Palm Sunday Pastoral Prayer

There are so many needs and so much we need to be grateful for that to try and list joys and concerns would take all day. So I’m just going to pause for a moment and ask you to pray wherever you are right now and share whatever you most want to say to God, knowing that God is always close enough to taste the salt of our tears, be they tears of joy or sorrow. Let’s pray. [PAUSE]

O Gracious and merciful God, this is not how we planned to celebrate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. But we pray that this COVID interruption will disrupt the ruts we can get into with doing things the same old way. Traditions are important to give a sense of security, but when forced to do things in new ways we are reminded of how dependent we truly are on you as the source of the only real security there is.

Remind us that if the familiar rituals of this season are silenced the very stones Jesus walked on will cry out with the eternal truth of your kingdom. Because nothing in all creation can silence your power, O Lord; not fear or selfishness, not even this awful virus or any threat this world can throw at us. None of those can silence the cries of Hosanna for the one who has conquered death itself.

Today we remember a triumphant entry, but we know what lies ahead for our Lord this week. He has to walk the lonesome valley by himself. He will be betrayed and abandoned by the adoring crowds in his hour of greatest need. This Palm Sunday we feel like we’re walking that lonesome valley alone too, God. We are in hiding from an invisible enemy and fearful of friends and loved ones who might unwittingly inflict this curse upon us on those we love.

We’re tired, Lord, so very tired. It seems like this crisis has been going on forever, and yet we know we are far from the end. Give us strength to carry on when our arms are too weary. Don’t let us give up doing the things we all must do to save others. Grant us wisdom and courage for the living of this unusual Holy Week and the hellish weeks that may follow.

Strengthen us as you did Jesus so long ago to ride into Jerusalem knowing what lay ahead for him. Empower us with patience as you did the Hebrews for forty long years in the wilderness, as you did Jesus for 40 days of temptation by Satan, and as you did St. Paul through shipwreck and persecution to keep the faith, to fight the good fight and to finish this race. We know we can and we will persevere because all things are possible through you.

We need you like never before, O Lord, just as Jesus had need of that donkey so long ago. But even in our fear we also know that you have need of us. You need us to be the hands and feet of Christ for those in need; to pray, to check on our neighbors, to make phone calls to the lonely, to share what we can with those whose needs are more desperate than ours. We know you ask us to give all that we can, as Christ gave his all for us on that dark Friday.

We are so overwhelmed by the needs of those around us, those we hear about on the news, and we’re not even sure how to pray. And yet in our weakness we know your Holy Spirit intercedes for us in sighs too great for words.
Remind us daily to take time to breathe, [PAUSE]
to be still and know that you are God and we aren’t; to feel the life-giving breath of re-creation; the breath that is the living spirit of the risen Christ in which we live and move and have our being. For through him and with him we will be the church deployed in this Holy Week and in the weeks to come. Amen

Northwest UMC on-line worship, April 5, 2020

Our Jericho

I have a small tattoo on my wrist to remind me of a lesson I learned 15 years ago in a leadership development workshop presented by a California company, Klemmer and Associates. The tattoo is of Klemmer’s logo, and it comes from an exercise they do in one of their earliest workshops. The Red/Black game, like most of Klermmer’s training is very experiential. I won’t share the details of the Red/Black exercise because words can’t do it justice. You have to experience it to feel its power. What I will say is that prior to red/black experience I was ready to walk out of the whole workshop because of my own insecurities, but that game turned me around and convinced me to stick with the program, and I’m glad I did.

The Klemmer training taught me a lot about myself and a boatload of things about teamwork and collaboration, and playing the game of life as a win-win adventure, not a competition. On one of the weekend in California we did an outdoor team-building experience in a redwood forest. The location itself was awe-inspiring, but the final task/challenge we were given seemed absolutely impossible.

As I’ve been reflecting on this COVID-19 crisis we’re going through I’ve certainly had days when it too feels overwhelming, like we will never get through this. How will we ever come up with enough ventilators, masks, tests, health care workers, ICU beds, and PPE’s, an acronym I’d guess few of us knew a week ago, to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of critically ill people. We simply don’t currently have anything like the capacity we will need to meet the life and death needs that are coming. And when far too many people refuse to take the threat seriously it seems even more daunting. Some days I feel like we’re all on Apollo 13 and there aren’t nearly enough MacGyver’s around to figure out how to save us.

That’s the same feeling I had that day in the redwood forest when our group of 30-40 was taken over to a very large wooden wall that was probably 12 or 14 feet tall, and we were told to figure out a way to get everyone over that wall. I thought and may have even said out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding! There’s no way this group of all ages and all levels of physical fitness, or lack thereof, is ever going to get up and over that wall!” We might try marching around it for a week like Joshua’s people did at Jericho, or being in California we could hope for an earthquake to make the wall come tumbling down; but there was no way in the world we were all going over that wall. There wasn’t even a rope on it to scale it, as if most of us would have had the strength to do that!

One of the things that amazes me about the Jericho story in Joshua 6 is how obedient the priests and soldiers were when Joshua told them his plan for conquering this fortified and seemingly impregnable city. No one raises any doubts or questions about why just marching around the city for 7 days and shouting when the trumpet blew on day 7 would work! Surely there must have been some realists in the crowd who thought, “O, come on Joshua, you’ve got to be kidding!” (By the way, if you read Joshua 6, stop when the wall falls down. The rest of that story is brutal and gory and really bad theology.)

But that day in the redwoods was our second training weekend, and we had already done several others less daunting tasks that I didn’t think we could pull off either. So we began to strategize. There was a platform near the top on the back side of the wall; so we knew that if we could get a few people up there they could help pull others up. Being one of the runts in the group it was pretty easy for the stronger folks to boost me up so I could go over. Remember this was 15 years ago; so I was in much better shape than I am today. They did the same thing with some of the other lighter members of the group, and those of us on top were able to work together to assist others. And as the collective strength of the group on top grew we were able to help bigger and heavier people up.

Slowly but surely, one person at a time was lifted, pushed, and pulled over. The stronger guys built human pyramids for people to climb, but as the group on the ground grew smaller the options became more limited. Frankly I don’t remember all the tricks employed. As the platform on top got full those of us who arrived first were allowed to come down and watch from the ground.

I do remember that one concession made to safety was that we were given a vest made out of strong netting that could be used by the last person on the ground so those above would have something relatively safe to grab hold of and hoist him up. And thanks to the stronger members of our motley crew, the obstacle that looked impossible was conquered.

COVID-19 is a humongous obstacle facing the world today. I don’t know what creative solutions will be found to overcome this challenge, but this I do know, we cannot and will not succeed in this battle without every one of us doing whatever we can for the team, i.e. the human race to survive and conquer. That means huge sacrifice and risks for exhausted medical personnel, researchers and public health officials. It means creative use of technology for people to have their social and spiritual needs met. It means unemployed folks going to work in new and different fields where critical jobs much be done, things we used to think of as menial work like stocking grocery shelves, sanitizing public spaces, and delivering life necessities to those who are in need.

But for many of us it means doing the easiest and simplest thing ever asked of us – to just stay home and not take any risks of getting or spreading this virus. There are no excuses – we can all do this; and the longer some people refuse to make that small sacrifice the longer we are going to be in this crisis and the more people are going to die. Teamwork is not doing what is good for me and my glory or comfort. It means each of us doing what is needed for the entire team to succeed.

Maybe that’s the real miracle at Jericho – everyone did what they were told they needed to do, and when they did the wall came tumbling down!

Pastoral Prayer on John 4

O Gracious God, it’s hard to know where to start today. It’s a day of National Prayer inspired by a pandemic. But for people of faith every day is a day of prayer. Please hear the deep desires of our souls that defy expression in mortal language.

We’re thirsty, Lord, but not for the water we can store up in our pantries and garages. We’re thirsty for living water, for blessed assurance that we don’t have to keep social distance from your eternal spirit. Remind us again of the wilderness time of our ancestors who were also thirsty, and you provided water and manna to sustain the–one day at a time. Like us they couldn’t see where they were going. They had no GPS that would give them an ETA. They didn’t know how long their wilderness time would last, and neither do we.

The Hebrew pilgrims were scared and wanted to go back to the familiar life they knew in Egypt, even if that meant being enslaved again. We’d like to go back too, God, to the “normal” routines we had just a week ago. We don’t always like our jobs or our schools, but they look really good to us now that we have to suspend them.

It’s no use hiding our fears and feelings from you, Lord. We know what the Samaritan woman at the well learned, that you know everything about us. You know some of us are mourning the loss of March Madness. Remind us of others who mourn the loss of loved ones. Some of us are already feeling trapped at home and getting cabin fever. But we know there are others who have no home to go to. We know health care workers would love to spend time with their families, and we thank you for all of those who are sacrificing their own safety on the front lines of this global struggle with a deadly invisible foe.

Calm our fearful hearts, Holy One. Help us be scared without being scary in the ways we treat others. Save us from playing the blame game so we can focus on accepting and living faithfully in the uncomfortable present. Most of us know little about the struggle for existence that people face every day in other places in our world. Forgive us our self-preoccupation. Guide us by the power of your Holy Spirit through this wilderness so we can live out of the abundance of your Living Water instead of a scarcity mentality fueled by fear.

Comfort us and everyone who is suffering just now. We pray for those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, especially for those in nursing homes and their caregivers. We pray for young people whose dreams have been shattered by cancellations of tournaments, performances and educational opportunities. Save us from dispensing pious platitudes about “learning life lessons” and show us how to just offer empathy and love instead.

Guide our government leaders on every level. Inspire the researchers desperately searching for ways to unlock the mystery of this virus. Help us all learn from this time in the wilderness so that when we emerge on the other side, whenever that is, we may be a stronger and better people, not just in America but in unity with our sisters and brothers around the world. For this virus has shown us how interdependent we really are on this little planet.

You have also taught us again the true danger of storing up our treasures on earth. Most of us have less net worth today than we did a week ago, by the world’s standards. Please don’t let our fear about that loss reduce our compassion for those who had no worldly net worth to start with. As our financial standard of living declines please let our standard of loving increase faster than this virus can spread.

Finally, O well of eternal wisdom; help us to be open to the heavenly surprises around us even in dark days. The water we are thirsting for may come from a total stranger like a woman at a well, even one we consider an enemy. May we, like that woman, go and share the good news of the Gospel with others in new and creative ways. We know fear is contagious, Lord. Remind us again that love and hope are even more so. Quench our thirst; give us living water that we may find ways even now to start an epidemic of compassion and love. Amen

Faith for a Pandemic

Like many of you I have had a hard time tearing myself away from all the bad news about the corona virus. Maybe it’s just gallows humor or the old “laugh to keep from crying” strategy, but I have been trying to combat all the fear and trembling with humor. For example when the local news came on at lunch time today with “Breaking News” about another day of the Dow plunging like a lead balloon I found myself singing an old song from the 1960’s. Yes, I’m in the “at risk geezer group” for Covid-19, and that also means I remember song lyrics from my youth better than what I did yesterday.

The song for today begins with one of those profound lines: “Down dooby doo down down
Comma, comma, down dooby doo down down.” And reflecting on my disappearing retirement portfolio I changed the next lines to say,

“Going Broke ain’t hard to do.
Don’t take my funds away from me,
Don’t leave me broke in misery.
Don’t say that this is the end!
Instead of going broke
I wish that we were getting rich again.”

My apologies to Neil Sedaka and a lot of other artists who recorded “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” and assurance that I was home alone and didn’t inflict my lousy singing voice onto any other living creatures. Although if Alexa was listening she may have been traumatized.
On a more serious note the Scripture that is running through my head today is one from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Times of crisis force us to examine what really matters in life, what is really of lasting value. As all kinds of sporting events, performances, concerts and other gatherings are being cancelled we can use the time we normally would have spent there to reflect, pray and ponder where our treasures really are. Unlike most other parts of the world many of us Americans don’t really know what it’s like to “walk in the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4) Words of Scripture in times like these can become more than pious platitudes and be words of hope and assurance when fear threatens to shake the foundations of our faith.

So one suggestion for these troubled times is to be grateful for the gift of time to meditate on the real treasures of life. Give thanks for extra time with family, for time to check on your elderly neighbor. Formal worship services are being cancelled in some places as a valid precautionary measure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t worship wherever we are in whatever way nourishes our souls. Take time every time you feel the tentacles of fear taking hold to just breathe deeply and “Be still and know” you are embraced by the ground of all being that is bigger, stronger and more enduring than this or any crisis we will ever face.

Numbers

Numbers – corona virus up, stock market way down, my weight up and even my clocks confused about what time it is. The only good number is on the thermometer, and I’ll certainly take that; but I need more to shore up the shaky foundations of my faith.
And so I turn to Psalm 46 where there are no numbers because faith cannot be measured or quantified. God’s power and presence is eternal and infinite. We can’t see it or prove it. The source of our being is above and beyond any human metrics. We just have to take a leap of faith and trust, not because of things we can count or measure – but in spite of them.

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Grounded Guerrillas of Grace

“To wed guerrilla with grace suggests that the truer cause is God’s kingdom. Since the ‘principalities and powers’ are never completely ‘out there,’ but also stomp and rumble around ‘within,’ a significant piece of the life to be reclaimed or liberated is the prayer himself or herself. In an unavoidable way the struggle begins—and begins again and again and again—with choosing sides. Choose one side and you’re a conformist; choose another and you’re a guerrilla!”
You may be surprised to know that those words were not written about the current struggle for the soul of our nation, and yet they seem as fresh as new mown hay on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday 2020. I had not read those words for over 30 years, and reconnecting with them recently is like embracing an old friend. They are from a book of prayers entitled “Guerrillas of Grace” by Rev. Ted Loder and were published in 1981. A friend blessed me with a new copy of the book this week and as soon as I opened it I knew it was a gift from God.

My soul is weary with despair over worldly and personal concerns to the point that I am questioning the foundations of my faith again. I’ve been down that road before, and Loder’s “old” book reminded me again that while much has changed in the last 40 years, the struggle with evil in its multitude of forms is still the same as it was for Amos, Jesus, Paul, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Dr. King. As it was in the first century Roman Empire these words from Ephesians 6 still ring true in the 21st century” “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the world rulers of this present darkness…”

Even before I began rereading Loder’s book I was reminded of a song that inspired my meek guerrillaness back in the decade that Loder was compiling these prayers. I remember preaching a sermon in those days on the David and Goliath story, one that I have been drawn too as one who has always been of very small stature. I’ve since distanced myself from it because of its reliance on violence to resolve conflict, but all that aside the song it led me too was one that says:

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

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

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march
Into hell for a heavenly cause

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

And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To fight the unbeatable foe
To reach the unreachable star.” (“The Impossible Dream,” by Joe Darion and Mitchell Leigh)

I have certainly not lived up to that impossible dream, and I understand that none of us will ever fully conquer the principalities and powers of evil without or within ourselves in this life. That’s why we will always need guerrillas of grace to journey with us and share the power that strengthens hearts and minds arms that are too weary of the world’s woes with prayer that is in Loder’s words attentive, open, imaginative/playful, intentional, personal and corporate.

As one who lives with ambivalence as a staple of my existence I am challenged by Loder’s statement that “Ambivalence generates resistance. It is hard to get carried away when we’re hanging on tightly to the familiar.” I am also an impatient prayer. I want results yesterday if not sooner, and Loder cautions that being a guerrilla of grace “may mean being carried away as a stoker on a slow freighter.” One of my chores as an adolescent was putting coal in the stoker that fed our home’s furnace. (Yes, I am That Old!) It was a daily thankless and never-ending chore, putting coal in and taking the “clinkers” of unburned waste out of the furnace; but if I failed to do it our whole family would have been cold, pipes would freeze and life would have been dire.

I’m rambling, but I do rejoice that Loder has re-stoked my spiritual furnace with just the introduction to his book. I look forward to getting reacquainted with the prayers that follow; and I want to close by sharing the first prayer in the book, entitled “Ground Me in Your Grace.”

“Eternal One,
Silence, from whom my words come;
Questioner, from whom my questions arise;
Lover, from whom all my loves are hints;
Disturber, in whom alone I find my rest;
Mystery, in whose depths I find healing and myself;
Enfold me now in your presence;
Restore to me your peace;
Renew me through your power;
And ground me in your grace.”

T’was Two Days Before Christmas

T’was two days before Christmas and all through my mind thoughts and feelings are bouncing before and behind. On one channel bad news of the world on a continuous loop: refugee kids in cages; impeachment shots fired across a partisan chasm that divides families and friendships; violence rages in streets from Hong Kong to India; and climate crisis wildfires and extreme weather bombard our fragile planet. Another brainwave features heavy grief for the parents of a young man I will bury on Friday. A personal memory that my father would have celebrated his 98th birthday this day tugs at my heart competing with the siren song of consumerism Christmas.

And yet if I listen carefully beneath the static a still small voice proclaims a miracle where one day’s lamp oil lasts over a week—a secret humans have celebrated for millennia every time the solstice darkness surrenders to more minutes of daylight. Another voice chimes in “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I believe. And yet the cosmic tug of war between darkness and light still plays out in my frazzled brain. I drag my heels in futile resistance to turning the page of my mortality calendar into the December years of my life. Despair and hope swing light sabers to see which will rule the new year.

But I know in my better moments that incarnation doesn’t come when it’s easy or unneeded. It does not come with “swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drums,” but “silently, so silently” the the gift of hope is given where “meek souls will receive it still,” not in Time Square or St Peter’s but in a dark cave in a one-stable town where there was no room in the Bethlehem Hilton.

And by Menorah, or star in the east, or Solstice sunrise, the message resounds again and again – Let there be Light!

Peace and Goodwill

Note: I am pleased to share these good words from the Christmas letter of a fellow pastor. Bill Hull was a classmate of mine in seminary and has been a cherished friend now for over 50 years. I am pleased to share his thoughts as a guest contributor and offer a hearty Amen.

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace among people with whom God is pleased.” Luke 2:14 RSV

As we draw near to Christmas, this is a season of anticipation, a time of promise. It is the promise of peace and goodwill, not as pie in the sky by and by or among only heavenly beings, “but on earth…among people with whom God is well pleased.” I take that to be all people.

When God created, God proclaimed the work to be “good” as in “God don’t make no junk.” We on the other hand tend to criticize or to reject and exclude those whose sins are different from ours. To do so, we pick and choose from the buffet of laws and prohibitions in the Scripture to justify our inclusion among those “with whom God is pleased.”

The promise of peace and goodwill is sometimes hard to believe. We live in a time of deep division within our own country, of alienation from those who have been our historic allies and of threats of destruction from our enemies. We live in a time of domestic and foreign terrorism, a time of increasing hatred for those whose skin color, religion or lifestyle are different from ours. We live in a time when violence, death and duplicity are all around us. How do we believe in the promise of peace and goodwill among people?

I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. I believe that a part of the answer to believing the promise is to be the promise. I believe that part of the answer is to act as if being loving is more important than being right. I believe that part of the answer is treating all people as beloved of God, created in God’s image. I believe that it means being peacemakers, that it means being neighbors to all who need what we have and what we are.

To be the promise is eternal life here and now. It is all that we can do. The rest is up to God.

Christmas Surprise: Lessons of Orogrande

Note: This is a story I wrote many years ago. The plot would have to be altered in today’s internet and social media world, but at the same time the heart of the story is as true as Christmas itself…

It was a warm spring day in Orogrande, a nearly deserted mining town in New Mexico, 50 miles northeast of El Paso. The Sharks, Orogande’s contribution to gangdom, were gathered down by the river trying to decide what trouble they could cause that day. Jake, their commander-in-chief, spotted Palermo, the villages designated “idiot,” coming their way. Motioning for his posse to follow his lead, Jake called to Palermo excitedly, telling him to come see the big fish they had just caught. The Sharks, sensing the sport to come, quickly got into the spirit of the joke and huddled around, pretending to admire the fish. They conveniently made it impossible for Palermo to see.

As he had done so many times before, Palermo walked into their trap with child-like trust. He hurried down the river bank and bent over to see their prize. Immediately, Jake got down on his hands and knees behind Palermo, and one of the other Sharks, known affectionately to his friends as “the Blade,” tossed a handful of dirt in Palermo’s face. Palermo stood up coughing and sputtering to brush the dirt out of his eyes. One of the other Sharks shoved Palermo backwards over Jake’s back, head-first into the scummy, stagnant river.

Palermo came up fighting mad, but by that time the Sharks were on their way to torment someone else, laughing and enjoying their little prank to the fullest. Palermo dragged himself up on to the bank and looked up to see John Perez, the town’s mayor and constable, standing at a distance with a thinly-disguised smile on his face. “Hey, Palermo, don’t you know enough to take your clothes off before you go swimming?”

Palermo shouted back in broken English, “Sharks, they push Palermo in river. Why you not stop them?”
“Oh, Palermo, there’s no sharks in that river. You must be dreaming,” and Perez laughed again as he walked away.

Palermo knew it was hopeless. He had been tormented all his life by the whole town of Orogrande. The humiliating laughter rang in his ears at night and kept him awake. The taunts and insults echoed in his dreams, and often he awoke pleading for mercy from a very real-to-life nightmare. As he sat on the river bank sobbing, he tried to think. No one ever gave him credit for thinking, but Palermo thought a lot. He thought about life and wondered why it was so hard? He wondered about how he could get away from Orogrande and start a new life. He dreamed of getting even with all the people who had mistreated and abused him. But the answers he came up with were always the same. He had no money to go anywhere or do anything. People gave him enough food to survive on, and Mrs. Brown let him sleep in her garage. But no one would give him a job or enough money to get away. A few people were nice enough not to tease him. Some just avoided him and told their children not to go near him.

Palermo didn’t understand why that was so. He couldn’t remember how it all began. He had heard people call him the “orphan boy” or “that half-breed” or “illegitimate” or “bastard.” He didn’t’ understand what those words meant, but he knew how they felt. They made him an outcast. They meant that other kids had never been allowed to play with him. He had never had a chance to go to school like the other children. He had no mother or father. But most of all they meant that he was all alone in a cruel and hateful world.

Thinking about it made him cry. Then it made him very angry. He remembered what the Sharks had just done to him and all the years of torment. Anger and hate boiled up in him till he just couldn’t stand it anymore. He got up and started back toward town. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he knew he was going to get even for at least some of the things the evil people of Orogrande had done to him.

Palermo went straight to Mrs. Brown’s garage. He was in such a frenzy he was not sure what he was looking for. He rummaged around the corner where his cot was, found nothing there and moved on to the other side where Mrs. B kept her car. He found a rusty old axe there and thought for moment of using on Jake or Perez. Then he spotted a can of gasoline, and he knew what he would do.
He was excited and restless. It was only 6 o’clock, and he knew he had a long wait for darkness.

He had not eaten all day; so after pacing the floor enjoying his plan of revenge for awhile; he headed for Smitty’s bar and grill. Smitty ran the only bar in Orogrande, and the upstanding citizens of the town were always trying to run him out of business. But Smitty, along with Mrs. Brown, came the closest of anyone in town to treating Palermo like a human being. “Maybe Smitty understands what it feels like to be an outcast,” thought Palermo, as he turned onto Main Street. Smitty certainly did. He was barely able to support his family on what he made at the tavern. He hated the constant harassment and pressure to close his place. But as always, he was glad to see Palermo and offered him a hamburger and some fries.

As Palermo was finishing his meal, Perez walked in. Seeing Palermo, he picked up where he had left off that afternoon by the river. Only this time he had an audience. Soon everyone in the bar was laughing furiously at Palermo. Palermo tried to ignore them. He took it as long as he could. Then the anger began to boil again. Before he knew what he was doing, Palermo pushed Perez across the room and shouted, “You not laugh when Palermo burn up your house!” Then he turned and ran out, stopping only at the drug store for some matches before going back to the garage.

Perez was annoyed at being pushed, but took the threat lightly. Everyone laughed some more at Palermo’s display of anger. Everyone that is, but Jake and The Blade who were shooting pool in the back room. Almost simultaneously, they had the same idea—a way to get Perez and let Palermo take the blame! They played pool half-heartedly until Perez left the bar. Then they took off to round up the rest of the Sharks.

Smitty couldn’t stop thinking about Palermo all evening. He had never tried to talk much to Palermo, but he really felt sorry for him. When he closed the tavern that night he walked over to Mrs. Brown’s to see if Palermo was still awake. When he found the garage empty so late at night he was afraid Palermo might have been serious with his threat. He ran down Water Street and up Jackson to where Perez lived. Sure enough, he found Palermo hiding in the alley behind the house, waiting for everyone to go to bed.

Palermo was angry that Smitty had come, but then he began to realize that Smitty was right. He would be a dead duck if he torched Perez’s house now. The whole town would know who did it! So, still angry and frustrated, but glad Smitty had saved him from making a stupid mistake, Palermo went back to his cot in the garage and went to bed. He lay awake for hours. He was still very angry about the day’s events and wanted revenge in the worst way. He was so upset he thought of pouring the gasoline on himself and lighting it. In fact, he was still wondering what that would feel like when he heard a commotion outside. He looked out the door and saw a mob coming toward the garage. Perez was leading the way.

“You stinking half-breed, come out and take your medicine,” Perez shouted. Palermo was afraid. He tried to run out the back door, but they were there too. They grabbed him and knocked him down. Someone kicked him hard in the ribs. Finally Perez pulled him to his feet and spat in his face. There was fire in his eyes like Palermo had never seen before. Perez wanted to lynch Palermo on the spot, but cooler heads persuaded him to wait until they could at least go through the motions of a trial. The mob literally dragged Palermo to the jail. He tried frantically to ask what he was being locked up for, but no one would even acknowledge his questions.

Palermo spent a sleepless night, confused and afraid. The jailer on duty kept Perez from killing Palermo, not because he wanted to, but because he knew he had to. In the morning they let Smitty in for just a minute. He told Palermo that someone really had burned Perez’s house the night before. Palermo swore he had not done it. Smitty urged Palermo not to tell anyone anything until he could find a lawyer. And then Perez gruffly told Smitty his time was up.

If fate hadn’t taken a hand in things, Palermo would have been railroaded through a trial and hanged before the sun set. But as it turned out, Judge Griffin in Buena Vista, the county seat was on a two-week vacation. In that time the media latched onto the story about Palermo’s case.

Ten days after the fire, a Mercedes with California tags drove into Orogrande. It stopped in front of Smitty’s place. A well-groomed three-piece suit got out and looked around, then went inside. The stranger ordered a drink and began asking people about Palermo. Nobody in Orogrande usually wanted to talk to strangers, especially not about Palermo, but Smitty overheard the questions and asked the man why he was so interested in Palermo? The stranger said he might be able to help Palermo, but he needed to know about his parents. Smitty said he had only been in town eight years. The only person he could think of who might know anything would be Mrs. Brown.

It was a long shot, but the man headed for Mrs. Brown’s little house on Third Street. Mildred Brown was a kindly African American woman of about 60. She, too, was leery of this stranger at first, but said she would tell him what she could if it would help Palermo. He asked her if she knew anything about Palermo’s mother. Reluctantly, Mrs. Brown related the painful story. “Palermo’s mother was a Mexican girl who just wandered into town one day. No one knew where she came from. She stayed in town, mostly doing housework for people. A few months later it became apparent that she was pregnant. She claimed the baby’s father was young John Hartford, son of J.T. Hartford. Hartford,” she explained, “owns the Orogrande Copper Mines where everybody in town works. Well, Maria, that was her name, she hid here in my house until the baby came. Mr. Hartford sent his son away to school. But when he found out Maria was still here he told some of the men who work for him to ‘take care of her,’ and they killed her.” Mrs. Brown was in tears. “I don’t know why they didn’t kill the baby too, but it would have been better for him if they had!”

“And the baby was Palermo?”

“Yes. I took care of him as best I could. But they wouldn’t let him go to school. They threatened to run us both out of town if I let him live in the house with me. Everyone picks on him. I don’t blame him for setting that fire. He took so much hate for so long!”

“Here’s a picture, Mrs. Brown. Could you tell me if this could be Palermo’s mother?”
“Why yes it is. Where did you get it?”

The gentleman explained that he was one of several attorneys who had been working for the Spanish government for years trying to locate the daughter of King Ferdinand. She had come to the U.S. twenty years ago to study at U.C.L.A. She ran away from there about 20 years ago and was last seen in northern New Mexico. “You see, Mrs. Brown, if your story is true, Palermo is the heir to the throne of Spain. I saw a story about his case on CNN last week. His age and the location and the fact he had no family inter4ested me enough to check into it further. It seems to have paid off.”

Mrs. Brown sat in stunned silence. Palermo, a prince!

The rest, as they say, is history. With the best attorneys money could buy, Palermo was cleared of the arson and murder charges against him. The Sharks were convicted of arson and manslaughter and sent to prison. The whole town of Orogrande was flabbergasted and turned itself inside out trying to redeem itself for 18 years of abuse.

Palermo was flown to Madrid where his grandfather was dying. In less than a month, he had gone from village idiot, to prisoner, to crown prince. Palermo had a very hard time understanding what it was all about. But with the aid of special tutors he was soon able to read and speak both Spanish and English. He had even begun to grasp a little history and political science by the time his grandfather died and Palermo became king.

A few months after his coronation the new king announced he would be making a trip to visit the United States to confer with the President. Palermo had arrangements made so he could also visit Chicago and Los Angeles, and he wanted a special stop in Orogrande included in his itinerary.

When the big day arrived, everyone in Orogrande turned out for a parade in Palermo’s honor. It was the biggest even in the history of the town. They had streamers and banners all over town welcoming their most famous son. There was a VIP banquet in his honor at the high school. At the banquet Perez and J.T. Hartford both gave long flowery speeches saying that things would certainly have been different if they had only known who Palermo was. They apologized profusely for any “inconveniences” the town might have “unknowingly” caused Palermo. They said they were glad that was all in the past and could be forgotten now. They presented Palermo with a key to the city and revealed elaborate plans to erect a statue in his honor on the town square.

Finally, Palermo rose to speak. In flawless English he thanked his former tormentors for their honors. Then he asked to see Mrs. Brown and Smitty. The banquet committee was embarrassed. They hadn’t even invited either Smitty or Mrs. Brown. So everyone waited while Smitty and Mrs. Brown were escorted to the high school by Perez’s part-time deputy. And then Smitty and Mrs. Brown were embarrassed because they weren’t dressed for the occasion. That was soon forgotten as Palermo greeted his old friends warmly. He presented Mrs. Brown with a diamond pendant and guaranteed both of them comfortable income for the rest of their lives. It was his thanks to them for being the only two friends he ever had.

Then abruptly Palermo started to leave. Mr. Hartford stopped him and explained to him that his copper mine was in deep financial trouble. He pointed out that the whole town’s economy depended on that mine. He was wondering if Palermo could find any way to help them out. Hartford repeated how terribly sorry they all were about the way things had been in the past.

Palermo listened politely and then started to walk away again. Hartford was persistent. “Palermo! I mean your majesty. This was your home. I am probably your grandfather. We desperately need your help! Don’t you care about us?”

Palermo turned and almost laughed in Hartford’s face. “When did you ever care about me, Mr. Hartford?” With that, his royal highness left Orogrande for the last time.

No, they didn’t live happily ever after. Few people do. But lest you should judge Palermo too harshly, it wasn’t long after this final visit that sizeable contributions of cash from an anonymous source began to arrive in the office of Mayor Perez. They came with a simple designation: “For improving the welfare of the citizens of Orogrande.”

Many people speculated about this donor. Only Smitty knew for sure, and Mrs. Brown, who found herself listening over and over to an old recording by Mahalia Jackson of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy, we didn’t know who you was.”

Who Gets the Last Word? A sermon on Revelation 22:12-21

Who gets the last word? Well, one answer to that question is that since this is the final sermon in this series on Revelation – I do! Not really.

You’ve probably heard that “Men should always have the last words in an argument with their wife.” Those words are “Yes, Dear.”

And here are some really last words uttered on a death bed:
Actor W.C Fields, when asked why he was reading the Bible said, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

A pastor was visiting an elderly man in the hospital when the man suddenly gasped for air and couldn’t breathe; so he grabbed a pen and paper to write his last words. He handed it to the pastor and died. The pastor took the note, put it into his pocket and ran to get the nurse. A week later at the man’s funeral the pastor is reading from the Bible and remembers the note in his pocket; so he opens it up and reads it to the congregation, it said: “You’re standing on my oxygen tube!”

Those bad jokes were inspired by a couple of verses in the text for today from the final chapter of Revelation. As soon as I began studying this chapter there were two verses that grabbed my attention, not because they inspired me but because they were very challenging.

Here they are, verses 18 and 19: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” John seems to be saying he gets the last word.

Interestingly, at least to me, is the fact that these two verses are omitted when this chapter appears in year C of the Lectionary. When the lectionary omits verses from the middle of a text I always wonder why and have to go look to see what was left out. In this case my guess is that like me, the authors of the lectionary would rather not deal with these difficult verses. But I left them in because these verses point to a central issue that has divided Christians over the years and is especially relevant in our time. These verses have to do with how we choose to interpret Scripture.

Some Christians take this warning to mean we are not to change any part of the Bible because it is the infallible, literal word of God dictated to a human author. Another approach which I subscribe to is that the Bible is a collection of books written over several centuries by different authors in particular times and places who did their best to describe their own experience of the mystery of God.
So, let’s review the history of this particular book. Revelation was written in the late first century during a time of terrible persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. The author, John, did not think he was writing the last chapter of the New Testament, and that’s a critical point. The New Testament as we know it did not exist until 200 or 300 years later when the church reached a consensus that the 27 books now in the New Testament should be included in our Bible.

Why is that important? Because it means that these two verses that say no one should change a word of this “book” are talking about the prophesy in the book of Revelation, not about the entire Bible. John wrote those words as the final word of his prophesy, not as the final words of the Bible.

Does that mean that we have carte blanche to rewrite other books of the Bible? Of course not. My point is simply that God did not stop speaking to us in the first century. The Bible is our primary source of inspiration, but that doesn’t mean it is the only one. Do we really want to limit God’s revelation to biblical authors who believed the earth was flat?

I think not. John Wesley, our Methodist founder recognized in his famous quadrilateral that in addition to the Scriptures we need to draw upon other gifts like Reason, Experience, and Tradition. Even though John closes this prophesy with a period, God’s word to us always ends with a comma because God is forever speaking to those who have ears to hear.

All of that is important because it helps us understand the other mystery in Revelation that is emphasized in this closing chapter. Our text for today begins and ends with the words, “I am coming soon.” Really? That’s like saying the Browns are going to win the Super Bowl “soon.” How do we reconcile “soon” with the fact that it’s been 2000 years since John wrote those words? Some people write off Christianity because the second coming hasn’t happened yet. Others use these words to try and scare people into believing. Neither of those works.

You can’t scare people into faith. Think about a time when you’ve really messed up and made a huge mistake. Do you want judgment or compassion? The fear-based approach says, “I made a mistake, my dad will kill me!” The Gospel of Christ says, “I made a mistake, I need to call my dad.” My understanding is that “I am coming soon” means it is very urgent to be living as if we are in God’s Kingdom now and every day because Christ is trying to break into our lives all the time if we invite him in.

Much of Revelation relies on the fear-based approach to evangelism, but notice what happens here in the last chapter. Right before those dire warnings about not changing the text are these two verses:
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Warning has turned to invitation. Jesus says, “Come to the wedding, come to my party. Everyone who hears, come; everyone who is thirsty, come; ANYONE who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Eternal life is a gift, and gifts come with no strings attached. They are freely given, and that’s good news.

But when, Lord? When are you coming to quench our thirst for justice and righteousness? This verse reminds me of Isaiah saying, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles…” But Isaiah doesn’t say how long we have to wait. We’re tired, Lord. We’re tired of strife and bitterness and divisions. We’re tired of cancer ravaging healthy bodies. We’re tired of making our children go through active shooter drills in pre-school. We’re tired of endless wars and political squabbles that prevent any real work on all the problems facing our nation and world.

How long do we have to wait? What do you mean when you say, “I am coming soon?” Let us know so we can put that date on our calendar and be ready; so we know how long we have to hang on.

Our theme for this sermon series is “Victory in Sight.” But we’re like squirrely kids who can’t wait for Christmas. We don’t want to see victory off in the distance, we want to celebrate and sing the Alma Mater with the band now. We want to hoist the championship trophy and hang the victory banner in the rafters now!

But we have to remember that our time is not God’s time. What was only 6 days of creation in God’s time took billions of years in our time. It may help to be reminded that the original Greek language of the New Testament has two words for time, chronos and Kairos. Chronos is clock time, time that we can measure and count. Chronos is the timer you set to tell you when the cake is ready to come out of the oven. It’s the tardy bell at school or the time clock you punch at work; it’s what keeps trains and planes sort of running on schedule; and tells us how many candles to put on our birthday cake.

It’s baseball playoff season so for sports fans maybe this illustration helps – most sports are played on chronos time -there’s a big clock on the scoreboard that tells everyone exactly how much time is left in the game. But baseball is played on Kairos time, or as Yogi Berra put it, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” That’s good news for a team that’s losing. There’s no game clock and they can keep the game alive as long it takes to win as they don’t make the last out.

But Kairos is God’s time. Galatians 4 says, “In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.” Kairos means when the time is right; it means when God, who knows so much better than we do, says it’s time it is; and we run grave risks if when we think we know better than God what time it is.

So let’s think one last time about the theme for this series: “Victory in Sight.” What does God’s victory look like when it comes to pass? Diana and I recently took two of our grandkids to see the new “Lion King” movie, and I was struck by how dark and violent it was, I guess because it’s more realistic than the original animated version. It got me thinking about how many of the stories we tell our kids and ourselves picture victory of good over evil in a violent way? Simba kills Scar; super heroes rely on violence to win, Hansel and Gretel push the witch into an oven, a lumberjack rescues Little Red Riding Hood by killing the big bad wolf – all those stories define victory in terms of a violent outcome.

Is that the victory people of God have in sight? Earlier chapters of Revelation describe the ultimate battle at Armageddon where God conquers evil once and for all. Too often that vision of victory has been used by Christians as an excuse for not doing justice and mercy here and now in Chronos time. If God is going to take care of things at Armageddon then we don’t have to be bothered. It’s not our problem; so we can relax and enjoy our lives.

But that’s not what victory in sight means. God’s peaceable kingdom is better described by those verses of invitation in Revelation. The invitation is to all, not just to some predetermined few. It is an invitation to a time like the vision in Isaiah where “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

We live in a time of great fear. Some of us fear gun violence and some want guns because they are afraid of bad guys. Some of us fear immigrants taking over our rights and others fear what it means to refuse help to those who need refuge. Some of us fear unbearable pain but also fear opioid addiction. We have different fears, all legitimate, but we dare to believe this – faith and trust are the only cure for fear in whatever shape it comes.

Diana and I recently did a major renewal of landscaping around our pond and gardens by moving many tons of rock from where the delivery truck dumped it to where we wanted it. Thanks to a generous neighbor who loaned us his tractor with a front-loader the job was doable; and I got the easy job driving the tractor. In many places Diana stood bravely in front of the tractor right at the edge of the pond so she could direct me on where to drop the stone. One small slip of my foot on the brake and she would have been remembering her baptism in the chilly waters of our pond – and I would have been in the dog house for a very long time.

But she stood there dozens of times, as I marveled at how she trusted me more than I trusted myself. But here’s the other thing I noticed – her trust in me made me more careful because I wanted to be worthy of her trust.

It’s the same with God. When we trust God we become more trustworthy in our human relationships. When we trust that victory ultimately belongs to God and that we have no control over when or how then we no longer need to live in fear or guilt. Our God says, “Come, drink, live!” The invitation to live in the Kingdom of God is always there waiting for our reply. There’s no expiration date.

A God we fear won’t inspire faith – but a God of love will. No words, pictures, or stories can capture the infinite reality of God, but Revelation is one vision that helps us see some of the facets of God’s nature. We are all at different points in our life journeys, and none of us can rewrite our personal history. But we can start a new chapter today with the assurance that victory over our fear, our guilt, over hate; even over death itself is guaranteed because God is all in all, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end.

Genesis tells us that in the beginning all was chaos until God spoke the first word into the chaos. There was also terrible chaos in John’s time when Christians were fed to the lions as entertainment for the Romans. And we certainly have plenty of chaos today. But through it all we know who holds the future, and God’s victory is always in sight.

So, who gets the last word? All week long I thought I knew how this sermon would end, namely that God who spoke the first word gets the last word, in the fullness of time. But I realized yesterday that’s not true.

God’s last word in Revelation is an invitation to come, drink of the river of life and live in God’s new heaven and earth. But an invitation requires a response, an RSVP. So the last word is really up to us, and Revelation even tells us what our response should be—right there in verse 20, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”
Amen