The Palm Sunday Road Less Traveled


Most anyone who’s ever been to Sunday School knows the shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus Wept.” In that case they are tears of grief over the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. But I realized at our Palm Sunday service today that there is another time when Jesus weeps. We sang our Hosannas and the cute kids paraded with their palms as usual, but when the Gospel lesson from Luke was read my ears perked up when I heard something that only Luke records:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44).

With this week’s missile attack on Syria much on my mind, this warning that failure to know “what would bring you peace” leads to total destruction struck me as ominous indeed. The Syrian situation has been catastrophic for years, and no one has come up with a way to end the suffering and devastation. We have seen the refugees and the victims of chemical weapons. The suffering has gone on so long I’m not sure anyone remembers what they are fighting about. But for the US to launch an attack that risks confrontation with Russia raises the stakes to a new level of anxiety.

Once again we have gone down the road of military force even though it has never led to lasting peace. Thinking about the Syrian capital of Damascus as we approached Palm Sunday got me to thinking about the choices we make about the roads we travel. The most dramatic conversion ever occurred on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19) when Saul was literally struck down by the power of God’s spirit and transformed from being the most violent tormentor of Christians to the greatest evangelist for the very Christ he had been persecuting.
It feels to me like the world needs to be knocked off its high horse the way Saul was. What else but a Taser-like blast from God’s Holy Spirit can bring an end to our warring madness? Jesus wept over Jerusalem because his people had rejected again the way of peace. He weeps even as he showed us for one last time that God’s ways are not those of conquering heroes on mighty steeds but those of humble servant leaders who choose the road less traveled, the narrow path that leads to salvation.

Jesus’ way is the road that conquers death not by use of cruise missiles or poison gas, but the way that leads through death to eternal life. Jesus taught his followers that those who lose their lives for his sake will find them, and now he’s on the road into Jerusalem to put his life where his mouth was. Jesus’ road is not an easy road to follow. His best friends bailed out on him when things got really tough, but on Easter morning we will learn again that he is indeed the way, the truth and the life.

We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism in our churches to the point that we have forgotten what it signifies about the paths we choose to travel. I can’t remember the source of this story about how serious Christian baptism and discipleship really are, but I’ll never forget the story. It’s told about a priest in a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child briefly in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” The American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!”

Life changing conversion kills us to our worldly selves and raises us up as new creations in Christ. Maybe it’s just my cowardice, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of dramatic conversion experiences. My own conversion from a rigid, judgmental brand of Christianity to one I believe to be more authentic was a slow gradual process, and I suspect the conversion of a nation to the ways of peace is also one that takes place over a long period of time.
As hard as that road of death to self is to follow for individuals, it is much harder for societies and nations. But I wonder if it isn’t just as necessary on the national level as it is for individuals? The current lack of morality at all levels of our nation, the way greed and gain run roughshod over ethics, the increase in hate crimes and systemic oppression of marginalized people, and the short-sighted refusal to take stewardship of the earth seriously have all raised questions in my mind about the future of the United States as a viable nation. All empires throughout history have risen and then eventually fallen, usually from corruption within and a lack of sustaining values worthy of survival. All of that has had me wondering lately if the United States is beginning to travel down that slippery slope?

I hope it’s not too late to turn back, but I honestly believe we are dangerously close to that point. Close enough I think that it is well worth praying very hard about which road we’re on during this Holy Week as we consider the passion of Christ for God’s people. Let’s honestly ask ourselves if Jesus is weeping over us and saying, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”

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The Freedom and Power to Resist Evil

One of the things I like best about being a retired pastor is that it’s so much easier to really worship that when I was “in charge.” That may sound strange but when I lead worship I am busy thinking about what comes next in the service, is my microphone turned off during the hymns so I don’t frighten anyone with my lousy singing voice; did someone remember to put water in the font, are my sermon pages in the right order?

I experienced some real worship this morning during a service of baptism. The familiar liturgy that I’ve led many times was used, but I heard it like it was new; like I suddenly had ears to hear. One part of the United Methodist Baptismal Covenant asks the parents/sponsors of a child or an adult being baptized, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

What a powerful theological statement is packed into that short sentence. My first thought about it went to the phrase “resist evil, injustice and oppression” because that prophetic activity has been heavy on my mind for a long time. There is so much evil, injustice and oppression filling my news feed that I want to just say “stop the world I want to get off!” A college senior at Ohio State abducted and murdered at my Alma Mater, Christian children slaughtered by ISIS, immigrant and refugee families ripped apart by fear-inspired government policies, crony capitalists rewarded with high government offices they are not qualified to fill, and protections for God’s creation being threatened for purely profit motives. I look at my young grandchildren and wonder what kind of a world they will live in when they are my age? It wearies my soul.

Your list of evil and injustice may be very different than mine, but the responsibility of Christians to resist evil in the name of God’s justice is the same for all of us. That Christian responsibility was not being described at a service of ordination or consecration of someone dedicating her or his life to full-time Christian service. These are words of challenge and empowerment for all of us at our baptism. This is a bold affirmation of the priesthood of all believers, and it made me wonder how many Christians would agree to be baptized if they took those words to heart?

Babies and young children often don’t take too kindly to baptism water being poured or sprinkled on their heads. A cartoon circulated on Facebook awhile back showed a baby talking on a phone to someone and saying, “You wouldn’t believe it. This woman in a robe was trying to drown me, and my family just stood around taking pictures!” I remember one baptism where a young child resisted the chilly water by pulling away from the pastor and wailing for all to hear, and I commented “Maybe he understands the significance of baptism better than we do.”

Resisting evil and injustice can be dangerous work, and the coward in me tends to see the baptismal font as half full when I focus on the heavy responsibility those words carry. But then I read the first part of the vow again and by turning that gem over to see a different facet of its brilliance I saw the meaning of those words in a whole new, brilliant light. The sentence begins, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you….” Working for justice is not a burden to endure; it is a talent to be embraced, a gift of freedom and power to be accepted. God is not asking us to do the impossible all alone but is gifting us with the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit to do the work God calls all of us to do. And by its very nature, baptism is not an isolated anointing. It is a sacrament of inclusion in the Body of Christ. It is a celebration of the power of community. It is a statement to the world that together we who have heard the call of Christ can and will support and encourage and nourish each other. We will we celebrate the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves, even when that means admitting we are part of the injustice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Answer is Blowing in a Mighty Wind: Acts 2:1-4

A recent study by the Pew Research Center on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” has generated much hand wringing and discussion because it indicates that the percentage of the American population identifying themselves as Christians is in serious decline. The release of that study just before Pentecost in the Christian calendar is a perfect motivation for us to take seriously what is often called “the birthday of the church” in Acts 2.

The second chapter of Acts is a wonderful summary of the Christian Gospel. It begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, but that is just the beginning. The chapter goes on to describe the whole Gospel of both personal and social holiness which I outlined in my last post, and this article is the first in a series on Acts 2 that will reflect on our Judeo-Christian roots as a way of moving from hand wringing to spirit-led witness to our faith in both word and action.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about discouragement as an obstacle to resurrection living, and the evidence for being discouraged has not abated in the interim. ISIS victories in Iraq and the ensuing political posturing and blame game, a horrific shoot out in Waco, a deadly train crash in Philadelphia, a huge oil spill and draughts in California while rains and flooding of biblical proportions hammer parts of Texas.

Such bad news everywhere reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my seminary professors back in 1971. I attended Dr. Roy Reed’s memorial service last week, and that brought back lots of memories. One of them was the day I preached my senior sermon in chapel at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I invited a talented group of youth from Wapakoneta, Ohio where I was youth pastor to join me for that service. They had formed a folk music group called “The Get Together,” and one of the numbers they sang in chapel that day was a Ray Stevens song, “Everything is Beautiful.” It’s a song about inclusivity and tolerance, but Professor Reed took exception to the chorus and challenged me about its theological soundness after the service. The chorus says:

“Everything is beautiful in its own way.
Like the starry summer night, or a snow-covered winter’s day.
And everybody’s beautiful in their own way.
Under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find the way.”

The pastor at Dr. Reed’s memorial service talked about how honest (sometimes brutally honest) Dr. Reed could be. He even said Roy’s mother once remarked that Roy was so honest you sometimes just wanted to slap him! In retrospect I have come to appreciate and cherish that passion for truth, but not so much that day when I was on the receiving end as one of his students. In no uncertain terms Dr. Reed argued that everything is not beautiful, and as in every generation there were plenty of current events to support his argument. The news headlines in 1971 were all about Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Memories of My Lai, Selma, assassinations and riots in 1968, student deaths at Jackson State and Kent State, and the first big oil spill in Santa Barbara were all fresh in our minds.

With the benefit of more life experience I came to understand Dr. Reed’s point. Faith and hope are necessary for human survival, but so is a healthy balance of prophetic realism that shines the spotlight of truth on injustices that need to be made right. Sometimes when I reflect on my own life and career I get discouraged at the lack of progress we are making as a human race. The church and the world do not seem to be much closer to God’s vision for creation than we were that day 44 years ago.

But when I am tempted to lament the fact that the world is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket I remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My alma mater, MTSO, is a good example of why we need to see things from God’s perspective. God’s time is not our time. That spring that Dr. Reed and I had our memorable discussion was a different era and the seminary we both love was not the same place it is today. The school was only 13 years old in 1971, and even though it had been founded by a wonderful faculty and board committed to progressive theology and the social gospel, it was a creature of its time and culture. In my class of 50 students there were only two women, and neither of them was in the track for ordination. The faculty we studied under was top-notch, but they were all white males. (The first female and minority faculty members were hired the year after I graduated.)

By comparison, the faculty of that school is now led by a female dean and is 43% female, 29% minority, and serves a diverse student body that is over 50% female. Does that mean it is utopia or that the church is now a perfect place? Of course not. Even though women clergy are now a very significant part of the fabric of our church, the truth is that clergy women still far too often hit a “stained glass ceiling” and are rising to leadership positions in large churches at a much slower rate than women in comparable positions in other professions. We can’t ignore the need for continual progress in the church or society, but neither should we discount the significant gains we have made in women’s rights, civil rights and human rights. Everything is not and never will be beautiful in this imperfect world, but some important things are certainly more beautiful than they once were, and those things can inspire us to keep the faith and continue the quest for truth and justice.

If someone had tried to tell Jesus’ frightened band of disciples just before Pentecost that everything is beautiful, I’m sure they would have objected even more strongly than Professor Reed did to our song. Jesus had been brutally executed and all their hopes for political liberation from Rome and reestablishment of the glory of Israel were crushed. Then their hopes rose again. Jesus was back with them for a short time only to leave again permanently on Ascension Day. He promised to be with them always in spirit but told them to wait in Jerusalem for that promise to be fulfilled (Acts 1).

And that brings us to Acts 2:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4)

Not too long ago it was common to find a yellow and brown post-it note on one’s door notifying the occupants that UPS had attempted to deliver a package but could not leave it because someone needed to sign for it. That practice has changed because the percentage of people who are home during the day makes it impractical. But God’s delivery policy has not changed. You still have to be fully present to receive God’s spirit. It can’t be done half-heartedly or in absentia. The disciples were told to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem was not a safe, cozy place for them to hang out. They had good reason to believe their lives were in danger at the hands of those who had killed Jesus.

Given their track record for bravery it is pretty amazing that the disciples obeyed Jesus’ command. They were more likely to go into a witness protection program than to become bold witnesses for the faith. Let me remind you that the Greek word for witness also means “martyr.” Discipleship was not and still is not for sissies, but wait and obey they did; and on the day of Pentecost God delivered an event that transformed their lives and the world forever.

That kind of transformation requires tremendous power to overcome fear and inertia; so the delivery does not come in the form of a gentle dove alighting on their heads. It comes in the form of a violent wind and flames of refining fire that propel the apostles out of their man cave sanctuary into the cosmic battle with the forces of evil and darkness. So be careful what you ask for. Those baptized into the Christian community are playing with fire and will never be the same.

Baptism initiates all who accept it into the priesthood of all believers. Peter and his gang were not seminary grads, just forever changed by their encounter with Jesus and now filled with his spirit to do, as he predicted, even greater things than he did because he was in them and they were in him (John 14:12-20).

The seeds Jesus had planted in the disciples came to fruition on the Day of Pentecost, a significant Jewish holiday, The Festival of Weeks. Our English word “Pentecost” comes from a phrase in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs the Hebrews to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture). This Jewish holiday was originally a harvest feast when the first fruits of their labors were brought as an offering to God. That is important to the Christian observation of Pentecost for two reasons.

The new birth of the spirit in Jesus’ followers represents an offering of their best to God first and foremost. The disciples are all in for the first time in their commitment to Christ, offering themselves completely to God’s kingdom and not to any false idols of comfort, wealth or worldly power. It is a new beginning for them, the church and the world.

Secondly, the date is important because it explains why people from all over the world were in Jerusalem. They were there for the Jewish Festival, and that’s why we hear in verse 4 that the first way the spirit manifests itself in the disciples is through a new found ability to communicate in languages they had not previously known. That is an appropriate first fruit of the spirit because it goes without saying that communication is a necessary skill for any human interaction but never more so than when it comes to the mysterious matters of faith.

The Hebrew Scriptures explain our human failure to communicate and understand each other as a punishment for human pride in the Tower of Babel story (Gen. 11). Now at Pentecost a new wind is blowing that restores the ability to bridge the communication chasm and open the potential for genuine community. I will address what that gift of communication means and why we all need God’s unifying spirit more than ever in our global village today when we turn in the next part of this series to verses 5-13.

Keeping our Balance, 2 Kings 5:1-14

Back when my body would allow it, I used to play a lot of softball in the summer. I love that game in part because as one of my favorite movies, “Bull Durham,” says, it is a non-linear sport – which is a fancy way of saying what Yogi Berra says in plain down to earth language – “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 later 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. 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 what the score is, because you never know when you may be called on to step up to the plate with the game on the line.

I preached two weeks ago about the imperative to take our God stories to those outside the church who need to hear them. There were some things I didn’t have time to say in that sermon two weeks ago; so I’m really grateful to get another at bat today. Making new disciples is without a doubt job one for our church, but today I want to talk about the other side of the coin, the need to balance outreach with inreach, to balance the great commission to make disciples with the great commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, to balance the preferences of young people with the desires of our elders, to balance evangelism with mission and service. So the sermon topic for today is keeping our balance.

Naaman, who we are told was a great man – a commander, a victorious leader. Everybody loves a winner. Just win the lottery or a big promotion or an election, and see how many best friends [BFF’s] you now have that you didn’t even know! But Naaman’s story also reminds us that even the great and powerful are vulnerable and mortal. Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela–all of us are dust and to dust we will return. Naaman fell victim to one of the worst diseases in human history – he contracted leprosy, which not only ate away the body but was so contagious and dreadful that anyone with it was isolated and excluded from society and any contact with other people. The great poet Robert Frost was once asked what the ugliest word in the English language is, and his answer was the word “exclusive.” We are social beings who need each other, even if we get on each others’ nerves at times; so the worst thing you can do to a human being is to exclude him or her.

So Naaman is desperate to find a cure for his dreaded illness, and the advice he gets on where to find that cure is fascinating. A young slave girl who has been captured in Israel tells Naaman he needs to go see a prophet in Samaria. A young slave girl from a foreign country– you cannot get any lower on the socio-economic pecking order in those days than that; and to send him to Samaria of all places (think Ann Arbor or some other place you would never want to go).

That couldn’t be the answer to Naaman’s problem! He knows he needs to go to someone with real power – not to some intern or resident but to the best surgeon available. I might go to the local hospital for a simple tonsillectomy, but if they’re doing a heart-lung transplant on me or brain surgery, I’m not going to Dublin Methodist. Take me to the Mayo Clinic, or Cleveland clinic, please.

Naaman knows the best things in life are never free; so he takes a bucket load of cash to get the best medical treatment money can buy. Money has its privileges. It may not buy happiness, but it sure can buy most everything else. Wealth is the universal language the power people of the world speak. So Naaman bypasses God’s prophet and goes straight to what he thinks is the top – to the King of Israel.

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

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

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

Do we believe that today? Do we believe there’s a God who can cure what ails us? Naaman does, sort of, at least enough to go to see Elisha. But then the story takes another interesting turn. Naaman’s visit to Elisha is like getting an appointment with a famous physician who’s very hard to see, and when you get to her office you don’t even get to see the doctor. You just get a message from the receptionist that says, “Go take 7 baths and call me in the morning.” The prophet doesn’t even bother to come out and see Naaman in person. You can imagine the reaction of this great commander who’s used to people bowing a scraping before him. He expects better treatment than that. He expects a big showy miracle with red white and boom fireworks, and all he gets is a prescription to go wash 7 times in the Jordan River.

And Naaman gets very parochial. He complains about the water quality in the Jordan and says, “We have better rivers back home in Damascus.” He doesn’t know of course how important the Jordan River becomes many years later when Jesus himself is baptized it its waters.

Does our parochialism ever get in the way of what God wants us to do? Our ways are better than those of others; so we’re reluctant to venture out of our comfort zones? Happens to me all the time. I don’t even like to play a new golf course where I don’t know the lay of the land and where the sand traps and lakes are hidden.
But this story is not about water quality or if our river is more beautiful than yours. It’s about faithful obedience to what God asks us to do. Naaman is too proud to accept this simple solution to his leprosy and is about to stomp off and go home to pout in Damascus. And again, a lowly servant intervenes who is smarter than the great and powerful leader.

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

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

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

I have had one of those weeks when it was very hard not to be turned in on myself and my problems. In addition to dealing with all the joys of aging, life threw me some extra curveballs this week. And the worst part is I think I asked for it. After dealing with the epidemic of road closures and detours in our neighborhood on Tuesday I decided to wax philosophical and wrote a little piece on my Facebook page and in my blog about how detours and obstacles are good metaphors for the roadblocks we run into in life. And when we do, we can either give up on getting to our goals, or we can get creative and find another way to achieve what God wants us to do. It sounded great on paper and I got a lot of “likes” on my Facebook page.

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

Now I’m not telling that story to get pity or sympathy (although I’ll take whatever I can get). I tell it because churches and other organizations, companies, nations, and families can all get turned in on themselves too. And the solution to dealing constructively with our challenges in life, health, finances, relationships, grief, whatever threatens to break our spirits and isolate us from others like Naaman was, is as simple and as hard as keeping our balance.

The church needs balance. I know some of you have legitimate concerns that the consultation initiative prescriptions put so much emphasis on evangelism that mission and ministry to existing member will suffer or cease to happen. That’s not gonna happen, folks. Ministering to others and to our members is not an either/or question, it is a both/and. And to those who say we can’t do both, I say read Matt. 19:26 where Jesus says, “With God all things are possible.”

We need to keep our balance. I was privileged to see that balance in powerful action a few weeks ago when one of the older saints in our congregation was in the church office needing help making plans to go home to his family in New York before his terminal cancer made that trip impossible. I came into the office as he was leaving with two of our staff members to go to the airport, but what I learned was that while in the midst of the very busy time of planning our new evangelistic emphasis, all 5 members of the church staff who were in the office that day dropped everything else they were doing to help this dying man make a plane reservation and financial arrangements for his final trip home. That kind of ministry will never stop.

Keeping our balance means a greater emphasis on welcoming newcomers to our church family, but it also means nurturing them and our current members with study and prayer, worship, sharing, caring, and growth that deepens our faith so it’s strong enough to serve one another and to be in mission to transform the world.

Is that a tall daunting order? You bet it is. Are we up to that Mission Impossible, should we choose to accept it? With God’s help we are, and that’s We with a capital WE. We’re not talking about the paid and volunteer staff doing all that work. That’s not going to be possible. We’re talking about the priesthood of all believers. All baptized Christians are commissioned to be in ministry to others in need. We are all wounded and broken servants, simple, common folks like the slave girl and servants who ministered to Naaman and helped lead him to a cure for his affliction.

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

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

HEARING AND BEING THE VOICE OF GOD: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

There’s a famous line in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” where a frustrated prison guard tells the prisoner, Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”  It’s a great line but not quite true.  The problem is not communication; Luke heard the message, he just chose to ignore what the prison guard wanted him to do.  I wonder if we have a similar communication problem with God.   The lectionary texts for January 8th are all about communication, in particular about the power of the voice of God.  Literally from Day One (Gen. 1:1-5) to the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11) to Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), God speaks and big things happen.  And the Psalm for this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Psalm 29, speaks directly about the power of “Voice of the Lord” seven times in 11 verses and by implication several other times.

Communication scholars describe Speech-Act theory as the phenomenon by which language has the power to create or change reality.  Anyone who has ever stood before a clergy person or a justice of the peace and said two little words, “I do,” knows very well that their lives are forever changed from that moment forward.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a little ditty most of us learned at an early age.  The problem is it isn’t true.  Words have power to hurt and heal.  Most bullying begins with name calling and naming our political or personal enemies in ways that depersonalize and demonize them is the first step toward justifying abusive and unkind treatment that can ultimately lead to violence and death.

The words we use are a matter of life and death, of light and darkness.  Psalm 29 contains a whole litany of things that the voice of God can do: thunder, break cedars, fire, shake the wilderness, whirl oaks, strip forests and cause floods.  This must be where the insurance companies get their justification for excluding from coverage (read the fine print) natural disasters as “Acts of God.”

I am more interested in what these texts say about the power of God’s voice to transform human lives than I am the cause of natural disasters.  Genesis 1 tells us God spoke light into darkness, and that speech act is far more important symbolically than the on-going debate between creationism and evolution.  The darkness God expelled on day 1 of creation is wonderful, but a more relevant question is “what has God done for us lately?”  There are still far too many black holes of darkness in our world and our hearts today that need the light of God’s powerful voice of truth.

I love this parable by an anonymous author:

A pilgrim asks a wise one about the moment when we can tell darkness from the dawn.  “Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat?” she asks.  “No.”

“Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?”

“No,” says the elder. “When you can look into another’s eyes and say, ‘you are my brother, you are sister,’ that is the dawn.   Until then, there is only darkness.”

Both the Mark 1 text and Acts 19 deal with hearing God’s voice through the sacramental act of baptism.  Both texts tell us that John the Baptist preached and performed a baptism of repentance and belief in Jesus as the anointed one who came after John.  Mark doesn’t address the perplexing question of why Jesus needed a baptism of repentance because that’s not the point of that text, and not the full meaning of baptism.  Repentance is a critical first step in transformation, but only a prelude to what an anointed, spirit-led disciple can do.  When Paul asks the Christians in Ephesus “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul proceeds to fix that problem but in doing so creates a theological dilemma for us.  Paul baptizes those Ephesians a second time.  To this day rebaptism is a controversial issue among Christians of different persuasions, along with what kind of baptism counts, how it’s done, at what age, by whom, etc.

Our different opinions on such matters can sometime be humorous.  One person, when asked if he believed in infant baptism replied, “Believe in it!  I’ve seen it.”   Or when my children were young and we were visiting a Baptist church where my daughter was playing in a piano recital.  After the recital our son went up to explore the chancel area and came back to excitedly report, “Dad, they have a Jacuzzi up there!”

Let’s put the debates about sprinkling or pouring or immersing aside for now and focus on one key point of the Acts text and Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism– what the power of the Holy Spirit does to transform lives.  It’s not the water or how or when it’s applied that matters, it’s the voice of God and whether we hear it.    Jesus’ public ministry begins from the moment he hears the voice of God saying “You are my son….”   The question is have we heard God say, “you are my daughter, you are my son, and with you I am pleased?”

Gospel interpreters sometime wonder if Jesus was the only one who heard God’s voice there beside the Jordan. Given God’s propensity to speak in parables and metaphors and in “a still small voice” (I Kgs 19:12), I’d bet he was.  And so would Fred Craddock, I believe, who loves to say that when it came to his call to ministry it would have been so much easier if God had called him in a voice loud enough that his friends and relatives could have heard it too.

We liberal, sophisticated Christians are often afraid of the emotion associated with Pentecostal Christianity.  But we dare not let that fear make us miss the positive power of the voice, breath, and spirit of God to transform lives.    Jesus is transformed into the Messiah at his baptism and empowered by the voice of God to resist every temptation that Satan can throw at him in the wilderness.  God’s voice enables Jesus to find his voice to speak truth and salvation as God’s messenger.  We don’t know where Jesus was hanging out till he was 30, but we do know that at this pivotal moment Jesus emerges to “shout from the housetops what the Spirit has told him in a whisper” (Matt. 10:27).   By the power of God’s voice he is inspired to go public with his ministry with a passion that enabled him to set his face toward Jerusalem’s cross and never look back, even when his closest friends try their best to persuade him to renounce his calling and take an easier route.

And here’s the important point so don’t miss it– it’s not just Jesus who is transformed and empowered by the voice of God.  In the text from Acts 19 we see how the ordinary folks in Ephesus are also changed into God’s messengers. “The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (19:7).   Those are loaded terms that may need clarification.  Speaking in tongues for many of us conjures up images of ecstatic nonsense speech that is unfamiliar and incomprehensible.  But what if we interpret tongues to mean that these people were on fire for God and spoke with passion about their faith in ways that people of many different cultures and ethnic groups could understand, as they did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2)?   Acts 19 also tells us these new baptizees “prophesied,” another term that can have negative connotations if we take prophesying to mean what psychics who advertise on late night TV do.  Biblical prophets are not fortune tellers or crystal ball gazers.  A biblical prophet is simply someone who speaks for God.  They are those who know God’s truth and are emboldened by God’s presence in their lives to proclaim good news to a world starving for some.

The world needs people in every walk of life who have heard the voice of God and are willing not only to talk that talk but to walk God’s walk.  To do that takes incredible courage and faith in a world where people of faith are often aliens in a strange land.  To have the courage of our convictions means that all of us, clergy and laity alike are called to witness to our faith by word and action, even when we know the dangers and risks involved in speaking an uncomfortable truth – in love.  The risks of that kind of truth are exemplified quite simply in the fact that the Greek word for “witness” is also the word for “martyr.”

All baptized Christians are called to be witnesses and prophets for God, and the enormity of that calling means we all need to be anointed by God’s spirit.  We cannot hope to fulfill the ministry we are baptized into without the power of God’s spirit to guide and direct us.  God knows we all need a baptism of repentance, but we also need the power of the Holy Spirit to move us from repentance and forgiveness to become proactive messengers who dare to become the voice of God that transforms lives and the world.