Temptation and True Power for Dark Days

“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Luke 4:5-8 NRSV

Immediately after his baptism Luke and Matthew give us the account of Jesus 40-day temptation by the devil. After trying and failing to tempt the famished Jesus with food Satan turns to the almost sure fire way to corrupt the best of us in the verses above—worldly power.

The devil must have known the famous line from British historian Lord Acton who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So Satan offers Jesus absolute power/authority over “all the kingdoms of the world.” We know, and Jesus certainly, did that this offer is a boldface lie. The prince of evil is offering a deal that is too good to be true because it is, and Jesus sees right through the clever marketing scheme.

But how often do we mortals fall for snake oil salespersons or ads promising everything from sparkling white teeth to age-defying beauty and sexual prowess? This year the marketing geniuses are hard at work earlier than usual as we approach the holiest of all shopping seasons. This is true for at least two reasons I’m aware of: 1) Because Thanksgiving is as late in November as it can be there are the fewest shopping days between then and Christmas possible; therefore we don’t just have Black Friday, we have had Black November. 2) Retailers are in trouble financially and desperately need to rake in as much loot as possible during this annual spending frenzy.

If you have never spent more on an item than intended or bought something you’d weren’t even shopping for my hat is off to you. I’m embarrassed to admit that my wife and I were suckers for a time share hard sell presentation 15 years ago. We have never used said vacation spot in paradise and only rarely used any of the other perks that we paid for and continue to pay dearly for in maintenance fees.

And just recently I was flattered by an invitation to join a company as a freelance writer. The prestige of that plus a chance to earn some extra income was very tempting. But this time I was smart enough to do a quick Google search and read some very negative reviews of this company which were a good reality check. Modern technology provides us with such tools to research things and do comparison shopping, and that’s good. But all of those tools are also available to all the marketing folks, and they are far better at using those tools for their purposes than I am.

So I personally love this story about Jesus shutting Satan down with one great comeback by quoting Scripture. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” The next time I am tempted to bow down to the idols of materialism or self-aggrandizement I hope I can remember that line.

But lets dig a bit deeper into the carrot Satan is dangling in front of Jesus. It’s the same one offered to Adam and Eve–to be like God. And from the earliest days of human kind even when it’s a lie the offer of power can turn the heads of even the strongest among us. And one of the reasons that particular temptation is so effective is that it can shape shift into hundreds of different disguises. It can turn us into workaholics; it can certainly drown us in consumer debt (as a nation or as individuals); it can override basic human decency for the unquenchable thirst for more stuff and more prestige or security. Power hunger can turn simple and just economic systems into stacked decks that result in untenable income equality. The pursuit of power can turn a basic human right like health care into a corrupt billion dollar industry.

The desire to acquire or retain power produces the kind of corruption that makes good people lose their moral and political courage to speak the truth. And the flip side, the fear of losing power is so insidious it can justify genocide or slavery even in the name of the gods of false religion. The Hebrew prophet Amos famously said it can result in selling the poor for a pair of Nikes (my paraphrase, he just said “shoes” which should probably be translated “sandals”. Fear of losing power can even justify putting children in cages! Or if we don’t justify it we can be so easily distracted by other power play drama in our own lives or in politics that we put those kids out of our awareness.

But here’s the rest of Jesus’ temptation story: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” Luke 4:13-15

Two things of note in those last 3 verses: 1). The forces of evil are never done with us. Temptation to betray our best values doesn’t ever cease. There is no war to end all wars over the power of temptation. Luke tells us the devil left Jesus “until an opportune time.” We all know Jesus would pass each and every one of those tests, unlike you and me. But my point is that we must not ever grow complacent and think we have arrived at a point where we are stronger than evil. If anyone tries to sell us that one, it’s a big, fat lie! There is no vaccination for temptation in all it’s many forms, and when we think we are immune that is when evil sees the most opportune time.

And finally notice how and why Jesus is able to walk away from temptation and carry on his one true purpose. “Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” he returned to Galilee just as he will later leave the serenity of the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9) and go down to face the most humbling and powerless humiliation awaiting him in Jerusalem. But we also know how that turned out!

The take away for is that Jesus was able to withstand evil’s best offers of comfort, fame and power because he was filled with the only power stronger than any and all temptations. That Comforter, that Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it’s better than any Black Friday promise or back room political deal. It’s free for the asking, but here’s the deal — we have to be willing to admit we are powerless without the Holy Spirit.

I’m praying for that kind of humility for myself and for everyone who is tempted to drink the poison kool aid when promised absolute power if we just worship a false god.

“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.

“Too Close to Home,” Luke 4:21-30

January 2016 at NWUMC
Note: This is part of a sermon series entitled “Skin in the Game” we’ve been doing at Northwest UMC since Epiphany to talk about the meaning of Incarnation.

Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) What Scripture? If you feel like you have come into the middle of a movie, you have. Pastor Tom Slack dealt with the first half of this text last Sunday. More about that shortly, but first I want us to think about how we react when things don’t go the way we want? Or we don’t get something we really are counting on, perhaps a Christmas gift that isn’t quite what you were expecting?

A little boy asked his grandparents for an iPad. Boy was he surprised when he opened his gift on Christmas morning and found a bandage for an injured eye. It was an “eye pad” all right, but not the kind that comes from Apple. When my son was driving his kids to school on the first Monday after the long holiday break he dropped first grader Audrey off at her school first and could immediately see in the rear view mirror that her 2-year old brother Brady was not happy when he realized he was next. It was like that moment when the family dog realizes you aren’t just going for a ride but are heading for the vet. Brady stuck out his lip, turned his head and wouldn’t look at his dad or talk to him all the way to pre-school. He was expecting Christmas vacation to be the new normal and made it quite clear he was not ready to have to go back to school.

I’m sure Brady was fine a few minutes after he bid a tearful goodbye to his guilt-ridden father, but some unwanted surprises are harder to take and last longer. A teen grounded for doing something that seemed like a good idea until it wasn’t, an elderly parent forced to have his or her driving privileges taken away or to move from an old familiar home. Broken marriage vows, political heroes who turn out to have feet of clay. Whatever the disappointment, it’s hard not to be upset, even angry, to blame everyone but ourselves, sometimes even God, and the bigger the disappointment, the harder it is to accept things we can’t change or have no control over.

In the Gospel lesson from Luke we have a complicated story where high expectations turn into disappointment. Pastor Tom did a great job last week of covering the first half of this story, but let me do very quick review for those who weren’t here. In part I of this story Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth after his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and some teaching and healing in other towns in the area. As was his custom, Luke tells us, he went to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath to teach. He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read the passage that describes Jesus’ understanding of who he was and what his ministry was about. The passage talks about proclaiming good news to the poor, release of the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord because the Messiah is anointed by the Holy Spirit to do those things.

That part about the Holy Spirit is critical to understanding what it means for Jesus and for us to put our skin in the game to build God’s Kingdom. Luke links every important event in Jesus’ early life to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit descends on him at his baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tested and prepared for his ministry, and it is the spirit that empowers him to proclaim after reading those words about the Messiah, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

It’s that last line that gets the hometown crowd excited. Nothing Jesus read up till that point was new to them. Isaiah’s words had been around 500 years or so and similar pleas for social justice for the poor and misfortunate run through many of the prophets. God had sent prophets for centuries to proclaim that message, but people didn’t listen. So God decided he has to do a new thing, he has to go all in and put skin in the game. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the Gospel of John describes the incarnation. My favorite translation of that verse is the one that says, “God pitched his tent among us.” Not in luxury and ease but on the front lines of suffering, that’s where God decides he can’t just tell us anymore how to live together; he will come and show us in the form of Jesus.

Paul Harvey used to tell about a man who was angry at God and the church was home alone on Christmas Eve while the rest of his family went to church. Late that evening he looked out and saw a flock of birds struggling in his yard with snow that was falling so hard and was so wet and heavy that it coated their wings like a jet needing to be de-iced. They were flopping around trying to fly but couldn’t. The man went out and opened his garage doors hoping they would go in there out of the storm. When they didn’t he tried to herd them to safety, but that only made them more frightened and confused. He was thinking, “If I could just become a bird for a little while, one of them, they would trust me and I could save them.” Just then he heard the church bells ringing. It was midnight, the beginning of Christmas Day, and he suddenly understood why God chose to come to earth in human form.

Putting skin in the game means to be invested in something. If you’ve ever shopped at Aldi’s you know about their clever way of handling the problem of getting their grocery carts back where they belong. They don’t pay employees to round up carts left in their parking lot. They have their customers put a quarter in a gizmo on the cart that unchains it from the other carts, and when you return it you get your 25 cents back. Two bits is not a big investment, but it’s enough skin in the game that I’ve never seen anyone fail to return their cart. We all are more likely to show up for an event if it costs us something, even a token amount. I’m a big Ohio State fan, but on frigid January nights when the wind is blowing off the Olentangy River near the Schottenstein Center I might wimp out and choose to stay home in the comfort of my living room and watch the basketball game in HD on the flat screen. But since I have paid in advance for my tickets, I’m much more likely to show up. Because I have some skin in the game—even if it’s cold skin.

As Jesus’ conversation with the folks in Nazareth continues, we see just how much he’s risking by putting his skin in the game. His hometown folks are at first excited. “This is Joe’s kid. We remember him. He’s one of us, and if he’s the Messiah, wow, just think what he can do for us! We’ve heard all the amazing things he’s done in other places, it’s gotta be even more awesome here in his hometown. Jesus, do here what you did in Capernaum. You know us, Lord; you’re one of us. We changed your diapers, wiped your runny nose, put up with your childhood moods. You know how much we need your healing and miracles. You could get the lead out of our water; maybe turn some of it into a good Merlot? And while you’re at it, could you give us the power ball numbers for next week?

But their high expectations soon turn to disbelief and disappointment. Jesus responds by reminding them that prophets are not usually accepted in their own hometown. Jesus has a bigger agenda than making his neighbors happy. He has an urgency to share a much more important message with the whole world. His mission is to go global with the Gospel, and he knows he doesn’t have much time.

That explains his strange references to Sidon and Syria. He says Elijah and Elisha didn’t heal their hometown folks; they went to Sidon and Syria, to Gentiles, strangers, foreigners. Why would they do that? Because those great prophets understood that the God of Creation is also God of the whole Universe. Yahweh’s power to heal and save cannot be hoarded by any one nation or people. Isaiah said, “It is not enough for the Messiah to save Israel, I will make you a Light to the nations.” Jesus and the prophets understood that to be God’s chosen people is not to receive preferential treatment, but they and we are chosen to be God’s servants to the whole wide world—to people of all faiths or no faith at all.

None of that is new. It is all straight out of Hebrew Scriptures. But when Jesus reminds his Nazarene neighbors of the universal scope of God’s love, they think he has stopped preaching and gone to meddling, just like we all do when our taken-for-granted expectations are challenged!

When I teach preaching classes to seminary students one of the key principles I try to impart to them is the need to build a relationship of trust with their congregations. The preacher’s job is not just to get God’s word said, but to get it heard, and that’s more likely to happen in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Based on the response of Jesus’ congregation in Nazareth, he flunked that part of preaching 101. I’ve often wondered why Jesus would stir up so much trouble so early in his ministry. It’s like he’s waving a red flag in front of a bull. But I’ve decided it’s because urgent situations where so much is at stake don’t allow time for the luxury of community building. Life and death matters require immediate and complete truth.

The Scriptures tell us that we “shall know the truth and it will set us free,” but what John’s Gospel doesn’t say is that first the truth may make us mad. When an addict is confronted with his or her self-destructive behavior, the truth still hurts. When I really see myself in the mirror, really see, or when I hear honest criticism of mistakes I’ve made, or am told my bad health is because of my poor lifestyle choices, I probably will not welcome that truth with open arms.

That’s why the folks at Nazareth react so violently. Luke tells us, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Jesus looks like he’s about to have the shortest ministry in history. Most pastors enjoy a little honeymoon with a new congregation, but not here.

That’s because Jesus’ words hit too close to home. The Nazarenes are expecting special treatment from their hometown hero, and instead they resent his including a bunch of foreigners in God’s mercy. They don’t want to share Jesus with the Syrians and Gentiles. They want to keep Jesus and God all for themselves. Of course they know better. They know their Bible. They know the truth – they just don’t really know it and embody it. Don’t we all have a tendency to read the Scriptures selectively? We choose to focus on Scriptures we like instead of the uncomfortable truth we need to hear.

To have skin in the game means we show up and speak the truth even when it’s risky. Jesus finds out early on in his home town that what he’s up to is dangerous to the max, but he is the young and fearless prophet who speaks the truth, not to make people mad, but to invite them to see the truth about themselves and the world God has created.

The question for us is do we have enough skin in God’s game to follow the example of Jesus? Do we care enough to risk rejection for the truth? To speak up for the downtrodden, to take the side of the underdog – to object to sexist or racist attitudes and comments? God does – no matter what it costs. God is all in – are we? That’s what it means when Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me.” God doesn’t promise us a rose garden, but the way of the cross that leads to the Garden of Gethsemane.

But here’s the best news—whatever Gethsemane you find yourself in, whatever disappointment or pain you are dealing with right now—you don’t have to face it alone. God’s powerful spirit that anointed Jesus is also with us in every up and down phase of life – every one! No matter how terrible or hopeless things seem, God is right there with you – not to make everything the way we wish it was, but to go through it with us.

Jesus’ situation looks pretty desperate. The people of Nazareth are so mad they want to kill him. But this brief story foreshadows much bigger things to come. They take Jesus out to the edge of a cliff and are ready throw him to his death, but Luke ends the story with one simple sentence: “Jesus just passes among them and goes on to Galilee.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because after Jesus’ resurrection, Matthew says the angels told the disciples at the empty tomb,”He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.”

The risen Christ is always going ahead of us to a Galilee far away – where no prophet has gone before. And he calls us to go with him. Notice, we are not asked to go alone – but with the same power of the Holy Spirit that enables Jesus to conquer his fear of death. We are all called to trust the God who loves us enough to suffer with us and for us, to show us the way and the truth and the life – because our God so loves the world that He puts his own skin in the game.

Some times are harder than others to put our skin in the game – to play the game of life full out. Often those times are when we are personally disappointed with our life situation or with ourselves. I was reminded this week of an experience that always speaks to me about that issue. This past Thursday was the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Some of you are too young to remember that tragedy, but most of you have seen the pictures. For me the most memorable thing about that day was the final words spoken by Commander Dick Scobee just before the explosion took those seven lives. They were just a couple of minutes into the mission when the crew was given the go ahead to go to full power, and Commander Scobee’s last words were, “Roger, go with full throttle up.”

That’s how I want to live my life, whatever the circumstances, full throttle up! That’s what Jesus came to show us, that no matter what happens to us or around us, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to live life fully and abundantly. So wherever God calls us to go this week, my prayer is that we can respond with confidence and faith, and go with full throttle up!

Prayer for 11th Sunday after Pentecost

O Eternal One, the beauty of the summer season at my peaceful home battles in my mind with the harsh realities of life in our broken world. I feel like E.B. White when he said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

The 24/7 news cycle bombards us with news of desperate migrants from Africa overwhelming a Greek and European economy teetering on the brink. The next news story describes nursing homes in Japan exclusively for survivors of atomic bombs dropped on them as children 70 years ago this week. Wildfires destroy homes and force evacuations in draught stricken California while typhoon Soudelor ravages Taiwan and China. I turn the page of my newspaper, hoping for some good news, and read that 2000 Iraqis have reportedly been executed by ISIS.

My God, have you forsaken us? The scope and number of world crises is overwhelming, and that doesn’t even begin to count our individual concerns about illness, grief, employment, relationships, and our failures to be the kinds of caring people we want to be. We know we are supposed to respond to the needs of others, God, but the needs are more than we can cope with; and sometimes it all seems so hopeless we don’t even know how to pray.

Help us not to despair and lose faith. We are not the first to feel overburdened and lost, nor will be the last. Even Jesus on the cross drew on the lament of Psalm 22 when he felt forsaken. St. Paul, who is always so strong and certain in his faith, acknowledges times of doubt in Romans 8 and assures us “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Yes, God’s Holy Spirit intercedes for us. When we are at the end of our ropes, God prays for us!

But we have to be open to that intercession to receive it. Draw us close in our times of fear and uncertainty, God, like a loving mother comforting a child shivering in terror from a nightmare. Do not let doubt and fear drive us from you, Holy One, for it is exactly in such times that we need you more than ever.

We believe, Lord, help our unbelief. Let our weakness and helplessness in the face of everything happening in our lives and world be the motivation that brings us humbly back to you, admitting we can neither save nor savor the world without your divine guidance and eternal strength.

Pray with us and for us, O God, our hope and salvation. Amen.

“Witnesses for the World,” Ephesians 1:3-14

It’s always a little unnerving to be a guest preacher. I remember too well how we treated some substitute teachers when I was in school. I know none of you would do that to a guest pastor. But sometimes things happen that aren’t intended. A young preacher was thrilled to be invited to be a guest preacher in a prominent church, but when she was introduced to the congregation that Sunday morning, she was not so pleased. The lay leader got up to make the introduction and got inspired when he noticed a piece of cardboard that was temporarily filling in for a piece of glass in one of the sanctuary windows. He said, “Our preacher today is like that piece of cardboard there, a substitute for our pastor.” The young preacher decided she’d show them what she was made of. She preached a marvelous sermon, and when she finished the lay leader got up to thank her. He said, “Thank you for that marvelous message, pastor. I was wrong in my introductory comments, and I want to apologize. After hearing you proclaim God’s word we all know you are no cardboard substitute, you’re a real pane!”

Preachers are sometimes the other kind of pain and for good reason – it’s our job. In fact all of us as Jesus’ disciples are called to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. Because it’s the comfortable who have the resources to change things for those who are afflicted.

Some of us here today need to be comforted because of personal suffering, broken relationships, grief or guilt or worry. There’s plenty of pain to go around, and if you’re doing ok personally one look at the morning headlines from Greece or Syria or Nigeria will fix that. We all have need for comfort, and that’s one reason we gather to worship; but when you look at how we Americans live compared to most other parts of the world, we must admit that we are quite comfortable . And that’s the other reason we worship – to give thanks and praise to God for our blessings, and especially for God’s saving grace, which is the only real comfort there is for some of the afflictions that plague us and our world.

Writer Anne Lamott says she has simplified her prayer life to two simple prayers: “Help, help help!” and “Thanks, thanks, thanks!” Ephesians puts the emphasis on the 2nd of those prayers, telling us that our primary job as Christians is to offer praise to God for the gift of salvation in Christ – for adoption into god’s grace in spite of our continual determination to prove ourselves unworthy of God’s unconditional love. I saw a post this week on Facebook that made those prayers from Anne Lamott even more meaningful. She was giving thanks for the 29th anniversary of her sobriety, a victory only possible with the help of a higher power. Thanks be to God.

We all know we need to praise God. The question is how to do that most effectively. Praise songs and prayers of thanksgiving are important. They lift our attitude toward gratitude and put things in perspective. Our praises need to be honest and from the heart, and not just empty words. Ever been to a funeral when you heard the praises of the deceased being given and you had to look in the casket to see if the eulogizers were talking about the same person you had known? That’s one of the nice things about praising God – we don’t have to make anything up – just tell the truth about God’s grace and love.

This passage from Ephesians reminded me of a warning I often give students in the preaching classes I teach. I tell them “don’t just give me pious platitudes; you’ve got to show us what those words mean for us in the 21st century world.” The God words are here in the introduction to this letter—“Blessed, blameless, adoption, praise, redemption, forgiveness, grace, mystery, fullness of time, heaven and earth, Holy Spirit….” All the right words, but what do they mean for our lives today? How do we make those words come alive in us so they offer life to others who desperately need to see and hear and feel it. What do they mean to a person who is lost and seeking his or her way in the darkness of addiction or crime or poverty or despair or over-consumption?

Words are cheap – even God words. Someone once said, “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.” A police officer pulled a man over and asked to see his license and registration. After taking those documents back to his cruiser the officer returned in a few minutes and apologized for the inconvenience and told the man he was free to go. The man was relieved but curious and asked the officer why he had pulled him over. The officer said, “Well you see, I was in the grocery just now and saw how rude you were to the other people in line and the clerk. So when I saw you get into a car with a Christian fish symbol on it, I just assumed that couldn’t be your car and wanted to make sure it wasn’t stolen.”

Author Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way – “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want to know the source of it.”

One of my favorite descriptions of how actions speak louder than words is from the great musical “My Fair Lady” where Eliza is in a romantic moment with her bumbling suitor, Freddie, who is all talk and no action. She sings to him these 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!

Sing me no song, read me no rhyme;
Don’t waste my time, show me!
Don’t talk of June, don’t talk of fall;
Don’t talk at all! Show me!”

That’ll preach! Can’t you hear Jesus saying to us – “If you love me, show me?” In fact that’s exactly what he says to Peter – remember that scene on the beach after the resurrection in John’s Gospel. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter says, “Yes, Lord you know I love you.” And Jesus says, “Then feed my sheep; feed my lambs; comfort those who are afflicted.”

The words that struck me from this Ephesians passage are in verse 13: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised holy Spirit.” Marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit – what does that look like? Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Acts 2 describes that event as like the rush of a might wind with tongues of fire resting on every one of the Apostles. That’s powerful stuff – gale force winds and baptism by fire are not for sissies, and that power changed those apostles forever and through them the history of the world.

Those frightened, uneducated fishermen were suddenly able to communicate with people from all over the world as they praised God and told the story of redemption. But their praise didn’t stop with words – they also practiced what they preached. Pentecost doesn’t end with the pyrotechnics like 4th of July fireworks. Those early Christians are claimed and marked by a life-changing force that affects everything they do. The end of Acts 2 describes that effect on their daily lives – “44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous[l] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

The church grew by leaps and bounds because it was acting like the church – praising God with both their words and their lives. St. Francis once said “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary use words.” One of my favorite sermons came from a high school valedictorian who gave the shortest graduation speech in history-just 17 words. She said, “2000 years ago, Jesus Christ said, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ I can’t add anything to that.” And she sat down. We can’t add to that either with words, but we can witness powerfully to God’s love by actually living it – being the light that is so wonderful that others want to know what we’re up to and run toward the light of the world reflected through us. We are not the light but reflections of it through Christ who lives in and through us.

Being marked by the Holy Spirit is like being branded –the way ranchers mark their cattle to show the world to whom they belong. We belong to Christ – not to the church, not to any race or nation or ethnicity, not to any club or organization – we belong to Christ.

This passage from Ephesians begins with a phrase that would have been very familiar to all of the Jewish readers of its day. Every prayer used in the Jewish observance of Passover begins with the same phrase, “Blessed are you, Lord God.” Both Jews and Christians use these words to give thanks and praise to God for the gift of deliverance, one from slavery and the other from sin and death. But there are several major important differences for Christians.

For the Jews the commandments of God are the means of salvation, and they are only for the believers who are marked with the sign of circumcision – a very private sign that is not on public display – at least we hope not. For Christians the means of salvation is the sacrifice and love of God demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and it is for all of creation. In Christ God doesn’t say, “I love you if you do this or don’t do that.” God says, “I love you, period.” You are chosen and adopted, redeemed and renewed if you take upon yourself the mark of discipleship and receive the power of the Holy Spirit. The mark of personal holiness is baptism, but that invisible water becomes a visible mark that is a light to the nations when we live as members of the body of Christ and imitate his sacrificial love for others.

I learned an important lesson about praising God from a mentor many years ago when I was a rather naïve seminary student. Dr. Roy Reed, who taught Worship and Music at MTSO, was not a warm and fuzzy professor. In fact he was very direct and blunt at times, but always honest. Dr. Reed died earlier this year, and those of us who attended his memorial service got a good chuckle when the pastor eulogizing him talked about Dr. Reed’s direct style. He said even Roy’s mother once commented that “Roy was always so darn honest that sometimes I just wanted to slap him.”

In retrospect I have come to appreciate and cherish Dr. Reed’s passion for truth, but not so much when I was on the receiving end as one of his students. One of those days was when I preached my senior sermon in chapel and quoted a Ray Stevens song, “Everything is Beautiful.” It’s a song about inclusivity and tolerance, but Professor Reed took exception to the chorus and challenged me about its theological soundness after the service. The chorus says:

“Everything is beautiful in its own way.
Like the starry summer night, or a snow-covered winter’s day.
And everybody’s beautiful in their own way.
Under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find the way.”

In no uncertain terms Dr. Reed argued that the evil in the world is not beautiful. If he were here today he would probably remind me of the atrocities of ISIS or Boka Haram or the killings at Emmanuel AME church last month. That senior sermon was in 1971, and the news headlines then were all about Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Memories of My Lai, Selma, assassinations and riots in 1968, student deaths at Jackson State and Kent State, and the first big oil spill in Santa Barbara were all fresh in our minds. The headlines don’t change from one generation to the next, just different names and places. Lots of very unbeautiful stuff.

With the benefit of more life experience I came to understand Dr. Reed’s point. Faith and hope are necessary for human survival, but so is a healthy balance of prophetic realism that shines the spotlight of truth on injustices that need to be made right. Sometimes when I reflect on my own life and career I find it hard to praise God because I see the lack of progress we are making as a human race. The church and the world do not seem to be much closer to God’s vision for creation than we were that day 44 years ago.

But when I am tempted to lament rather than praise God I remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” When we are impatient or find it hard to praise God, we who are marked by the Holy Spirit know that our ways are not God’s ways and our time frame is not God’s eternal perspective. And so, even when we stumble in the darkness, unable to see where we’re going, needing to be comforted, we still walk with confidence and praise God who has claims us as his own. We praise God even though we don’t know what tomorrow brings, because we do know for sure who holds the future.

If I haven’t been enough of a real pain so far, let me leave you with one final question originally asked by Rev. David Otis Fuller, a 20th century Baptist pastor. The early Christians and many people of different faiths today still live in fear of persecution and even death for publicly professing their faith and praising God. Heaven forbid that should happen here, but imagine it was illegal here and Hilliard’s finest raided this sanctuary this morning and rounded us all up and arrested us for being Christians, the question is this – would there be enough evidence to convict you or me?

I urge all of you to pray about that question, and if like me you are unhappy with the answer you must give to that question, take heart, and praise the God of our Lord Jesus Christ who loves and adopts us and empowers us to keep growing as his witnesses to the world. Thanks be to God who alone gives us the victory.

Preached at Hilliard United Methodist Church, Hilliard, Ohio, July 12, 2015

Look, We CAN Communicate: Pentecost, Part 2, Acts 2:5-13

My Ph.D. in Communication is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that when people know I studied communication at the graduate level they actually expect me to be able to communicate. My excuses that my research was theoretical and in rhetoric and public speaking, not in “normal” interpersonal discourse always fall on deaf ears. I sometimes feel like the undergrad who signed up for a course in interpersonal communication only to be very disappointed the first day of class when he discovered that the course catalogue description of a course about “human intercourse” was not exactly what he expected.

You don’t need a doctorate to know that communication is hard. Words are just symbols that represent objects or feelings or relationships. As symbols they can only point to the reality they represent. Communication goes through different filters of both the sender and receiver of the communication, and those filters are unique to each person. And of course communication occurs on multiple levels – verbal, non-verbal, emotional, rational, and all of those are culturally conditioned and affected by other environmental and genetic factors. This explains the popular success of John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Sometimes the challenges of communication produce humorous and embarrassing results. For example, “The V-for-victory sign was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the early, dark days of World War II, and the proper form is with the palm facing outward. But, a simple twist of the wrist puts you in dangerous cultural waters. Throughout much of Her Majesty’s realm, the palm-in V sign is the equivalent of the more infamous middle-digit salute.” (See the article by William Ecenbarger of the Philadelphia Enquirer for many other valuable tips on cultural competence, http://articles.philly.com/2009-02-22/news/25280966_1_taxi-driver-mumbai-desk-clerk.)

The Hebrew Scriptures explain the origins of different languages in various parts of the world via the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In that story it is human pride, a belief that humans could build a tower tall enough to reach to the heavens and establish their importance that leads to this judgment from God: 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

That story is a mythical way of explaining the reality that languages are unique to different cultures, countries and ethnicities. While I don’t believe God would throw that kind of monkey wrench into the communication machinery as a punishment for our pride, the language barrier is a major challenge to communication. There is a joke that defines “multi-lingual” as a person who speaks 3 or more, “bilingual” as a person who speaks two languages, and someone who speaks only one language as “an American.” That unfortunate state of affairs was demonstrated in a grocery checkout line when a woman finished a cell phone conversation in her native tongue. The man behind her in line said to her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is America and we speak English here. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.” The woman calmly replied, “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

The task of bridging cultural differences and communication challenges in our global village is very daunting. Technology offers help through on-line language lessons, apps and programs that automatically translate text from one language to another, and systems like the one at the United Nations where people from all over the world can hear a translation of a speaker’s words into their own language through a set of headphones. But those technologies do not solve the deeper spiritual divisions at the root of human suffering that manifests itself in prejudice, racism, economic injustice, terrorism and full scale war.

The on-going cultural and religious conflicts in our world are proof that we’ve a long way to go to overcome our failures to communicate. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 addresses those concerns, not from a technological or academic perspective, but from a spiritual point of view. Acts 2: 5-13 describes it this way: 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Jews and non-Jews from all over the world hear the apostles sharing their faith story in their own language. This is not some ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues, but genuine communication made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. These apostles are not educated linguists. They are common fishermen and tax collectors. They have not suddenly been empowered by Rosetta Stone; they are filled with the only force capable of overcoming human fear and division. At Pentecost the confusion of tongues from the Tower of Babel story is reversed and the response of those who have ears to hear the Gospel is both amazing and confusing.

People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival and some are apparently there on other business – Romans, Cretans and Arabs. The story shows us that as insurmountable as our communication barriers are, be they religious, cultural or political, we cannot just throw up are hands and say “we can’t do that!” Whatever happened in Jerusalem that day, this story makes it very clear the “this is impossible, we give up” excuse simply will not fly. It is easy to despair and say the hatred and divisions in our world today between Islam and the West, for example, are not amenable to any simple communication skills. Anyone who thinks so must be filled with new wine or smoking those funny weeds.

But this story counters with evidence that the Acts 2 audience is exactly like our multi-cultural world. A cross section of the whole world, people from Asia Mesopotamia, Judea, Egypt and Libya are identified; and the message is clear. Because they have received the gift of God’s spirit, a spirit of unity and love that is universal and offered to all of God’s creation, these apostles are able to overcome all of the cultural and communication barriers and share their amazing transformation stories in ways that are heard and understood.

That is a word of hope that our war-weary world desperately needs to hear. We may see no hope for peace and justice because we rely too much on human ways of dealing with our problems. We still think we can build towers or systems or networks that will make us the heroes and heroines of our story. The problem is it’s not our story. And when our best efforts fail, in desperation and fear we think destroying our enemies will bring peace in spite of centuries of evidence that violence and death only beget more of the same.

God’s answer that is blowing in the wind of Pentecost is that the transforming power of the God of the whole universe is the only hope for overcoming human differences and conflicts. The God of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia is still the God of Americans and Syrians, of Islam and ISIS, of every soul that breathes; and those who dare to believe that are not crazy or filled with new wine. We are filled with the Holy Spirit of the Source of our being, and we speak a language of peace and grace that everyone can understand because it is the message that the world is longing to hear.

Peter’s summary of that message follows in Acts 2:14-36 and will be addressed in the next segment of this series on Pentecost.

(All Scriptures are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version)