Longing to Belong – A Flock of Geep, Matthew 25:31-40

One day when my children were in elementary school a battered old car that didn’t belong to anyone in our neighborhood was parked in front of our parsonage in Worthington. When my kids saw it out there and that there were some people in it they had two very different reactions. One of them wanted to call the police and the other one said, “Let’s go out and see if we can help them.”

I share that story because it represents two very different reactions we can have to the least of these that Jesus talks about in the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25. We react uneasily or fearfully if we see others only through the lens of “stranger danger” or we feel some degree of empathy for fellow human beings. There are other options of course – we can blame them for whatever problems they have or we can avert our eyes and simply pretend to not notice and hurry by.

My guess is that most of us fall into several of those categories at different times depending on the situation and what else is going on in our lives at the time. Our level of hospitality or empathy for people in need can fluctuate like an Ohio thermometer. Sometimes we feel warm and caring and other times when our own problems are too heavy on our minds, we can be a bit more like frosty the snow man—at least I know I am.

Today is our final installment in a series called “Longing to Belong” and it’s fitting that we give this text from Matthew the final word because of its unique perspective on what it means to belong to the human family and ultimately to God’s eternal kingdom. This text in Matthew is Jesus’ last teaching to his disciples before his passion and death on the cross. The separation of the sheep and goats is called the last judgment because it tells us in very simple but powerful images about what is required of us to belong in the Kingdom of God. It is both a judgment and a warning.

Note first of all that Jesus is the one who decides who gets in. He is the one who welcomes the sheep into his kingdom and quite literally tells the goats to go to hell. Judging is not our job but God’s. I saw a billboard sign along the road somewhere recently that said it very well, “Just love them all. I’ll sort them out later, God.”

Secondly, this is not some far off end of the world second coming of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel there is no ascension story. The risen Christ doesn’t leave the world behind to return at some undetermined date. Matthew’s Gospel ends with these words we know as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

There is not a time or place when the risen Christ is not with us to empower us and to check up on how we’re doing.
So how do we make disciples of all nations? The sheep and goats parable tells us in very clear and practical terms – by offering hospitality especially to those in need. That’s it – one simple question – have we been hospitable or not? I don’t know about you, but that makes me more than a little nervous. However my day of reckoning comes will Jesus remind me of all the appeals for charity I’ve thrown away unopen? Will he parade before me the starving children of the world or just the homeless people on the street corner that I’ve hurried by on a cold winter day to get to my nice warm house? What other missed opportunities to serve others will he bring back to painful memory like a haunted Facebook year in review? I’ve always had this fear that when my life flashes before me at the end that it will be boring, but this is much worse than boring.

A book club that I’m in just finished reading a book called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a social psychologist who has done research on how and why morality develops in humans. Leave the sheep and goat metaphor aside for a minute because Haidt compares humans to chimpanzees and bees. I’ve never known any chimps personally, but Haidt says that while they are very smart animals they do not develop any sense of loyalty to any other chimps. There actions are always self-interested. At the other extreme are bees that are totally organized to perform individual roles for the benefit of the hive they live in.

The bad news is that Haidt’s research concludes that we humans are 90% like selfish chimpanzees. The good news is that we are also 10% like bees. In other words, we are capable as we well know of compassion and acts of hospitality. We do make sacrifices of our time, energy and money to help others in need.

But what makes the difference in our hospitality for others? When and why do we act like bees instead of goats, I mean chimpanzees? Haidt lists religious affiliation as one of the community building groups that can trip what he calls the “hive switch” that makes us less self-centered and more “groupish” like bees. He has studied a variety of social groups and through scientific research identified certain activities that bind individuals together and allow us to merge our individual identities into a larger whole.

I took a friend of mine to her very first Ohio State football game a few years ago. We were soaking up the atmosphere and excitement of the best darn band in the land making their dramatic ramp entrance and performing Script Ohio, and then those 100,000 fans stood as one and sang “Carmen Ohio,” the OSU Alma mater. When we sat down my friend Linda looked at me with amazement in her eyes and said, “I saw people actually crying during the alma mater.” And I said, “O yes, this is a religious experience for many people.”

I thought I was just being clever, but according to professor Haidt I was exactly right. He uses college football and all its pageantry, songs, cheers and traditions as a prime example of behavior that can trip the hive switch, a bonding of total strangers into a unison choir. It’s easy to see how the things we do in worship, singing hymns, reciting common prayers, rituals like baptism, communion, weddings and funerals are similar group building activities. As a side note, our familiarity with the rituals as regular attenders in worship also means we need to be sensitive to newcomers who may feel uncomfortable because they don’t know the “routine” that we take for granted.

So the hive switch is what makes communal action and hospitality possible. Theologically I’d call that the Holy Spirit within each of us. Where my theology pushes back at the scientific analysis of human morality is where Haidt concludes that we humans are best at what he calls “Parochial altruism.” In other words we extend hospitality most often and most easily to people who are like us. That’s obviously true, but what science can’t account for is the inbreaking power of God’s spirit that makes all things possible, even radical hospitality for the strangers in our midst.

So, what does that all have to do with sheep and goats? Most of us know we aren’t good, righteous sheep all the time. I have a wonderful friend who is the most caring person you can imagine. He’s a retired firefighter and EMT and felt called to that kind of vocation because of his gentle, caring soul. But in that work he witnessed some trutly horrific acts of inhuman behavior. I remember one time he told me about going on a squad run to help an 84 year old woman who had been brutally beaten are raped. My peace-loving friend shook with emotion as he told me he didn’t trust himself to be in the presence of that rapist for fear he would kill him.

In the very best of us there is some goat. I believe it’s a smaller percentage than Haidt’s 90% figure, but it’s there and we are in danger if we forget it. I even read that Andy Griffith admitted that there were times when he wanted to beat up Barney Fife. By sharing our humanity in Jesus God knew up close and personal about our goatish tendencies. Even Jesus didn’t always practice what he preached. He got angry at times and called people fools or a brood of vipers. He got so angry with the money changers that he turned over their tables and drove them out of the temple with a whip.

Jesus understood none of us pure bred sheep. We are a flock of Geep, a hybrid of hospitality and goat-like selfishness that sneaks out when we’re uncomfortable or fearful or insecure.

The parable makes such a clear cut choice between sheep and goats, good and bad, there is no middle ground. So we wonder if there’s any hope for us Geep. You bet there is. Matthew includes this judgment story as a warning. Jesus makes the choice so stark to impress us with the urgency of how we treat each other. His words certainly ring true for the troubled world we live in where there are literally millions of hungry, thirsty, ill-clothed, unhealthy, and imprisoned people. The surprise in this story is that neither the sheep nor the goats realized that their treatment of neglected, marginalized people was how they treated Christ himself. We can’t use that excuse. We’ve been told, we’ve been warned, and we who know what it’s like to long to belong have a duty to treat others not just the way we want to be treated, but the way we would treat Christ himself.

At our church conference Thursday night we watched a powerful video message from Bishop Palmer. The video is being shown at every church conference this year to introduce the mission theme for the West Ohio Conference for this Conference year. The theme is “Be Not Afraid—There is enough.” Be not afraid got me wondering what kind of fears prevent us from being the good hospitable sheep Jesus calls us to be. Bishop Palmer said that when we are afraid there aren’t enough resources to go around, when we live out of scarcity mentality it’s hard to share what we have for fear we won’t have enough for ourselves.

There’s no doubt the needs of those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick and in prison, those in need of warm clothing as winter approaches – those needs can be overwhelming. But just because we can’t do everything for everybody is no excuse for doing nothing. Bishop Palmer used one of my favorite Bible stories to make his point about how we can overcome our fears of scarcity by living out of faith in God’s abundance. In the feeding of the 5000 story the disciples are afraid they can’t feed the hungry crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach.
They very pragmatically take inventory of the food they have and come up with just 5 loaves and two fish. This is obviously not enough to feed over 5000 people. But Jesus tells the disciples to give him what they have. He takes it, breaks it, and blesses it and there is not only enough to feed and satisfy everyone there, they collect 12 baskets full of leftovers that can go to the local food pantry.

The message is that when we feel like we don’t have enough time or energy or resources to care for those in need if we give what we have to God in faith it will be enough. A year ago no one would have believed that this church could regularly feed 100’s of neighborhood children who don’t have lunches on days when school is not in session. But a few people saw the need and had the faith to start a new ministry, and guess what – in the last year we’ve provided over 5000 brown bag lunches to our neighbors. As the need grew there were always enough volunteers, enough food, and enough love to meet the need.

We are called to treat everyone the way we would treat Jesus! Wow! That’s a tall order for us imperfect fallible Geep. None of us treat everyone all the time like we’d treat Jesus, especially when Christ comes in a Halloween costume disguised as a hungry, sick, ill-clad prisoner! “But Jesus, if we’d only known it was you!!”

But here’s the really good news—we know from other stories about Jesus’ grace and mercy that he doesn’t expect perfection. Just look at the rag-tag bunch of disciples he chose!! And other New Testament writers share the same message of mercy and amazing grace. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” That’s because none of us are good enough to pass the sheep/goat test on our own merits.

I John says, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The sheep and goats parable is both a warning and a way into God’s kingdom. It forces us to look honestly at how goat-like we sometimes are, and when we are brave enough to do that we are humbled and fall on our knees in confession.

I like the way a preacher named Ronald Luckey interprets this text. He says “The King will judge us and give us hell. He will show us the suffering, starving children. We will feel their pain with terrible regret and remorse as we relive those missed opportunities to love and help others.
The King will show us all the times we’ve failed to do God’s will, and the goat’s horns will weigh heavy on our heads.

But then another word will come, quiet, grace-filled, one we don’t deserve – The king will look at you and me and say,
‘You who have full cupboards are truly hungry, I will feed you.’
‘You who dress well are truly naked, I will clothe you.’
‘You who have lavish access to all the good things, you are truly in prison, I will set you free.’

The king will give us back our lives, judged on the basis of our deeds but sentenced on the basis of grace.”

The same king who says “Father Forgive them,” the king who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, including yours and mine. Thanks be to God.

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“Set in Stone: Rock Solid,” Matthew 16:13-20

One of the curiosities in my family is that previous generations had a real thing for nicknames. My paternal grandmother’s name was Vesta Verola and that’s no April fool! If anyone ever needed a nickname she did, and hers was Dottie. My maternal grandfather was Alma Webster, and he too qualified; but I’m not sure that his nickname, Hooker, was any better than Alma! Maybe his unusual names explain why 4 of his sons all went by different handles than their given Christian names. My uncle Carl was Bud, Forest became Frog, John Franklin always went by Hank, and the youngest Gary was Butch. Why Uncle Bill was always just Bill I do not know.

I bring that up not to confirm that I come by my weirdness honestly, but because in our Scripture for this morning Matthew tells us how Jesus’ disciple Simon got his nickname. Jesus says, “Simon, son of Jonah….. You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The Aramaic word Cephas that we translate as ‘Peter’ is very similar to the word for ‘rock;’ so saying Peter is the rock on which the church will be founded is a clever play on words that is lost in the English translation. At least one commentator suggests that it would be better if we just called Simon “Rock” instead of “Peter” so we remember this life-changing moment in Simon Peter’s life.

It’s like the Hebrew Scriptures telling us that when Abram and Sarai accepted God’s covenant to be the parents of God’s chosen people they were given new names, Abraham and Sarah. Or when Jacob became Israel, which means something like “one who has wrestled with God.” These change of names mark critical turning points, just like marriage when one or both partners takes a new name to signify a sacred transition after which we are never the same.

Jesus didn’t ask Simon if he wanted to be the Rock, he just says, “Simon, you are the Rock,” and that’s the end of discussion. But why did Jesus pick Simon to be the Rock? I’m glad you asked since that is what I want to talk about today! Simon was always a larger than life character, an extrovert, always ready with an answer to any question, even if it was wrong. He was like the kid in class who no matter what the teacher asked, she always was waving her hand in the air the highest to say, “Pick me, teacher. I know! I know!” Simon was the only one of the disciples brave enough to get out of the boat and try to walk on water to Jesus, until he sank like a rock! Maybe that’s where Jesus got the idea? Simon was chosen first when Jesus was picking his disciples; so maybe he had seniority. He was certainly one of the inner circle, along with James and John, who were with Jesus at the most critical moments of his ministry.

At any rate I’m pretty sure Simon the Rock was flattered to be chosen. I can see a bumper sticker on Simon’s parents’ camel that said, “Our son is an honor student chosen to be The Rock.” Simon is the one when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” who correctly identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus’ could have just given him a gold star or a pat on the head. After all God had given the answer to that question at Jesus’ baptism and several of the disciples had already proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah back in chapter 14. But Jesus asks again here because this is final exam time. Jesus knows the jig is about up. He’s very soon heading to Jerusalem for the last time and he wants to know if his motley crew of disciples is ready to take over when he’s gone. So he asks for assurance that they get it. And Simon offers the correct answer and he’s the chosen keeper of the keys to the Kingdom.

But when we look closely at Simon’s full resume we have to scratch our heads a bit at this choice for rockhood. And we don’t have to go far. In the very next paragraph after the words we read this morning we begin to see that Simon the Rock may not be as rock solid as we’d hope. He and the others know who Jesus is, but they still don’t’ really know. Verse 21, the very next verse after our text for today says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

You think Jesus is having a little buyers’ remorse? His chosen rock is suddenly called a “stumbling-block” because his mind is set on human things – like staying alive—and not on doing God’s will no matter what. And we know this is just a preview of bigger failures to come. But this lack of faith immediately after he gets his new name is enough to make us wonder, Why Simon? Were there no other candidates? Was he the least of 12 evils?
Before we come down too hard on Peter, let’s remember last week’s sermon. I was impressed that Mebane was willing to preach to a whole congregation armed with stones, but then I guess she was pretty confident that no one without sin was going to cast the first stone. The point is we are all fallible human beings. There’s no other choice for Jesus to pick rock solid disciples except from the likes of us!!!!

Remember none of the 12 disciples had impressive resumes. The Gospels don’t tell us how or why Jesus picked the group he did. In most cases we are just told he saw them, fishermen, tax collector, and a bunch who are not identified by profession, and, perhaps here’s the key, these are the ones were immediately are willing to leave their nets, their parents, their tax office and follow Jesus.

Anybody play follow the leader as a kid? What’s the only thing you have to know to play that game – to follow the leader, right? And your position to do so is behind the leader. I used to think that when Jesus told Simon the Rock to “get behind me, Satan,” that it was like being told to go stand in the corner. But I’ve come to realize that Jesus was just telling Peter that in order to follow he had to get behind Jesus, both literally and figuratively. He needed the disciples to have his back because they were going into very dangerous territory. And right up to the bitter end they all swore they were able to follow him anywhere, until they didn’t.
They were plain ordinary folks without degrees or pedigrees, just like you and me, and that’s exactly why they were chosen to be the foundation of the church. Someone once asked Jesus why he ate with sinners, and the answer is that if he didn’t he would always be eating alone.

This story is not just about Simon the Rock. It’s about you and me. If we claim to believe in Christ as the Messiah, the son of the living God, then we are signing up to be the rocks on which Christ’s church is built.
But let’s remember than even the strongest rocks can erode. That big gaping hole in the ground we call the Grand Canyon was carved out of solid rock over centuries by something as soft as the water of the Colorado River.
Church rocks can be worn down by the constant forces of evil that invent new and improved ways to entice us all the time. Like the mortar between rocks our faith needs to be rebuilt in each generation so we can do church in ways that are relevant to current cultural situations.

That takes a team effort. There is a plaque on a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale golf course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up right behind that large boulder. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well.
Rule 6-7: “Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play.”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #23-1/3: “Spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., may assist a player in removing a large loose impediment.”
Now many serious golfers might have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help.

That may seem like a trivial example to non-golfers, but the point is that we all face big problems at times, and we need to know what all of our options are and not just surrender when something unexpected blocks our way. Secondly, none of us are equipped to figure out a solution to every problem, and that means being humble enough to ask for help. Tiger had a resource that I’m glad I don’t have on the golf course—a whole mob of people watching him, and with their help his obstacle was rolled away.

The church is like our gallery –our crowd of fans, people ready and willing to pray for us and help us when we have problems. But guess what? Being a mind reader is not required for church membership or ordination. To get help we have to be humble enough and brave enough to ask. That doesn’t mean every problem can be easily fixed or even quickly prayed away; but the love and support of other people and the assurance of God’s presence with us through dark days can help make any suffering a whole lot easier to bear.

But sometimes we think we’re too far gone or feel God’s too far away to help. And that’s when our troubles double. The temptation to withdraw from others when we need them most is a common human weakness. We don’t want to be a burden or inflict our pain on others, or we’re too embarrassed to admit we have a problem. Another Simon, as in Simon and Garfunkel, wrote a very sad song about that back in the 1960’s, and guess what? It just happens to be called “I Am a Rock.” The chorus to that song says, “I am a rock, I am an island; and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

That’s a pretty bleak picture of life, but we all feel that way sometimes when we just don’t want to risk being hurt again by letting anyone into our hearts. But that’s not really living is it? There’s an alternative to that lonely approach to life from a much older source. John Donne wrote 400 years ago: “No one is an island, Entire of itself, Every one is a piece of the continent, A part of the main….And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We usually think of that bell tolling in funereal terms, but when we are in community together we also share the joyous bells of celebration. We are all part of the main, and the super glue that holds all of us together is the almighty power of God’s Holy Spirit.

We need each other because Jesus doesn’t promise his followers a rose garden. Following him leads to the Garden of Gethsemane and he’s not looking for fans but cross-taker-uppers. And God knows we will all stumble and fall just like old Rocky Simon Peter.

The church has not always been rock solid for Jesus and the temptation to follow an easier path has to be faced every day. The church in 2017 is not immune to the political divisions of the world. We Christians too often choose up sides to debate controversial issues and sometimes think winning a theological argument is more important than lining up to play follow the leader with Jesus.

That means simply to live like Christ even when that’s very hard. And it’s especially hard to do when personal problems and failures become boulders that seem too heavy to carry. When intimate relationships shatter, when jobs feel like prison sentences, or when there’s no job to be had. When school work seems impossible, or taking care of loved ones exhausting; when chronic illnesses rob us of our strength to carry on. When the world seems to be getting crueler and addictions seems the only way to escape—we all struggle and fail just like not so rock solid Simon.

So when all seems lost and hopeless, please know that you are not alone. All of us feel like our faith is anything but rock solid at times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from God and from others. No matter how shaky our rocks feel, please hear Jesus’ assurance which he speaks to us just as he did to Peter “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The victory of good over evil is guaranteed because it’s not our church; it’s not Simon the Rock’s church; it’s Christ’s Church.

Simon’s faith wasn’t always rock solid. Our faith is not always rock solid. But God’s promise is rock solid—solid enough to build a church on, to build your life on, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, April 2, 2017 as part of a Lenten series, “Set in Stone.”

Rejoicing when God says No

Pity party alert. I am having a medical procedure next week that requires me to be off some of the meds I take for arthritic pain, and therefore I am experiencing more discomfort that usual. The result is that I’ve been a bigger pain than usual for my poor wife. I don’t like myself when I’m in this kind of state, and the fact that I know I’m making everything worse when I dwell on my problems doesn’t help.

As a student of communication I know very well how powerful words are, especially the self-talk kind. I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing the paragraph above so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my Microsoft Word thesaurus gave me were a real revelation: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is I get to choose how I want to label what I’m feeling.

Mornings are the worst for my discomfort; so when I went back to my Lenten devotion of reading Psalm 90 sure enough there was relevant wisdom awaiting me: “Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).
Pity-party Steve gravitates to the phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need or what God provides. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away with a Holy abracadabra!

But the Psalmist has a much more realistic and deeper request that we need at every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and God knows we’re seeing an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is as simple and illusive as unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

These are not new thoughts for me or in Scripture, but they are words we need to really hear on a regular basis. I wrote about these same issues for me two years ago (May 2015) in a post entitled “Encouraged and Inspired: Signs of Resurrection Living” where I reflected on St. Paul’s request in II Corinthians for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh.” God’s answer to Paul not once but three times was “no” because like me Paul was praying for the wrong thing. He was asking for physical healing, but the answer Paul got was God’s reply that “My grace is sufficient for you.” (II Cor. 12:9). God’s grace is another way of talking about God’s steadfast love.

The words from the Psalm and from Paul are similar because they are trustworthy and true. Even though they were written in totally different circumstances about very different kinds of suffering some 600 years apart, the truth is the same then and now and forever. It is the truth we all need to hear early and often because God’s steadfast, unconditional love and grace are the only things that can truly sustain us and even empower us to rejoice in difficult times.

Thanks be to God.

To Dust We Shall Return, An Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That traditional reminder of our mortality that many Christians hear when ashes are imposed at the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and reflection has always given me pause, which I guess is the whole idea. This year, my first Ash Wednesday as a septuagenarian makes those words more real than usual.

Mortality is one of those things we do not often speak of in polite company. Our youth-oriented culture is built on a shaky foundation of denial that Ash Wednesday threatens to expose. Maybe that’s why most churches are not overcrowded on that somber day. But mortality is a natural and essential part of our human condition. It can be argued it is one of the most important parts of what it means to be human. We don’t believe any other creatures are aware of their inevitable death, although I’m not sure that’s true.

Knowing our days are numbered is really a gift that makes it possible for us to value and prioritize the time we have in this life, and having the confidence that death is only a transition to another form of being frees us to embrace that gift.

So this Ash Wednesday this 70 something is going to enter a season of Lent reflecting on what God is calling me to do with the days remaining to me. I have no idea what that number is, but I know full well that it is a much smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. On that score I find the wisdom of Psalm 90 sobering and uplifting at the same time:

“For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!” (Selected verses from NRSV)

There’s plenty there to ponder for the entire 40 days of Lent, and that’s only part of the Psalm. The psalmist’s words call us to give up our regrets over what is past and fears of what is to come, to affirm and accept our dusty existence so we can “count our days” and make each one count.

The psalmist reminds us that we are alive only because of the grace of God, and that when attendance is called each morning we need to be present in every sense of that word because we have big work to do. God’s work is entrusted to us, God’s servants. That’s a huge job description, but if not me, then who? If not today, when?
We can even dare to consider accepting God’s mission as ours because with our marching orders comes the promise of God’s glorious power and that power alone can “prosper the work of hands.” Anything we do that is not according to God’s plan is doomed to failure.

I confess I begin too many days throwing a pity party for myself for the things I am no longer able to do. Ash Wednesday is a great day to repent, to turn around and welcome whatever task God has for me now in this stage of my life. Bucket lists are popular ways we talk about the things we want to be sure we do before we die. They are a good first step toward acknowledging that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” But my challenge to myself and to you as we strive to keep a Holy Lent in 2017 is to ask not what’s on my bucket list, but take time in prayer and meditation each day to ask, “What’s on God’s bucket list for me?”

Prayer for the Human Family

As my regular readers know I have strong political opinions about the current situation in Washington and its repercussions around the world. I strive to make sure those opinions are theologically grounded. After prayerful consideration of the crisis over immigration policy that has unfolded over the weekend I have decided to offer a prayer for unity and compassion for everyone involved rather than add to the often polarizing debate about political positions and constitutional interpretation. The inspiration for this prayer comes from my understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture but also from a very secular source.

That secular source is from a marketing slogan used by one of my favorite breakfast restaurants, Bob Evans. (Full disclosure note: My son is a V-P in marketing for Bob Evans, but I would like this slogan regardless of family ties.) Our church has been doing a sermon series on myths and sayings that aren’t in the Bible, and I’d like to propose that this one could very well be. The slogan which is on the walls of many of Bob’s restaurants is this: “We treat strangers like friends and friends like family.”

Dear God, creator and sustainer of all creation, God of radical hospitality, you have taught us in Scripture and through Christ and faithful Jesus followers to be people of love. You warn us that it is not enough to love those who love us back, but to love even our enemies and those who persecute us. You have instructed us via prophets and parables all the way back to Leviticus to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we often forget that love of neighbor extends to all the Samaritans and Syrians and Somalis longing to be free.

Forgive us when we forget that your inclusive love requires us to welcome dialogue with our political foes and to enter into those conversations with open minds free from judgment about the motives of others. Help us temper our zeal for justice with open ears that can hear the concerns and fears of those we disagree with. Help us to lower the decibel level of the discourse as we strive to treat others with the same respect we want for ourselves and those we advocate for. Forgive us when we are more concerned with being right than reaching peaceful solutions to complex problems. Gently remind us when we are more determined to win an argument than to know the truth.

Teach us your patience, Lord, and remind us to double and triple check our facts before we post or tweet or share any information that may be counterproductive to the ultimate cause of peace and justice for all of your children. Give us minds that thirst for truth and learn from history, to see the many logs in our own eyes before we judge others about the specks in theirs. We have much in our American history for which we need to repent, O God of mercy. You know us better than we know ourselves. Grant us the courage to search the depths of our own sin. Remind us of our own shameful record of injustice against people of color, women, and our LGBT sisters and brothers. Send your Spirit to help us not be shamed by guilt but to benefit from our past transgressions and from those of others so we can learn and grow in our faith from this political crisis.

Touch our hearts O God in ways that empower us to live up to your high expectations for us. May your Spirit burn within us with a compassion for families that are separated, for students and business travelers stranded in foreign lands, for everyone who fears for their uncertain future. Let us not become so embroiled in the political struggles of our own nation that we surrender to 24/7 news fatigue. Do not let us lose sight of the fact that millions of human lives are at stake and will be impacted by our own action or lack thereof. Do not let us belittle our own significance with a false humility that can silence the voices of the many crying in the wilderness. Do not cease to remind us that we are to treat the stranger in our midst as we would treat our own family and friends, that radical hospitality is not an unreachable ideal or a clever marketing slogan but Gospel Truth.

Lord, there is much fear consuming our nation and world. There is fear for safety and security, fear of political impotence and fear of excessive power. Help us acknowledge and face all those fears with the confidence of your children who know that only perfect love casts out fear. You are the unshakable foundation of our faith and the only true source of perfect love. Without you we cannot imagine how the overwhelming crises of our world can be resolved. But you are the God of exodus and exile, of crucifixion and resurrection. No political crisis has ever silenced your voice. In the tumult and chaos of protests and partisanship, whisper again to us the assurance once more that neither powers nor principalities, death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from your love. Thanks be to God.

Myth Busters: Everything Happens for a Reason, I Corinthians13:8-13

When my son was in high school one of his friends was killed in a terrible car crash. Like most preachers’ kids Matt struggled with the expectations placed on him, especially in the small community where we lived. Unfortunately a well-intended preacher at his friend Shane’s funeral added to Matt’s frustration with the church by telling the folks at the funeral that “everything happen for a reason.”

Like all the myths we’re looking at in this sermon series this one contains some truth and is well-intended but not always helpful. There are several scriptures that can be used to support this myth: Ecclesiastes 3:1 “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Proverbs 16:4 says, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Romans 8:28, where Paul says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” But as with all theological statement these verses need to be read in context and with the understanding that the biblical authors were all fallible human beings like us struggling to understand things that just don’t make sense.

At one level it is certainly true that everything happens for a reason. Actions have consequences and they are often unintended or unanticipated. Genetically engineering food and pumping animals full of antibiotics have increased our food supply which is good, but we are learning the hard way the unintended consequences are super bugs resistant to all known medications. Cancer is one of the most difficult plagues on humanity to understand, and we applaud the advances research has made. But we are still not doing enough to prevent various cancers by changing our lifestyles and especially the way we eat. Actions have consequences, and until we stop poisoning our food and air and water we will not find a magic bullet to cure cancer.

Health care in general is a hot topic, and again we can’t just blame God or fate for illnesses but must take proactive steps to live healthier lifestyles. Our aging population in particular is a big challenge. 30% of what is spent on our healthcare in a lifetime occurs in the last year of life, and that is often because our focus is too much on the quantity of life and not its quality. A friend told me recently about his mother. When she was 92 years old and in failing health some of her doctors wanted to amputate both of her legs to keep her alive a little longer. These kinds of costly and unnecessary procedures occur because we are afraid to face the reality that we are all dust and to dust we will return. We need to have important conversations about end of life issues based on values and not economics or fear of our inevitable death.

The good part of this myth that everything happens for a reason is that it is really about trust and faith. When our ability to make sense of things reaches its limits that’s when faith kicks in. The mysteries of life and death challenge us to accept our limitations and to make friends with ambiguity, but too easily accepting this myth short circuits that important process. It can be used to avoid taking a leap of faith into the unknowable mystery of God.

The beautiful words of I Corinthians 13 are most often heard at weddings couched in the romantic notion of love that bears all things and never ends, but that’s not what Paul was about when he wrote this beautiful passage. Remember Paul advised people not to get married if they could avoid it. The preceding Chapter 12 of I Corinthians sets the stage for chapter 13. In Chapter 12 Paul addresses jealousy and arguments the church in Corinth was having about which spiritual gifts were the best. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to describe different spiritual gifts and challenges the church members to accept their own limits and value the gifts of others. And then at the end of that chapter about the body of Christ, Paul says I will show you a better way to achieve spiritual maturity, the way of love.

In chapter 13 Paul says all the spiritual gifts are temporary and partial. This earthly life, including all of our knowledge will pass away – but inquiring minds want to know now. We don’t to wait! We did the whole wait training thing in Advent and we’re tired of waiting. We want answers to life’s mysteries right now. The human search for knowledge and truth is good up to a point but it always gets us in trouble when we overreach our limits. Ever since Adam and Eve couldn’t resist the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil we’ve wanted to know more than our pay grade qualifies us to handle.

Look at what Paul says: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Now we see only in a mirror dimly, like when you get out of the shower and the mirror is so fogged up you can’t see a thing. But we don’t want to know in part, we want shiny clean mirrors. We want certainty not ambiguity especially when it comes to matters of eternal importance to us. The frustration is that it is those very questions about death and life after death that we cannot have certainty about.

Paul says that to be adults in our faith is to give up our need for certainty. Those who study human development know that at different stages of maturity we are capable of handling different levels of truth. Small children are helpless and need the certainty that concrete and solid answers to their questions provides. They need to know they are cared for and will not be abandoned by the important figures in their lives. They expect parents and other significant adults in their lives to know stuff they don’t understand. Who hasn’t experienced the inquisitive mind of a three year old who wants to know why the sky is blue, and why she needs to brush her teeth and how the dish washer works, and why grandpa is bald? There is no end to their questions. We have a gas fireplace at our house that has no chimney, and every Christmas our grandsons ask us again how Santa can get into our house if there’s no chimney.

A great deal of our education system is based on that same kind of concrete, factual pursuit of knowledge. In school the test questions usually have one correct answer. For instance, if I asked you which letter comes after the letter A in the alphabet, what would the correct answer be? If you said “B” that is correct, but it is only one of 25 correct answers. Young Albert Einstein was asked that question by one of his teachers early in his life, and the teacher was not pleased when he replied, “They all do.” Most of us are not encouraged to think outside the box of concrete certainty as children, but when we become adults we need to adopt grown up thinking which sometimes means admitting we don’t know and can’t know some things yet.

What Paul is telling us is that when it comes to matters of theology a mature faith is one that can look into the ambiguity of a cloudy mirror and still be at peace with the uncertainty of faith. The statement that everything happen for a reason is meant to provide peace of mind by telling us that God is in charge and everything will be ok in the end. But we don’t live at the end of God’s drama when things make sense, we live in the confusion of the present and those words meant to comfort often backfire. Let’s look at some of the reasons that’s the case.

Number 1: If God’s in charge of everything, then we have to blame God for both the good and bad stuff too. This problem is a cousin to the myth that Mebane covered two weeks ago, namely that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Both myths imply that God makes bad things happen for some reason we can’t understand. When we are scared and feel out of control, we need assurance that God is, but the downside of that is we have to hold God accountable for all the bad stuff too and there goes any comfort we get from God. Even Wesley’s familiar Covenant service prayer we used here just 3 weeks ago to begin the new year falls into that trap when it says “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt… Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

Does God cause suffering? There are certainly places in the Bible that indicate that’s the case, for example the whole book of Job, or God’s punishment by death of Ananias and Sapphira for cheating on their church pledge in Acts 5. Some people are sure God is responsible for the election of Donald Trump, and others of us are wondering if this is God’s punishment for the sins of our nation. It obviously can’t be both. Did God give Clemson a victory in the Fiesta Bowl and cause the agony of defeat for OSU? Is God causing the unbelievable suffering in Syria or for the refugees trying to escape that mayhem?

Of course not. We worship a God of love, and the biblical accounts of God’s direct intervention in punishing people were the best answers the people in biblical times could give to some of the most mysterious and difficult questions in creation. We still struggle with those same questions today, and will until we see God “face to face.” Until then we can only know in part.

Number 2: The second problem with this myth is that if we surrender all control of everything that happens to God we absolve ourselves of all responsibility for human causes of suffering or injustice. Rev. Adam Hamilton who has written about these myths in his book “Half Truths” says a friend sent him this comment from a Facebook meme: “Yes, everything happens for a reason, but sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” Our actions have consequences. My son’s friend died not because an all-powerful God willed it so, but because of poor judgment and excess speed by a teen aged driver.

Blaming God or the devil or someone else for all our problems pushes us into the dangerous territory of going into victim mode. Woe is me, everybody hates me! The world is against me! We cannot control external events that happen to us, but with God’s help we can control how we react. Do we learn from our mistakes and those of others or waste a learning opportunity? To go victim robs us of chances to reflect and learn and to use adversity to strengthen instead of weaken our faith. It’s hard to increase our faith when we’re angry and blaming the very God who could be our greatest source of strength in time of trouble. That’s not to say we can’t be angry at God or our circumstances. Anger is one of the natural stages of grief. God can handle our anger and isn’t going to abandon us or punish us for being mad. It’s just when we stay angry too long that we multiply our suffering.

Blaming God for our suffering is also costly because it robs us of one of the greatest gifts God has given us, our free will. Sure, sometimes it feels like we’d be better off without free will if we could avoid suffering, but that’s not true. We cannot achieve our full humanity if God is just a puppeteer and we are robots or marionettes. God gives us freedom of choice so we can experience the joy of growth and doing good. Without freedom there is no ability to choose love, and as Paul teaches us, Love is the greatest gift of all that lasts when knowledge and prophesy are no more.

Number 3: And that brings us to the 3rd problem with the myth that everything happens for a reason. When we see knowledge and the ability to explain everything as our purpose in life we are treading on the thin ice of wanting to be like God. We want answers and we want them right now. Adam and Eve had everything they could ever need in the Garden of Eden, but their desire to be like God cost them everything. Worshipping absolute answers makes it impossible for us to live by faith and put our trust in the God who is beyond all human comprehension.

So what do we do instead of telling people in pain that “everything happens for a reason?” We recently attended a funeral for a 33 year old army vet who got hooked on pain meds because of a back injury he got in the service. On New Year’s Day Alex finally lost his battle with addiction. He left a young widow and a sweet four-year-old daughter named Hope. How do you tell his friends and family that all this happened for a reason and expect that to help? You don’t. It was the first Jewish funeral I’ve ever attended and I was impressed with what the Rabbi said instead. He quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner who published a book entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” 20 years ago. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever read on this subject.

The title of the book is not WHY bad things happen but WHEN because they happen to everyone sooner or later. And essentially what Kushner says is that “Why” is not really a question in these cases, it is a cry of pain. And we all know what to do when someone is in pain. They don’t need answers, they need comfort. They need someone to love them, to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t have to say anything; we just have to love.

If we had the answers to suffering we could use them, but we don’t. We are not God. We see in a mirror dimly, and that’s ok, because Paul assures in Romans 8, just us as Jesus did, that God is with us always and nothing in all creation can ever separate us from that love. So “faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

In his play “J.B.” based on the book of Job, Archibald McLeish puts it this way. J.B.’s wife is trying to help him struggle with the why question about his unbelievable suffering, and she says to him “The problem J.B. is that you are looking for justice and there is none. There is only love.” When we are hurting or those close to us, that love is all we need, and it lasts forever.

Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, January 22, 2017

Advent IV, Unextinguishable Love

advent-waiting-img_1492 The decorations are up, the stockings are hung with care, and children are bursting with anticipation. The nativity scene is set in its special place, but the manger is still empty. The nursery is stocked by Babies R Us, but the guest of honor has not yet arrived. Like expectant parents we can’t wait to cuddle the tiny new life in our arms. We are so close we can feel the baby kicking in the womb, and we are filled with a rich mixture of joy and anxiety. As we wait, let’s remember how different Jesus’ arrival was from birth today, and yet how similar. Parenting is a universal gift of love. In a birthing suite or a stable, to hear that first cry melts our hearts with instant love. Birth is worth every second of the long wait. And so today we light the 4th Advent candle, a light no darkness can extinguish, the candle of Love.

Prayer:
O God, our heavenly parent, we are so close we can see the lights of Bethlehem reflecting on icy roads. Forgive us when we get distracted from the destination of our Advent journey. With trees and houses and malls ablaze with Christmas decorations, it’s easy to get lost on our way to the manger. Disturbing news from inhumane places like Aleppo threaten to extinguish our hope for humankind. Winter storms cancel much needed Sabbath worship services. Remind us again O God that even in the shortest, darkest of days the light of the world awaits us in Bethlehem’s modest manger, and that light is constant and unfailing. It is the light of love; a love that makes room for a mother in labor in a strange place; a love that hears angels sing of peace on earth and joy to the world. As the lights from on the Advent wreath grow brighter, help us welcome the gift of love into our hearts; so we can be midwives in a dark and weary world, helping give birth to the miracle of love. In the name of the one who is Love in human form we pray. Amen.