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]

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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

“No Way!” or God’s Way? 2 Kings 5:1-14

I was leading a group for Sr. citizens a few years ago and asked the group to share with us some information about them to get better acquainted. One question I asked was, “How do you spend your time now in retirement?” One gentleman said, “I spend my days going to dr. appointments and funerals.” It was funny then, but as I’ve gotten older I sometimes find it harder to find humor in that reality.

With my back problems and other joys of aging, I’ve got more Doctors in my contacts list than any other category, and like many of you, I’ve spent extra hours in waiting rooms well beyond the time my appointment was supposed to be,. Having an iPhone and other devices to distract me helps, but I don’t think any kind of toy would have been much consolation for a friend of mine. He waited several weeks to get an appointed with a specialist because this doctor was supposed to be the best around. On the day of the appointment, my friend waited 2 hours past the appointed hour and finally asked a nurse how much longer it would be. The nurse went back to check for him and returned a few minutes later with a piece of paper in his hand and said the doctor was too far behind schedule and would not be able to see my friend that day, but he wrote a prescription and said he should take it for a month and then come back.

Yes, that would be grounds for malpractice, and it didn’t really happen. I made that story up because it is very much like what happened to Naaman in our scripture lesson for today. Naaman, was a great man – a commander, a victorious leader. But Naaman’s story also reminds us that even the great and powerful are vulnerable and mortal. Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, Prince, –all of us are dust and to dust we will return. Naaman fell victim to one of the worst diseases in human history – he contracted leprosy, which not only ate away the body but was so contagious and dreadful that anyone with it was isolated and excluded from society and any contact with other people. The great poet Robert Frost was once asked what the ugliest word in the English language is, and his answer was the word “exclusive.” We are social beings who need each other, even if we get on each others’ nerves at times; so the worst thing you can do to a human being is to exclude him or her.

So Naaman is desperate to find a cure for his dreaded illness, and the advice he gets on where to find that cure is fascinating. A young slave girl who has been captured in Israel tells Naaman he needs to go see a prophet in Samaria. A young slave girl from a foreign country– you cannot get any lower on the socio-economic pecking order in those days than that; and to send him to Samaria of all places (Think Urban Meyer being told the doctors he needs are in Ann Arbor). Naaman says, “No Way! A prophet? Some faith healer?

That couldn’t be the answer to Naaman’s problem! He knows he needs to go to someone with real power – not to some intern or resident but to the best surgeon available. Naaman also knows the best things in life are never free; so he takes a bucket load of cash to get the best medical treatment money can buy. Money has its privileges. It may not buy happiness, but it sure can buy most everything else. Wealth is the universal language the power people of the world speak. So Naaman bypasses God’s prophet and goes straight to what he thinks is the top – he has his king send a letter of referral to the King of Israel.

But notice how the king of Israel reacts when Naaman comes calling – he’s threatened. The king knows he has no power to heal Naaman. His worldly power is illusory, like the wizard of Oz – hiding behind the magic curtain pulling levers. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And notice also how the king immediately assumes the worst about Naaman. Rather than take Naaman’s plea for healing at face value, the threatened, insecure king immediately assumes that Naaman’s real motive is to expose the King’s lack of power and make him look bad.

Why do we so often project our own fears and suspicions on others instead of just asking what’s really going on? When dealing with conflict or potential conflict, it’s like the old story about everyone trying to ignore the elephant in the room. The way to deal with conflict constructively is to communicate – not behind someone’s back, but face to face. There are always at least two sides to every story, and we will not really know the other side until we get it from the source. The king’s reaction in this story illustrates that when we expect the worst from others – that’s exactly what we get.

Now the prophet Elisha enters the drama. He hears of the king’s distress and his response to Naaman is very interesting. Elisha says, “Come to me…” that makes sense, but notice why he tells Naaman to come. It’s not just to get the healing he wants, there’s much more at stake here. Elisha says, “Come to me, so you can learn there is a prophet in Israel.” Prophets are not fortune tellers, remember, but are spokespersons for God. So if there is a prophet in Israel, the important message here is that there is a God in Israel who is for real and can heal whatever ails you, no matter how important and rich or poor you are.

Do we believe that today? Do we believe there’s a God in our broken nation and world who can cure what ails us? Naaman does, sort of, at least enough to go to see Elisha. But then the story takes another interesting turn. Naaman’s visit to Elisha is like the story I began with. Elisha sends a message to Naaman, probably through another lowly servant that says, “Go take 7 baths and call me in the morning.” The prophet doesn’t even bother to come out and see Naaman in person. You can imagine the reaction of this great commander who’s used to people bowing a scraping before him. He expects better treatment than that. He expects a big showy miracle with red white and boom fireworks, and all he gets is a prescription to go wash 7 times in the Jordan River.

And then Naaman gets very parochial. Again he says, “No Way!” He complains about the water quality in the Jordan and says, “We have many better rivers back home in Damascus.” Does our parochialism ever get in the way of what God wants us to do? Our way, my team, my religion, my country is way better than yours! We like what we’re used to; so we refuse to venture out of our comfort zones because, well, it’s uncomfortable out there!

Perhaps sports are the best example of how loyalty and pride can cross the line into embarrassing territory. Last week’s Ryder cup golf match between the US and Europe showed both tremendous enthusiasm and patriotism, but it also showed the danger of being overly zealous. Some fans were ejected from the course because their cheers and jeers became inappropriate. I confess I even found myself yelling things at my TV screen that were quite unchristian! When my son played high school basketball my family didn’t like to sit with me because I sometimes embarrassed them when I got upset about a bad call by the refs.

I can be a perfect reminder that the word “fan” is short for fanatic! Team spirit and patriotism are good things but when taken to the extremes of fanaticism that burns couches after a big win or nationalism that leads to dangerous conflicts between countries, not so much. UK’s decision to leave the European Union a few months ago concerns me because at least part of the reason for that vote was a spirit of nationalism that seems to say “We can do this better on our own that with our neighbors.” Fear of terrorism and the refugee crisis are of course also realities that can fan the flames of overzealous nationalism. My fear in looking at the history of centuries of conflicts and wars in Europe where so many countries live in such close proximity to each other is that nationalism has led to many of those wars, including two in the last century that involved the whole world. No human creation is without problems, but the European Union seems from this outsider’s perspective to be a better way to promote peace and cooperation among neighbors than nationalism.

Naaman almost falls victim to nationalistic pride that tries to blind him to the help he needs. He complains about the rivers in Israel, but this story is not about water quality or if our river is more beautiful than yours. It’s about faithful obedience to what God asks us to do. Naaman is too proud to accept this simple solution to his leprosy and is about to stomp off and go home to pout in Damascus. And again, a lowly servant intervenes who is smarter than the great and powerful leader.

Do you ever get advice from someone else that is so obvious and simple you hate to take it because you feel stupid for not seeing what is so obvious yourself. That happens frequently to me but I remember a particular incident a couple of years ago at the church I was serving. We had a leak in the furnace room up above the men’s restroom and water was dripping down thru the ceiling. I do not have a plumbing gene anywhere in my DNA; so my solution was to put buckets under the leak until someone could come and fix the problem upstairs. Fortunately one of our church secretaries had a better idea, which was to put some buckets upstairs too and catch the water before in ran thru the floor and ruined the bathroom ceiling. [HIT EASY BUTTON]. Why didn’t I think of that?.

That’s what happens to Naaman. He is too proud to do what Elisha tells him to do, but his servants say, “With all due respect, sir, what have you got to lose? Why not give this a try, and if it doesn’t work, you are no worse off than you were before.” And it’s Free!

So Naaman reluctantly does what he has been told to do – he washes, not once but 7 times. And that’s important. If we expect instant gratification or simple solutions to complex problems, it’s not gonna happen. Sometimes the solution is simply doing what we believe God is telling us to do, even if it seems foolish or unlikely to work. Washing even multiple times in a river does not sound like a logical cure for something as dire as leprosy, but we will never know unless we try.

Life threw me some extra curve balls one day a few months ago. And the worst part is I think I asked for it. After dealing with the epidemic of orange barrels and detours in our neighborhood I decided to wax philosophical and wrote a little piece on my Facebook page and in my blog about how detours and obstacles are good metaphors for the roadblocks we run into in life. And when we do, we can either give up on getting to our goals, or we can get creative and find another way to achieve what God wants us to do. It sounded great on paper and I got a lot of “likes” on my Facebook page.

But then it was like God said to me, “OK preacher, put your money where your mouth is. Let’s see how well you really cope with some roadblocks!” Within one 24 hr. stretch I got three major pieces of bad news. I learned some good friends are moving out of state. I got an email from a very dear friend that he was in the hospital and told he has had some mini-strokes. And then I went to the mailbox to find a not-so-friendly letter from the IRS informing me that they think I owe them $10000 in back taxes, penalties and fines. I didn’t really need that many obstacles to deal with all at once, and my mood was lower than a snake’s belly for quite some time. Being turned in on oneself is one definition of sin, by the way. It’s one of my favorites when I see others doing it, but when I look in the mirror and see it in myself, not so much.

I’m not telling that story to get pity or sympathy (although I’ll take whatever I can get). I tell it because churches and other organizations, companies, nations, and families can all get turned in on themselves too. And the solution to dealing constructively with our challenges in life, health, finances, relationships, grief, whatever threatens to break our spirits and isolate us from others like Naaman was, is as simple as not throwing up our hands and saying No Way! But asking for God’s guidance.

When we turn to God for help, do you ever fall into the trap I do? I catch myself turning my prayers into giving God a honey do list. Dear God, please do this and this, and take of these people, and this mess we’ve made of things here and there. How much time to we spend telling God things God already knows? So instead of telling God our problems, prayer needs to also be a time of listening carefully for what God has to say to us.
Often God’s messages come from other wounded and broken servants, simple, common folks like the slave girl and servants who ministered to Naaman and helped lead him to a cure for his affliction. God’s time is not our time; so the answers to our prayers don’t usually come with 4G speed. But as Isaiah puts it, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength and mount up with wings like Eagles.”

That kind of waiting requires great patience and humility. It requires a faith and humility that can say, “Not my will but your will be done.” It’s a humility that instead of jumping to unfounded conclusions and saying “No Way!” teaches us to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation so we can benefit from the experience of those who are different.

That redemptive love of God reminds us that Naaman’s story is really a baptism story. Baptism is an act of celebrating the fact that God has created us each in God’s own image. That image gets tarnished from time to time and needs to be renewed, but the power of love and mercy is in us all from birth, waiting to be nurtured and fed. That means the answer to our prayer may be already within us waiting to be revealed. Like King of Israel, the Wizard of Oz story didn’t have the power to give Dorothy and her friends what they were seeking, BUT he didn’t need to. Because they already had courage and wisdom and hearts that got them to Oz in the first place, and Dorothy already had on her feet what she needed to get back home. Those gifts were already there within them – they just needed to trust and believe, and when they did–THAT WAS EASY.

PRAYER – O God our creator and re-creator, like Naaman, we all need multiple cleansings. We don’t drive a car thru a car wash once and expect it to stay clean forever. Our spirits need regular cleansing and renewal also so we can be rid of whatever needs to go from our lives as individuals and as a church. We need regular reminders where real power lies so we are not fooled by false power. We ask that you provide us with modern day prophets who are the ones to show us the way to the power to heal and make us whole. Let us be those obedient and humble servants who minister to one another as disciples of the servant king from Nazareth who was baptized in the same River Jordan just as Naaman was. We ask these things in his name and for his sake. Amen.