Thanksgiving Prayer

O Creator of all that is, how can I begin to offer thanks when everything comes from you? To list what I am grateful for would exhaust all the time I have and still not scratch the surface. Maybe thanksgiving is not counting my blessings but a way of life that begins with the humility of admitting what I think is “mine” really isn’t.

Why is that so hard, Lord? In my head I know the truth but when fear of not having or being enough grips my heart then I start taking account of “my” possessions instead of simply enjoying what you have shared with me. When I see how easily my stuff, my security can be wiped out by wildfires or floods then the hoarder in me says, “You can’t relax. No matter how much you have it will never be enough!”

My head knows better, but my heart wants to live in the land of scarcity and hide away some extra food or cash for a rainy day. My money lies when it says “In God We Trust.” The truth is I monitor the stock market and buy insurance to protect the things I value most. My calendar and checkbook reflect my true priorities. I find it hard to afford a meager 10% for the source of my very being, but go into debt to “own” the status symbols the world values.

And besides Lord, it’s not easy to have a grateful heart in a world plagued by the ravages of climate-change-inspired storms. It’s not easy to give thanks while protecting myself from the threats of terrorists and racist vigilantes. People around me are dropping like flies from drug addictions and suicide. We are all so controlled by our electronic devices and enslaved to consumerism that there’s just not much time left over to give thanks.

Amid the festivities of the Thanksgiving holidays remind us Lord that it is only in you that we live and move and have our being. May our menus always include generous helpings of humility and gratitude that overflow in abundant sharing with those in need. And may there always be time no matter how hectic the day may be to be still and know who we are and whose we are. Amen

Advertisements

Put in Our Place, a sermon on Psalm:19:1-4a, Mark 8:27-34

Author E.B. White once 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.” Our two Scriptures for today suggest that choice is not an either/or but a both/and. They tell us in fact that we can’t do one without the other.

Diana and I were in Colorado this summer for a family wedding. Our nephew acted as social director for the group before and after the wedding and one activity was a trip to a small observatory to do some star gazing. We were at 8000 feet so the air was clear (and cold), and we discovered that they have a lot more stars in Colorado than Ohio!

As we got amazing views through the telescopes of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons we learned some mind-blowing facts from the astronomers about how many billions of stars there are in the universe. They told us that our Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years in diameter, a distance I can’t even imagine. But then they said that the observable universe is estimated to contain 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies. At one point our nephew said to me, “I’m feeling really small.”

I’m guessing that kind of awe is what our psalmist was feeling we she or he wrote, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” This author was having one of those mountain top experiences where we can’t help but savor the universe. Without any words the majesty and power of our creator goes forth and is proclaimed even to those who use different words or symbols to try and describe the sense of wonder and our own smallness in the infinity of God’s universe. In a different but similar way powerful storms like Hurricane Florence and Super Typhoon Mangkhut can also make us realize how powerless we humans really are in the universal scheme of things.

The mystery of creation shows us things in proper perspective and puts us in our place as a very tiny part of creation. And yet as small and insignificant as we feel the creator of the universe so loves every part of creation, including humankind, that God came to our little planet in human form to show us how to savor and save ourselves and the world.

The truth that Jesus lived it is that mountain top experiences are wonderful and necessary, regular worship and prayer feed our souls, but our daily lives still play out in the messy valleys where we know all too much pain and suffering. The trick is to remember to savor God’s majesty and power even when we can’t see or hear the heavens telling the glory of God. When the stuff of life hits the proverbial fan, then more than ever we need to be put in our place so we can keep life in perspective.

To be put in our place is to know who we are and whose we are. That’s the point of Jesus’ question to the disciples in our Gospel lesson for today. The familiar words in Mark 8 that followers of Jesus must take up their cross are so well-known to us that we may not take them seriously. In truth aren’t we more like Peter in this text who makes it clear he’s not really into the cross thing for himself or for Jesus. Mark says when Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed… Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

Most of us have a natural aversion to suffering; it’s just that Peter is bold enough to put those feelings into words. Peter’s response to Jesus’ teaching about his coming death and then Jesus’ reaction to Peter helps explain one of the curious things about Mark’s Gospel. Bible scholars call it the “Messianic Secret” because in Mark Jesus is continually telling people not to tell anyone who he is.

Doesn’t that seem curious? If Jesus is out to save the world, wouldn’t you think He’d want as much positive press as he can get? Maybe he just needed a better PR department? But the strength of Jesus’ angry response to Peter helps us understand the Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus doesn’t want the disciples spouting off yet because they still don’t really understand who he is. They know the right words to describe him; he’s the Messiah, but like students who just know how to feedback what the teachers want to hear on a test, the disciples don’t really get it. They aren’t ready for the final exam because the kind of Messiah they want Jesus to be is very different from the suffering servant Jesus came to be. The disciples are looking for a military savior like Rambo and they got Gandhi instead.

This Gospel story reminds me of Robert Frost’s great poem about the two roads that “diverged in a yellow wood.” Peter and the guys want to take the wide, easy road, the familiar popular path of least resistance. And Jesus has chosen the road less traveled. And this is not like the famous quote from Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This is a real choice. We can’t have it both ways, and the result is misunderstanding, conflict, anger, and some very harsh words. Yes, even within Jesus’ closest band of followers there is conflict. That should not surprise us, but it does. We often naively expect Christians to be immune to disagreement and conflict. But we aren’t.

When Bishop Judy Craig retired several years ago one of her colleagues described her as having a lover’s quarrel with the church, and I like that description. When I used to do pre-marital counseling and a couple would tell me they never argue all kinds of red flags went up for me. In any significant relationship where important matters are at stake there is bound to be disagreement and conflict. After all if two people are exactly alike and agree on everything, one of them is redundant.

And when we’re dealing with ultimate concerns and God stuff, it gets even harder because none of us have the final answers about God. The mystery of God is so vast and incomprehensible that one person said that talking about God is like trying to bite a wall. That’s why the Psalmist says, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

But we mortals still have to use our imperfect words to express our ideas and feelings; so conflict is inevitable. We know Jesus got angry—at the money changers in the temple, at the Pharisees, he called them a brood of vipers at one point, and in this text for today he is obviously angry at Peter. Anger and conflict are not bad things if they are handled in loving and respectful ways, but we can’t do that if we deny the feelings or go away mad.

The bottom line is that like Peter we don’t want to suffer. Buddhists have a basic law that says “Life is suffering.” That’s not a popular platform to run on, as Jesus found out with Peter. Oh, we like crosses, the little gold ones we can wear around our necks or on our lapels, but when it comes to big heavy ones with lots of splinters, we’re willing to let Jesus carry that one for us. That’s why the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is so popular. We let Jesus suffer for us and we reap the benefits. But when Jesus says we have to take up our own crosses too, we are tempted like Peter to argue or at least rationalize. “I’d like to help Jesus, but I just started a new job, I just got married, I have to take care of my aging parents, or I have a new baby to take care of.”

Jesus shows no patience with Peter, in fact he does a very un-Jesus like thing. Peter rebukes Jesus, and does Jesus turn the other cheek? Nope. He rebukes Peter right back. He does to Peter what Peter has done to him. That’s not the way the golden rule works is it? Jesus snaps at Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” That’s worse than an Ohio State fan calling someone a Wolverine!

But let’s look closer at what’s going on here between Jesus and Peter. We know Jesus doesn’t see Peter as an enemy because he tells Peter to get behind him. You want your enemies where you can keep an eye on them, not behind your back. Remember this is the same disciple that Jesus elsewhere says is the rock upon which he will build his church. Peter is the first great post-Pentecost evangelist. The Roman Catholics consider Peter the first Bishop of Rome and first Pope. And legend has it that this Peter who rebukes Jesus and refuses to take up his own cross is the same man who when he faces his own crucifixion years later does so with such courage and humility that he asks to be crucified upside down because he feels unworthy to be crucified as Jesus was.

So Peter is not Jesus’ enemy. This is a lover’s quarrel. And notice another thing about getting “behind” someone. Think about that phrase. When we say we’re getting behind someone we use that phrase to describe supporting that person, to have their back. Could it be that when Jesus says, “Get behind me” he is simply asking Peter for his support?

We know that choosing the road to Calvary was not an easy one for Jesus-it wouldn’t be for anyone. That last night in the Garden of Gethsemane we know Jesus prayed hard for God to deliver him from that horrible death. The temptation to chicken out must have been great; so to have one of your best friends add fuel to that fire and encourage Jesus to take easy way out would only add to the difficulty of staying the course.

All of these things may have been at work in this heated conversation, Jesus struggling with his future and asking for support in keeping this difficult commitment to God. But it seems to me there is another dynamic going on here too. Jesus sees this as a teachable moment. In the very next verse after the “Get behind me Satan” line, Jesus talks about what it takes to be one of his followers. Verse 34 says, “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The central question for us is what does it mean to follow someone? I was leading a group of 6 or 7 cars home from a youth retreat one time at Camp Wesley near Bellefontaine. We headed out from camp on a Sunday afternoon in a big caravan. We took a county road out to state route 68, and I turned north. That would have been fine except we needed to turn south to get back to route 33 and head home. I realized my mistake immediately and looked with horror in my rearview mirror to see that every one of the other six cars had followed me. No one seemed to be thinking for themselves. I don’t know if we qualified for a world record U turn, but when I made one a mile or so down the road, all of my followers did the same.

There are two things about being a follower – 1) you have to be behind someone to follow them, not out front leading your own parade. And 2) it pays to follow someone who knows where he or she is going.

The real point of this Gospel text is that Jesus still needs followers to carry on his work. Rather than putting Peter down Jesus is putting Peter in his place, which is behind the leader so he can follow. Remember the children’s game Follow the Leader? For that game to work everyone has to get behind the leader and do what she/he does. Peter goes on to become a great leader in his own right, but he is not yet ready for that role, and Jesus knows that. Jesus knows he will not be around long to lead the church; so he is preparing followers to carry on.

Good leaders teach by example, not by dictating and laying down the law. That heavy-handed style robs students or followers of learning to be responsible decision makers. I know because I grew up in a law and order household. When my parents said “Jump!” I said “How high?” And for 12 or 14 years that was great. Being obedient kept me out of lots of trouble and gave me protection from peer pressure. I could always blame my parents for not letting me do things I either didn’t want to do or knew were a bad idea. But when I turned 16 and went off on my own in a car and did not have mommy or daddy there to make decisions for me I was lost and unprepared to take responsibility for myself.

Jesus is a never failing compass that won’t leave us lost and unprepared. His example of love and justice is the North Star to guide Christians in every ethical decision. His example is what informs us when we ask “What would Jesus do?” But that’s only the first question and the easy one. We know what Jesus does and would do. The more important question is “what will I do?”

Which road will I choose? The one near the cross or the other one? The hymn by that name says “Jesus keep me near the cross till my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.” Rest, oh yes rest sounds good to the tired and re-tired doesn’t it? So much better than taking up a cross, but what is that “Beyond the river” stuff? That sounds too much like buying the farm to me, but is it about life after death or life after birth? When Jesus says we must “lose our lives in order to save them” don’t’ take that too literally. He means we have to surrender our will, our great desire to call the shots and lead instead of follow. Followers of Christ need to say and really mean, “Not my will but your will be done.” The transforming river in that hymn is the river of baptism where we die to our sin and are reborn as followers of Jesus.

How our lives go, how we deal with conflict and change depends on whose will we choose to follow. Jesus’ path looks harder in the short run, but it’s the only road home. Are we willing to surrender our wills and let Jesus put us in our place, or do we want to lead our own little parade down the wide, smooth path of least resistance – the one Jesus warns us leads to destruction?

The decision to follow Jesus is one we have to make over and over again because we all continually take detours and try to go our own way. But here’s the good news—there is no where we can go that God can’t lead us back home if we choose to follow. The Holy Spirit is our spiritual GPS that keeps recalculating as many times as we get off track.

So when the burdens of life seem too heavy, let’s take time to look to the heavens and be inspired by the mystery and power of creation. We may feel small, but God isn’t. The heavens proclaim and declare the glory of God, and that’s our job too as followers of Jesus.

Robert Frost says, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and the choice makes all the difference.” To choose wisely we need to be put in our place – right behind Jesus.

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, September 16, 2018

Flags, Idols and Outrage Burnout

Because life has been busier than usual for me the last few weeks I have not posted anything here. I know, you conservative friends have been relieved, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the myriad of news events in our broken world. I’ve been busy in part because my dear wife had rotator cuff surgery four weeks ago and has been unable to use her right/dominant hand and arm. I’m glad to be her “right hand man,” and I have a whole new appreciation for all she does and for the loving ministry of caregivers everywhere. She’s still got a few more weeks in her sling, but we are grateful that she’s recovering very well.

The other reason I’ve not written was something I couldn’t identify until recently. You know the feeling you get when you’ve got something wrong but you’re not sure what, and how it helps to get it diagnosed and have a name for it? Well I heard someone on NPR last week who gave a name to what I’ve been feeling about the current political malaise in our country and world. She called it “outrage burnout.” There is such a string of astonishing unjust and stupid actions taken by the President, his Attorney General, his cadre of crazy lawyers, ICE, etc. that before you can respond to one outrage there’s two or three more. I’m convinced it’s a very clever political strategy to simply wear down the opposition before the midterm elections. So with that caveat, here’s a post I started a week or so ago while waiting for my wife at a Doctor’s appointment. You will notice it is a bit dated but I believe it is still relevant enough to be worth your time.

When I was ordained a United Methodist pastor 49 years ago this month one of the traditional questions the bishop asked me and my fellow ordinands was “Are you going on to perfection?” We dutifully, if suppressing a chuckle, gave the acceptable answer which is “yes.” If asked that now in this penultimate stage of my life I’d have to say “Probably not!” The point of that question is that like any milestone event in life, e.g. graduation, marriage, bat mitzvah, ordination is just that, a milestone on a long journey and not a destination. It is also there as a not-so-subtle reminder that all of us, clergy alike and maybe especially clergy are FHB’s – fallible human beings standing in the need of God’s grace.

Since that day in 1969 I have learned many things about my own fallibility and the dark side of human nature that have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that “perfection” is not achievable in this life—not even close.
In fact, one of the biggest issues I’m dealing with in my 72nd year of life is dismay that humankind seems to be moving further from perfection at an alarming rate. For most of my adult life I have been comforted and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Lately however I find myself questioning which way that arc is bending. My biggest regret about my ministry is that both my church and the world seem even more divided and imperfect now than they did 50 years ago.

I will spare all of us the litany of evil and depressing events that bombard us daily like a biblical plague of locusts. It is hard to decide which of the seven deadly sins is most prevalent on any given day. But for the sake of argument let’s just tackle the first two the Ten Commandments. The top two of the Decalogue can be summarized: 1) Have no other gods but Yahweh, and 2) Worship no idols. I am thinking of those two just now because of the “to kneel or not to kneel” debate going on between NFL football players, NFL owners, and President Trump.
The NFL recently, in my opinion, violated the first amendment rights of their predominantly black players by threatening to fine anyone for not standing during the national anthem. President Trump raised the ante by harkening back to the good old “America love it or leave it” days of the 1960’s anti-war protests to question if anyone defying the NFL rule even belongs in this country! Do you suppose he will also deport all the Amish, Mennonite and Jehovah Witnesses who also refuse to bow down to any empire’s graven image? Those groups have been exercising their right to freedom of expression for decades, but then again they’re white so that must make a difference.

The Supreme Court ruled in the middle of World War II no less that Americans have the right not to stand for the national anthem. Why does it matter? Because God and God’s values of justice and equality for all of humankind trump, pun intended, any human law or allegiance. That’s what the “under” means in “One nation under God.” And by the way all national laws of any nation are human laws. For a more detailed discussion of what Professor Robert Jewett calls “zealous nationalism” vs. “prophetic realism” see my post on “Biblical Politics,” Nov. 5, 2012.
The flag controversy began as a protest against police using excessive and too often fatal force, against black people, especially those who are unarmed. That’s a legitimate justice issue and needs to be addressed in any and all peaceful means; and kneeling players succeeded in bringing attention to that cause. But President Trump and the NFL have misconstrued their protest by trying to make it about patriotism and respect for the military. Intentionally or not that is a diversionary tactic to avoid the important issue of racial justice, the central moral issue of all of American history.

When a flag or any symbol becomes more important than the divine issues of truth and justice it has become an idol. Whenever loyalty to country or party supersedes loyalty to truth we are worshipping a false god. When I was a Boy Scout many decades ago there was a badge called “God and Country.” I don’t know if there is such an award in scouting now, but I hope not. That title equates God and Country as if the two are synonymous. They are not. Every nation, tribe, race, organization or group of FHB’s is by definition imperfect–in other words needs to always be “going on to perfection.” We the people of the USA have not and will never “arrive,” and therefore always are in need of positive and constructive criticism. That is what the first amendment so wisely is intended to protect and why it’s number one.

As for the NFL, let’s just say I’ll have more free time this fall on Sundays and Monday nights as I exercise my freedom to boycott their ill-advised rule.

P.S. As I was writing this my wife asked me a very good question about freedom of expression. This was during Rosanne Barr’s fifteen minutes of fame where her show was cancelled by ABC because she tweeted some racist comments about Valerie Jarett who was a member of the Obama administration. The difference is that Rosanne’s comments were degrading and libelous, defaming the very being of an African American woman. The NFL protest call attention to a social justice issue in order for it to be addressed. Rosanne slandered another human being in the cruelest of racial stereotypes that have no redeeming or critical value (and was a repeat offender of such behavior). Yes, she later apologized, but hateful speech is like the proverbial toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube once it is expelled. On the other side of the political aisle a few days later Samantha Bee was guilty of using very crude speech about Ivanka Trump, and she was just as wrong and perhaps more so because her comments were not a late night tweet but a scripted pre-taped commentary on her TV show. So far as I know Bee has gotten off with much less punishment than Rosanne, and that is yet another example of how justice and human decency are being eroded by the partisan vitriol polluting the environment we all live in today.

Bottom line is that freedom of e xpre4ssion has never been an absolute right. The over –used example is that no one is allowed to induce panic in a crowded theater by yelling “fire” when there is none. Freedom must be tempered by the higher values of truth and respect for the greater good of others and the community.

The flag debate is not new but an on-going dialogue that will always be going on to perfection, even when it moves one step forward and two back. Never has the need for the balance between individual freedom and communal responsibility been more needed than it is today. The secret is in the first commandment. If we truly put the higher power of being itself that we call God first and foremost in our loyalties and obedience then other issues fall into place and greed, materialism, nationalism, sexism, and racism will not rule our thoughts and actions. Of course humankind has been trying to live up to that high ideal for 4000 years or so. We’re not close to arriving, and that is discouraging; but by the grace of God we continue on the way, even when the goal seems hopeless. For to continue seeking God’s way when all seems hopeless is the very meaning of faith.

New Year’s Prayer

O eternal God, as we prepare to turn the calendar from one year to the next we pray in the words of the psalmist that you will teach us to number our days so we may gain hearts of wisdom. Help us learn from the mistakes we have made in the past so we can lead better lives in the future. Forgive us for the times we have disobeyed your will so we can live free from the burden of regret and guilt.

Help us to forgive those who have wronged us either on purpose or accidentally so we can live free from anger or feelings of being a victim.

As we pray for all those in need this day – those forced to live or work in frigid conditions, those enslaved by addictions, those suffering from illness, grief or chronic pain, help us find ways to comfort and empower them.
The New Year is a wonderful time to reflect on the past, to review our life goals and find the true purpose you have for us. Like Simeon and Anna, we pray that we can be faithful in worship and so focused on seeking your will that when our days are over we will be satisfied. Help us renew our vows of allegiance to you and your kingdom so that walking with you is not just a new year’s resolution or an item on our bucket list. Give us courage to make our faith and service to you the all-encompassing purpose of our lives, not just at Christmas but every day of the year.

Remind us again that to be followers of Christ means to devote our lives to making disciples; to witnessing to the Gospel by the way we live our lives. We are not here to accumulate wealth or possessions. We are here to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with you, O God. Our prayer is to do that with all of our being – at home, at school, at work or wherever we are – to share the peace and joy of Christmas with all the world. The Christmas story doesn’t end today or on Epiphany – it continues whenever we as the modern supporting cast live into the wonder and mystery of your love.

We ask these things in the name of Emmanuel, God with us, as we offer the prayer he taught us to pray.

Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer for Truth that Set Us Free

O Gracious God, you have taught us that if we know the truth it will set us free. But sometimes we can’t handle the truth. We don’t like what we see in the mirror sometimes if we’re really honest with ourselves and with you. Our history as a nation and as individuals is not perfect by any measure. We have not always loved you with all our hearts. We have not always acted in loving ways toward our neighbors. We don’t even love ourselves some times.

Like St. Paul the very things we know we ought to do are not the things we do, and so we need to humbly throw ourselves on your mercy and beg forgiveness.

It’s not easy to know what the truth is, Lord. It can be so subjective and so bent out of shape by personal biases—and we all have them. And that makes it hard to trust and communicate. It makes productive dialogue difficult when we argue to win or to defend ourselves instead of seeking truth together.

Even the Good News of Christ gets distorted when we are afraid there isn’t enough for everyone – when we try to keep your grace only for ourselves and those we think are worthy. Truth is we fear judgment from you and others; so we try to make ourselves look better than we are. We think we have to earn your Grace, Lord; and that pseudo-good news won’t set anyone free.

Help us never to forget, O God of all creation, that the Good News of Christ is meant to set us all free—no matter who we are or what we’ve done. You sent Christ to show us that you are a God who says that if we dare to confess our sins you are “faithful and just and will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” You teach us that even if our “sins are like scarlet they will be as white as snow.”

Help us now O God to accept the truth of salvation through repentance so we are set free from sin and guilt – set free to share the good news of your eternal love with the world. May it be so.

[Scripture references: John 8:32,I John 1:9, Isaiah 1:18]