9/11 Memories and Dreams

I am listening to 9/11 memorial services, reading of all the names of those who died that day, except of course the terrorists. Who mourns for those enemies Jesus tells us to love?  What families did they leave behind?  What legacy of anger and malice drove them, and how contagious was/is that vengeance in our response.  No turning the other cheek here, just promises as recently as last week from President Biden to “hunt you down.”  What if we could sit down and break bread instead of breaking heads?  Is that a pipe dream, a hopelessly naive fantasy?  If it is what hope is there for a world that will ever at peace?  And I’m not talking about peace through mutual assured destruction but true peace through unity, through the ties that bind us all together as passengers on spaceship earth. 

Has there ever been a time in human history free from conflict and war?  Ever since Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden and the following fratricide between their sons the human family has been hell bent on creating more deadly and efficient ways to assert power over one another.  What if all that “creative” energy to invent smart bombs, split atoms and destroy one another could be channeled into learning ways to save our planet and all the creatures God has entrusted us with?  Even on this day when we relive the horror of 9/11 I still dare to hope for a time when God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”  (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17)

Because like the cockeyed optimist nurse Nellie Forbush sings in the great musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein,  “South Pacific,” “I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope, and I can’t get it out of my heart – not this heart.”

Dog Food: Mark 7:24-37

“Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:26-27)

That interchange has to be one of the most unChrist like things attributed to Jesus in any of the Gospels. The only similar verse which is even worse is in the Sermon on the Mount and lacks the context of Mark’s narrative. There Jesus just states “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” (Matthew 7:6)

In Mark’s narrative the dialogue is with a Gentile. And it would seem the distinction Jesus is making is that the Jews are God’s children and others are not. In all honesty I have not researched what biblical scholars have to say about how to interpret this text. One possibility that comes to my mind is that maybe Jesus was just having a bad day and didn’t want to be bothered by this woman’s request. If Jesus is fully human he certainly must have had times where just needed a break.

In fact Mark tells us in verse 24: “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Any pastor can identify with the need to go off the grid once in awhile to recharge. One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my ministry from one of my mentors was to always take a day off each week and get out of town so people won’t bother you. That was way before cell phones or even pagers made it harder to get away, and it is even more difficult and tempting to check for texts and emails 24/7 today.

We didn’t call it self-care back then, but that’s what it is. Jesus is usually pretty good at going off by himself to pray when he needs to, or at least he tries. Mark is the most intriguing of the Gospels in that regard with all the references to the Messianic secret. The verses for September 5th’s lesson are bookended by two such references with the second coming in verse 36: “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”

Jesus’ desire for some solitude is denied him twice in this short passage. The conclusion to verse 24’s statement that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there says, “Yet he could not escape notice.” So maybe he was just frustrated. He figured that getting out of the country would offer a respite from the clamoring masses, but even in Tyre he couldn’t catch a break.

Throughout all the preceding chapters of Mark crowds are continually flooding Jesus with their needs to be healed. And in chapter 6 the feeding of the multitude story begins with Jesus expressing concern for his disciple’s self-care. They were so busy they didn’t have time to eat! I don’t know about you, but if I’m too busy to eat I get hangry pretty quick. So Jesus suggests they go off “to a quiet place” for some R & R. But the crowds got there first, and Jesus “had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

That sounds more like the Jesus we want when we call him for help. So how do we reconcile that compassionate Jesus with the one one who calls Gentiles dogs in chapter 7? Other than my speculation above I am not sure, but I am intrigued with how quickly Jesus changes his tune when the woman responds to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I think it’s an interesting coincidence that this narrative pivots on this comment about dogs when national dog day was this week. I enjoyed seeing everyone’s pictures of their fur babies on Facebook, but more than that I see a connection between this story from Mark with reading I’ve been doing recently about mysticism and the cosmic Christ.

In verses 29 and 30 we find Jesus’ response to the woman’s argument that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. “Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” What is there about the woman’s comment that made Jesus completely reverse himself? Could it be Jesus recognized the truth in her statement that all of creation is intrinsically connected as part of God’s creation?

Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion for Aug. 27 contains this quote from the Celtic theologian Pelagius: “Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. . . . Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” (The Letters of Pelagius: Celtic Soul Friend, ed. Robert Van de Weyer, p. 71)

Rohr comments: “Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourself to mean loving not only our human neighbor but all the life forms that surround us. ‘So when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree,’ he wrote, ‘we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.’”

And Rohr concludes that devotion with these words from Thomas Berry, a modern mystic: “In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity. Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings. This capacity for relatedness, for presence to other beings, for spontaneity in action, is a capacity possessed by every mode of being throughout the entire universe.” (Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower: 1999), 3.)

Maybe Jesus recognized that cosmic spirit in the Syrophoenician woman’s compassion for the canine part of creation and that universal nature of her faith inspired him to extend his own cosmic healing power to her daughter.

Power Washing and Baptism

What do mustard seeds, rainbows, lost sheep, an expensive pearl, yeast, and wine have in common? They and many other common everyday things are used in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures to describe the kin-dom of God, and still today every once in awhile God sneaks a little theology lesson into the most ordinary moments to remind us that the line we draw between “sacred” and “secular” is an imaginary line. Those ah hah moments are all around us, and I would “see” many more of them if I wasn’t distracted with other things.

I had one of those serendipities yesterday while doing a most mundane chore. The picture here is of the deck at the back of our house. This deck has to be cleaned at least annually, but because of my back trouble it didn’t get done last year. Hence it was dirtier than usual this year, which is illustrated in the picture. The section of the deck on the right here has been cleaned, while the part on the left is what the condition was before cleaning.

This is no job for ordinary cleaning. Mold and grime congregate on this deck because it is shaded most of the day and doesn’t get the sun’s solar cleaning rays. So this task calls for a power washer and the patience to clean one small section of each board at a time. The deck is not very large, about 12′ x 20′ or 240 square feet, which doesn’t sound too daunting. But remember I’m cleaning with a stream of water that covers an inch or so at a time. I’m sorry I did the math that way because when multiplying 240 square feet times 144 square inches per square foot I get a total area of 34,560 square inches.

God speaks to us in mysterious ways if we’re listening, and I’m glad I decided to just do it yesterday because as I started the power washing process the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear one of my favorite lines from the musical “Godspell.” Near the beginning of that wonderful play Jesus comes to the Jordan River to meet John the Baptist. When John inquires of Jesus why he is there Jesus says, “I came to get washed up.”

That image helped me see my deck-cleaning job through a theological metaphor for baptism. But this is not the sanitized, watered-down version of baptism we practice today which usually leaves no signs of dramatic change from a few drops of water sprinkled on the head of one who often is so young as to have no idea what’s going on.

True baptism or baptism by the Holy Spirit is a life-changing transformation, and for most of us it requires more of a power washer blast than a sprinkle. My deck looks radically different when it’s clean, and yet the power washer can’t hold a candle to the power of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate the Damascus Road conversion kind of change God can bring into a life, but most of us don’t want to be knocked off our comfortable horses and be made blind for three days that may come with that in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 9:1-19)

Procrastination is one form our resistance to change can take. I can find a million excuses for not cleaning my deck. It takes a couple of hours and is pretty boring most of the time, especially if my self-talk stays focused on how boring it is. I’m grateful God got through to me yesterday so I could not only clean the deck but could ponder again the mystery of God who is everywhere, even in scuzzy, moldy deck boards and power washers.

Our current existential crises calls for a power washer baptismal experience. We need to bring out the heavy artillery because those who dare to follow Jesus’ vision of a new way of living are automatically in conflict with the powers and principalities of the world. We cannot just call on Mr. Clean who claims to “get rid of grease and grime in just a minute.” Jesus’ followers are in this for the long haul and need daily and maybe hourly reminders of who we are, whose we are, and who we are becoming. Legend has it that Martin Luther reminded himself of his baptism every time he bathed.

What are you doing today that might be a vehicle for God’s transforming power? Put your theological Ray Bans on and tune your self-talk to the Holy Spirit network, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Stop, Hear, Do!

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27, Lectionary text for 8/29/21)

There are 29 references to “widows” and 16 to “orphans” in the NRSV of the Bible. They are mentioned so consistently throughout Scripture of course because without a male protector they are the most vulnerable people in patriarchal biblical society; and that means they need the most help. I get that, but sometimes I just need a rest from the Social Gospel.

This is one of those weeks. Call it compassion fatigue, burn out, or just too pooped to participate. This week’s 24/7 news cycle has gone over the top with natural and human catastrophes. I’m sorry, Lord, but I’ve just had to turn the news off. One more report of a hurricane on top of an earthquake, wind and wild fire, one more gut-wrenching video of Afghan refugees climbing on to a moving aircraft to flee their homeland, one more story about school-age kids and teachers being caught in the political theater of the absurd about masks and vaccines for COVID may just be the final straw that pushes me over the edge.

It’s the blame game that is wearing on me the most right now. In the midst of all this chaos instead of joining forces to solve any one of these crises our state and federal leaders are redoubling their tug of culture war to find some political advantage in the worst situations. They seem oblivious to the reality that we are entering COVID 4.0 because the whole pandemic was politicized from Day 1.

Maybe the first step for people of faith or political leaders should be “First, Do No Harm” from the Hippocratic Oath. Not only are we failing miserably in taking care of widows and orphans, self-serving decisions have produced more poor, more widows and orphans left behind by the 623,000 plus Americans who have died from COVID so far. One headline today said, “Couple from LaMarque, Texas Who Didn’t Trust the Vaccine Have Died Leaving Four Orphans Behind.”

With all the resources the United States has, leading the world in the number of COVID deaths is beyond inexcusable. Scoring political points has trumped the use of time-tested public health tools like masks and vaccines to protect the most vulnerable.

Sure some of the finger pointing and political posturing goes with the territory because we are all caught in the matrix of a never-ending campaign cycle. I remember thinking last November after the election that I would get a breather from requests for campaign donations bombarding my inbox! How naive I was! And the requests just keep growing, coming from all over the country, not just from my own state. Perpetual campaigning leaves no time for actual governing! It is madness, not to mention an obscene waste of time and money. And the constant struggle for power and influence by the wealthy class is threatening to erode the very foundations of our democracy. How absurd is it that we may still be litigating the election results of 2020 when it’s time to cast votes in 2022.

Back in 2005, a time that seems so quaintly simple compared to the 2020’s, my wife and I participated in an intensive personal development program offered by Klemmer and Associates in California. There were many great life lessons we learned experientially in those workshops, but there is one gem that stands out for me, especially in a time like the one we are in now.

The focus of that program was learning how to set SMART goals for oneself and learning skills to overcome the internal and external obstacles that stand in the way of achieving them. The blame game is one major hurdle most of us have to overcome to change a habit and get unstuck. To lose weight, to risk pursuing a new career, to be vulnerable enough to take a significant relationship to a new level of intimacy, whatever the goal may be one commonality is that blaming others for why we cannot achieve a dream or a goal is totally counterproductive.

The most helpful advice I learned from Klemmer is that instead of blaming others or circumstances for whatever we want it is much more productive to ask three simple questions: “What worked? What didn’t work? What next?” How different might the current catastrophe in Afghanistan look if we asked those pragmatic questions instead of just trying to pin the blame on somebody else. There is more than enough blame to go around for 20 years of killing and mayhem in Afghanistan, and that doesn’t even count the equally bad track record the Russians and the British had there before us.

Just like COVID war produces widows and orphans. For what? Victory? How does one keep score in the game of war? The long bloody trail of human history should have taught us long ago that there are no winners in war. Each war begets the next ad infinitum. What might it mean for Americans to ponder what it means that World War II was the last war where we can count any kind of victory? Could it be that war has finally outlived its usefulness 2500 years after Isaiah and Micah both dreamed of the day when we would “beat our swords in to plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks?” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Isn’t that the word that James wants Christians to be doers of? Talk is cheap. We pay lip service to pious platitudes about loving our neighbors and even our enemies, but who among us is really brave enough to walk that walk?

What have we got to lose? The way we have been trying to use “power over” others, especially in a toxic version of masculinity, simply isn’t working. Gun violence, raping the very planet we depend on for life itself, bitter partisanship instead of collaboration to solve problems that threaten the existence of the human race itself are all symptoms of humanity’s terminal illness.

Is it to late to be doers of the word instead of just hearers? Maybe a better question is are we even listening to the Word any longer? Do we have ears to hear? Are the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of greed, consumerism, zealous nationalism, and rugged individualism so loud they drown out the “still small voice of God?” (I Kings 19:12).

Matthew Fox describes our plight quite well in his Daily Devotion from August 9: “A prime idea of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is its very straightforward critique of misuses of power. From the very beginning, the Bible undercuts the power of domination and teaches us another kind of power: powerlessness itself. God is able to use unlikely figures who in one way or another are always inept, unprepared, and incapable—powerless in some way. In the Bible, the bottom, the edge, or the outside is the privileged spiritual position. This is why biblical revelation is revolutionary and even subversive. The so-called “little ones” (Matthew 18:6) or the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), as Jesus calls them, are the only teachable and “growable” ones according to him. Powerlessness seems to be God’s starting place, as in Twelve-Step programs. Until we admit that “we are powerless,” Real Power will not be recognized, accepted, or even sought.”

I love the quote attributed to Winston Churchill that says, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” It seems to me we’ve about exhausted “everything else.” Maybe we’re about ready to be doers of God’s way – collaborating, sharing, caring more about all of humankind and creation than our own bottom line? That’s what James calls “pure religion.” Others call it the peaceable kin-dom that God has put within each of us. That beloved community can only emerge like a butterfly from its chrysalis if we can learn to be unstained by the deadly values of the world.

The other very familiar verse from James is 2:26 which says “Faith without works is dead.” Without a major shift in our values, so are we.

A Field of Dreams

Note: I preached this sermon for Father’s Day 2017 and tonight as I watched the fun game being played at the Field of Dreams field in Iowa I thought it would be fun to revisit that sermon and movie with such wonderful meaning in a much simpler time. I hope you enjoy it. The text for the sermon was Deuteronomy 4:6-9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me no dreams, filled with desireIf you’re on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night

Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight

Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you thatThis is no time for a chat.”

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

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

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

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

Father’s Day is a day for appreciation and love for fathers and father-figures, but no one is perfect; so regrets, we’ve all got a few or a lot. But here’s the good news and bad news about the Yogiism that says “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Baseball games have no clock, which means they can literally go on forever or what seems like it about the 18th inning. That’s a problem for baseball’s popularity in our fast-paced 4G world, but when it comes to the game of life extra innings are great. It means more time for reconciliation and love.
That’s what happens to Ray Kinsella when he builds a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa cornfield. He had to put up with ridicule and scorn from family and friends to follow his dream. His baseball field almost led to financial ruin, but he had the support of a loving wife and daughter who could see the dream because they too believed. Ray didn’t understand what it meant when he heard a mysterious voice say, “If you build it he will come,” but he took a leap of faith and built his field of dreams and finally discovers what it all meant in the final scene from the movie.

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

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

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

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

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

The Naked Truth, Sermon on Genesis 3:1-13

Back in pre-Covid times a pastor stopped at the home of Mary Johnson for a pastoral visit.  When there was no response to his knock he left his card with a note on it that simply said Revelation 3:20.  When Mary found the note she looked up that verse which says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  That Sunday after worship Mary handed the pastor a similarly cryptic note that just said Genesis 3:10.  That verse from our text for today says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked.”

Genesis 3 is part of the second creation story in our Bible.  The first story in Genesis 1 describes 6 days of creation ending with humans created in the image of God, as Pastor Chris reminded us last week.   And at the end of that chapter God pronounces all of creation very good.  Genesis 1 is what theologian Matthew Fox calls our “original blessing.  Scholars believe that chapters 2 & 3 were written by a different author and describe in more narrative form the origin of sin and its consequences. 

I have no scholarly evidence for this, but I have a theory that the author of the second story looked over the sorry state of the human race and said, “This is not very good.  If we were created in God’s image what went wrong?”  Genesis 2 & 3 are an attempt to answer that question.  We sometimes mistakenly think these creation stories are historical descriptions of how we and our universe were created, but they’re not.  No one was around to observe the beginning.  These stories are poetic attempts after the fact by ancient humans to make sense out of why we are here and how we got here.

Here’s a problem I’ve been having recently.  I’ve always been a believer in Imago Dei, which is the Latin term for “in the image of God.”  But I’m having an increasingly hard time believing humans are created in God’s image when I look at the mess our world is in right now.  There have been at least 63 mass shootings in the US in the month of May alone and 242 since January 1. That’s 1.5 mass shootings per day!!  Here in Columbus there have been more than 70 deaths from gun violence already this year which is twice the number compared to the last three years.  I don’t even know how many brown and black people have died at the hands of police since George Floyd was killed a year ago.  Whatever we are doing to address these problems isn’t working, and yet the bitter partisan warfare in Congress keeps any new ideas from even being tried.  And don’t get me started on climate change.  In those Genesis stories God specifically charges humans with being good stewards of God’s creation, and we have failed miserably.

So how do we resolve these conflicting accounts of human nature?  Are we created in God’s image or are we disobedient and selfish like Adam and Eve, wanting to be like God?  The answer is Yes, we are both.  At our very essence humans are in harmony with God and all of creation.  But our image of God is tarnished by the temptations of the world.  There was a commercial years ago for Michelob beer that fanned the flames of consumerism by asking “Who says you can’t have it all?”  God says, that’s who.  God is the creator and we are the creatures, and when we try to reverse that order of things all kinds of calamity ensues.  Our history as a human race constantly at war with one another has left a trail of tears all over this planet.

Another question this text raises is why were Adam and Eve afraid because they were naked?  Is it like when I’m afraid when I look at my naked body in a mirror?  No, this is not about body shaming.  It is a metaphorical nakedness that means we are all spiritually exposed.  God knows us inside and out.  We can run from God and our own sinfulness, but we can’t hide – just ask Adam and Eve. 

Doesn’t being able to take your mask off feel good? We can breathe better after a long year.  Well it also feels good to be unmasked before God because confession is the only pathway to forgiveness.  We can’t be forgiven for something we refuse to acknowledge in our selves.  But this second creation story has all too often been interpreted to mean life is hard for all of us because of Eve’s original sin, which is a bad rap for women because Adam was just as guilty.   

So does this story mean Adam and Eve were punished by being evicted from the Garden?   No, this is a way of explaining why life is so hard, and we make it harder whenever we put anything else first before God. 

One of the best things I’ve been able to do during this Covid year has been to participate via zoom in an excellent book study group with some of our church members and other interested folks.  We have learned a great deal from several books about racism.   One of the added benefits is that the group has introduced me to the work of Dr. Brene Brown, a social worker and research professor at the University of Houston.  Her ideas have come up so often in our discussions that we are on a first-name basis and have made her an honorary member of our group. 

Brene has spent over twenty years studying the effects of shame and guilt on human development and behavior.  She stresses that shame and guilt are not synonymous terms even though we often use them that way.  The distinction Dr. Brown makes is that we feel guilt over a bad thing we have done, but we feel shame when we confuse bad behavior with our basic value as a person.  On one of her podcasts Brene uses a real-life example she actually observed in a classroom where a teacher was berating a student in front of her class for constantly failing to turn in assigned work.  That’s awful enough, but the teacher went on to take the student’s paper and write S T U P I D across the top of it.  In other words the teacher was passing judgment not on the student’s school work but on her value as a person.  I truly hope that teacher has found a new line of work.  I also hope none of us have experienced that kind of shaming from a teacher or parent on a preacher, but I fear many of us have. 

I bring that up because it is critical to the way we interpret the Fall, as this second creation story is often called.  If you aren’t familiar with the consequences for Adam and Eve, hear what the rest of Genesis 3 says: 

“To the woman God said,  ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you’  (As an aside, that verse has been used to justify sexism and patriarchy for millennia, but the women among us already knew that.)

And to the manGod said,  ‘…cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, …’”

Those verses have often been misused to shame people when they really are about guilt, not about shame.  Remember the difference – guilt is for bad behavior, shame is calling someone a bad person.  Bad behaviors have consequences, but they do not forever make us bad people.    Before they were written down these stories were passed down orally for centuries as a way for people to make sense of their lives.  Women wondered why childbirth is so painful, and this story is a pre-scientific attempt to answer that question.  Rather than add a load of guilt to the pain of childbirth why not accept the simple fact that pushing a baby’s head through a very small opening really hurts? 

Similarly, ancient people, like many of us today asked why life is so hard.  Remember this was a very agrarian culture.  There were no Kroger’s in town to buy food.  They had to plant, grow, hunt or harvest everything they needed on land that is mostly desert, and they naturally wanted to know why. 

Unfortunately the story of the Fall has been misused many times by the church to control people by shaming them.  For example, the communion ritual for United Methodists used to include a prayer where congregations were asked to confess by saying, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed.”  And we wondered back then why many people stayed away on Communion Sunday!  Yes, we still need confession more than ever, but we don’t need to be shamed for being the fallible human beings we all are. 

The Gospel is like a meme I saw on Facebook recently which said, “I’m so grateful that neither my sin nor my stupidity keep God from loving me.”  Yes, our lives are often hard, but God loves us all so much that God was willing in Jesus to come and share our experience of life and even death.  That’s what love is; sharing both the joys and sorrows of life with each other, even those who are hard to love.

I recently watched an on-line workshop with Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  Bishop Curry has a recent book out entitled “Love is the Way.” That title sounds a bit simplistic to me given the hurricane of hate we are living in as a society right now.  When it was time for Q&A I asked how can we reconcile the Gospel of love with the righteous anger we see in the Hebrew prophets and even on occasion from Jesus himself.  I didn’t include this, but I often want the angry Jesus who turns over tables in the temple to come and clean up the mess we’ve made of things.

Bishop Curry’s response to my question was that as Christians we must speak out against injustice, but in his words we judge “policies not people.”  In other words hate the sin but love the sinner: call out guilty actions or attitudes, but don‘t try to shame anyone, not even the worst among us. Shaming doesn’t work. Besides, whoever you or I want to nominate as the worst people among us the answer is yes, God still loves those people – all of them; the other – enemies, foreign and domestic – those we fear – or vehemently disagree with – be they across town or across the dining room table. 

God loves them all, and all means all.  Jesus did not say, “Come to me those who look like me, or think like me, or love like me.”  Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Like Adam and Eve, we are all naked before God, no matter how hard we try to hide.    That sounds really scary, but it’s not, because God is Love.  These days we all have to decide where it’s safe to take off your mask.  We are wearing them in our church building still out of love for those who may not be able to be vaccinated, but here’s the Good News – When we come into God’s presence, wherever we are, or to the Lord’s Table we can come just as we are with nothing to hide.  Amen

Originally preached at Northwest UMC, June 6, 2021

“Hurt People Hurt People”

“Hurt people hurt people.”  I first heard this piece of wisdom from Brene Brown, a popular speaker and author.  Brene is a research professor at the University of Houston who spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. I thought about her  words this morning when I awoke to yet one more horror story of 8  people shot to death at an Indianapolis Fed Ex facility. After reading the news article I decided to google that phrase to see where it occurs in Brown’s writing.

I didn’t find it which means I probably heard her say it in one of her podcasts.  But what I discovered is that dozens of people have expressed that phrase in a variety of ways.  One that especially caught my eye was this one: “Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns get passed on generation after generation after generation.  Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness.  Greet grimaces with smiles.  Forgive and forget about finding fault.”  That quote is from Yehuda Berg, a contemporary Jewish Rabbi and author, and his words reminded me of a key Christian teaching.  

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-39.)  Nowhere in the Bible is the stark contrast between the different ethics of the two testaments more clearly stated.  Interestingly as different as the older quote in Leviticus 24:19-21 is from Jesus’ teaching; both represent radical new thinking for their time and context.  In the Hebrew Scripture an eye for an eye was an attempt to set boundaries on the amount of revenge a person could take on someone who had wronged him/her.  In other words its aim was to redefine justice so the punishment fit the crime.

Fast forward approximately 600 years and Jesus attempts to set an even higher standard by urging his followers to “turn the other cheek.”  Suffice it to say this is a very high bar to live up to, and most of us who call ourselves Christians fall far short of emulating the sacrificial love of Jesus.  What I like about Berg’s quote on this theme is that he unpacks what it means in terms of how the retaliation ethic results in generation after generation passing that way of living on to their children and grandchildren.

I have no way of knowing what motivated  this recent shooter to commit his violent act, and we may never really know since he, like many of the other mass shooters, killed himself.  We have now learned that he was a 19 year-old man, and that is significant because research into male emotional and mental development has shown that young men are not fully developed in those areas until their early 20’s.  Obviously this young man was not responsible enough to have a gun, much less an assault rifle.

It seems to me the rash of gun violence may have something to do with the stress we have all been under for over a year now due to COVID-19.  We are all hurting, some more than others, from the restrictions, grief and fear from this invisible enemy that has killed 560,000 Americans and millions more globally.  If we are all hurting and hurt people hurt people it makes sense that the stresses of this past year could account for some part of this awful trend. But if that is true why have we not seen similar violence in other countries?

Knowing that it can take less stress in a pandemic to trigger a violent response to others is complicated by the number of guns in this country.  In Moses’ day when the Levitical laws were developed the only weapons available to folks were clubs, swords and spears which could of course be deadly, but they were weapons designed for one-on-one combat.  They could knock out a tooth or put out an eye, but they were not capable of killing multiple people in a matter of a few seconds.  And I would note that weapons had not advanced into the ability to create mass destruction and killing by the time our second amendment was written.

My theory is that the fears and dis-ease of the pandemic motivated frightened people to own firearms, including assault weapons.  There were more guns sold in this country in 2020 than ever before.  Coincidence?  I think not.  And the fact that many radical members of the Republican party want to still live in the days of Levitical law makes the spiral of violence begetting more violence all the more dangerous.  Since I began writing this blog this morning there have been two more incidents of gun violence that I know of in this country.  One was in a Bob Evans restaurant in Canton, Ohio and the other in a routine traffic stop in San Antonio, Texas.  There have been at least 45 mass shootings (which means 4 or more people killed or wounded) already this year.  45!!  That’s about 3 per week.

What is unique about Americans that we cannot resolve this issue?  It took just 1 mass killing in Australia in 1996 to institute strict gun control.  It also only took 1 in New Zealand 2 years ago for them to do the same.  The rash of killings this time in the U.S. began at Columbine in 1999 and has run unabated ever since. Why can’t we Americans agree on common sense gun control?  If guns made us safer we could be the safest country in the world, but that is certainly not the case. 

It is obviously more important in 2021 than ever before and perhaps harder to “Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness.  Greet grimaces with smiles.  Forgive and forget about finding fault.” This seems so hard if not impossible to do, but individually for Christians and other pacifists turning the other cheek and breaking the chain reaction of violence is the only way we will survive without creating a whole population of blind, toothless or dead people. 

Grace is Not Transactional

As we were reciting the Lord’s Prayer in worship today I was reminded of an insight I had recently about that prayer. Having said that prayer well over 3000 times in my life I’m embarrassed I didn’t realize this much sooner. In particular I’m talking about the part of the prayer that says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” In our congregation we have replaced the rather nebulous “trespasses” with the much more powerful and truthful “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

For far too long I have been uncomfortable with however we say that line because I thought of the forgiveness there as being a quid pro quo. In other words it is a transaction asking God to forgive me in the same way I forgive others! I always was uncomfortable because if God’s forgiveness is limited to how well I forgive others I am in deep do do. It is a very common anthropomorphic mistake whenever we model God after our own behavior instead of the other way around.

In other words I now understand the second part of the phrase about forgiveness to be our response to God’s unconditional grace and mercy for us. We are once again renewing our promise to forgive those who have wronged us just as God has forgiven us. My recasting those words then becomes “forgive us our sins as we promise again to forgive those who have sinned against us.” That may not be the most accurate translation of the Greek or Aramaic, but I think it is very faithful to the nature of God revealed in Christ.

Forgiveness is one of the essential elements of love. We are all flawed human beings and that line in the Lord’s prayer is first an admission of our own fallibility and then a promise to extend the acceptance and love God gives us to others. It is not a deal or a transaction. Grace is free. All we have to do is humbly ask for it, and when we receive that priceless gift it won’t last if we try to hoard it. We have to pass it on.

Obsessed with Fighting

Garden of Gethsemane:


“Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?


What’s the buzz?
Tell me what’s happening. (Repeat a few times)


What’s the buzz?
Tell me what’s a-happening.
Hang on, Lord,
We’re going to fight for you! (Repeat)


Put away your sword
Don’t you know that it’s all over?
It was nice, but now it’s gone.
Why are you obsessed with fighting?
Stick to fishing from now on.” (From “The Arrest” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice)

During this Holy Week when deaths by gun violence are more numerous than commercials during March Madness those lyrics from “Jesus Christ Superstar” speak volumes about the state of our world. I’m especially moved by the question Jesus puts to his disciples, “Why are you obsessed with fighting? Stick to fishing from now on.”

Jesus is asking us Americans the same question 2000 years and hundreds of wars later. These men with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane have been with him throughout his entire ministry. They have heard him preach and teach many times where he has consistently proclaimed a pacifist life style.

They’ve heard him say “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” “forgive 70 x7,” and “love your enemies.” And yet when the armed crowd comes to arrest Jesus Matthew tells us, “Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.” (Matt. 26:47-51)

What does Jesus do? Does he commend this disciple for trying to protect him? No, he reprimands him, saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52)

For those worried about the servant of the High Priest, he does not end up a forerunner of Vincent Van Gogh. Luke’s account of the arrest includes this verse: “But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.” (Luke 22:51) Because he is not afraid Jesus responds with compassion instead of more violence.

There are many reasons we are still obsessed with fighting, but many flow from a mindset of scarcity which leads to a constant state of fear. The scarcity myth has convinced most of us that life is a zero sum game where we are all in competition with everyone else for whatever it is that we want or think will make us feel secure. The scarcity mindset is the engine that drives our over-consumption economy. We buy new models of cars and electronic gadgets, not because we really need them, but because clever marketers know how to play us. For example, I have a Fitbit Versa Lite that I use to track my daily steps, my sleep patterns, and my heartrate. It shows me text messages and emails in real time. A time traveler from 20 years ago would be blown away by such a marvelous little machine. But then I see people with Apple watches that can do everything my Fitbit does but lets people actually take calls and talk back through their wrists like Secret Service agents or Dick Tracy, and I think I really need one of those. Jealousy is scarcity’s first cousin, and it shows up when I am afraid that I’m not cool enough if I don’t have the very latest technology at my fingertips.

A much more serious form of scarcity fear shows up on the world stage, for example, when the U.S. is afraid we will run out of climate-killing fossil fuel we engage in endless, futile wars in the Middle East where the oil happens to be. On our national scene fear and scarcity rear their ugly heads in so many ways I will just mention a few. A fear of not having enough power results in bitter political divisions that threaten our democracy itself. This shows up in gerrymandering Congressional districts by both political parties to get or preserve their power. This is a hot topic right now as voter suppression laws disguised as “election security” are a national movement. Power scarcity shows up in judicial appointments for life, not based on qualifications of the candidates but on ideological viewpoints and partisan loyalty. And tragically that fear was fed by Trump’s big lie about the election and emerged in full force when people afraid of losing political power stormed the U. S. Capitol on January 6.

Sadly, fear is personified in the epidemic of gun violence in this country–from Columbine 22 years ago to Orange County California yesterday. Fear is a vicious cycle. After each mass shooting gun sales go up because people are afraid and want to protect themselves and their families and property. I get that, but we are at a point where fear is turning into paranoia where far too many people who shouldn’t feel the need to be armed. Then when an argument occurs somewhere and escalates into a situation that would have been settled with fists years ago instead results in a fatality.

Any reasonable person can see that responsible gun owners don’t need assault weapons designed for one thing by the military–to kill other human beings. But fear warps our thinking. We fear that “they,” whoever they are, may have more fire power than we do, and the cycle of armament proliferation on our streets is the same scarcity mentality that plays out internationally in nuclear arms races and spending obscene amounts of money on weapons of mass destruction.

The scarcity fear goes clear back to Cain and Abel; so there seems little hope it will be solved anytime soon, but it surely would help if more of us can take a step back and ask ourselves why am I, why is humankind still obsessed with fighting when it ultimately doesn’t work. Jesus’ warning is oh so true, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Righteous Anger: Cymbal or Symbol

We are half way through March, and I can’t remember a day this year that I have not have read about another shooting in Columbus every time I open the local newspaper or turn on the local news.  Gun violence in upscale malls and communities of color, hate crimes against my sisters and brothers who are Asian Americans,  the pain of illness and aging my family members are going through!  I’m mad and I don’t know what to do with my anger.

The violence became more personal this morning when a beloved Asian American sister and friend invited our church staff to a prayer vigil tomorrow to pray for an end to the fear and violence against Asian Americans.  And yes I am angry at Donald Trump and those who cannot see or refuse to see the harm they are doing.   I know I need to love them and forgive them, but this crap lies squarely at Trump’s feet for his racist speeches about the pandemic and China.  Forgive 70 x 7?  He’s gone way over that total years ago, and I feel helpless about letting that anger eat at me!

But I don’t know what to do with the anger that would be constructive.  I want the temple-table turning-over Jesus right now, not the “love your enemies” one. And yet that same Jesus says “put away your swords” to those who would protect him, who forgives his executioners and their ignorance.  It’s too much.  I can’t love like that, and I’m ashamed to admit it.  If I cannot be part of the solution I am part of the problem.  If I can’t confess my white privilege and witness against the systemic racism in our country “I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13) instead of a symbol for love and justice.

I’m so longing for Easter but know we are a long way from the empty tomb, and the path that leads there goes through Gethsemane and the place of the skull.  Isn’t there a short cut, a way around the passion and suffering, a way to avoid the mess and the command to take up a cross and follow Jesus?

I know the answer to that question.  So I just keep praying to the source of all being to “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days1” and for the faith and strength

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

To right the un-rightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star.2

  1. “The Impossible Dream,” Mitch Leigh and Joe Darian
  2. “God of Grace and God of Glory,” Harry Emerson Fosdick