Schism: Ecclesiastical Divorce

The long-expected schism in the United Methodist Church finally hit close to home for me. I learned recently that the congregation I grew up in will be voting soon to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination. The move to sever ties, as in other congregations, is being officially described as being based on the one true (literal) way to apply “Christian” scripture, values and laws to contemporary issues of ethics and morality.

Hidden among the pious platitudes proof texted from the Bible is the real reason for the denominational divorce. No matter what the Wesley Covenant Association, the architects of the new Global Methodist Church claim, the real reason for the schism is fundamental disagreement over a few sentences inserted into our “Book of Discipline” 50 years ago excluding LGBTQ persons from ordination.

The debate has become more heated in recent years as LGBTQ rights have been recognized in society and not in the church. Instead of transforming the world as forerunners of radical hospitality the church has been playing catch up. Many courageous and progressive UMC bishops have decided to be loyal to the all-inclusive Gospel proclaimed by Jesus instead of the legalistic and exclusive letter of the United Methodist law. The modern day Pharisees in our denomination are calling those bishops and those of us who agree with them heretics subject to hellfire and damnation unless we repent and see things their way.

I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper recently in response to an article describing another congregation’s decision to vote on disaffiliation. In response a member of that congregation wrote his own letter to the paper making the standard arguments and accusations. I had to chuckle over his attempt to rebut my claim that the real issue was LGBTQ ordination and marriage. He cited a church he knows of that has a head usher who is gay. Translation: “We’ll let them in the pews, just not the pulpit,” completely ignoring the central issue of this argument which is ordination. Our current “Book of Discipline,” in similar fashion talks out of both sides of its mouth. It says LGBTQ persons are “of sacred worth,” and in the next breath says that does not make them “sacred” enough to be ordained.

Talking to a friend who is still a member in my home church reminded me that I wrote a short post about all this way back in the pre-covid era. It was after a special General Conference of the UMC was held in 2019 to once more attempt to come to some mutual agreement over this controversial topic which is an existential reality for our LGBTQ siblings. What I wrote then still pretty well sums up how I feel. I titled it “Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run.”

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.”

“Distracted Hospitality,” Luke 10:38-42

[I preached this sermon at an ecumenical vespers service at Wesley Glen Retirement Community in Columbus, Ohio, July 17, 2022]

Have you ever had someone drop in unexpectedly when your home wasn’t ready for company?  Tom, one of my clergy friends tells one of those stories that are funny when they’re over, but not so much as they unfold.  He and Elizabeth, his wife, lived in one of the tiny efficiency apartments on the campus of the Methodist Theological School.  They were one-bedroom apartments with a kitchenette that was half the size of a closet.  They were relaxing one Sunday afternoon when Tom got a call from his District Superintendent saying he and his wife were in the area and would like to stop in for a visit.  

When you are a Methodist in seminary you usually haven’t learned yet that it’s ok to say “no” to a District Superintendent because they are the people you depend on for a job when you get out of seminary.  So even though the apartment was a mess and the little kitchenette was stacked high with dirty dishes Tom said, “Sure, come on over.” When she heard that, Elizabeth went into a panic.  She said to Tom, “I haven’t showered yet; so since you invited them over you can deal with cleaning up the apartment.”

 Elizabeth took the fastest shower of her life and came out of the bathroom to find the District Superintendent and his wife chatting with Tom in the living room.  The apartment looked like a photo from “Better Homes and Gardens;” so the whole time they talked she was dying of curiosity about how Tom had pulled off such a miracle.  After a short visit their guests left, and as soon as they were out of earshot Elizabeth asked Tom what he had done with all the dirty dishes and other clutter?  He sheepishly led her into the kitchen and showed her where he had put all the dirty dishes – in the oven, refrigerator, and cupboards—and then to the closet where he had thrown all the magazine, books and things that had been on the tables, couch and chairs.  After a good laugh they started washing the dishes and reorganizing the books and magazines.

I don’t know if Martha and Mary were expecting Jesus in Luke’s account of his visit.  We can’t tell from these few verses, but I want you to notice something in the very first verse of that story.  We almost always list Mary first when talking about these two sisters.  Mary and Martha just flows of the tongue better than Martha and Mary, doesn’t it?  But when Luke describes this incident, notice that it is Martha who is named first.  She’s the one who invites Jesus into her home, and then we learn that she also has a sister named Mary.  

Mary gets Jesus’ praise at the end of the story because he says she chose “the better part,” namely to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching, but I think Martha deserves some credit too.  Which role in this mini-drama would you choose?  If Jesus knocked on your door, would you sit and listen to his every word, or would you be like Martha scurrying around trying to be the hostess with the mostess?  After all it would be a real faux pas to not offer a guest some food or drink, and an even bigger no-no not to offer the very best hospitality to Jesus!

Mary reminds me of a song from “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye sings about what he would do if he were a rich man.  After listing the fancy house he would build and all the privileges of being wealthy, he says, “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day, and that would be the sweetest thing of all.”  But Martha shows up in that song too.  Tevye sings about Goldie, his wife, having all the servants she needs to cook and do other household chores, that is take care of hospitality.

A very dear friend of ours named Sonnie died earlier this year after a long illness.  Sonnie was a great cook, and one of the things I said about her at her funeral was that Sonnie never met a person she didn’t feed.  I especially miss her carrot cake, which was the best ever.  But hospitality is so much more than food and drink.  My wife and I visited Sonnie in the hospital early on in her illness. While we there two women whom Sonnie had recently welcomed into our church the first time they came to worship also came to visit Sonnie.  The fact that these two women became active members of our church might have happened anyway, but not nearly as quickly if Sonnie had not extended hospitality to them on that first Sunday.

After the two women left the hospital room I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I asked Sonnie if she knew if the two women were a couple.  You need to know some history before you can appreciate Sonnie’s response.  She grew up on a farm in one of the most conservative counties in Ohio – wonderful people live there, I know, but for many of them their hospitality includes only those who look and think like they do.  So, I was a little shocked and very pleased when Sonnie responded to my question.  She said, “I don’t know if they are a couple or not, and it’s really none of my business.”  That’s real hospitality.

Like all biblical stories, we need to put the Martha and Mary story into the larger context of whole Gospel.  Even though Jesus says Mary has “chosen the better part,” he often himself provides the Martha-like hospitality to those who need it.  He makes water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  He feeds the 5000 when his disciples urge him to send the crowd away to McDonald’s; and that story also says there was enough food for the women and children in the crowd, namely those who had no standing in society.  Jesus included them all.  Robert Frost was once asked, “What is the ugliest word in the English language?” His response was “exclusion,” the polar opposite of hospitality. 

Extending hospitality to people we love is easy, at least most of the time, but both the Old Testament and Jesus tell us and show us a much more radical kind of hospitality.  Even the book of Leviticus, one of the most rigid and exclusionary books in the Bible, also includes some of the best words of hospitality.  Leviticus 19 includes these words often quoted by New Testament authors: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  I still remember teaching a Bible study on that passage, and the good church folks in the class said, “But that doesn’t apply to us today does it?”  Oh, yes it does, and it is never clearer than Jesus telling us in Matthew 25 that how we treat the “least of these,” including the strangers/immigrants/foreigners, even those we label enemies, is how we treat Christ himself.

So, the bottom line about Martha and Mary is this, like so much in the Scriptures and in life, the choice between listening to Jesus and doing acts of hospitality is a false dichotomy.  It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.  The letter of James captures that perfectly when it says, “Faith without works is dead.”  We need times of prayer, Bible study, and worship, but sitting at Jesus’ feet is meant to help us have an attitude of radical hospitality toward everyone we meet. 

Now I know you all don’t have to do yard work or cook and clean anymore, and I’m jealous of that.  But it’s because Wesley Glen (a local retirement community) is a place of hospitality for all of you at whatever level of care and service you need.  But that doesn’t mean you can only be on the receiving end of hospitality.  How you treat the people who clean your rooms and those who prepare and serve your meals can either be hospitable or not.  The way you interact with people here who may be hard to love can be hospitality or it’s opposite. 

Now I know very well that kind of hospitality can be hard to do sometimes.  When my chronic back pain is really bad, or when I’m stressed or overwhelmed with things I need do, it’s all too easy to be anything but hospitable to people who move too slow in traffic or even in the grocery aisles.  That’s because I’m “distracted and worried by many things,” just like Martha.  I don’t think Jesus was being judgmental about Martha’s acts of hospitality; he was concerned about her being distracted and worried by many things.

These days it is almost impossible not to be worried – about the sad state of affairs in our nation and the world; about what the future holds for our kids and grandkids and great grandkids; and about our own health and mortality.  How do we deal with all those concerns that distract us, all those things we really have no control over?  When we take time to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear the good news of salvation, we can trust God to be victorious over all the evil and sin humankind can create.  We can rest in awe over the incomprehensible pictures we’re getting from the Web telescope.  If our God can create such a magnificent and endless universe, God can certainly welcome us with unconditional hospitality.  And that is why no matter what happens to us or around us, we dare to sing “It is Well with My Soul.”  (This beautiful hymn was written by Horatio Spafford in1873 after he and his wife had experienced a horrible tragedy.  If you don’t know their story you can find it at https://www.bethelripon.com/life-stories/horatio-gates-spafford.)

Pentecost Prayer

Oh, dear God, sometimes we feel like those first apostles, confused and grieving over the violent death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans.  Given the horrific events in Uvalde, Ukraine, Tulsa and the nightly multiple deaths on the streets of Columbus and other American cities, we like Peter and the other disciples feel adrift and overwhelmed with doubts and fear for the safety of our children, teachers and for all of us.  

We humbly pray, O Holy One, that you will bless us this Pentecost day with the assurance and power of your Holy Spirit as you did so long ago.  As your current disciples we stand in the need of the strength and power you alone can provide for us in the living of these difficult days.  We may not feel a mighty wind or tongues of fire, but we ask that you reveal to us your ways of peace and justice in whatever form you choose in your wisdom to know the needs of our hearts.

The Pentecost story reminds us that you alone can break down the language barriers that divide your children from each other. We pray for your Spirit to build bridges over the gaps that separate us into different camps.  May the winds of Pentecost knock down the barriers between political parties, between the NRA and those asking for stricter gun laws, between law enforcement and those who fear or criticize them.  Touch us all with your universal tongue that breathes love into broken hearts, peace into fearful children and parents, and into all those on the margins of society who feel helpless to have their voices heard.

We pray that you will inspire this congregation of your church to grow in our ability to be a place where the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed in word and deed in ways that are understood by all of your children, no matter what languages we speak.  Help us articulate the good news that no matter what happens in our earthly lives you continue to love us and assure us that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from your eternal love.  Your holy wind is stronger than inflation, more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction, mightier than our grief and fear, and better than any app that translates our human words into a common language.  Your universal language is agape love where we understand that we are all loved and embraced by you no matter what transpires in our nation and world.  We are humbled and our hearts are filled with gratitude and trust that you will make a way for us in the days ahead as you always have.  

We pray as always in the name of the risen Christ who in his death and resurrection conquered all fear forever.  And so we join our voices now in the prayer Jesus taught us…

“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.