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.

Spiritual Cardiology


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”

Speak Truth to Power

In his book “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale” Frederick Buechner challenges preachers to tell the whole truth of life and the Gospel with the closing line from Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Buechner says, “…in the last act, the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, all die alike, and the stage is so littered with corpses there is nobody much left except Edgar to stammer the curtain down as best he can. What he says is this: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’” Buechner offers this commentary: “They are not the most powerful lines in the play, but they are among the most telling because in them it would seem that Shakespeare is telling us something about himself and about the way he wrote his play…. In the interest of truth-telling there seems to be no risk Shakespeare is not willing to run as if from the conviction that if the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.”

It is the weight of the very sad times of political and social chaos in our country that demands that this foolish old preacher say what I feel and not what I ought to say.

I have watched President Trump and his band of billionaires violate the most sacred tenets of the US Constitution in his first month in office, and since only a few Republican representatives and Senators have had the courage to stand up to Trump’s authoritarian bully tactics I figure it’s time to add my voice to those who fear the consequences of his heavy-handed ways. I doubt that it will do a bit of good since the system of checks and balances built into our Constitution are currently suspended until enough Republicans realize the mortal danger we and the world are in if the current pattern of oppression and selfish nationalism is allowed to continue.

I continue to hope that sooner rather than later moral courage will override blind party and ideological loyalty in enough members of Congress to prevent the worst of the damage. But in the meantime innocent immigrant families are being torn apart, US citizens are being detained at airports for hours because they have “Muslim” names, and hate crimes and murder are being committed in the name of putting America First. This is wrong in the name of Christian values that proclaim that how we treat the “least of these” is how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). More than at any time in 150 years we are in a struggle for the soul of America like the one Lincoln described at Gettysburg “to see if this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
There is hope that Congress will do its job and investigate the Russian connection to the Trump campaign and administration. Those of us who remember Watergate know what a long and painful process that kind of inquiry can be. Whatever the truth is about the firing of General Flynn, and Mr. Trump’s business connections and potential conflicts of interest, and the meddling of the Russians in the electoral process, we need to know the facts before any verdict can be rendered. That investigation needs to occur, but I do not believe we can afford to allow this President to wreak havoc on marginalized people and on our environment for as long as that process will take. And we don’t need to.

We already have ample evidence to take action against this President and begin impeachment proceedings. On January 20 President Trump swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and he has failed to do so in the first month of his Presidency. I am no Constitutional expert, but here’s what the Frist Amendment of the Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Founding Fathers believed those basic freedoms were so central to our democracy that they spelled them out in the very first item in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of a free and open society. Faith-based people and reporters are on the front lines of the truth tellers in our society, and therefore the first people that authoritarian governments try to silence. Yes, I realize the amendment says that Congress shall not abridge those freedoms and so far it’s been executive orders and policies that have banned people from Muslim countries and excluded critical media from White House access. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to haggle over the technicalities while Rome burns, but it seems like common sense to me that if Congress can’t abridge those freedoms then neither can the President.

And it is Congress’s job to provide checks and balances and control a President who violates his Constitutional duties. If they fail to do so then they too are breaking their vow to uphold the Constitution. The Founding Fathers understood the weaknesses of humankind well enough to know what great power can do to even a well-intended person. We forget at our peril the wisdom of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I believe that President Trump does believe he is doing what is best for the U.S. and what he promised to do during his campaign. The problem is that we do not live in an isolated nationalistic world. Fear is turning people all over the world into self-centered nationalists who are willing to sacrifice the best qualities of humanity for a false sense of security.

Yes the future is scary. It always has been. I wrote after the Brexit vote (“A Lament for Unity,” 6/25/16 post) that the history of centuries of bloody wars in Europe flowed from nationalistic fear, and now that misguided populism is spreading like a virus all over the world. Like it or not modern technology has created a global economy that we cannot put back in the bottle. We need forward-looking vision about how to adjust and thrive in a global community. We can’t retreat back into an isolationist, industrial age that is no more. To do so is only going to fan the flames of hatred and make us less secure, not more.

“How Can We Love Our Enemies?” Matthew 5:38-48

“God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” I heard Dr. Fred Craddock preach on this text once, and he observed most of us would not be so generous toward the evil and unrighteous. He said if he were in charge the rain would fall on the good farmer’s field and stop abruptly when it came to the property line of the evil farmer. He went on to say if God were really just that every golf ball hit by a Sunday golfer playing hooky from church would go straight up in the air and fall at the feet of the golfer.

This whole passage from the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most challenging in all of Scripture. And in particular Jesus telling us to love our enemies has to be high on the list of those things we wish Jesus hadn’t said. But those words are much needed in our bitterly divided nation and world today.

Before we dig into the practical problems of how in the world to live up to these teachings of Jesus I want to set the context by sharing a quote from Dallas Willard, a teacher of spiritual formation. Willard says, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Let me repeat that: “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Those words are especially true of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is describing to his followers what it looks like to live as faithful disciples and citizens of his kingdom here and now in a world that teaches the very opposite. In other words, too many Christians focus on what Jesus did for us on the cross but not enough on what he requires of us as his disciples. That is a little strange since it is Jesus’ high standard of ethical living that got him in trouble with the authorities who killed him.

And so Jesus begins by repeating what previous Scriptures have taught about living in the worldly kingdom. “You have heard it said…” Don’t get mad, get even! Revenge is a natural human reaction, and I’m guessing most of us have been there in one degree or another in recent days or weeks. “You have heard it said, an eye for and a tooth for a tooth.” Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Let the punishment fit the crime. In fact, at the time those words were written hundreds of years before Jesus they were designed to limit revenge; so victims would not demand two eyes for an eye, or a whole mouthful of teeth for a tooth. As someone has said, if we follow the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth philosophy to its logical conclusion, we end up with a world full of blind, toothless people, and the cycle of violence and pain continues forever.

So Jesus reminds his disciples of the ancient law and continues, “But I say to you…” Look out whenever Jesus starts out with that phrase; brace yourself for a zinger. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If anyone strikes, you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” O, Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding! We can’t do that! You can’t be serious. How can we possibly love those responsible for horrific acts of death and destruction? You don’t mean for us to love ISIS, or that creep who murdered and raped Reagan Tokes, or our political enemies do you? And you can fill out the rest of your list of those we find it hard if not impossible to love.

Let’s look at the big picture of how our understanding of God’s will changes and grows. God doesn’t change, but our ability to grasp the enormity of God’s grace and love increases as we grow in faith both as individuals and as a faith community. We’ve already seen how that process unfolds from the days of Moses to Jesus, but let’s look at some other examples of how God surprises us throughout the Scriptures. I found this wonderful summary of that process in a Facebook post from Bixby Knolls Christian Church:

“In Deuteronomy 23 we read that the people of Moab are bad and not allowed to dwell among God’s people. But later in the Old Testament we meet Ruth the Moabitess (who becomes the grandmother of David and one of the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus).
Jeremiah 25 tells us that people from Uz are evil, but then comes story of Job, a man from Uz who is the “most blameless man on earth.”
No foreigners or eunuchs allowed, again from Deuteronomy, and then comes the story in Acts 8 of an African eunuch welcomed into the church.
God’s people hate Samaritans, but Jesus tells one of his most famous stories where a Samaritan is the hero and the model for what it means to be a good neighbor.
The story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but the Spirit moves God’s people toward openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance and affirmation.”

And our Judeo-Christian Scriptures aren’t when it comes to non-violent responses to those who hurt us. The Dali Lama, a leader of another of the world’s great religions, wrote these words shortly after 9/11, certainly one of the most trying times in our lifetime for those who take Jesus seriously. The Dali Lama was commenting on how America should respond to 9/11 and wrote, “It may seem presumptuous on my part, but I personally believe we need to think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do and in the greater interest of the nation and people in the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence.”

The tragic fact that we are still involved in the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan 16 years after 9/11 underscores the truth that violence increases the cycle of violence. We’re not going to solve that eternal question today, especially on the international level, but let’s take a look at what Jesus is asking of us in our personal lives and relationships when it comes to living peaceful Christ-like lives.

It is hard to find silver linings in some clouds, but even in tragedy there are often some benefits. We see it in extended families that rally around each other when there is a death of illness. We saw it the sense of unity in the U.S. after 9/11. Patriotism was higher than at any time since WWII. That kind of unity as a family or church or a nation is wonderful, but Jesus asks us to take that sense of community one giant step further–to include even our enemies in the circle of God’s family.

The sense of unity and patriotism after 9/11 didn’t last long, and part of the division in our nation is because we differ over how to respond to evil. Some insist on an eye for an eye response and others advocate a gentler approach. Those differences have hardened into partisan political lines that make it more important than ever to love those we differ with politically. One way to do that is to pray for those we disagree with by name, and the stronger our disagreements, the more important those prayers become. Whoever you see as on the wrong side of the political fence or some other contentious issue, pray for them, and I find it helpful to do so by using first names. That makes the prayers more personal and meaningful, and I find it hard to be angry when praying for someone.

Fear of others is the biggest barrier to love. In today’s political climate immigrants of all kinds fear for their future. We can’t solve the immigration policy debate here today, but each of us can engage in simple acts of kindness, go out of our way to smile and be kind to others who are different from us. Let them experience the radical hospitality of Christ so they know they are welcome in this country.

As individuals we can also listen to those we have political disagreements with. Just this week I heard from a friend who is cancelling his newspaper subscription because his local paper took an editorial position he disagrees with. I also heard that political divisions are showing up in personal ads on dating sites where profiles include such phrases as “no Trump haters need respond,” or “No Trump supporters welcome.” People unfriend people on social media and refuse to watch news channels they disagree with. The battle lines are drawn, and important functions of government like feeding starving children, rebuilding crumbling dams and bridges, and fixing the water supply in places like Flint – things we all agree need to be done are the causalities of partisan gridlock. It seems so obvious but still needs to be said, the first step to loving our enemies is communication and sharing our common human needs. Until that happens the bigger issues that divide us can never be addressed.

Jesus did it. He practiced what he preached. He walked the walk all the way to Golgotha. He loved his enemies and forgave those who nailed him to the cross. But how can we mere mortals love our enemies, even while we deplore their horrible deeds?

I certainly don’t have all the answers–not even all the questions; but it seems to me there are two things that are necessary for us to have any hope of following Jesus down this path of loving our enemies.
1) We need to understand who are enemies are and who they aren’t so we don’t over-react in fear against all Muslims or against everyone who looks different and is therefore suspicious. There was an incident in my hometown in northwest Ohio last year where some parents pulled their children out of a middle school social studies class because there was a unit on the history of Islam. That kind of fear of knowledge is tragic. There is no hope for peace without understanding. We need to learn all we can about Islam so we understand better the complicated political and religious realities we are caught up in. We don’t dare oversimplify or stereotype.
2) Perhaps most important, we need to practice forgiveness. Someone has written that forgiveness is the key to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is one of our most cherished American ideals, and forgiveness is what it takes to be free of the burdens of anger and hostility that make happiness impossible.

Logan Cole is a student at West Liberty High School who was shot at school a few weeks ago by a fellow student, Ely Serna. After Ely shot Logan, Ely handed the shot gun to Logan and asked him to shoot him as well. But Logan refused to shoot his attacker because he knew an eye for an eye doesn’t solve anything. And a few days later Logan forgave Ely from his hospital bed at Children’s Hospital with buck shot still lodged near his heart. Fortunately the shot gun damaged Logan’s body, but it didn’t damage his heart and ability to love his enemy.

What about Brian Golsby, the ex-convict who raped and killed Reagan Tokes, the OSU senior from Maumee a few weeks ago. Does Jesus want us to love killers and rapists? The Scripture is pretty clear the answer to that question is “yes.” We don’t have to like them or approve of what they do, but no matter how awful life circumstances has made someone like Brian Golsby and deformed his basic humanity– he is still a child of God and invited to accept God’s amazing grace.

Where does the ability to love someone who has done us great harm come from?

My favorite story about that kind of love comes from another period of unspeakable terror and suffering in human society, the Holocaust. After the war, a young Christian woman traveled around Europe proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love for everyone who would repent and give their life to Christ. Corrie Ten Boom was a death camp survivor. Her entire family had died in the Nazi death gas chambers, and yet she was filled with God’s love and anxious to tell her story. Until one night when she was giving her testimony and looked out into the congregation where she saw a face that made her blood run cold. Sitting there staring at her from the pew was one of the former Nazi concentration camp guards who had helped to execute her family. She could barely finish her talk and hurried toward the side door of the church as soon as she was finished, hoping to avoid any further contact with this awful man.

But he was anxious to talk to her and met her at the door. He extended his hand as he told her that he had repented and become a Christian, but, he added, it was so good to hear someone like her proclaim the unbelievable good news that God’s love was available even to such a terrible sinner as he had been. His hand was there, waiting for Corrie to take it in Christian fellowship. But her hand was paralyzed, frozen at her side for what seemed like an eternity. The silence was awkward, and even though she knew she should shake his hand, she could not. Finally, she said a prayer. She said, “Lord, if you want me to forgive this man, you’re going to have to do it, because I can’t.”

And just then, Corrie said her hand moved of its own accord. She took the former Nazi’s hand and says she felt the most amazing surge of warmth and power pass between them that she had ever felt in her life.
How can we love our enemies? On our own, we can’t. But with God’s help as followers of Jesus Christ, relying on and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we can, we must, and we will because we are already part of God’s kingdom.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory!

Rev. Steve Harsh, Preached at Epworth United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, February 19, 2017

The Freedom and Power to Resist Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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