New Year Epiphany Prayer

O gracious God of endings and beginings, the new year gives us a chance to reflect on our goals and recommit to aligning our will with yours. The new year is a time to let go of regrets and guilt that hold us back, and so we offer them now to you.
January is a time for new hope in old dreams–dreams that cannot be fulfilled with our puny new year’s resolutions. The challenges facing our world require revolutionary thoughts and action. Please show us the way to be revolutionary agents of love, peace and justice for all of your children.

We confess, Lord, that we often lose our way in the dark. Our hopes for the new year can get swallowed up in the darkness of last year’s problems and regrets. We are heartsick about the terrible fires in Australia, about our failure to be good stewards of your creation. We pray also today for our Jewish sisters and brothers and an end to hateful anti-Semitism. And we pray also for those full of hate that their hearts will be changed by the Light of the World.

We are also saddened by the endless cycle of war and revenge that breeds more violence. We pray for the troops and their families, and we pray for President Trump and the leaders of Iran and Iraq. Give them wisdom and direction from your Holy Spirit that they will be able to reduce tensions and bring peace to that war-weary part of your world.

The journey to peace in our world and in our hearts is long and hard, Lord. It’s full of detours, obstacles and false idols like King Herod. The light of your Son seems too often to be hidden by worldly darkness. We pray that you would save us from false promises of an easy way to your kingdom. Grant us courage and faith to persevere and follow your true North Star that always leads us home to you.

We know that we will never solve every problem the forces of evil put in our way, but don’t let that discourage us. Don’t let it stop us from making life better for those we can. Let us be mirrors that reflect the Light of the World to those searching in the darkness and lead them to the one who comes to show us how to live, how to love and how to pray.

Thanksgiving and Confession

As usual, I approach another Thanksgiving with mixed feelings. Of course gratitude is always good for our souls. Every day should be a day of giving thanks for all the many blessings we have that we often take for granted.  But the Thanksgiving holiday is when we celebrate a particular time when the early settlers in this country, a group of starving immigrants, were saved by the radical hospitality of the indigenous Native Americans who had lived here for centuries.  And if we, almost 300 years later, are called to remember the true history of the founding of our country and not get stuck in the sanitized grade school myths most of us were taught then Thanksgiving must also be a day of confession and atonement . The reality is that the hospitality of the Native Americans was repaid with abuse, deceit and genocide. There can be no real grace or forgiveness unless we face the harsh truths about our heritage.

So it is with humility that we must come to the Thanksgiving table, and the ironic truth is that the very freedom we have to gather and overindulge this week is a sign of God‘s grace. For we do not deserve the wealth and abundance that  so many of us enjoy, but through the grace of God our sins of colonialism and aggression have not brought down judgment upon us. But we will never truly be a people at peace until we honestly look in the mirror of history and take a hard uncomfortable look at our flawed human nature.

As long as we try to live up to the falsehood of American exceptionalism or the myth that we are somehow God‘s chosen people to be a city on a hill we will dwell in some sense, even if it is subconscious, in guilt and shame.

I am sorry if this rains on your Thanksgiving parade, but I am again mindful of that Scripture from I John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But here’s the good news and the real reason we can give thanks this week and every day. John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

Like you I am thankful for my blessings, my family, my health, but the bottom line is that I am most thankful for the gift of God’s undeserved redeeming grace.

Pastoral Prayer for World Communion Sunday

O Holy One who invites ALL who are weary to come and find rest, we the weary have heard your invitation. Rarely have we needed rest and your unifying Holy Spirit more than we do on this World Communion Sunday. We are exhausted by bitter partisan politics that divide families and friends. Some of us feel better because Justice Kavanaugh has been confirmed while others weep in despair for women’s voices that have gone unheeded yet again. But all of us are tired of the lack of civility that threatens our very way of life. When we leave this service today please empower all of us to be ambassadors of kindness and agents of compassion to every stranger we meet at school, work or in our daily lives.

We are tired of natural disasters and pray for their victims in the Carolinas and Indonesia and in places we’ve not even heard about that are often forgotten as soon as the news cycle moves on to a new crisis du jour.

But today we rejoice as the barriers of race, gender, and age disappear as Christians around the world gather at one table. We are neither Republican nor Democrat, female nor male, black, brown, yellow, red or white. We are one race – the human race—one body sharing one common loaf.

We are here to worship not because we deserve to be here, but because we need to be here. We are here because we know that all of us fall short of your glory, O God. This week we have all failed to do Christ-like things. If we pretend to be worthy we know we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us. And yet sinners that we are we come because we believe that your grace is for ALL, even for us, and that if we confess our sins you promise to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.

Our sins are wiped away, all grudges forgotten in the healing community we rejoice to be a small part of today. Around this table we speak different languages and have different customs; but through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we are ALL one today and for as long as we remember who we are and whose we are we carry that holy sense of community with us.

We come, we pray, we go out to serve, in the name of the one who invites ALL who are weary to find rest. Hear our prayers O God in the name of Jesus who taught us how to live, how to build community and how to pray.

Northwest UMC, October 7, 2018

A Pastoral letter to Judge Brett Kavanaugh

Dear Brother Kavanaugh,

I write as an American citizen very troubled by your lack of credibility and qualification for a lifetime appointment on our highest court. But suspending my doubts about your character to the best of my ability I write to you as a fellow Christian who is obviously troubled to simply share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While I do believe Dr. Ford, I still feel compassion for your suffering, and I am embarrassed for my country that the bitter partisan divide in this country has contributed to your pain.

I do not presume to know what transpired between you and Dr. Ford or other women three decades ago. Those judgments ultimately rest between you and your God. What I do know as a man and from 50 years of Christian ministry is that being confirmed to the Supreme Court will not ease your pain. Jesus Christ famously said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32) Truth is the firm foundation of faith and our system of justice.

I raise the issue of truth because your testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, your interview on Fox, and today’s Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal are not consistent with your behavior before the Judiciary committee or with the testimony of multiple people who knew you in your youth. I am not talking about charges of sexual assault or misconduct; those are much more serious accusations that for political reasons have unfortunately not been fully investigated. I am talking about your characterization of yourself in your youth as a model citizen and student and your denial of excessive drinking which multiple friends and acquaintances have contradicted. I am talking about your assertion in the Wall Street Journal that you are non-partisan when you have been a political operative for decades and delivered a very partisan attack on your critics in your prepared testimony to the Judiciary Committee.

Please don’t get me wrong; I am not passing judgment on you for youthful excesses. It is your denial of those incidents and your lying to the Senate about the meaning of certain sexual activities described in abbreviations on your calendar that prompt me to write out of concern for your obviously troubled soul.

Your testimony last week called to my mind some words of Scripture that simply will not leave me and that I feel moved to share with you and any others who want to know the secret of dealing with guilt. Guilt is the heaviest burden any of us can carry around with us. It is a constant presence that takes tremendous amounts of energy. I know this from personal and pastoral experience.

The text from the New Testament that has been in my mind for the last week is I John 1:8 where it says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Sin is a part of the human condition. We are all fallible human beings who “fall short of the glory of God” to put it in the words of the great sinner St. Paul. And because we are all sinners the greatest gift we can give one another and ourselves is the gift of forgiveness. Again from personal experience I know that self-forgiveness is by far the hardest thing of all.

But here’s the truth that sets us free; there is only one road to freedom from guilt, and that road is confession, facing the hard truth about ourselves whatever it may be. Confession is hard, but it is a prerequisite to forgiveness and nothing compared to the agony of carrying the backbreaking burden of guilt. No, I’m not talking about public confession; it’s probably too late for that, and my experience is that public confession is only possible after we experience the forgiveness of God.

So here’s the Good News of the Gospel: In the very next verse after I John tells us there is sin in the best of us come these marvelous words of Grace; “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Yes, it says ALL unrighteousness!!

However the Senate votes, whatever your professional future holds, for the sake of your eternal soul dear Brett, please know that confession before our God of grace and mercy is the ultimate and only truth that will set you or any of us free.

Grace and Peace, Pastor Steve Harsh

A World Communion Prayer

Jesus prayed that we might be one.
One in spirit
One in mission
In union and communion with each other and with You.
Today, God, we confess fumblings and failures in accomplishing unity, as we set aside yet another day to remind ourselves of the task.
On this World Communion Sunday, give us eyes to recognize your reflection in the eyes of Christians everywhere.
Give us a mind to accept and celebrate our differences.
Give us a heart big enough to love your children everywhere.
We thank you for setting a table with space enough for us all. (Africana Worship Book, Year B, (Discipleship Resources, 2007)

This year world communion coincides with the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur. With our Jewish sisters and brothers we all stand in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with you Lord and with our neighbors. We give thanks that our sins have been forgiven by the sacrificial love of Christ, but please don’t let us grow complacent by taking your grace for granted. The good news of the Gospel must be shared to keep it alive and growing.

As we feel the unity of our spirits with Christians today from Myanmar to Minnesota, from Boston to Bolivia, let us renew our commitment to living lives worthy of Christ. Forgive us when we fail to love you with all our hearts and minds. Our broken world has never needed the Holy Spirit’s healing more. We pray for a new birth of human unity created in the image of Christ. Make us so at one with Christ and with you that we will be Christ for those who are sick, lonely, or grieving. For those who suffer hunger and thirst and those who are starving for the bread of the world offered to all who hear Christ’s voice and turn to him.

Make us instruments of your love, O God. May the way we live our lives each day be a witness to the unity of humankind we celebrate this day. May we grow in love and service to Christ who taught us to pray this prayer…… .

“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

Freeway Theology

IMG_0048 (2) I saw this graffiti spray-painted on a freeway overpass several years ago, and my immediate thought was “I guess forever was longer than John expected!” After wondering how and why people hang over the side of an overpass and paint upside down, my next thought was “that’ll preach.” I’ve used it often in preaching class as an example of the kinds of ordinary observations in daily life that can have theological significance.

Jesus did that, of course, using mustard seeds, lost sheep and coins, yeast, candles, a valuable pearl, and even a hated Samaritan to weave parables that reveal truth about the nature of God that declarative sentences can’t illuminate in the same holistic way. Stories and images reach beyond the intellect and move us at a deeper emotional level.

John obviously fell out of love with whoever’s name was beneath that paint. It happens all the time in human relationships, but we cannot convert that unfortunate reality that sometimes leaves deep scars on the human psyche into what God’s relationship to us looks like. How unfortunate if we let false teachings about a wrathful, judgmental God scare us away from the only source of truly unconditional love there is.

We often hear Paul’s marvelous words about love read at weddings: 4 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.” (I Corinthians 13). I try to warn starry-eyed couples that those words do not describe human love, no matter how strong that love is. Paul is writing about God’s love revealed to us in Christ, and it is the backup we can always turn to when we want to remove the tattoo of our beloved from our arm or spray paint over his or her name on the overpass.

God’s love is forever. It’s not a 5 year or 50000 or mile guarantee. It’s not even “till death do us part,” as great as that deep love is. There is no fine print in God’s covenant with us. We can break the contract or think we have by our own sinfulness or stupidity, but God won’t ever stop loving us, period. Like the prodigal son’s father, God waits patiently for us to come home, no matter how badly we’ve messed up our lives or how long we’ve been gone.

That message is repeated in a multitude of ways in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Two of my favorites are: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). And “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

That’s pretty straight forward and clear. Don’t let disappointments with human love confuse you about God’s love. With God, forever really means forever.