Sunday, March 29, 2015

Singing through Death

Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11


        Preaching can be a unique tool when in the hands of a well versed, charismatic individual.  But singing is the lifeblood of this congregation.        Most of you have forgotten the sermon before lunch, but when either choir sings, this sanctuary becomes a holy place. Words might impart wisdom but songs evoke sacred memories.

        I couldn’t have been more than seven when I first remember my father singing, “It’s quarter of three. There’s no one in the place except you and me. So set ’em up Joe, I got a little story you ought to know.  Give me one for my baby and one more for the road.” My father doesn’t drink, my father didn’t hang out in bars and my father has been faithfully married to my mother for over 65 years. What my father has is an occasional angst that is only soothed by hearing the blues. I guess he figured while he couldn’t change my genetic blueprint, he could place within my deepest memory a melody to appease the pain.

        Certain songs allow the incomprehensible to be considered. In this season of the holy and the unimaginable, nothing I can say from the pulpit will be adequate. How can murder be justified? How is resurrection possible? The questions are too difficult. That’s why we sing. Songs inspire us. Songs take us where the spoken word can only suggest. Above all else, songs give congregations the courage to lift their voices together and make a joyful noise.

Arlo Guthrie, in his 18 minute tribute to a restaurants and littering, claims if one person sings a song nobody cares. If two people sing, folks think their crazy. If three people join in it’s downright scandalous. But if 50 people sing in four part harmony, it becomes a movement.

        Jesus told stories, Jesus preached sermons, Jesus gave inspirational talks, and even did a few tricks on the side but his disciples weren’t ready to go to Jerusalem until they learned a simple little tune. “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

        That ragtag boy band was weirder than anything that ever emerged from Guthrie’s fertile mind. Think about it. Twelve guys, no sopranos, just a bunch of basses and John, who of course sang tenor. It was a group of fishermen and farmers, a tax collector and a rebel. For three years most of them never said anything. Then all of the sudden they were screaming from the top of their lungs, “Hosanna.” They grabbed anyone and everyone they met along the road and said, “Come on, you can sing with us. Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Arlo was right. When Jesus sang by himself, nobody that mattered gave him the time of day. But when fifty, then a hundred, then a thousand joined in, they became a movement.

 Their rebellious tune agitated Chief Priest Caiaphas. The people were definitely not singing his song. Caiaphas gathered some other leaders and plotted the demise of the one who challenged their authority. That’s when Jesus broke up the band and went solo. But his song of hope had already been etched in the memory banks of his disciples.

Unfortunately, it was more than a week before those memories kicked back into gear. In Psalm 137, the psalmist is asked to sing one of the songs of Zion. He responds, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The moment Jesus dismounted from his colt, he entered a land void of song. In the coming days he would be betrayed, rejected, denied, reviled and deserted. Not one single disciple stood up for him. No convert attempted to plead his case. Jesus was alone, in a foreign land.

Perhaps Holy Week is best understood through the voice of someone who has been whipped and dehumanized. Perhaps Holy Week is best visualized by someone who has witnessed the execution of one who is innocent. Perhaps Holy Week is best sung by the voice of an American slave.

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

They crucified my Lord, and he never said a mumbl’n word.

Jesus walked this lonesome valley.


        Holy Week can be absurd to someone who has never suffered. Holy Week is offensive to the logical mind. Rational folks question the very meaning of Holy Week. Skeptics claim we have celebrated the Good Friday and Easter story for so long we seldom give it a second thought. Is it logical to sacrifice a son? Is it realistic to believe the sins of humanity can be placed on the shoulders of one man? The world has witnessed the martyrdom of many innocent people. But who else has been brazen enough to suggest Godly significance be associated with their death?

Leave it to the Apostle Paul to make such a radical leap from common sense. All of Paul’s letters were composed before the Gospels were written.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were developed in the shadow of Paul’s Christology. In the book of Romans, Paul composed a treatise which still informs our understanding of Jesus as both Son of God and Son of Man. For centuries, commentary after commentary has wrestled with the complexities of this intricate examination of the one we call Lord. But when writing his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul borrowed a beautiful love song from the hymnbook of the early church. Each Sabbath, folks would gather. At the appropriate time the worshipers would sing these words to describe their savior. “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Christ humbled himself, becoming obedient to death. God exalted him that at the name Jesus ever knee should bow.”

Early Christians understood slavery because the majority of the members of the early church were either women or slaves or in many cases, both. Early Christians understood humility. They spent a good portion of their lives trying not to be noticed. They sang this song fervently because they could identify with the humble slave named Jesus. They sang this song religiously because they longed to be exalted by the saving grace of God.

We don’t live in the first century. How is it possible to understand Holy Week today? How can one even become engaged in an objective discussion concerning the cross and the tomb? You can’t rationalize Good Friday or Easter. They must be experienced. They must be sung.   

What song will occupy your waking days this week? Better yet, what tune will disrupt your sleep? 

Perhaps you will hum O Sacred Head Now Wounded although the incredible harmony by Bach can distract one from the mystifying text composed by Bernard of Clairvaux.  

Many of us will quietly sing When I survey the Wondrous Cross, based on Paul’s words, “May I never boast on anything except the cross of Jesus.”

There are so many songs which connect us with experiences which continue to define our faith during this holiest of weeks. I still recall sitting in church as a teenager and being captivated by a powerful recording of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, The Crucifixion.  But it was always the mournful singing of Were You There that broke my heart.  

Singing reminds us that the light of God shines forth regardless how deep our soul might plummet.  We need to sing because the crucifixion is a baffling, almost embarrassing event. How do you explain the centerpiece of our faith hanging between two thieves? Who in their right mind would believe such a story?

A man, claiming to be the Son of God, died like any son of any mother or father…………And all we did was watch.

A man, willing to submit to the unknown, stepped into darkness without any guarantees………And we still watched.

Then that man trusted his God so much, he invited us to follow him not only TO death but THROUGH death.

That’s when we got the band back together and sang, “Hosanna, blessed is he who CAME in the name of the Lord.”  

To God be the Glory.     Amen.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

La Esperenza Maera Ultima

Jeremiah 31:31-33; John 12:20-33
        Which is better, no God or an unfaithful God? Sometimes, when confronted by the calamities and chaos of life, one can sink to an undesirable place where we wrestle with the very existence of that mysterious and sometimes aloof presence we call God. This is not just a 21st century problem and it is not just a dilemma faced by folks who lack faith. Many of the great theological minds of any era find themselves wondering aloud why God allows the existence of that which causes humanity harm. I have no answer to this question but I certainly have a lot of angst. Why does God allow evil? Why does it sometimes seem God is unwilling to confront evil? Why haven’t we found a cure for various forms of cancer? Why is God withholding the final piece to so many puzzles? Is God even in the conversation? Where is God when God is needed most?
        These are question which I grapple with most often during the season of Lent. While these questions are applicable during any season, Lent introduces us to music and Biblical texts that are filled with somber and conflicting chords.  This time of year has a darkness which opens our souls to conversations that might not emerge when the flowers are in bloom and the birds are cheerfully singing.       During Lent, God’s Holy Word dares us to look deeply into its very core for meaning.  During Lent, God’s Dangerous Word challenges every presupposition, every truth, every grain of logic that is the foundation of our very being.
Trust me; it is much easier to give up chocolate for Lent than question the roots of our empirical thoughts. If you dare to dive headfirst into the turbulent waters of the “Word of the Lord”, you might want to wear a life preserver.  
Imagine the year is 587 BCE. Zedekiah is King of Judah and the city of Jerusalem is surrounded by the armies of Babylon. The water supply has been cut off and food supplies are non-existent. We know what is about to happen. It is recorded in our history books. Babylon stormed the walls and captured the city. The Temple was destroyed. King Zedekiah was decapitated after he witnessed the execution of his wife and children. The leaders of the city were enslaved and taken into captivity. It is not difficult to imagine this happening because this scene continues to be played out today in the same corner of our world.
In the midst of this chaos, Jeremiah and the King stood together. Both knew what was going to happen to Jerusalem and the King knew his death was imminent. In anger, in fear, in desperation, Zedekiah turned to Jeremiah and spat out the words, “If God cares, if God values life, if God is going to give us some hope, then God better show up right now.” Zedekiah must have been asked himself why he bothered talking to a man who represented an absent God. The King  probably wondered if God even existed. Why does it always take a catastrophe to raise questions about God’s fidelity and existence? The ambiguity and pain of our ordinary lives are more than sufficient to cause a raised eyebrow or two.
A number of years ago Ralph Frink was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was grave and Ralph took it seriously. His team of doctors worked aggressively, successfully allowing Ralph to enthusiastically jump back into his active life style. Last fall the cancer returned. Again Ralph insisted the doctors be aggressive in their treatment. Last month Ralph was feeling so good, despite being in the midst of  Chemo, he and some friends headed out to one of their favorite greasy spoons.  When you are in the best of health these places guarantee indigestion. When Chemo has destroyed much of your resistance to fight infection, greasy spoons guarantee much worse.
Ralph entered the hospital February 22 and he finally came home Thursday. If you are counting, that is twenty-seven days to kill an infection. Cancer didn’t put Ralph on the 8th floor of the University Hospital. Salmonella was the culprit. Regardless of the cause, the 8th floor was a lot closer to heaven than Ralph wanted to be.
At the conclusion of each visit Ralph, Pat, and I would spend time in prayer. These were holy moments. They were also private moments. But I want to share this. At the conclusion of each prayer Ralph would say, “God, thank you for being with Pat and my daughters.” Ralph’s faith reflected a realistic understanding of his own illness and a belief that God would be with his family ………. regardless.  
Hope is holy language. Hope is the affirmation that God will be our God and we will be God’s people. Hope confirms that God will be with us……….. regardless.
It began with a rainbow across the sky announcing to Noah that life was precious. It continued with a promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would be the parents of a nation. It was written down in stone at Sinai and handed to Moses. Each covenant was a fulfilled promise.
But Zedekiah could see no future. In his eyes the promise was about to be destroyed by flames. He feared not only for his life, he feared for his dynasty. In anger he screamed, “Where is God? Why has God left us?”
Jeremiah, knowing his death was also less than a breath away responded, “God did not leave us. We left God.”
If those had been Jeremiah’s final words, they would have secured his place as the ultimate prophet of doom. But Jeremiah had one more word for his desperate King. “The covenant that we broke will no longer be written in stone. Next time God will write it upon their hearts.”
The cynic would say, “What good did that do Zedekiah or Jeremiah? They still died.”  Fortunately the world does not live on cynicism alone.                
One of our great oral historians, Studs Terkel, shares the story of an interview he had with Jessie de la Cruz, a migrant farm worker in Southern California. Studs asked, “What is it that keeps you going?”
Jessie responded, “We have a saying around here, La esperenza maera ultima; Hope dies last. If you lose hope, you have lost everything.”
Realizing all you preacher types will raise your hands because you don’t want to look bad, if any one else has ever heard the name King Zedekiah before today please raise your hand. Now raise your hand if you have previously heard of the Prophet Jeremiah.                You see,Hope Dies Last!
600 years later Jesus was having a conversation with his disciples. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time and in the tradition of the Gospel of John where no secrets are kept, Jesus told them what was about to happen. He began with a metaphor. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a grain of wheat. But should it die, it will bear much fruit.” The disciples looked at him as if they had missed something. Jesus then explained, “If you lose your life for my sake, you will live.”
Again the disciples got a bit perplexed. It always bothered them when Jesus talked about death. Jesus smiled and responded, “Should I plead with God to save me? Nonsense, this is why I came. Who can stand against God? Not the powers of this world. La Esperenza Maera Ultima.”
I’m sure none of the gospels quote Jesus speaking Spanish, but he did speak the language of hope. According to Walter Wink, when Jesus mentioned The Powers he was referring to the structures and institutions of that day. Jesus lived in the midst Roman Empire. By now the Babylonian Empire was a forgotten speed bump along the road of history. While we have heard of the Roman Empire, raise your hand if you can tell me who was Emperor of Rome when Jesus died? It was Tiberius, another forgotten name. But the name of Jesus lives on because, hope dies last.    
Hope drives our faith, hope sustains our faith, and hope revives our faith. Of course one person’s hope is another’s wishful thinking.  Zedekiah was hoping to be saved from death. Jeremiah hoped for the continuing presence of God in God’s people.  The disciples were hoping to make it to their next meal. Jesus was hope personified.
Hope is to live in the present and beyond. Moltmann reminds us, “God’s hidden future announces itself and exerts its influence on the present through the hope it awakens.”
Jeremiah wasn’t thinking of himself. He was already looking for a day when the captives would return to Jerusalem. Jesus wasn’t thinking of himself. He was looking to a day when the captives would return to his empty tomb.
La Esperenza Maera Ultima. New Empires and institutions are born every generation. A new personification of evil seems to raise its ugly head every day. But as Isaiah reminds us, “Like the grass of the field both wither and die. But the Word of our God will stand forever.”
Open your Hymnbooks to page 432 and let’s read together.
May the God of hope go with us every day,
Filling all our lives with love and joy and peace.
May the God of justice speed us on our way,
Bringing light and hope to every land and race,
Praying, let us work for peace, singing share our joy with all.
Working for a world that’s new, faithful when we hear Christ’s call.                         And God’s people say,  Amen.    

Sunday, March 15, 2015


 Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-17


        The writer, priest and activist Malcolm Boyd has died. 50 years ago, he wrote “Are You Running with Me Jesus?” His writings have had a profound influence on me. Malcolm wrote, “God, it seems to me you damn war, hate, hypocrisy, lies, tyranny, torture, exploitation and murder.  It seems to me you bless love, peace, honesty, truth, freedom, kindness, dignity, and everything good about your creation. I find that you work patiently and mercifully to change the things you damn into the things you bless. Help me to have faith in your plan.”   This sermon is dedicated to Malcolm Boyd.

I personally don’t care much for snakes. I have never been bitten by one. I can’t remember witnessing anyone who has been bitten. I’m sure don’t know anyone who has been bitten and died, at least if they did, they haven’t told me. My philosophy is if they leave me alone I will leave them alone.

My good friend and fellow minster Gary Charles is petrified of snakes. When we play golf together if I hit a ball in the woods, he refuses to help me look. If Gary hits a ball in the woods he argues, because of his fear of snakes, he should be given a free drop. Gary can’t understand why I don’t invite him to play with The Bunch.

        On the other hand, there is Mary Dudley. We ride bikes together on the Skyline Drive. She loves snakes. On more than one occasion I have watched from a distance as she jumped off her bike to remove a snake from the road. It hardly matters if it is a Blacksnake or Rattlesnake, Mary Dudley will make sure every reptile receives safe passage back into the woods.

You are probably wondering why I am making all this fuss about snakes. In our text Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the Son of Man will be lifted up and whoever believes in him will have eternal life.” What on earth was Jesus talking about?

        What might confuse us made perfect sense to Nicodemus, an accomplished scholar of the Torah. Nicodemus knew Jesus was speaking about a specific incident during the wilderness experience of the escape from Egypt. From the moment Israel left they whined. They were afraid of Pharaoh’s Army. They didn’t think Moses knew the way. Then they got thirsty, then hungry, then thirsty again. They even claimed being slaves was preferable to freedom. God got fed up with the complaints of the self-proclaimed Chosen People and sent fiery snakes to slitter among them. Many of the Israelites were bitten and died. The survivors quickly begged for mercy.  Moses was instructed to place a bronze snake on a stick. Those who confessed and looked at the snake were healed.

        This is a tough story. Taken literally it displays a no nonsense God with a short fuse. Taken symbolically it illustrates the Israelites dilemma  in making critical decisions concerning their life and death. The original group already decided not to enter the Promised Land. The second generation was now choosing if they would follow the antics of their elders and die in the wilderness or risk following God and discover a new life. That is a tough question when the God you are asked to follow has just killed your best friend.

        Nicodemus fully understands the significance of the illustration. Will he chose his old life or will he risk looking upon Jesus and lose the respect of his peers? From our perspective the choice is easy. We look to Jesus as the source of our salvation. But Nicodemus hardly knew the man. Remember, this is a pre-Easter encounter. Also Nicodemus knew the aftermath of the story of the snake.

        The symbol of the Bronze Snake forged by Moses was given a permanent place in the Temple. When people had ailments they would go to the Temple and pray to the Snake hoping to be healed. The culture of the Bronze Snake became so strong it threatened to replace the worship of Yahweh. Eventually King Hezekiah destroyed the Snake and demanded the people to worship God, the real source of life.

        Remembering his history Nicodemus paused and wondered if Jesus was the healer who offered life, or just another illusion taking him closer to death?

        Noting his hesitation Jesus said, “God so loved the world, God gave us the Son. Believe and live eternally.”


I cannot tell you how many sermons I have preached on John 3:16. How much more simple can it get than, “God so loved the world. Believe and live eternally.”            (Stop)           Fifty years ago this was such an easy passage. I had never been anywhere north of Washington D.C. or south of Columbus, Georgia. My world was plenty big enough for me. I had heard of Africa and seen the National Geographic pictures of the slightly clad women we called natives. Asia was comprised solely of Japanese and we all talked about how evil they were. Everyone in my world loved Jesus and I was told by my Sunday School teachers the missionaries we supported were taking care of anyone else that mattered. 

        Growing up, God loved me and I believed in Jesus. There were no complications until I made the mistake of furthering my education. I was introduced to terms like Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. In other words I was exposed to Calvinism on steroids. I was told because of Original Sin I was incapable of truly loving God and neighbors. Before I was born, I was corrupt.  But God, in God’s graciousness, had chosen a select few of us who would be given the opportunity to experience the love of God. By acknowledging God’s saving power, I and a few of you will discover that nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ.                

        That’s when I realized Creedal Statements can be healthy expressions of faith, or they can become dangerous snakes leading us away from the very essence of God.

        Thankfully a course correction in my theological training expanded my world view and challenged the presuppositions which I had taken for granted. The bad news is with each new step, new perplexities emerge.

God so loved the world. Believe and have eternal life. If salvation comes by grace alone, is faith redundant? If salvation comes through faith alone, is grace necessary?

        There are days I wished I could return to my simple life where questions such as these were nowhere on my radar. But there is no going back. The world is bigger than my backyard. And so is my dilemma. Limiting the grace God seems heretical. But doesn’t faith count for something?

        Finding a perfect harmony between God’s grace and our response to this gift is always going to be difficult. It is human nature to want to earn our keep. But without God’s help, is perfection attainable? Furthermore there is a dangerously unspoken question that always lurks just below the surface. “Can someone different than me be blessed with God’s gift of grace?” If I say no than the parameter of salvation is greatly restricted. If I say yes than the wideness of God’s mercy stretches beyond my imagination.

        Back in the good old days, only white, straight, males qualified to sit at the table of God. Well, we would let the woman in if they obeyed us and spoke only when spoken to. But that was probably a mistake because eventually they wanted a chair of their own. That opened the door to all kind of shady characters. First we let the blacks in, then the Hispanics. That caused problems because they questioned why the women got in before them. Then we discovered that all Asians weren’t Japanese. Koreans knocked the doors down to find their seat at the table. Africans soon followed even though they looked nothing like the pictures in National Geographic. Then someone suggested maybe Catholics were Christian. That didn’t play well with anyone born south of Richmond. Finally cooler heads prevailed.  We elected a team to select those qualified for God’s grace.   

        We all agreed race didn’t matter. Red, yellow, black or white, they are precious in God’s sight. But precious only goes so far. We also agreed we don’t have to worship together. That would be ……………. uncomfortable.

        We all agreed gender doesn’t matter. In Christ there is no distinction between male or female. In heaven both are equal. So, when women get to heaven, they can preach, serve the sacraments, and hold the highest ecclesiastical positions. But for right now they need to wait their turn.

        We all agreed the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Nobody really believes that works in the real world, but when we get to heaven God will certainly sort it all out.

        The rules were finally set. You don’t have to be a male to get into heaven. You don’t have to be an American to get into heaven. You don’t have to be white to get into heaven. You don’t have to be rich to get into heaven. You don’t even have to be Presbyterian to get into heaven. Everyone was ecstatic over the progress we had made. We held hands and started singing, “In Christ there is not east or west.”

Then a young man in the back started jumping up and down and screaming, “Can I join? Can I join?” 

We turned to him and said, “Do you believe in Christ as your Lord and savior?”

“With all my heart”, he replied. “You see, I’m gay, and God accepted me even when I could not accept myself.”

The singing stopped, the bickering began once again again God’s not so holy people discovered the idea of God loving the whole world is easier said than believed.

For as long as I can remember I have believed in Jesus. For 65 years I have tried to learn to love all the folks God loves. Because I believe in Jesus I have tried to open my closed mind. Because I believe in Jesus I have tried to be color blind. Because I believe in Jesus I have tried to move past my prejudices, and my egocentric faults. Because I believe in Jesus, I regularly look up at the Cross and confess, “I believe, help me in my unbelief.”

How ironic that I look to the Cross. Like the snake, the Cross too often lives a double life. Like the snake, this symbol of God’s healing power too often is held high by those claiming Jesus hates anyone not exactly like them.

I believe in Jesus, but do I really believe God loves the whole world? I can so easily lose my way when trying to follow the all-inclusive path of the Cross.

Therefore this is my confession; this is what I believe. Until my words and actions perfectly reflect God’s love, I shall give unending thanks for God’s grace, for the road is long and my endurance and judgments can be inadequate.

Help me run with you, Jesus.

Help me run with you.                              Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

God's Foolishness

Exodus 20:1-17; I Cor. 1:18-25


A Rabbi and a Presbyterian minister walk out of a restaurant following a delightful lunch. As they prepare to go their different ways the minister says, “Keep the faith.” The Rabbi smiles and responds, “Keep the Commandments.”

There are few biblical texts that have played as large a role in Church and public life as the Ten Commandments. From their setting in scripture, to the contemporary debate about their public display, the Commandments embody God’s will for human life as fully as any teaching.

I have served churches in West Texas and Eastern North Carolina where the debate over displaying the Commandments in public places is still is alive and well. My fear is not in the Commandments disappearing from our halls of justice but rather their disappearance from our places of worship. As churches continue discussions over the display of the American Flag in our sanctuaries, it has been quite a while since someone has approached me about properly displaying the Commandments within our hallowed walls. Perhaps as we reconstruct our fellowship hall a priority might be finding a place where the Ten Commandments could be reverently and properly exhibited. Is there a better expression of faith and moral behavior? Simply put the Commandments are a reminder to love God and our local and global community with all our hearts.

Perhaps the Commandments are not displayed on our church walls because they have never been fully displayed within our hearts. This is not something that just happened recently. No sooner were the Original Commandments “chiseled into stone,” than they were broken. The community of humankind has always been in a dialogue concerning where one places its ultimate trust. Political and economic realms are necessary components of the human equation. Yet both, all too easily, turn moral imperatives into conditional suggestions.

If I were a Puritan, this would be the perfect time to do my best Jonathan Edwards impression and begin ranting about sinners in the hands of an angry God. Instead, I want to risk breaking the Second Commandment by raising the issue of God’s Foolishness.

In the first chapter of I Corinthians, Paul uses the word foolishness ten different times. In verse 18 he states, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those perishing.” In verse 25 Paul goes completely overboard. He writes, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Hopefully you are asking yourself how Paul’s statement concerning the foolishness of God is related to the Ten Commandments.

I don’t know a lot about computers and even less about robotics. I do know that certain machines can be programmed to perform particular functions perfectly every time. Assembly lines have become far more effective as human beings have been replaced.  I know machines have drawbacks but if I were on an assembly line doing the same thing for eight hours I cannot guarantee you my production would be perfect. My mind wanders; I get tired; some days I am more efficient than others; eventually I would begin thinking more about my next job than the job at hand. I know science fiction writers have a field day imagining robots developing the ability to eventually take over the world, but today, problems in robotics come from faulty programming rather than some android named Spartacus.

God chose not to create robots. We are not preprogrammed. While I am certain perfection was desired, it hardly seems to be the end results. We have the ability to think, to dream, and to travel roads different than our creator might have desired. We have our cherished free will, which can be as much a burden as a gift. There is the curiosity to move outside God’s guidelines. We are tempted by the allure of power and wealth. We even declare ourselves to be God through endeavors we believe are for the betterment of OUR narrowly defined communities. How vulnerable of God to entrust us with such responsibility.

I think vulnerable is the perfect word to use when discussing the foolishness of God. In The Westminster Confession God is described as, “infinite, eternal, all-sufficient, unchangeable, almighty, all knowing, long suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.” That is an impressive list. I believe Paul would have added, “God is vulnerable.” This is a dangerous thought. While vulnerability suggests weakness, it also suggests the willingness to take risks. Can there be a better expression of vulnerability than God giving humanity the ability to make choices?

The choice God offered, from the beginning, is both simple and complex. Will we put God above ourselves? Will we put others ahead of ourselves? Will we choose to serve rather than be served?

The Commandments are offered, and sometimes they are followed, and sometimes they are not. Make no mistake the Commandments are not only hard; they leave a lot of room for discussion. And yet for over 4,000 years they have been the centerpiece of both our faith and ethics. 2,000 years ago, God tried again. The embodiment of the Commandments walked among us. This foolish God used weakness rather than power to expose and confront the existing mores of not only that moment but of any moment.

        For the Romans, or any dynasty, might makes right.

For the Jews, or any religion, institutions trump truth.

For the Greeks, or any civilization, knowledge presupposes revelation.

 But God isn’t interested in power, or institutions or human wisdom. God is interested in eradicating human obsession with its own salvation and replacing it with a universal desire to care for each other. God knows that dynasties crumble, institutions go bankrupt, and human wisdom is limited. But God also knows dynasties and institutions don’t die without a fight.

Take the example of Jesus. What was his crime? He fed the poor, he lifted up the oppressed, he gave hope to the hopeless, he offered sight to the blind and he did it all in God’s name. Dynasties branded him a revolutionary. He challenged the presuppositions of the wise and confronted the teachers of the Law. Institutions accused him of being blasphemous. But you know what really got him killed? He was gracious, merciful, slow to anger and steadfast in his love toward ALL of God’s people. He preached peace, he didn’t steal, he didn’t lie, and he didn’t crave that which wasn’t his. What kind of world would we have if everyone acted like that?

Jesus was so naïve, so vulnerable, so foolish. People in power eliminate anyone espousing such a lifestyle. And so he was crucified, exposed on a cross, lifted up for the entire world to see what a fool he had been.

Then God responded! God said, “You can ignore me, criticize me, and doubt my existence but you can’t kill me. Life is a gift;

 Life is a miracle;

        Life is my grace upon each of you.”

Many folks complain little has changed in the world since the death of Jesus. We are still dominated by power hungry folks who expose the worst in the human spirit. My answer is with the resurrection of Jesus, God did not revoke our privilege of free will. Instead God left us with a symbol that calls into question everything we value.

If we are star struck by the so-called beautiful people, the Cross symbolizes the simplicity of Christ.

 If we are impressed with power and unrestrained violence, the Cross represents self-sacrifice of Christ.

If we are mesmerized by eloquent speech, the Cross recalls the poetry of God.

If we are paralyzed to act because of fear of reprisal, the Cross evokes the promise of God’s eternal grace.

The Cross speaks the truth when lies are easier. The Cross embraces gentleness when force seems necessary. The Cross applies justice when the oppressed are kept silent. The Cross offers forgiveness when revenge would taste so good.

The community of God is formed around what seems to be utter foolishness. Why should we care for folks we barely know? Why should we forgive folks we can barely stand? If someone hurts me, why not strike back? If someone lies about me, why not speak ill of them? Why not raise my voice or my fist in anger? What happened to an eye for an eye?

Imagine losing a son or daughter to the ignorant, or selfish, or evil actions of another. Imagine holding complete and absolute power over the person who destroyed your very life. Imagine looking that person in the eye and saying, “I love you despite what you did.”

God’s Foolishness replaced an eye for an eye. The Cross intercedes; the Cross rescues us from ourselves; the Cross lifts us up that we might lift up the fallen, the downtrodden, the ugly, the forgotten, and particularly the powerful. The Cross exposes each of us to the vulnerability of the grace of God.

Then God not only saves us, but reminds us that we still have the free will:

To claim One God,

To abandon the idols which entice us,

To refrain from misusing God’s name,

To keep the Sabbath,

To honor our elders,

To abstain from:





        And coveting that which is not ours.

In this day and age we need to keep the faith, and keep the Commandments. What better way to become fools for Christ.                                                                       Amen.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Repair, Reboot, or Rebuild

Genesis 11:1-9; Philippians 1:27-30

One of my favorite stories in all literature is The Tower of Babel. Traditionally this fable is an explanation for all the world’s different languages. But the true meaning behind this hilarious story goes a lot deeper. I like to think the conception of this story started out innocently enough, but eventually the satirist just couldn’t help himself. Imagine the writer compiling all those incredible stories that make up the first ten chapters of Genesis. First was creation, then the introduction of sin, which resulted in expulsion from paradise. Next there was the issue of capital punishment. Most people wish the incident had been a home invasion or drive-by shooting. But the writer knew where most violence finds its origins. He made it a family crime. Then he expanded the conversation by introducing Noah, a man caught between humanity’s egocentricities and God’s desire for a selfless community. With the conclusion of Noah’s watery odyssey, the writer was ready to begin the traveling sideshow known as Abraham and his family. But the writer hesitated. The stories would flow better if there was a piece of comic relief, allowing the reader to breathe before having to swallow the tale of an octogenarian with an overwhelming desire to be a father.

This is how it might have happened. Our creative genius worked endlessly without any inspiration whatsoever. Just as he was about to call it quits his son entered the picture to save the day. Elam was a good kid, but once he entered public school he seldom came home happy.

“Dad, why can’t I go to a school where everyone speaks Hebrew?”

“Son, we don’t live in Jerusalem any more. Your mom and I want to give you the best. If you want to go to Babylon Tech you need to understand the language and customs of the folks who call this place home.”

“But Dad, the Persians are so full of themselves. All we talk about in school is this ziggurat and that ziggurat. They sure are proud of those Temples. Are their churches really better than the one we left behind?”

Elam’s dad didn’t hear another word. The answers to his literary segue stood right before him. He would write a story about the arrogance of his Babylonian captors.

It began like this. “Once, when everyone spoke the same language and were of the same mind, the leaders came together and said, “Let’s build a tower to the heavens. People will marvel at its magnificence. Everyone will want to come to climb this stairway to heaven.” Some of the folks applauded. Some of the folks wondered if it was necessary and one was a bit curious. “Why do you want to build a tower to the heavens?” The answer exposed the real reason for the venture. “It will make a name for us. People will see the tower and declare us to be one with the gods.”

And so the building began. No real thought went into how you build a tall building. In fact they were so busy trying to make it look pretty they didn’t bother constructing it with solid stone. They paid off the local OSHA inspector and brought in substandard materials. The project went higher and higher, becoming less a monument to God and more a testimony to their giant egos.

A meeting was called to go over the final plans. This was to be a critical conversation. Only it never took place. From afar God looked down on the temple and was less than pleased. What was to have been a holy place had become wasted space.  With the snap of holy fingers God put an end to the whole travesty by creating languages. Suddenly no one could understand what anyone else was saying. Since listening to each other had never been a priority, with the language barrier, communication became impossible. They all went their separate ways. Eventually the city came to be identified with the crumbling tower known as Babel for it was here that God had confused the language of an already babbling people.

The storyteller smiled, looked out on the city of his captivity, and knew one day the faulty foundation on which Babylon had been built would soon crumble into the dust. 

More than six hundred years later some people in the community of Philippi were in the process of building their own “temple.” Our glimpse at these people comes through the rose tinted glasses of Paul. He loved this little church more than any other church he had helped create. It was his first effort on European soil. They were a generous people who had created a spot for themselves within a culture that was often hostile to Christians. Paul wrote, encouraging them to be about the glorious task of living each day as Jesus would have lived it. He reminded them that Jesus emptied himself of all ego in order to be one with God. He told them whatever they did, don’t do it to glorify me or bring notice down upon yourselves. Live your lives, raise your families, serve your community and build your church in a manner worthy of Christ.   

As the folks in Babylon and Philippi and many other churches have discovered, temple building is a hard task. During the last year many voices have weighed in on how we might address the problem/opportunity known as our fellowship hall. If you all agreed on what we should do, I would be really worried. Fortunately this congregation prides itself in listening to others even if you can’t stand what your neighbor might have to say. A lot of voices have weighed in. Some folks feel confident they have the solution. Some folks feel a bit nervous about their neighbor’s confidence. Some folks want a few more questions answered. A few folks are getting weary of answering questions. I can tell you from experience that no building project begins or ends without heartburn, confusion, and disappointment.  Projects always cost more than anticipated and projects never meet the needs of everyone. I think you know that. From hearing you talk, from reading your questions, from examining the survey many of you completed after our town meetings, we may not all be on the same page but we are speaking the same language.

What I have appreciated and what I believe will sustain us in whichever direction we go is our overall approach has not been self-serving but rather an opportunity to further glorify Christ. Our decision is not a means unto itself but rather a mandate to proclaim God’s grace, expand our inclusiveness, and celebrate our missions as we continue to be a light in our valley.

Do we repair, do we reboot, i.e. complete the footprint, or do we rebuild? Whichever becomes our directive let us do so in a manner that is worthy of Christ. Let us stand firm in one Lord. Let us build together using the best materials God has given us:

A trusting heart,

A generous soul,

A prayerful spirit,

        An open mind,

        Voices that glorify God and God alone. 


        We are a people of many voices. Each voice is an honest understanding of what God would have us do. Let us trust God and each other to find our collective holy voice. Then let’s trust that voice to make our endeavors sacred.