Embrace the Squiggle: Fools for Christ, I Corinthians 3:18-23

[Note: 98% of this sermon was written before the tragic events in Charlottesville last Saturday. When I heard about Charlottesville Saturday evening I tried to figure out how I needed to change the message in light of the hatred and racsim on display in Virginia. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the message seemed very relevant to current events with only a few changes. We addressed the situation in Charlottesville directly in our prayer time on Sunday morning, including a reading of part of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”]

When I saw the preaching schedule said I got to preach on being fools for Christ my first thought was, “I’ve been typecast!” Then I came across this old picture of me in my youth ministry days and thought, “OK, I guess the shoe fits.” But seriously, why would Paul advise us to be fools?

Do you know it says in the Bible, “There is no god?” It really does, and that particular verse is a great reminder that we cannot pick and choose things from the Bible and take them out of context. Psalm14:1 is where it says “there is no god,” but if you read the whole verse you discover it says, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘there is no god.’” That’s obviously not the kind of fool Paul wants us to be.

A friend sent me a list of some not so bright things people have said. They reminded me that some of the squiggles in life are caused by fools. Here are a couple of these squiggly quotes:
“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” Maria Carey
“I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body.” UK basketball player Winston Bennett
“We don’t necessarily discriminate. We simply exclude certain types of people.” Colonel Gerald Wellman, ROTC instructor.
“Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992 because we have received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.” Dept. of Social Services, Greeneville, SC.

That’s not the kind of fools Paul is talking about either. Verse 18 says “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.” Come again Paul? How does one become wise by becoming a fool? That seems pretty foolish.
Verse 19 helps a bit. It says, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; (Job 5) and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (Ps. 94)

The Interpreter’s Bible commentary explains some of the confusion this way. Corinth, because of its geographic location was a very cosmopolitan city. Corinth, sitting in southern Greece and just across the Aegean Sea from modern day Turkey, was on the major trade route between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. It was therefore made up of a diverse population and affected by a variety of religious and secular ideas. Among the key influences was the Greek philosopher Diogenes who taught that the “wise are friends of the gods and gods own all that is. Therefore the wise have access to everything.” It was an early version of what today is known as the prosperity gospel, namely that if we believe the right things we can expect God to reward us with material prosperity. It’s a favorite theology of those who start out to do good and end up doing very well.

By contrast Jesus taught the exact opposite, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” and that we shouldn’t “store up treasures on earth where rust can consume and thieves break in and steal.” That’s not the kind of wisdom we hear from our financial advisers and retirement planners now is it?

As I read this text over the song that says “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” kept coming to mind. But we have to give Paul credit. He practiced what he preached, getting imprisoned for his faith several times and once even refusing to escape from jail when he had the chance. He, like many martyrs and visionaries seemed to be a fool himself by challenging the wisdom of the world. In the church at Corinth Paul felt it necessary to do that because some of the members in that church were becoming arrogant and feeling self-important. Some who had particular spiritual gifts thought they were better than others who didn’t have the same gift. Paul addresses that specifically later in I Corinthians chapter 12 where he compares the church to the human body that needs all of its parts to work. And no one part is more important than any other.

Paul urges Godly foolishness because the ways of the world are not God’s ways. Worldly wisdom says “Good people finish last.” Jesus says, “The Last will be first.” The wisdom of world says, “Don’t get mad, get even.” “Do unto others before they do unto you.” The folly of Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” Fools for Christ say, “The cycle of hate and revenge stops here.”

Paul is asking the church at Corinth and the Church on the Hill for moral responsibility. Moral responsibility requires self-awareness so we make conscious and intentional choices instead of really foolish ones based on worldly wisdom. There’s a great line in the old baseball movie, “Bull Durham” describing a clueless rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh. One of the other characters in the movie says Ebby is “not cursed with self-awareness.”

When we are not self-aware it’s too easy to act irresponsibly. Instead of doing what we know to be right or stopping to think about that, we just go along with the crowd. Someone said recently that he was glad he grew up before cell phone cameras were everywhere because he did a lot of really stupid things in his youth and there’s no record of any of them. At its worst those who are not blessed with self-awareness can fall prey to what’s known as mob mentality. That can lead to horrible actions that most people would never do on their own but will when we lose our sense of self in the anonymity of a crowd. The violence in Charlottesville is an extreme instance. An example on a less dangerous scale is the term “fan” we use to describe a sports team’s followers. The word “fan” is short for “fanatic” and we’ve all seen or been one of those kinds of fools who get a little too carried away with team spirit, or some other kind of spirits. My family hated to sit with me at my son’s high school basketball games because for some strange reason they thought expressing my displeasure with the referees was embarrassing!

Without moral responsibility we lose track of our values and priorities. Like Pastor Chris said in last week’s sermon our own personal goals and bucket lists can become more important than doing what is right and good. I grew up a huge fan of the Cincinnati Reds in the days of the Big Red Machine. I suffered with them through two World Series losses to those darn Yankees and the Oakland A’s. And then in 1975 they won it all in one of the best World Series ever against the Boston Red Sox, and I thought my dreams were fulfilled. The Kingdom of God could come now. Somehow I expected things to be different because of a silly game played by overgrown and over paid kids. Of course it didn’t change anything.

The world doesn’t even change when the Buckeyes win a national championship or the right political party is in charge. In victory or defeat our purpose is the same, to be responsible moral agents for God’s will. We don’t base our behavior on peer pressure or majority rule. I think it must be in every Mom’s handbook to ask “If everyone else jumped off the bridge would you too?” And that’s solid advice. Being morally responsible means a constant process of learning critical thinking skills. It means we need to ask God to set us free from any selfish goals or priorities that prevent us from doing the right thing. We may have to say no to the consumerism of the world so we can pick up a cross and follow Jesus. When Jesus called his disciples he didn’t say, “Go home and pack.” He just said, “Follow me.”

There’s even a lesson we can learn from something as scary as the nuclear game of chicken going on with N. Korea. We’re all praying for a peaceful solution to this problem, but it’s a reminder that in the worst case scenario if there is a nuclear attack anytime we won’t have days or even hours to get our moral house in order. We need to be right with God all the time, even when it makes us look foolish in the eyes of the world.

Let’s not sugar coat it. To be a fool for Christ can be lonely. I was a Boy Scout all through Jr. High and high school, and it was a great experience. But I have to tell you I dreaded Boy Scout week each February because it meant we were supposed to wear our scout uniforms to school. It wasn’t cool to be a boy scout. The same thing happened when I got my call to ministry at a church camp my sophomore year in high school. It took me 3 years before I told anyone about that because I was afraid people would think I was some kind of goodie two shoes.

We all know bullying is a major problem for kids these days. Being a Christian fool means doing something to stop a bully, whether it’s intervening directly or getting a teacher or other adult to address the situation. There was an incident in Portland, Oregon recently where a man was yelling racist and anti-Muslim threats at two women on a bus. Three other passengers intervened and two were killed and the other wounded when the bully pulled a knife on them. What they did to put ourselves in harm’s way might seem foolish to the world, but the harm to one’s conscience when we fail to do the right thing is much worse. That’s an extreme case of course, but it illustrates the seriousness of Christian discipleship. And then the violence in Charlottesville happened yesterday, and the risks of standing up for truth and justice were written in bloody broad strokes for all of us to see. There’s nothing funny or silly about being a fool for Christ.

Christian fools pay a price for their faithfulness. John and Charles Wesley who started the Methodist church were thrown out of the Church of England because they challenged things in that church that they believed were wrong. Worldly values would call Mother Theresa foolish to go live among the squalor and disease in Calcutta, but we call her a saint.

I am so proud to be part of this congregation for all the foolish things we do. Worldly values often base decisions on what the ROI will be of a particular action. ROI stands for Return on Investment. By the ROI standard Northwest Church does a lot of foolish things. Our Kairos ministry shares the Gospel and delicious cookies with prisoners at the Marion Correctional facility several times a year. None of those men are likely to ever darken the door of our church. Where’s the ROI for the time and effort that goes into that ministry?
We send food and servants down to Broad St. UMC to serve meals to hungry and homeless people at the Manna Café. We even have some wonderful servants who get up very early some Sunday mornings to serve breakfast to hungry people at the Church for All People. None of those folks will ever contribute to our church’s bottom line. Where’s the ROI?
Same thing with Brown Bag Lunches and back packs filled with school supplies to kids in our own backyard. It’s unlikely that most of those people will come and sit in these pews so our attendance numbers look better for the bishop.

The world operates on a profit motive, but the church runs on a prophetic model. The world says “what’s in it for me?” Christian fools say “what’s in it for others?” Our ROI is the warm feeling of having done something good for one of God’s children. It’s seeing the joy and pure delight on the faces of hungry kids receiving their brown bag or backpack; watching them run out to meet our church van because it shows them somebody cares about them.

When I was youth minister at Worthington UMC we took our kids on mission trips every summer. One year we went to West Virginia to help with flood relief. We stayed overnight in a UM church in Morgantown, WV on our way home. It was a big downtown church with a two-story education wing. I went out that evening to pick up some pizza for the group and as I drove back to the church I was both amused and embarrassed at what I saw. Hanging from the upstairs windows of the church was a big sign that said “Love for Sale.”

I made the kids remove the sign as soon as I got in the church, and we had a talk about it while we ate our pizza. I don’t remember what I said to the kids way back then 30 years ago. I’m sure I said their sign wasn’t appropriate, but reflecting on it now here’s what I wish I had said. “Love is never for sale. When we love someone we don’t weigh the costs and figure out what we can get in return – that’s not love. It’s a business transaction.”

The wisdom of the world is self-centered. The foolishness of the Gospel says those who love must be servants of all. Christians are called to always reflect love and grace, not judgment and exclusion. I learned a simple prayer in a seminar on peacemaking a few years ago. It really helps when I remember to pause in a tough situation when it is so easy to lose my temper. It’s simply to repeat to myself these three phrases: “Let me be peaceful, let me be kind, let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s really very hard to do, and I often fail miserably; but it’s what we are all called to do and be by the biggest fool the world has ever known.

Jesus spent his three year ministry breaking rules and challenging the wisdom of the establishment. He offended the wise leaders of both the Roman Empire and the Jewish hierarchy. By worldly standards Jesus had no qualifications to be wise – no degrees, no portfolio, and no 401K. He got himself in so much hot water he was brutally killed. The world says that’s the height of foolishness. One of the thieves crucified with him speaks for the worldly values. He says, “Jesus, use your divine powers Jesus to save yourself and us.”

Instead Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And then, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” The wisdom of the world thought it had triumphed on Good Friday. Jesus’ mother and disciples grieved the death of Jesus and their hopes for the future. But on resurrection day God got the last laugh.

The basic ground rules for being a fool for Christ are captured in these words which reportedly were written on the walls of Mother Theresa’s home for children in Calcutta:
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.” Amen.

[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, August 13,2017]

Where’s the Peace?

In this frightening week that is the anniversary of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki when we seem to be closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis I feel a need to pray without ceasing for peace and also to share some thoughts. As I was wondering what to say I reread the introduction to my book, “Building Peace from the Inside Out.” What follows are excerpts from that introduction that seem unfortunately as relevant as they were when I wrote them 6 years ago.

“The Judeo-Christian scriptures have been promising a Messiah who brings peace to the world for 3600 years. Even for the US Post Office three and a-half centuries is pretty slow delivery service. In the New Testament (John 14-16), Jesus’ farewell discourse, describing a kind of peace the world cannot give, promises no less than four times that whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, God will provide. So where’s the peace? What’s the hold up? Maybe the problem is not on the shipping end, but on the receiving end? When we don’t get the peace we request is it because we don’t really mean what we ask for? Or is something getting in the way of our receiving what we say we want?
Luke 1:79 says that the long-awaited Messiah will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Notice it says “into” the way of peace. It doesn’t say the Messiah will hold our hand and make sure we stay on the path. The Messiah gets us to the entrance ramp and trusts us to stay on course from there. We’re given a good map and expected to be able to follow it.

But really, shouldn’t God have known better? We humans don’t have the best track record when it comes to following directions. Would it have taken the Hebrews 40 years to travel the 200 or 300 miles from Egypt to Palestine if they were good at following directions? Even while Moses was up on the mountain getting the directions, the people he’s supposed to be leading are down in the valley building a golden calf to worship and fomenting a rebellion against Moses and God. Do they really want to get to the Promised Land? Or are they more concerned with their own comfort and being in control of where they’re going and how to get there? Peace seekers have to stay the course in good times and bad. When we start looking for short cuts instead of following the path that leads to peace how often do we end up far from our goal?

Luke 1:68-79 lays out very succinctly what the map to peace looks like. It mentions mercy twice, service, holiness, righteousness, knowledge, forgiveness, and light. There’s nothing in this passage about cruise missiles or Weapons of Mass Destruction–nothing about peace through domination or threats of Mutually Assured Destruction. What are we missing here? If we look around in the Judeo-Christian scriptures a little further we can find that Luke’s omission of peace through strength isn’t an oversight. Isaiah and Micah both specifically talk about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and not learning war anymore. If that’s not clear enough, Psalm 20 says that those who put their pride in horses and chariots will collapse and fall. Jesus restores the ear of the Roman servant that Peter has lopped off in the Garden of Gethsemane and spells it out very clearly – “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52)

And Jesus’ followers heed that advice so well they have given us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust and assorted examples of genocide on nearly every continent. Based on results over several thousand years of history, it seems we don’t really want peace all that much.

So what’s the secret? It’s not rocket science. Sages of every tradition teach us the same values: mercy, forgiveness, righteousness, service. The Hebrew prophet Micah sums it up very succinctly when he asks and answers the basic question of all peace seekers and peace makers.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

The Messiah’s mission is to show us in stories and actions what that means. Jesus says it and does it over and over again – treating the least and lost as worthy of God’s love and healing. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) Jesus directly challenges the old ways that have failed repeatedly to bring peace. He says “you have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek.” “Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Meek? Maybe we don’t want peace that badly if we have to be wimps to get it.

Who are the role models and heroes and heroines we look up to most in our society? Why does the taller candidate win almost every presidential election in US History? We still put our trust in swords and horses and chariots and new impersonal technological ways to deliver “fire and fury” even though it’s obvious in generation after generation how ineffective and misdirected that route to “peace” is.

More subtly – in the Judeo-Christian tradition, look at how God’s peacemaking Messiah gets delivered to us – born in a barn – a helpless little baby. “A little child shall lead them.” Get it? We keep looking for Rambo and God sends us Gandhi. We don’t get what we say we want because it doesn’t come packaged the way we think it should look. If we want real peace, the gifts we need to cherish and open first are those wrapped in justice, mercy, humility, forgiveness, and love.

Personally, I am learning after decades of frustration trying to create peace and persuade or coerce others to live peaceful lives that what Gandhi said is so true, “there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
I have spent most of my adult life trying to do peace, only to realize that peace is not a matter of doing, but one of being. One cannot think or reason his or her way to peace but can only accept the natural state of peace by trusting the basic goodness of Being itself and living in harmony and trust with the universe. It may sound trite, but peace can only be built one relationship at a time, from the heart, with non-judgmental, unconditional love for oneself and every other being.

Justice, mercy, kindness, love, humility–all of those marvelous words tell us about keys to inner and outer peace. But just hearing about peace isn’t enough. Stories show us what peace looks and feels like, and, by contrast, what peace isn’t. My son teases me that he learned a lot of valuable lessons about sports and life from me – by seeing my mistakes and learning how NOT to do things. Learning by negative example is a wonderful teacher. We often learn more from our mistakes and those of others than we do from things that go well. When success comes too easily we have no reason to reflect on why things worked.

A mentor of mine taught me a great lesson several years ago. He said that there are only three simple questions we need to ask about why something happened. Whether we think an outcome is good or bad, playing the blame game does not help us learn and move forward. The three questions are:
“What worked?” “What didn’t work?” “What next?”

Those three simple questions help me find peace in difficult situations. They help me ground and center. They remind me I can never create positive change if I am stuck in being a victim to a past I cannot change. Those three questions help me to be more objective in analyzing and evaluating of situations and choices.

We know the things that make for peace. Pray that we relearn them quickly and avoid the endless and futile pursuit of peace through force and violence. They don’t work. It’s time to ask “What Next?”

Prayer for Putting Prayers into Action

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:25-26)

O God, we lift up in prayer all those named and unnamed who are in need of your healing touch. For our broken world and for everyone broken in body or spirit we ask for your abundant grace.
We also pray for your holy spirit to breathe life into our prayers. May the concerns of our hearts grow legs and feet that will take us to someone who is lonely and in need of a friend. Remake our priorities, Lord, so we have time to call or send a card to someone who is sick. Open our eyes and hearts to do an act of kindness for a stranger, to thank a law enforcement officer for his or her service, to send a care package to someone in the military, to visit someone in a nursing home.

Help us Lord to discover again that reaching out to help someone else is the best way to get our minds off of our own problems. May we lose our own worries and woes as we give and receive a hug or really listen to a friend. May we lose our deadlines and to do lists in the pure unbounded joy of children at play.

You, O gracious God, know where the needs are. Help us to be open to your guidance to lead us where we need to be so that we can be Christ to that person next to us, across the street or across the dinner table. The needs of the world are so great, Lord; remind us that your love is greater than any need. Use us as your servants. Inspire us through word and sacrament to lose our selves in the power of your magnificent love as Jesus the Christ did for us. Amen

Embrace the Squiggle: “Chronic Explanitis” – Matthew 13:24-30

Diana and I took a short vacation last week to Lexington, Kentucky. When we got into some hills on back country roads we saw several road signs that reminded me of this sermon series on embracing the squiggle. They
Diana and I took a short vacation last week to Lexington, Kentucky. When we got into some hills on back country roads we saw several road signs that reminded me of this sermon series on embracing the squiggle. They were those curvy arrows that look like a snake warning drivers to slow down for some switch backs where you almost meet yourself coming back. That kind of driving, like embracing life’s squiggles, requires patience. Complaining about how slow you have to drive won’t straighten out the curves and only spoils appreciation for beautiful scenery.

Any of you have kids or grandkids who like to watch Thomas the Train? We’ve had several grandchildren go through that stage. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an animated story about a cute little blue tank engine and his friends. The show intentionally teaches values while entertaining, which is not surprising since the original book about Thomas was written by an English clergyman, Reverend W.V. Awdry. Some of the values taught in the stories are a bit dated since the original story was published in 1946, but I remember one episode in particular that I hoped my squiggly pre-school grandchildren would take to heart. It used a catchy tune to teach that “patience is a virtue.”

“Don’t get too excited, just staying calm
Thinking for a minute can save you so much harm.
Everything around you is rushing here and there;
Life can be so simple if you make time to spare.
Patience is a virtue.”

One key to being at peace in the middle of life’s squiggles is to be patient, which happens to be one lesson our parable from Matthew offers today. But you have to work a bit to get to that lesson. I welcome a good challenge from a difficult biblical text, but my patience is tried with a text like this one that is hard for this preacher to accept at face value. You see Jesus’ disciples have trouble getting the point of this parable; so Jesus has to explain it to them. If we read a bit further in Matthew 13 we find Jesus’ explanation of the weeds in the wheat:

“And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Anna Carter Florence who teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia asks a great question in one of her books. She says, “How do we interpret conflicting reports on the character of God that appear to counter each other, perhaps even by design? There are at least two quite tempting options,” she says. “The first is to ignore the text; the second is to defend it. Both are responses to the fear of not being able to explain it.”

My first response when I saw this parable on the menu for this week was to ignore it. Lots of other parables looked much tastier than Satan planting thistles in heaven’s 18th fairway. But then I remembered that chapter from Anna Carter Florence and, no matter how hard I tried, I could not ignore this darn parable – and I was not about to defend it. It would take Clarence Darrow and Perry Mason to defend a text that seems to contradict the very nature of the loving God we desperately want to believe in. You know, the one that is there ‘to hear our borning cry, and there when we are old.” The God who is love incarnate. The one who teaches us to love our enemies and even forgives the very devils who nail him to a cross.

O sure, there are plenty of images of an angry Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures. I just cringe at the one where the psalmist says God condones bashing the heads of the babies of the enemy on the rocks of Babylon – you can look it up; it’s in Psalm 137. But that image of God seems to have undergone anger management by the time we get to the New Testament. In the Gospels we meet a much kinder and gentler God who advocates turning the other cheek, and tells us that those who live by the sword will die that way. So how in tarnation can the same Jesus who teaches and lives pacifism, who says we are to love our enemies, how can that Jesus turn around and tell us the children of his enemy will be rounded up and thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? I don’t have ears to listen to the “vengeance is mine says the lord” stuff, do you? Maybe that’s because there are enough weeds in my garden that I’m not sure I’m going to make the cut when that big harvest comes. That vengeful God scares me.

So how do we explain these contradictory images of God? Isn’t that what preachers do – make sense, provide answers, simplify the squiggles that life dishes up on a regular basis? Just explain it to us preacher – that’s what we pay you the big bucks to do, right?

Anna Carter Florence in that same chapter I quoted earlier offers this analogy to preachers with chronic explanitis. She quotes poet laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, describing his students in an introduction to poetry class.

“I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to a light like a color slide,
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and
watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the wall for a light switch.
I want them to water ski across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.”

Water skiing across the surface of a text sounds interesting!! But how do we water ski over a field of weed-infested wheat? I haven’t’ water skied for a long time, so hang on. Here we go.

When my daughter Joy was 3 or 4, she was out in the front yard with me one day when I was digging dandelions out of our lawn, and she asked me, “Why don’t you like the pretty yellow flowers daddy?” I tried to explain to her that they were weeds, but she wasn’t impressed with that argument. In her child-like naiveté she understood better than her over-educated father that ‘weed’ is a very arbitrary designation. Who decided dandelions are weeds and roses aren’t? Some company that makes poisons to save us from too much yellow? What harm do dandelions do to deserve the stigma and animosity we dump on their little yellow heads?
And those designations are subject to revision. I read recently that someone is working on a way to turn algae into a biofuel – that’ll change the way we talk about pond scum in a hurry! Who decides what a weed is and what isn’t?

Isn’t that part of what’s going on in this parable? The farmer’s slaves or servants immediately want to solve the infestation in their cash crop by rushing out with roundup to rid their wheat of illegal aliens in their midst. They want to build a gated community and fence out the riff raff. But the master says no, wait, if we try to eliminate the weeds too soon, we might accidentally harm the wheat in the process. The master knows some of those hired hands are like me – can’t tell wheat from ragweed. The master says, we’ll wait till the harvest when the wheat is mature and strong, then we can safely kill off the evil interlopers without harming the righteous.

It’s all about who is in charge. Who gets to say when and how? Remember when President Bush used to say he was “the decider?” This parable reminds us all, even presidents, that we aren’t ultimately the deciders– God is. Judgment isn’t in our job descriptions. And that’s good because it relieves us of an awful responsibility for irreversible life and death decisions. But it is also frustrating at times – because God is way too patient with the obvious weeds in life, and I want them to get their just desserts sooner rather than later. I want the drug dealers and human traffickers taken care of now.
I want cancer causing agents out of my food, air and water immediately, if not sooner. How about terrorists of all kinds or power hungry leaders who enable them? We’d be so much better off without racists, sexists and anyone who oppresses others. Come on Jesus, we’ve got plenty of very obvious weeds, when do we start chopping and burning?

I’m tired of missile-rattling politicians like Kim Jung Un and his suicidal brinkmanship! All those weeds need to be pulled now, not later. Why wait till they multiply and do even more damage!

But Thomas the train and Jesus teach us that “patience is a virtue.” God’s time is not our time. Yes, there is evil in the world, but ours is not to reason why; our job is to trust the creator to sort it all out in God’s good time. We don’t have to buy into the first-century theology of a literal Satan to know that evil is real – it just is a reality we have to deal with. The word “devil” is simply the word “evil” with a “d” in front of it.

It’s a whole different sermon that could be preached on this text, but I noticed something interesting in verse 25 of this text where it says, “While everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” Wow! We can’t just blame Satan or anyone else for all the evil in the world. If we’re asleep at the switch instead of working for justice we have to take some of the blame. And that’s a tough one because most of us are living pretty well in an economic and social system that isn’t fair and just for those less fortunate.

One of the students in a preaching class I taught a few years ago helped me make some peace with this parable. Her insight was that maybe, just maybe, given enough time, our creator God can transform what we think is bad stuff, worthless junk and trash into something good or even beautiful. Who are we to deny that possibility? We know that “with God all things are possible,” right? We know it – do we really believe it?

Isn’t our problem really about trusting God’s judgment and control? Do we really want the CEOs of insurance company who are making obscene amounts of money to be redeemed? Do we want our political enemies saved? Do we want child abusers or rapists rehabilitated and living next door? Or would we rather see them weeping and gnashing their teeth? Be honest now.

But what if redemption for the worst of the worst is really possible and we are just too impatient to let it happen? Just think of the ways we transform garbage into recycled useful items. On just one web site on recycling I found furniture, pens, clipboards, recycling containers and dozens of other items, made out of stuff that just a few years ago went straight to the landfill of weeping and teeth gnashing. Or how about Alexander Fleming taking something as weed-like as mold and turning it into the life-saving miracle drug penicillin. If we mortals can work such miracles, imagine what God can do if given enough time.

So what are we to do in the meantime, before the harvest comes – just live with the weeds? Yes, and that gives us time to examine our own lives to see if we have misjudged or prejudged some “weeds” that may produce unexpected fruit or bloom with dazzling colors if they are not prematurely cut down.

We can use the extra time God gives us, before we rush to judgment, to look deeply into our own spiritual mirrors to see what kind of fruit our own seeds are producing—to truly invite our all-knowing God to “search us and know our hearts; to try us and know our thoughts; and see if there be any wicked weeds in us.”

We all need that honest spiritual inventory because when we are too quick to judge others we are often blind to our own weediness. And if we stay focused on looking for beauty and good in others and weeding out the evil in ourselves, we won’t have time to be firing up our weed whackers to go after the thistles and briars in our neighbor’s yard.

So why the inconsistent images of God? I don’t know. I can’t explain it – it’s just the nature of our finite attempts to explain an infinite God. Sometimes the answer to life’s mysteries is “I don’t know – but God does, and that’s all we need to know.” A parable points to one facet of the mystery of God, and the mystery is not there to be explained or neatly resolved in a 20 minute sermon, but for us to savor the mystery and ponder it as we water ski across it.

The question is — are we able and willing to suspend our chronic explanitis and give God as much time as needed to transform ugliness into breath-taking beauty? Can we let God be the decider about things “that God alone can see?”

One thing I do remember about water skiing – you can’t ever get up out of the water unless you trust someone else to drive the boat. We need to trust God with what we can’t explain.

Do you remember Captain Sullenberger who safely landed that crippled US Air plane on the Hudson River a few years ago? When a flock of geese flew into the engines of that plane the co-pilot was at the controls. But as soon as he realized they were in trouble Captain Sully said just two words that made it clear who was in charge from that moment on. He simply said, “My airplane” and made all the critical decisions in the next few seconds that saved the lives of 155 people.

I haven’t seen any lately but there used to be a popular bumper sticker that said “God is my Co-Pilot.” If that’s your theology for dealing with life’s squiggles, you need to trade seats and let God say, “My Airplane.”

Preached July 23, 2017 at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio

Prayer for Independence Day

Last week I had the honor of joining the staff of Northwest United Methodist Church as a part-time Pastor of Congregational Care. In a bittersweet moment my good friend Tom Slack, who is retiring from the Northwest staff after 11 very good years of ministry, presented me with a shepherd’s staff that he received when he came to Northwest. We will all miss Tom and his wit and wisdom and caring ways. I am humbled to pick up some of the Slack (pun intended) created by Tom’s departure but know I cannot begin to fill his shoes.

Part of my responsibility will be to lead congregational prayer at Sunday worship; so I will be sharing those prayers from time to time here in my blog beginning with this one for Sunday, July 2. Please pray for Tom and me and our congregation during this time of transition.

O Giver of true freedom and joy, today we celebrate the brave founders of our country who 241 years ago pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to declare the freedoms we continue to cherish and enjoy today. We give thanks for their courage and vision and for all those who have worked and sacrificed to preserve and perfect those freedoms ever since.

Our prayer today is that your spirit will come like a mighty wind to heal our divided nation and world. Give us hearts of compassion and ears willing to hear the opinions of others that differ from ours. Teach us to disagree without being disagreeable. Bless those who have taken upon themselves the heavy burden of governing in these difficult times.

We pray for peace and justice for all of your children. For those who suffer from addiction, depression, chronic pain, grief, oppression and war. Fill our hearts with the love of Christ and drive out the fear that makes us more concerned about our own freedom than the needs of our neighbors. Teach us again that freedom is not a zero sum game. In your eternal love, O God, remind us that there is a wideness in your mercy that provides healing and liberation for all of creation. When any of your children suffer, we all suffer together, and unless there is liberty and justice for all, no one is truly free.

The goal of spiritual freedom for all is a big dream and we are tempted to despair that we will ever achieve it. But then you remind us that with you all things are possible. Renew and refresh our faith and willingness to dream big dreams as we again celebrate Independence Day.

In the words of Sister Ruth Fox, we too pray that you “O God will bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, abuse, and exploitation of people, so that we will work for justice, equality, and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we will reach out our hands to comfort them and to change their pain to joy.

May God bless us with the foolishness to think we can make a difference in this world, so that we will do the things which others tell us cannot be done.

Hear our prayers O God, in the name of the young and fearless prophet Jesus Christ, Amen.

A Field of Dreams (Father’s Day Sermon), Deuteronomy 4:6-9

Back when my body would allow it, I used to play a lot of softball. I love that game in part because there’s no clock or time limit, or as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” I learned that and another important life lesson in a softball game many years ago. Our team was down by 4 runs coming up for our last at bat. Just so you know, our team had never come back from 4 runs down ever in the history of the franchise. I was the 8th batter due up in that final inning; so I was not optimistic that I would get another at bat.

But, a few hits and a couple of errors by the other team and I suddenly realized I might be called on to hit. That was good, but the bad news was that because I didn’t expect our team to make a comeback, I hadn’t been paying as close attention to the score as I should have. Lo and behold, with two outs the batter just before me hit a triple and drove in a run and I was due up to bat. I knew the runner on 3rd base represented either the tying or the winning run, but I wasn’t sure which. Of course I could have asked the umpire or our coach, but I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know the score.

And it made a big difference. If the score were already tied and I made the 3rd out – we would just go to extra innings. But if we were still down a run and I messed up, the game would be over; and my out would result in our losing the game. (Just for the record – I got the game winning hit–one of the few highlights in my non-athletic career.) But the life lesson learned was more important – be sure you know the score, because you never know when you may be called on to step up to the plate with the game on the line.

Our text today from Deuteronomy is about making sure our children know the score in the game of life. In this passage Moses is like a coach giving his team final instructions because they are about to play a big away game when they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. He tells them the most important thing is loving God always with their whole being and warns them that the prosperity they are about to enter after 40 long years of wandering in the desert is not just flowing with milk and honey. There is also the danger that when life is good for them they will forget that it is God who has delivered them and brought them to this good place. When we are going through rough times like a baseball team in a long losing streak we are likely to ask God to deliver us. But during the thrill of victory we may fall into the trap of thinking our success is because of our great skill and forget to give God the credit.

Moses goes on to stress the importance of teaching children about loving God and making sure future generations know the stories of God’s great acts of salvation. How do we do that? As Mebane said last week, it’s all about the fundamentals. First Moses says “Hear O Israel.” As players on God’s team we need to listen to God as our coach. If we are going to know how to play the game of life we need to learn how God wants us to live before we can pass that faith on to others. Moses says we do that with both our words and the example of our lives. He tells us we should recite God’s words to our children and talk about them when we are at home and away, which means everywhere.

Every sports team knows the importance of having home field advantage. You get to sleep in your own bed, eat normal meals, keep your regular routine in familiar surroundings and have the energy and enthusiasm of your fans supporting you during the game. Away games are much tougher. Traveling is tiring, most of us don’t rest as well in a strange place, you miss family and home cooking, schedules are different, and then of course there’s the problem of hostile fans when playing on the road. Championship teams are those that can overcome all those distractions and still play their best games away from home.

The game of faith is no different. It’s much easier to do daily devotions and prayer at home, to live our Christian values without the added temptations of a secular world bombarding us with lies about what it means to be successful. Especially away from the friendly confines of home we need to know the score, and coach Moses says we do that by loving God all the time, when we lie down at night wherever we are and when we rise up to face a new day. To win at the game of life we need to live in the assurance of God’s love when things are good and when we’re down 4 runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. That constant love is what gives us the peace that passes understanding to calmly step up to the plate and be ready for any curve ball life throws us.

How do we keep the love of God foremost in our minds and hearts? Moses says, “Bind God’s word as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” For the Hebrew people these instructions literally meant to wear small leather pouches call phylacteries that contained small scrolls with the 10 commandments and other key scriptures to constantly remind themselves of God’s word. Today that verse can mean any reminder that works for you – keeping a Bible in a visible place (and actually reading it), jewelry with Christian symbols, a fish symbol on your car, a tattoo, or an image that reminds you of God on a computer screen or iPhone, a post it on the bathroom mirror, whatever works for you.

But these symbols are just meant as reminders about how God wants us to live. They are not intended to be a way to flaunt our faith or brag about what good Christians we are. If we don’t walk the walk nothing else matters. The point is to love God, not just to talk a good game. In Matthew 23 Jesus criticizes the Scribes and Pharisees because “they do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Anyone can talk a good game, but results are determined on the field of play.

The key to Moses’ teaching is “to love God with all your heart, soul and might.” Please note that Love is a verb not a noun. Christian love means putting faith into action. How exactly do we show our love for God? Praising God and being grateful for our blessings is one way, but even more important is how we treat others and all of God’s creation. In his parable about separating the sheep and goats Jesus repeatedly says, “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” How we treat others and how we take care of God’s creation shows our love for God or our lack of it because God’s spirit is in every living creature and person, even the most unlovable. Also a good coach doesn’t just tell players how to play the game, he or she shows them, and that is even more true in the game of life. Someone once told me “faith is caught more than it’s taught.” When I was working on this part of the sermon I was reminded of a song from “My Fair Lady” where Eliza expresses her frustration with her boyfriend Freddie this way:

“Words, words, words!
I’m so sick of words

Don’t talk of stars, burning above
If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams, filled with desire
If you’re on fire, show me!

Here we are together in the middle of the night
Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight
Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you that
This is no time for a chat.”

I can just hear God looking at our world full of so much chaos and hate and disregard for creation and pleading with us, “If you’re in love, show me!”

Of course we do love God, but just as we often disappoint and hurt the people we love the most we sometimes mess up on loving God too. Ever since Adam and Eve rebellion against parental authority and our Heavenly Father’s authority seems to be built into human DNA. In one of the great baseball movies of all time, “A Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella rebels against his father’s passion for baseball by refusing to play catch with his dad and by berating one of his father’s heroes, Shoeless Joe Jackson. Ray said Shoeless Joe was a criminal because he was one of the Chicago White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Ray then moves as far away from home as he can get and has to live with the regret that his father died before he could ever tell him he was sorry. When a wise mentor asks Ray why he did that his response is “I was 17.”

Many of us have been on one or both sides of that rebellion as kids or parents. And it hurts. When young people reject the values and faith practices we’ve tried to instill in them it is very painful, and thus some of the mixed emotions holidays like Father’s Day conjure up in us. My Mom was not much of a philosopher but she liked to express the concern Moses had by saying that “Christianity is only one generation from extinction.” There’s some truth in that saying even though our biblical history teaches us that God always finds a way to raise up a faithful remnant when the majority of people turn away.

Having said that, the fear of losing basic Christian and human values is very real, especially in the state our world is in today. Instead of a field of dreams we have a field of screams in our nation’s capital and a shooting in the Columbus library! And that’s just two of a dozen or more acts of violence that have been in the news this week. Reading the morning newspaper over a cup of coffee used to be one of life’s real pleasures for me, and I still do it because I want to be an informed citizen; but it has become an increasingly depressing task. But rather than throw up our hands and accept defeat, all the terrible news in our world is just more reason we need to be sure we teach and live God’s way of love more diligently.

One danger is that we panic about where the world is headed and try to force Christian values on children or others in unloving ways. Sooner or later that strategy backfires. The text we read this morning about loving God with all our being is bookended by two verses that tell us to FEAR God. I’d like you to get a picture in your head of someone you are afraid of. Got it? Do you love that person? It’s almost impossible to love something or someone if we are fearful. There’s no room for love in our hearts when we are full of fear. Unfortunately many people get turned off on because they are taught about a judgmental God that seems more like Big Brother than a loving parent.
It seems pretty significant to me that when he was asked to pick the greatest commandment, Jesus didn’t pick either of the verses in Deuteronomy 6 that teach us to fear God, he picked the one that says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.” I saw a quote from another preacher recently who said her first priority is that “my children’s first knowledge of God will be that God is a God of love.” That’s a great theology.

Father’s Day is a day for appreciation and love for fathers and father-figures, but no one is perfect; so regrets, we’ve all got a few or a lot. But here’s the good news and bad news about the Yogiism that says “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Baseball games have no clock, which means they can literally go on forever or what seems like it about the 18th inning. That’s a problem for baseball’s popularity in our fast-paced 4G world, but when it comes to the game of life extra innings are great. It means more time for reconciliation and love.

That’s what happens to Ray Kinsella when he builds a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa cornfield. He had to put up with ridicule and scorn from family and friends to follow his dream. His baseball field almost led to financial ruin, but he had the support of a loving wife and daughter who could see the dream because they too believed. Ray didn’t understand what it meant when he heard a mysterious voice say, “If you build it he will come,” but he took a leap of faith and built his field of dreams and finally discovers what it all meant in the final scene from the movie.

Ray and his family have just watched Shoeless Joe Jackson and other deceased baseball stars play a game on their field and are getting ready to retire for the night when they notice Shoeless Joe hanging around. When Ray asks him what he wants Joe nods toward a young catcher who is still removing his catching gear and says, “If you build it he will come.” Ray’s jaw drops as he recognizes his father as a young man. His dad, John, introduces himself and thanks Ray and his family for building the field. After Ray introduces his dad to the daughter-in-law and granddaughter he never got to meet the two of them are left alone on the field to talk.

John says that playing there is a dream come true (because he never made it to the big leagues as a player). Then he asks, “Is this heaven?” And Ray says, “No, it’s Iowa.” Then he asks his dad “Is there a heaven?” And John says, “Oh, yes. It’s a place where dreams come true.” Ray ponders that and looks back at his wife and daughter sitting on the porch swing and says, “Then maybe this is heaven.”

John is about to walk away toward the corn beyond left field, but Ray says, “Dad, could we have a catch?” John says, “I’d like that.” And the movie ends with the two of them playing the game of catch Ray had refused to play as a teenager.

“Heaven is the place where dreams come true.” The kingdom of heaven is that place right here and now for those who love the God of love and reconciliation with all their being. That loving God will come to us wherever we are if we build it – if we build our relationship with God that is, and if we are willing as Ray was to “Go the Distance” even when others think we’re crazy.

[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, June 18, 2017]

Palace Intrigue: Samuel and James Comey

I am serving as a Bible Storyteller tonight for our Vacation Bible School and the story for tonight is the anointing of David as King of Israel (I Samuel 16:1-12). As I prepared this week to share that ancient story the news was all about the “he said, she said” back and forth drama between former FBI director James Comey and President Trump. I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between the two narratives. (Fear not, this blog is totally separate from telling the story at VBS. I will not make any partisan political points with the kids at church.)

The biblical story begins when God asks Samuel, the last of the judges who ruled Israel before they, going against God’s advice, became a monarchy, to go to Bethlehem and anoint a new king from among the sons of Jesse. Samuel is afraid that Saul will kill him if he finds out what his mission is; so God suggests a little divine diversion and tells Samuel to take a heifer with him and pretend that the purpose for his trip is to offer a sacrifice. Samuel does the Lord’s bidding and invites Jesse and his sons to “the sacrifice” where he has Jesse bring before him each of his sons to see which one God has chosen to be the new king.

First is Eliab who is strong and handsome, and Samuel is sure he has found God’s man. But God says no and explains to Samuel that God does not look on outward appearances as mortals do. Instead God “looks on the heart.” (I Sam. 16:7) So the search continues with Abinadab, then Shammah, and four more of Jesse’s sons, and each in turn is rejected by God. In frustration Samuel asks Jesse if he has any other sons and is told that there is one more, David, the youngest who is out tending his father’s sheep. Samuel insists that David be summoned and when he appears God said to Samuel, “Arise and anoint him; for this is the one.” (v. 12)

Samuel didn’t want to challenge Saul’s authority and power. We can all understand the fear of retaliation. It occurred to me that the same thoughts must have been going on in James Comey’s mind before his testimony before the Senate on Thursday. We may never know for sure what his motives are. Only God can look on Comey’s heart and judge his intent. But I am willing to entertain the possibility that like Samuel the former FBI director may have overcome his fear of retribution by the President to do what he believed was required of him as a citizen, public servant, and Christian (he’s a very faithful United Methodist).

There are those who will argue that Comey is just angry because he was fired and is trying to get even with the President, and that’s a possibility; but considering the risks involved in challenging the most powerful person in the world I think that is unlikely. If I were in Comey’s shoes the option of simply going quietly into retirement free from the stresses of Washington politics would have a great deal of appeal. My opinion is that challenging the power of the President while knowing first-hand how President Trump normally deals with those who oppose him required a great deal of courage and faith in the power of doing what one believes is the right and honorable thing in spite of fears or consequences.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Even as I write these words I am not sure I will be brave enough to post them because I know several of my dear friends and family members will strongly disagree with what I’ve said. But sometimes telling the truth is a stronger duty than fear of conflict and disapproval. I hope someday soon we will know which version of the Trump-Comey controversy is the truth. In the meantime for the good of our own peace of mind and the health of our nation we would do well to withhold any surefire opinions and judgment and remember that only God can look into our hearts.