises about baseball being a non-linear game.  Crash holds up his hand to stop her.  He says he wants to hear all of her crazy baseball theories but not tonight.  Tonight he says, “I don’t want to think about baseball or anything else.  I just want to be.”  

Isn’t that the peace of mind and soul we are so hungry for?  To rest, to stop worrying and thinking. And just BE.  In the Rock Opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” there’s a scene about just that.  Jesus is frustrated because his best efforts to move people closer to God’s kingdom of peace and justice are being ignored.  His friend Mary Magdalene tries to comfort him.  Many people see that scene and get distracted by theories that there was a romantic relationship between them, but that’s not the point.  Mary sings a sweet lullaby to Jesus where she says, “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh don’t you know everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine, and we want you to sleep well tonight. Let the world turn without you tonight.”

That kind of peace is what Kubler-Ross calls acceptance – the final stage of grief, making peace with the new reality that a loved one is gone or a job has disappeared or a relationship is irreparably damaged.  Or a world has gone mad.  It’s the peace the risen Christ offers his disciples and you and me, but there’s a paradoxical irony in this story.  John tells us that before Jesus offers peace to the disciples he breathes on them.  You have to let someone get very close to breathe on you if you can remember back before the 6 feet of separation we’ve lived with recently.  Breath, of course, in the Scriptures is the word that also means God’s spirit that can create something out of nothing. So the paradox is that we have to have enough peace to let Jesus get close enough to give us real peace! 

I don’t know about you, but on my less faithful days I’m not sure I want Jesus getting that close.  I’m afraid to be that vulnerable; so my own  or doubts  keep Jesus at a safe distance because of fear –fear of judgment, or rejection because I haven’t always lived a virtuous life.  But here’s the key to this story and to the Good News of the Gospel.  Remember that the disciples to whom Jesus offers his peace are the same guys who just 3 days ago denied and abandoned Jesus in his greatest time of need.  If Jesus offers them God’s peace he certainly can do the same for us. 

That’s the friend we have in Jesus we can take everything to in prayer.  If we try to hide parts of ourselves from God we are not only kidding ourselves, we are also revealing our mistaken belief in a God who is way too small.  St. Paul in Romans 8 says “nothing in all creation can separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus.”  And that nothing means nothing. No powers, no principalities, and no Putin can stop God from loving us.   No matter how many of the big 10 commandments we’ve broken Jesus offers us peace. He makes us new creations by breathing the peace that breaks the chains of addiction, hatred, isolation, guilt, and despair.

Rev. Fred Shaw, a friend and colleague and a wonderful Native American storyteller, put it this way recently in a Facebook post.  I liked the way he said it and asked if I could quote him.  He said, “We move too quickly from Good Friday to Easter, and then we fairly fly from Easter back to “normal.” I want to carry both with me throughout my life.

On Good Friday, the most significant words uttered by human lips are heard again, “It is finished!” The Greek word for “finished” carries the meaning of completion, wholeness. For Native people, it is the fullness of the Circle.

All of the love that our Creator has for us from the beginning of time came to fruition in the death of Jesus on the cross. The greatest horror of which humanity is capable, the murder of God’s own innocence. Even that could not separate us from God’s love.

The curtain in the temple that had divided the people from the Holy Presence of God was ripped…from the top down! God’s full acceptance of who we are, and God’s declaration that God loves us anyway, was declared beyond words.”  Let me say that last part again: “God’s declaration that God loves us anyway was declared beyond words.”

What does all this say to our broken, fearful world today? We don’t know when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in the power of resurrection that assures us that “all will be well when the day is done.” 

You know the line about opera – that it isn’t over till the fat lady sings?  I thought about that when I heard that John Lennon’s son Julian recently sang his father’s wonderful song, “Imagine.”  What makes that remarkable or ominous is that Julian has always said he would never sing that song publicly.  And at least once he qualified that remark by saying, “maybe if it was the end of the world.”  I don’t know if the state of the world had anything to do with it, but he recently sang “Imagine” publicly. 

I’ve always loved the hope that song describes.  Nothing has ever been created that wasn’t first imagined, and those of us who have received Jesus’ gift of peace are called to keep the dream of peace alive, especially when it seems so absent. The song says,

“Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

Easter is our invitation to join those who dare to imagine a world of peace.

You may have noticed the white post out by the parking lot as you came up the hill this morning.  We’re going to dedicate it after the service today.  On that Peace Pole are the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in English and seven other languages representing God’s children in every part of the world—including Spanish, Hebrew, Swahili, Arabic, ASL, Chinese and Japanese.   The Peace Pole is there where we will see it each time we come and go from here as a reminder to us of God’s peace and as a symbolic beacon of hope in a world bloodied by the ways of war.

Peace is our hope and our prayer, but wishing won’t make it happen.  Prayers without works are dead on arrival, and that’s why Jesus says something else to the disciples and to us after he says “Peace be with you.”  He says, “As God has sent me, so I send you.”  We can’t be peacemakers until we have surrendered to the peace that comes when we get up close and personal with Jesus.

I want to leave you with a thought from a Brazilian writer and journalist, Fernando Sabino.  He wrote, “In the end, everything will be all right.  If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”  That’s the message for this frightening time in our world.  “Peace be with you.” 

Exhausted in the Garden

It’s 9:40 pm on Maundy Thursday and I just had a whole new take on that scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples keep falling asleep instead of keeping watch while Jesus is praying. It’s all too easy to pass judgment on the disciples. There’s just about nothing they do right tonight. We worshipped on-line tonight with our congregation, and then I sat down to read. But I keep falling asleep. It happens a lot in the evening lately. My spirit is willing but my flesh is weak and just plain tired.

I’m not physically tired, just exhausted with world news overload. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue or just frustration that there seems to be so little I can do to save the world from its warring madness. I can’t not watch the news, and if the scenes from Ukraine or the New York subway shooting aren’t fatiguing enough they are interspersed with incessant mean-spirited and dishonest political ads.

Maybe Jesus’ disciples were just worn out from all the weird stuff going on around them. They had to be confused trying to understand Jesus’ determination to put himself in harms way and with all his talk about death and resurrection. They had been on an emotional roller coaster from Palm Sunday’s high to this strange trip to the Garden in the dark. Jesus’ strange behavior, insisting on washing their feet, a job only done by servants, not a Messiah. And what did he mean about his broken body and his blood shed for them?

It was too much to comprehend. Maybe their bodies just shut down to get a respite from the confusion in their minds and spirits. They had hoped he was the one to throw off the Roman oppressors, but they were wrong.

What next, God? Here we are in the dark of night, discouraged and afraid. There’s a cloud of fear in the air everywhere. People are not OK. I’m not OK. The gunman in Brooklyn is certainly not OK and hasn’t been for some time. Neither Putin nor American conspiracy theorists are OK. Today for not the first time when I stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee I found myself looking around wondering what I would do if a deranged person with a gun started shooting. A server just doing her job at a local restaurant was wounded by a stray bullet from a fight outside just the other night here in Columbus.

Like Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew and the others on this Holy Thursday we’re tired. So tired. Maybe if we just go to sleep we’ll wake up and find this is all a nightmare. But here comes a mob with clubs and torches and Judas is leading them right to Jesus. This can’t be happening! What do we do now?

Anointed: Messiah Complex, John 12:1-8

Do you remember who your childhood heroes or heroines were?  Being vertically challenged all my life I’m sure influenced mine.  I was never big enough to imagine myself as Superman, but I could identify with a little flying caped rodent who came on every Saturday morning in the cartoons on TV.  I don’t remember much about him, but the theme song that introduced the show said something like “Mighty Mouse is here to save the day.” Yes, like most of our superheroes Mighty Mouse used too much violence to dispatch the bad guys, but he was always on the side of what my 8 year-old self understood as justice.  Life was so much simpler then.  Things were either right or wrong without all the messy ambiguity that I see in so much of life as an adult.

How many of you are familiar with the term “Messiah Complex?”  That’s an occupational hazard for preachers – to think that we and we alone have the Truth that will save the world.  It’s a dangerous and heavy burden to carry around.  I had a senior pastor advise me once when I was fresh out of seminary that I should “never lose my idealism.”  That was lousy advice.  Life on this side of heaven is not now nor ever has been “ideal.”  A better word choice would be to never lose Hope.  Idealism for me implies a kind of utopian ideal we humans can create.  Hope on the other hand is an unshakeable faith in God’s power to triumph over evil. 

We are living in a dark and ugly period of human history in so many ways.  Our hearts break every time we see pictures of what’s happening in Ukraine.  I have to turn the news off when I can no longer take the anger and helpless feeling to do anything to stop the cruelty.  Where is Mighty Mouse when we need him?  Or Wonder Woman?

At the beginning of the Gospels we have John the Baptist preaching hell fire and brimstone for all those who refuse to repent of their sins.  He’s expecting a superhero to overthrow the hated Roman oppressors.  But Jesus is not that kind of Messiah. We want a Rambo to save us and instead God sends us a Gandhi.   Jesus goes to the wilderness immediately after his baptism and rejects the temptation to use worldly power.  We long for a savior on a white stallion, but next week Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey.  We expect our heroes or heroines to arrive in a stretch limo or a Batmobile, but instead Jesus appears in a beat up old Volkswagen bug. 

But this 5th Sunday of Lent, before the Palm Sunday parade, the Gospel of John tells us that six days before the Passover, two days before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he came for dinner in Bethany at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  This is just after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead in John, chapter 11.  So this could have been a joyous celebration of Lazarus new life, but at least some around that table know that they will be dealing with another death and resurrection the following week. 

Mary understands, and she anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume and wipes them with her hair.  It is an act of love that foreshadows Jesus washing his disciples’ feet the following Thursday, but it is more than that.  The word “Messiah” means “anointed one.”  Mary and Martha and Lazarus know better than anyone that Jesus has the power over death itself; he is truly God’s anointed servant.

And so are you, and you and you and me.  Let me say that again in a different way.  When we are welcomed into the family of God at our baptism, no matter when or how that happened, we are claimed, just as Jesus was, as God’s beloved children.  Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe billions of years before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet.  God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one.  And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire. 

There is nothing we can say or do, no matter how stupid or awful or sinful it may be that can ever change that.  Believe me, I’ve tried.   Jesus showed us that in the wonderful parable of the prodigal son where God the heavenly parent runs with open arms to welcome his wayward son back home.  St. Paul says it when he says “Nothing in all creation, not power, or Putin, or principalities, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” 

One of my favorite descriptions of resurrection came from a sermon by Bishop Dwight Loder at our annual conference many years ago.  He said, “Jesus wasn’t resurrected by the church; Jesus wasn’t resurrected for the church; Jesus was resurrected as the church.”

That’s the good news of the Gospel that we resurrection people draw strength from to be God’s servants in the world.  We all have a super power that enables us to hope when things seem hopeless; to love the unlovable, even when it hurts too much; to believe in peace and justice in a world that has gone mad.  That’s the kind of Messiah Complex we all need for these trying times to keep on keeping on.  A friend of mine reminded me recently of that old saying, “My get up and go got up and went.”  We all know that feeling.  But the power of the Holy Spirit tells us that even the “old will dream dreams” and “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength and mount up on wings like eagles.”

The Lenten journey is long.  We began on Ash Wednesday being reminded that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”  Don’t you hate being reminded of that?  A colleague in ministry told a group of us that he likes to change that up and say, “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”  I like that so much better and just wish I had learned that earlier in my ministry.  “We are dust, but remember what God can do with dust.” 

Another way to say that might be, we know the pain and suffering Jesus will face in Jerusalem, but we also know the end of the story.  God wins!  Love wins!

When I get discouraged about my own life or the mess the world is in I often return to the words of an old song from my past.  Isn’t it funny how we can remember the lyrics to a song from 50 years ago but can’t remember if we took our meds this morning??  Anyway here’s the song from

“The Man of LaMancha.”

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into Hell
For that Heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, (or woman) scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with the last ounce of courage

To reach the unreachable star.”

Amen

[Preached at Wesley Glen retirement center, April 3, 2022]

Random thoughts from Ash Wednesday, 2022

From my pastor, Chris Rinker:  “Giving up something is not punishment but making a space for God to create something new in us.”  He followed that with a question I will be pondering for awhile:  “What can I do or not do for Lent that will make space for God in my life?”

I read this one from a fellow pastor in a Facebook group responding to a question about what words to use while imposing ashes.  I’m sorry I don’t remember his name, but his words have stuck with me.  He suggested saying  “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”  

That got me thinking.  We are dust of the earth but also star dust spewed forth billions of years ago by the Big Bang that is still creating and expanding God’s universe.  Ash Wednesday is a reminder to accept our mortality so we, like Buzz Lightyear, can leap into the future and go to “infinity and beyond.”  We chuckle at a Disney toy making that kind of foolish leap, but on the days we believe** we know that it is exactly what we are called to do—to  trust without fear, even when the foundations of our world are shaken by rockets and bombs; even when we fear what a madman with nuclear weapons could do to life as we know it; even when we fear that human kind is hell bent on destroying Mother Earth with our pursuits of greed and power.  

To trust God in such a time as this is to surrender all that we rely upon to give us security—all of that earthly stuff because to quote Kerry Livgren of the rock band Kansas, “all we are is dust in the wind.”   But that wind is the Holy Spirit/Wind that breathes life into dust, that shapes star dust into us who are, on the days we believe and on those we don’t, truly created in the image of Being itself.  Our current form goes from dust to dust, but our essence, our being is eternal.  When this mortal life is over we trust that we will be forever in the heart of God who is love itself.  Amen

** “On the days we believe” is a phrase I have adopted from Rachel Held Evans’ book “Wholehearted Faith” where she dares to write what I have often been afraid to say out loud. I will be forever grateful to her for her gift of honest vulnerability and helping me claim that I too have good days when I believe and many others when I’m really not sure.

A Prayer of Lament as War Begins — Again!

O My God, the long anticipated and feared war in Ukraine seems to have finally begun. What a sad thing it is that humankind cannot give up it’s addiction to violence. Why do we keep doing the very things we know we ought not do? Why do we insist on labeling some of our sisters and brothers our enemies? My heart is broken that again we have turned our backs not only on lessons we should have learned from centuries of history but also again on your will for peace and justice for all of your children.


And my heart is laden down with regrets and feelings of futility. What can this old tired and retired preacher say or do that I have not done for decades? Did we not learn anything from the other two bloody wars in Europe in just over 100 years ago? How can partisan blinders keep so many American leaders from seeing that Putin is reprising Hitler’s playbook? How can support for Putin from an American former president not be treason? How can I love these enemies foreign and domestic when I want to damn them all?


I’m wrestling with a desire to speak out but fear the political backlash I may get from family and friends who want to keep me in the straight jacket of an apolitical and irrelevant pastoral stereotype? Is not your heart also breaking, loving one? Has it not been broken too many times to count since Cain killed Abel? Massacres, crusades and genocides often waged in your holy name have filled whole chapters of human history. We build monuments and deify military and violent heroes, but we crucify and assassinate messengers of peace. How in your name, O God, can we keep our faith when the forces of evil and darkness seem to be gaining thousands of blind followers each and ever day?


The Christian season of repentance is coming in just a week. Please may we celebrate a solemn and holy Lent this year and call upon the power of your Holy Spirit, the one force stronger than violence and human evil, to save us from our own sinful ways. Christ have mercy! Amen

Exercise, Meditation & Solitude

“Swimming is the trifecta for me – exercise, meditation and alone time.”  Brene Brown, “Atlas of the Heart,” p. 18

I had been thinking the same thing about swimming lately, and it was so good to have those feelings affirmed by someone whose work I admire so much.  As some of you know I took up swimming as my primary form of exercise about a year ago.  It happened almost accidently when I began doing some of my physical therapy for recovery from back surgery in the water.  One of the blessings of the pandemic is that our YMCA’s began letting people reserve a lane in the pool to control numbers of swimmers and maintain social distance.  The reservations are for 45 minutes; so the first time I went to the pool it only took me 15 minutes to do my PT exercises, and I still had 30 minutes left in my allotted time in the pool.  So I decided I might as well see if I could swim a few laps – with the emphasis on “a few.”

That first time I managed 3 laps before I was exhausted.  I have never been a strong swimmer.  When I was in Boy Scouts many decades ago I needed to earn merit badges in both swimming and lifesaving in my pursuit of becoming an Eagle Scout.  I passed both of those, but just barely.  I was literally a 98 pound weakling in those days and also had a very hard time passing the requirement for running ¾ of a mile in under 6 minutes.  My 13 year-old self would never believe that as a 40 something I could actually run 5 miles in 37.5 minutes; nor would he believe that I can now swim 900 yards in less than 45 minutes. 

Because of several health concerns swimming is the ideal low-impact aerobic exercise for me.  And over the last 12 months I have not only increased my endurance but have come to truly enjoy swimming.  Dr. Brown captures some of the reason for that when she says, “When I’m swimming laps you can’t call me or talk to me, it’s just me and the black stripe.”  As an introvert I need solitude, and especially since I got a new mask and snorkel and can actually do most of my laps under water where I can’t see or hear anything that solitude has been like icing on the cake. 

Even though I was a fairly serious runner for 25 years I never experienced what others describe as the “runner’s high.”  Running was always work for me, I think in part because I ran most when I was going through some particularly rough patches in my personal, professional, and married life.  I wasn’t running for fun but literally running away from problems I didn’t know how to handle.   But I realized today as I set a personal record of 900 yards that I am feeling a swimmer’s high.  The water supports me, relieving pressure on my joints, and I truly felt like I could have gone much further today.  Today I was in a pool that does not reserve lanes; so I had no time limit on how long I swam.  I enjoy being in the pool so much now that I can even do it without resistance or hesitation even on very cold winter days.   

The meditation aspect of swimming has taken the form for me of repeating a couple of mantras that resonate with where I am now in my faith journey.  Those phrases include several Hebrew and Greek words for God (Yahweh, Elohim, and Abba), spirit (ruach), justice (mishpat), and love (agape).  I hope my seminary professors will forgive me for my awkward combinations of several languages, but my current mantras are: Ruach Abba, Ruach Elohim, and Yahweh Mishpat.  I especially like using “Abba or Daddy” for God as Jesus did because my other inspiration for swimming is remembering the 12 frightening hours my dad spent in the cold North Atlantic waiting to be rescued from the crash of his B-17 at the end of WWII. 

Everyone needs to experiment and find what works for you, and that can change as we change.  Today I added a new combination inspired by our congregation singing “We Are Called” in worship yesterday.  That hymn is based on my very favorite summary of faithful living in Micah 6:8; so I swam several laps today repeating “Do Mishpat, love Agape, and swim humbly with Abba.”  I have had trouble creating a regular meditation practice on land—too many distractions, but in water, which has so many theological conotations for me, I feel especially focused, close to, and sustained by the mystery we call God. 

Toxic Masculinity

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.”  Isaiah 2:4

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. “ Jesus, Matthew 5:5

Are Isaiah, Jesus and pacifists simply naïve optimists, or are they visionaries making a theological statement and not an historical one, a warning more than a prediction?  By worldly standards such comments by Jesus are not taken seriously because most of us cannot begin to entertain the notion, let alone understand, that meekness and vulnerability can be and are the ultimate signs of strength.  

Three of my favorite authors, namely Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr, and Brene Brown have addressed the important topic of toxic masculinity in their recent writings, and those words could not be more timely and critical.  Toxic masculinity is nothing new, but seems to be as rampant and contagious as the Omicron variant of Covid.  The standoff over Ukraine, the January 6 insurrection, the epidemic of gun violence in our cities, violent conflicts over masks on airplanes, and the populist posturing of Donald Trump and his merry band of followers are just a few examples from today’s headlines caused by the “might makes right” way of life. 

My wife and I went to see the new “West Side Story” movie last weekend, and as you probably know the whole plot of the movie centers on gang violence and turf wars between the Sharks and the Jets.  I knew that of course going in to the theater, but this version of that story seems to make the violence and tragedy more realistic and painful than the 1961 version. Or maybe it’s just that I know a lot more about the futility of violence now than I did when watching the original movie through the rose-colored glasses of my youth.  

For my 15 year-old self West Side Story was just a tragic love story.  I didn’t notice anything in the film about racism or social injustice because I knew nothing about racism or pacifism.  I grew up in a pure white community playing cowboys and Indians and war games with my neighbor Jim Shockey.  When I couldn’t be outside my bedroom floor was often covered with little army men on the floor (our video game violence then).  My life ambition as a 4th grader was to be a marine and I dreamed of attending one of the military academies.  My worldview was so narrow that I had no contact with any people of color until I was 20 years old.  

Since West Side Story is more than 60 years old I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say the movie’s tragic ending is a perfect and very moving depiction of how absurd and futile trying to solve conflicts through violence is.

Toxic masculinity is as old as the Genesis 4 story of Cain killing his brother Able.  And in all the millennia since we have made almost no progress at learning to beat our swords into useful implements of peace.  The statue depicting that verse from Isaiah that stands in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York City was erected just three years after the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and all the other horrors of World War II ended.  Hitler and Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito were defeated through force the likes of which the world had ever seen.

The world had been naive or gullible enough to believe WW I as “the war to end all wars,” but only 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles ended that war the sequel debuted with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland!  Sound familiar?  I do not mean to cast any dispersion on those who joined forces to oppose the Axis armies.  My father was part of that greatest generation who risked and/or lost their lives to stop the evil personified in Hitler.  

Force was met with greater force, but to what end?  History continues to repeat itself.  Hitler and Mussolini are replaced almost immediately by Stalin, the Kim Un gang, Pol Pot, Mao, and the brothers Castro just to name a few 20th century despots.   

We have cold and hot wars, guerrilla and urban warfare almost continuously all over the planet.  We have spent obscene amounts of money on deadlier and deadlier weapons of mass destruction, and greedy American capitalists lead the world in profiteering from making and selling those killing machines.  

How long will the human race pursue this madness?  Until we destroy ourselves and the planet we live on?  One can certainly offer plenty of evidence that our systems of patriarchy have failed to produce a world where we don’t learn war anymore.  I still hope that the emergence of more women in important leadership roles will help diffuse the toxic love of violence and force that has been the human race’s taken-for-granted business as usual for millennia.  But my hope is seriously tempered by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert who are just as power hungry, paranoid and militant as their male counterparts.

This is not just a gender issue; it is a moral and existential threat to the human race itself, and it must change because there will be no WW IV.  The U.S. 2022 defense budget is $700,000,000,000, and have you ever heard of any great debates in Congress about passing it?  We have huge partisan wrangling over what we spend on education, the arts, health care and other social programs which cost a small fraction of the defense budget.  The best way to start beating our swords into plowshares is to simply stop making bigger and more deadly swords and spears!  We have enough atomic fire power to destroy the world dozens of times over.  Why do we need more and more?  

Another example of toxic versus heathy masculinity can be seen by comparing these two statements:  1) “Happy is the one who seizes your enemy’s infants and dashes them against the rocks.”  2) “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  

Most people  may recognize the latter words as part of Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount in Matthew 5.  But you may be surprised to learn that the first statement is also biblical (Psalm 137:9). The two could not be more diametrically opposed and are exactly why when conflicts arise between Jesus and other biblical writings, as they often do, I choose Jesus.  Not because the way of Jesus is easy but because it is true and the only way to real peace.  As the world teeters on the brink of another cold or, heaven forbid, hot war over Ukraine, we better learn the difference soon.  

“Beloved Knows No Zip Code” Luke 3:15-22

Here we are, nine days into a new year.  We’ve changed the numbers on the calendar, but things look the same as year one and two of what one young child calls the Pandamnic.  We’re still wearing masks, the Omicron numbers are scary high.   New Year’s used to be more a time of out with the old and in with the new, but 2022 feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day, like we’re stuck in a very deep rut.

You may have seen the cartoon of a baby talking on a cell phone about her baptism.  She says, “I tell you this guy in a dress tried to drown me, and my family didn’t do anything but stand around and take pictures!”  I saw another one where Jesus is complaining to John the Baptist that he was trying to drown him.  John replies, “Sorry, if you wanted to be sprinkled you should have gone to John the Methodist.”

How many of you were baptized as infants or as a small child?  For that many of us at least we have no conscious memory of that important event that was a major force in shaping our faith journey.  That’s one reason this Sunday after Epiphany is called the Baptism of the Lord; so we can all reflect on the promises that we made or were made for us at our baptism. 

One of the best things about studying the Scriptures to prepare to preach or doing Bible study is noticing things we’ve not seen before in familiar stories.  All of us are somewhat guilty of making what a friend of mine calls Gospel Stew.  We take the different accounts of Jesus’ life and mix them all up together into one almost Bible narrative.  But each of the Gospels is a unique testimony by its author, and it’s important to take time to focus on each one to see what treasures we can find when we do just that.

For example the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke we read today has one big difference from the other three Gospels.  Did you notice it?  Listen again to these words from verses 19-21: “…because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. [pause]  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”

In the three other accounts in the Gospels John plays a much more central role in baptizing Jesus.  John’s role is implied here, but Luke seems to make a point of getting John out of the spotlight in prison before Jesus hears the heavenly voice proclaiming his belovedness. 

Luke gives John a lot of time on stage prior to this, but now it’s time for a new beginning for putting away the old wine skins that can’t contain the Gospel of Grace that God has come in Jesus came to proclaim.  Now, it’s a new year and time to clean out the old to make room in our hearts for the incarnation of God’s spirit.  The Holy Spirit comes not just in Jesus, but in all of us who have been claimed as God’s beloved. 

When I was teaching a preaching class at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware one of my students, Mike Doak, dug into this text and did a really creative look at this story from the perspective of John the Baptist who is cooling his heels in jail when Jesus emerges as the Messiah John has been proclaiming. 

My student imagined what it might look like if John the Baptist wrote us a Letter from the Jerusalem Jail: 

“Stunned… I tell you I was stunned as these events unfolded.  You could have heard a single drop of rain fall at that moment, in the midst of that gathering.  As for me, one touch of a feather would have keeled me over.  Where was the winnower, fork in hand, striding onto the threshing floor?  What of the fire, the unquenchable fire, into which the chaff was to be cast?  Was there no axe to be laid to the root?  We expected a Messiah, a ruler grown from the tree of David would Lord it over Israel with a strong hand and a mighty arm.  Why were there no trumpets to announce the coming king; why did thunder not clap as heavens rent open? What manner of king is coroneted with a dove in place of a crown?  If I may appropriate a few of your own symbols, I preached Rambo but behold Gandhi.  I expected God’s unparalleled judgment yet beheld God’s unparalleled grace.  I preached unquenchable fire, but witnessed unquenchable hope.  Self-doubt overtook me as days passed into weeks in the solitude of my prison cell.  Though I had thrived in the wilderness all my grown life, I was then never so alone.  How was it that one called “forerunner” could become “forlorn.” 

John has been the star of the show.  Huge crowds have come to hear him preach.  Some people even think he might be the Messiah himself. That’s pretty heady stuff.  But Luke makes it clear John is the forerunner, the warm up act, not the featured attraction.  It’s time for a changing of the guard. 

Have you ever resented someone who made the team while you got cut?  Or some whippersnapper got the promotion you thought you deserved?  Or becoming a big sister or brother and all of sudden not getting attention from Mom and Dad or your grandparents who only have eyes for this new little stranger who has invaded your home?  If so we can understand how John might have felt.

John says he is preparing the way for Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t turn out to be the Messiah John and most of the Jews were expecting.  John was a hell fire and brimstone preacher, a little on the wild and crazy side.  He preached a Gospel of repentance based on fear of God’s wrath.  He expected the bad dudes to get their comeuppance and the chaff of society to be burned and the sooner the better.  We all have our own list of who those bad dudes and dudesses are don’t we!

But John didn’t find in Jesus what he hoped for and expected.  This most unlikely carpenter’s son is named God’s beloved son, the one with whom God is well pleased.  Baptism is all about new beginnings, but John’s new beginning is a stark reminder that God is the boss and we aren’t.  No matter how much we want to pass judgment on people we think are sinners, that’s not our job.  Our job is to be messengers of repentance and hope, the good news of new beginnings, and leave the judgment to God. 

Baptism is still a sacrament of new beginnings, even in yet another Covid year.  But it’s important to see baptism as a beginning and not the end of a journey.  Baptized children are preparatory members and it’s the job of all of us– parents, teachers, grandparents, fellow church members – to be their village and help prepare them for full membership and claiming their belovedness for themselves.  Now don’t go guilt tripping yourselves about your shortcomings or failures as parents because your kids or grandkids haven’t turned out as you hoped they would.  Imagine how Elizabeth and Zechariah felt about this miracle child of theirs living in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey!  Our job as role models for the younger generation is to show them they are beloved even if they are covered in tattoos and have green hair.  The rest is up to them and God. 

I want to pause here to acknowledge everyone involved in the amazing children’s ministry here at Northwest.  I’ve been part of 8 different congregations in my life and the amazing job Doris Ing and all her servant leaders do with our kids here is by far and away the best I’ve ever seen.  Our children get a balanced spiritual diet of hearing the stories of the Bible, and then they practice those values by living them out working in the children’s garden alongside adults and a whole host of other service projects that teach them to treat all of God’s children as the beloved people they are.

Those kids grow up before our eyes oh so fast.  Diana and I have been part of the Northwest family for almost 8 years now, and I am amazed when I see children who were toddlers back in 2014 who are now singing in the children’s choir, and teaching us elders what love in action looks like.  They grow in wisdom and stature like Jesus to help deliver brown bag lunches and go on youth mission trips.  One of my favorite projects in recent months came out of the concern from youth in our confirmation class about climate change.  They’ve helped us implement new recycling opportunities and designed these wonderful reusable cups so we can stop adding to the problems Styrofoam cups cause for mother earth.  And best of all they put on these cups words that remind us whenever we drink from it that “Love Has No Zip Code.”

I already knew in my head how unjust our society is based on which zip code you happen to be born into.  But I really learned about that in a heartfelt way when I was working at Ohio State several years back.  I was helping facilitate a partnership between OSU and Columbus City Schools.  Many of us at OSU volunteered to be tutors and my school was Medary, one of the  elementaries in the University District.  At the same time my grandkids were in elementary school in the Olentangy School District.  I loved working with the kids at Medary, but it hurt my heart when I would go from there to visit the Olentangy schools on grandparent’s day or other occasions.  The differences between the new school buildings and the resources available to my grandchildren were like visiting another planet.

I am grateful for the amazing experiences my grandkids have had at Olentangy, but very troubled that the urban kids are not getting the same benefits.

I’m using Olentangy as an example, but we know the same stark differences apply to Dublin and Hilliard and other suburban schools.  The way we fund education via property tax, i.e. by zip code, is inherently unjust.  That system has resulted in the resegregation of our schools and perpetuated and widened the gap between the privileged and the marginalized.  And those disparities have only been multiplied by Covid. 

Climate change and education are just two of many injustices we are called to address.  None of us can make a big difference in any or all of them, but we can start by asking God how we can make a difference wherever we are. Luke describes the baptism of Jesus in 2 verses and then devotes 12 verses to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness that immediately follows.  This warns us that we are all tempted forever as Jesus was to cave in to the seduction of worldly comfort and power, but because we are followers of Christ we can say no to Satan’s clever sales pitches.  

I don’t know about you, but when we baptize cute babies up here I don’t pay much attention to the words of the baptism ritual.  I’m just oohing and aahing over a precious beloved child of God.  Babies are such a miracle that they melt our hearts.  But there are important words in the ritual that we all need to hear.  As a congregation we promise to help raise those children in the faith; so we shouldn’t just sign on for that important job like we click agree without reading all the fine print on a new app. 

Listen to what one of those vows asks us to agree to:  “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  That’s a heavy promise, and it comes before the next promise where we are asked: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and put your whole trust in his grace…?” We can’t renounce and resist the forces of evil on our own.  We can only do that through the power of the Holy Spirit descending on us and declaring we are God’s beloved children.   

The last line of the baptismal vow says we “promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?”  Brothers and sisters, all means all.  Just as we can’t choose our relatives, even the crazy uncles and the weird cousins, we can’t exclude anyone from the body of Christ.  I know how hard that is.  The partisan paralysis in our government that has made this pandemic last so much longer than it needed to and taken so many beloved family members and friends from us makes me furious.  But the Gospel message is that even those I vehemently disagree with about vaccines and masks, yes, even those people are God’s beloved children.

Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe long before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet.  God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one.  And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire. 

In one of those special God incidents, I got a wonderful idea for how we can all practice our baptismal vows and celebrate our blessedness every day.  It came just yesterday in a daily devotion I get from Father Richard Rohr, and it suggests this simple practice.

The exercise goes like this; looking, really looking lovingly, not staring or seeing any flaws, look at yourself in a mirror or at another person, and as you breathe in and out pray silently these words:

Breathe in:      I see you with love

Breathe out:   gifted, cherished.

Breathe in:     Grateful

Breathe out:   for who you are.  [Repeat this with congregation, looking at another or imagining someone]

And here’s the best part–Father Rohr goes on to say,

“We can also bring this practice out into the world. How often do we really see another person beneath their role, under our expectations? What if we paused at the grocery store and for a moment brought eyes of love to the stock clerk or the cashier. They don’t have to know what you’re doing. You don’t have to stare, just take in their image, then close your eyes for a moment, breathe, and bathe them with love. Pause and see the other person as beloved and beautiful as they indeed truly are.”

My beloved sisters and brothers, this is a day of new beginnings because God’s “Belovedness Knows No Zip Code.”  Amen

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, January 9, 2022

Recorded from Livestream @  https://youtu.be/bLS32pkXHAU

Second Advent Candle: Peace

John, the wild forerunner of the Messiah calls us out of our comfortable sanctuaries and living rooms into the wilderness of our weary world. Our mission is to level the playing field where our poor sisters and brothers struggle to survive. We are called to be peacemakers who do justice, not peacekeepers who protect the status quo.

John foresees the birth of a new day when the first will be last and the last first.  He calls us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, even when  we are the latter.  And we are invited to be the bearers of that good news, welcoming Christ to transform our lives; so we can build peace from the inside out and be prepared whenever the Messiah returns. 

In that hope we light this second Advent candle, the Candle of Peace.  [Light Candle]

Let us pray: Holy God, We light the candle of peace to say, yes, we accept your invitation to be bearers of light into the dark places where there is no justice and no peace. We do so with grateful hearts for the example of Christ who came to dwell among us to show us the true way to a world of inner and outer peace for all creation. We will proclaim your peace from the housetops and our laptops until all flesh shall see your salvation as a new day dawns to usher in the peaceable reign of your universal love and grace. We pray in the name of the Prince of Peace, Amen.

Unbound: Lazarus was, are we?

What do tennis, hiking, golf, biking, jogging, working on a ladder, and skiing all have in common? They are all things I have had to give up in the last 10 years due to the aging process. I was talking to a friend my age who has given up even more things than I, and when I described my emotional state as “feeling empty” and not having anything to fill the space left by all I’ve lost. The words were barely out of my mouth when my friend said, “That’s exactly how I feel!” Like all of my friends, we have often joked in years past about old people always complaining about their aches and pains all the time, but more and more as we navigate our 70’s we find ourselves doing exactly the same thing.

I remember about 12 years ago asking an “older” gentleman what he was doing in retirement. Without missing a beat he said, “Going to doctor appointments and funerals.” I thought that was funny back then, but I’m not laughing anymore. When I told my friend that I was seeing a counselor about my feelings of emptiness and depression his response surprised me. After asking if the therapy was helping he said, “Thanks for sharing that. I always thought you had it all together. But knowing you are feeling the same things that I am makes me feel not so alone.” That wasn’t a “misery loves company” response; that was the blessing of letting down our armor and being vulnerable.

I’m not patting myself on the back, mind you. I have been good friends with this man for over 50 years. We have gotten together for golf and/or lunch monthly for decades until old age took our clubs away. Now like many oldsters we just go to Bob Evans. We’ve developed a trust over the years, but the fact that he still thought I “had it all together” means I’m either a better actor than I thought or I’ve been much less honest with him than I wish I had. I’m hoping this recent conversation will help us stay on a more vulnerable level going forward.

Here’s the good news. In addition to my therapist I am also working with a spiritual adviser, and when I shared this story with him he reminded me that until we empty ourselves of all the busyness and activities that keep our minds off our pain God can’t fill us up with anything else. A light bulb went on for me when he said that because when you hear truth it illumines things around and within you. He helped me realize that instead of resenting the emptiness I am feeling I can choose to embrace it as a gift from God. That doesn’t mean the UPS is going to arrive at my doorstep with God’s gifts anytime soon, and no that’s not because of a supply chain issue. Spiritual growth takes time and a willingness to sit with pain or emptiness awhile.

The Hebrews were in the wilderness for 40 years, not because it takes that long to travel from Egypt to Israel or because Moses refused to ask for directions. Even Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with Satan because deep spiritual growth takes time to mature and ripen. The advice to “be still and know I am God” may sound really simple, but it’s not just a matter of shutting up for a few minutes so God can speak. It means prioritizing time for prayer and silence, and not the kind of prayer where we just tell God what we want or need.

Jacob wrestled with God all night long and was changed forever by that experience. Moses and Elijah both had to go up to Mt. Sinai/Horeb to hear God’s still small voice. I confess I am not good at silence. Even when writing these posts I frequently have a ball game on TV or music on some device. I know I write so much better when I am in a quiet place as I am while I write this, but like Paul I often fail to do the things I want to do and don’t practice what I preach.

The Gospel lesson for All Saints day this year is from John 11, the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. There are many rich veins of truth to mine in that story, but two stand out for me just now. This chapter contains what every kid in Sunday School loves to memorize, namely the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” This is one of several times in the Gospel narratives that we see Jesus vulnerable and allowing his humanity to show through. Like us he grieves over a loss, even though we and he all know he’s going to restore Lazarus to life.

The second verse in that lesson that grabbed my attention this year was the last one where Lazarus emerges from the tomb all bound up like a mummy. He’s alive but not really. His movement and sight and vision are all hampered by his grave clothes???, and Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.”

What are the things that bind you and me and keep us from living abundantly in the reign of God? Are we so stuck in our old ways that as Martha so indelicately puts it in the King James Version, “He stinketh,”. My wife sells a very good air purifier that kills germs and removes odors, even in cars or houses that have been skunked. But even those machines will not remove the kind of stench that comes from us who are spiritually dead and don’t know it.

My prayer is for God to unbind me from the anger, fear and regret that I feel for all the things I’ve lost in this stage of my life. Unbind me, Holy one. Roll away the stone that keeps me trapped in a pity party for my past. Unbind me and let me embrace what is and what will be if I trust you to lead me.

What’s your prayer for new life?