Sunday, August 30, 2015

Being in Sexual Solidarity with God

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

        Every Monday morning I create the bulletin for the next Sunday. This task involves writing a call to worship and a prayer based on the Psalm of the week, selecting two suggested texts, picking Hymns that will fit the selected texts and creating a temporary title for the sermon which is usually changed by Thursday. This has been my ritual forever and I doubt it will change any time soon. Sometimes a scripture sits there begging to have a new sermon written about it. Sometimes a scripture seems perfect for a particular time of the year. Sometimes picking the scripture is like pulling teeth. This week, there was never a doubt which scripture I would choose. A long time ago I made myself a promise before I reached 65 I would preach at least one sermon on every book of the Bible. As of last week I was at 65 books and holding. The one remaining book was Song of Solomon. In our lectionary list, a text from Song of Solomon only appears once every three years. I turn 65 in a month. Like it or not I figured this is my last chance to make good on a promise made over 30 years ago.

        “Look, my beloved comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a young stag, gazing through my window and beckoning, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me.”

        I am not making those words up. In our Bible, right between Ecclesiastes claiming everything is “Vanity” and Isaiah lamenting, “Judah as a wicked nation laden with children who are corrupt and despise the One Holy God”, are eight chapters of love poems that would make D.H. Lawrence blush. What the heck is going on?

        I spent a great deal of time last week reading and rereading, and then reading again the 22nd book of the Old Testament. For a denomination preoccupied with discussing sex for at least three decades, it is a wonder the Song of Solomon hasn’t been banned. I decided to do some research and discover how it was selected to be placed in the Bible. My studies were quite interesting.

        Many Christian scholars claim the Song of Solomon has nothing to do with sex but is an allegory of Christ as the bridegroom of the church. Obviously they didn’t read the same poems I read. Sometimes Christians work way too hard trying to make the Old Testament a book that was only written to shed light on Jesus. My fellow preachers place post resurrection interpretations on scriptures which were not only written before the birth of Christ but scriptures which have significant meaning within the framework of the Jewish faith. While some selections of the Old Testament can be understood more fully in light of the Christ event, we need to carefully honor the original intentions of the text.

        My confusion over Song of Solomon being seen as a representation of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church is after a careful reading of the poems, and trust me I read them very carefully, I never found God mentioned in the entire book. How can a book that doesn’t talk about God be about God?

Let me share some other interesting things I discovered. While it is listed in the Christian Bible as the Song of Solomon, in the Jewish Canon is it called the Song of Songs. Why is that? One reason would be while Solomon lived in the 9th century BCE, the poems were probably written six centuries later.   The literary style is similar to Egyptian poems which were popularized by Greek poets. Three hundred years before Christ, Judah was heavily influenced by Greek Scholarship. More than likely these poems became integrated into the Jewish culture and were placed among the wisdom literature we find in the Jewish Apocryphal. 100 years after the death of Christ, because the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and Jews were migrating throughout the Mediterranean,  Jewish scholars decided to compile a list of books that would officially be recognized as the Hebrew Bible. Books like Genesis, Exodus and Psalms were immediately included. Other books were not accepted so quickly. Each book had to reveal some revelation about God. After much discussion, the Jewish scholars, aware of the popularity of the poems, and noting one verse mentioned the name of Solomon, decided perhaps the poems were allegorical. They placed the book next to Ecclesiastes, another book which barely crept into the Jewish Bible. When the Christian Church compiled its own Canon, the Jewish Bible was accepted as a whole. 400 years later, celibate monks interpreting the Hebrew text into Latin, decided the book could not possibly be about sex.  They changed the name to Song of Solomon, and declared the poems celebrated Christ and his bride the church.

So I ask you, why can’t the poem just be about a beautiful relationship between two people? Furthermore, why shouldn’t a poem celebrating love be in the Bible?

More years ago than I care to remember I was asked to fly to Kansas City to meet with Presbyterians from all over the United States. Our task was to review a new curriculum which was taking a creative and honest approach toward teaching human sexuality to young people between the ages of 13-16. It was advertised to be faith based and celebrated God’s gift of sexuality.   After extensive training, I was instructed to go home to try this new approach.

I thought it was terrific. Every time I moved to a new church I exposed the youth to this curriculum. I taught classes in Wilmington NC, then Va. Beach, and later in San Angelo, Texas. Each group was composed of radically different young people and some very cautious parents, particularly in North Carolina. I taught these classes over a period of ten years and found the results to be absolutely amazing. Both my son and daughter were students and to this day  I believe one of the reasons my son became involved in public health issues is because of the openness and honesty of those classes.

The tragedy of the story is that the curriculum was never published. An outcry in the Presbyterian Church emerged, claiming it was the role of the parents and not the church to teach sex education, no matter how faith based the curriculum might be.

Why are we so uncomfortable with public conversations about sexuality?  The opening statement in the banned curriculum was, “God made human beings male and female for their mutual help comfort and joy. We recognize that our creation as sexual beings is part of God’s loving purpose for us. God intends all people to affirm each other with joy, freedom and responsibility. God created us and gave us the gift of sexuality.”  That is hardly a radical statement, yet thirty years ago it was viewed as a dangerous theological assumption. For thirty years I have watched folks leave our denomination because of their fear of having an open and honest conversation concerning this God given gift.

Norman Pittenger wrote, “Christianity is not about good behavior, nor is it an interesting speculation about God. Christian faith is the commitment of the self to the reality of the cosmic Love which is in, and behind, and through, and under all creaturely experience. The church exists to enable men and woman to experience the love of Christ, consciously, intentionally, and attentively, thus finding wholeness in their lives.”

Admittedly finding Old Testament stories depicting sexuality as a gift are not easy to find. The early codes on sexuality are based on the desire to procreate and be fruitful. These laws were written before women were considered to be human beings. The only purpose for women was to have children. Ironically one of the last books to be written is the one we assume to be the oldest. In the prologue of the book of Genesis, sexuality is expressed as a God given gift. The Genesis stories, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachael speak of two people finding completeness in each other. This theme continually surfaces through the post exilic texts and becomes dominate in the New Testament where God is understood as perfect, unadulterated love.

The Song of Songs was never about God’s relationship with Israel. It was about fulfilling God’s gift to humankind. The Song of Songs is not about Christ being the bridegroom of the church, but about celebrating Christ when we honor and respect our life long partner.

Sexual practices can be exploitive, cruel, and have nothing to do with love. The global market has made human sexuality a commodity for the promotion and sale of goods and services. This is a parasite on a God given gift.

Sexual exploitation is not unique to our century. We know from the beginning of time woman and children have been sexually oppressed. Perhaps in the third century before Christ, in the light of the abuse of a God given gift, a poet sat down to write. She wrote about her lover. She wrote about their commitment to each other. She wrote playfully, yet seriously.  She included her hopes and dreams. She wrote lovingly in every sense of the word. Then she signed it, Solomon, hoping by using a cherished name from the past the poems might be read by those shackled by a culture’s misrepresentation of a God given gift.  

Those that read the poems cherished them. Those that read the poems protected them. Those that read the poems preserved them for future generations.  Then 400 years later, I would like to imagine that God spoke to a respected Rabbi who was one of many elected to choose the sacred text for the Jewish Canon.

God said, “Pick this one.”  The Rabbi was aghast, “I can’t propose Song of Songs to be part of the Holy Words. It is so outrageous, plus you are not even mentioned.” God responded, “But it gives me such great delight.”     Amen.      

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Does God Expect Too Much?

Ephesians 6:10-17; John 6:60
        The 6th chapter of John begins with the miracle of the feeding of 5,000 and then evolves into a lengthy discourse where Jesus describes himself as the Bread of Life.  It is one of the most beautiful passages in the entire Biblical text. It is also quite complex. Near the end of the chapter Jesus challenges his disciples to live in the light of his grace rather than complying with the standards of the world.  In verse 60, one of the disciples has the courage to stand face to face with Jesus and say, “Your way is too difficult.  Who can accept it?”
        Can you imagine having the guts to confront the Son of God by saying, “Sir, you really expect too much of us.  I’m a pretty descent guy and do my best to look after my family, but the bar that you have set is way too high.  You expect me to put nothing before you and your mission.  You expect me to honor you by becoming a cheerful and generous giver.  You want me to volunteer my precious time on behalf of folks I might not even like.  And then you expect me to be less than shy when I talk about my faith?    Isn’t that why we elect elders?  I am not going to stand in the way of those who want to be ‘really religious’,  but for most of us, your expectations are just too hard.”
        Can you imagine what might actually happen if we had the audacity to have that conversation with the Almighty?  I certainly wouldn’t play golf that afternoon because there might be too much electricity in the air.
        The truth is, by any standards, God demands too much.  In the Old Testament the standard set for God’s covenant people was much higher than the benchmark set any other culture.  God presented the 10 Commandments and then said, “If you are going to be my people, this is what I expect.”  If folks past had complied with God’s laws, the Christ event would not have been necessary.  But then we have not done much better. Flawlessness appears to be impossible, even for those who are doing their best. But humanities imperfection hardly limits God’s perfection or God’s expectations.
        The writer of the book of Ephesians makes an extraordinary claim that God’s plan for humanity is to be lived out by God’s new chosen community, the church.  Since we are saved by grace, we are called to live as God’s ambassadors to the world.  Ephesians 4 challenges us to be imitators of Christ. In the fifth chapter, the author sets guidelines to be followed in our pursuit of this daunting task.  He writes, “Be strong in the Lord.  Put on the armor of God that you might stand firm against all evil.”
        The writers of curriculum for children love this text. They suggest the teacher dress up the children to resemble Sir Galahad. But the writer of Ephesians knows the quest of being God’s church is more than child’s play.  He saw it as part of God’s plan to unite all people in Christ.  
        This passage creates a striking visual image.  The Christian resembles a fully armed member of the elite Roman Guard.  The Christian is dressed in armor that offers protection from the arrows that attack our faith.  But before we start singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”, notice the peculiar armor we are given to wear.
        “Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.”     That raises a whole lot of questions.  My truth may be different from your truth. When we dare to bring God’s truth into the equation that opens up a whole new can of worms.  Jesus said, “I am the truth.”  Does that mean that everything we do begins and ends with the word of God?  If it does, then I doubt if any of us are worthy.   See how hard this is becoming?
        “Put on the breastplate of righteousness.”  Righteousness is one of those great theological words used often in the Old Testament.  In the Psalms, God is described as righteous, merciful, slow to anger and steadfast in love.  What does it mean to be “righteous”?  In very simple terms, the one who is righteous is the one who fulfills a covenant.  God is righteous because God faithfully keeps the covenant made with God’s created people.  The saving of the Israelite slaves from Egypt was an act of righteousness.  The resurrection of Jesus, saving us from the perils of sin, was an act of righteousness.  Putting on the breastplate of righteousness literally means that we will be faithful in our covenant with God.  What is that covenant?  We are commanded to faithfully love God and our neighbors.  No exceptions!  I’m not sure I am that righteous.
        “As for shoes, put on whatever will prepare you to proclaim the gospel of peace.”   Be it a war of words or something much worse, most of us enter a conflict with the clear aim of winning.  Compromise is not the goal because it leaves neither side satisfied. We live in a world of winners and a loser.  Often a participant will give in to “keep the peace”.  But how long is that peace kept?  All of us have participated in ill conceived peaceful resolutions which eventually evolve into a resurgence of the original conflict.  Honest and faithful peacemaking is hard work because honest and faithful peacemaking requires us to have a truthful relationship with our adversary, even if we don’t much care for them.   
        “Pick up the shield of faith.”  How difficult can this be?  We all have great faith.  Actually I think it would be easier if we were asked to pick up the sword of faith.  With the sword of faith we could aggressively wade into God’s battle and attack our adversary with more than words.  But a shield is used for defense.  We hold up our faith to protect us from all the arrows hurled our way.  Like those Roman Legions that formed a protective shell from the initial onslaught of their enemy, we wait, and wait until the energy, and perhaps the anger of our foe is extinguished.  And then we rise up, wearing the “helmet of salvation”; we rise up “with the word of God” as our sword; we rise up, not to slay but embrace our adversary with the possibility of an old covenant based on the everlasting love of God.  Without a doubt, God definitely expects too much of us.
        In his book on the Civil Rights Movement, Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch includes a shocking photo of a lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi.  You may have seen it.  A white man and woman were sitting with an African-American woman.  Their backs are turned to an angry mob gathered behind them.  The waiter has just poured a bottle of ketchup on the man’s head.  One young person is eternally captured by the photo as he joyfully pours a jar of sugar on the head of the Afro-American woman.  All three people sit at the counter with their jaws clenched as if they want to pick up the sword of righteousness and slay every one in the room.  But they sat quietly, receiving every sort of abuse.  
        I have seen that picture many times. But as I looked at it again this week my eyes shifted to the face of one white man sitting in the corner.  He is older than most of the folks at the counter.  He seems to almost be looking away.  His eyes portray a great deal of pain.  I know nothing of this man, except that he had probably wandered into his favorite place to eat lunch and his life was forever disrupted.  He was probably known as one of the good folks in his town. He might have been a faithful member of the First Presbyterian Church in Jackson.  He had probably heard sermons about the breastplate of righteousness and shield of faith.  But he had never given it much thought until that fateful day as he silently watched the ketchup run down the face of that quiet stranger who had ruined his lunch.  Without a finger being lifted, he had the expression on his face of one who had been slain, or at least confused by the love of God.
        I doubt that the three folks who chose that lunch counter on that particular day felt triumphant.  I suspect the white man and woman slipped out of town later that night to move on to the next encounter.  They probably wondered if what they had done was worth the effort. They probably thought God expected too much of them.  If only they could have seen the face at the end of the counter.  If only they could have met the man slain by their act of peaceful resistance.   If only they could have known the Godly seed they had planted.  (stop)
        God does expect a lot of us. But God has also dressed us for the occasion with holy armor.  Wear it proudly.  Wear it always.  Wear it for the cause of peace and righteousness.
                                                To God be the Glory.   Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sing A Song to the Lord

Ephesians 5:15-20

“Sing a Song to the Lord”


        I am sorry to see this summer come to an end. I have really enjoyed the experiences we’ve had together on Sundays. It was kicked off with the Second Sunday event in May when a bunch us gathered under the pavilion to celebrate young people, eat everything but fried chicken, and tap our feet to the music of Marianne and the Stringbusters. On other Second Sundays we enjoyed a visit from Isaiah, Amos and Ezra. We shared bread and everything else imaginable under the pavilion. Then last week and we experienced a child delighting her father by making a balloon disappear. You had to be there.  But what excited me the most was what happened on Sunday mornings. In June we began our summer ritual of a 10:00 service. In the past, those services have felt a bit awkward, as if we are trying to squeeze two different experiences into one. This summer we kind of said to heck with being conventional and trusted the spirit of God to create some holy moments. Sometimes the service was led by various reincarnations of the Stringbusters. Sometimes we sang favorite hymns played in the traditional way. Sometimes the choir would enhance our worship from the choir loft. Sometimes singers would stumble and bumble in front of the Communion Table. Sometimes we would read a portion of the Brief Statement of Faith and offer prepared prayer in unity. Sometimes we prayed silently, each seeking our own direction. Sometimes the service ended on time, sometimes it did not, but it hardly seemed to matter. Most of you hung around for another thirty minutes regardless.

        Many of you remarked how wonderful it would be to worship together all the time. There are some practical issues that make that unlikely. Our sanctuary is not large enough and no one has any desire to expand our worship space.  Many of you like worshipping at 8:30 while others are ready to return to 11:00. Some like the formality and order of the second service. Others crave the freedom to move away from any kind of ritual. There are all kind of great reasons to go back to two services in September, chief among them being the flexibility two services allows.  But just for a moment, before the leaves begin to turn, let’s celebrate what we accomplished these past months.

        Not a week goes by that I am not contacted via e-mail by church professionals who would like to enhance our worship experience. Some offer sermons I can plagiarize for a small fee. Some offer multimedia extravaganzas that would be flashed up on a giant screen guaranteeing your amazement. I assume the screen would cover the Cross.  Some offer uplifting music, backed by electronic sounds and the “beat, beat, beat, of the tom, tom.” (My apologies to Cole Porter.) There are worship experiences for Millennial’s, Generation Xer’s, Baby Boomers, and even special services for folks our age. They are called funerals.  Evidently, attracting people to worship is big business. Perhaps we should market what has happened this summer. The Problem is it wouldn’t sell. Our formula is as ancient as the writings of the Biblical text. Our worship enters on the songs we sing, the scriptures we read, the trust we have in each other the wisdom we discover in God through Christ Jesus. We understand Paul’s words, “Become wise by singing Psalms and hymns, by making melody to the Lord, by always giving thanks to God for everything in the name of Christ.” 

        The first time I walked in this place I recognized how acoustically superior it is to so many other sanctuaries. If you sit in the second row, right in the middle, and clap your hands, sound comes at you from a thousand directions. Music is enhanced by this holy place in which we worship. But we are made wiser by the songs we sing.

        We all have our favorites. I was especially pleased by the number of folks who asked to have a beloved hymn sung this summer. I think one way or the other we covered all of those requested. Hymns are so marvelous. Utilizing a memorable tune, hymns share with us the story of our faith in a unique way. I love the tunes, but it is the poetry that inspires my soul.   Can you guess the title of these lines?

        When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,

My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.

 (How Firm a Foundation)


Speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.

Save us thy people from consuming passion,

Who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.

(Hope of the World)


O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,

And while smiling, have called me by name.

             (You have Come to the Lakeshore)

Sing, pray and swerve, not from God’s way;

But do thy own part faithfully.

Trust the rich promises of grace,

So shall they be fulfilled in thee.

        (If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee Lord),


It shouldn’t surprise anyone but many of my favorite songs come from the Book of Psalms.

Psalm 139 – Search me O God and know my heart. Test me and know my thoughts.

Psalm 30 – You have turned my mourning into dancing and clothed me with joy.

Psalm 96 – Sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things.

Psalm 62- For God alone my soul waits in silence.

And perhaps the mantra that flows through the Psalms: The Lord is gracious; the Lord is merciful; the Lord is slow to anger and the Lord is filled with steadfast love. 

The Word of the Lord, the wisdom of the Lord, fills our hearts and flows from our head to toe. Can anyone tell me which Prophet spoke these words?  

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.    (Amos)

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God?    (Micah)

Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye my people. Let every valley be lifted up and every mountain made low and the righteousness of the Lord revealed.    (Second Isaiah)

And perhaps my favorite, How can I give you up? How can I let you go? I taught you how to walk?     (Hosea)

The words of the prophets shaped what was to come out of the mouth of Jesus. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

For God so loved the world, God gave his son.

Forgive seven times? Forgive seventy times seven.

If you love me, feed my sheep.

Go make disciples of everyone and remember, I am with you always.

The Word became Flesh or as Paul like to put it, Jesus, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, becoming a slave, and obedient, even to the point of death. And then Paul reminded us, Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. To this James added, Be doers of the word and not hearers only.

But what good is the wisdom of the Word if it is not apparent in the way we interact with each other? Desmond TuTu claims, My humanity is caught up in yours. We each belong to a greater whole and if we humiliate another person our personhood is diminished.

Where in our cadre of songs, where in the Word do we hear, I am a rock, I am an island? Don’t confuse Paul Simon with the Apostle Paul. We are interdependent. We are in relationship with one another, even when we are at odds with each other. That is when following God gets to be difficult. Where is the wisdom in loving my enemy?

Ever hear someone say, The wisdom of God is beyond my understanding. I completely agree. But that does not mean the wisdom of God is beyond our reach.

God loves us. This is a basic principal of our faith. But it is beyond our understanding unless we reciprocate by loving God and our neighbor.

God empowers us. But what good is our empowerment if we don’t lift someone up along the way?

God suffers for us. Perhaps this is only fully understood when we suffer for and with one another.

God saves us. This is our good news. But it was not meant just for us. How might we share this gift of God?

There is a song I learned a few years ago which I am not sure you know but maybe we can learn it by next summer. I’ll share the words and then Kathleen will sing it.

Give thanks, with a grateful heart,

Give thanks to the Holy One,

Give thanks, because we’re given, Jesus Christ the Son.

And now, let the weak say, “We are strong,”

Let the poor say, “We are rich,”

Because of what the Lord has done for us.

Give thanks.


Imagine singing in order to make the weak stronger.

Imagine praying in order to make the poor rich.

Imagine living in order to celebrate what God has done. Imagine giving thanks for the wisdom of our God.

I think that’s what we have tried to do this summer.

                                To God be the glory. Amen.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Does God Go To Bed Angry?

Ephesians 4:25-32


Have you ever gone to bed angry? Do you remember when you first heard that pearl of wisdom? Just uttering those words today sounds so profoundly preposterous. I think my Grandmother Andrews was the first person to tell me, “Be angry, but do not sin. Never let the sun go down on your anger.” I believed her. I was also seven at the time. I promised I would never let the events of any day interfere with the sleep I so desperately craved. I think initially I could have pulled it off, except I wasn’t an only child.  Thinking back, I was probably having that conversation with my grandmother after one of my sisters had driven me crazy.  

Now I realize even if my parents had spared me the massive responsibility of being a brother, I would have eventually found myself in interaction with other human beings. Relationships are hard, especially when they include people. Even our greatest joys can become opportunities for discontent. The most beautiful words Deb ever uttered to me were, “My love, I’m pregnant.”  Suddenly simple tasks like the naming a child caused many a sleepless night. Then Martina arrived! It is unbelievable how much a child can change our time honored routines.

Once Pandora’s Box is opened, practical concerns are often no longer resolved in a day. Dreams are interrupted with the nightmares of financial matters, vocational questions, parenting guidance, and perhaps the worst of all, which family do we stay with this year for Christmas?

Here are a couple truths. Life is hard because sharing is hard. Life is hard because always telling the truth is hard. Life is hard because not always getting your way is hard. Throw in all of the other external factors that disrupt our lives and sometimes sleeping becomes hard.

I am guessing nothing I have said so far surprises anyone. So allow me to express my irritation with the author Ephesians for offering such a simplistic response to such a complicated dilemma. I know how destructive sin is. I am aware that anger, even when exercised in a holy manner, can become a bit wrathful. But what confuses me the most is the presupposition that I live as God lives; forgiving one another, loving one another, and caring for one another.  Now that is really hard. I understand Christ is the standard bearer for all that is good and holy. But does God have a clue how difficult it is to go from sun-up to sun-down and be expected to resolve every single conflict before the night-light is extinguished?  Doesn’t God ever go to bed angry?

I would hope that God never sleeps, but that misses the intention of the question. God certainly encounters darkness. Within the recesses of that darkness does God struggle with the disappointments of what God witnessed in the light? What must God be thinking at the end of each day? I know if I were God I would be taking Prozac.

The Old Testament expresses God’s disappointment by speaking of God’s anger. This disappointment is often followed with the threat of The Wrath of God. Job and Psalms mention God’s wrath over 40 times. Ironically the Gospels hardly mention wrath at all. Romans and Revelations are the only New Testament books that mention the wrath of God more than five times.  In the case of Paul, the phrase is always followed by the words “saved from”. I find that to be rather comforting. I would rather be saved from God’s wrath than experience it.

Nonetheless, the Old and New Testament are in complete agreement in portraying the profound tension that exists between God and humankind. The Bible begins began with the marvelous myth of Adam and Eve. Paradise was created. Everything but cable TV was provided. The only prohibition was instructions concerning a particular piece of fruit. I have often thought if God doesn’t want us to sin than God should not have given us appetites.

The story exposes several truths about humanity. We are inquisitive. We are independent. We lie when we need to and indulge ourselves when it serves our purposes. Such is the nature of humans. The story warns these characteristics can result in miserable and precarious situations which touch every fabric of our personal lives. Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. Such is the wrath of God. But does God lose sleep every time we bite into the wrong apple?

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, who has had a tremendous impact on my understanding of God writes,


“You always knew that you need God more than anything; but do you not know that God needs you. Who would human beings be, who would you be, if God did not need them and did not need you? You need God in order to be. God needs you, for the very meaning of your life.”

Buber suggests we tinker with the opening statement Genesis and change it from, “In the beginning, God created”, to “In the beginning, a relationship emerged.” That is what the prologue in Genesis is all about. It begins the story of a relationship between humanity and God that runs throughout the entire Biblical text. Sometimes the relationship goes sour. But this does not halt our quest for a better understanding of who we are and who God is. This search can challenge us to move from the question, ‘Do I believe in God?’ to the much more personal, ‘Do I live God?’

Before you roll your eyes, let me point out that Buber’s theology did not emerge from some hippie commune in the 1960’s. He lived in Germany until the late 1930’s. His words reflect the times in which he lived. His words rise from his own bewilderment that an omnipotent God would not extinguish the fires of Auschwitz where many of his friends and family members perished. He writes of a weeping God, a God who appears in the midst of a powerless people, choosing to be submerged in the depths of an unspeakable tragedy. Folks like Buber and Elie Wiesel have helped me to not only grapple with Auschwitz, but with the tragedies of my life, including My Lai, and 9-11 and more recently the shooting of children at places like Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook.  It has helped me question the seemingly lack activity in the midst of these tragedies? The notion that God is omnipotent seems heretical in the light of the human inspired catastrophes that consistently tarnish the human landscape. Why doesn’t God act? Is God incapable? Where is our dethroning of Pharaoh?

It was once explained to me that God’s inactivity protects the precious free will of humanity.  I bought that for a while. But now, as I reeamine the Biblical relationship that exist between God and creation, as I struggle with my self-perceived notion of the inactivity of God, my heart pushes me to move from my own angst, and reconsider the transformational of the significance of the cross. That journey has stirred with in my soul.

What if the cross stands as an affirmation of the non-violent love of God even in the face of a world that too often turns to hate, rage, anger and war? What if God, though Christ, has declared that The Almighty will no longer impose suffering on humanity but will become a fellow sufferer? What if God, overwhelmed by the tragedies of creation was no longer able to sleep? What if God decided rather than starting all over again, God would step into the world? And what if God knew this holy of plan would only work if there was restraint shown toward those who challenged Jesus?

God not only came among us, God became us. God felt pain, rejection, torture and even death. And then God voluntarily came to back from death to stand with us, not above us, in our pilgrimage to transform this world.   

In the 1990’s I had the joy of listening to Desmund TuTu. My goodness was he a little man. But as he spoke, he grew. By the time the sermon concluded Desmund must have been seven feet tall. He spoke as someone who understood what it meant to be powerless and yet as someone gifted with an authority of which most of us can only dream. It was his reckless belief in love and reconciliation. It was his extraordinary ability to understand the fear and the hurt and even the dreams of his enemy. It was the love of God playing itself out through the words and deeds of this tiny little giant.  I thought, “When he returns home to South Africa, someone is going to kill him.” Then a voice from within said, “But they cannot kill his soul.” 

One night God went to bed angry. I imagine God tossed and turned, struggling all night with the sin and rebellion that caused the suffering God witnessed. When God awoke, a new creation walked on this earth. Folks called him Jesus.

God emptied God’s self and became a servant. Jesus listened, Jesus engaged, and Jesus suffered. Jesus became us and we were transformed.

Often the hardest thing about anger is it keeps us from understanding the position of our adversary. I’m not talking about solving international disputes. I’m talking about the personal conflicts that ruin our nights. God emptied God’s self. How often do we empty ourselves to understand the view from across the room? We prefer to see ourselves as omnipotent. Have you ever considered that perhaps we aren’t? Have you ever considered that our righteousness often does more harm than good? Maybe those with whom we struggle are suffering as much as we are. Maybe they are also losing sleep. Maybe they desire a new point of intersection. Maybe they even desire reconciliation.

Paul said, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Like God, put away, bitterness, wrath, anger, and slander. Be kind and forgiving, like the God who has forgiven you.”

How is this possible unless we learn to imitate God? Not God the all-powerful, not God the omnipotent, but the God in Christ who gave himself up for us. I suspect when we discover how much we need God, we will also discover how much we need each other.  And then, perhaps, will we sleep.  


Sunday, August 2, 2015

What Is Your Gift?

Ephesians 4:1-7


A few weeks ago, a colleague remarked, “I am hearing really good things about your church.” That inner voice within, you know the one that always gets us in trouble, wanted to say, “It’s not my church, it is the church of Jesus Christ”. But I refrained from sarcasm, smiled and thanked him. I knew that was not going to be the end of the conversation. The right reverend continued, “To what do you attribute your success?” Again my inner voice wanted to shout, “It’s not my success, it is our success, if success is even the right word.” Again, I quelled my thoughts and instead responded, “We all seem to really like each other.”

“Well”, my inquisitive friend replied, “That is interesting but I am more concerned about your theological roots. What is it that your church believes?” My inner voice is screaming, “He is trying to trap you into saying something stupid.”

I smiled and responded, “We believe Jesus said first and foremost we should really like each other.”

My colleague, who was becoming less of a friend and more of a pain in the you know what, gave me one of those preachy smirches and retorted. “I believe Paul said, “Faith alone.” How does you church respond to Paul?”

Before I could take a deep breath, my inner voice spoke loud and clear, “You are mistaken. It was Martin Luther who said, “Sola Fides, Faith Alone.” What Paul said was, “Faith, Hope, and Love, and the greatest of these was Love.” 

Sometimes we get so enthralled by what people think Paul said we fail to give the Apostle the credit deserved concerning what he believed it meant to live as a disciple of Christ and how that effects our interaction with others.

Ephesians 4 is an extraordinary passage. Paul writes, “I beg you to live worthy of your calling. With humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love, maintaining unity in the Spirit, in the bond of peace.”

This is where my inner voice correctly reminds me, “You cannot say anything more profound than what you just read.”    (stop)   

It is such a shame preachers seem predestined to attempt the impossible task of perfecting on perfection, but that seems to be our calling. So forgive me as I try to shed light on on what Paul has so perfectly written.

        In the first three chapters of the Book of Ephesians, Paul attempts to persuade the folks in this small community that God loves them and God saved them by grace through the death and resurrection of Christ. The people were overwhelmed by this good news and wanted to know how they might respond to God’s generosity. Paul replied, “Since you have been raised by Christ, live like Christ. In everything you do, glorify God and glorify others.” The message was clear. Because God has accomplished our salvation, we should live together as one in Christ.

        How might those words apply to us? Part of the joy of this community is we are an eclectic collection of radically different people. We are Yankees and Crackers, sophisticated and redneck, straight and gay, salesmen and farmers, golfers and fisherman, Republicans, Democrats and Independents. For the most part, the only two things we universally have in common are our age and our love of this valley. But here we are, many spirits, multiple minds, singing at the top of our lungs, The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. 

        Jesus, perhaps better than anyone in all of human history, preached unity does not mean uniformity. One moment Jesus was spending his nights with learned scholars such as Nicodemeus, whispering in the shadows to protect the reputations of the elite and then Jesus was sitting by a well with a woman with a horrible reputation, in plain sight, much to the disgust of both the townsfolk and the disciples. Jesus hung out with everyone. There was no cost of admission to his sermons. Jesus was the originator of the affordable care act. He healed everyone. Rich and poor came to hear him speak. Famous and infamous asked to be touched by his healing hand. He told stories everyone could understand sometimes even made a Samaritan the hero of his tale. Jesus was a strange man who crossed social and economic boundaries as easily as we cross state lines.  Everything he said, and everything he did, could be wrapped up in his glorious testimony, “Love God and Love your Neighbor.”

        You would think this would make the task of being a church rather easy. We confirm, one Lord, one faith and one baptism. We love our neighbor and life is good. Right?

        Ah, if it were only that easy. Ever attempt a serious study in theology. Calvin’s essential belief was in one sovereign God. Luther claimed first and foremost we are saved by grace. You would have thought the two could have discovered commonality within their two statements, but that wasn’t quite the case. For centuries Lutherans and Calvinist argued over which man’s writings were more important to the Reformation. And then there were the followers of Zwingli, Knox, Erasmus and Wesley.

Such is the study of what we believe. Some folks chiefly celebrate the All-powerful, All-knowing Omnipotence of God. Others suggest worshipping an all-powerful God might hinder us from having a relationship with the One who brings the sojourner out of darkness and exile. Add Jesus to the mix and things get further complicated. Do you worship the Jesus of glory or the Jesus of the cross? Are you an Easter or Good Friday kind of guy? Do the words, “This is my body, broken”, leave you shaking your head? 

The question is, can the church be a place for the discussion where God can be seen differently, or must there only be one vision and to hell with everyone else? Then what really complicates things is the God discussion is a piece of cake compared to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Paul said to the folks in Ephesus, and to anyone who claims God as Lord, “While we claim One God, that same God gave us different gifts.” Simply put, we are not the same. We think differently, we look differently, we talk differently and we probably have different priorities. On the surface, there would seem to be no way we could work in concert to accomplish anything. Yet when the different gifts mesh together toward one goal, amazing things happen.

Most of us can hold a tune……. if we are the only one singing. If our note is the only note that matters than the concept of flat or sharp is not relative. Once singing in key becomes part of the equation, the sound may improve but in the process, many of the voices are eliminated.

Some folks are blessed with ears which hear a collection of notes in harmony. Often the difference between the congregation singing and the choir singing is simply an understanding of harmonics. Most simple choral music is based on stacking one note on top of another until a pleasant sound is achieved. If the bass is singing a C, the other musicians are singing a combination of E, G and the octave C. For many of you what I said makes absolutely no sense. Let me demonstrate. 

I am going to ask to Pat play a C.

Now play a C Chord.

If we all played one note, or if we sang in harmony off our one note, we would sound great. But we would not be utilizing the gifts of the whole community. We would be silencing voices that could give the piece some real color.

My favorite pianist is the late great Thelodius Monk. His best known composition is a piece titled, ‘Round About Midnight.        Monk would start with a very simple, yet haunting line and wrap it around chord structures that would amaze Johann Sebastian. People stood in line to play with Monk. Many of the greats in jazz never became great until Monk freed them from their conventional way of reading a chart. My favorite piece of advice from Monk was, “Music begins when you trust the ear of the person sitting beside you.”

The human community is in desperate need of churches where faith and practice become one by trusting the person beside them. This means sometimes we play more than one note and occasionally we even dare to venture beyond a simple chord. We place our gifts next to, below, and on top of someone else, creating a unique intersection where God’s sovereignty and our brokenness are held together by the wonders of grace.                       (stop)

That sounds really profound but how on earth is it possible? I guess we are back where we started. “Live a life worthy of your calling. With humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love, maintaining unity in the Spirit of God, and in the bond of peace.”