Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Foolishness of Faith

John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9


In the past three months we have witnessed a miracle. On Christmas Eve Sam and Kelley’s son was rushed to UVA with a massive brain injury. This church immediately entered a season of prayer. We fervently prayed, “Let Brian survive 72 hours.” Then, as hours turned to days and days to weeks our prayers changed. The complications of such an immense injury began to weigh heavy on everyone’s heart. I witnessed a mother who refused to imagine a complete recovery was not possible. I witnessed a father who wondered aloud why God allowed this to happen. I witnessed a wife trying to understand the present in light of the future. I witnessed a church turning to God but not knowing what to pray. I witnessed myself praying to God for guidance in my choice of words as I sat with two dear friends who needed me to be more than a friend.

And then a miracle began to evolve. Suddenly we witnessed what few of us imagined possible. Suddenly our role and our prayers became clearer. Suddenly, as one, we gave thanks and celebrated the power of our faithful God.

Yet, in that same trauma ward, there were other parents, other friends, other people of faith praying for a miracle that would never be realized. Would they give thanks and celebrate the faithfulness of God?

What is faith? It is certainly something easily turned into a cliché. Faith can give us strength in times of weakness and yet make us weak when we exhibit too much strength. Faith is the belief in something beyond ourselves yet when we think we have figured out God, we discover we weren’t talking with God at all.

For me, faith is trusting in a mystery I will never completely understand. This mystery speaks in parables and difficult truths which too often offer more questions than answers. I believe in God. I place my faith in God. But sometimes I find myself whining at God when God chooses to contradict my insights.

For many, faith begins with a verse we learned as children. “For God so loved the world, God gave his only son.” Karl Barth believed John 3:16 to be the gospel wrapped up in one verse. This morning our text contains the verse that precedes this universally known statement of faith. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

I don’t venture into the Book of Numbers often. I love Genesis and Exodus. Then I skim Leviticus and Numbers so that I might give Deuteronomy the attention it deserves. This morning, thanks to the writer of the Gospel of John, our full attention needs to be focused on an odd yet revealing story tucked deep in the book of Numbers.

It begins with the children of Israel in full whine mode. There is nothing odd about this. One could suggest the children of Israel whined throughout the entire Old Testament. Perhaps that is why they are called the children rather than the nation of Israel. The complaint this time concerned the route taken to reach the Promised Land. It’s not like they had road maps or a GPS. They knew they were lost. They knew they were running out of food and water. The results was they were quickly losing faith with Yahweh.

Walter Brueggeman, my favorite Old Testament scholar, likes to say, “You don’t mess with Yahweh.  Yahweh might be slow to anger, but when God’s patience is tested, hide the women and the children.”

Poisonous snakes suddenly appeared.  Ever encounter a snake up close and personal. We do crazy things when a snake crosses our path. I was fishing with Amelia McCulley a couple of years ago when she spotted a snake swimming in her direction. She was in a kayak. All she had to do was slap the water with her paddle. Instead she threw her brand new fancy fishing rod at the snake. Both the snake and Amelia escaped without injury. The fishing pole still remains on the bottom of the Shenandoah River.

The children of Israel were not so fortunate. People were bitten and died. They cried to Moses, “We have sinned against the Lord. Pray to Yahweh to take the snakes away.”

God said to Moses, “Make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When the people look upon it they will be healed.”

What a strange story. Why would the writer of John use this illustration to announce the death of Jesus? This raises so many questions about the role of God and role of humanity in the death of Jesus. We talked about this a couple weeks ago when I preached on the foolishness of the cross. This morning I want us to focus on the foolishness of faith. Moses said to the children of Israel, “Look at the snake and believe God will heal you.” Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Look at the cross, and know God will heal you.” 

There is nothing logical about this. One of my favorite comedians was George Carlin. He was a brilliant guy that made a career on exposing what he believed to be hypocrisy.  He included God on that list. Carlin claimed, “We not only believe in some invisible guy up in the sky, we give money to him because if we don’t he promises we will burn in hell. And, oh yea, and then we claim God loves us.”

Carlen and a host of others have laid out arguments debunking God that are irrefutable to the logical mind. Yet faith never claimed to be rational. Praying before a bronze snake or the cross makes no sense whatsoever in the light of day. But that is not where our lives are always lived.

My grandmother Andrews was a woman of great faith. She came to visit Deb and me when we lived in Wilmington. After Martina would go down for her nap we would sit on the porch and talk. I would share some of my burdens of being a husband, father, and minister. She would say to me, “Andy, you’ve got to lay that burden on the cross where you can look at it. Burdens either kill us or make us stronger. You put it on the cross. You don’t have to bear it by yourself.”

George Carlin would scoff at such nonsense. Sometimes I do too, until life gets serious, or my burden becomes too heavy, or I wonder if there is any hope of discovering the dawn. 

Then I remember my Grandmother’s words.

Sometimes we just mess up. The snakes of life are swirling at our feet and what happens next might not be so pretty. Place it on the cross. Give your failure a good honest look. God doesn’t promise to solve the problem, but confession goes a lot further than excuses.

Sometimes we are uncontrollably angry with someone. We have justified our next step regardless of the chaos it might cause. Before you act, place that anger on the cross and pray there might be another option.  Reconciliation before vindication will not give you instant gratification. But it might save a relationship.

Sometimes tragedy has fallen upon us. We have no answers and we are losing hope. Place that burden on the cross. The end results might still be heartbreaking but even should we walk through the valley of death, we know God’s presence and God’s community will be walking with us.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews wrote, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” That is not quite good enough for a lot of folks. But it was good enough for my grandmother. It’s been good enough for Kelly and Sam. And it might be sufficient for anyone one brave enough, humble enough, or even foolish enough to lift up a burden, a sin, a fear, or even a nightmare, and place it on the cross.

It takes more than reason and common sense to trust in God’s grace. It takes believing in a covenant relationship older than life itself. It takes believing in the idea that God does love the world. It sometimes takes choosing the faith of your 85 year old grandmother over the logic of George Carlin.  To many folks this seems so foolish. But then if faith always made sense, it wouldn’t be called faith.

To God be the glory.                           Amen.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Foolishness of Confession

Psalm 51:1-12


        Many of you have had the pleasure of meeting my granddaughter Siddalee. She just turned four and believes that she, not Diana Prince, is really Wonder Woman. This has resulted in her two older brothers being a bit afraid of her. A couple of weeks ago she and Austin were playing when an altercation broke out. The results were Austin lying on the floor and Siddalee triumphantly looked down upon him. I called Siddalee over and asked her if she had pushed Austin. She looked at me and proudly announced she had. Trying to regain control of the situation I told her she needed to tell Austin she was sorry. She turned, walked over to her brother and sarcastically said, “Sorry”. Unsatisfied with her response I asked, “Did you mean what you said?”  She glared a hole through me and responded, “You just asked me to say it. You didn’t say I had to mean it.”

        I once heard that confession is good for the soul. In today’s atmosphere of division and tension, we will never know because lately confession seems to be considered a sign of weakness. Siddalee is not a product of imperfect parenting. She is the product of an imperfect time where we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions which are never effectively examined because no one is willing to admit they might be wrong. We have entered an era where prose has replaced poetry. Anyone can utter a sentence. Even the illiterate can paste together words that reflect anger and hate. But who stops to write a poem. Who pauses to reflect on the story that might be behind the verse? Who soulfully examines their own flaws before lashing out at another? Who is bold enough to painfully yet honestly pray, “Have mercy on me.”

        Three words essential to any all confessional prayer remain, “I have sinned.” Yet as my granddaughter has already learned, the truthful utterance of those words seems blasphemous. Why should I be the first to repent? Why should I be the one always waving an olive branch? Did we not learn anything from Neville Chamberlain? The closest we come to admitting guilt is, “I may be wrong, but.” Of course anytime the word “but” is spoken or written it eliminates any words that preceded it.

        “Purge me and I shall be clean. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” The poem foolishly requests, “Change me; I am the problem.” In this day and age, who makes that kind of statement? I suspect when we pray, our most consistent request is, “Change my situation. Help my neighbor to understand the sinfulness of his ways. Help my sister to see how absurd she is being. Help the guy I just heard on the TV understand how stupid he is.” Instead the poet cries out, “Change me. Don’t just forgive me, change me. Keep me from making the same mistake. Make my mind open to Godly thoughts. Help me to understand my advisory. I don’t need agree with him. I don’t even need to like her. But I do need to try to understand them.”

        Rick Winters came by my office this week and dropped off a book he had mentioned it at our last Pub Theology meeting. I expressed an interest in reading it. The subtitle is, How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right. Written by Ken Stern, a former CEO of National Public Radio, it is the story of a professing liberal who decided to live among gun owners, evangelicals, climate change skeptics and folks who prefer Fox News. After his year of hearing about their lives, Stern discovered how much he had in common with those folks he once considered deplorable.  Through those conversations Stern discovered true confession only comes after the epiphany that no one, including himself, was perfect. 

This is a frightening disclosure if you happen to be Wonder Woman ……. or the King of Israel. One morning as spring ascended upon the land, an aging King watched as his army marched to war. This one time slayer of giants now had trouble getting out of bed. Only David’s imagination remained young.

        His eyes and desire shifted from war to a more personal conquest. Below he spied the wife of Uriah, one of his most trusted soldiers. David was king. What belonged to Uriah also belonged to him. The woman was summoned and told the king desired her. Was Bathsheba raped? Was she complicit? Was she ambitious? Those questions only expose our ignorance. David held the power of life and death over Bathsheba. He was the king and she was his responsibility. David initiated the act and was accountable for his action.

        Isn’t amazing how one selfish act complicates our lives. David committed adultery. David saw it as a small discretion protected by the court’s silence. He never imagined Bathsheba would become pregnant.  How does one hide the visible proof of the king’s appetite? The plot thickens as Uriah was summoned to come home. David assumed after weeks in the field his only desire would be to sleep with his wife. But the loyal soldier never left the side of his king. David sent Uriah back to the front line with a message for General Joab. “Put his young man in the thick of the fighting. He is expendable.” By sunset, Uriah died valiantly defending the king who had betrayed him.

        David committed adultery, deceit and murder. Only a king could survive such a turn of events. His loyal subjects might whisper but who would dare raise a finger against their king.

        Enter the prophet.  Nathan, a trusted friend, requested an audience with his king.  “Sire, I bring to you a tale of woe that I believe is worthy of your attention. Outside the city resides a small farmer barely able to make it from year to year. He owns one lamb, more a family pet than livestock. Next to the farmer is a huge ranch stocked with more sheep than the eye can count. The rancher invited a friend to come for lunch. Instead of slaughtering one of own his flock, the rancher took the farmer’s lamb.

        David was outraged. He grew up on a small farm. He spent his childhood protecting his father’s livestock from every predator imagined. David screamed at Nathan, “Bring me the man who committed this crime!”

        Nathan responded, “Sire, it was you.”

        What do we do when we are caught red-handed? Sometimes we deny. Sometimes we make excuses. Sometimes we offer an insecure apology. Each of these actions indicates it is only about our feelings, our desires, our reputation, our misguided understanding of self.

        What does David do?

He goes searching for his soul.

        There are a thousand words David could have spoken but he settled on these. Have mercy on me according to your mercy. Cleanse me from my sin. Against you I have sinned. You desire truth. You desire a clean spirit. Restore me to the joy of your salvation. There is no sacrifice to cover my transgression except a broken and contrite heart.

        In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the old king loses his crown, his kingdom, and even his vision, but in the end the villainy of the bad sisters is revealed and the purity of the good sister shines forth. But too much malice has already been set in place. The good, the bad, the weak, the strong, all die leaving no one but Edgar to place his epitaph on the tragedy.

                The weight of this sad time we must obey.

                Speak what you feel, not what we ought to say.

        What separates the tragedy of Lear from the resurrection of David? Confession! The cast of King Lear followed their deceit to the grave. They spoke only what folks expected to hear. David reached into his soul and confessed his sinfulness.  David remembered who he had once been and who he could once again become.

        The Apostle Paul delights in reminding us we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I wish Paul had spent more time reminding us that 99% of the time we are pretty decent people. Unfortunately, when we mess up, instead of searching our soul, we search for an excuse. Then our blunder labels how others see us. Once this happens, our sin, not our godliness, consigns us to a particular tribe and the concept of neighbor seems to become hopelessly lost.

        Perhaps the restoration of one’s community, or even one’s country, begins with a contrite heart.

Perhaps as we confess, others might remember who we were and what we are capable of becoming.

Perhaps, if only for the sake of our grandchildren, we might do the same with those who have wounded us.

To God be the Glory.                              Amen.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Foolishness of the Cross

I Cor. 1:18-25


        Paul hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “The Cross is foolishness to Gentiles.” Truth is in recent years the cross has become an awkward symbol that no longer easily hangs around our necks. To the casual observer, how odd our faith must look, not only from the outside looking in but from the inside looking in. To the outside observer, Christians insist weakness is used to affirm the power of God. From our perspective, there is the paradox of redemptive suffering.

        The theological question at the center of this discussion asks how humanity becomes reconciled to God. The classical answer declared, “Reconciliation is impossible without an action by God.” Paul preached this Godly action was the death and resurrection of Jesus. The cross stood as the representation of this Godly act. In other words, death stands between us and God and only God is capable of erasing that obstacle.   This  belief has been reinforced for 2,000 years. The 20th century theologian Richard Niebuhr stated, “The cross does not deny the reality of the death. It reinforces it. What the cross does is deny death’s finality.”

        Many of us grew up singing, “The Old Rugged Cross”. Last Sunday the choir concluded the service by singing the first verse of, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”. And herein lies the problem. Those songs represent an ancient theology some folks find difficult to accept. Is suffering ever redemptive? Did God preplan the death of Jesus? For centuries folks were told their suffering would be rewarded in heaven. But today we question if the affliction of the innocent or the suffering of the powerless can ever be justified. For 2,000 years men in position of power determined what was theologically orthodox. But the tide has turned, giving us an opportunity to reevaluate the significance of the cross.

        Is suffering redemptive or is it foolish to consider such a thought? We certainly hold high our martyrs as example of one laying down his or her life for another. But many folks suffering in silence continue to be told by the church that their pain will eventually be rewarded. Is that redemptive or propaganda to protect the status quo?

        I think we must go back to the beginning and reconsider the question, “Why did Jesus die?” We can argue from a contextual perspective that Jesus upset the religious authorities and it was killed to retain social order. If there had been no resurrection, this explanation would have been satisfactory. Jesus would be celebrated as another prophet who stood against the powerful and lost his life.

        But the very existence of the Christian Church is based on the Easter event. Now our explanation of the death of Jesus becomes theological as well as contextual. Without the resurrection, there is no religious insurrection within the Jewish community. Without this insurrection, there is no Pentecost. Without Pentecost, there is no Saul. Without Saul, there is no Paul. Without Paul, there is no theological explanation of the resurrection. I realize that is simplistically overstated but when the explanation becomes theological, God is invited into the conversation.

        So the second question becomes, “What is the role of God in the death of Jesus?” Historically we know Jesus was crucified. His death was recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus. We know the early church existed. What we can’t prove is God’s intention. To be more specific, did God plan the death of Jesus or did God react to the death of Jesus?

        That is a question never raised in the first 1600 years of the churches existence. But then we became “enlightened” and entered the age of reason. The idea of God was not eliminated from human thought but the concept of God was understood more in terms of creation than salvation. While Christianity did not disappear it certainly began to wane. To a large extent human reason replaced faith. Liberty and freedom stood over against monarchies who claimed Divine Right had legitimized their power. Washington, Adams, and especially Jefferson considered themselves to be more humanist than Episcopalian. But then Napoleon, and Kaiser Wilhelm and finally the rise of Hitler and a second world war caused enlightened minds to question if the human spirit could really save itself. Once again the idea of human sin was introduced folks like Dorothy Sayer announced, “God was never longer content to call creation good from afar.” The cross regained its place at the forefront of any conversation concerning the intention of God.

        In the midst of the horrific human suffering of the 20th century, evangelicals such as Billy Graham took the ancient road preaching that God’s intention had always been to save us through the death of Jesus. Graham encouraged his flock to understand suffering led to heavenly rewards and the cross symbolized this. Other theologians claimed God reacted to death of Jesus and choose to be   immersed in humanities deepest afflictions. They condemned the cross as an unnecessary symbol which exemplified bad theology.   And yet there it hangs. Do we take it down? To leave it acknowledges that despite our wisdom and desire to be Godly people we still need to wrestle with the concept of sin. It is Hard to admit that we might not be perfect. It is even harder to admit that we might be sinners in need of God’s grace. Often we cringe at ancient words depicting such a horrific sight. But to dismiss the cross as foolishness seems to risk losing sight of the presence and love of God.

        Martin Luther King, a man who understood redemptive suffering preached, When I look at the cross I am reminded of the goodness of God and the ignorance of humanity. The cross is Christ at his best. But it is also is humanity at its worst. We must continue to see the cross as a magnificent symbol of love conquering hate. Yet in the midst of our glowing affirmation let us not forget Jesus was nailed to the cross because of human blindness.

        Psalms 27 ends, I believe that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.

        The Psalmist does not say I KNOW I shall see goodness of God. This is not some blind optimist waiting for Nirvana. This poet is searching for something to hold onto in the midst of his desperate situation. He chooses to cling to his faith by singing that his God is an agent of transformation.

        When I look at the cross I am reminded that no predator in all of creation is more dangerous than the human species. This caused me to I shut my eyes and tremble. Then I take courage that beyond the collective blindness of all humankind is the love of God.

Can I prove this?


But do I believe it?

With all my foolish heart.


To God be the glory.   Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Foolishness of a Promise

Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:34-38


        Two children were getting ready to go home. One had experienced a marvelous day, the other not so much.

“We should do this again tomorrow?”

“Sounds good to me.”


The second child crosses his fingers behind his back and responds, “I promise.”

As we grow older we find multiple ways to cross our fingers.

“I promise I will call the first chance I get.”

“We should do lunch soon.”

“If I can find a way, it will happen.”

Promises are a lot easier to make than to keep. This is what makes our Old Testament text so remarkable.

Abraham is 99 years old. Yahweh comes to him and says, “I make a promise that your grandchildren and great grandchildren shall be numerous.”

Did I mention that Abraham was 99? Did I mention that Sarah was not much younger? Did I mention Abraham and Sarah had no children? What kind of foolishness is this? Did I mention the fundamental thrust of the Old Testament is the establishment of a relationship between God and Israel? Did I mention that relationship was based on a promise?

I was at a workshop this week where William Willimon boldly declared God chooses us, we don’t choose God. When he first made that statement I was a bit put off. Of course I chose God. No one in their right mind would be a minister without choosing God. But then Willimon clarified his statement. Godly choice is based on a promise, a covenant, that neither party would desert the other.

That makes a whole lot of difference. A quick reading of Genesis reveals that Isaac, then Jacob and Esau, and then the 12 boys who claim Jacob were the genesis of a new nation. That is not even counting Jacob’s girls or any of the kids sired by Esau. God kept God’s promise. So how well did those children do in remembering that Yahweh was their God? According to the next 38 books of the Old Testament, they didn’t do so well.

Well I am thinking to myself, Will Willimon might be one of the top ten preachers in America, he might be a pretty smart cookie, he might have even found himself on my bookshelf but the Bible doesn’t stop with Malachi. What about the gospels? What about Jesus? Doesn’t the scoreboard start all over again?

I wanted to raise my hand and challenge this dean of all things Methodist but one of the other folks beat me to it. I am so glad I remained silent. Willimon took the question, smiled, and paraphrased Mark 8:34. “If you want to keep my promise, deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me.”

When I was a theological child, bent on charging windmills to hell and back for a heavenly cause, I loved that passage. “Jesus, my Jesus, your wish is my command.” “Jesus, my Jesus, I will follow you anywhere.” “Jesus, my Jesus, I will lead the way.”

Then I had children. I bought a house. I became respectable. Oh, I gave Jesus credit for every single one of those blessings. But I was no longer ready to deny myself.  As for cross bearing, I engaged in theological discussions which questioned if the cross and suffering adequately described God’s redemptive love. 

Culture can do that to you. Being happy, being comfortable, being friendly, being respected become goals worth obtaining. And those aren’t just personal goals. It is what we want our church to be.  You ask most folks what they are looking for in a church and they will say, “I want to find a congregation that is friendly. I want to find a church that is stress free. I want to find a pastor that preaches sermons that make me feel good.”  That sounds wonderful, but it has little to do with denying ourselves for Jesus.

Let me entertain you with a couple of questions about our Lord and Savior.

What was Jesus’ home address? He slept in the hills, he slept on a boat, he occasionally invited himself to stay overnight with friends but for the life of me I can’t find where it says Jesus had a mortgage.

What kind of paying job did Jesus have? Luke suggests that he worked for his father before his baptism. But once his ministry began, I can’t find any evidence to suggest Jesus made a penny. No wonder he ate with the tax collectors, sinners, and even the Pharisees. He probably hadn’t had a good meal in a month.

What was his message to the good people of Israel? That’s easy. He talked of love. He talked of community. He talked about heaven. He talked about all those things that we find so appealing.

So why did they kill Jesus? I asked that question to some of peers recently. It was amazing the response I received. One person,, whose name wasn’t Bill Clinton asked, “How do you define ‘they’?” Before I could answer he continued. “Is ‘they’ the Romans? Is ‘they’ the Jews? Is ‘they’ us. Don’t we kill Jesus every time we sin?”

A second of my clergy peer continued. “Your question is too simplistic. We must explore the theological reasons as to why the suffering of Jesus was necessary. Don’t you believe in the doctrine of Atonement? Don’t you believe Jesus had to be killed and resurrected in order that you might be saved?”

The rest of the group nodded their heads as if to acknowledge one has to be careful not to be too literal when treading on theological cornerstones.  So I approached the question a different way. I asked, “In the Gospel of Mark it appears to me Jesus was killed because he questioned the actions of the religious leaders.  What were they doing that made Jesus so mad?”

The person who called my initial question a bit too simplistic once again entered the conversation. “The priest didn’t want Jesus to overturn the applecart.  They had a system in place that worked. They would conduct worship, keep the holy days, offer prayers when needed, and the people would respond with their offerings.”

I should have kept quiet but I couldn’t help myself. I responded, “Kind of like we do today.”   (stop)

How often have you heard someone say, “The church is the place I go to escape the world.”

How many times have you witnessed a preacher who was loved by his congregation when he was in the pulpit but became conspicuously absent when a family was in the midst of a personal crisis?

How many times have you heard folks argue, “No one knows the truth, we all have differing opinions.” Yet how many times have we read where Jesus truthfully said, “Take care of the stranger, she is a child of God.” Or, “If you hurt one of my little ones, place a millstone around your own neck and jump into the lake.” Or, “You hypocrites, you preach for law and order but have forgotten to execute justice and mercy.” Or, “You snakes, you build your alters with the tithes of the poor and the blind and then call them accursed.” How many times did Jesus say, “I am the truth!”

Is it any wonder they killed Jesus? He spoke to a people who had manufactured a lie and called it holy. I wonder what words Jesus would utter to us should he grace our doorsteps this morning. Jesus might ask, “Why are children rather than ministers leading conversations concerning violence?” Or, “Why are the victims rather than the Bishops exposing sexual predators?”  Or, “Why do strangers and aliens have to hide in the shadows when my church is a sanctuary?”

Can you imagine Jesus asking us to take up the cross? And if we said yes, how long would it be before we broke our promise? You see, God through Christ contradicts so many of our most basic beliefs. The truth is Jesus’ mercy is given to sinners, not reserved for the righteous. Jesus’ strength is exposed in weakness, not displayed in power. Jesus’ wisdom is veiled in parable and paradox, not in self-help axioms. Jesus’ life is disclosed in death. God has never conformed to human desires. God is found most often in uncertainty, danger and suffering, which is precisely where most us least desire to be. With these expectations, one would have to be crazy to choose God.

But God continues to choose us. Last Sunday, in the second service, it came time for the joys and concerns. Now in first service joys and concerns regularly include the latest international crisis that has made it to the Sunday edition of National Public Radio causing joys and concerns to rival the sermon in length. In the second service, joys and concerns rarely lasts longer than the Doxology. So last Sunday in second service imagine my surprise when Betty Marker stood to speak. Betty is my neighbor. She is well read, well-mannered, and well respected. Betty used to teach school. In two sentences, she quietly displayed her dismay over the children killed at Stoneman Douglas High School. Then she intentionally used the word “gun”. There was a gasp or two. Someone clapped their hands. Then there was that uncomfortable silence that happens when we wonder if maybe Jesus just spoke.

 My friends, Jesus never speaks conventional wisdom. Jesus never seems to say what we want to hear. Often the words of Jesus are painful to our ears, yet those words bring comfort to the stranger, the outcast, or the neighbor.

So keep your ears open. Just the fact that you are here qualifies you to be chosen to encounter God’s whisper. Choosing to share those dangerous words with others is what the writer of Genesis would call Promise Keeping.

        To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Foolishness of Treading Water

Genesis 9:8-17


        In ancient times nothing was feared more than a flood. It was believed that the anger of the gods manifested in swirling waters that cascaded through the land leaving nothing but a corridor of death and destruction.

        We forget how dangerous a flood can be. Without a care or a helmet, folks who don’t know one end of a kayak from the other launch their craft into gentle waters without realizing the dangers that might be lurking downstream.

        Ever ridden down a road in West Texas? At the bottom of many a hill is a pole with feet markers on it. West Texas is drier than a 25 minute sermon until it rains. Instantly, parched gulches become raging rivers. The poles warn drivers how deep the water is. There is nothing more sobering than driving on a dry pavement, starting down a hill thinking a little water has crossed the road and spying the pole which reveals the water is actually six feet deep. Twenty minutes later the water is gone and the desert has returned. Water, when released, can be a deadly.

        Genesis 6:5-8: God saw the wickedness of humankind was great and evil was continually in their hearts. God was grieved and regretted spoiling the earth with humans. God said to the angels, “I am sorry I placed humans among the animals and birds. I will wipe them out.” Only Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.

        Everyone knows the Noah story. A very thin reading depicts a wrathful God looking down upon the new creation and God is displeased. Rather than work to bring harmony among a people who didn’t think they were all that bad, God just planned to destroy them.

        A thicker reading portrays God as seeing the beauty of creation spoiled by a reckless and selfish species that could care less that pollution was poisoning the rivers and smog was shrinking the polar caps. In order to protect the birds and animals and vegetation, God exterminated the two legged vermin who were causing the crisis.

        Of course we know humanity was not completely destroyed and therein lies the complexity and I believe the beauty of this mythological story. After the water recedes, after the animals are released, God established a covenant not only with Noah but with the descendents of every living creature that came off the ark. The promise was this. “I will put a rainbow in the clouds, and when I become angry I will look at my sign and remember my pledge to never again destroy creation with water.”

        Immediately fly by night Biblical scholars and TV evangelist decided that God, in all HIS wrath, was planning an even more elaborate destruction. They have convinced everyone who foolishly listens that someday God will rain fire down upon the earth destroying good and evil alike. And we better be prepared because that day could be today.

Could it be we have missed the entire point of this marvelous story? Before it was discovered that perhaps he was not a very nice man, Bill Cosby was a pretty funny comedian. Remember his routine on Noah. It went something like this.

God speaks, NOAH!

Who is that?






        Right.  What’s a cubit?


        Right……… Am I on Candid Camera?


Just let it rain for 40 days and the sewers will back up.


        You expect me to drop everything I’m doing, build a boat, collect animals and wait for it to rain just because some voice out of nowhere commands it ?



        A number of years ago I took a youth group to Idaho. One afternoon we found ourselves floating down the Salmon River. It was a hot day so I slipped over the side of our raft and floated down the river. As the current picked up the boat pulled ahead of me. I to started to swim toward the raft when the guide hollered, “Roll over on your back, point your feet down river and hold on.” I doubt what I went through was more than a class one rapids but it was enough to get my attention. A little bruised and very embarrassed I pulled myself back into the boat as soon as we managed to find calm waters.

        Life is kind of like that. Sometimes we choose to jump out of the boat and tread water for a while. We just need to get away from a particular situation. Maybe it was something as simple as a misunderstood word. Maybe we hit a nerve that we didn’t realize was so sensitive.  Maybe our feelings were hurt and we weren’t quite ready for an apology. Instead of staying in the boat and figuring things out, we jump in the water and start paddling. Sometimes that works. But often the current picks up and a relationship heads toward the rocks.

        In the Noah story the lead character was told to get in the boat. We understand that. But at the end of the ride God took Noah, and the animals, and said, “You have got to take care of each other. You cannot do this alone. I promise that I will not lose faith in you. But in return I ask you not to lose faith in each other.

I know Lent is supposed to be a time of quiet reflection. But Lent is also a time when we ponder how our faith is a combination of trust in God and trust in each other. This week you were wonderful to suggest I take a few days to recover from Dad’s death. But I don’t want to be out there treading water alone. Rockfish is my boat and you are my community. I will heal much quicker if right now I know you are steering me to calmer waters.         Amen.