Where’s the Peace?

In this frightening week that is the anniversary of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki when we seem to be closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis I feel a need to pray without ceasing for peace and also to share some thoughts. As I was wondering what to say I reread the introduction to my book, “Building Peace from the Inside Out.” What follows are excerpts from that introduction that seem unfortunately as relevant as they were when I wrote them 6 years ago.

“The Judeo-Christian scriptures have been promising a Messiah who brings peace to the world for 3600 years. Even for the US Post Office three and a-half centuries is pretty slow delivery service. In the New Testament (John 14-16), Jesus’ farewell discourse, describing a kind of peace the world cannot give, promises no less than four times that whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, God will provide. So where’s the peace? What’s the hold up? Maybe the problem is not on the shipping end, but on the receiving end? When we don’t get the peace we request is it because we don’t really mean what we ask for? Or is something getting in the way of our receiving what we say we want?
Luke 1:79 says that the long-awaited Messiah will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Notice it says “into” the way of peace. It doesn’t say the Messiah will hold our hand and make sure we stay on the path. The Messiah gets us to the entrance ramp and trusts us to stay on course from there. We’re given a good map and expected to be able to follow it.

But really, shouldn’t God have known better? We humans don’t have the best track record when it comes to following directions. Would it have taken the Hebrews 40 years to travel the 200 or 300 miles from Egypt to Palestine if they were good at following directions? Even while Moses was up on the mountain getting the directions, the people he’s supposed to be leading are down in the valley building a golden calf to worship and fomenting a rebellion against Moses and God. Do they really want to get to the Promised Land? Or are they more concerned with their own comfort and being in control of where they’re going and how to get there? Peace seekers have to stay the course in good times and bad. When we start looking for short cuts instead of following the path that leads to peace how often do we end up far from our goal?

Luke 1:68-79 lays out very succinctly what the map to peace looks like. It mentions mercy twice, service, holiness, righteousness, knowledge, forgiveness, and light. There’s nothing in this passage about cruise missiles or Weapons of Mass Destruction–nothing about peace through domination or threats of Mutually Assured Destruction. What are we missing here? If we look around in the Judeo-Christian scriptures a little further we can find that Luke’s omission of peace through strength isn’t an oversight. Isaiah and Micah both specifically talk about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and not learning war anymore. If that’s not clear enough, Psalm 20 says that those who put their pride in horses and chariots will collapse and fall. Jesus restores the ear of the Roman servant that Peter has lopped off in the Garden of Gethsemane and spells it out very clearly – “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52)

And Jesus’ followers heed that advice so well they have given us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust and assorted examples of genocide on nearly every continent. Based on results over several thousand years of history, it seems we don’t really want peace all that much.

So what’s the secret? It’s not rocket science. Sages of every tradition teach us the same values: mercy, forgiveness, righteousness, service. The Hebrew prophet Micah sums it up very succinctly when he asks and answers the basic question of all peace seekers and peace makers.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

The Messiah’s mission is to show us in stories and actions what that means. Jesus says it and does it over and over again – treating the least and lost as worthy of God’s love and healing. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) Jesus directly challenges the old ways that have failed repeatedly to bring peace. He says “you have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek.” “Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Meek? Maybe we don’t want peace that badly if we have to be wimps to get it.

Who are the role models and heroes and heroines we look up to most in our society? Why does the taller candidate win almost every presidential election in US History? We still put our trust in swords and horses and chariots and new impersonal technological ways to deliver “fire and fury” even though it’s obvious in generation after generation how ineffective and misdirected that route to “peace” is.

More subtly – in the Judeo-Christian tradition, look at how God’s peacemaking Messiah gets delivered to us – born in a barn – a helpless little baby. “A little child shall lead them.” Get it? We keep looking for Rambo and God sends us Gandhi. We don’t get what we say we want because it doesn’t come packaged the way we think it should look. If we want real peace, the gifts we need to cherish and open first are those wrapped in justice, mercy, humility, forgiveness, and love.

Personally, I am learning after decades of frustration trying to create peace and persuade or coerce others to live peaceful lives that what Gandhi said is so true, “there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
I have spent most of my adult life trying to do peace, only to realize that peace is not a matter of doing, but one of being. One cannot think or reason his or her way to peace but can only accept the natural state of peace by trusting the basic goodness of Being itself and living in harmony and trust with the universe. It may sound trite, but peace can only be built one relationship at a time, from the heart, with non-judgmental, unconditional love for oneself and every other being.

Justice, mercy, kindness, love, humility–all of those marvelous words tell us about keys to inner and outer peace. But just hearing about peace isn’t enough. Stories show us what peace looks and feels like, and, by contrast, what peace isn’t. My son teases me that he learned a lot of valuable lessons about sports and life from me – by seeing my mistakes and learning how NOT to do things. Learning by negative example is a wonderful teacher. We often learn more from our mistakes and those of others than we do from things that go well. When success comes too easily we have no reason to reflect on why things worked.

A mentor of mine taught me a great lesson several years ago. He said that there are only three simple questions we need to ask about why something happened. Whether we think an outcome is good or bad, playing the blame game does not help us learn and move forward. The three questions are:
“What worked?” “What didn’t work?” “What next?”

Those three simple questions help me find peace in difficult situations. They help me ground and center. They remind me I can never create positive change if I am stuck in being a victim to a past I cannot change. Those three questions help me to be more objective in analyzing and evaluating of situations and choices.

We know the things that make for peace. Pray that we relearn them quickly and avoid the endless and futile pursuit of peace through force and violence. They don’t work. It’s time to ask “What Next?”

Prayer for Independence Day

Last week I had the honor of joining the staff of Northwest United Methodist Church as a part-time Pastor of Congregational Care. In a bittersweet moment my good friend Tom Slack, who is retiring from the Northwest staff after 11 very good years of ministry, presented me with a shepherd’s staff that he received when he came to Northwest. We will all miss Tom and his wit and wisdom and caring ways. I am humbled to pick up some of the Slack (pun intended) created by Tom’s departure but know I cannot begin to fill his shoes.

Part of my responsibility will be to lead congregational prayer at Sunday worship; so I will be sharing those prayers from time to time here in my blog beginning with this one for Sunday, July 2. Please pray for Tom and me and our congregation during this time of transition.

O Giver of true freedom and joy, today we celebrate the brave founders of our country who 241 years ago pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to declare the freedoms we continue to cherish and enjoy today. We give thanks for their courage and vision and for all those who have worked and sacrificed to preserve and perfect those freedoms ever since.

Our prayer today is that your spirit will come like a mighty wind to heal our divided nation and world. Give us hearts of compassion and ears willing to hear the opinions of others that differ from ours. Teach us to disagree without being disagreeable. Bless those who have taken upon themselves the heavy burden of governing in these difficult times.

We pray for peace and justice for all of your children. For those who suffer from addiction, depression, chronic pain, grief, oppression and war. Fill our hearts with the love of Christ and drive out the fear that makes us more concerned about our own freedom than the needs of our neighbors. Teach us again that freedom is not a zero sum game. In your eternal love, O God, remind us that there is a wideness in your mercy that provides healing and liberation for all of creation. When any of your children suffer, we all suffer together, and unless there is liberty and justice for all, no one is truly free.

The goal of spiritual freedom for all is a big dream and we are tempted to despair that we will ever achieve it. But then you remind us that with you all things are possible. Renew and refresh our faith and willingness to dream big dreams as we again celebrate Independence Day.

In the words of Sister Ruth Fox, we too pray that you “O God will bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, abuse, and exploitation of people, so that we will work for justice, equality, and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we will reach out our hands to comfort them and to change their pain to joy.

May God bless us with the foolishness to think we can make a difference in this world, so that we will do the things which others tell us cannot be done.

Hear our prayers O God, in the name of the young and fearless prophet Jesus Christ, Amen.

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.