THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT LITURGY: JOY

First Reader: On the third Sunday of Advent we ponder and celebrate the gift of Joy. We remember that life was not all calm and bright for Mary and Joseph either. The Holy family lived under oppressive Roman rule. Because there was no room in the inn Mary’s labor room was a barn. And yet baby Jesus slept in heavenly peace there in his manger bed.

Second Reader: From day one Jesus shows us that Joy does not come from external circumstances. As he would later sleep through a storm at sea and face crucifixion with steadfast faith, Jesus shows us that joy is an internal state of being, and He is the way to true Joy. He was at home in God’s universe no matter what was going on around him. (As reader 1 lights 3 candles) And so today we relight the candles of Hope and Peace and add the third candle, the candle of Joy.

Unison Prayer of confession: O God who loves us so much you came to a humble stable. You sent John to warn us to turn back from the things that bring us no joy. We confess we have not always listened to your prophets. We have not always lived lives that bear good fruit. We have failed to receive the power of your Holy Spirit. This Advent, fill us to overflowing with true joy. Let us follow the true Messiah who sets us free to share joyfully with our neighbors. Teach us to be humble bearers of Good News so our lives may be signs that proclaim Joy to the World. Amen

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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!

“Itchy Ears and the 99-yard Dash,” II Timothy 4:1-8

Today as we conclude this sermon series on being called I want to examine how Paul’s sense of calling was expressed even in his death. The problem is we don’t know how Paul died or when. Tradition has it he was beheaded in Rome as part of Nero’s persecution of Christians sometime around 63 AD/CE. But the New Testament, our main source of information about Paul’s life, is totally silent when it comes to the matter of Paul’s death.
Most of the book of Acts is a pretty detailed account of Paul’s ministry from his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus to his missionary journeys all over Asia Minor and southern Europe, and finally to his arrival at last in Rome where he was a prisoner under house arrest awaiting trial. But after all the details of geography, arrests, shipwrecks and starting many new churches listen to how the book of Acts ends: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31)

In other words as he faced Roman imprisonment and possible execution, Paul spends his time doing exactly what he did for all the years of his life after his call to follow Christ—he proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ “with all boldness and without hindrance.”

Paul is one of the best examples of what I like to call the “Hokey Pokey” Gospel. You remember that fun little song which says in part “You put your whole self in, you take your whole self out, you put your whole self in and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!” To be called means to put your whole self into whatever God is calling you to do. That doesn’t mean those who do full time Christian work are called any more than teachers, homemakers, bus drivers, garbage collectors or bee keepers. Any job can be a vocation if it is done fully as part of a life lived according to God’s will and values.

But just as the Hokey Pokey says, to fully respond to one’s call you have to “turn yourself around” or more accurately you have to let God turn you around. We often think the word “repentance” means to apologize, to say we’re sorry, and that’s partly correct – but it also means to turn around and go in a different direction. Paul did that when he was converted from being a hit man against the Christians to Christ’s boldest and most dedicated messenger. He had to give up his old life and do a complete 180. Most of us can’t do that on our own. To beat an addiction, to change careers, to turn our backs on the tempting idols of our materialistic world takes the help and support of others and the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Most of us are more like Woody Allen than Paul when it comes to death and dying. Woody Allen says, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The best description I’ve ever found of what I’d call a good death is in a poem called “Thanatopsis” written 300 years ago by William Cullen Bryant. The word thanatopsis is derived from two Greek words and means “a consideration of death.” The poem is much more than the title word says; it is really a consideration of death and life because those are two sides of the same coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

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

So however or whenever St. Paul died I have the feeling he “approached his grave with an unfaltering trust like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.” But the question is how in the world do we achieve that kind of peace, a peace that enables us to be obedient to the end, to truly walk the walk of faith all the way to the finish line?

To find that kind of peace one must let go of regrets, and we all have them. Frank Sinatra sang “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.” I wish I only had a few! And don’t think that just because Paul turned his life around on the road to Damascus that he lived 100% regret free from that moment on! In Romans 7 Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Sin dwells in every human being. It comes as part and parcel of our free will; and that’s why repentance and conversion are not one and done events but on-going life-long journeys.

As Pastor Chris pointed out a few weeks ago Paul doesn’t always come across as a humble, repentant sinner. He frequently boasts about himself as a paragon of virtue and challenges people to live up to his example. And given all the hardship Paul lived through he truly is an excellent model to follow, not because he was perfect but because he was human like you and me, warts and all.

To run the risk of sounding too political one could say that Paul persisted. He refused to give up in spite of bitter conflict in the early church about the legitimacy of his evangelism among the gentiles. One of the most beautiful descriptions of the kind of determination it takes to live a faithful life is in the Scripture read for us today from II Timothy. As an aside, you may know that many biblical scholars are convinced that I and II Timothy were not actually written by Paul. The language in those epistles is a bit different from Paul’s other letters and the organization of the church described in these letters is far more advanced than would have been true in the first century.

But the testimony in these verses is so personal that if Paul didn’t say it he certainly could have. They describe his life and ministry to a “T” in beautiful poetic imagery that is especially vivid just now when we are watching the remarkable achievements of Olympic athletes who have trained all their lives for these games. II Timothy offers these words as Paul’s summary of his life’s work, and I don’t know about you but I’d love to be able to have these words as a eulogy for my life:

“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

When I was a Boy Scout 100 years ago one of the merit badges I needed to become an Eagle Scout was one for Athletics. This 98 lb. weakling had to accomplish a list of athletic tasks to the satisfaction of the supervisor for that merit badge. I don’t remember the other activities on the list but I still vividly remember the task that seemed insurmountable to me. I had to run ¾ of a mile in under 6 minutes. And yes I know that Olympic athletes today run twice that fast.

But I didn’t. Running was painful for me. I got cramps and pain in my side after about a half mile and that last lap around the track was sheer agony. But I did it because I had a goal I wanted to achieve and had further motivation from a friendly competition with one of my best friends to see which of us could make Eagle Scout first.

Do you ever quit on something before you reach your goal – weight loss, mastering a musical instrument, learning a new language, mending a relationship? I’ve got a terrible record as a quitter – stopped taking piano lessons, dropped out of band in middle school because staying there got complicated with my family’s priorities. I quit on my first marriage. I have not always fought the good fight and finished the race.
Did you ever hear of anyone getting a medal for running a 99-yard race? No – the race is 100 yards and no one wins by stopping short of the finish line. Jesus needs followers who are willing to give it all they have – whatever those talents may be that are uniquely yours. God can use all of us if we trust God enough to put our whole selves in. What that means will be different at each stage of life. As we age we have different amounts of time and life experience to draw upon, different talents and skills we’ve learned over the years.

For those who are called the real question is not “Is there life after death?” But “Is there life after birth?” Are we living life to the full or just going through the motions? Have we found a purpose and passion for our lives that keeps us going when the finish line seems totally out of reach? The power of focusing on that life purpose is what enables us to keep the faith and finish the race.

What keeps you from doing the things you know you should do? Timothy says it’s our “itchy ears.” Listen to these verses again: “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (Vs. 1b-4)

When our ears get itchy we look for teachers and leaders who say what we want to hear, and we turn away from the truth. Like allergies different things make different peoples’ ears itch. For some it is wealth or power. For some the temptation of living an easy life leads us away from God. Paul’s life teaches us that being called is not for sissies. Paul suffered greatly for his faith and has the right to tell us: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry (life) fully.”

“Do the work of an evangelist!” What does that mean for all of you sitting out there? Is an evangelist only a pastor or a TV preacher? Is it someone who goes to the inner city or foreign lands to share the Gospel?

I have a friend who is spending a full month just now in Myanmar as a medical missionary. That’s her calling but it’s not mine and not most of yours. She has special skills as a nurse and great devotion to that type of ministry that enable her to go on such trips every year.

We don’t have to go anywhere special to be an evangelist because an evangelist is anyone who shares the good news of Christ with others. We can all witness to the world by living kind, loving Christ-like lives in whatever our work is or as students or in retirement wherever we are. St. Francis once said that all of us should “preach constantly and when necessary use words.” In other words how we treat others speaks louder than any eloquent preacher. Finding your calling where you can do that may mean turning yourself around. It may require making some tough sacrifices, but the Good news of Christ is that we are all loved and accepted by God and therefore do not need worldly comforts to live a meaningful life.

To be loved and cared for unconditionally is the salve that soothes itchy ears. Itchy ears can cause us to believe harmful myths – like our race is better than others, or that men deserve higher pay for doing the same job as women, or that children are to be seen and not heard! Paul fights the good fight until the day he dies to proclaim the truth that “there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Age is one of those myths we need to examine carefully before we let them into our itchy ears. They, whoever they are, say “age is just a number.” That’s true but some of us have much bigger numbers than others!! And those bigger numbers can become excuses for not living life as fully and faithfully as we should. Aches and pains can make us give up certain activities. Exercise is too hard; everything takes more time and energy than it used to. We literally can’t do things we used to take for granted. We have to schedule time for simple things like tying shoes or cutting our own toenails because that requires extra effort. My days of giving grandkids piggy back rides are over, gone with the wind like my hopes of ever breaking 80 or even 90 on the golf course.

So it’s true, we old gray mares and stallions can’t horse around the way we used to, and that’s not all bad. I don’t want to go back and make the mistakes I made as a 20 something or 30 something! I’ve probably told you this before, but not today. There’s an organization called “Sageing International” that teaches people instead of saying how old they are to say “I have 71 years of life experience.” Instead of seeing age as a burden let’s value life experience more as an asset. And for you youngsters who don’t have your AARP cards yet, find some elders you can hang around with. We may not be able to figure out our smart phones, but like the Farmers Insurance commercials say, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

Here are just a few examples of people who refused to let ageism stop them from finishing the race:
• Albert Schweitzer ministered to the sick in Africa until he was 89 – received the Nobel Peace Prize when he was 77.
• Anna Mary Robertson started painting when she was 76 saying “I am too young to sit on the porch and too old to work on the farm.” She worked until she was over 100. We know her better as Grandma Moses.
• Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice served until he was 83
• Golda Meir became the 4th prime minister of Israel at age 72. She said “Old age isn’t a sin; it’s a call to service.”
• Artist Pablo Picasso did some of his best work in his later years and kept painting almost to his death. When asked what his greatest work was, he said, “The next one!”

Paul was not a spring chicken when he achieved his goal of getting to Rome. He didn’t get there the way he would have liked arriving as a Roman prisoner. But he didn’t let that stop him from doing what he was called to do.

So no matter how many candles were on your last birthday cake find God’s purpose for you at this stage of your life. Don’t let anyone with itchy ears convince you life is just a 99-yard dash.

Preached February 11, 2018, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

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.

Commit to Adulthood: Jesus and Sexual Misconduct, Exodus 20: 14, Matthew 5: 27-30

As one celebrity or public figure after another has joined the long list of those accused of sexual misconduct I have wrestled with how to comment in a meaningful way. I’m still working on that, but I remembered a sermon I preached several years ago that seems even more relevant today than it was then. I hope it adds something to this conversation. The sermon was part of a series on the 10 Commandments, “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World,” at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH in the summer of 2014.

“You Shall Not Commit Adultery.” Some of you are thinking, “Finally, we’ve gotten to a commandment I haven’t broken.” And some of you carry a heavy burden of guilt or anger at yourself or someone else who has failed to live up to commandment number 7. I have good news and bad news for us all because this commandment is about much more for all of us than sexual fidelity.

I got an email two months ago asking me if I was available to preach one part of a series called “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.” I love to preach and my calendar was open; so I said sure. Lesson learned – before making a commitment be sure you fully understand what you are committing to do.

I didn’t bother to ask which commandment since it was several weeks away. Fast forward to mid-June when the series began. I got out my calendar and started counting the Sundays until August 3 and arrived at the conclusion that I would be preaching on number 8,”You Shall Not Steal.” When I emailed our pastor to confirm that conclusion, her reply was a classic. She said, “No, we will be skipping one Sunday in July to do a mission report. I have you scheduled for adultery on August 3.”

I assured my wife she had nothing to fear – I might be scheduled for adultery on August 3 but after preaching three times in one morning, the only attraction a bed would have for me is a nap.

Everyone chuckles when I tell them I’m preaching on Adultery, but this is serious business. As with the sixth commandment, this one is short and very unambiguous. “You shall not commit adultery.” And, as with “You shall not murder,” Jesus ups the ante in the Sermon on the Mount with one of those things we just wish he hadn’t said when he gets to adultery.

Matthew 5:27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And then it gets worse —
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Wow! If we enforced that one literally we’d have a world full of blind folks with no hands!

A young boy in Sunday school was asked to recite the 10 commandments. When he got to number 7, he said, “Thou shall not commit adulthood.” Part of the problem with obedience or lack thereof when it comes to the commandments is a refusal to commit adulthood. We are all a bit like Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up.
St. Paul’s beautiful words about love in I Corinthians 13 are by far the most quoted scripture at weddings, and that chapter includes the line, “When I became an adult I put away childish things.” Faithful maturity means committing adulthood, but that commitment has to be renewed on a daily or sometimes hourly basis, as Paul himself points out in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Anybody relate to that if you’ve ever resolved to go on a diet or start an exercise program?

The two scriptures we read today make it sound so simple. Just don’t do it, and Jesus says the way to not do it is to not even think about it. Would Jesus say that if he lived in our wireless world? We’ve heard a lot recently about a “sexualized culture” in the OSU marching band. Big surprise! We live in a hyper-sexualized culture that uses sex to sell everything from Pontiacs to popsicles. Early Christian monks hid in monasteries to avoid worldly and sexual temptation, but there is nowhere to hide from the realities of human sexuality in a wireless world.
And the cast of characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, where the commandments reside, don’t help much. Sister Joan Chittister in her book, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, starts her discussion of adultery this way. “The problem with this commandment is that no one in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to keep it.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Jacob married both Leah and her sister Rachel, David knocked off one of his generals, Uriah, to try and cover up his affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. When Abram and Sarai were too impatient to wait on God’s promised son, they took matters into their own hands and Abram took Sarai’s servant Hagar, and she became the mother of his first son.

Yes, that’s ancient history, but to understand why we must take this commandment seriously today we have to make some sense of this seemingly blatant contradiction between what the scriptures say and the behavior of our spiritual ancestors. To oversimplify, at least part of the answer is that the biblical narrative is set in a sexist, patriarchal world where women were property. Having lots of wives and children were signs of prosperity and a future for society. There were no DNA tests to determine paternity and the lineage of one’s offspring determined inheritance; so the sexual faithfulness of a woman was critical to the whole socio-economic structure of the society. This commandment for Moses and Solomon was not about adultery as we know it but about respecting the property of others.

Marriage in biblical times was not based on ‘love’ as we think of it. The great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” makes that point in a humorous but very profound way. As Tevye’s and Golde’s daughters repeatedly challenge the sexist ways of their culture, loveable old Tevye begins to evaluate those traditions as well. In one memorable scene he surprises his wife of 25 years with this question: “Golde, do you love me?” And her response is classic. She says, “Do I what?”

So how do we understand and apply this commandment against adultery in our very different wireless world? The key is that it is all about commitment. Even though marriage in Jacob and Leah and Rachel’s day was totally different than ours, the common denominator is commitment to a set of responsibilities and obligations to each other which have to be taken seriously and kept to insure family and cultural stability.

An anonymous author has defined commitment this way: “Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Commitment is especially important in our transient world that moves at warp speed. We are a people deeply in need of stability. Extended families are over-extended or non-existent. When I grew up all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins lived within a 20 mile radius. My mother didn’t need a cell phone to keep track of me. If I got in trouble she heard about it from her mom or one of her sisters before I got home!

Not so today when families are spread out all over the country. The village it takes to raise kids is gone. The support system for caring for the elderly at a time when the number of people in their 80’s and 90’s is growing exponentially is history, and the pressure all that puts on the nuclear family can cause a nuclear meltdown.
Those we love need the assurance that we take our commitments to them very seriously no matter what happens. Not because God says so or someone else said so. We have to be faithful to our commitments because we said so.

Marriage is a prime example of commitment because the promises we make are so huge. The words are so familiar they flow off the tongues of starry-eyed brides and grooms too easily. To love another person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness in health, till death do us part. This is not a 5 year or 50000 mile guarantee. You don’t become a free agent when the contract expires. It’s for keeps.

I saw these words spray painted on a freeway overpass a few years ago: “John loves so and so forever.” I don’t know the name of the beloved because it had been painted over. Apparently “forever” turned out to be longer than John expected. And forever has gotten longer. When the average life expectancy was 40 or 50 till death do us part was a lot shorter than it is today. Caring for someone in sickness and health requires a whole lot more commitment when a spouse suffering from dementia no longer knows your name or is dying by inches from ALS or cancer.

“Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Even on days when you don’t like each other very much. Love is not a feeling you fall into and out of. Love is a choice, a commitment. Is it humanly possible to love like that always? No. That kind of unconditional love is from God and we are merely promising to imitate it. God doesn’t say “I will love you if you do this or don’t do that. God says I love you period.” That’s commitment, and it’s what faithfulness in marriage or any relationship requires.

So what happens when we fail to live up to that high standard? When we break our promises and commitments or are even tempted to? Do we pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands? Or go on a long guilt trip to nowhere?
No, there’s another adultery story in chapter 8 of John’s gospel that shows us a better way.

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Have you ever wondered what Jesus wrote on the ground during that confrontation? No one knows of course. No one had a cell phone to take a picture of it. But from what Jesus has said to me on the numerous occasions when I’ve flunked the commitment test, I think he simply wrote one word, and that word is “Grace.” Grace for the woman. Grace for her self-righteous accusers, And Amazing Grace for you and me if we admit our sin and recommit to God’s way of faithful love.