The Big IF: Confession and Forgiveness

Good news: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John: 1:9

Bad News: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.”
I John 1:10

The smallest word in those two verses is the most important. “IF we confess our sins….” That’s a huge “IF” and a major stumbling block that gets us into all kinds of trouble as individuals and collectively. To state the obvious, one cannot fix a problem until it is recognized. If I ignore the check engine light on my dashboard I can’t get the problem fixed. Or if I disregard the signals my body is sending me that something is wrong until it’s too late for the doctors to cure it I’m in deep trouble.

When it comes to God and our sin it is such a waste to live in denial. Yes, grace may sound like one of those deals that are too good to be true, but it’s not. John doesn’t say “if we confess our little sins” we will be forgiven! He says, “If we confess our sins, period.” There’s no fine print. The deal doesn’t expire at midnight. It’s an unconditional gift, and all we have to do is admit we screwed up.

Why is that so hard to do? Because we don’t trust the offer! We know too many humans who when we admit a weakness or a mistake will never let us forget it. They’ll hold it against us forever as a tool to manipulate us with guilt.

But this is no human relationship. This is a promise from the God who made us and knows our every flaw. God created us as fallible human beings knowing we all fall short of perfection every day.

So what’s the price we pay for not confessing? That denial loads us down with guilt and shame. It undermines our self-worth and makes it impossible for us to learn from our mistakes and do better. It cuts us off from God’s peace and salvation. That’s horrible on the individual level, but on the collective level it’s even more deadly.

Our refusal as a nation and world to recognize and admit our stupid mistakes costs us precious time to change our ways. We know the clock is ticking before we can no longer reverse the damage to our environment from our selfish ways. There is no Planet B.

Denial of our sins and mistakes is biting us in the butt on so many fronts – racism, world peace, bigotry, and on how to control the current pandemic. The human race needs one giant Mea Culpa because as John knew 2000 years ago, “IF we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” BUT “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.” Seems like a no brainer to me!

Russell C. Sawmiller, Jr. 1927-2020

Last week I lost a mentor and dear friend who had been an important person in my life for almost as long as I can remember. He was 93 so his death was not a shock, but it hit me harder than I expected. Soon after I learned Russ had died I sat down to write this letter to express what he meant to me.

April 17, 2020

Dear God,
I’m writing this and asking that you forward it to my dear friend Russ who should have checked in with you early this morning. He never could figure out computers or cell phones; so I can’t send him an email or text, but I know somewhere out there in your marvelous universe he’s there and will be able to hear some things I should have said to him much sooner.

I first met Russ 49 years ago this summer when I had the good fortune to be appointed as his colleague and associate pastor in my first church after seminary. I’m sure there was divine intervention in that appointment because I had specifically told my bishop that I wanted my own church and did not want to be an associate pastor, and thanks to Russ I never really was, at least he never treated me like one.

Thanks, Russ for always treating me as a colleague. We were co-pastors in fact even though our titles never reflected that. Thanks for teaching me so much about being a pastor that I didn’t learn in seminary and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You did that in a collegial way without ever making me feel like the greenhorn I was. You let me learn from my mistakes instead of warning or lecturing me, even when you had to clean up my messes. I think the only time you gave any disapproval was when I confided in you something I was too embarrassed to trust anyone else with. You just gave me one of those looks and a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you have a death wish?”

Since I heard about your passing this morning I have been flooded with memories of our times together, I didn’t appreciate those years at Indianola while we were up to our butts in alligators, but in retrospect they were some of the very best years of my life. I remember you giving advice like, “take a day off — and get out of town!” Sorry I didn’t do very well taking that advice to heart. You taught me from your own hard experience to be very careful about not becoming too beholden to parishioners who would expect preferential treatment or unacceptable power in church decisions. And, as you often said, “Sometimes it’s too hard to take it ‘one day at a time.’ Those days just settle for a half day at a time.”

I remember the day it dawned on me that we had to be related since my mother was a Sawmiller! I can’t believe it took me weeks to figure that out, and then not until you mentioned the little town of Kossuth where my mom was born. So we were distant cousins and maybe my job with you was some sort of nepotism, but I rather think it explains how well we worked together.

I am grateful for memories and pictures of you baptizing both of my kids. You broadened my perspectives on life, theology, sociology, politics and coping with personal tragedy in so many ways. Your wife had died of brain cancer just 3 years before we met, leaving you with two children to raise and a gaggle of women knocking on your door to take Marilyn’s place. You introduced me to a whole gang of your clergy friends who accepted me as a colleague and by example about how to do relevant and creative ministry in ways that I had never experienced in the very conservative church and community I grew up in.

In spite of living in the social unrest of the early ‘70’s, working in a rapidly changing neighborhood in a church in transition, i.e. dying, we had fun. I still chuckle about the time your friend Dick Teller asked us why we needed two curators for our “museum” where much of our large church building was described by phrases like “this is where the women’s society used to meet,” or this is “where the nursery used to be.” But then you taught me churches could repurpose spaces for community needs like the Neighborhood Services food pantry, Huckleberry House for runaway teens, and the first Ohio State University child care center. All of those programs moved on to bigger spaces as they grew, but you planted the seeds that are still serving that community 50 plus years later.

You taught me about collaboration with other churches in the University-Indianola Outreach program, and oh what stories Stan Sells had to tell us about funny experiences with those neighbors who lived in a totally different world than our church members. You taught me that church work and meetings could be fun, that good team building staff meetings and birthday lunches strengthened bonds that didn’t break in times of stress.

We played racquetball, not well, but it was great stress relief, and when I got depressed because a particular election outcome was not to either of our liking you gave me a nugget of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “Steve, elections are like buses and pretty women. If you miss one there will be another one coming along soon.”

Our partnership included many Sunday mornings in the wonderful hideaway study up in the bell tower before worship when you’d tell me what the morning sermon was about and ask me to help you find a Scripture that fit. That last minute scrambling (aka proof texting?) was the exact opposite of how I had been taught to preach, and I must confess that many years later when I got the chance to teach preaching to seminary students I often used you as an example of how not to go about picking a preaching text!

By example you taught me and others to treat life as sacred without taking oneself too seriously. You shaped my ministerial career in so many ways, not the least of which was that my time with you was nothing like any horror stories I heard from other associate pastors. It was so obvious from the first time we met that you were different than many other stuffed-shirt pastors I had known who had made me reluctant to answer God’s persistent call to ministry. And it wasn’t just me that felt that immediate connection that made you such a good pastor and friend. When one of my good friends from seminary first met you shortly after we had both received our first appointments he told me how lucky I was and that he wished he had someone like Russ as his senior pastor.

I learned so much from you about ministry that I was ready to fly solo when you left Indianola for another challenge, just not as soon as I expected; but having a few months on my own at Indianola, a congregation where I already felt safe in an established community was the perfect basic training for the next step in my faith journey. I don’t think you planned it that way, but thanks anyway.
When four years later I was asked to take another appointment as an associate after having my own church my friends were aghast that I would do that. But because I had such a positive experience working with you it was something I could do. I’m glad to say my other staff experiences were mostly good — not as good as ours had been of course — but I do believe that was in part because I went into those situations with a positive attitude thanks to you.
I learned about generosity and hospitality as you offered your Vineyard cottage to my family when our children were too young to do our normal camping vacation. You couldn’t help that it rained that entire week, but being there stuck inside with two toddlers for a week may explain why I didn’t visit the Vineyard again for nearly 20 years. But when I did I was happy to return every year for the next four years, and those laid back weeks there with you were some of the best ever and something I looked forward to every year. The last year we vacationed together was 2001, and I’ll never forget that date because I flew home through New York that year on September 6th, just five days before the towers came crashing down.

I remember your loyalty to your mom and one of your many, many moves to be there for her in her last years. And speaking of moving! You moved so often I sometimes wondered if you were in witness protection! I hope your search for home is finally satisfied. I imagine Ralph has already given you a hard time about being late to join him on the other side, but I’m glad you two are together again with all your old Boston buddies sharing even more memorable years of memories than you and I have.

I’m so sorry your last years here were so hard, but I’m glad you really haven’t had to deal with the awful mess our world is in right now. If you can send us any divine intervention now we could sure use it.

I’m happy those years when you weren’t the old Russ are over and you are at peace. But I’m sad for the new memories we won’t get to make. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good a friend as you deserved these last few years but knowing the old Russ I loved wasn’t there made it hard. There would be no more boring retiree meetings together, no more cranberry pecan pancakes at First Watch, no more walks on the beach at Lucy Vincent or Gay Head.

I almost wrote “no more words of wisdom,” but I know that’s not true because after 50 years we share a bond that transcends death. What I’ve learned from you about life will always be a part of me. So, till we meet again at some First Watch or beach in the great beyond thanks for being a great friend, mentor, and the father figure I always wished I had.

So, thanks good friend for all the Russellisms, for the laughter and the tears of a life well lived and generously shared. As the finality of human life sinks in and the light of eternity shines a little brighter with you in it, I’m reminded of the words of Walter Brinkley, one of our elder members at Indianola. When Walter’s wife died he summed up the way I’m feeling in this world without you. He said, “I’m smiling through my tears.”

Peace and love,
Steve

GOD’S CHOSEN SERVANT, SERMON ON ISAIAH 42:1-9

Today, the Sunday after Epiphany, is the Sunday in the church year when we celebrate the “Baptism of the Lord.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all report in identical words that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and that when Jesus came up from the water “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

That Scripture tells us who the Messiah is, and the Isaiah Scripture we read today is one of Servant Songs in Isaiah that describe what kind of Messiah this beloved Son of God will be. Listen again to what these words from Isaiah say:

I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;

In case we might miss the point this text tells us three times that “he will bring forth justice.” I’ll come back to that later, but I want us also to notice that this Servant Song not only emphasizes the Messianic purpose of justice; it also makes it very clear how justice will be accomplished, and that is in a peaceful, non-violent manner. God’s servant is gentle – does not shout or lift up her voice; does not quench a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed.

More than ever in the nuclear age we need to remember that the ways of Christ are non-violent and peaceful.

I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said “Another United Methodist for Peace and Justice.” My son asked me about that slogan one day. To him it seemed contradictory to talk about peace and justice together because like many people his concept of justice was one of punishment and retribution, as in giving people their just desserts. But that is not the biblical meaning of “justice.” In biblical terms justice means wholeness, equality and fairness for all, and when we understand it that way we realize that peace and justice are not contradictory terms at all, but in fact unless there is justice for all there can be no true peace.

Here’s a case in point about what an unending cycle of retribution and revenge produces. The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was signed 100 years ago last summer. That treaty, over the strong objections of President Woodrow Wilson, extracted harsh and unjust punishment on Germany, and just twenty years later Hitler used the German resentment of that punitive treaty to plunge the world in WWII.

I remember learning that in a college history class, but what I learned recently is that in those same treaty negotiations France also refused to give Viet Nam its freedom, which led to the communist take over there and eventually to our own involvement in the Viet Nam War. And if that’s not enough, that same treaty also carved up the Middle East into countries doomed to failure because people who hated each other like the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites were forced into impossible situations like the new country of Iraq. I don’t have to tell you how that worked out!

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” doesn’t mean God is vengeful. It means we humans shouldn’t play God and dish out our idea of “justice” because that’s way above our pay grade. Jesus repealed the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” in the Sermon on the Mount because he knew such misguided justice only creates a world of blind, toothless people. We can and must do a better job of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I must confess this has been a hard week for me. In addition to the all the bad news bombarding us from Australia, Puerto Rico and the Middle East I have had to deal with personal grief over the death of a friend who died suddenly last Friday and concern for our 11 year-old great niece who had open heart surgery yesterday. Such times as these make preachers dig deeper to find good news to proclaim, and when that happens there is no better source of comfort and strength than to return to the very basic Truth of the Christian Gospel found in the Sacrament of Baptism.

When my son was 7 or 8 we were attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals in a church that had a baptistery for immersion up in the chancel. As curious children are want to do my son was exploring the sanctuary after the recital, and after his reconnaissance mission he came running back to me excitedly and said, “Dad, they’ve got a Jacuzzi up there!”
How different our versions of baptism are today from Jesus’ immersion in the muddy Jordan. We sprinkle a few drops of water or use a heated pool are. We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism so much that we have forgotten what baptism teaches us about the cost of discipleship.

I can’t remember the source, but I’ll never forget this story about a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” An American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!” That illustrates the total transformation of true baptism. We literally die to our sinful human nature and are resurrected as new beings in Christ. In other words, we are saved from sin and death, but that’s just step one. What we are saved FOR is to be agents of love as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth.

One of the things I like best about being retired is that it’s so much easier to really worship sitting out there. When I’m leading 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; did someone remember to put water in the font, are my sermon pages in the right order?

I experienced real worship one Sunday recently during a service of baptism. The familiar liturgy that I’ve led many times was used, but I heard it like I suddenly had ears to hear. It was the part of the Baptismal Covenant that asks the parents or 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?”

Let me repeat that. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

So much power is packed into that short sentence! My first thought about it went to the phrase “resist evil, injustice and oppression.” 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!” Cancer and dementia and addiction attacking good, innocent people. Refugee families being ripped apart; political contributors being rewarded with government offices they are not qualified to fill, and protections for God’s creation being discarded for greedy short-sighted goals. I look at my young grandchildren and wonder what kind of a world we are leaving for them? 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 is the same for all of us. The Christian responsibility I just read is not from a service of ordination or consecration for someone dedicating her life to full-time Christian service. This challenge and empowerment are for all of us at our baptism. This is a bold affirmation of the priesthood of all believers, and it makes me wonder how many Christians would agree to be baptized if we took those words to heart?

Babies 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 guy in a dress 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 I see the meaning of those words in a whole new 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.

I am reminded of Jeremiah’s call from God when he was just a child. To paraphrase Jeremiah’s response – he says, “Not me, Lord. I’m just a little kid. Nobody will listen to a teen-ager?” And God said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to go alone. I’ve got your back. I’ll tell you what to say.”

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. No one gets baptized alone. The whole congregation promises to be the village that raises a child or a newborn Christian of any age. Baptism is a statement to the world that together we who have heard the call of Christ can and will support and encourage each other. We will 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.
The Hebrew prophet who wrote this part of Isaiah knew that way back then. Listen to the second part of our text for today:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Those words are addressed collectively to the nation of Israel by their creator and sustainer. They are God’s chosen people – not chosen for privilege like a Jacuzzi baptism, but to be God’s servants to open blind eyes, release those who are captives to sin and death, to be a light to the nations. And as followers of Christ we are the New Israel called to that same mission and purpose. Born of water and spirit we are all God’s beloved children given power and freedom by the one who makes all things new to be God’s chosen servants in the world.

This Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus is a perfect time to reaffirm our own initiation into the Body of Christ. I know many of you, like me, were baptized as infants or children and don’t actually remember the occasion of your own baptism. I know some of you may not have been baptized yet, and that’s ok because water doesn’t make us children of God. We are all born that way. Water used in baptism is just a symbol of the cleansing and renewing power of the Holy Spirit to make us new creatures as followers of Christ. That commitment to Christ is something we all need to recommit ourselves to on a regular basis because it is not easy to follow the narrow path of discipleship, especially in trying times like these.

So I invite you to reaffirm your commitment to be a faithful follower of Christ by responding to these questions as you are led by the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith we renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
acknowledge what God is doing for us, and affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
I do.

According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?
I will.

THANKSGIVING OVER THE WATER

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit,
you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Messiah Vision, Advent Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11

When I told my wife, Diana, that I was preaching on this text she correctly pointed out to me that this story seems strangely out of place for the 3rd Sunday of Advent. We’re still 10 days from the birth of Jesus and the lectionary text for today jumps 30 years ahead where John the Baptist is in prison. It seems chronologically out of whack, but if we take off our historical/literal glasses and dig into John’s important question we find it is very relevant for us in this Advent season 2000 years later.

The text tells us “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”” Why would John be asking that question? He of all people should know who Jesus is. He is the one who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, and in that story all 3 synoptic Gospels report that after the baptism “a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That seems pretty convincing to me and not something John would have forgotten.

So why is John asking, “Are you the one?” Let’s back up a minute to the first part of that verse. It says, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” That’s what prompts the question. John is confused as many were in Jesus’ day because Jesus wasn’t acting like the Messiah they were hoping for.

Did you ever get a Christmas gift that wasn’t what you expected or were hoping for? Kids are pretty good at showing their disappointment when they tear into a package they think contains the new X-box from Santa and find instead underwear and socks.
That kind of disappointment is at work in John’s question: “Are you the one or should we wait for another?” Jesus didn’t fulfill the Christmas wish list the oppressed Jews were hoping for. They wanted a political/military liberator and they got a suffering servant. They were hoping for Rambo and God sent Gandhi instead. They wanted a Messiah who would take to the streets and give the hated Romans their just desserts. Instead they got Jesus who ate dessert with tax collectors and sinners.

Let’s remind ourselves again of the situation and the audience Matthew was writing to. Mathew’s Gospel was written 40-50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, which puts it sometime after the year 70 C.E. That is a very significant date for the Jewish Christians, rather like 9/11 for us, because we know that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The temple was God’s residence in their midst and now it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. That had to be a time when the Jews and their hopes for deliverance by the Messiah hit rock bottom. They were feeling like John, imprisoned and questioning their faith. So John’s question from his prison cell awaiting execution reflects the doubts of his readers, the Jews and new Christ followers sitting in the devastation of their city and their hope.

Are you the one, Jesus? Why haven’t you delivered us? It’s the question disciples of Christ have asked in every generation when suffering and despair threaten to drown our faith. Who is this Jesus, and why is there still so much injustice and suffering in our world?

The rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice came out when I was a senior in seminary, and I was drawn to the way it asked that same question about Jesus. The title song of that musical has Judas asking,
“Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

I talked one of my theology professors into letting me do an independent study on the theology of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. He was not a fan of rock music and very reluctant at first but finally agreed. I remember in particular one conversation we had about the scene in the musical where Jesus finally loses his cool and turns over the money changers’ tables in the temple and drives them out with a whip.

I was young and full of righteous indignation then. Now I’m old but still full of it. In 1970 I was idealistic and very impatient with the social injustices of war, racism and sexism – sound familiar? At any rate I was drawn to this angry Jesus upsetting the apple cart in the temple, but Professor Hopper cautioned me to put that incident in the context of Jesus’ total ministry. Yes, Jesus got angry a couple of times. He was human after all. But those incidents of anger are very rare and atypical of the patient, kind, compassionate and forgiving healer that Jesus was.

And that’s why John the Baptist is questioning Jesus’ Messiahship. Jesus isn’t doing things the way John would have done them. Pastor Chris reminded us last week what a wild man John was. He was a man of action, calling out the sins of the big shots of his day. He followed the examples of Amos and Micah and the other Hebrew prophets who were hell fire and brimstone preachers warning God’s people of the wrath to come if they didn’t repent of their sinful ways.

But Jesus broke the mold of the angry prophet and replaced it with the Messiah
who hangs out with the outcasts of society, who is the good shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep instead of blaming it for wandering off. Instead of heaping guilt on the oppressed he offers forgiveness and grace to prodigal daughters and sons like you and me.

So this question is exactly what we should be asking as we prepare for Christmas. Who are you Jesus? What kind of Messiah are you really? If we don’t understand the nature of God’s incarnation in our world, if we’re looking for the wrong kind of Messiah we will miss out on the greatest gift any of us can hope for.

My heart has always been touched by a song much older than “Jesus Christ Superstar” that poses the same question. It was written during the Great Depression, another time of great suffering in our country. Robert MacGimsey was a white composer, but he wrote this song in the style of an American slave song. The version I grew up with was recorded by Mahalia Jackson, but it continues to be recorded today by other artists because it raises an important warning that we’ll miss Jesus again if he’s not what we expect. The song says,

“Sweet little Jesus boy
They made you be born in a manger
Sweet little holy child
We didn’t know who you were.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us Lord
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind, we could not see
We didn’t know who you were.”

Do we know Jesus today? Would we recognize him if he or she appeared to us in the checkout line at Kroger’s or at the food pantry? Do we treat the telemarketer or an ungrateful child as we would treat Jesus? Do we take time to pray and ask ourselves if the Jesus we want for Christmas is the one God sends to upset our values and call into question our way of life?

I had cataract surgery on both of my eyes this fall. I can now see much better than before because the old clouded lenses have been replaced by new ones. Someone has joked that we will all see 2020 come January. But the real question is will we have Messiah vision? Will you join me in praying for new spiritual lenses so we can see clearly who Jesus is and what he expects of us as his followers?

Yes, Jesus is the one! And we don’t have to wait for another because God’s Emmanuel is with us here and now every step of the way. We just need Messiah Vision so we don’t miss out on his Kingdom because of preconceived notions of what that kingdom should look like. Amen

Know When to Walk Away and When to Run

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others.” in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.

Thanksgiving and Confession

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

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

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

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

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

Sex and Power

BREAKING NEWS: BELOVED NATIONAL LEADER CHARGED WITH MURDER IN SEX COVER UP. No that is not a headline from today’s news even though it sounds like it could be. It’s a summary of a salacious sex scandal in 2 Samuel 12 where King David has Uriah, the husband of his mistress Bathsheba, killed in battle so he won’t find out that David impregnated his wife while Uriah was off fighting David’s battles. David was even foolish enough to put his evil cover up scheme in writing: “In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” (2 Samuel 11:14)

Sex scandals are nothing new, nor do we seem to have learned much in the last 3000 years. Like many I am disgusted and embarrassed by the political theater playing out in the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Like the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill drama 27 years ago we have no process to fairly evaluate the accusations that have been leveled at Judge Kavanaugh by Dr. Ford. The members of the judiciary committee are divided along party lines and frankly unable to be objective and fair in settling this “He said, she said” matter.

As I write this we don’t know if Dr. Ford is going to appear before the Judiciary Committee or not. We do know that she and her family’s lives have been changed forever by this painful decision to come forward. Yes, the Democrats should have brought this whole matter up sooner, but that is only a problem because this whole process has been rushed through for purely political reasons.
We may never know the truth in this matter, and I know my own political biases cloud my thinking about it. But what I do know is that this is a teachable moment for all of us men. No matter what the outcome of the confirmation process Judge Kavanaugh’s reputation will never be the same. And the lesson we men need to learn and we need to teach our sons and grandsons is that girls and women cannot be treated disrespectfully.

The “Me Too” movement has shown us over and over again that there are consequences for sexual misconduct. We need to celebrate that the days of “boys will be boys” is being strongly and effectively challenged by women in all walks of life.

We will no longer get away with sexual misconduct. King David learned that lesson too when the prophet Nathan had the courage to confront him about his sinful behavior. Nathan does it indirectly by telling David a parable about a rich man who steals from his poor neighbor, and David is angry at that injustice. And then Nathan springs the punch line and says, “You are the Man.” (2 Samuel 12)

Like Nathan there have always been some voices willing to challenge abuse of power, but those voices especially those of women have been ignored. We are just now feeling the brunt of sexual abuse in every aspect of our society, in the church, government, and entertainment industry. And those are just the ones that make the news. God only knows how many women and girls are still suffering in silence.
David does confess his sin when Nathan confronts him, but Nathan tells him that even though his sin is forgiven there will still be dire consequences for his action.

The sooner we men can join David and say ‘Me Too,” I am guilty of treating women with disrespect, the sooner things will move toward justice for all. Most of us men are not guilty of adultery in the strict interpretation of that act, but we need to learn that how we think and feel about women in any way that demeans them, fails to value their ideas, pays them less than men, or tries to silence their voices because what they have to say makes us uncomfortable if we have to admit our own complicity in this age-old problem, all of those behaviors are flat out wrong.

No matter how the Supreme Court confirmation turns out there will be no winners unless we as a society can learn a lesson from this situation and take at least some small steps toward a better world where there is “neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28) but where we are all one in God’s universal family.

Reckless Love of Self, Ephesians 2:1-10

Before Lebron James announced his second departure from the Cleveland Cavalier one of the biggest sports stories in Cleveland was all about a basketball shot that was never taken. In game one of the NBA finals last month the Cavs lost a chance to win a critical game against the Golden State Warriors because J.R. Smith held the ball in the closing seconds of the game instead of shooting what could have been the game-winning shot. It appeared that Smith was confused, thinking the Cavs were ahead when in fact the score was tied, and he heard about it from irate sports fans.

Bob Oller, a sports writer for the Columbus Dispatch, took an interesting approach to that story. He went to one of the most admired sports heroes in Buckeye country, the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner and legendary Ohio State running back Archie Griffin. To quote Oller’s article, “Archie knows what it means to extend grace and receive mercy. Arch fumbled his first carry in his first game at Ohio State. It happens. Woody Hayes gave Griffin another chance and he made history with it. Archie also recalled another more glaring error he made when he fumbled a kick off on football’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl.” Archie’s take on JR Smith’s blunder: “It appears he lost track of the specifics of the situation….It’s a human mistake.”

Most of us don’t make our mistakes on national TV, but we all make them. What is something you regret that you wish you could undo? Words spoken in anger? Being self-absorbed with a problem and failing to notice the pain of a friend or loved one? Being distracted while driving and causing an accident or nearly doing so? As someone said recently, doing bad things doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us human.

In this sermon series we’re considering different aspects of love. Last week Pastor Chris talked about the first part of the great commandment – to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. And most of us know the second part of that commandment which is to love your neighbor as yourself. We’re going to deal with the neighbor part of that verse in coming weeks, but today I want to focus on those final two words in the great commandment, “as yourself.” We often put so much attention on love of God and neighbor that we lose sight of those final two words that are a critical prerequisite to doing the other two.

To love anyone else as we love ourselves obviously means we have to first love ourselves, and that may be the hardest part of this whole deal. Loving yourself is hard for several reasons: 1) we are often taught directly or indirectly that it’s not cool to boast or brag about ourselves, that we should be humble; and often we get carried away with that because 2) we alone know the whole truth about all of our own dirty laundry. I believe it was Lincoln who said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

That may be true, but even more true is the fact that you can’t fool God or yourself any of the time. No matter how good we are at hiding our faults from others, deep down our less desirable qualities are always with us like a perpetual bad hair day. Yes, we can rationalize or talk ourselves into doing something we know is not right, but deep down we still know it’s wrong and have to live with the guilt.

One of the biggest barriers to loving ourselves is perfectionism. Most of us don’t expect perfection from other people. We’re willing to cut them some slack, especially if we take time to consider that jerk who cuts us off on the freeway may be hurrying to get to a family emergency, or that rude clerk at the store is worried about her daughter who has run away from home. We know other people are just human, but why is it we often hold ourselves to a higher standard? I read a great line in a murder mystery the other day. The heroine of the story was beating herself up because she got taken in by a bad guy, and an old wise neighbor gave her this great advice. He said, “If I cried over every mistake I made I’d have drowned by now.”

Great advice, but part of the reason we have trouble loving ourselves is because we’ve got this accumulation of bad thoughts and behavior that seems to compound like credit card debt the longer we’re alive. And sometimes the church contributes to the guilt. I often joke that without guilt the church would be out of business. I may have borrowed that idea from the comedian, whose name I can’t remember, who joked about a church called “Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt.” But in all seriousness recklessly loving ourselves doesn’t mean excusing or sweeping our mistakes under the rug. Reckless love means embracing the good, bad and ugly, not just in others but first in ourselves, and that’s not easy to do.

The hard cold truth is that there is an evil streak in human nature. If we look honestly at the violence and suffering humans inflict on one another we have to admit it. Listen to what the writer of Ephesians says in the first part of chapter 2 that we read earlier: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… we were by nature children of wrath.” Those are harsh words to swallow and unfortunately they are the only words some people ever hear from the church. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “The Gospel is bad news before it’s good news.” And because some Christians who don’t love themselves get their jollies beating other people up with the bad news many folks don’t stick around long enough to hear the good news. And can you blame them?

A few weeks back Pastor Mebane preached a very good sermon on integrity and used the analogy from the game of golf about the honesty it takes to call a penalty on yourself. I was sitting up here that day and if you noticed I was squirming a little it was because she was getting too close to home. Anybody else feel that way, or was it just me that got my toes stepped on? Sometimes the truth hurts like when I look in the mirror expecting to see Brad Pitt and this old geezer keeps looking back at me.

I am old enough to remember a couple of previous versions of the United Methodist hymnal, and one thing I remember was that the old communion ritual had a prayer of confession that said, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty.” How’s that for a marketing strategy to attract folks to come to church? I can see the Facebook invitation now, “Come to Northwest this Sunday and bewail your manifold sins and wickedness!” I much prefer Jesus invitation, “Come to me you who are tired and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Another thing I remember from the days when we used that old communion liturgy is that attendance on communion Sundays in many churches was always lower than average. I have no scientific evidence for why but I have a sneaking suspicion that people stayed away to avoid being saddled with a bigger load of guilt than they already had. Now it’s true that if you made it through the confession there was the Good News of salvation offered in the Sacrament itself, but I fear that once the guilt trip was triggered people didn’t hear the Good News of forgiveness. Out of curiosity I asked the office staff to give me the attendance numbers for the last 18 months here at Northwest. I was pleased to learn that over that period our average attendance on communion Sundays is almost identical to non-communion Sundays. I attribute that to the kinder, gentler language we use in celebrating communion that stresses how all are welcome at the Lord’s Table. And yes, ALL does mean ALL.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not saying we don’t need confession as part of worship. We all have plenty to repent of as individuals and as a society, but we have to be very careful to be sure the Good News of the Gospel doesn’t get drowned out by the bad news. We get plenty of bad news all week and in order to recklessly and completely love ourselves we need to not only hear about the radical redeeming love of God, we need to feel it and experience it.

I John chapter 1 is a perfect example of the whole Gospel. Verse 8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” If we stop there loving ourselves is pretty hard to do. But the very next verse says, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Today’s text from Ephesians says the same thing. Once it faces squarely the evil streak in all humans it shows us the way to self-love. Beginning at verse 4 it says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

We can recklessly love ourselves, not in a boastful way, only because of the reckless love of God that saves us from our sin through freely given grace. It’s a love so reckless that Christ is willing to die a horrible death to show us the depth of God’s love; a reckless love that is like a sower who throws the seeds of grace everywhere, not just in “good” soil; a reckless love that runs down a dusty road to meet and embrace every prodigal child who repents and returns home.
In these days when the evil viruses of racism and nationalism and tribalism seem to be spreading like a plague it is easy to lose hope and to fear what the future holds. But fear is the lack of love, a lack of trust in God’s grace. If we trust God completely what have we to fear? As the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” says, “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still,” and that truth is deep unconditional love.
Set free from fear by God’s grace we can stand up and speak up for truth and justice. We can worry less about what others think of us and do what’s right and instead of what’s popular. When we speak and live the truth we have nothing to fear because God has our back.

Think of the saints throughout our faith history who loved themselves enough to boldly love others. I love the women in the Moses story who defied Pharaoh’s authority and conspired to save Moses’ life – the midwives who refused to kill the Hebrew baby boys at birth, Moses’ mother and sister who put him in the bulrushes where Pharaoh’s own daughter would rescue and raise him. Without their courage Moses would never have grown up to lead his people out of slavery.

Where does love of self come from? Or if we’re born with it, what happens to it? One great answer to both those questions is captured in the words of a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte. It’s called “Children Learn What They Live.” Her words should be posted in every nursery and classroom. In part she says:
“If a child lives with criticism, she learns to condemn.
If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.
If a child lives with shame, she learns to feel guilty. (That’s the bad news, but the poem goes on…)

If a child lives with encouragement, she learns to be confident.
If a child lives with acceptance, he learns to love.
If a child lives with approval, she learns to like herself.

Kids are so impressionable that the golden rule is doubly important for them and all of us whenever we interact with them. We can all help instill a healthy love of self by treating the little ones as we want to be treated, with patience, forgiveness and reckless love.

It occurred to me while working on this sermon that reckless love of ourselves boils down to applying the Golden Rule to how we treat ourselves. If I treat myself badly by living with self-criticism, fear and shame, then I’m going to treat others the same way. What if we simply begin by treating ourselves as we want others to treat us?

We can begin to do that by changing the way we do something that all of us do on a daily basis. Who do you see when you look in the mirror, when you really look? Do you see yourself flawed and imperfect physically or morally? Or do you see a child of God saved by grace, flaws and all, set free to serve God and others by the reckless love of God and self? When you look in the mirror from now on don’t compare yourself to people society tells us are beautiful or special, but see yourself through God’s eyes.

Treat yourself with kindness; treat yourself as you want others to treat you. Be like Martin Luther who it is said each day when he bathed rebatptised himself and reminded himself he was a beloved child of God, one who in the words of Ephesians is “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Reckless love is really quite simple: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It all starts with loving that child of God we see in the mirror every day. Amen

Father’s Day Pastoral Prayer

Heavenly Father, we your prodigal children humbly come to you in prayer seeking forgiveness and guidance for all the need in our world. We lift up our joys and concerns written on these prayer cards as well as those we hold close to our hearts. We praise you for giving us a high standard of what fatherhood can be – a generous heart that allows children freedom to learn without sheltering us from the consequences of bad decisions. And you know we have made many. But we also know that the welcome mat is always out and your door is never locked to any who repent and return to you. We are here because we have felt your grace and radical hospitality and strive to offer the same to any and all who need love and compassion.

We pray for all fathers today here and in heaven with you. We give thanks where the bonds of love are strong in families, even as we pray for those where relationships are broken or strained. We know life is not always kind or fair. Help us celebrate the memories of good times between dads and kids, but also help us to let go of pain, forgive generously, knowing that we only have today – we cannot change the past. But with your help we can write a future worthy of Jesus who was so close he called you Abba which means “Daddy.”

In your family O God we are all brothers and sisters, no matter our race, gender, orientation or nationality. Help us all strive to emulate your unconditional love for everyone as if they are our own children, our own fathers and mothers.

And on this Father’s Day we pray for these members of our mission team who are leaving fathers and children behind to go and be the hands and feet of Christ to our sisters and brothers in Clendenin, West Virginia. We send this team as ambassadors from the Northwest branch of your family. We ask your blessing on them as they travel and work with those recovering from the terrible flood of 2016. They will offer their labor and their love, and we pray that hearts on both sides of the partnership will blossom with new relationships and a closer bond of love with Jesus Christ, the one who calls you Daddy, and the one who taught us to pray.

Wilderness Times: When Only God Knows! Ezekiel 37:1-14

I just recently figured out the answer to a problem that I know befuddles many of us Ohioans, namely why well-trained meteorologists are so often wrong about our weather forecasts. I’ve decided it’s not climate change, nor is it crazy Ohio where we have three or four seasons in a 48 hour period. It’s because the weather people are all too young! With the exception of Jim Gynal and Ben Gelber all of our local forecasters are young people. Yes, they have Doppler radar and other fancy tools but what they don’t have are old bones and joints that reliably tell us seniors when the weather’s changing.

I bet you’re wondering what weather forecasting has to do with our text for today! The connection is that both are about old bones. The difference is that in Ezekiel’s vision the bones he saw were no longer predicting or doing anything. Ezekiel walks among this valley of dry bones and makes it very clear that these bones are very dry and have been dead a long time.

Here’s the context for this most familiar of Ezekiel’s visions. He is relating this vision to the people of Judah about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel is a priest who along with the ruling classes of Judah is a political prisoner in Babylon. Geographically Babylon was located where modern day Baghdad sits today in Iraq. Then and now it was and is a hot, dry wilderness.

Our nephew Michael spent time in that part of the world a few years ago. He was stationed in Kuwait next door to Iraq when he was in the Air Force. Michael was a mechanic at the time and told us about a day that was about 105 degrees when he was working on a plane and forgot where he was. He reached down and picked up a wrench that was lying in the desert sun and immediately burned his hand.

Living in that heat came to mind when I was thinking about Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Remember the Exiles were mostly people of Israel’s upper class, not used to these harsh living conditions. The Interpreter’s Bible describes the Babylonian exile this way: “The Israelites exchanged their hilly homeland and pleasant climate of Jerusalem for the flat and hot Babylonia lowlands…and forced manual labor.”

I’m sure the Babylonia Chamber of Commerce advertised to visitors that their climate was a “dry heat.” I’ve never been in Iraq or Babylon, but I’ve been in Phoenix in mid-summer; and I don’t care how dry the heat is, anything above 100 degrees is just too darn hot.

We’ve been thinking about “Wilderness Time” in this Lenten Sermon Series because whether it’s a voluntary retreat from daily living to draw closer to God or the wilderness is forced upon us by life’s circumstances, solitary time with ourselves and God is good for our souls – but only if we embrace it.

As many of you know our family has been doing some wilderness time this last month. My father died on February 12 and due to family schedule complications we set his memorial service and burial for this past weekend. Little did we know then that on March 1st Diana’s mother would go into a rapid decline and pass away on March 5th. These were not unexpected life events. My dad was 96 and Diana’s mom, Mary, was 100, but getting a double whammy of mortality definitely put us into the wilderness. We celebrated both of their lives last weekend, and Ezekiel’s image of dry bones seemed all too real in those cold, windy cemeteries.

Wilderness time is often hard to embrace. The exiles were none too happy to be carted off to Babylon, not just because they were uprooted from their homes and familiar surroundings, they were also yanked up by their theological roots. The foundations of their faith were supported by four basic pillars: 1) God’s blessings were assured them as God’s chosen people; 2) the land God had given to their ancestors would be protected forever; 3) the throne of David and his descendants would continue forever; and 4) the Temple at Jerusalem was the only suitable place for proper worship of their God.

When the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC the Israelites theological scoreboard suddenly read 0-4. Their beloved temple was in ruins, and the foundations of their faith were not only shaken they were pulverized. So what can we learn today from this ancient history? Aren’t we a lot like these Israelites? As it was for them it’s quite natural to want our faith to be comforting “Good News,” that’s even what the word “Gospel” means. So like the Israelites we are tempted by the same prosperity gospel that promises worldly comforts as rewards to God’s chosen people. Like Ezekiel’s contemporaries we sometimes forget that God chooses us not to be privileged but to be servants to others. We’d like Easter morning without Good Friday, but let’s not forget that much of the Bible describes a lot of bad news and how people like us respond to being in the wilderness.

Psalm130 was written in one of those wilderness times. It begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” That Psalm is known by the title “De Profundis” which in Latin means “out of the depths.” I woke up one day last summer in one of those wrong-side-of-the-bed moods and thought of De Profundis to describe my mood. I wrote in my journal that day “De Profundis is Latin for “O crap, I have to get up and face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” Am I the only one who has days like that? I saw a cartoon awhile back that describes me all too often. It said “Sometimes I wake up grumpy, and other times I let him sleep.”

When I first started thinking about this dry bones text I pictured it in terms of personal or individual wilderness times that come to all of us. And then when Diana’s mom died that introspective kind of wilderness seemed even more real. But then I reread Ezekiel’s words and I realized what he’s talking about is a lot bigger than personal grief or loss. Verse 11 says, “Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” God says this valley of dusty, dry, lifeless bones is a metaphor for “the whole house of Israel.” A whole people, a whole nation is dead to God and hopeless, completely cut off. They’ve been in exile a long time; the buzzards and other wild life have picked their bones clean.

I’ve been trying to think of some contemporary situation to compare the Exile to. The heart-breaking pictures we see on the news today of the devastation and ruins of Syria are the closest image I can think of to understand how hopeless the exiles must have been feeling.

But as pitiful as this image of dry bones is Ezekiel is not sympathetic to Israel’s plight. This vision from Chapter 37, believe it or not, is from the “good news” section of the book of Ezekiel. He spends the first 32 chapters of this book passing judgment on his own people for their failure to obey God’s will. He warns them that bad things will happen if they continue to break their covenant relationship with God. The Israelites remember clearly God’s part of the bargain made with Moses, to give them a homeland, to make them and their descendants prosperous. But in their comfort and prosperity they have conveniently forgotten their half of the covenant – namely to live obediently, justly and humbly before God. Their leaders have become greedy oppressors who according to Amos “sell the poor for a pair of shoes.” Things have gotten so corrupt and unjust for the common people of Israel that at one point Ezekiel even declares that his people have out sinned Sodom. That is not a record you want to break!

In chapter 6 Ezekiel describes in gory detail the consequences of such unfaithful living: “Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense stands shall be broken; and I will throw down your slain in front of your idols. 5 I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols; and I will scatter your bones around your altars. ….7 The slain shall fall in your midst; then you shall know that I am the Lord. (Chapter 6)
That phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” is a refrain that recurs in Ezekiel. Verse 14 of our text for today says, “You shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” That doesn’t mean God intervenes to punish us, but God wants the consequences of our bad choices to help us see that there’s only one God, and we’re not it!

I doubt that I need to draw the parallels between Israel and the current state of affairs in our country and other parts of the world where the ways of God have been trampled in the dust by the idolatry of living in a secular and materialistic society. It is all too easy to despair, to lose hope.

When we are searching for an elusive answer to one of life’s tough problems friends may ask us, “What are you going to do?” And a common reply is “God only knows!” meaning we don’t have a clue. In his vision Ezekiel hears God ask him one of those tough questions. As he is walking around in this valley full of dry bones God says, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

What do we do when we are in one of those situations where only God knows the answer to what we should do? When we suddenly lose a job or a loved one; when our world seems to be collapsing around us? And it seems God isn’t readily available to share whatever it is that only God knows! Or sometimes we’re too stubborn or proud to pray for God’s guidance. We might not like what we hear!

Put yourself in Ezekiel’s place. How would you answer God’s question, “Can these bones live?” Or look at the homeless, hopeless refugee children in Syria, or the suffering caused by gun violence in our own country. Why do we have so much more gun violence than other developed countries? What are we going to do to stop consuming violence in video games and entertainment? How can we help people suffering from mental illness, or those who are bullied? How are we supposed to love the bully and heal whatever wounds he is suffering that cause violent behavior? How do we provide support systems and ways to deal with pain and depression so people don’t get hooked on opioids or other drugs? Can our badly divided nation live again and achieve the high ideals of our democracy? God only knows!

And yet that hopeless cry of despair is actually the beginning of hope for a whole nation of dry bones. When we look at a hopeless situation through our own mortal eyes we see no way dead bones can live again. When I held the urn of my father’s ashes in the cemetery last weekend I knew there was no way those ashes could live again, at least not in the form we knew as my dad. But those ashes can provide nourishment for what grows in God’s good earth.

Likewise out of tragic death at the Parkland High School massacre has emerged a new generation who are taking their civic responsibility to a whole new level. Whether you agree with their methods and goals or not you have to applaud their determination to make a difference. New life can arise out of death. I saw that at both of our family funerals last week where new life was in abundance in the joyful, energetic laughter and play of young great grandchildren. May we have eyes of faith to see signs of life even in the midst of death.

Remember the dry bones story is a vision Ezekiel is having. It is one of four visions in Ezekiel. And it’s the only one of the four that does not begin with a date identifying when Ezekiel had the vision. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the valley of dry bones known as the Holocaust, commented that the reason this vision has no date is that every generation needs to see it and experience it for themselves. Dry bones are a timeless description of the human condition.

And that’s the key – the valley of dry bones is a human condition seen through finite, mortal eyes. But Ezekiel was a priest. He of all people should have known the answer to God’s question, “Mortal can these bones live?” When we began this Lenten season on Ash Wednesday many Christians received the mark of ashes on our foreheads with the words from Genesis, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those words are not some morbid reminder that we are all going to die. We say them to help us remember that in the very beginning of God creates human life by forming us from dust and breathing life into us. Can these bones live? Of course they can live if God chooses to breathe his Holy Spirit on them.

And that’s exactly what happens in the rest of the vision. “Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The Hebrew word for breath is ruah which is also the word for spirit, the holy breath of the one with whom all things are possible. When seen through mortal eyes this is a dead, dry bone. But when the Holy Spirit helps us lift our eyes to catch a vision through God’s eyes hopelessness turns to rejoicing and death becomes resurrection. Seeing life and death through God’s eyes helps us confess our sinful nature honestly and brings us to our knees. And it’s from there we can see new beginnings that God alone can see.

And so as people with a vision of Easter in our eyes wilderness times call us to renew our covenant with God–because it is in the wilderness that we remember who we are and whose we are.
Can these bones live again? – You can bet your life on it!