Faith Expeditions: Help!, Exodus 17:8-13

We began this sermon series four weeks ago with Pastor Chris showing off how he could still wear his Boy Scout uniform. It would take a faith expedition and a 30 lb. diet for me to get into my old uniform, if it still existed; but the scout motto to “Be Prepared” still fits perfectly.

To go on any expedition requires preparation and that preparation should include a support team. Those who know my wife Diana know that she is the energizer bunny in our house. And she doesn’t worry about anything because she knows I’ve got that covered for both of us. Case in point: about 15 years ago Diana and I drove over to Xenia to watch two of her nephews and a niece go sky diving. The 3 of them went up and as Pastor Chris reminded us two weeks ago, what goes up must come down. And they did. We got to watch the two boys land safely right on target, and they were so excited about the experience. We didn’t see where our niece Sarah landed and were a bit concerned. But a few minutes later she and her partner came walking up the road and she too was all smiles.

But here’s where things got very interesting. One of the instructors said to those of us who had stayed on terra firma, “We still have time for one more trip if anyone wants to go.” I’m thinking no way Jose, but Diana’s sister-in-law who had some sky diving experience looked at Diana and said, “You wanna go?”

Diana was so inspired by the joy she saw on her nephews’ and niece’s faces that she jumped at the chance. They got prepared with instructions and strapped on their parachutes and off they went into the wild blue yonder.
And there she is soaring like an eagle. Notice 2 things about this picture, that guy who was Diana’s tandem partner, that’s not me. I was still safely on the ground. And you can’t tell from the picture but Diana’s buddy had his AARP card. He was a veteran of many jumps and he literally had her back; so she entrusted him with her life.

And here’s the “after” picture just so you know they landed safe and sound.

Moses at Rephidim was not jumping out of an airplane, but he too was in a life and death situation yet again on the long faith expedition known to us as the Exodus. Earlier in chapter 17, which is part of the “complaining” chapters in Exodus, the Israelites were ready to stone Moses for dragging them out into the God-forsaken wilderness. They again, like spoiled kids, want to go back to Egypt – this time because they have no water to drink. You may remember that this is where God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water pours out and quenches the peoples’ thirst.

And then immediately Moses is confronted with another crisis—“Amalek came and fought with Israel.” Amalek was a descendant of Esau, and his people represent the bitter hatred between that branch of Abraham’s family and the Israelites. This battle is a reminder to us that there were already people living in the land the Israelites were claiming as theirs. The Amalekites saw the Israelites as illegal aliens in their land. And as we know there is still conflict over whose land has been promised to whom by which God. But that’s another sermon.

Today I want to focus on Moses’ unusual battle plan. He takes the same staff that he used to part the Red Sea, and the one he just used to get water out of the rock at Massah and Meribah. That staff is the visible symbol of God’s power and presence with the Israelites, and Moses says he’ll go up a hill and hold that staff aloft while Joshua goes into battle with Amalek.

Sure enough it works! As long as Moses holds up the staff Joshua’s men are winning the battle—but then Moses has a problem – his arms grow weary. Moses is human after all and like all of us he gets tired, but whenever he has to put his arms down to rest the tide of battle turns and Amalek’s army prevails.

What to do? Moses’ people are dying before his eyes, but he just can’t hold up the staff any longer. It’s just too heavy! Now we might expect Moses to cry out, “Houston, we have a problem!” But notice he doesn’t even have to do that. Moses isn’t up on that hilltop alone. His brother Aaron and another man named Hur go up there with him. And when they see the trouble Moses is having he doesn’t have to ask for their help. They don’t even have to call a committee meeting to decide what to do. They simply act, and the solution is simple.

They put a rock under Moses so he can sit down, and then Aaron and Hur get on either side of Moses and support his arms—not just for little while, but till the sun goes down. And because of their support and teamwork Joshua’s army wins the battle. Faith expeditions require a network of support. Taking a leap of faith is like trusting the person who packed your parachute and the pilot and your tandem partner—others who have experience, as well as those on the ground who pray.

One of my most memorable experiences in scouting was on a canoe trip on the Whitewater Canal in Indiana. I’m not sure where the name came from because there wasn’t any white water, but there was one narrow lock on the canal where the water was moving much faster. It was just around a bend in the river so we came upon it unexpectedly. Suddenly we saw a cable across the canal with a sign that warned us to stop and portage, i.e. get out and carry our canoes on the bank and put back in on the other side of the fast water.
Some of us were able to do that but because of inadequate warning some of our scouts got sucked into the faster current and made the mistake of grabbing on to the cable strung across the canal. You can imagine what happened; they stopped and their canoes went on without them.

The water wasn’t that deep so they were able to climb out and go retrieve their paddles and canoe downstream. The rest of the trip was uneventful for our group. However, because we had a large troop the canoe livery had to divide us into two groups. So when my group finished they hauled us and our canoes back to the starting point so the second group could have their turn.

Now the lock where some of our group got to remember their baptism wasn’t far from the beginning of the trip. It was easily within walking distance; so instead of warning our fellow scouts about that tricky spot as good scouts should some of us decided it would be fun to run ahead and see if anyone else got dumped in. And of course when they did, including our scoutmaster, we jumped out from where we were hiding and started laughing. But it didn’t take long before we realized the situation wasn’t funny anymore. Our scoutmaster was trapped beneath the canoe and wasn’t coming up. The scout with him was young and inexperienced and didn’t know what to do.

I was with some other boys on top of the lock about 10 feet above the water. I wish I could tell you this is where I sprang into action and saved the day, but I’m ashamed to admit I was flat out paralyzed with fear. My only contribution was to yell like an idiot for somebody to do something.

Fortunately for us all two of the scouts up there with me saw what needed to be done and literally jumped into action. They didn’t stop to worry about how deep the water was or what danger there was to themselves, they simply jumped from 10 feet up and were able to pull our sputtering scoutmaster to safety. Like Aaron and Hur, they saw a problem and acted to save the day.
None of us can get through life’s challenges alone. There are no self-made people.

My sister found this old photo recently that reminded me of my own ancestors who survived the great depression, two world wars, alcoholic husbands and all the challenges of parenthood. This is a 4 generation picture – I’m the cute kid in my grandmother’s arms. We’ve all got those folks who literally gave us life and kept us alive thru infancy; we’ve all got teachers and mentors; we’ve all got people who suffered in silence as we learned to drive or who ran behind us those first few times we rode a bike without training wheels.

It’s probably my age but I had one of those ah hah moments recently when talking to my youngest uncle Gary. He’s only 4 years older than I so was just ahead of me in school. He told me there were only 40 kids in his high school class. I was shocked because my class had a whopping 120, a 300% increase in just 4 years! And then I realized again that I am one of the original baby boomers – born in 1946. And that triggered one of those trips down memory lane when I realized why I was lucky enough to have brand new school buildings to attend throughout my public school career. Those old guys, and they were all men, who we made fun of – the school superintendent and the school board had the foresight to see the wave of us boomers coming in time to build a new elementary school and eight years later a new high school just as my class arrived on the scene; and they had the ability to pass school levies to make those things happen.
Who helped pave the way for your life? Who are the Aarons and Hurs who came along side you and supported you? It’s good to remember and be grateful even if we can’t thank those people. Keeps us humble too.

Think about Moses earlier in the biblical story. From day one of his call to serve God Moses knew he needed help and wasn’t afraid to ask for it. Well, he sort of asked. At the burning bush where God tells Moses he’s been chosen to go tell Pharaoh “Let my people go” Moses doesn’t exactly jump at the chance. He does what many of us do – he tries to weasel out of this scary faith expedition by making excuses. He says, “Not me Lord, I’m not a good public speaker. I’m not the one to go and convince Pharaoh to do this!” And God says, “OK, here comes your brother Aaron. He has the gift of gab. I’ll get him to be your helper.”

None of us have everything we need to tackle all the challenges life throws at us. But there are helpers around if we seek and trust God to provide them. We’ve been using different kinds of outdoor adventures to think about faith expeditions this month, but some of the most challenging expeditions in life have nothing to do with tents or canoes or parachutes. The inner journeys where we encounter painful memories, doubts, and fears are the toughest expeditions we ever have to take; but we all need to embark on those inner journeys over and over again to continue to grow in our faith.

We have a ministry here at Northwest that is specifically designed to match helpers up with those who need someone to just come alongside them, to listen to them, to pray for them. For the record these Stephen Ministers are not named for me, but for Stephen, one of the first deacons chosen by the early church to minister to the needs of the growing faith community. Stephen Ministers don’t do windows or home chores; their mission is to provide spiritual support for those going through difficult times on a faith expedition. And in the process, as is often the case, these Stephen Ministers discover that when we journey with someone else we also go deeper and stronger in our own faith. It’s a two-way street.

All it takes is a simple willingness to go the extra mile to help someone in need, even when it’s inconvenient–to take time to listen, really listen with our full attention to kids, seniors, colleagues and friends who are on an inner faith expedition. They may not know that’s what it is and there’s no need to label it as such. When we are on one of those journeys we just know we need someone there with us. We need someone to put a rock under us and hold us steady while we face whatever demons or challenges that lurk in the inner depths of our souls.

One of my favorite stories about a biblical helper is in the book of Ruth. Do you remember that story? Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is on a journey back to her home in Bethlehem after suffering terrible personal loses. Naomi and her family had been refugees in Moab because of a famine in Judah, and while there Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died. Both of Naomi’s sons had married Moabite women before their deaths, one named Ruth. So Ruth is not an Israelite, she is from Moab, one of those neighboring countries with no use for Israelites, and she’s dealing with her own grief.

When Naomi and her two widowed daughters-in-law come to a fork in the road where a critical life decision must be made, Naomi encourages both of them to go home to their people where they will be accepted and can find husbands there to provide for them. The other daughter-in-law returns to Moab, but Ruth’s response to Naomi is the famous line, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Ruth saw Naomi needed a companion to walk with her through this tough time and she gave up the best path for herself to walk alongside Naomi.

And of course, the Scriptures tell us the rest of the story. In Bethlehem Ruth meets and falls in love with Boaz, and they become the great grandparents of King David. That’s important for Christians because when the Gospel of Matthew lists all those begats leading up to the birth of Jesus Ruth, the Moabitess is one of only five women listed in Jesus’ genealogy. She is the great, great, great …. Grandmother of Jesus 28 generations back.

When we see a need in others and respond to it, we never know what God has instore for us. So when you feel the need to journey into the deep spiritual mysteries – don’t be a worrier like me, say “Yes Lord,” and trust God to provide the support you need from people like Aaron or Hur or Ruth who will hold you steady till the sun goes down. Amen

Preached September 2, 2018, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

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PEACE-FULL

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki-roshi.

There are several versions of this parable, but here’s one I like because of its brevity: “Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
Like this cup, Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

That story reminds me of a very helpful mantra for meditation I learned when I took an excellent on-line course called “Peace Ambassador Training” sponsored by the Shift Network. The simple three-part meditation is this: “Let me be peaceful; let me be kind; let me accept others as they are.” At first the part of that which gave me the most trouble was the third – accepting others as they are. To apply that to people I just flat out know are wrong is a total struggle for me. (This was especially true since I took the course in early 2016, just as the nasty Presidential election campaigns were turning up their volume.) Come to think of it the 2018 primary campaign is pretty ugly too!

I finally realized two things: that to accept others does not mean agreeing with everything they say or do, and that to accept others without judgment requires that I first need to work on accepting myself. So I modified the third phrase to read “let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s better semantics, but even harder to do.
That led me to examine the first phrase. As Julie Andrews put it in “The Sound of Music,” “Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start.” “Let me be peaceful” seems to be very self-explanatory. It means to act in a peaceful manner, right? But then the meditation goes on to say “let me be kind,” and that seems a bit redundant to me. If I’m acting peacefully wouldn’t I automatically be kind or vice versa? That confused me for several months until I had an insight earlier this year that reminded me of the Zen parable above. To be peaceful means to be full of peace, and if I’m full of anything else, be it judgment, anger, anxiety, fear, lust or any of the other seven deadly sins there’s no room for peace. (See my February 2016 post “Giving up ALGAE for Lent” for a fuller discussion of this.)

The other thing I realized recently is that the key word in “let me be peaceful” is that little word ”be.” To be full of peace is a matter of “being” before it can be translated into “doing.” The doing is really part two of the mantra, “let me be kind.” Even though the verb is the same in both parts I believe kindness is more about actions and peacefulness is more about one’s state of being. That’s why Gandhi said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

It is only when we are full of peace in the very depths of our being that we can act kindly toward others and accept them regardless of their words or behavior. I also believe this is what Jesus was getting at in the farewell discourse to his disciples when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27-29) How can Jesus expect his dear friends and closest confidants to not be troubled and afraid when he’s telling them he’s about to be brutally and very publicly executed? They are so afraid they all go into hiding, unable to bear the sight of their Lord and Savior suffering and dying on the cross.

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are full of examples of both positive and negative examples of those who are full of peace and those who aren’t. Peter can walk on water when he’s full of peace, but when he realizes what he’s doing and let’s fear fill his heart he sinks like a rock. (Matthew 14:28-30) On the other hand, three brave men are able to defy the power of King Nebuchadnezzar when he orders them to bow down to his gods. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3)

The same is true of post-canonical Christian Church history. Mother Theresa couldn’t have lived and worked in the wretched slums of Calcutta without being full of God’s peace. Joan of Arc could not have faithfully obeyed God even to burning at the stake if she was full of fear. One of the charges of heresy brought against Joan is one all Christians should desire for their epitaph: “It was said, “‘She does not submit herself to the judgment of the Church Militant, or to that of living men, but to God alone.”

That kind of peace does not come from human will alone. It comes only when we are humble enough to empty ourselves of pride and arrogance and allow God to fill us with peace. To that end I’ve found it very useful to employ a shortened version of this mantra whenever I remember to pause in a tough situation and ask God to fill me with peace.

These chaotic times we are living through today again cry out for women and men who are so full of God’s peace that we are able not only to act kindly but faithfully and courageously to defend truth and justice against any and all powers that threaten to fill us with fear. Pardon my irreverence, but I fully expect one of the first questions God will ask me on my judgment day is, “Steve, what are you full of?”

What’s Your Binky?

My colleague Chris Rinker told this story at our church recently, and I felt like it has such an important lesson for all of us that I asked Chris and the family in the story for permission to share it. They agreed; so here’s the story:

A few weeks ago at our church’s Breakfast with Santa event, one of the younger members of our congregation made a monumental, life-changing decision. He gave up his binky to Santa. Now, as most of you know, separating a toddler from his binky is no easy task. At some point, we all must grow up, and give up the things that bind us to the old way of living. But it is never easy. We asked the father of this brave boy about this decision and this is what he told us:

“Grant originally had two binkies. There was a particular one he put in his mouth, and another he always held in his hand. Last Christmas, we got him to give Santa (at the mall) the one he held in his hand. That spring, we tried to get him to give the one he kept in his mouth to the Easter Bunny. No dice. So, the Easter Bunny brought him a special little basket to put it in when we left the house. He took to that (reluctantly), and we seldom had to take it out of the house. During all this were countless frantic scrambling around the house (usually at bedtime) to try and find where he had left it.

Over the summer, we (mostly I) got frustrated with him trying to talk with it in his mouth. I was convinced it was affecting his normal speech. When I caught him trying to talk with it in, I would remove it and throw it across the room (playfully… mostly). He eventually took to the practice and would throw it across the room as well, which made finding it at bedtime even tougher. In June, he fell in love with a toy he saw in a catalog. His mother secretly bought it, and we promised him that Santa would make an early visit if he would leave it on the fireplace hearth. Again… no dice. He wanted to give it to Santa like he did last year. And not just any Santa, but the one at the mall.

It shocked us, then, as we were getting ready to leave for the church event, when he declared that he was bringing binky to give to the Santa at church.

Reality set in later that night when it was time for bed. There wasn’t a major meltdown, but Grant was a little sad when he realized the gravity of what he had done. The next morning, as promised, Santa left him the toy he wanted. This was followed by a few teary evenings at bedtime. On one particular occasion, through a veil of tears, he asked to stay a baby forever so he wouldn’t have to give up his binky. The next several nights were better, and now we’re back to normalcy. As for binky? It’s alive and well in our office drawer. The day he finds it will probably be the day he no longer believes in Santa.”

And so I wonder – what is your binky? What are you holding onto that is holding you back from moving on – physically, emotionally, or spiritually? What don’t you want to let go of that is necessary to leave behind? Whether it is guilt, or a memory, a grudge, a mistake, a habit, an idea, or a possession, let us take this time of offering to give it all to God.

Thanatopsis: A consideration of death (and life)

I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve quoted part of a poem called “Thanatopsis” at funerals. It was written by William Cullen Bryant in the early 19th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never taken the time before to look up the meaning of thanatopsis. According to Wikipedia it is derived from the Greek ‘thanatos’ (death) and ‘opsis’ (view, sight) and means “a consideration of death. Bryant was still a young adult when he wrote the poem, and the depth of his understanding of human mortality for one at any age is remarkable. The poem is much more than the title word can define; it is really a consideration of death and life because they are two sides of the same inseparable coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

The poem came to mind today because my father, who is 96, is very ill and likely nearing his own demise. As I wrestle with my emotions and thoughts nothing quite expresses my feelings than these closing words of “Thanatopsis.” They are wise words that always remind me that the key to being at peace with one’s mortality is living every day with integrity and gratitude. Thank you Mr. Bryant for wisdom far beyond your years. His poem ends with these words:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

A Church Divided

A good friend of mine is having a hard time understanding the struggles within the United Methodist Church about LGBT rights. In particular he asked me great questions about how the church can change its position on homosexuality when there are specific references in the Bible and in the writings of Methodist founder John Wesley that condemn any non-hetero sexual orientations. I know there are many other people of faith who are wrestling with the same questions so what follows is my best attempt to explain my position on this important issue.

The sexuality debate has been going on in the United Methodist Church for at least 40 years. I don’t remember what precipitated the debate originally but I assume it was in response to the national increase in awareness about LGBT issues that arose after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. I assume the gay rights movement was also a natural outgrowth of the other movements for a more inclusive society — civil rights, women’s rights, etc.

The United Methodist position on homosexuality has never been clear cut. The compromise wording in the UMC Book of Discipline and our Social Principles has said for years that gays are persons “of sacred worth” but that the expression of their sexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The reason for that seemingly contradictory language is that the General Conference has not had a clear cut majority opinion on this issue for 40 years. The language adopted and maintained all these years is always approved by the slimmest of margins. The last General Conference was so divided by this issue that voting on it was postponed and a special commission was appointed to develop a proposal on “a Way Forward.” That commission is due to report to a special General Conference in 2019. Reports out of that commission and the response of the conservative/evangelical part of the church seem to indicate we could be heading toward a split in the denomination. That is not unprecedented. The Methodist church split into a north and south church over the issue of slavery in the 1840’s. That split continued for nearly 100 years until the two reunited in 1939.

Another source of the theological divisions within the UMC stems from the merger in 1968 with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, a more conservative group than the former Methodist church. A leading pastor in the evangelical branch of the UMC recently blamed our divisions on liberal seminaries that expose students to new ideas that change their beliefs from when they entered seminary. My question is why bother going to seminary or any educational institution if we are going to come out unchanged from the way we went in? Faith needs to be tested and challenged to have any depth. That same pastor praised churches that defied the Discipline’s former requirement that UM churches use only UM curriculum in Sunday school and instead used the very conservative David C. Cook material. My question to him is why is that kind of “disobedience” OK, but challenging other rules of the church is not?

Part of this strong difference of opinions is because we are not a doctrinal church but a democratic one. The Discipline and Social Principles of the UMC are revised every four years by a world-wide General Conference, the only body that can speak for the denomination. We have no pope or super bishop who can speak for the church, and that’s a good thing. The down side is we get into emotional debates that stem from some basic differences in the understanding and interpretation of Scripture. The more conservative folks want to interpret Scripture literally and point to a few verses in Leviticus and Paul that condemn homosexuality. The more progressive or liberal interpreters of Scripture choose to emphasize instead a responsibility of pastors and laity to interpret Scripture in light of its historical context.

Wesley himself in his quadrilateral taught that we need to use our God-given abilities to reason and apply our experience to the interpretation of Scripture. The bottom line for me in the sexuality debate is that neither Wesley nor Paul nor the author of Leviticus had the scientific understanding we have today of why some people have a homosexual identity. For Wesley and the biblical authors homosexuality was seen as a choice people made and could therefore be changed, but we today know that is not the case. Some people are simply born with that sexual orientation and to condemn them or exclude them would be like judging people who are born left-handed or blue-eyed or dark-skinned. Progressive/liberal theologians assume we all have the responsibility to interpret the great commandment to love our neighbors and to not let ancient authors with their limited and misinformed opinions dictate who is acceptable to God and who isn’t.

I know it’s hard to have life-long beliefs challenged, but I’m convinced on this issue the people who taught us to fear and judge gays were simply wrong. They were not bad people, just doing the best they could with the values and ideas they had learned from their elders. It’s like the issue of race. I grew up in an all-white community where we claimed we weren’t “prejudiced.” I was naïve enough to believe blacks simply chose not to live in our town. My life experience was so limited that it wasn’t until I went to Ohio State University that I ever had any personal contact with any non-white person. I have since learned that my hometown missed out on a chance to be home to a huge Honda Plant because the mayor at the time was a WWII vet who hated Japanese. And just this fall I learned there once was a KKK chapter in my “unprejudiced” hometown, and one of my great uncles was one of the leaders of that racist group.

The church has been wrong on many social justice issues throughout the centuries. Slavery was justified by the Bible, oppression of women too, and those wrongs were only gradually corrected after years of struggle and resistance from those who benefited from the status quo. Inclusion of LGBT persons as full members of the church is just the latest chapter in the long march toward the loving kingdom God has ordained.

On a very personal note I have worked with and known excellent gay UM pastors literally my entire ministry. For most of those 48 years those pastors had to hide a very critical part of who they are from the church and even from family and friends. One clergy friend didn’t dare confide even in me about his sexual orientation for 15 years because of the stigma and fear. I know of pastors who committed suicide because of the judgment they felt from the church they loved and wanted to serve. Some of the leaders of the movement for LGBT equality are doing so because their own lives and well-being are at stake. Others of us simply believe our God of love wants justice and inclusion for all people.

Faithful people challenging injustice goes back in history as far as Moses responding to God’s call to liberate the Hebrews from slavery. The Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all challenged injustice and oppression at great risks to themselves. John Wesley himself defied the Church of England to take the Gospel to those who were excluded by the church. Wesley stressed the need for a complete Gospel that includes both personal salvation and Social Holiness. Social Holiness does not mean enforcing values on others that don’t stand up to the test of human reason and knowledge but is working for justice for anyone oppressed because of gender, race, social class or sexual orientation.

I am fearful of what this struggle is going to mean for our church, but faithfulness to what I believe is God’s will is more important than institutional preservation. The debate over homosexuality has consumed vast sums of time and energy and distracted the church from doing much needed mission and evangelism for far too long. If we can’t agree on a position on this issue it may very well be time to separate so we can be about the work of other important issues like sharing a truly grace-filled Gospel and being faithful stewards of God’s creation by saving the planet from climate change or nuclear holocaust.

Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

Some of my readers have probably been pleased that I have been less “political” in what I’ve posted in recent weeks. There are several reasons for that, but one of them is not that I am less concerned about the state of our nation and world. I became a part-time pastor again this summer and that has affected my writing in a couple of ways. Given more pastoral duties means less time for other things, including writing. The writing I have done has been primarily sermons and prayers. Secondly with the privilege of being a pastor of a congregation comes an expectation to handle political matters tactfully and in a non-partisan way.

I did not realize how much I felt constrained by that non-partisan expectation until I retired and wasn’t serving a congregation. I felt liberated to speak my mind more freely, and now that I am back in a formal relationship with a congregation that freedom is one of the things I miss most. As a student of persuasive communication I know full well that effective communication requires a meeting of minds, a shared understanding and respect for one another’s ideas and feelings. That’s a quality of community that is sorely lacking in our bitterly divided nation and world.

No meaningful communication occurs across the chasm of ideological extremes where we view others as enemies (political or foreign) instead of as fellow humans doing the best we can to make sense of the lives we have been given and the world we inhabit. So my philosophy of ministry is one of trying to understand what people believe and why they hold those beliefs so I can then facilitate a process of faith development that moves all of us toward the peaceable kingdom God covets for us and all creation.

I am not always successful at being empathetic and understanding, and as one who is very uncomfortable with conflict I fear I have been too timid during most of my ministry to share my true thoughts and feelings because I feared that to do so would be unpopular. I greatly admire my colleagues who have the courage and faith to speak prophetically about controversial issues.

I recently saw a list of the 15 most popular hymns of all time. I don’t know how the list was compiled or how scientifically valid the methodology was for surveying people, but the list was pretty much what I expected it would be: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well With My Soul” etc. All 15 hymns on the list focused on personal salvation and holiness. What was lacking was the other half of the Gospel, what John Wesley called “Social Holiness.”

I imagine that such a list might have inspired the prophet Amos to proclaim the lines that are part of the lectionary for this week: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I don’t know how long Amos would have lasted in a church pulpit but I do believe that we dare not ignore the biblical imperative to be agents of social justice.

I cringed this week when I saw a Facebook meme that hit much too close to home. To paraphrase it said, “Don’t be nice. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.” I often encouraged my preaching students to heed the advice of Ephesians 4:15 that tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Looking back on my career as both a preacher and teacher I fear that I have erred on the side of love in that equation and sugar-coated or omitted hard words of truth. As a pastor I often criticized myself for sacrificing prophetic truth in exchange for a parsonage and a pension.

Ironically it has almost always been the case that when I have dared to speak my true understanding of God’s will about controversial issues of social justice someone that I least expected to agree or appreciate those views has let me know they did. For example in today’s news there is not much that is more divisive than people’s views on gun violence and the second amendment. It has become a partisan political issue when it should be seen as a basic human problem to be solved. But most politicians are afraid of the NRA and dependent on financial support from the gun lobby. So even though a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun legislation a majority of Senators and Representatives are unwilling to risk their office and its perks to oppose a vocal and powerful minority.
This morning I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that reported that Congress has passed the buck on dealing with the sale of “bump stocks” that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles/machine guns (which are illegal) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instead of acting on it themselves.

Immediately after the massacre in Las Vegas there was widespread agreement including even the NRA that those devices needed to be banned or “restricted.” But as the news cycle moved on to sex scandals and other mass killings, the mood shifted, the NRA changed its mind, and Congress lost its political will to act.
After reading that article I wrote the following note to my two Senators and my Congressional Representative: “I was appalled to read in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch that Congress has done nothing about bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre. Stop passing the buck and do something to stop this insanity of gun violence. It is way past time for someone to have the courage to stand up to the NRA. We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons but in the meantime banning devices whose sole purpose is to circumvent the law should be a no-brainer.”

I also posted that message on Facebook with some fear and trepidation that it would be too “political” for a preacher. But again I was pleasantly surprised at the number of “likes” and even some “loves” I got in response. Some of those positive responses were from people I didn’t expect would agree with me. I would never have known had I not had the courage to say what I was feeling.

I wrote the above part of this post in the wee hours of the morning, and then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I realized that I had been guilty of seeing the “speck in my legislators’ eyes and ignoring the log in my own” to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42. As is often the case I am often most judgmental about things in others that I don’t like about myself. It’s easy to criticize political leaders for not living up to the profiles in courage standards I expect of them, but much harder to admit I do the same thing. I don’t always say what I truly believe, and I certainly don’t always live up to the values I hold dear. Peer pressure, societal or professional expectations and other human weaknesses get in the way of speaking the truth in love. If I am honestly and fairly judged by my ideal goal of living up to the profound standards of Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” I am in deep trouble.

When I shared my late night insight about being guilty of living out of integrity with my values with my dear wife this morning Diana cut to the chase as she does so well. She said, “That’s true of every job. We all have to make compromises and concessions to employers who control our livelihood.” If those compromises create too much cognitive dissonance or inner turmoil with our consciences we can say “no” to that employer and choose a different path. Those are very hard decisions that try our souls, and that is why we all stand in need of a generous helping of God’s grace.

Well, this blog certainly took an unexpected turn. It was good for my own introspection. Thanks for listening. If it was helpful for you too that’s a bonus.

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.