Lighting the Second Advent Candle: Elizabeth

Elizabeth: Good morning church. My name is Elizabeth and my amazing story started when my husband, Zechariah, went to serve his term at the temple. He was very late getting home. I bet some of you women know what waiting for a husband to come home is like. I wondered what was taking so long, and when he did return, he was, well speechless. I mean he was really speechless! He couldn’t talk. But Zechariah proceeded, in sign language (she gestures with hands), to tell me that he had seen an angel while he was in the temple. This angel told him –get this—that I was going to have a baby – me. At my age! Does Medicare cover maternity bills?

Zechariah said the angel told him we were to have a son and name him John. The angel said that many people would rejoice because of our son’s birth. The angel promised that John would be great in God’s eyes and bring many people back to the Lord. What more could any woman want than a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah? (pause)

I kept to myself during most of my pregnancy. Then one day there was a knock on the door, and their stood my cousin Mary. When she greeted me, my baby leaped in my womb (reacts to the baby, hands on belly) at the sound of her voice, and the Spirit filled me with more joy than I have never known! I knew, through the Spirit, that Mary was the mother of my Lord!

Elizabeth (after brief pause): Wishing that same Joy to you and the world, I light this second Advent candle.

[Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, December 10, 2017]

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Pastoral Prayer after Thanksgiving

Good morning God. As we gather here in this holy place today most of us have overeaten as we celebrated Thanksgiving. Some of us have overindulged in Black Friday shopping or football. We are full of the fruits of this great nation we live in. But even though there are leftovers in many of our refrigerators we are here because we are still hungry.

We are hungering and thirsting for righteousness and grace, for direction in a troubled and broken world. Some of us are mourning loved ones who were not at the Thanksgiving table this year. Some of us ate alone on Thursday and are hungry for community.

Some of us feel discouraged by a steady diet of news of violence, of police and border guards being attacked, oil spills, navy planes crashing, sexual misconduct, and governments in Egypt, Germany and Zimbabwe in crisis. We want to turn off the bad news, but as with the turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie, we just can’t seem to walk away. We want to be informed citizens and we genuinely feel the pain of everyone who is suffering. We suffer from compassion overload. Our prayer lists for friends and loved ones run off the page.

But we are people of faith who remember Christ’s promises. He tells us the mourners will be comforted, the spiritually hungry will be filled, and those who are merciful will receive mercy. That’s the menu we want to order from on this Sabbath day. We are here because we know taking time to worship provides us a sanctuary from the bad news of the world. If we listen, this is where we will hear, taste and feel the grace of our loving God.

Of all the things we are thankful for, O God, you and your mercy are at the top of the list. Your love is more precious than a win over that team up north. It is more valuable than any Black Friday bargain. Your freely given blessing of salvation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the true gift without price. We can never pay you back for your grace, but we ask that you will give us a faith that enables us to pay it forward. Grant us the courage to witness in our words and actions to those who are starving for the good news of Christ, the true bread of the world that satisfies forever the hunger in our souls.

Commit to Adulthood: Jesus and Sexual Misconduct, Exodus 20: 14, Matthew 5: 27-30

As one celebrity or public figure after another has joined the long list of those accused of sexual misconduct I have wrestled with how to comment in a meaningful way. I’m still working on that, but I remembered a sermon I preached several years ago that seems even more relevant today than it was then. I hope it adds something to this conversation. The sermon was part of a series on the 10 Commandments, “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World,” at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH in the summer of 2014.

“You Shall Not Commit Adultery.” Some of you are thinking, “Finally, we’ve gotten to a commandment I haven’t broken.” And some of you carry a heavy burden of guilt or anger at yourself or someone else who has failed to live up to commandment number 7. I have good news and bad news for us all because this commandment is about much more for all of us than sexual fidelity.

I got an email two months ago asking me if I was available to preach one part of a series called “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.” I love to preach and my calendar was open; so I said sure. Lesson learned – before making a commitment be sure you fully understand what you are committing to do.

I didn’t bother to ask which commandment since it was several weeks away. Fast forward to mid-June when the series began. I got out my calendar and started counting the Sundays until August 3 and arrived at the conclusion that I would be preaching on number 8,”You Shall Not Steal.” When I emailed our pastor to confirm that conclusion, her reply was a classic. She said, “No, we will be skipping one Sunday in July to do a mission report. I have you scheduled for adultery on August 3.”

I assured my wife she had nothing to fear – I might be scheduled for adultery on August 3 but after preaching three times in one morning, the only attraction a bed would have for me is a nap.

Everyone chuckles when I tell them I’m preaching on Adultery, but this is serious business. As with the sixth commandment, this one is short and very unambiguous. “You shall not commit adultery.” And, as with “You shall not murder,” Jesus ups the ante in the Sermon on the Mount with one of those things we just wish he hadn’t said when he gets to adultery.

Matthew 5:27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And then it gets worse —
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Wow! If we enforced that one literally we’d have a world full of blind folks with no hands!

A young boy in Sunday school was asked to recite the 10 commandments. When he got to number 7, he said, “Thou shall not commit adulthood.” Part of the problem with obedience or lack thereof when it comes to the commandments is a refusal to commit adulthood. We are all a bit like Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up.
St. Paul’s beautiful words about love in I Corinthians 13 are by far the most quoted scripture at weddings, and that chapter includes the line, “When I became an adult I put away childish things.” Faithful maturity means committing adulthood, but that commitment has to be renewed on a daily or sometimes hourly basis, as Paul himself points out in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Anybody relate to that if you’ve ever resolved to go on a diet or start an exercise program?

The two scriptures we read today make it sound so simple. Just don’t do it, and Jesus says the way to not do it is to not even think about it. Would Jesus say that if he lived in our wireless world? We’ve heard a lot recently about a “sexualized culture” in the OSU marching band. Big surprise! We live in a hyper-sexualized culture that uses sex to sell everything from Pontiacs to popsicles. Early Christian monks hid in monasteries to avoid worldly and sexual temptation, but there is nowhere to hide from the realities of human sexuality in a wireless world.
And the cast of characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, where the commandments reside, don’t help much. Sister Joan Chittister in her book, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, starts her discussion of adultery this way. “The problem with this commandment is that no one in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to keep it.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Jacob married both Leah and her sister Rachel, David knocked off one of his generals, Uriah, to try and cover up his affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. When Abram and Sarai were too impatient to wait on God’s promised son, they took matters into their own hands and Abram took Sarai’s servant Hagar, and she became the mother of his first son.

Yes, that’s ancient history, but to understand why we must take this commandment seriously today we have to make some sense of this seemingly blatant contradiction between what the scriptures say and the behavior of our spiritual ancestors. To oversimplify, at least part of the answer is that the biblical narrative is set in a sexist, patriarchal world where women were property. Having lots of wives and children were signs of prosperity and a future for society. There were no DNA tests to determine paternity and the lineage of one’s offspring determined inheritance; so the sexual faithfulness of a woman was critical to the whole socio-economic structure of the society. This commandment for Moses and Solomon was not about adultery as we know it but about respecting the property of others.

Marriage in biblical times was not based on ‘love’ as we think of it. The great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” makes that point in a humorous but very profound way. As Tevye’s and Golde’s daughters repeatedly challenge the sexist ways of their culture, loveable old Tevye begins to evaluate those traditions as well. In one memorable scene he surprises his wife of 25 years with this question: “Golde, do you love me?” And her response is classic. She says, “Do I what?”

So how do we understand and apply this commandment against adultery in our very different wireless world? The key is that it is all about commitment. Even though marriage in Jacob and Leah and Rachel’s day was totally different than ours, the common denominator is commitment to a set of responsibilities and obligations to each other which have to be taken seriously and kept to insure family and cultural stability.

An anonymous author has defined commitment this way: “Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Commitment is especially important in our transient world that moves at warp speed. We are a people deeply in need of stability. Extended families are over-extended or non-existent. When I grew up all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins lived within a 20 mile radius. My mother didn’t need a cell phone to keep track of me. If I got in trouble she heard about it from her mom or one of her sisters before I got home!

Not so today when families are spread out all over the country. The village it takes to raise kids is gone. The support system for caring for the elderly at a time when the number of people in their 80’s and 90’s is growing exponentially is history, and the pressure all that puts on the nuclear family can cause a nuclear meltdown.
Those we love need the assurance that we take our commitments to them very seriously no matter what happens. Not because God says so or someone else said so. We have to be faithful to our commitments because we said so.

Marriage is a prime example of commitment because the promises we make are so huge. The words are so familiar they flow off the tongues of starry-eyed brides and grooms too easily. To love another person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness in health, till death do us part. This is not a 5 year or 50000 mile guarantee. You don’t become a free agent when the contract expires. It’s for keeps.

I saw these words spray painted on a freeway overpass a few years ago: “John loves so and so forever.” I don’t know the name of the beloved because it had been painted over. Apparently “forever” turned out to be longer than John expected. And forever has gotten longer. When the average life expectancy was 40 or 50 till death do us part was a lot shorter than it is today. Caring for someone in sickness and health requires a whole lot more commitment when a spouse suffering from dementia no longer knows your name or is dying by inches from ALS or cancer.

“Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Even on days when you don’t like each other very much. Love is not a feeling you fall into and out of. Love is a choice, a commitment. Is it humanly possible to love like that always? No. That kind of unconditional love is from God and we are merely promising to imitate it. God doesn’t say “I will love you if you do this or don’t do that. God says I love you period.” That’s commitment, and it’s what faithfulness in marriage or any relationship requires.

So what happens when we fail to live up to that high standard? When we break our promises and commitments or are even tempted to? Do we pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands? Or go on a long guilt trip to nowhere?
No, there’s another adultery story in chapter 8 of John’s gospel that shows us a better way.

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Have you ever wondered what Jesus wrote on the ground during that confrontation? No one knows of course. No one had a cell phone to take a picture of it. But from what Jesus has said to me on the numerous occasions when I’ve flunked the commitment test, I think he simply wrote one word, and that word is “Grace.” Grace for the woman. Grace for her self-righteous accusers, And Amazing Grace for you and me if we admit our sin and recommit to God’s way of faithful love.

Church Divided Part II

The following is an excerpt from an article by Bishop William B. Lewis (UMC retired). I found it just after posting my previous article about division in the UMC. It is an excellent historical overview of how the United Methodist denomination got to the brink of division. I highly recommend this article entitled “If the Church I Love Divides.” It can be found at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8099/if-the-church-i-love-divides?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork.

“Another important demographic factor that went almost unnoticed by people focused on the numbers was the effect that birth control and family planning was having on the membership of all denominations. Since the post-WWII decade, when growth came easy, the size of American families has diminished markedly. Fewer children mean smaller confirmation classes, mean fewer members who remain loyal as adults.

Walter Fenton and other Good News propagandists would have us believe the membership decline is largely about theological issues and ethical conflicts. Preferring to blame it on “liberals” and “progressives,” they appear to be totally unaware of recent studies showing that the “Nones” are the fastest growing segment of the population. A major driving force behind this turning away from the American Church is disenchantment with “Evangelicals.”

Fenton predicts the collapse of our ‘apportionment-based connectional’ denomination. Like the Mark Twain story about the mistaken appearance of his obituary in the N.Y. Times, the [“Good News”] news of the death of The United Methodist Church may be premature.

There is an episode in Wesley’s Journal where he describes a conflicted congregation at Gateshead near Newcastle. It’s a lesson in eighteenth century conflict management. Wesley pays a visit to examine the classes and appraise the situation. Half the membership is lost in the struggle. As he travels back to London, he reflects that “the half is more than the whole.”

Wesley believed what was left was a healthier community of grace without the discord and dissension that dominated the Society at Gateshead. It is not my choice for it to be so, but if we must divide, I want to be with the People Called Methodists who believe in free grace and embody it with open minds, open hearts, and open doors. We may be a better church after the some have had their “or else” way.

A lesson I learned from demographics and from reflections on “Gateshead” have led me to the conclusion in these later years of my ministry that the future of United Methodism is in service and self-giving instead of “church growth” and self-seeking. Works of healing, charity, and kindness are far more important in the Community of Grace than institutional success. Like Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s “While I’m on my feet” appeal, I live to say more for a church whose mission it is to “lay down its life” for others.”

A Church Divided

A good friend of mine is having a hard time understanding the struggles within the United Methodist Church about LGBT rights. In particular he asked me great questions about how the church can change its position on homosexuality when there are specific references in the Bible and in the writings of Methodist founder John Wesley that condemn any non-hetero sexual orientations. I know there are many other people of faith who are wrestling with the same questions so what follows is my best attempt to explain my position on this important issue.

The sexuality debate has been going on in the United Methodist Church for at least 40 years. I don’t remember what precipitated the debate originally but I assume it was in response to the national increase in awareness about LGBT issues that arose after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. I assume the gay rights movement was also a natural outgrowth of the other movements for a more inclusive society — civil rights, women’s rights, etc.

The United Methodist position on homosexuality has never been clear cut. The compromise wording in the UMC Book of Discipline and our Social Principles has said for years that gays are persons “of sacred worth” but that the expression of their sexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The reason for that seemingly contradictory language is that the General Conference has not had a clear cut majority opinion on this issue for 40 years. The language adopted and maintained all these years is always approved by the slimmest of margins. The last General Conference was so divided by this issue that voting on it was postponed and a special commission was appointed to develop a proposal on “a Way Forward.” That commission is due to report to a special General Conference in 2019. Reports out of that commission and the response of the conservative/evangelical part of the church seem to indicate we could be heading toward a split in the denomination. That is not unprecedented. The Methodist church split into a north and south church over the issue of slavery in the 1840’s. That split continued for nearly 100 years until the two reunited in 1939.

Another source of the theological divisions within the UMC stems from the merger in 1968 with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, a more conservative group than the former Methodist church. A leading pastor in the evangelical branch of the UMC recently blamed our divisions on liberal seminaries that expose students to new ideas that change their beliefs from when they entered seminary. My question is why bother going to seminary or any educational institution if we are going to come out unchanged from the way we went in? Faith needs to be tested and challenged to have any depth. That same pastor praised churches that defied the Discipline’s former requirement that UM churches use only UM curriculum in Sunday school and instead used the very conservative David C. Cook material. My question to him is why is that kind of “disobedience” OK, but challenging other rules of the church is not?

Part of this strong difference of opinions is because we are not a doctrinal church but a democratic one. The Discipline and Social Principles of the UMC are revised every four years by a world-wide General Conference, the only body that can speak for the denomination. We have no pope or super bishop who can speak for the church, and that’s a good thing. The down side is we get into emotional debates that stem from some basic differences in the understanding and interpretation of Scripture. The more conservative folks want to interpret Scripture literally and point to a few verses in Leviticus and Paul that condemn homosexuality. The more progressive or liberal interpreters of Scripture choose to emphasize instead a responsibility of pastors and laity to interpret Scripture in light of its historical context.

Wesley himself in his quadrilateral taught that we need to use our God-given abilities to reason and apply our experience to the interpretation of Scripture. The bottom line for me in the sexuality debate is that neither Wesley nor Paul nor the author of Leviticus had the scientific understanding we have today of why some people have a homosexual identity. For Wesley and the biblical authors homosexuality was seen as a choice people made and could therefore be changed, but we today know that is not the case. Some people are simply born with that sexual orientation and to condemn them or exclude them would be like judging people who are born left-handed or blue-eyed or dark-skinned. Progressive/liberal theologians assume we all have the responsibility to interpret the great commandment to love our neighbors and to not let ancient authors with their limited and misinformed opinions dictate who is acceptable to God and who isn’t.

I know it’s hard to have life-long beliefs challenged, but I’m convinced on this issue the people who taught us to fear and judge gays were simply wrong. They were not bad people, just doing the best they could with the values and ideas they had learned from their elders. It’s like the issue of race. I grew up in an all-white community where we claimed we weren’t “prejudiced.” I was naïve enough to believe blacks simply chose not to live in our town. My life experience was so limited that it wasn’t until I went to Ohio State University that I ever had any personal contact with any non-white person. I have since learned that my hometown missed out on a chance to be home to a huge Honda Plant because the mayor at the time was a WWII vet who hated Japanese. And just this fall I learned there once was a KKK chapter in my “unprejudiced” hometown, and one of my great uncles was one of the leaders of that racist group.

The church has been wrong on many social justice issues throughout the centuries. Slavery was justified by the Bible, oppression of women too, and those wrongs were only gradually corrected after years of struggle and resistance from those who benefited from the status quo. Inclusion of LGBT persons as full members of the church is just the latest chapter in the long march toward the loving kingdom God has ordained.

On a very personal note I have worked with and known excellent gay UM pastors literally my entire ministry. For most of those 48 years those pastors had to hide a very critical part of who they are from the church and even from family and friends. One clergy friend didn’t dare confide even in me about his sexual orientation for 15 years because of the stigma and fear. I know of pastors who committed suicide because of the judgment they felt from the church they loved and wanted to serve. Some of the leaders of the movement for LGBT equality are doing so because their own lives and well-being are at stake. Others of us simply believe our God of love wants justice and inclusion for all people.

Faithful people challenging injustice goes back in history as far as Moses responding to God’s call to liberate the Hebrews from slavery. The Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all challenged injustice and oppression at great risks to themselves. John Wesley himself defied the Church of England to take the Gospel to those who were excluded by the church. Wesley stressed the need for a complete Gospel that includes both personal salvation and Social Holiness. Social Holiness does not mean enforcing values on others that don’t stand up to the test of human reason and knowledge but is working for justice for anyone oppressed because of gender, race, social class or sexual orientation.

I am fearful of what this struggle is going to mean for our church, but faithfulness to what I believe is God’s will is more important than institutional preservation. The debate over homosexuality has consumed vast sums of time and energy and distracted the church from doing much needed mission and evangelism for far too long. If we can’t agree on a position on this issue it may very well be time to separate so we can be about the work of other important issues like sharing a truly grace-filled Gospel and being faithful stewards of God’s creation by saving the planet from climate change or nuclear holocaust.

Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

Some of my readers have probably been pleased that I have been less “political” in what I’ve posted in recent weeks. There are several reasons for that, but one of them is not that I am less concerned about the state of our nation and world. I became a part-time pastor again this summer and that has affected my writing in a couple of ways. Given more pastoral duties means less time for other things, including writing. The writing I have done has been primarily sermons and prayers. Secondly with the privilege of being a pastor of a congregation comes an expectation to handle political matters tactfully and in a non-partisan way.

I did not realize how much I felt constrained by that non-partisan expectation until I retired and wasn’t serving a congregation. I felt liberated to speak my mind more freely, and now that I am back in a formal relationship with a congregation that freedom is one of the things I miss most. As a student of persuasive communication I know full well that effective communication requires a meeting of minds, a shared understanding and respect for one another’s ideas and feelings. That’s a quality of community that is sorely lacking in our bitterly divided nation and world.

No meaningful communication occurs across the chasm of ideological extremes where we view others as enemies (political or foreign) instead of as fellow humans doing the best we can to make sense of the lives we have been given and the world we inhabit. So my philosophy of ministry is one of trying to understand what people believe and why they hold those beliefs so I can then facilitate a process of faith development that moves all of us toward the peaceable kingdom God covets for us and all creation.

I am not always successful at being empathetic and understanding, and as one who is very uncomfortable with conflict I fear I have been too timid during most of my ministry to share my true thoughts and feelings because I feared that to do so would be unpopular. I greatly admire my colleagues who have the courage and faith to speak prophetically about controversial issues.

I recently saw a list of the 15 most popular hymns of all time. I don’t know how the list was compiled or how scientifically valid the methodology was for surveying people, but the list was pretty much what I expected it would be: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well With My Soul” etc. All 15 hymns on the list focused on personal salvation and holiness. What was lacking was the other half of the Gospel, what John Wesley called “Social Holiness.”

I imagine that such a list might have inspired the prophet Amos to proclaim the lines that are part of the lectionary for this week: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I don’t know how long Amos would have lasted in a church pulpit but I do believe that we dare not ignore the biblical imperative to be agents of social justice.

I cringed this week when I saw a Facebook meme that hit much too close to home. To paraphrase it said, “Don’t be nice. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.” I often encouraged my preaching students to heed the advice of Ephesians 4:15 that tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Looking back on my career as both a preacher and teacher I fear that I have erred on the side of love in that equation and sugar-coated or omitted hard words of truth. As a pastor I often criticized myself for sacrificing prophetic truth in exchange for a parsonage and a pension.

Ironically it has almost always been the case that when I have dared to speak my true understanding of God’s will about controversial issues of social justice someone that I least expected to agree or appreciate those views has let me know they did. For example in today’s news there is not much that is more divisive than people’s views on gun violence and the second amendment. It has become a partisan political issue when it should be seen as a basic human problem to be solved. But most politicians are afraid of the NRA and dependent on financial support from the gun lobby. So even though a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun legislation a majority of Senators and Representatives are unwilling to risk their office and its perks to oppose a vocal and powerful minority.
This morning I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that reported that Congress has passed the buck on dealing with the sale of “bump stocks” that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles/machine guns (which are illegal) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instead of acting on it themselves.

Immediately after the massacre in Las Vegas there was widespread agreement including even the NRA that those devices needed to be banned or “restricted.” But as the news cycle moved on to sex scandals and other mass killings, the mood shifted, the NRA changed its mind, and Congress lost its political will to act.
After reading that article I wrote the following note to my two Senators and my Congressional Representative: “I was appalled to read in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch that Congress has done nothing about bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre. Stop passing the buck and do something to stop this insanity of gun violence. It is way past time for someone to have the courage to stand up to the NRA. We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons but in the meantime banning devices whose sole purpose is to circumvent the law should be a no-brainer.”

I also posted that message on Facebook with some fear and trepidation that it would be too “political” for a preacher. But again I was pleasantly surprised at the number of “likes” and even some “loves” I got in response. Some of those positive responses were from people I didn’t expect would agree with me. I would never have known had I not had the courage to say what I was feeling.

I wrote the above part of this post in the wee hours of the morning, and then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I realized that I had been guilty of seeing the “speck in my legislators’ eyes and ignoring the log in my own” to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42. As is often the case I am often most judgmental about things in others that I don’t like about myself. It’s easy to criticize political leaders for not living up to the profiles in courage standards I expect of them, but much harder to admit I do the same thing. I don’t always say what I truly believe, and I certainly don’t always live up to the values I hold dear. Peer pressure, societal or professional expectations and other human weaknesses get in the way of speaking the truth in love. If I am honestly and fairly judged by my ideal goal of living up to the profound standards of Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” I am in deep trouble.

When I shared my late night insight about being guilty of living out of integrity with my values with my dear wife this morning Diana cut to the chase as she does so well. She said, “That’s true of every job. We all have to make compromises and concessions to employers who control our livelihood.” If those compromises create too much cognitive dissonance or inner turmoil with our consciences we can say “no” to that employer and choose a different path. Those are very hard decisions that try our souls, and that is why we all stand in need of a generous helping of God’s grace.

Well, this blog certainly took an unexpected turn. It was good for my own introspection. Thanks for listening. If it was helpful for you too that’s a bonus.

Longing to Belong – A Flock of Geep, Matthew 25:31-40

One day when my children were in elementary school a battered old car that didn’t belong to anyone in our neighborhood was parked in front of our parsonage in Worthington. When my kids saw it out there and that there were some people in it they had two very different reactions. One of them wanted to call the police and the other one said, “Let’s go out and see if we can help them.”

I share that story because it represents two very different reactions we can have to the least of these that Jesus talks about in the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25. We react uneasily or fearfully if we see others only through the lens of “stranger danger” or we feel some degree of empathy for fellow human beings. There are other options of course – we can blame them for whatever problems they have or we can avert our eyes and simply pretend to not notice and hurry by.

My guess is that most of us fall into several of those categories at different times depending on the situation and what else is going on in our lives at the time. Our level of hospitality or empathy for people in need can fluctuate like an Ohio thermometer. Sometimes we feel warm and caring and other times when our own problems are too heavy on our minds, we can be a bit more like frosty the snow man—at least I know I am.

Today is our final installment in a series called “Longing to Belong” and it’s fitting that we give this text from Matthew the final word because of its unique perspective on what it means to belong to the human family and ultimately to God’s eternal kingdom. This text in Matthew is Jesus’ last teaching to his disciples before his passion and death on the cross. The separation of the sheep and goats is called the last judgment because it tells us in very simple but powerful images about what is required of us to belong in the Kingdom of God. It is both a judgment and a warning.

Note first of all that Jesus is the one who decides who gets in. He is the one who welcomes the sheep into his kingdom and quite literally tells the goats to go to hell. Judging is not our job but God’s. I saw a billboard sign along the road somewhere recently that said it very well, “Just love them all. I’ll sort them out later, God.”

Secondly, this is not some far off end of the world second coming of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel there is no ascension story. The risen Christ doesn’t leave the world behind to return at some undetermined date. Matthew’s Gospel ends with these words we know as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

There is not a time or place when the risen Christ is not with us to empower us and to check up on how we’re doing.
So how do we make disciples of all nations? The sheep and goats parable tells us in very clear and practical terms – by offering hospitality especially to those in need. That’s it – one simple question – have we been hospitable or not? I don’t know about you, but that makes me more than a little nervous. However my day of reckoning comes will Jesus remind me of all the appeals for charity I’ve thrown away unopen? Will he parade before me the starving children of the world or just the homeless people on the street corner that I’ve hurried by on a cold winter day to get to my nice warm house? What other missed opportunities to serve others will he bring back to painful memory like a haunted Facebook year in review? I’ve always had this fear that when my life flashes before me at the end that it will be boring, but this is much worse than boring.

A book club that I’m in just finished reading a book called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a social psychologist who has done research on how and why morality develops in humans. Leave the sheep and goat metaphor aside for a minute because Haidt compares humans to chimpanzees and bees. I’ve never known any chimps personally, but Haidt says that while they are very smart animals they do not develop any sense of loyalty to any other chimps. There actions are always self-interested. At the other extreme are bees that are totally organized to perform individual roles for the benefit of the hive they live in.

The bad news is that Haidt’s research concludes that we humans are 90% like selfish chimpanzees. The good news is that we are also 10% like bees. In other words, we are capable as we well know of compassion and acts of hospitality. We do make sacrifices of our time, energy and money to help others in need.

But what makes the difference in our hospitality for others? When and why do we act like bees instead of goats, I mean chimpanzees? Haidt lists religious affiliation as one of the community building groups that can trip what he calls the “hive switch” that makes us less self-centered and more “groupish” like bees. He has studied a variety of social groups and through scientific research identified certain activities that bind individuals together and allow us to merge our individual identities into a larger whole.

I took a friend of mine to her very first Ohio State football game a few years ago. We were soaking up the atmosphere and excitement of the best darn band in the land making their dramatic ramp entrance and performing Script Ohio, and then those 100,000 fans stood as one and sang “Carmen Ohio,” the OSU Alma mater. When we sat down my friend Linda looked at me with amazement in her eyes and said, “I saw people actually crying during the alma mater.” And I said, “O yes, this is a religious experience for many people.”

I thought I was just being clever, but according to professor Haidt I was exactly right. He uses college football and all its pageantry, songs, cheers and traditions as a prime example of behavior that can trip the hive switch, a bonding of total strangers into a unison choir. It’s easy to see how the things we do in worship, singing hymns, reciting common prayers, rituals like baptism, communion, weddings and funerals are similar group building activities. As a side note, our familiarity with the rituals as regular attenders in worship also means we need to be sensitive to newcomers who may feel uncomfortable because they don’t know the “routine” that we take for granted.

So the hive switch is what makes communal action and hospitality possible. Theologically I’d call that the Holy Spirit within each of us. Where my theology pushes back at the scientific analysis of human morality is where Haidt concludes that we humans are best at what he calls “Parochial altruism.” In other words we extend hospitality most often and most easily to people who are like us. That’s obviously true, but what science can’t account for is the inbreaking power of God’s spirit that makes all things possible, even radical hospitality for the strangers in our midst.

So, what does that all have to do with sheep and goats? Most of us know we aren’t good, righteous sheep all the time. I have a wonderful friend who is the most caring person you can imagine. He’s a retired firefighter and EMT and felt called to that kind of vocation because of his gentle, caring soul. But in that work he witnessed some trutly horrific acts of inhuman behavior. I remember one time he told me about going on a squad run to help an 84 year old woman who had been brutally beaten are raped. My peace-loving friend shook with emotion as he told me he didn’t trust himself to be in the presence of that rapist for fear he would kill him.

In the very best of us there is some goat. I believe it’s a smaller percentage than Haidt’s 90% figure, but it’s there and we are in danger if we forget it. I even read that Andy Griffith admitted that there were times when he wanted to beat up Barney Fife. By sharing our humanity in Jesus God knew up close and personal about our goatish tendencies. Even Jesus didn’t always practice what he preached. He got angry at times and called people fools or a brood of vipers. He got so angry with the money changers that he turned over their tables and drove them out of the temple with a whip.

Jesus understood none of us pure bred sheep. We are a flock of Geep, a hybrid of hospitality and goat-like selfishness that sneaks out when we’re uncomfortable or fearful or insecure.

The parable makes such a clear cut choice between sheep and goats, good and bad, there is no middle ground. So we wonder if there’s any hope for us Geep. You bet there is. Matthew includes this judgment story as a warning. Jesus makes the choice so stark to impress us with the urgency of how we treat each other. His words certainly ring true for the troubled world we live in where there are literally millions of hungry, thirsty, ill-clothed, unhealthy, and imprisoned people. The surprise in this story is that neither the sheep nor the goats realized that their treatment of neglected, marginalized people was how they treated Christ himself. We can’t use that excuse. We’ve been told, we’ve been warned, and we who know what it’s like to long to belong have a duty to treat others not just the way we want to be treated, but the way we would treat Christ himself.

At our church conference Thursday night we watched a powerful video message from Bishop Palmer. The video is being shown at every church conference this year to introduce the mission theme for the West Ohio Conference for this Conference year. The theme is “Be Not Afraid—There is enough.” Be not afraid got me wondering what kind of fears prevent us from being the good hospitable sheep Jesus calls us to be. Bishop Palmer said that when we are afraid there aren’t enough resources to go around, when we live out of scarcity mentality it’s hard to share what we have for fear we won’t have enough for ourselves.

There’s no doubt the needs of those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick and in prison, those in need of warm clothing as winter approaches – those needs can be overwhelming. But just because we can’t do everything for everybody is no excuse for doing nothing. Bishop Palmer used one of my favorite Bible stories to make his point about how we can overcome our fears of scarcity by living out of faith in God’s abundance. In the feeding of the 5000 story the disciples are afraid they can’t feed the hungry crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach.
They very pragmatically take inventory of the food they have and come up with just 5 loaves and two fish. This is obviously not enough to feed over 5000 people. But Jesus tells the disciples to give him what they have. He takes it, breaks it, and blesses it and there is not only enough to feed and satisfy everyone there, they collect 12 baskets full of leftovers that can go to the local food pantry.

The message is that when we feel like we don’t have enough time or energy or resources to care for those in need if we give what we have to God in faith it will be enough. A year ago no one would have believed that this church could regularly feed 100’s of neighborhood children who don’t have lunches on days when school is not in session. But a few people saw the need and had the faith to start a new ministry, and guess what – in the last year we’ve provided over 5000 brown bag lunches to our neighbors. As the need grew there were always enough volunteers, enough food, and enough love to meet the need.

We are called to treat everyone the way we would treat Jesus! Wow! That’s a tall order for us imperfect fallible Geep. None of us treat everyone all the time like we’d treat Jesus, especially when Christ comes in a Halloween costume disguised as a hungry, sick, ill-clad prisoner! “But Jesus, if we’d only known it was you!!”

But here’s the really good news—we know from other stories about Jesus’ grace and mercy that he doesn’t expect perfection. Just look at the rag-tag bunch of disciples he chose!! And other New Testament writers share the same message of mercy and amazing grace. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” That’s because none of us are good enough to pass the sheep/goat test on our own merits.

I John says, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The sheep and goats parable is both a warning and a way into God’s kingdom. It forces us to look honestly at how goat-like we sometimes are, and when we are brave enough to do that we are humbled and fall on our knees in confession.

I like the way a preacher named Ronald Luckey interprets this text. He says “The King will judge us and give us hell. He will show us the suffering, starving children. We will feel their pain with terrible regret and remorse as we relive those missed opportunities to love and help others.
The King will show us all the times we’ve failed to do God’s will, and the goat’s horns will weigh heavy on our heads.

But then another word will come, quiet, grace-filled, one we don’t deserve – The king will look at you and me and say,
‘You who have full cupboards are truly hungry, I will feed you.’
‘You who dress well are truly naked, I will clothe you.’
‘You who have lavish access to all the good things, you are truly in prison, I will set you free.’

The king will give us back our lives, judged on the basis of our deeds but sentenced on the basis of grace.”

The same king who says “Father Forgive them,” the king who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, including yours and mine. Thanks be to God.