Sunday, January 29, 2017


Matthew 5:1-12


        The most difficult task I have many Sunday mornings is laying out an argument that the words of Jesus actually make sense. Notice I did not say I was trying to convert you to those words. Some of the things the Gospel writers have recorded leave me shaking my head. Nowhere is that more true than in these verses we call the Beatitudes. Where is the practicality in those beloved verses?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. In any national election that platform might win 2% of the popular vote. When does meekness inherit anything?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. In trying to be a peacemaker I have been called a lot of things, most of them I cannot repeat in church, but I am seldom called a child of God.

Blessed are those who mourn. Maybe this is the most difficult. While I believe in life and death we belong to God, the folks mourning seldom seem blessed. Yet I continue, beyond all common sense, to love these verses.

My problem with the Beatitudes began when I discovered a version of the Bible called Good News for Modern Man. You might remember it. It was that translation in Modern English accompanied by little stick figures that illustrated many of the pages. The Good News Bible substituted the word “happy” for “blessed”. This is not an inaccurate translation. In both the Greek and Hebrew language, happy and blessed are interchangeable. My problem was, “Happy are those who mourn,” didn’t work so well the first time I encountered a death in my family.

Then somewhere in my biblical studies I learned “blessed” was one of those words that points forward. This is particularly true in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus was always talking about the kingdom of God. In Matthew, it was not something that had arrived but definitely was coming. Matthew, more than any other gospel writer wrote, “When the kingdom arrives you will be blessed, you will be happy, you will understand the wisdom and the benevolence of God.” Matthew is writing in one time, expecting another. To embrace the words of Matthew you have to live in this time while preparing yourself for tomorrow. The Beatitudes are the most unrealistic and yet most practical words anyone could ever utter. But they are not for impatient people.

No one has used this formula better than the African-American church. Listen to their sermons. Sing their songs. They are about movement. They sing about crossing the river, climbing the mountain, seeing on the other side. This was the black preacher’s language symbolizing what one day they hoped their children would experience. So many sermons end, “How long? Not Long. How Long? Not long, for my eyes have seen the glory of the Lord.”

Using this analogy, the Beatitudes become a formula by which we not only visualize the kingdom of God, we work to bring it about. “Blessed are those who work for the kingdom of God believing someday, someone else will be satisfied.”

Howard Thurman tells the story of a ninety year old man planting pecan seedlings. His grandson came up to him and said, “Grandpa, what are you doing? Why would you plant a tree knowing you will never eat its fruit?”

The old man smiled and said, “But you will.”   (stop)

This year I will celebrate my 67th birthday. In this church that makes me middle age. I love so many things about this congregation. Perhaps first and foremost is we dream forward. Today we dedicate the new addition to our building. I remember most of the conversations that took place as we made this decision. The number one question was, “How will this help us serve the people of our valley?”

When you build, when you love, when your primary motivation for ministry is “the other” you will eventually be blessed. Why? Because the most irrational words Jesus ever spoke are the most rational words we will ever hear.

When you choose humility, or sit with those who mourn; when you hunger for righteousness, or are merciful; when your heart is pure, or you choose to be the peacemaker; when you are persecuted for a holy cause, someone, somewhere, will be blessed. How do I know this? Because standing beside the stranger, holding up the imprisoned or speaking on behalf of those silenced never escapes the eyes and heart of God.

        Can I get an Amen? (amen)         Thanks be to God!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Looking Foolish

I Cor. 1:18-25
No one wants to look foolish, yet Paul admonishes us to be fools for Christ.  I have to admit I have both embraced and struggled with this concept my entire adult life. We celebrate logic. As coherent beings we do not easily excuse lapses of irrational judgment. But then this illusive thing we call faith pushes us to precarious conclusions that only make sense to those who claim Christ as Lord.
I fully get that, but no one likes to be seen as foolish. A few months ago I was getting ready to preach.  I was sitting in that chair, listening to the reading to the New Testament scripture, waiting to be called forward to deliver my take on the text.  The last thing I noticed before standing up was I was wearing a blue and brown sock.  Since I wash, fold and iron my own clothes I had no one to blame but myself.  Here I was, about to add wisdom to the perfect Word of the Lord in my imperfect uniform.  Why should it matter?  Certainly John the Baptist was no model for GQ.  And yet I worried my message might be marred if someone noticed my foolish sock selection.
I have a good friend who is a Baptist minister.   Ron is always very particular about his appearance.  For reasons that are beyond me his tie, belt, shoes and socks always match.  Every Friday he makes a weekly pilgrimage to his barber, a ritual I find …….. amusing.  I remember meeting him once in mid-winter for a late lunch.  My eyes were drawn to the smudges on his forehead.  I knew Ron would have died if he had known something about his appearance was out of place. I struggled, wondering if I should I point out he had inadvertently scratched his head, leaving some dirt that must have been on his fingers.  But then I had another problem. To do so would terribly embarrass him.  Ron was so kept he didn’t get his hands dirty when he played golf.  What was I to do?   Before I could speak he said, “I notice you have no ashes on your forehead. When are you having your Ash Wednesday Service?”  Imagine my embarrassment having a Baptist reminding me it was Ash Wednesday. Suddenly his imperfections perfectly complimented his impeccable faith.  As it turns out, I was the foolish one.    
How often do we to take the insignificant matters of life so serious we leave far too little time for that which really matters?  Imagine living in the time of Paul.  Much of his ministry took place on the Greek Peninsula.   In the first century of the Common Era, Greece was the center of intellectual discourse.  The writings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were as familiar to Greek children as text messaging is to ours.   They followed the Socratic advice that the “unexamined life is not worth living.”  They believed Aristotle’s axiom that “Nature does nothing without purpose”. They argued endlessly concerning anything and everything. Paul arrived and wanted to interject the good news of Jesus Christ into their logical discussions.  Paul stood out like someone leaving an Ash Wednesday Service wearing the wrong socks.  He appeared absolutely foolish.  The Greeks were engaged in serious discussions concerning the nature of humanity, not some fairy tale about a benevolent god.  They were attempting to discover the truth of the human soul while Paul wanted to discuss a radical formula for the forgiveness of sins.  Eventually Paul was excluded from the discussions and told his conclusions came from the overactive imaginations of hysterical women.  To talk about resurrection was sheer foolishness.  Paul not only accepted but embraced the role of fool allowing their perceptions to evolve into one of his richest analogies. 
In I Corinthians he wrote, “We proclaim Christ crucified.  It may be seen as foolishness to the Gentiles.  But I tell you God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.”
I suspect I am like most of you. I grew up being told the cross represents love, forgiveness, mercy, grace and salvation. Two of my favorite songs as a kid were, “The Old Rugged Cross” and “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.” Every church I have ever belonged to celebrated the cross as the center piece of their sanctuary. This church is no exception. Paul did not have that luxury.  In his time the cross embodied pain, suffering, punishment, hate and death.  How can a symbol of hate be understood as a sign of God’s grace?   What Paul’s world saw as monstrous was being sold as the vehicle for life. A lot of folks refused to even try to understand the radical leap Paul was attempting. It was easier to just label him a fool. So imagine the response when Paul embraced that label.
I cannot imagine anyone wanting to look like a fool.  We like to keep our foreheads clean and wear socks that are the same color.  The problem is, how can we tell God’s story without appearing to be just a little bit nuts? Well, perhaps we can’t.
Friday I was not in a celebratory mood and  I suggested to my equally miserable wife we should go to the movies and discover what all the buzz was about concerning, “La-La Land”.  I know some of you may find this hard to believe but I love a good musical. I grew up on the lyrics of South Pacific, Camelot and Sound of Music. I have seen every remake of West Side Story. I don’t care if it Les Miz, Wicked, or Young Frankenstein, if there are tissues and popcorn I’m probably going to love it.
But this new musical based on living in Los Angeles had me a bit confused. The first dance scene in the midst of a traffic jam left me a little less than impressed. I was looking for Julie Andrews and she was nowhere to be found. Then the music of Thelonious Monk mysteriously filled the air and I was hooked. I don’t want to spoil the story but the underlining theme, a theme I might argue accompanies any great musical, is dreams appear as foolishness to anyone else, but if we don’t follow the dream we will end up being the fools.
Do you worship Jesus because he was logical?  Of course not. You worship Jesus because he was humble, caring, sacrificial, non-judgmental and because most of all he was a dreamer.  I suspect having your shirt tucked in and your socks match really aren’t all that important to Jesus. All he really cares about is how you love and how you dream, and how you go about fulfilling the dream that God has placed in your heart.
Imagine living your life the Jesus way.  Imagine letting go of all those silly things that seem so important.  Imagine if the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart were not only acceptable, and but also compassionate and humble.  Imagine the folks who would view us as foolish.  Imagine the folks who want us to “change our tune” so we will be accepted.  Imagine the folks who want us to wipe the ashes from off our forehead because it doesn’t match our clothes.
To Paul the most foolish thing in the world was that a symbol of hate, the cross. Yet there it was, right in the midst of the Jesus story.  Paul imagined beyond the reality of death and discovered the reality of God. From the beginning God’s dream has always been life. From the beginning God’s vision always has been love. From the beginning God’s revelation has always been forgiveness. But there is no life, there is no love, there is no forgiveness to found in the cross unless you can dream. And what a foolish dream that must be.
I have to confess the idea of the cross as a vehicle of grace continues to bewilder me. How can suffering ever be redemptive? Did God prearrange the death of Jesus? Can one man die for the sins of the world? If Jesus was God, is God even capable of dying?  Those are good questions. They are questions with which I grapple daily. Those are questions for which I desire clear, concise, and logical answers. But they are also questions which began to fade from my mind in a world where sin in the form of power and fear and hate demand my ultimate attention.
Foolishly, with dirt on my forehead and socks that don’t match, step away from the questions and dare to dream.
Imagine the foolishness of believing in Christ.
Imagine the foolishness of believing Christ crucified
     because he was compassionate and humble.
Imagine the foolishness of believing Christ resurrected
for the salvation of the world.
Imagine the foolishness of believing Christ resurrected
     For the wise and powerful,
                             The poor and the forgotten,
Sinners like you and me.
Now imagine being converted to such foolishness.       
To God be the glory.     Amen. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Searching for a Messiah

Isaiah 49:1-4; John 1:35-42


        We have spent the better part of the last 45 days celebrating Christmas. On the surface, this Christmas was no different than the last ……. except that it was. Christmas is all about searching for a messiah. We search through our songs, our stories and particularly through our life changing moments. For some, this Christmas was celebrated through the anticipation of a reversal of fortune and the promise of capturing a very elusive dream. For others, Christmas hardly mattered because their dream appeared to be lost. Confused?  Well we don’t like to talk about politics in church so sometimes I’m forced to speak metaphorically.  

        Using Biblical language, America has spent the entire 21st century in exile and we are trying to figure out how to come home. The image of two towers crashing to the ground is burned in our collective memories. We have struggled to find the correct, dare I say “holy” response to a parade of headlines that have left us broken and divided. We each define this brokenness from our differing political perspectives. I preach, standing on the shoulders of one whose birthday we celebrate this day. To quote Dr. King, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” But King is not the only voice in the room. Solutions to our nation’s exile cross a wide political spectrum. As we struggle to find answers, we quiver with fear as communities become more and more isolated by voices speaking their own brand of truth.

        How ironic that John the Baptist was identified as a voice in the wilderness. This was not complimentary. John was seen as crazy old loon singing the praises of a man with no legitimate resume. And if the man of whom John spoke stood on anyone’s shoulders, perhaps it was that lonely voice identified by Second Isaiah as The Suffering Servant.

        Listen to these words from Second Isaiah. “Here is my servant whom I have chosen and in whom my soul delights. My servant will be an unextinguished flame burning against the darkness. My servant will not grow weary until justice has been brought to the nations.”

        So begins the journey of Isaiah’s suffering servant. The exiles have returned home from Babylon. These folks have heard the stories of past greatness and long to once again establish the kingship of David. They desire a messiah, but they want a messiah who will conform to their vision. The poet reminded the people of Jerusalem that God is always at work in the unfolding of human history and this unfolding will be enacted by human hands. But the hands chosen to do God’s work might not be celebrated by those whose vision is deplete of the justice and righteousness that must always characterize the actions of a grace-filled God.

        Tomorrow, as a nation, we have set aside a day to celebrate the vision of one such man.   He is quoted so often and honored in so many ways our children have no idea who Martin Luther King Jr. actually was. Like anyone larger than life we are either prone to proclaim him as a Messiah or hold him to an impossible standard. Martin lived a flawed life in a flawed society. Like a moth drawn to a deadly flame he was drawn to women other than Coretta. He distanced himself from the invaluable council of Bayard Rustin because of Bayard’s sexual orientation. He chose not to press forward on the third march across The Pettus Bridge in Selma, losing the support of many young blacks who saw him as a coward. By 1968 he had grown tired of protest and marches. His sermons condemning the Viet Nam War caused many folks to look for different leadership. Perhaps King would not be remembered today if it were not for April 3rd, 1968.

        Martin Luther King was no Messiah, but he was a suffering servant. Beyond his flaws were moments of bravery, eloquence, self-sacrifice, justice and righteousness that caused even Presidents to tremble. After each sermon there were folks hiding in the darkness waiting for the opportunity to cause him great personal pain. With each dream there was the nightmare of his phone ringing with death threats, the nightmare of the four girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the nightmare of time in prison, time in despair and time of self-doubt.  He was no Messiah but his voice, his hands, his compassion were deeply rooted in the voice, hands and compassion of Christ.

        When John the Baptist proclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God”, a moment in time never before witnessed and never since replicated took place. To use the words of the Gospel John, “The word became flesh and lived among us. Through Jesus we have seen the glory of God.” The sad truth is the world did not know him. Even folks looking for the messiah did not recognize him. It is only in retrospect that we have declared that particular moment in time to be a moment by which all other moments are defined. Yet we continue to yearn for a Messiah. In fact sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we are the incarnation that holy moment.

        I have a good friend who is a workaholic. He operates at such a hectic speed I would get tired just watching him set an impossible pace.  He not only did his work but was determined to do the work of everyone else. We would work together on Habitat projects and while his energy was heroic, Craig often became a danger to himself and anyone near him.  He refused to take breaks, never drank water and thought lunch was a waste of time. I once went up to him and said, “Craig, I’ve got two pieces of good news. First, the Messiah has come.” He looked at me as if I had lost my mind.  Then I continued, “And you are not him.”

        As much as I admire the sermons and courage of Martin Luther King, he was not the messiah. As excited as many of us became eight years ago, our current President was not the messiah. Neither is our President-elect.  The messiah has already come. What we need are suffering servants, that is, folks who are willing to emulate the Lamb of God.

        Teresa of Avila was a 16th century mystic/poet who lived in Spain. She had a powerful personality that often got in the way of her potential. Then Teresa learned to pray. First she prayed primarily for herself but she eventually learned to pray for others. She spoke of prayer going beyond words. She claimed true prayer is what we do rather than what we say. Many of you are familiar with the prayer I eluded to a few minutes ago. Near the end of her life she gathered her friends around her and said,

        Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

                No hands but yours,

                No feet but yours.

        Yours are the eyes through which to look out on Christ’s compassion to the world.

        Yours are the feet

with which he is to go about doing good.

        Yours are the hands

with which he is to bless folks now.


        Those words were spoken centuries ago but they are just as powerful today. How are you willing to touch another in a way that gives them hope? How are you willing to listen to another who is seldom recognized or heard? Can you really shut your eyes to the misfortune of another? How will you embrace the compassion of Christ through acts of mercy and grace? It might be a hardship. Carrying wood to the back porch of a stranger or getting down on the floor to help a child reads makes us reach for the Advil when we get home. Listening to stories which are not our own to only takes patience, it is downright inconvenient. Worse yet, it can break our heart.  When the sun is shining there are a lot of other things we might like to do rather than listening to people, healing people, forgiving people or even sitting quietly with people who are ready to die. We are not the Messiah! But we can become a suffering servant. We can be the one who proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, I want be like him.”

        In all that you do, be the hands of Christ.

        In all that you do, be the feet of Christ.

        In all that you do, be the compassion of Christ.

        By doing so you will dream beyond yesterday and even today. By doing so you will dream into God’s tomorrow.