Like many wiser minds I have been very troubled about the state of our nation and the world in general. In particular I’m most concerned about the chasm of polarization that seems hopelessly wide and deep, making any productive discourse almost impossible. This impasse is a huge impediment to resolving everything from American culture wars to Vladimir Putin waiting to pounce on Ukraine.
It may seem naive or trite, but what the Judeo-Christian world knows as “The Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems like such a simple solution to most of the world’s problems. Knowing that words similar to Matthew 7:12 or Leviticus 19:18 appear in other world religions I googled that phrase and, please excuse the pun, I struck gold on my first try. Here’s what I found:
The Saturday Evening Post: cover, April 1, 1961 was a Rockwell collage of a group of people of different religions, races and ethnicity as the backdrop for the inscription “Do Unto Other As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Rockwell was a compassionate man, and this simple phrase reflected his philosophy. “I’d been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.” – Norman Rockwell
Here are Norman Rockwell’s notes on the way that the Golden Rule is expressed in different religions…
Such a list is an example of what some contemporary theologians (e.g. Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox) would call cosmic or deep ecumenism.
All of that is wonderful wisdom, but I want to share with you a concrete example, a snapshot in time if you will, of what that kind of mutual respect looks like in action. In response to my blog entitled “Leading with Your Head,” (Jan. 30, 2022) I received this comment from a friend and colleague, Rev. Phyllis Fetzer. She wrote,
“Hi, Steve, I enjoyed this blog post and thank you for the reminder re: being holistic and not just “leading with our head.” I mean no disrespect when I point out two things about your digression re: traumatic brain injury suffered by (football) players: (1) It’s not a “maybe;” it’s almost a certainty that players will experience damage to the brain. One recent (respected) study showed traumatic brain injury in 110 out of 111 players; that’s basically 100%. (2) May I gently point out to you (and hope that you would do the same to me) that having a lifelong habit of watching football doesn’t mean that that habit can’t change, right? Thinking of other ethical areas where people have said, “I just can’t change because it’s been this way my whole life.” E.g., men referring to women as “girls”. We *can* change in light of new learning, yes? I hope and think that you know that I respect you very much, and am also aware that I’m sure that I have (an) ethical blind spot(s) in some other area. Thanks for the good post.”
Wouldn’t the world be a much kinder and more productive and loving place if we could learn or relearn to disagree constructively and respectfully. I can tell you I certainly receive that kind of feedback with open arms and an open mind rather than putting up my defenses when I feel attacked. And I hope I have learned to live by that old golden rule just a little more thanks to Phyllis.
“Words alone are cheap. Breathing deeply is required also. Connecting to the heart, not just the eyes. Meditation, mindfulness, contemplation, art and creativity–accessing the right hemisphere of our brain, not just the verbal hemisphere, is needed.
Incorporating and honoring our bodies, breathing deeply, not just leading with our heads. The heart after all resides in the body and disperses its blood and values from that center. And breath is the same word as “spirit” in many languages (including Biblical ones).”
Yes, words are cheap, but they are all we have to express our thoughts and feelings. That quote is from Matthew Fox in his “Daily Meditations” for today, (January 29). The phrase that jumps off the page for me is “not just leading with our heads.” We know with our heads and hearts that we are holistic beings and certainly not the Cartesian model of rational-logical critters who only exist because we think. We also feel and act.
I first really understood that in graduate school working on my doctorate in rhetoric. It wasn’t until then that I learned that the traditional three-part sermons I grew up with were originally not just three sections of a sermon linked together more or less successfully. The three point idea originated clear back in the 4th century BCE with Aristotle. In his classic “Rhetoric” Aristotle describes a holistic approach to persuasive discourse that appeals to “logos, pathos, and ethos,” terms best translated into English as “reason, emotion, and ethics.” Effective persuasion needs all three elements because humans are rational, emotional and ethical beings. The latter term applies to our behavior that is shaped by our reason and emotion.
Western philosophy and education have majored ever since Descartes in developing and teaching that primarily addresses the mind to the detriment of emotional and ethical development. In other words as in the quote I began with we “lead with our heads.”
As I was writing this piece I saw a very timely post on Facebook that seems relevant. I can’t verify the source from a Facebook called “Compass,” but it certainly fits my life experience as one who led with my head through twelve plus years of higher education. Here are the key points of the post:
“According to Psychologists, there are four types of Intelligence:
1) Intelligence Quotient (IQ)
2) Emotional Quotient (EQ)
3) Social Quotient (SQ)
4) Adversity Quotient (AQ)
1. Intelligence Quotient (IQ): this is the measure of your level of comprehension. You need IQ to solve math, memorize things, and recall lessons.
2. Emotional Quotient (EQ): this is the measure of your ability to maintain peace with others, keep to time, be responsible, be honest, respect boundaries, be humble, genuine and considerate.
3. Social Quotient (SQ): this is the measure of your ability to build a network of friends and maintain it over a long period of time.
People that have higher EQ and SQ tend to go further in life than those with a high IQ but low EQ and SQ. Most schools capitalize on improving IQ levels while EQ and SQ are played down.
A man of high IQ can end up being employed by a man of high EQ and SQ even though he has an average IQ.
Your EQ represents your Character, while your SQ represents your Charisma. Give in to habits that will improve these three Qs, especially your EQ and SQ.
Now there is a 4th one, a new paradigm:
4. The Adversity Quotient (AQ): The measure of your ability to go through a rough patch in life, and come out of it without losing your mind.”
The phrase “leading with your head” reminded me of something I’ve been concerned about as I have watched way too much football in recent weeks. Last weekend was an especially exciting one for National Football League fans. There were four playoff games last weekend that were all as closely matched as mathematically possible. Three ended with winning field goals as time expired and the fourth game went to overtime.
First a confession and/or disclaimer: I know the game of American football has become dangerously violent. Players are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, and therefore bodies collide with much greater force. Padding and helmets are certainly much better than the days of leather helmets, but we still know many former players are suffering from traumatic brain injury, dementia, and Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) because of their years playing football. Knowing all that makes me uncomfortable watching, but it’s something I’ve been doing for nearly 70 years and is a very hard habit to break. I also think the way football has replaced our former much more civil national pastime (baseball) is another sign of the toxic masculinity that I wrote about plaguing the American psyche that I wrote about last week.
But I digress a bit. What I noticed watching so many games last weekend was a troubling difference between college and professional football. The college game has a rule against “targeting” which is aimed to limit hits to the head and neck area and crashing into an opposing player with the crown of the helmet. That rule is designed to protect both the player on the receiving end of the targeting and the cranium of the deliverer of the blow.
Yes, targeting is a judgment call that referees spend much time reviewing replays before enforcing. They take it very seriously because the penalty for targeting is ejection from the game, and that has and will cut down some on the most dangerous hits in an inherently violent game. I think the NFL needs to do something similar to prevent more life-threatening injuries from “leading with one’s head.”
I offer that football reflection as a metaphor for the rest of us in real life. When we lead with our heads, divorced from understanding the emotional, social, and I would add spiritual aspects that are co-partners with the head in human beings we are failing to maximize a healthy comprehension of human behavior. We are not just rational/thinking beings. The various components of our humanity need to work in partnership with each other or we are not living up to our potential. And the huge existential problems facing the human race will not be solved if we are not playing with a full deck.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2:4
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. “ Jesus, Matthew 5:5
Are Isaiah, Jesus and pacifists simply naïve optimists, or are they visionaries making a theological statement and not an historical one, a warning more than a prediction? By worldly standards such comments by Jesus are not taken seriously because most of us cannot begin to entertain the notion, let alone understand, that meekness and vulnerability can be and are the ultimate signs of strength.
Three of my favorite authors, namely Matthew Fox, Richard Rohr, and Brene Brown have addressed the important topic of toxic masculinity in their recent writings, and those words could not be more timely and critical. Toxic masculinity is nothing new, but seems to be as rampant and contagious as the Omicron variant of Covid. The standoff over Ukraine, the January 6 insurrection, the epidemic of gun violence in our cities, violent conflicts over masks on airplanes, and the populist posturing of Donald Trump and his merry band of followers are just a few examples from today’s headlines caused by the “might makes right” way of life.
My wife and I went to see the new “West Side Story” movie last weekend, and as you probably know the whole plot of the movie centers on gang violence and turf wars between the Sharks and the Jets. I knew that of course going in to the theater, but this version of that story seems to make the violence and tragedy more realistic and painful than the 1961 version. Or maybe it’s just that I know a lot more about the futility of violence now than I did when watching the original movie through the rose-colored glasses of my youth.
For my 15 year-old self West Side Story was just a tragic love story. I didn’t notice anything in the film about racism or social injustice because I knew nothing about racism or pacifism. I grew up in a pure white community playing cowboys and Indians and war games with my neighbor Jim Shockey. When I couldn’t be outside my bedroom floor was often covered with little army men on the floor (our video game violence then). My life ambition as a 4th grader was to be a marine and I dreamed of attending one of the military academies. My worldview was so narrow that I had no contact with any people of color until I was 20 years old.
Since West Side Story is more than 60 years old I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say the movie’s tragic ending is a perfect and very moving depiction of how absurd and futile trying to solve conflicts through violence is.
Toxic masculinity is as old as the Genesis 4 story of Cain killing his brother Able. And in all the millennia since we have made almost no progress at learning to beat our swords into useful implements of peace. The statue depicting that verse from Isaiah that stands in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York City was erected just three years after the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and all the other horrors of World War II ended. Hitler and Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito were defeated through force the likes of which the world had ever seen.
The world had been naive or gullible enough to believe WW I as “the war to end all wars,” but only 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles ended that war the sequel debuted with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland! Sound familiar? I do not mean to cast any dispersion on those who joined forces to oppose the Axis armies. My father was part of that greatest generation who risked and/or lost their lives to stop the evil personified in Hitler.
Force was met with greater force, but to what end? History continues to repeat itself. Hitler and Mussolini are replaced almost immediately by Stalin, the Kim Un gang, Pol Pot, Mao, and the brothers Castro just to name a few 20th century despots.
We have cold and hot wars, guerrilla and urban warfare almost continuously all over the planet. We have spent obscene amounts of money on deadlier and deadlier weapons of mass destruction, and greedy American capitalists lead the world in profiteering from making and selling those killing machines.
How long will the human race pursue this madness? Until we destroy ourselves and the planet we live on? One can certainly offer plenty of evidence that our systems of patriarchy have failed to produce a world where we don’t learn war anymore. I still hope that the emergence of more women in important leadership roles will help diffuse the toxic love of violence and force that has been the human race’s taken-for-granted business as usual for millennia. But my hope is seriously tempered by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert who are just as power hungry, paranoid and militant as their male counterparts.
This is not just a gender issue; it is a moral and existential threat to the human race itself, and it must change because there will be no WW IV. The U.S. 2022 defense budget is $700,000,000,000, and have you ever heard of any great debates in Congress about passing it? We have huge partisan wrangling over what we spend on education, the arts, health care and other social programs which cost a small fraction of the defense budget. The best way to start beating our swords into plowshares is to simply stop making bigger and more deadly swords and spears! We have enough atomic fire power to destroy the world dozens of times over. Why do we need more and more?
Another example of toxic versus heathy masculinity can be seen by comparing these two statements: 1) “Happy is the one who seizes your enemy’s infants and dashes them against the rocks.” 2) “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; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
Most people may recognize the latter words as part of Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount in Matthew 5. But you may be surprised to learn that the first statement is also biblical (Psalm 137:9). The two could not be more diametrically opposed and are exactly why when conflicts arise between Jesus and other biblical writings, as they often do, I choose Jesus. Not because the way of Jesus is easy but because it is true and the only way to real peace. As the world teeters on the brink of another cold or, heaven forbid, hot war over Ukraine, we better learn the difference soon.
O divine spirit of creation and re-creation, I am grateful that here in my little spot of your creation we got a beautiful blanket of white fluffy snow covering the naked brownness of winter. Thank you for the birds that flutter about the feeders because they cannot find food under the snow. But not far from this peaceful place others are shivering in the cold without electricity because of the same weather system. My sisters and brothers in Tonga are living with entire villages buried in ash and the threat of another eruption from the underwater volcano that shot ash 63000 feet into the air last week. I’ve flown 30000 feet above Mother Earth, but can’t imagine the power to send debris twice that high.
We are reaping the whirlwind of what we have sown pillaging the earth you have given us. That makes me sad and angry. I need and want a way to channel that energy into something that will help save this tiny little planet from extinction. I want a way to jar the fools in Congress who are slaves to party loyalty above all things. I want to put earthly mud in their eyes like Jesus did for the blind man so they will be able to see the evidence all around us that is a cry for help from the earth.
We have seen deadly tornados in December, tsunamis in January, extreme winter storms over half of country, and ghastly wild fires springing from nowhere to destroy homes in Colorado. But still our elected officials fiddle while our earthly home burns. We are slaves to capitalism. We are addicted to fossil fuel and individualism. We want the immediate gratification of having our own vehicles so we can go where we want when we want. We refuse to pay for adequate public transportation so we can sit in traffic jams spewing poison into the air we breathe. We keep to regimented work schedules that create “rush” hour frustration. We fail to replace lead pipes for others because it’s not our problem. Are we our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers?
Dear creator, you know all of this already, and my prayer is not to surrender our problems for you to solve. I pray because you are always more ready to listen than I am to share the concerns of my heart. Help me, please, to see how I am part of the problem. Take the log from eye so I can better see the beauty of your creation and accept anew my role as steward and caretaker of it all. Amen
There is so much on my mind and heart on this 2022 version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The demands of other commitments keep me from sharing those today. Instead I want to share some less familiar quotes from King that are not from his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech. These lines from King’s 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech were quoted in a powerful article by John Blake two days ago:
“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history,”
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Blake goes on to say, “Those are words that lift the soul. How much will they mean, though, if the US becomes a performative democracy — a country with the veneer of fair elections but run by White minority rule?
If that happens, January 6 — not January 15 — will be a truer reflection of what the US stands for.
And what King said in 1963 will no longer be a dream. It’ll be a mirage.”
John Blake, CNN, January 15, 2022, “MLK had a dream. Trump had a mob. How two days in January offer competing visions for America”
January 15 is the birthday of Russell Sawmiller, Jr., a dear friend who joined that innumerable caravan of the saints in 2020. Russ was many things to me: senior pastor, colleague, mentor, a distant cousin on my mother’s side, and most of all a life-long friend. I am reposting here a letter to God I wrote after his death as a tribute to Russ on this his 95th birthday.
April 17, 2020
Dear God, I’m writing this and asking that you forward it to my dear friend Russ who should have checked in with you early this morning. He never could figure out computers or cell phones; so I can’t send him an email or text, but I know somewhere out there in your marvelous universe he’s there and will be able to hear some things I should have said to him much sooner.
I first met Russ 49 years ago this summer when I had the good fortune to be appointed as his colleague and associate pastor in my first church after seminary. I’m sure there was divine intervention in that appointment because I had specifically told my bishop that I wanted my own church and did not want to be an associate pastor, and thanks to Russ I never really was, at least he never treated me like one.
Thanks, Russ for always treating me as a colleague. We were co-pastors in fact even though our titles never reflected that. Thanks for teaching me so much about being a pastor that I didn’t learn in seminary and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You did that in a collegial way without ever making me feel like the greenhorn I was. You let me learn from my mistakes instead of warning or lecturing me, even when you had to clean up my messes. I think the only time you gave any disapproval was when I confided in you something I was too embarrassed to trust anyone else with. You just gave me one of those looks and a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you have a death wish?”
Since I heard about your passing this morning I have been flooded with memories of our times together, I didn’t appreciate those years at Indianola while we were up to our butts in alligators, but in retrospect they were some of the very best years of my life. I remember you giving advice like, “take a day off — and get out of town!” Sorry I didn’t do very well taking that advice to heart. You taught me from your own hard experience to be very careful about not becoming too beholden to parishioners who would expect preferential treatment or unacceptable power in church decisions. And, as you often said, “Sometimes it’s too hard to take it ‘one day at a time.’ Those days just settle for a half day at a time.”
I remember the day it dawned on me that we had to be related since my mother was a Sawmiller! I can’t believe it took me weeks to figure that out, and then not until you mentioned the little town of Kossuth where my mom was born. So we were distant cousins and maybe my job with you was some sort of nepotism, but I rather think it explains how well we worked together.
I am grateful for memories and pictures of you baptizing both of my kids. You broadened my perspectives on life, theology, sociology, politics and coping with personal tragedy in so many ways. Your wife had died of brain cancer just 3 years before we met, leaving you with two children to raise and a gaggle of women knocking on your door to take Marilyn’s place. You introduced me to a whole gang of your clergy friends who accepted me as a colleague and by example about how to do relevant and creative ministry in ways that I had never experienced in the very conservative church and community I grew up in.
In spite of living in the social unrest of the early ‘70’s, working in a rapidly changing neighborhood in a church in transition, i.e. dying, we had fun. I still chuckle about the time your friend Dick Teller asked us why we needed two curators for our “museum” where much of our large church building was described by phrases like “this is where the women’s society used to meet,” or this is “where the nursery used to be.” But then you taught me churches could repurpose spaces for community needs like the Neighborhood Services food pantry, Huckleberry House for runaway teens, and the first Ohio State University child care center. All of those programs moved on to bigger spaces as they grew, but you planted the seeds that are still serving that community 50 plus years later.
You taught me about collaboration with other churches in the University-Indianola Outreach program, and oh what stories Stan Sells had to tell us about funny experiences with those neighbors who lived in a totally different world than our church members. You taught me that church work and meetings could be fun, that good team building staff meetings and birthday lunches strengthened bonds that didn’t break in times of stress.
We played racquetball, not well, but it was great stress relief, and when I got depressed because a particular election outcome was not to either of our liking you gave me a nugget of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “Steve, elections are like buses and pretty women. If you miss one there will be another one coming along soon.”
Our partnership included many Sunday mornings in the wonderful hideaway study up in the bell tower before worship when you’d tell me what the morning sermon was about and ask me to help you find a Scripture that fit. That last minute scrambling (aka proof texting?) was the exact opposite of how I had been taught to preach, and I must confess that many years later when I got the chance to teach preaching to seminary students I often used you as an example of how not to go about picking a preaching text!
By example you taught me and others to treat life as sacred without taking oneself too seriously. You shaped my ministerial career in so many ways, not the least of which was that my time with you was nothing like any horror stories I heard from other associate pastors. It was so obvious from the first time we met that you were different than many other stuffed-shirt pastors I had known who had made me reluctant to answer God’s persistent call to ministry. And it wasn’t just me that felt that immediate connection that made you such a good pastor and friend. When one of my good friends from seminary first met you shortly after we had both received our first appointments he told me how lucky I was and that he wished he had someone like Russ as his senior pastor.
I learned so much from you about ministry that I was ready to fly solo when you left Indianola for another challenge, just not as soon as I expected; but having a few months on my own at Indianola, a congregation where I already felt safe in an established community was the perfect basic training for the next step in my faith journey. I don’t think you planned it that way, but thanks anyway. When four years later I was asked to take another appointment as an associate after having my own church my friends were aghast that I would do that. But because I had such a positive experience working with you it was something I could do. I’m glad to say my other staff experiences were mostly good — not as good as ours had been of course — but I do believe that was in part because I went into those situations with a positive attitude thanks to you. I learned about generosity and hospitality as you offered your Vineyard cottage to my family when our children were too young to do our normal camping vacation. You couldn’t help that it rained that entire week, but being there stuck inside with two toddlers for a week may explain why I didn’t visit the Vineyard again for nearly 20 years. But when I did I was happy to return every year for the next four years, and those laid back weeks there with you were some of the best ever and something I looked forward to every year. The last year we vacationed together was 2001, and I’ll never forget that date because I flew home through New York that year on September 6th, just five days before the towers came crashing down.
I remember your loyalty to your mom and one of your many, many moves to be there for her in her last years. And speaking of moving! You moved so often I sometimes wondered if you were in witness protection! I hope your search for home is finally satisfied. I imagine Ralph has already given you a hard time about being late to join him on the other side, but I’m glad you two are together again with all your old Boston buddies sharing even more memorable years of memories than you and I have.
I’m so sorry your last years here were so hard, but I’m glad you really haven’t had to deal with the awful mess our world is in right now. If you can send us any divine intervention now we could sure use it.
I’m happy those years when you weren’t the old Russ are over and you are at peace. But I’m sad for the new memories we won’t get to make. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good a friend as you deserved these last few years but knowing the old Russ I loved wasn’t there made it hard. There would be no more boring retiree meetings together, no more cranberry pecan pancakes at First Watch, no more walks on the beach at Lucy Vincent or Gay Head.
I almost wrote “no more words of wisdom,” but I know that’s not true because after 50 years we share a bond that transcends death. What I’ve learned from you about life will always be a part of me. So, till we meet again at some First Watch or beach in the great beyond thanks for being a great friend, mentor, and the father figure I always wished I had.
So, thanks good friend for all the Russellisms, for the laughter and the tears of a life well lived and generously shared. As the finality of human life sinks in and the light of eternity shines a little brighter with you in it, I’m reminded of the words of Walter Brinkley, one of our elder members at Indianola. When Walter’s wife died he summed up the way I’m feeling in this world without you. He said, “I’m smiling through my tears.”
Here we are, nine days into a new year. We’ve changed the numbers on the calendar, but things look the same as year one and two of what one young child calls the Pandamnic. We’re still wearing masks, the Omicron numbers are scary high. New Year’s used to be more a time of out with the old and in with the new, but 2022 feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day, like we’re stuck in a very deep rut.
You may have seen the cartoon of a baby talking on a cell phone about her baptism. She says, “I tell you this guy in a dress tried to drown me, and my family didn’t do anything but stand around and take pictures!” I saw another one where Jesus is complaining to John the Baptist that he was trying to drown him. John replies, “Sorry, if you wanted to be sprinkled you should have gone to John the Methodist.”
How many of you were baptized as infants or as a small child? For that many of us at least we have no conscious memory of that important event that was a major force in shaping our faith journey. That’s one reason this Sunday after Epiphany is called the Baptism of the Lord; so we can all reflect on the promises that we made or were made for us at our baptism.
One of the best things about studying the Scriptures to prepare to preach or doing Bible study is noticing things we’ve not seen before in familiar stories. All of us are somewhat guilty of making what a friend of mine calls Gospel Stew. We take the different accounts of Jesus’ life and mix them all up together into one almost Bible narrative. But each of the Gospels is a unique testimony by its author, and it’s important to take time to focus on each one to see what treasures we can find when we do just that.
For example the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke we read today has one big difference from the other three Gospels. Did you notice it? Listen again to these words from verses 19-21: “…because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. [pause] Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
In the three other accounts in the Gospels John plays a much more central role in baptizing Jesus. John’s role is implied here, but Luke seems to make a point of getting John out of the spotlight in prison before Jesus hears the heavenly voice proclaiming his belovedness.
Luke gives John a lot of time on stage prior to this, but now it’s time for a new beginning for putting away the old wine skins that can’t contain the Gospel of Grace that God has come in Jesus came to proclaim. Now, it’s a new year and time to clean out the old to make room in our hearts for the incarnation of God’s spirit. The Holy Spirit comes not just in Jesus, but in all of us who have been claimed as God’s beloved.
When I was teaching a preaching class at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware one of my students, Mike Doak, dug into this text and did a really creative look at this story from the perspective of John the Baptist who is cooling his heels in jail when Jesus emerges as the Messiah John has been proclaiming.
My student imagined what it might look like if John the Baptist wrote us a Letter from the Jerusalem Jail:
“Stunned… I tell you I was stunned as these events unfolded. You could have heard a single drop of rain fall at that moment, in the midst of that gathering. As for me, one touch of a feather would have keeled me over. Where was the winnower, fork in hand, striding onto the threshing floor? What of the fire, the unquenchable fire, into which the chaff was to be cast? Was there no axe to be laid to the root? We expected a Messiah, a ruler grown from the tree of David would Lord it over Israel with a strong hand and a mighty arm. Why were there no trumpets to announce the coming king; why did thunder not clap as heavens rent open? What manner of king is coroneted with a dove in place of a crown? If I may appropriate a few of your own symbols, I preached Rambo but behold Gandhi. I expected God’s unparalleled judgment yet beheld God’s unparalleled grace. I preached unquenchable fire, but witnessed unquenchable hope. Self-doubt overtook me as days passed into weeks in the solitude of my prison cell. Though I had thrived in the wilderness all my grown life, I was then never so alone. How was it that one called “forerunner” could become “forlorn.”
John has been the star of the show. Huge crowds have come to hear him preach. Some people even think he might be the Messiah himself. That’s pretty heady stuff. But Luke makes it clear John is the forerunner, the warm up act, not the featured attraction. It’s time for a changing of the guard.
Have you ever resented someone who made the team while you got cut? Or some whippersnapper got the promotion you thought you deserved? Or becoming a big sister or brother and all of sudden not getting attention from Mom and Dad or your grandparents who only have eyes for this new little stranger who has invaded your home? If so we can understand how John might have felt.
John says he is preparing the way for Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t turn out to be the Messiah John and most of the Jews were expecting. John was a hell fire and brimstone preacher, a little on the wild and crazy side. He preached a Gospel of repentance based on fear of God’s wrath. He expected the bad dudes to get their comeuppance and the chaff of society to be burned and the sooner the better. We all have our own list of who those bad dudes and dudesses are don’t we!
But John didn’t find in Jesus what he hoped for and expected. This most unlikely carpenter’s son is named God’s beloved son, the one with whom God is well pleased. Baptism is all about new beginnings, but John’s new beginning is a stark reminder that God is the boss and we aren’t. No matter how much we want to pass judgment on people we think are sinners, that’s not our job. Our job is to be messengers of repentance and hope, the good news of new beginnings, and leave the judgment to God.
Baptism is still a sacrament of new beginnings, even in yet another Covid year. But it’s important to see baptism as a beginning and not the end of a journey. Baptized children are preparatory members and it’s the job of all of us– parents, teachers, grandparents, fellow church members – to be their village and help prepare them for full membership and claiming their belovedness for themselves. Now don’t go guilt tripping yourselves about your shortcomings or failures as parents because your kids or grandkids haven’t turned out as you hoped they would. Imagine how Elizabeth and Zechariah felt about this miracle child of theirs living in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey! Our job as role models for the younger generation is to show them they are beloved even if they are covered in tattoos and have green hair. The rest is up to them and God.
I want to pause here to acknowledge everyone involved in the amazing children’s ministry here at Northwest. I’ve been part of 8 different congregations in my life and the amazing job Doris Ing and all her servant leaders do with our kids here is by far and away the best I’ve ever seen. Our children get a balanced spiritual diet of hearing the stories of the Bible, and then they practice those values by living them out working in the children’s garden alongside adults and a whole host of other service projects that teach them to treat all of God’s children as the beloved people they are.
Those kids grow up before our eyes oh so fast. Diana and I have been part of the Northwest family for almost 8 years now, and I am amazed when I see children who were toddlers back in 2014 who are now singing in the children’s choir, and teaching us elders what love in action looks like. They grow in wisdom and stature like Jesus to help deliver brown bag lunches and go on youth mission trips. One of my favorite projects in recent months came out of the concern from youth in our confirmation class about climate change. They’ve helped us implement new recycling opportunities and designed these wonderful reusable cups so we can stop adding to the problems Styrofoam cups cause for mother earth. And best of all they put on these cups words that remind us whenever we drink from it that “Love Has No Zip Code.”
I already knew in my head how unjust our society is based on which zip code you happen to be born into. But I really learned about that in a heartfelt way when I was working at Ohio State several years back. I was helping facilitate a partnership between OSU and Columbus City Schools. Many of us at OSU volunteered to be tutors and my school was Medary, one of the elementaries in the University District. At the same time my grandkids were in elementary school in the Olentangy School District. I loved working with the kids at Medary, but it hurt my heart when I would go from there to visit the Olentangy schools on grandparent’s day or other occasions. The differences between the new school buildings and the resources available to my grandchildren were like visiting another planet.
I am grateful for the amazing experiences my grandkids have had at Olentangy, but very troubled that the urban kids are not getting the same benefits.
I’m using Olentangy as an example, but we know the same stark differences apply to Dublin and Hilliard and other suburban schools. The way we fund education via property tax, i.e. by zip code, is inherently unjust. That system has resulted in the resegregation of our schools and perpetuated and widened the gap between the privileged and the marginalized. And those disparities have only been multiplied by Covid.
Climate change and education are just two of many injustices we are called to address. None of us can make a big difference in any or all of them, but we can start by asking God how we can make a difference wherever we are. Luke describes the baptism of Jesus in 2 verses and then devotes 12 verses to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness that immediately follows. This warns us that we are all tempted forever as Jesus was to cave in to the seduction of worldly comfort and power, but because we are followers of Christ we can say no to Satan’s clever sales pitches.
I don’t know about you, but when we baptize cute babies up here I don’t pay much attention to the words of the baptism ritual. I’m just oohing and aahing over a precious beloved child of God. Babies are such a miracle that they melt our hearts. But there are important words in the ritual that we all need to hear. As a congregation we promise to help raise those children in the faith; so we shouldn’t just sign on for that important job like we click agree without reading all the fine print on a new app.
Listen to what one of those vows asks us to agree to: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” That’s a heavy promise, and it comes before the next promise where we are asked: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and put your whole trust in his grace…?” We can’t renounce and resist the forces of evil on our own. We can only do that through the power of the Holy Spirit descending on us and declaring we are God’s beloved children.
The last line of the baptismal vow says we “promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” Brothers and sisters, all means all. Just as we can’t choose our relatives, even the crazy uncles and the weird cousins, we can’t exclude anyone from the body of Christ. I know how hard that is. The partisan paralysis in our government that has made this pandemic last so much longer than it needed to and taken so many beloved family members and friends from us makes me furious. But the Gospel message is that even those I vehemently disagree with about vaccines and masks, yes, even those people are God’s beloved children.
Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe long before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet. God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one. And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire.
In one of those special God incidents, I got a wonderful idea for how we can all practice our baptismal vows and celebrate our blessedness every day. It came just yesterday in a daily devotion I get from Father Richard Rohr, and it suggests this simple practice.
The exercise goes like this; looking, really looking lovingly, not staring or seeing any flaws, look at yourself in a mirror or at another person, and as you breathe in and out pray silently these words:
Breathe in: I see you with love
Breathe out: gifted, cherished.
Breathe in: Grateful
Breathe out: for who you are. [Repeat this with congregation, looking at another or imagining someone]
And here’s the best part–Father Rohr goes on to say,
“We can also bring this practice out into the world. How often do we really see another person beneath their role, under our expectations? What if we paused at the grocery store and for a moment brought eyes of love to the stock clerk or the cashier. They don’t have to know what you’re doing. You don’t have to stare, just take in their image, then close your eyes for a moment, breathe, and bathe them with love. Pause and see the other person as beloved and beautiful as they indeed truly are.”
My beloved sisters and brothers, this is a day of new beginnings because God’s “Belovedness Knows No Zip Code.” Amen
Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, January 9, 2022
[I preached this sermon at Epworth UMC, Columbus, OH on January 2, 2022. To watch the livestreamed sermon go to epworthkarl.org, click on “Worship,” and then on “Archived Worship Services.”]
My Facebook news feed has been full this week about a saint the world lost last week, and I’m not talking about Betty White; although I think she might qualify. One story about Bishop Desmond Tutu especially caught my attention because it dealt with what inspired Tutu to choose the career path he followed. “When Desmond Tutu was a child he would go after school to the kitchen of a small hospital where his mother worked as a cook. He would remain there, helping his mother and doing his homework until they both went home at the end of the day.
Several times a week, a young white Anglican priest named Trevor Huddleston would leave his bicycle behind the hospital and would then walk through the kitchen on his way to visit the sick, and when he did he always raised his hat to Desmond’s mother and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Tutu.”
This simple act of courtesy and respect toward his mother so impressed the little boy half hidden behind his mother that it profoundly influenced his entire future as well as the future of his native land. He knew he lived in a world where virtually all white people didn’t even bother to speak to blacks, much less show them respect.
He lived in a world where a black person had to step off the sidewalk to make way for a white person who might be walking toward them. Years later, Tutu wrote in his autobiography, “I wondered what kind of man this was and what kind of church he represented. And when I found out, I decided that I wanted to be a priest like him.”
In our Scripture for today we find Simeon and Anna who, like Bishop Tutu, knew who they were called to be. Simeon and Anna are the first people to recognize Jesus as the Christ without some angel telling them. Why these two old folks? Because they are the ones looking for God’s revelation. Other people, like us perhaps, were too busy to notice; they are like Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary. When Jesus came to their house Martha was busy in the kitchen, not doing anything wrong. We all love a good host or hostess taking care of us. But sometimes we stay busy to avoid stuff we don’t want to face – including Jesus. Maybe we’re afraid or embarrassed to face Jesus because he knows who’s naughty or nice? Or maybe we feel unworthy because we haven’t accomplished our purpose in life.
We all know that December is the month when even the biggest sports fan can overdose on football bowl games. And even if you aren’t a fan we all know that the purpose of a football team is winning the game-even if it means scoring 48 points as Ohio State did yesterday. And whether or not a team is achieving that goal makes all the difference in how it behaves. If the team with the ball is winning they will take as much time as allowed between plays. They run the ball instead of passing because an incomplete pass stops the game clock. Their players are taught to stay in bounds when they are tackled because that keeps the clock running between plays.
But if the team with the ball is behind that’s when the last few minutes of the game can take forever. That team calls time out as often as it can; they try to get out of bounds to stop the clock, sometimes even fake injuries or whatever they can do to stretch those last two minutes out as long as it takes to accomplish their purpose.
Simeon is like the team that is ahead. His life purpose is fulfilled when he sees the Christ child, and he says “Ok, God. I’m done here. Take me home.”
When I was in college 100 years ago my big goal after graduation was to buy a Corvette and go to California. God had different ideas, and I bought a Volkswagen and went to seminary. Simeon and Anna spent much of their time in prayer. They went to the source instead of buying into the popular notion of what the Messiah would look like; and that’s why they were prepared for God’s surprise. They understood that God’s revelation may not look like anything we expect.
The next story in Luke’s Gospel after this one tells us that Jesus knew his life purpose by age 12. That’s when his parents found him in the temple learning from the teachers because as he told them he had to be about his Father’s business. For most of us it takes a lot longer to discover our purpose. Anna Mary Robertson was 76 when she found her calling. When she did she painted over 600 famous paintings, and because of that we know her as Grandma Moses. When asked why she started painting she said, “I was too old to work on the farm and too young to sit on the porch.” Does that apply to any of us? I’ve looked everywhere folks and the word retirement does not appear in the Bible. Older folks in the Bible like Abraham and Sarai, like Elizabeth and Zechariah don’t get put out to pasture, they just get a new job description from God. My dear mother-in-law was wheelchair bound in her 90’s, and still asking what she could do to make a difference in God’s world. The secret is asking, seeking, and never giving up until we see the Lord. Then and only then can we, like Simeon, be content to let the clock run out.
Today is the second anniversary of the tragic death of a good friend of mine and yours. I want to honor his memory today. Bill Casto’s death was very painful in so many ways, but this text reminded me of Bill because in his “retirement” he found his purpose and passion in a relentless ministry to homeless people in Columbus.
I have two friends who have had near death experiences and both reported that they were told, “It’s not your time yet. There’s something more you need to do.” I believe trying to figure out what that one thing might be is asking the wrong question. What if we ask instead what we need to be? So many New Year’s resolutions or goals focus on things we want to do or not do, and we know what happens to good intentions before January runs out. Let’s think bigger this year, namely what is my purpose as one of God’s people? Who does God want me to be and does this action/word help me be that kind of person?
How do we know what that looks like? We discern who we are through prayer and sharing the journey with other pilgrims. Simeon did that and trusted God’s promise. Do we? Do I? Or do I get discouraged; disappointed that what I wanted I didn’t get for Xmas? Or I didn’t get that promotion I thought I deserved; didn’t get to take the path I wanted to take or realized too late that I missed an important turn off the freeway and have to go miles before I can turn around and correct my course?
How do we discern what our purpose is? Not some one time project or act, but an entire way of life dedicated to finding our purpose and aligning it with God’s will. Simeon and Anna had found theirs and were sticking to it. How did they know what to do? They were in the temple where they thought God dwelled. We know better. God is everywhere – in burning bushes and other miracles but more often in the still voice we can’t hear unless we really listen. Like Elijah God wants us to be still and know she is God and we aren’t.
That means tuning away from false promises like the prosperity gospel and its false prophets. In the word of the old hymn – go to the source – take time to be holy. I know, none of us feel very holy. We are fallible human beings who screw things up all the time. That’s why we get a do over with a new year. Let’s make 2022 the year we learn to forgive others and forgive ourselves. Life in God’s grace is not like football. In football if you fumble or commit a penalty you can’t undo it; it’s all there on the digital record of the game to be replayed in agonizing slow motion incessantly. And if you commit the unforgiveable sin of targeting you get thrown out of the game.
Not so with God’s grace. We get to go back to the drawing board or the huddle and call another play and hope it is the one sent into the game by God and not by the other team? I have always found deep meaning in the lyrics to a song called “The Impossible Dream” from “The Man of LaMancha”* from way back in 1965. The words still speak to our following God’s purpose.
“To dream the impossible dream To fight the unbeatable foe To bear with unbearable sorrow And to run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong And to love pure and chaste from afar To try when your arms are to weary To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest To follow that star No matter how hopeless No matter how far To fight for the right Without question or pause To be willing to march, march into hell For that heavenly cause
And I know If I’ll only be true To this glorious quest That my heart Will lie peaceful and calm When I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this Oh, that one person, scorned and covered with scars Still strove with his last ounce of courage To reach the unreachable star.”
But we also need periodic rest while still seeking our purpose and fulfillment. None of us are super heroes or heroines. We need to take breaks from pursuing impossible dreams like exhausted nurses and doctors working with dying patients need time off. Worship and prayer is one way we can stop the merry go round and get off for a while – take a sabbatical. It’s there we can find the blessed assurance and be satisfied as Simeon was that his life purpose was fulfilled. Wow – for me that rings so true and so false at same time! Come on, God, how do I discern when I’m done? Is resting a way of letting go and letting God or is it giving up? The dilemma is that we only will really know when we have kept the faith, run the race, and finished the course.
So here we are on the threshold of a new year that feels a lot like the last two. I remember early in 2020 I kept a journal where I measured this darn pandemic in days, having no idea it would grow into weeks, months and years. I have been calling 2022 Ground Hog Year, after that classic movie “Groundhog Day.” But here we are again asking what our role is as people of faith in this new covid year? I have often begun the new year by praying the Covenant Prayer of Methodism founder, John Wesley. I’m going to invite you all to join me in praying that prayer, but I must warn you it involves maybe the hardest thing we can do, which is to surrender to God.
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition
I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, Praised for you or criticized for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service. And now, O wonderful and holy God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, you are mine, and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.
The prophet Isaiah knew all about a weary world. He said,
“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Tonight we celebrate the end of our Advent waiting.
Tonight we join Christians all over this weary world rejoicing and giving thanks for a God who loves us enough to become one of us. That God shares our sorrows and removes our fears with a thrill of hope that sets us free to rejoice.
Tonight we come as people who have walked in darkness, but we have seen the great light. We have lived in a land of deep darkness—and on us the light has shined.
[Light the Christ Candle]
And so we light the Christ candle as a sign to all who are weary that God invites us to a stable where we, like the infant Jesus, can be wrapped in the arms of our loving God and sleep in heavenly peace.
I don’t often remember dreams that I have, but I had one recently that was very vivid and realistic and stuck with me when I woke up. To put this dream in context you need to know that I had my 75th birthday in late October, and my wife Diana will also be 75 on New Year’s Day. When we got engaged 20 years ago we were both in our early 50’s and Diana was teaching middle school. When her students found out she was engaged they asked her if we planned to have a family! She assured them we had both been there and done that.
But in my recent dream we became parents of twins. And if that wasn’t enough of a miracle we seemed to have done so without going thru labor and delivery. Someone just presented the two babies to us, a boy and a girl, and they were both already named. I didn’t remember the boy’s name when I woke up, but the girl was named Mary; like Jesus’ mother but it also happened to be Diana’s mother’s name. That Mary died 3 years ago at the age of 100. But to make the dream even more surreal in the midst of becoming parents who have Medicare pay the maternity bills, in my dream we were making plans for my mother-in-law’s funeral while holding our two newborns. The full circle of life was there in that one interesting if confusing scene.
That dream during this Advent season turned my thoughts to the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah in our Scripture for today. They too were way beyond child-bearing age, and we can understand Zechariah’s reluctance to believe it was possible for his vision to be true. But here’s the problem. Zechariah was a priest, and as such one would assume he knew the Scriptures and would have been familiar with the story of Abram and Sarai who laughed at the angels who told them they were to be parents in their old age.
One aside – there is a big difference between “knowing” the Abraham and Sarah story and really believing it. I love this illustration of the difference between believing and trusting. In the days before we had television and the internet to entertain us there were high wire artists who would perform in unbelievable places. One of those dare devils was planning to walk a tightrope across part of Niagara Falls. A huge crowd gathered to witness this daring attempt, but before climbing up to the wire the man walked among the crowd asking people if they thought he could successfully walk across that rope from one side to the other. One after another the people said, “No, I think you’re crazy, but I want to watch any way.”
Finally he found one enthusiastic fan who said, “Yes, of course I believe you can do it.” And the aerial artist then asked, “Do you think I can do it pushing a wheelbarrow?” “Sure, why not, said the fan. I believe you can do that.” “Good,” said the artist. “You get in the wheelbarrow, and I’ll push.” Zechariah wasn’t willing to get in the wheelbarrow. He didn’t believe the angel, and for his lack of faith he was unable to speak until after his son, John the Baptist, was born.
But to return to the important person in our text, we find Elizabeth, who like Sarai believed she was barren, but God had other ideas. Do you believe in miracles? Yes, we know the Bible contains several miracle birth stories, including the birth of Jesus himself. How do we explain these stories? How is. It possible for a virgin to conceive or for a woman in her old age to give birth? Does your health care here at Wesley Glen include maternity care?
For starters let’s suspend our disbelief enough to consider that these are theological stories, not biological ones. These miracle births are one way of saying that with God all things are possible. What if I told you that someone your age or mine could travel into space? And I’m not talking about billionaires pretending to be astronauts. I’m talking about John Glenn who made his second trip to space at age 77.
Or a woman could become a world famous painter at 76? Anna Mary Robertson, better known as Grandma Moses did just that. Why? She said, “I am too young to sit on the porch, and too old to work on the farm.” She painted over 600 famous canvases and worked until she was over 100 years old. Albert Schweitzer ministered to the sick in Africa until he was 89. Johann von Goethe completed his masterpiece “Faust” when he was 81.
Now we can say yes, but those folks didn’t have to deal with a global pandemic. Or we can make other excuses about why we can’t do x, y, or z. Believe me, I have a long litany of things I no longer can do, and it is oh so easy to get sucked into a quagmire of depression about the negative aspects of the aging process. I throw plenty of pity parties for myself, and do you know how much good they do me or anyone else? Not one darn bit.
Does this story about the parents of John the Baptist mean that we need to expect a baby boom here at Wesley Glen? I don’t think so, but it does mean that we need to open our hearts to whatever it is that God is calling each of us to do in this stage of our lives. None of us expected old age to come quite so soon, did we? But every one of us is younger today than we ever will be again. What if we shift our focus from the past and all those things we miss that we can no longer do toward a future that God is laying out before us to claim joyfully. I don’t know what hidden talents each of you possess, but God knows and is inviting you to embrace those and put them to work for the betterment of your life and those of your neighbors.
-Preached at Vespers service, Wesley Glenn Retirement Center, Columbus, OH 12/19/21