Wilderness Times: When Only God Knows! Ezekiel 37:1-14

I just recently figured out the answer to a problem that I know befuddles many of us Ohioans, namely why well-trained meteorologists are so often wrong about our weather forecasts. I’ve decided it’s not climate change, nor is it crazy Ohio where we have three or four seasons in a 48 hour period. It’s because the weather people are all too young! With the exception of Jim Gynal and Ben Gelber all of our local forecasters are young people. Yes, they have Doppler radar and other fancy tools but what they don’t have are old bones and joints that reliably tell us seniors when the weather’s changing.

I bet you’re wondering what weather forecasting has to do with our text for today! The connection is that both are about old bones. The difference is that in Ezekiel’s vision the bones he saw were no longer predicting or doing anything. Ezekiel walks among this valley of dry bones and makes it very clear that these bones are very dry and have been dead a long time.

Here’s the context for this most familiar of Ezekiel’s visions. He is relating this vision to the people of Judah about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel is a priest who along with the ruling classes of Judah is a political prisoner in Babylon. Geographically Babylon was located where modern day Baghdad sits today in Iraq. Then and now it was and is a hot, dry wilderness.

Our nephew Michael spent time in that part of the world a few years ago. He was stationed in Kuwait next door to Iraq when he was in the Air Force. Michael was a mechanic at the time and told us about a day that was about 105 degrees when he was working on a plane and forgot where he was. He reached down and picked up a wrench that was lying in the desert sun and immediately burned his hand.

Living in that heat came to mind when I was thinking about Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Remember the Exiles were mostly people of Israel’s upper class, not used to these harsh living conditions. The Interpreter’s Bible describes the Babylonian exile this way: “The Israelites exchanged their hilly homeland and pleasant climate of Jerusalem for the flat and hot Babylonia lowlands…and forced manual labor.”

I’m sure the Babylonia Chamber of Commerce advertised to visitors that their climate was a “dry heat.” I’ve never been in Iraq or Babylon, but I’ve been in Phoenix in mid-summer; and I don’t care how dry the heat is, anything above 100 degrees is just too darn hot.

We’ve been thinking about “Wilderness Time” in this Lenten Sermon Series because whether it’s a voluntary retreat from daily living to draw closer to God or the wilderness is forced upon us by life’s circumstances, solitary time with ourselves and God is good for our souls – but only if we embrace it.

As many of you know our family has been doing some wilderness time this last month. My father died on February 12 and due to family schedule complications we set his memorial service and burial for this past weekend. Little did we know then that on March 1st Diana’s mother would go into a rapid decline and pass away on March 5th. These were not unexpected life events. My dad was 96 and Diana’s mom, Mary, was 100, but getting a double whammy of mortality definitely put us into the wilderness. We celebrated both of their lives last weekend, and Ezekiel’s image of dry bones seemed all too real in those cold, windy cemeteries.

Wilderness time is often hard to embrace. The exiles were none too happy to be carted off to Babylon, not just because they were uprooted from their homes and familiar surroundings, they were also yanked up by their theological roots. The foundations of their faith were supported by four basic pillars: 1) God’s blessings were assured them as God’s chosen people; 2) the land God had given to their ancestors would be protected forever; 3) the throne of David and his descendants would continue forever; and 4) the Temple at Jerusalem was the only suitable place for proper worship of their God.

When the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC the Israelites theological scoreboard suddenly read 0-4. Their beloved temple was in ruins, and the foundations of their faith were not only shaken they were pulverized. So what can we learn today from this ancient history? Aren’t we a lot like these Israelites? As it was for them it’s quite natural to want our faith to be comforting “Good News,” that’s even what the word “Gospel” means. So like the Israelites we are tempted by the same prosperity gospel that promises worldly comforts as rewards to God’s chosen people. Like Ezekiel’s contemporaries we sometimes forget that God chooses us not to be privileged but to be servants to others. We’d like Easter morning without Good Friday, but let’s not forget that much of the Bible describes a lot of bad news and how people like us respond to being in the wilderness.

Psalm130 was written in one of those wilderness times. It begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” That Psalm is known by the title “De Profundis” which in Latin means “out of the depths.” I woke up one day last summer in one of those wrong-side-of-the-bed moods and thought of De Profundis to describe my mood. I wrote in my journal that day “De Profundis is Latin for “O crap, I have to get up and face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” Am I the only one who has days like that? I saw a cartoon awhile back that describes me all too often. It said “Sometimes I wake up grumpy, and other times I let him sleep.”

When I first started thinking about this dry bones text I pictured it in terms of personal or individual wilderness times that come to all of us. And then when Diana’s mom died that introspective kind of wilderness seemed even more real. But then I reread Ezekiel’s words and I realized what he’s talking about is a lot bigger than personal grief or loss. Verse 11 says, “Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” God says this valley of dusty, dry, lifeless bones is a metaphor for “the whole house of Israel.” A whole people, a whole nation is dead to God and hopeless, completely cut off. They’ve been in exile a long time; the buzzards and other wild life have picked their bones clean.

I’ve been trying to think of some contemporary situation to compare the Exile to. The heart-breaking pictures we see on the news today of the devastation and ruins of Syria are the closest image I can think of to understand how hopeless the exiles must have been feeling.

But as pitiful as this image of dry bones is Ezekiel is not sympathetic to Israel’s plight. This vision from Chapter 37, believe it or not, is from the “good news” section of the book of Ezekiel. He spends the first 32 chapters of this book passing judgment on his own people for their failure to obey God’s will. He warns them that bad things will happen if they continue to break their covenant relationship with God. The Israelites remember clearly God’s part of the bargain made with Moses, to give them a homeland, to make them and their descendants prosperous. But in their comfort and prosperity they have conveniently forgotten their half of the covenant – namely to live obediently, justly and humbly before God. Their leaders have become greedy oppressors who according to Amos “sell the poor for a pair of shoes.” Things have gotten so corrupt and unjust for the common people of Israel that at one point Ezekiel even declares that his people have out sinned Sodom. That is not a record you want to break!

In chapter 6 Ezekiel describes in gory detail the consequences of such unfaithful living: “Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense stands shall be broken; and I will throw down your slain in front of your idols. 5 I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols; and I will scatter your bones around your altars. ….7 The slain shall fall in your midst; then you shall know that I am the Lord. (Chapter 6)
That phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” is a refrain that recurs in Ezekiel. Verse 14 of our text for today says, “You shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” That doesn’t mean God intervenes to punish us, but God wants the consequences of our bad choices to help us see that there’s only one God, and we’re not it!

I doubt that I need to draw the parallels between Israel and the current state of affairs in our country and other parts of the world where the ways of God have been trampled in the dust by the idolatry of living in a secular and materialistic society. It is all too easy to despair, to lose hope.

When we are searching for an elusive answer to one of life’s tough problems friends may ask us, “What are you going to do?” And a common reply is “God only knows!” meaning we don’t have a clue. In his vision Ezekiel hears God ask him one of those tough questions. As he is walking around in this valley full of dry bones God says, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

What do we do when we are in one of those situations where only God knows the answer to what we should do? When we suddenly lose a job or a loved one; when our world seems to be collapsing around us? And it seems God isn’t readily available to share whatever it is that only God knows! Or sometimes we’re too stubborn or proud to pray for God’s guidance. We might not like what we hear!

Put yourself in Ezekiel’s place. How would you answer God’s question, “Can these bones live?” Or look at the homeless, hopeless refugee children in Syria, or the suffering caused by gun violence in our own country. Why do we have so much more gun violence than other developed countries? What are we going to do to stop consuming violence in video games and entertainment? How can we help people suffering from mental illness, or those who are bullied? How are we supposed to love the bully and heal whatever wounds he is suffering that cause violent behavior? How do we provide support systems and ways to deal with pain and depression so people don’t get hooked on opioids or other drugs? Can our badly divided nation live again and achieve the high ideals of our democracy? God only knows!

And yet that hopeless cry of despair is actually the beginning of hope for a whole nation of dry bones. When we look at a hopeless situation through our own mortal eyes we see no way dead bones can live again. When I held the urn of my father’s ashes in the cemetery last weekend I knew there was no way those ashes could live again, at least not in the form we knew as my dad. But those ashes can provide nourishment for what grows in God’s good earth.

Likewise out of tragic death at the Parkland High School massacre has emerged a new generation who are taking their civic responsibility to a whole new level. Whether you agree with their methods and goals or not you have to applaud their determination to make a difference. New life can arise out of death. I saw that at both of our family funerals last week where new life was in abundance in the joyful, energetic laughter and play of young great grandchildren. May we have eyes of faith to see signs of life even in the midst of death.

Remember the dry bones story is a vision Ezekiel is having. It is one of four visions in Ezekiel. And it’s the only one of the four that does not begin with a date identifying when Ezekiel had the vision. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the valley of dry bones known as the Holocaust, commented that the reason this vision has no date is that every generation needs to see it and experience it for themselves. Dry bones are a timeless description of the human condition.

And that’s the key – the valley of dry bones is a human condition seen through finite, mortal eyes. But Ezekiel was a priest. He of all people should have known the answer to God’s question, “Mortal can these bones live?” When we began this Lenten season on Ash Wednesday many Christians received the mark of ashes on our foreheads with the words from Genesis, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those words are not some morbid reminder that we are all going to die. We say them to help us remember that in the very beginning of God creates human life by forming us from dust and breathing life into us. Can these bones live? Of course they can live if God chooses to breathe his Holy Spirit on them.

And that’s exactly what happens in the rest of the vision. “Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The Hebrew word for breath is ruah which is also the word for spirit, the holy breath of the one with whom all things are possible. When seen through mortal eyes this is a dead, dry bone. But when the Holy Spirit helps us lift our eyes to catch a vision through God’s eyes hopelessness turns to rejoicing and death becomes resurrection. Seeing life and death through God’s eyes helps us confess our sinful nature honestly and brings us to our knees. And it’s from there we can see new beginnings that God alone can see.

And so as people with a vision of Easter in our eyes wilderness times call us to renew our covenant with God–because it is in the wilderness that we remember who we are and whose we are.
Can these bones live again? – You can bet your life on it!

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Advent Drama: Joseph

Pastor: Can you feel the anticipation as we draw close to the big day? Two candles are already glowing on our Advent Wreath. As we continue to think about the supporting cast of people in the Christmas story our special guest today is a carpenter from Nazareth.

[Joseph enters dressed in contemporary work clothes wearing a tool belt, pencil behind his ear]

Joseph: My journey began with our prearranged marriage. Our parents certainly picked well for me. Mary was so beautiful and she has such a strong faith. I was truly blessed to have a wife of such noble character. The custom for us is to wait an entire year after we were engaged before the marriage vows are finalized. That year of being apart and waiting seemed like forever. But Mary was worth the wait because I loved her.

But then the waiting became much harder than I could ever imagine. There was a night that left me feeling so cold and alone, in total shock. Mary’s news broke my heart when she told me she was pregnant. My head was spinning and my heart pounding. I knew I wasn’t the father? I was so hurt and angry and confused. I wrestled with my decision all night long. How could I marry her now? I wanted to just divorce her quietly. But I knew the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. I couldn’t let that happen to my dear Mary.

It was a terrible dilemma! How could I ever decide what to do? And then the answer came to me in a dream. An angel appeared to me and said, “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is the result of a miracle performed by the Holy Spirit.” The angel said, “You will name the baby Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.” When I woke up I knew what I should do. The stars were brighter and my heart lighter as I ran to tell Mary my decision. I decided I would be the best husband and father I could possibly be.

But that wasn’t the only time God spoke to me in a dream. I got an urgent message from God when Jesus was very tiny warning us that Herod was going to kill all the baby boys, and we had to flee to Egypt to save Jesus’ life.

Being a father to such an unusual boy wasn’t easy, but through it all God has taught us so much about love – love for each other and God’s love for us. The real miracle was that God’s son became my son too. He was bonded into my life by love.

As we light this 3rd Advent candle, may that kind of love grow in each of our hearts as well.

[Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]

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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blinded by our expectations?

One of the most consistent  things about our interactions with Jesus is our failure to recognize who he is. We too often are caught unaware and when it’s too late we sing a sad refrain with Mahalia Jackson, “Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was!”  From his birth in a barn to his hanging out with sinners, to his  refusal to defend himself in the garden or before Pilate, Jesus refuses to show up how and where we expect him to. His entry into Jerusalem  is not in a stretch limo  befitting a king but in a beat up old Volkswagen beetle. The crowds who shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday change their tune to “Crucify him!” only five days later because he isn’t the conquering hero they were expecting.

Those expectations are understandable for people who were oppressed and dying for liberation.   We might guess  those strangers who lined the streets of Jerusalem had not spent time with Jesus. Their failure to recognize who he really is may be understandable.   But what about those disciples who are closest to him who had spent three years listening to his teaching and watching the way he healed the sick and comforted those who were excluded by society?   They too deny and betray and hide when their expectations are not met.  Have they never heard the words of Isaiah who tells us that the Messiah will not be a worldly ruler but a suffering servant?  (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  Or like us have they chosen only to hear and believe what they want?  We are expecting Rambo and we get Gandhi instead!

Even Mary Magdalene who stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross and was one of the first to go to the tomb doesn’t recognize Jesus on Easter morning!   This woman who was one of the most devoted and loyal disciples  mistakes Jesus for a gardener!  (John 20:11-18).  How could someone who owed so much  to Jesus fail to recognize him at this most triumphant moment?  Is it not because of her expectations?  She went to the tomb to minister to a corpse and instead is the very first to encounter the resurrected Christ!

How often do we fail to recognize Christ in our midst, in the least of God’s children around us? Whom do we expect to encounter  when we go to the tomb this Sunday? Will we recognize the risen Christ?  What we know from past experience is that he probably won’t appear the way we expect him to. So let’s go with eyes and hearts wide open  to see what our amazing God is up to this Easter!

Roll Call

HolyLentThe Sunday before Ash Wednesday is one of my favorites of the church year. It’s called Transfiguration Sunday because it marks a critical turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospel lesson that day is the story of Jesus taking 3 of his closest disciples with him up a mountain where they have a vision of Jesus transfigured before them talking to Moses and Elijah. It’s such a beautiful mountain top moment that Peter suggests they should build 3 booths there to commemorate the occasion.

Just then God breaks into the silence and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” This moment is so central to the Christian story that all three Synoptic Gospels tell it almost verbatim. (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) In other words the church knew this was important stuff and we too need to listen to what Jesus says.

And what he must have said to them, although we aren’t told, is that it’s time to go back down the mountain and be about the work of the Kingdom of God. The story always reminds me of another mountain top encounter that Elijah had in I Kings 19:9. In that story Elijah has fled to Mt. Horeb for fear of his life. Queen Jezebel has threatened him, and her threats could not be taken lightly. God sustains Elijah on the journey and gives him some needed alone time, but then, just as on the Mt. of Transfiguration, God says, “Yes, you need time to refresh, but you can’t homestead in a state of perpetual retreat.” Actually what I Kings says is that God says to Elijah straight out and to the point, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Not once but twice.

As we begin the season of Lent again this year God is asking us the same question? Lent is a time for reflection and prayer and meditation. It is a time to recharge our spiritual batteries. But that is a means to an end. It is a time for spiritual discipline to ask ourselves again, “What are we doing here?” What is our purpose for being? What is God calling us to do? What does it mean for you and me in 2017 to listen to Jesus? I mean really listen. It may be some tough love we hear, and if we really listen we will be transfigured.

Here’s how one author who wrestled with those hard questions all his life described what that experience was like for him:
“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.
My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

What are you doing here? What’s your plan to serve Jesus today?

“How Can We Love Our Enemies?” Matthew 5:38-48

“God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” I heard Dr. Fred Craddock preach on this text once, and he observed most of us would not be so generous toward the evil and unrighteous. He said if he were in charge the rain would fall on the good farmer’s field and stop abruptly when it came to the property line of the evil farmer. He went on to say if God were really just that every golf ball hit by a Sunday golfer playing hooky from church would go straight up in the air and fall at the feet of the golfer.

This whole passage from the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most challenging in all of Scripture. And in particular Jesus telling us to love our enemies has to be high on the list of those things we wish Jesus hadn’t said. But those words are much needed in our bitterly divided nation and world today.

Before we dig into the practical problems of how in the world to live up to these teachings of Jesus I want to set the context by sharing a quote from Dallas Willard, a teacher of spiritual formation. Willard says, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Let me repeat that: “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Those words are especially true of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is describing to his followers what it looks like to live as faithful disciples and citizens of his kingdom here and now in a world that teaches the very opposite. In other words, too many Christians focus on what Jesus did for us on the cross but not enough on what he requires of us as his disciples. That is a little strange since it is Jesus’ high standard of ethical living that got him in trouble with the authorities who killed him.

And so Jesus begins by repeating what previous Scriptures have taught about living in the worldly kingdom. “You have heard it said…” Don’t get mad, get even! Revenge is a natural human reaction, and I’m guessing most of us have been there in one degree or another in recent days or weeks. “You have heard it said, an eye for and a tooth for a tooth.” Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Let the punishment fit the crime. In fact, at the time those words were written hundreds of years before Jesus they were designed to limit revenge; so victims would not demand two eyes for an eye, or a whole mouthful of teeth for a tooth. As someone has said, if we follow the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth philosophy to its logical conclusion, we end up with a world full of blind, toothless people, and the cycle of violence and pain continues forever.

So Jesus reminds his disciples of the ancient law and continues, “But I say to you…” Look out whenever Jesus starts out with that phrase; brace yourself for a zinger. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If anyone strikes, you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” O, Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding! We can’t do that! You can’t be serious. How can we possibly love those responsible for horrific acts of death and destruction? You don’t mean for us to love ISIS, or that creep who murdered and raped Reagan Tokes, or our political enemies do you? And you can fill out the rest of your list of those we find it hard if not impossible to love.

Let’s look at the big picture of how our understanding of God’s will changes and grows. God doesn’t change, but our ability to grasp the enormity of God’s grace and love increases as we grow in faith both as individuals and as a faith community. We’ve already seen how that process unfolds from the days of Moses to Jesus, but let’s look at some other examples of how God surprises us throughout the Scriptures. I found this wonderful summary of that process in a Facebook post from Bixby Knolls Christian Church:

“In Deuteronomy 23 we read that the people of Moab are bad and not allowed to dwell among God’s people. But later in the Old Testament we meet Ruth the Moabitess (who becomes the grandmother of David and one of the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus).
Jeremiah 25 tells us that people from Uz are evil, but then comes story of Job, a man from Uz who is the “most blameless man on earth.”
No foreigners or eunuchs allowed, again from Deuteronomy, and then comes the story in Acts 8 of an African eunuch welcomed into the church.
God’s people hate Samaritans, but Jesus tells one of his most famous stories where a Samaritan is the hero and the model for what it means to be a good neighbor.
The story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but the Spirit moves God’s people toward openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance and affirmation.”

And our Judeo-Christian Scriptures aren’t when it comes to non-violent responses to those who hurt us. The Dali Lama, a leader of another of the world’s great religions, wrote these words shortly after 9/11, certainly one of the most trying times in our lifetime for those who take Jesus seriously. The Dali Lama was commenting on how America should respond to 9/11 and wrote, “It may seem presumptuous on my part, but I personally believe we need to think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do and in the greater interest of the nation and people in the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence.”

The tragic fact that we are still involved in the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan 16 years after 9/11 underscores the truth that violence increases the cycle of violence. We’re not going to solve that eternal question today, especially on the international level, but let’s take a look at what Jesus is asking of us in our personal lives and relationships when it comes to living peaceful Christ-like lives.

It is hard to find silver linings in some clouds, but even in tragedy there are often some benefits. We see it in extended families that rally around each other when there is a death of illness. We saw it the sense of unity in the U.S. after 9/11. Patriotism was higher than at any time since WWII. That kind of unity as a family or church or a nation is wonderful, but Jesus asks us to take that sense of community one giant step further–to include even our enemies in the circle of God’s family.

The sense of unity and patriotism after 9/11 didn’t last long, and part of the division in our nation is because we differ over how to respond to evil. Some insist on an eye for an eye response and others advocate a gentler approach. Those differences have hardened into partisan political lines that make it more important than ever to love those we differ with politically. One way to do that is to pray for those we disagree with by name, and the stronger our disagreements, the more important those prayers become. Whoever you see as on the wrong side of the political fence or some other contentious issue, pray for them, and I find it helpful to do so by using first names. That makes the prayers more personal and meaningful, and I find it hard to be angry when praying for someone.

Fear of others is the biggest barrier to love. In today’s political climate immigrants of all kinds fear for their future. We can’t solve the immigration policy debate here today, but each of us can engage in simple acts of kindness, go out of our way to smile and be kind to others who are different from us. Let them experience the radical hospitality of Christ so they know they are welcome in this country.

As individuals we can also listen to those we have political disagreements with. Just this week I heard from a friend who is cancelling his newspaper subscription because his local paper took an editorial position he disagrees with. I also heard that political divisions are showing up in personal ads on dating sites where profiles include such phrases as “no Trump haters need respond,” or “No Trump supporters welcome.” People unfriend people on social media and refuse to watch news channels they disagree with. The battle lines are drawn, and important functions of government like feeding starving children, rebuilding crumbling dams and bridges, and fixing the water supply in places like Flint – things we all agree need to be done are the causalities of partisan gridlock. It seems so obvious but still needs to be said, the first step to loving our enemies is communication and sharing our common human needs. Until that happens the bigger issues that divide us can never be addressed.

Jesus did it. He practiced what he preached. He walked the walk all the way to Golgotha. He loved his enemies and forgave those who nailed him to the cross. But how can we mere mortals love our enemies, even while we deplore their horrible deeds?

I certainly don’t have all the answers–not even all the questions; but it seems to me there are two things that are necessary for us to have any hope of following Jesus down this path of loving our enemies.
1) We need to understand who are enemies are and who they aren’t so we don’t over-react in fear against all Muslims or against everyone who looks different and is therefore suspicious. There was an incident in my hometown in northwest Ohio last year where some parents pulled their children out of a middle school social studies class because there was a unit on the history of Islam. That kind of fear of knowledge is tragic. There is no hope for peace without understanding. We need to learn all we can about Islam so we understand better the complicated political and religious realities we are caught up in. We don’t dare oversimplify or stereotype.
2) Perhaps most important, we need to practice forgiveness. Someone has written that forgiveness is the key to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is one of our most cherished American ideals, and forgiveness is what it takes to be free of the burdens of anger and hostility that make happiness impossible.

Logan Cole is a student at West Liberty High School who was shot at school a few weeks ago by a fellow student, Ely Serna. After Ely shot Logan, Ely handed the shot gun to Logan and asked him to shoot him as well. But Logan refused to shoot his attacker because he knew an eye for an eye doesn’t solve anything. And a few days later Logan forgave Ely from his hospital bed at Children’s Hospital with buck shot still lodged near his heart. Fortunately the shot gun damaged Logan’s body, but it didn’t damage his heart and ability to love his enemy.

What about Brian Golsby, the ex-convict who raped and killed Reagan Tokes, the OSU senior from Maumee a few weeks ago. Does Jesus want us to love killers and rapists? The Scripture is pretty clear the answer to that question is “yes.” We don’t have to like them or approve of what they do, but no matter how awful life circumstances has made someone like Brian Golsby and deformed his basic humanity– he is still a child of God and invited to accept God’s amazing grace.

Where does the ability to love someone who has done us great harm come from?

My favorite story about that kind of love comes from another period of unspeakable terror and suffering in human society, the Holocaust. After the war, a young Christian woman traveled around Europe proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love for everyone who would repent and give their life to Christ. Corrie Ten Boom was a death camp survivor. Her entire family had died in the Nazi death gas chambers, and yet she was filled with God’s love and anxious to tell her story. Until one night when she was giving her testimony and looked out into the congregation where she saw a face that made her blood run cold. Sitting there staring at her from the pew was one of the former Nazi concentration camp guards who had helped to execute her family. She could barely finish her talk and hurried toward the side door of the church as soon as she was finished, hoping to avoid any further contact with this awful man.

But he was anxious to talk to her and met her at the door. He extended his hand as he told her that he had repented and become a Christian, but, he added, it was so good to hear someone like her proclaim the unbelievable good news that God’s love was available even to such a terrible sinner as he had been. His hand was there, waiting for Corrie to take it in Christian fellowship. But her hand was paralyzed, frozen at her side for what seemed like an eternity. The silence was awkward, and even though she knew she should shake his hand, she could not. Finally, she said a prayer. She said, “Lord, if you want me to forgive this man, you’re going to have to do it, because I can’t.”

And just then, Corrie said her hand moved of its own accord. She took the former Nazi’s hand and says she felt the most amazing surge of warmth and power pass between them that she had ever felt in her life.
How can we love our enemies? On our own, we can’t. But with God’s help as followers of Jesus Christ, relying on and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we can, we must, and we will because we are already part of God’s kingdom.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory!

Rev. Steve Harsh, Preached at Epworth United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, February 19, 2017