Sunday, April 26, 2015

Truth and Action

I John 3:16-24


Last week my son came by to help me trim out the windows in the basement. Well, that is not exactly accurate. The truth is I handed my son tools while he trimmed out my windows. After all if work must be done, why not do it right. We made the obligatory trip to Home Depot to purchase the needed materials. On approaching the check-out line we both had our hands and pockets full of supplies. I paid the clerk and was in the parking lot before realized I had walked out of the store with an unpaid tube of Liquid Nail in my back pocket. I promptly returned to the checkout counter to confess my transgression.

When I held up the tube of glue the woman at the register immediately apologized. “I am so sorry. What did I do wrong?”

I explained the mistake was mine, not hers. She responded by saying, “You walked out of the store with an unpaid item and you came back to pay for it?”

She then started to gush, “Oh my gosh; what an honest person you must be.” As I paid for the Liquid Nails I thought to myself, “This world has gone to hell in a hand basket if adults are praised for doing what they are suppose to do?”

The composer of I John wrote, “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I like to think I am somewhat of a theologian. Part of my vocation is to grapple with scripture and somehow make it come alive in a culture 2,000 years and 6,000 miles apart. Words are my tools. Sometimes I use words to offer comfort or assurance. Sometimes I use words to create a spirited debate. The writer of I John is curious to know if the words of my tongue match the actions of my hands and feet. Is the writer of  First John asking if I practice what I preach? Yes, but he is also suggesting something far more complicated. The writer of this wonderful letter is saying, “You preach the story of one who laid down his life for you. Are you willing to lay down your life for someone other than yourself?”

I know what you must be thinking.  How did we get from Liquid Nails to self-sacrifice?

Let me begin by saying not everyone is cut out to be a martyr. I am sure folks like Oscar Romero or Bonheoffer did not wake up one morning and decide being executed was number one on their bucket list. I am equally sure one can lay down their life and still live to see another morning. In fact, the morning you witness might be brighter than any you have ever imagined.

Ronald Cole-Turner writes, “For those of us who dare to identify ourselves as Christians, self-sacrifice for another ought to be an ordinary occurrence.  We lay down our lives when we put others first. We lay down our lives when we make time for others. We lay down our lives when we allow God to orient our lives toward the needs of others.”

The writer of this letter was a student of the writer of the Gospel of John. One of the characteristics of that particular gospel is the presupposition that just being a believer in Jesus is not enough. If you believe you must follow, and by doing so, your actions will begin to reflect the truths of the one we now call Christ.

A central character in the Gospel of John is the disciple Peter. He was the spokesman for the disciples. During the ministry of Jesus, Peter had a propensity for always speaking for the rest of the disciples. But in the case of Peter, his talk was cheap in the moment of a crisis. The night Jesus was arrested, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.

It is no coincidence the Gospel of John concludes with Jesus having a final conversation with Peter. The Good Shepherd asked his wayward disciple, “Do you love me?” Peter, so full of guilt, had waited days to unload the shame that had paralyzed his soul. “Lord, you know I love you.”

Do you remember how Jesus responded? He didn’t say, “Believe in me.” He didn’t say, “Go back to the courtyard and confess your sin.” He didn’t even say, “Peter it’s OK, everyone messes up.” Jesus looked Peter in the eye and said, “Feed my sheep. Become who I am, a shepherd to the lost, the lonely, the hungry and those who are afraid.”

No Old Testament text is universally loved more than the 23rd Psalm. While it is closely associated with funerals it was initially a song written to celebrate life.  Furthermore it is more than just a Psalm depicting the role of God. In the Hebrew tradition, shepherd was a title traditionally given to the King.  If the King led the nation to still waters he was considered worthy to wear the crown. If instability erupted, the good shepherd was the one who protected his subjects, even if became necessary to sit with his enemies and break bread. The Kings of Judah were judged on their acts of justice and mercy rather than their cleverness with the tongue or the sword.

In the New Testament, Jesus is celebrated as the new shepherd. He is the one who will negotiate the way through turbulent waters and even death. But like the kings of old, Jesus is no longer among us. In more than a symbolic act Jesus took the mantle of the shepherd and passed it down to Peter and said, “Those who believe, follow. And those who follow are commanded to act.” 

Peter and the disciples are no longer with us. But the mantle of a shepherd continues to be passed from one Christian to another, from one generation to another, from one century to another. Today I dare to suggest this mantle has been passed to you. Today I dare to suggest Psalm 23 is now going to sound something like this:

We who love Jesus cannot hide our eyes from the complexities of this world.

The troubled heart or the burdened soul longs for a word of comfort or hope but mostly it longs for a quiet ear.

Streets that are safe for us are like dangerous rapids to others. Be it a child or an African-American male, our presence, our friendship, could quell those turbulent waters. 

Our table should never be exclusive. Let us be open to the prayers of our friend and enemies. Perhaps in prayer together, the cup of peace will overflow rather than run dry.

There is so much hunger, and poverty, and distrust, and anger toward others. As the Shepherd, if we are giving and forgiving, if we are benevolent and caring, if we are merciful as we seek the mercy of others, perhaps those who have reluctantly followed, might be given permission to lead, as together we can celebrate the wholeness we each have received through God’s gift of grace.

It will never be good enough just to sing this song. We must live it with the anticipation that one day honesty will be expected, fairness will be the norm and acts of kindness will become contagious.

I believe when we act justly, when we speak without rancor, when we respond to the plight of another without condemnation, we will feel the life-blood of Christ pulsating through our hearts. Our hands will become energized, not just to work for, but with those who have been destined, sometimes by their own actions, to a life of mental and physical poverty. Through our self-sacrifice, through doing the right thing consistently, those who are lost might aspire to be more than the social order has determined them capable of becoming.

Bonheoffer, who never intended to die a martyr, spoke and lived these words even as his death was being ordered.

Dare to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you, valiantly grasping occasions not cravenly doubting.

Freedom comes only through deeds and not through thoughts taking wing.

Faint not, fear not, but go out to the storm, trusting in God whose commandments you faithfully follow.

Freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.

To God be the glory, Amen.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Joy, Not Security

Luke 24:36b-42


        Days after the resurrection, the disciples were a mess. A week earlier they had shared The Passover with Jesus. Now they grappled with three declarations Jesus made during that mystical meal:

This is my body broken for you.

        This is my blood shed for you.

                You will deny me before the morning light.

Each statement had played out right before their eyes. This should have been a time of rejoicing. Some women claimed they had encountered Jesus at the grave. Others reported seeing a man who resembled Jesus along the road to Emmaus. The evidence was mounting up; but so was the opposition. The disciples were caught between joy and alarm. Would their bodies be broken? Would their blood be shed? Even worse, would they deny having anything to do with Jesus? Their fears were real. The Romans and the Jewish Sanhedrin never agreed on anything and yet they had come to the same conclusion that Jesus needed to die. The disciples were not stupid. If sworn enemies could see eye to eye on the fate of Jesus, the disciples were probably next on the most wanted list. If they celebrated, they risked execution. If they remained silent, who would tell the truth? Can one ever find joy without taking a little bit of a risk?

Frightened and discouraged they decided to gather in the very place the last prophecies of Jesus had been uttered. John Le Carre would have celebrated the caution each disciple took to insure their security. They crept in the shadows, always double checking to make sure no one was following. When everyone was finally in the room, the door was shut, the dead bolt locked, and the latch at the top and bottom secured. They closed the curtains, blew out the candles and sat in the dark wondering what to do next.  No one spoke. No one dared. What if someone was listening?

Ever been so frightened of life that living is impossible? What a silly question! Yet don’t we go to great means to insure our lives are safe and secure? Think about it. How much money last month did you spend on car insurance? How about homeowners insurance? Add to that number health and life insurance. Some folks go so far to have their identities insured. We spend a lot of money and put a lot of trust in someone we have never met, believing if misfortune should occur, our lives and our possessions will be restored as if nothing happened. Is that trust well placed? The more important question is, “Do we really have peace of mind?”

A few years ago I was in San Antonio to celebrate the graduation of my daughter from graduate school. I was alone because Deb was attending our son’s graduation from college on the same day. Being too cheap to stay in a motel, I asked Martina if I could stay in her sister-in-law’s house for a day or two. Arrangements were made and I was given a key and the code for the alarm system. No one was home when I arrived. I went in the house, reset the alarm, and promptly remembered I had left the book I was reading on the front seat of my car. On reentering the house, all kind of alarms went off. I panicked. I punched in the code on the key pad, but to no avail. Then the phone rang. I picked it up and began to speak to a stranger who informed me the alarm system in the house had been breached. I wanted to say, “No Joke”, but the voice didn’t sound like someone with much of a sense of humor. The voice asked, “Are you the owner?” I tried to explain the situation. The voice asked, “Can you give me the backup code to your security system?” I re-explained my situation. The voice then asked, “What is the name of owner of the house?” I quickly responded, “Jenny.” The voice responded, “Last name please.” I had no clue. Here I was with no code, no last name, and no idea how I was going to explain to my daughter’s sister-in-law why the entire neighborhood was gathering on her front lawn. So I said to the voice. “If you will turn off the alarm, I will reinstate the code.” After a slight hesitation the voice said, “OK.” The alarm fell silent and all I could hear was a dial tone. The protector of Jenny’s universe had hung up and returned to whatever he was doing before I had rudely interrupted his afternoon.

So I ask you. Do the people to whom we have entrusted our livelihood really care what happens to us?

Remember those disciples we left back in Jerusalem? They had locked the door, pulled the shades, blown out the candles and then quietly whispered to each other, “What will become of us?”

Imagine their surprise when Jesus walked through the locked door and announced, “Peace be with you. Why are you frightened?”

Walking through an oak door with six locks and a cedar chest pushed up against it is a pretty cool trip, unless you are scared to death. Fear is the most primal of all human response. We have all that insurance because we fear health issues, fires, break-ins, accidents, and the end of the universe as we know it. But even All-State’s “good hands” don’t offer a policy that underwrites peace of mind. That takes more than a monthly check in the mail. Peace of mind occurs only when there is a transformation of the soul.

In the midst of chaos, Jesus said, “Shalom.”

In the midst of hopelessness, Jesus said, “Shalom.”

In the midst of death, Jesus said, “Shalom.”

In both the Arab and Jewish world when there is a gathering of both friends and strangers, the most likely greeting to be heard is a derivative of the word “Shalom.” But we should never limit its meaning to a simple salutation. The word “Shalom” has deep roots in both Jewish and Arabic society. In the tradition of the Old Testament, Shalom implies completeness, soundness, and the healthiness of both one’s mind and body. It calls for peace and tranquility in one’s heart and community. Exchanging the word “Shalom” declares, “You have nothing of which to be afraid. As you trust God, you can trust me.”

In a discussion this week with Brian Koster, he reminded me the basic faith statement of the Muslim tradition is, “I will trust God.” This is not unique to the Muslim faith. It is also the very essence of our First Commandment. When Jesus walked through those doors, fear and disbelief must have overwhelmed the disciples. What could be more appropriate than Jesus calmly saying, “Do not fear, you can trust me.”

Unfortunately, faith in God, is not as universal as we might wish. Regardless of what might be written on the dollar bill, trusting God is a concept that is losing popularity in our society. A recent Gallop Poll discovered 27% of all Americans, when asked to declare their religious preference, wrote down none. This was up from 12% just 20 years ago. Are we losing faith in God? Are we losing confidence in religious institutions? Are we more apt to put our trust in a voice that wants to know our security code? The real question might be; have we become such believers in individualism that we only trust ourselves?

The disciples had lost their trust in not only God but also in each other. Fear dominated their lives to the point that no one was beyond suspicion. They had no faith, they had no peace, and they certainly had no joy. Remind you of anyone you might know?

In Eastern religions, and remember Christianity began as an Eastern religion, natural extension of trusting God is also trusting your God-centered community. The concept of Shalom does not occur in a vacuum. It is not good enough to just love God; you must also love your neighbor. When Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” they should have responded, “And also with you.” But the words froze on the tip of their tongue. After what they had witnessed, how could they risk being in harmony with anyone?

Dorthee Soelle, a German theologian from the past century wrote, “To be alive is to be vulnerable. To be faithful is to resist the temptation of artificial security. That doesn’t happen unless we love something beyond ourselves.”

Jesus, the broken one, walked through a locked door to offer hope to disciples obsessed with their own security.

Jesus, the wounded one, spoke of Shalom to a group captured by their own anxieties.

Jesus, the denied one, dared the disciples to create a community based on something beyond themselves.

Then Jesus said, “The key to living is giving your life away and discovering the transformation that takes place when one discovers God’s Shalom.”

That, my friends, is how we bring joy to this world.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Meditation

Mark 16:1-8;


Something seems to be missing in the original testimony to the resurrection found in the gospel of Mark.  It ends with the abrupt statement, “They fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. THE END.” No Jesus. No breakfast on the beach. No road to Emmaus. No walking through doors or ascension from The Mountain. Just three speechless women fleeing in terror.

This ending was so unsatisfactory to some members of the early church, ten new verses were eventually added which included appearances by the resurrected Lord. But I suspect the original writer of Mark wished they had left his story alone. From Mark’s perspective that one verse captures the very mystery of this day we call Easter.

Mark is the shortest of the Four Gospels.  While probably not the first testimony about Jesus, it is the oldest that has survived.  What distinguishes Mark from the other gospels is Mark never expands on any story; everything happens with a sense of urgency; and the identity of Jesus is never obvious to the folks closest to him.

The Gospel opens with the Baptism of Jesus where a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son.” Before people have a chance to react to this proclamation, immediately Jesus is rushed into the wilderness. He is tempted to be less than what God has already affirmed him to be. After an eternity of darkness, Jesus returned to the light and said, “The kingdom of God has come, follow me.”

 Everyone fell silent, wondering what to do next.

The Gospel ends with the crucifixion. A Centurion looks upon the corpse and declares, “This man was God’s Son.” Immediately Jesus was rushed into the tomb. There was not even time to prepare his body. After what must have seemed an eternity of darkness an angel declared, “The kingdom of God has come. Follow Him.”

Again, everyone fell silent, wondering what to do next.


When a person becomes an elder at Rockfish Presbyterian, during their examination by the session the person is asked to give a statement of faith. You are an interesting group of people and your faith journeys reflect this. Some folks will begin by telling a story similar to mine by stating, “I was raised in a Christian home and can never remember not going to church.”

Others have said, “I was raised in a Christian home but the Church rejected me and tried to change that part of me that God has created.”

Some have remarked they were drawn to Church when a friend or family member had suggested it might be a place they could find an inviting community.

Some have discovered comfort in the traditional concept of God. Some have confided struggling with orthodox practices, discovering God in places many of us have never looked. Without exception, be it as a child, or as an adult, each of our elders acknowledges that someone said to them, “This man Jesus was the Son of God.”

Our faith was inspired by the faith of others. This brief inspiration was not the end but the beginning of our journey.  For many of our elders, and I suspect for many of you, our road has been filled with both light and darkness making Easter a joyful yet complex moment.

This Easter morning we fill this holy place with a joyful noise as we faithfully sing, “Alleluia, Christ has Risen.”  Might I suggest before one experiences resurrection, there must first be death, and often death will leave us silent.

Death comes in many forms. While it can be the death of a family member or friend, it can also be the death of a dream, or the death our innocence, or the death of our very being. Jesus was not the first nor will Jesus be the last to walk into the wilderness, or as the Psalmist refers to it, “the valley of the shadow of death.” When we are in the light, we can faithfully believe Psalm 23’s promise of God’s presence. But in the darkness, sometimes all we hear is silence.

I had a dear friend, a retired minister who faithfully sat in church almost every Sunday of my twelve years in San Angelo. Fred had been the minister at St Paul’s before I arrived. He was a remarkable man who suffered from polio as a child, recovered and flew bombers in World War II. When his plane was shot down, he parachuted to safety only to spend the rest of the war in a German prison camp.  On returning home he became a successful insurance agent until, as Fred liked to say, “I started selling a permanent life insurance.” He became ordained, resurrected a wonderful church in San Angelo and then had a reoccurrence of polio. During his last years of ministry Fred used crutches to take him anywhere and everywhere he wanted to go.

Fred hated Holy Week. His favorite song was “Every Sunday is Easter Sunday.” He fully believed God would get everyone through life and death, and Fred had the track record to prove it. Fred was a terrific role model, but he struggled with the failure of others. He was constantly in denial when it came to the problems of his children and grandchildren. His wife Peggy was a saint. Defeat was left on her plate to digest. As Peggy struggled with reality, Fred would always find ways to make “his truth” palatable.

There was nothing about the idea of the cross Fred liked. To Fred, God was all powerful and the cross was a symbol of weakness. It was an obstacle Jesus overcame proving obstructions are simply something to be conquered. Resurrection is the prize at the end of the journey.

Imagine Fred’s dismay when I arrived preaching about a God who not only suffers with humanity but a God who either cannot or will not end human pain. Imagine what he thought when I preached God did not desire the cross for Jesus but neither did God eliminate it. Imagine what he thought when I preached God painfully tolerates sin, and power, and corruption.  Imagine what he thought when I preached God weeps at the destruction of human innocence. Imagine what he thought as I preached on Easter God silently retrieved the shattered pieces of his son and made something holy out of death.  

Fred came from the school that taught if you believe, God will take care of you. Fred understood resurrection to be the final proof that God had triumphed over death. I believe that also, in an eternal sense. But the resurrection of Jesus has had little effect on the continual disruption of life by our species deadly and immoral behavior.  

What a depressing message to hear on Easter Sunday! Yet imagine being one of those women at the grave of Jesus. They gave three years of their life following him. They witnessed the miracles, listened to the parables and went so far as to believe maybe he was the Messiah.

Then he was arrested. Then he was executed. They were in indescribable pain. They were alone. Then suddenly they were startled by an unknown voice that said, “Do not be afraid. Jesus is alive. Follow Him!”  

Is it any wonder the women became silent?

A loved one dies and the burden is more than you can bear. A friend says, “It’s OK, she is in a better place.”

Is there a better response than silence?

For years you have put all your energy and resources into a new venture. You did everything right but suddenly the dream was gone. You hear, “You did the best you could.”

Is there a more appropriate response than silence?

At the end of five months you are beginning to believe this time you will reach full term. Then something goes terribly wrong and once again the pregnancy is terminated. The doctor says, “At least you are still healthy.”

The only sane response is silence.

Many of you have survived both physical and spiritual forms of death. You have witnessed and you believe in resurrections. But you know those resurrections didn’t come without pain and soul searching and time and silence.

The cross is proof that God is not in the business of protecting us from harm, no matter how good we are. Jesus was perfect and he was still crucified. God is in the business of restoring us to life but restoration can be a painful. In our anger we break the silence by screaming. God hears our cries. God recognizes our ache because God knows how the world can destroy that which is sacred.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When God speaks it is not from some safe place outside of human suffering but from the very heart of it. When God speaks it is in response to the howl of a son on the cross and the howl of God’s children in the midst of pain and death.”

We are not supposed to romanticize suffering. In fact I believe God urges us to hate suffering and do everything in our power to bring it to an end. But we cannot avoid suffering and pain and death. That is not one of the choices.       Horrible, unimaginable things happen to people, not because they are bad, not because they don’t believe but simply because sometimes we are at the hands of an individual or a mob that chooses crucifixion over life.


Three frightened, silent women received the word that Jesus was alive. Three frightened, silent women stood at what they believed to be the final resting place of their loved one. They could have remained frightened. They could have remained silent. But they desired life over death. They JOYFULLY screamed about what they had seen and heard.

Resurrection is about life over death. You know that.  But resurrection is also about breaking silence. When God is silent, people cry out. When people cry out, God hears. That is when healing and restoration and resurrections begin.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Passion Week Service - Reflection on Psalm 22

O God, where are you?

We, your people, are trying to meet the demands of

        The Covenant,

                Our Covenant,

                        Your Covenant,

Yes, Your Covenant.

Only You,

        Most Holy You,

Seems absent and are nowhere to be found.     (stop)


We need your voice,

        No more than that, we need Your presence.

The World, Our World, Your World

Is on the brink of destruction,

        and you are silent.



                Criticism abound;

Might we at least hear a word from You!

        Is your silence disapproval or do you even care?

You refuse to answer our calls.

        Have we been placed on eternal hold?               (stop)


My God, Why have you forsaken us?             

Can you even begin to imagine how we must feel?

We are suspended between heaven and hell.


Our adversaries gloat,

        Our enemies celebrate,

                Our friends are nowhere to be found.

Can you even begin to imagine how we feel?

        Break from your heavenly sanctuary;

Join us in this real world.

Experience what it feels like to be



                        Or even worse,


Everyone speaks,

        But You.

Must we eternally endure your Holy Hush?             (stop)


There is a song many of us in earlier lives learned which poignantly describes the very essence of Good Friday as a shared event. The words go like this.


Must Jesus bear the cross alone,

and all the world go free.

No there’s a cross for everyone,

And there’s a cross for me.


        I dare say most of us have had a moment of weakness or courage, depending on your particular brand of theology, when we have discovered an emptiness in our soul, a void, which might best be described as the absence of God.

Were you angry?

        Were you surprised?

                Were you frightened?

                        Were you all of the above?


On Good Friday, we are given permission to question if God deserted Jesus. If the answer is yes than perhaps it is appropriate to ask at sometime will God also desert us?


On Good Friday, we are allowed to pontificate on the silence of God. It is only logical that this might lead to a discussion concerning the absence of God.


But tonight we can hardly expect a Godly response.


Good Friday can chill our soul,

Good Friday can darken our light,

        But Good Friday cannot break Godly silence.


        Can anyone be expected to speak when remembering the death of their son?

That conversation will have to can wait a day,

or perhaps three.