A Field of Dreams (Father’s Day Sermon), Deuteronomy 4:6-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Words, words, words!
I’m so sick of words

Don’t talk of stars, burning above
If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams, filled with desire
If you’re on fire, show me!

Here we are together in the middle of the night
Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight
Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you that
This is no time for a chat.”

I can just hear God looking at our world full of so much chaos and hate and disregard for creation and pleading with us, “If you’re in love, show me!”

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

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

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

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

Father’s Day is a day for appreciation and love for fathers and father-figures, but no one is perfect; so regrets, we’ve all got a few or a lot. But here’s the good news and bad news about the Yogiism that says “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Baseball games have no clock, which means they can literally go on forever or what seems like it about the 18th inning. That’s a problem for baseball’s popularity in our fast-paced 4G world, but when it comes to the game of life extra innings are great. It means more time for reconciliation and love.

That’s what happens to Ray Kinsella when he builds a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa cornfield. He had to put up with ridicule and scorn from family and friends to follow his dream. His baseball field almost led to financial ruin, but he had the support of a loving wife and daughter who could see the dream because they too believed. Ray didn’t understand what it meant when he heard a mysterious voice say, “If you build it he will come,” but he took a leap of faith and built his field of dreams and finally discovers what it all meant in the final scene from the movie.

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

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

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

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

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

Palace Intrigue: Samuel and James Comey

I am serving as a Bible Storyteller tonight for our Vacation Bible School and the story for tonight is the anointing of David as King of Israel (I Samuel 16:1-12). As I prepared this week to share that ancient story the news was all about the “he said, she said” back and forth drama between former FBI director James Comey and President Trump. I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between the two narratives. (Fear not, this blog is totally separate from telling the story at VBS. I will not make any partisan political points with the kids at church.)

The biblical story begins when God asks Samuel, the last of the judges who ruled Israel before they, going against God’s advice, became a monarchy, to go to Bethlehem and anoint a new king from among the sons of Jesse. Samuel is afraid that Saul will kill him if he finds out what his mission is; so God suggests a little divine diversion and tells Samuel to take a heifer with him and pretend that the purpose for his trip is to offer a sacrifice. Samuel does the Lord’s bidding and invites Jesse and his sons to “the sacrifice” where he has Jesse bring before him each of his sons to see which one God has chosen to be the new king.

First is Eliab who is strong and handsome, and Samuel is sure he has found God’s man. But God says no and explains to Samuel that God does not look on outward appearances as mortals do. Instead God “looks on the heart.” (I Sam. 16:7) So the search continues with Abinadab, then Shammah, and four more of Jesse’s sons, and each in turn is rejected by God. In frustration Samuel asks Jesse if he has any other sons and is told that there is one more, David, the youngest who is out tending his father’s sheep. Samuel insists that David be summoned and when he appears God said to Samuel, “Arise and anoint him; for this is the one.” (v. 12)

Samuel didn’t want to challenge Saul’s authority and power. We can all understand the fear of retaliation. It occurred to me that the same thoughts must have been going on in James Comey’s mind before his testimony before the Senate on Thursday. We may never know for sure what his motives are. Only God can look on Comey’s heart and judge his intent. But I am willing to entertain the possibility that like Samuel the former FBI director may have overcome his fear of retribution by the President to do what he believed was required of him as a citizen, public servant, and Christian (he’s a very faithful United Methodist).

There are those who will argue that Comey is just angry because he was fired and is trying to get even with the President, and that’s a possibility; but considering the risks involved in challenging the most powerful person in the world I think that is unlikely. If I were in Comey’s shoes the option of simply going quietly into retirement free from the stresses of Washington politics would have a great deal of appeal. My opinion is that challenging the power of the President while knowing first-hand how President Trump normally deals with those who oppose him required a great deal of courage and faith in the power of doing what one believes is the right and honorable thing in spite of fears or consequences.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Even as I write these words I am not sure I will be brave enough to post them because I know several of my dear friends and family members will strongly disagree with what I’ve said. But sometimes telling the truth is a stronger duty than fear of conflict and disapproval. I hope someday soon we will know which version of the Trump-Comey controversy is the truth. In the meantime for the good of our own peace of mind and the health of our nation we would do well to withhold any surefire opinions and judgment and remember that only God can look into our hearts.

Memorial Day Prayer

O God of Salvation History, one of the many gifts you have blessed us with is the ability to remember. Memories are cherished traces across the timelines of our lives that nothing can ever erase. This weekend we set aside time to celebrate special memories of those dearest to us.

We honor all the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve and protect the freedoms we too often take for granted. Flags and flowers are symbols of our gratitude for those who gave their lives in the service of their country. In a moment of holy silence we now offer our personal prayers of thanks and honor as we remember. (pause)

Many people also use Memorial Day as a time to honor the memory of other loved ones who have gone on before us–parents, grandparents and others whose sacrificial love made life possible for us in so many ways. We know life changes from generation to generation, but memories preserve the wisdom and virtues of the ages. We humbly pray that the memories we are creating for those who come after us will be worthy and true to your heavenly purposes for your people.

Lord, we also give thanks for your grace that lovingly forgives our many failures. Teach us also to forgive others and ourselves so painful memories and the burdens of guilt and regrets won’t hinder our faith journeys.
So on this Memorial Sabbath day as followers of Jesus Christ, we entrust all of those we remember and honor into your eternal care. Christ has showed us the ultimate truth that love conquers death and that sacrifice is transformed into victory in your everlasting arms.

And now remembering Christ’s sacrificial love for us we join our voices with all the saints as we pray in Christ’s name with the words he taught us. Our Father,…

(Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, May 27, 2017)

The Irony of Christ’s (still) Broken Body, I Corinthians 10:16-17

Our granddaughter Audrey celebrated her first communion today, and this grandpa was especially proud that she was chosen to be the reader for the Epistle lesson, or as the bulletin for the service said, to “Proclaim” I Corinthians 10:16-17. She isn’t tall enough to see above the lectern, but she read flawlessly Paul’s words so sorely needed in our broken world, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” There were other references to unity in the liturgy and hymns for the service, and the Monsignor did a great job of coming down into the congregation to talk directly to the young communicants. He reminded them to enjoy the celebration with family and the gifts they would receive on this important day but stressed that the real gift they were about to receive for the first time is the gift of Jesus himself.

He told them the best part is that they can receive Jesus anytime they choose to invite him into their lives. And then at the high point of the service these beautiful young children were invited to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion for the very first time, followed by the other members of the congregation. Except the invitation was not for the whole congregation. In keeping with Roman Catholic doctrine those of us who are not Catholic were not welcome at Christ’s table. We, even those of us who are devout Christians of other stripes, were excluded from receiving the gift of Jesus.

I thought I was prepared for that part of the service. I’ve been in Catholic services before, but this was different. To be able to share in that sacrament with Audrey would have been special and to be reduced to a mere spectator was painful; and the irony of it all having just heard her read that “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” hit me harder than I expected.

Maybe it’s because I am already very discouraged and depressed about the hateful and divisive state of American society and the ratcheted up tensions between the U.S. and Russian and North Korea. Or maybe it’s just that I am still idealistic enough to believe that pious talk about Christian unity should translate into practice.

I was reminded of a wedding I helped to officiate early in my ministry. The bride was Catholic and the groom United Methodist. The marriage was celebrated in a Roman Catholic Church and the priest graciously agreed to let me share in the ceremony. We each did different parts of the marriage ritual and had agreed in planning the wedding that when it came time for Communion I would serve the groom and Father Maroon would serve the bride. We consecrated our separate Communion elements but before we served the couple Father Maroon interrupted the service to offer a commentary I’ve never forgotten. I don’t remember his exact words, but the essence of what he said was this: “It’s very sad we have to serve this sacrament from two loaves and two cups. I pray that someday we will be one and that won’t be necessary.”

That was 42 years ago, and the body of Christ is still broken. What kind of witness can the church possibly offer to a world starving for unity and peace when we Christians still can’t all feast at the same table? Please understand, I am not judging my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, even though it probably sounds like it. This is not just a “Catholic” issue but an example of the brokenness in the church that we all must acknowledge if there is any hope of healing. As always I must remember Jesus’ advice to remove the log in my own eye before criticizing the speck in someone else’s. There are deep divisions in my own beloved United Methodist Church that may soon fracture the body of Christ yet another time. I am also painfully aware that Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated times of the week and that very few Christian congregations really reflect the rich diversity of our multicultural nation and world.

My prayer is that all of us of every faith and persuasion will be more aware of anything we do as individuals or as organizations that divide us or exclude others and keep us from being one body in practice and not just in words.

Stumbling Block or Cornerstone? Sermon on I Peter 2:1-10


I saw a great T-shirt for baby boomers like me on Facebook this week. It says, “Built in the ‘40’s; some parts still in working order.” In our crazy throw-away world where planned obsolescence is part of every marketing plan, this text from I Peter about a cornerstone in a rock solid foundation has a lot of appeal. We live in a whirlwind information age where knowledge and beliefs seem to shift under our feet like desert sands.

When my children were young our go-to vacation place every year was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And every year we built sand castles on that beach. Ours never quite looked like this one, but you’ll notice this one was built in a shelter where it was protected from the elements; so I don’t think it counts as a real sand castle. This one was at a national sand sculpture contest Diana and I visited at Virginia Beach a few years ago, and it was obviously built to last several days while this impressive contest went on.

The average life expectancy of our sandcastles was always less than 12 hours because that’s how often the high tide rolls in and washes away the most elaborate and the simplest of sand creations. The score is always high tide several hundred, sand castles zero.

I don’t know if Jesus built sand castles on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but he knew about foundations. He told a parable once about those who failed to heed his words were like people who built their house on sand, and those who built on solid rock were like those who took the Gospel seriously.

I Peter picks up on that foundation theme. It says Jesus, the rock rejected by the good religious leaders of his day was made by God into the very cornerstone, the most important piece of the foundation of God’s kingdom; and no high tide, tsunami, tornado or earthquake is going to every knock that foundation down.

That’s the good news Christ offers us in our dizzy, foundation-shaking world. Two pieces of background about these three letters attributed to Peter in our New Testament. I say “attributed” because many scholars agree that the style of language and historical references in these letters indicate that they were written after the Apostle Peter’s death, probably by one of his followers. While we would consider it unethical to claim someone else’s authorship of our work, it was a common practice in biblical times to attach the name of a famous person to a document in order to give it more authority. I share that for information, and to let you know I will refer to this text as something Peter wrote because it is easier to say that than “the author of I Peter.” And if “the author of the Epistles of Peter” comes up on Jeopardy you will be in the know.

The other important background Peter gives us at the outset is that this letter is addressed to several churches in Asia Minor or what is modern day Turkey. The people in those churches were Gentile Christians living in a pagan land where they had no pre-existing faith foundation to build on. Chapter 2 of this letter, which we read this morning, begins with a plea to these newborn Christians to “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” It goes on to promise them pure, spiritual milk so they can “grow into salvation.” Peter meets them where they are on their faith journey and offers advice on how to mature in their faith in a setting that is hostile to the ways of Christ.

Peter knew how important a strong foundation was for whatever challenges any of us face. All humans have to deal with pain and suffering personally and as a community. We need a strong foundation when those problems happen, but you can’t build a strong foundation in the middle of a hurricane. Our faith roots need to be deep before adversity strikes, and that firm foundation begins with a solid, trustworthy cornerstone.

Let’s take a look at that first verse again. “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” That would be a pretty good list of things to give up for Lent, don’t you think? And it’s not too late. Feel free to pick any or all off that list and start now. We’ve got 4 weeks left, and self-help experts say it only takes 21 days to change a habit. I like to think of fasting from something during Lent as a way to do Spiritual spring cleaning. One problem with that practice is we often give up things for lent that we should give up forever, but we’re lucky if we make it to Easter. I shouldn’t say this if you don’t know it already but there’s another problem. The 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays, and some people take that to mean that when it comes to giving up something Sundays don’t count; so we really only have to make it 6 days before we get a cheat day! Really? If it takes 21 days to establish a new habit that plan is doomed to failure.

The more serious issue here is that to make any really lasting changes to rid ourselves of sin like malice, insincerity, envy and slander will only work if have a firm foundation to start with. Faith and values can’t be invented on the fly; they have to already be part of our repertoire or we will come up empty-handed when temptation or tragedy strikes.

“Letters to a Young Muslim” by Omar Saif Ghobash is a very good book that can promote interfaith understanding. One thing that struck me in particular was a section in that book that dealt with what happens to young Muslims who move away from the strictest and most fundamental expressions of Islam. Many are not able to handle their newfound freedom and responsibility for their own actions because they have been controlled by unquestioned external authority for so long and are not prepared to think for themselves. In other words they don’t have a firm foundation of values and beliefs they have tested and claimed for themselves. So when the siren songs of worldly sins and pleasures confront them, many lack the life skills to help them cope. They either rebel against all authority, often with disastrous results; or at the other extreme become vulnerable to some other form of authoritarian leadership that offers a false foundation.

That situation is not unique for Muslims. Moral development for all of us requires room for doubt and dialogue to build foundations that have time to set and hold in a safe and open environment. That’s why Peter says newborns in faith need spiritual milk to grow strong foundations. They aren’t ready yet for solid food.

I was blessed this week to attend the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. The leader for that two-day event was The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence who teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. The key thing she taught us was to pay special attention to the verbs in a biblical text. She said that too often we are distracted by nouns that we have to look up or try to explain or figure out how to pronounce. I Peter 1:1 is a good example. It says, “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” and the first thing I had to do was go scrambling to a biblical map to try and figure out where in the world those places were. It’s interesting information to know, but has little real value or relevance to our daily lives today.

But when we approach a text verbs first we usually find words that we all know immediately what they mean. When I did that with our text for today here’s what I discovered. The verbs that belong to the group Peter describes as mortals or others, i.e. non-believers, include “rejected, stumble, fall, disobey, have not received (mercy), and are not (God’s people).” By contrast the verbs attributed to believers include “long for, grow, tasted, come, chosen (as God’s own people), built, to be (a royal priesthood), proclaim, and have received (mercy).”

Not too hard to figure out which group we’d like to be in is it? We can stumble, fall, and not be God’s people by rejecting Christ, or we can believe and be chosen to be God’s own people, a royal priesthood. But here’s the other thing about those verbs. It’s pretty easy to see how a stone can make me stumble and fall, but how can a stone long for, grow, taste, come, offer, proclaim or be chosen as God’s own people?

Notice what Peter says about Christ in verses 4 and 5: “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Ever since “The Sound of Music” we’ve known that “the hills are alive,” but now we find out stones can be too.

The Holy Spirit can make stones come to life like Elijah’s valley of dry bones or like God blew breath into Adam and Eve or into frightened disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Living stones are not static– but moving, adapting, rearranging themselves into new patterns as situations around us change. Having a solid foundation allows us to dare to believe and trust in the true rock of our faith when everything else around us seems to be collapsing, be it a personal tragedy or a larger cultural one. When our faith foundation is solid we have the strength to rid ourselves of envy, guile and malice that can undermine the best of us because they are common practice in the workplace, on Wall Street and Main Street. When we are firmly anchored in Christ and his ways we can stand fast against the strongest of head winds to be the church even when no one is looking.

Those who believe receive God’s mercy, but it comes with a responsibility to be living stones in Christ and to proclaim and live the Gospel of truth, justice and love. If we fail to do so the house of God collapses like the walls of Jericho. Christ’s living stones don’t listen to the false prophets of prosperity and power. Those who put their faith in those will stumble and fall. Christ is a huge stumbling block for those who follow that path. To non-believers Jesus’ way of mercy and love looks weak, wimpy and dead, and the winner-take-all ways of the world seem victorious. Worldly power and success are very strong temptations, but Peter reminds us that those stones build a road that leads to destruction.

So knowing all that, why would anyone reject Christ and turn him into a stumbling block instead of a cornerstone? Part of the answer is that the people who rejected Jesus by killing him didn’t want him challenging the foundations their faith was built on. They wanted the certainty they thought a concrete set of laws would provide, giving them a handbook for life that had only two chapters–one on what was allowed and a second on what was forbidden—with no room for messy ambiguity. But Christ’s reign is built on a foundation of living stones which means we have to take responsibility for figuring out together what it means to follow God’s laws.

When Jesus was asked to pick the greatest commandment he didn’t pick a specific law. He said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:30-31) Those are living laws, foundational principles to live by, but we have to use our own God-given abilities to figure out how to operationalize those principles in real life situations. Neither the Bible nor any set of laws can cover every situation we may be confronted with. If that were the case we’d just need an app for that. Ask Siri, “Ok, in this situation what do I do?” and he or she would tell us. But in the real world God has entrusted us with the free will to choose wisely how we treat ourselves and each other. Our faith journey is a process, constantly unfolding as we learn and grow like living stones in the body of Christ.

But following Christ is not an easy journey. We also can become stumbling blocks for others if our behavior sets a bad example of what God’s living stones should be and do. Our failure to live the grace and mercy we proclaim becomes a huge stumbling block for others who are searching for a solid faith foundation.

A couple of dangerous stumbling blocks even show up in this text from I Peter. Verse 9 says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Lots of good people have stumbled over that verse by interpreting it to mean, “Look at us! We’re special! God likes us better than you!” How many people do you think are going to want to join any church with that kind of holier-than-thou attitude? The best way to remove that stumbling block is to take an honest hard look at our history as a church and a nation. Too much oppression and conquest of other people has been done in the name of our God to give us an A+ rating on the living stone scale. So if we aren’t special what does it mean to say we are God’s chosen people? It means we are chosen, not for special privilege, but to be God’s servants.

The phrase “a chosen race” is an especially dangerous stone to trip over for Americans. Racism is an insidious disease that is so clever it sometimes fools even those who have been infected with it to think we are immune. Any use of Scripture to justify exclusion of any group of people from God’s grace and mercy is contrary to Christ’s message of love for all. God chooses to redeem only one race, and that is the human race. I know people who when they are asked to indicate their race on a medical form or job application kick the race stone aside and write the word “human” in that blank.

The fact that this epistle bears Peter’s name is a little ironic. Peter is a translation of the Aramaic word Cephas which means “rock.” At one point in the Gospel accounts Jesus changes his disciple Simon’s name to Cephas or Peter, and says to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” If you know the embarrassing role Peter is going to play when we get to Holy Week, you know his faith proved to be very shaky when Jesus needed him most. So too, we’ve all had moments or years when we have denied Christ by our words or actions. And that’s OK because just as he did for Peter in their post-Easter encounter, Christ calls forth strength from us that we didn’t know we had. He strikes the rock within us just as Moses struck the rock in our Exodus story last week, and through us the Holy Spirit pours streams of mercy, grace and forgiveness that enable us to live as faithful aliens in a world full of stumbling blocks.

For that to happen we have to make a choice –cornerstone or stumbling block? We are living in turbulent times that require a firm faith foundation. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum we can all see that changes are coming for our nation. And if the government is getting out of the human services business, guess who is in the on-deck circle? The church. In addition to all the good ministries we are doing now, more is going to be needed from us to meet the needs of our sisters and brothers. We’re going to need a firm faith foundation. Lent is the perfect time to examine our foundations, get down in the crawl space where the spiders and other creepy things live and see if our foundations are built on sand or rock. We can’t call the basement doctor to shore up our faith foundation; we need to get a piece of the rock,” the living stone rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight” to be the very cornerstone of our faith.

Spiritual Cardiology


After I wrote my meditation on “A Wise Heart” earlier this week it very quickly became apparent that Psalm 90:12 isn’t finished with me. That verse says, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” and the focus of my earlier post was on having a compassionate and caring heart. It occurred to me shortly after I posted that piece that the heart is also the seat of courage. While head knowledge is incomplete without heart knowledge, neither is adequate without courage.

The hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” points that out when it says, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days,” and the turbulent early weeks of 2017 certainly seem like the kinds of days the great preacher Harry Fosdick had in mind when he penned those words. In fact Fosdick wrote that hymn in 1930 just as the Great Depression was beginning and the Nazis were coming to power. I am praying the parallel ends there, but given the political instability and unrest here and around the world present days certainly qualify as those that require wise and brave hearts.

So if we really want wisdom and courage for facing trying hours and days, be they personal or corporate, maybe what we need for Lent is a heart transplant. A few years ago a good friend of mine was scheduled for open heart surgery. I had not been able to visit him in the hospital because I had a cold at the time and my germs were persona non grata. The night before the surgery my friend called me and we talked a few minutes. I don’t remember the content of the conversation, but he told me after the surgery that I was one of many calls he made that night. He understandably had trouble sleeping knowing surgeons were going to cut his chest open the next morning. He was nervous and felt a need to reach out and talk to people who were important in his life not knowing if it might be his last chance to do so.

It seems to me that the act of asking God to give me a new heart is also pretty risky business. My peers remind me often of the wisdom of Mae West who once said, “Aging is not for sissies.” Neither is following Jesus. We are in denial; at least I often am, when I tell myself that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” he was just speaking metaphorically. Living faithfully as Jesus followers in a world gone crazy over materialism, militarism, fear-inspired violence, and self-centered hedonism is not for the faint of heart. To offer the prayer of Psalm 51 asking “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” is a radical prayer and should not be uttered by rote or taken lightly. It’s asking for a spiritual heart transplant.

I always enjoy March Madness of the basketball variety, but this year it is an especially welcome diversion from the madness going on in the world. As I was browsing at our public library this week I came upon a timely and enjoyable audio book about three legendary basketball coaches who all coached in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1980’s. The book is appropriately entitled “The Legends” by John Feinstein and is about Dean Smith (UNC), Jimmy Valvano (NC State), and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke). One story early in the book struck me as an excellent example of a brave heart. Dean Smith was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hoops, but long before he was a legend with a basketball arena named after him, when he was a young, unknown assistant coach at the University of North Carolina in the late 1950’s he put his job and career on the line off the court. He and his pastor took an African American divinity student with them into a segregated restaurant where his basketball team ate frequently and quietly broke down one small racial barrier. When John Feinstein heard about that incident when he was writing his book decades later he asked Coach Smith why he had never heard that story. Feinstein said, “You must have been very proud of doing that.” But Coach Smith said, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

Brave and humble hearts don’t need to boast about acting justly, they just do it. Actions speak louder than words about the kind of heart one has. One of my favorite more recent hymns describes how a spiritual heart transplant works. I can’t sing “Here I Am” by Dan Schutte without feeling my heart and faith grow stronger. In one verse Schutte has God say, “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.” The courage to live boldly and take the narrow unpopular road that leads to salvation and justice comes from hearts filled with so much love that there is no room for fear and doubt.

The journey from fear to faith is often like the one Dorothy and her friends take in “The Wizard of Oz.” Those four pilgrims on the yellow brick road are looking for a heart, for courage, for a brain and a way to go home. Isn’t that a great metaphor for the human condition? Aren’t’ those the things we all long for to live a full and satisfying life?

Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion think they are on an external journey to the promised land of Oz to find themselves. What they discover is that the faith journey is first an internal journey. The Wizard can’t give them what they are seeking, but the pilgrimage they take to the Emerald City provides them a much more transformative trip inward where they all discover that they already have courage, heart, and wisdom; and Dorothy’s red shoes are her ticket back to Kansas.

So the good news is that we don’t need to undergo an actual heart transplant to find our brave voices. Our factory equipment hearts provided by God are full of wisdom, love and courage. But like our physical hearts our spiritual cardio-vascular system can also get clogged up by fear and weakened by lack of use. But no matter how weak or spiritually dead we think we are, no matter how long or how often we have failed to walk the walk of courageous and compassionate faith, Lent is another opportunity to take the inward journey to rediscover the depths of wisdom and courage God provides for the living of this day and every day.

To pray to God for a wise and brave heart is a first step on the journey, like when we realize we need to see a health care provider and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. And even if we feel spiritually dead with a heart of stone, God is always ready and willing to do CPR or jolt us back to life with a defibrillator. God has an impressive record of bringing people back from both spiritual and physical death.

God nurtured Elijah back to health and courage on Mt. Horeb; gave Jesus the strength he needed to carry on in the Garden of Gethsemane; and turned that bunch of cowering fishermen hiding in the upper room into a band of leaders who turned the world upside down. God gave Ruth the courage to stay with Naomi; helped the Samaritan woman at the well bare her soul to Jesus, and blessed Mary Magdalene with a whole new demon-free life. Brave hearts pray “Not my will but thy will be done. Brave hearts beat to the rhythm of Isaiah’s response to God’s call in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) or Mary’s brave response to God’s most incredible request to bear his son. The brave peasant girl said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38).

And in Lent 2017 God still asks, “Whom shall I send?” and brave hearts sing (and mean it) the chorus to “Here I am Lord:”

“Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Do we mean it? Do I mean it? Our actions and lives will show the world what kind of hearts we have.

A Wise Heart


While meditating on Psalm 90 again today my ears were tickled by verse 12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Other translations say “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” What does it mean to have a wise heart? Conditioned as our western minds are by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” philosophy that locates the seat of knowledge in the head, the notion of a wise heart seems anatomically incorrect.

Perhaps even attempting to discuss such a concept from a rational-logical mindset is the height of foolishness, but so be it. The traditional Psalm (51) read on Ash Wednesday also speaks of the heart: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” And later it says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That Psalm is often understood as King David’s plea for God’s mercy after his sins of adultery and murder are exposed to him by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12). While that connection helps us appreciate the depth of David’s need for repentance and forgiveness, the danger is that if we interpret that Psalm in too narrow a historical context we can deflect its relevance to our own hearts.

We have 20/20 when it comes to seeing the speck in David’s eye. If anyone needed to have a contrite heart it is he—a wealthy, powerful ruler who abuses his position to take whatever he wants without regard to the rights of others. But lent is a time to look in the mirror and see the logs in our own eyes. Where have I fallen short of the glory of God? Where have I failed to love my neighbors as myself? Where have I failed to treat the least of my sisters and brothers as I would treat Christ himself? (Matthew 25).

The biblical record is crystal clear about humility as a key virtue of a faithful person. Micah plainly says that what God requires of us is “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (6:8). Second Isaiah describes the Messiah as a suffering servant, and Jesus teaches by word and action that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12). How many of us ever aspired to be someone’s servant when we grow up? Lent’s a great time to wrestle with those hard questions.

The wise heart is a humble heart, but what about that reference to a broken heart in Psalm 51? Anyone, and everyone has, known the pathos of a broken heart—a rejection or abandonment by the person one’s world revolves around. The death of beloved pet or a lifelong dream shattered. We all know of stories or have personal experience of a spouse literally dying of a broken heart when a life-long partner dies. I still remember the poignant opening lines of the 1970’s movie “Love Story”: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” Why would a loving God wish that kind of pain on us?

We don’t have to blame suffering on God to appreciate its depth or its universality. Loss and suffering are built into the human condition because this life is fragile and temporary. Psalm 90:10 reminds us of that just before the line about a wise heart. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” And I don’t quote those to be a Debbie Downer, they are just honest words about life and death that wise hearts learn to accept and embrace.

A wise heart that has known sorrow and is willing to face it head on instead of dodging in denial and distraction is a heart that is compassionate. It is a heart that leaves the comfort of complacency and works for justice for those who are oppressed. It is a heart that loves the unlovable with a simple gesture that needs no words.
They say wisdom comes with age but I don’t believe that age is prerequisite for having a wise heart. The wise hearts of children who have not yet learned the stereotypes or prejudices of their elders are the kind of wise and humble hearts God gives us all, and sometimes little children are the best at teaching us how to be.

Two stories come to mind. A mother saw her young son sitting on the front porch with an elderly neighbor who had recently been widowed. Bobby was there for 30 minutes or so, and when he came back home his mother asked him what he and Mr. Brown had talked about. Bobby said, “Oh, we didn’t talk. I just sat there and helped him cry.”

The other is more philosophical and illustrates the beauty of deep knowledge that weds both heart and head. A pilgrim asked a wise old guru, “When is the moment when I can tell the darkness from the dawn? Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog? “ “No,” said the wise one. “Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?” The guru shook his head and after a silence said, “When you can look into the eyes of another human being and say ‘You are my sister; you are my brother’ that is the dawn. Until then there is only darkness.”

O God of grace and wisdom, help us to count these holy days of Lent that we may gain humble, wise and compassionate hearts. Forgive any pride, judgment, and arrogance you find within me, and may I open myself completely to you so you can “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Amen