Sunday, February 26, 2017

Truth or Myth

II Peter 1:16-2


        The book of Psalms begins with the wonderful affirmation, “Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord, for they shall proper like trees planted by streams of water.” How wonderful it must be to have all this God stuff figured out. I can’t imagine a day going by without doubts and questions concerning not only what I believe but what other folks assume I believe. I doubt I am alone.

People of faith often seem burdened, perhaps even confused, by the very nature of God.  We who faithfully strive to follow the precepts of God wonder why The Almighty isn’t publicly a bit more active. Sometimes we even might wonder if God actually exists.   It is becoming harder and harder to be faithful in a world where increasing numbers believe God is no more than a human creation. I for one believe a Godly demonstration might be helpful.

This is not a new problem. In Peter’s second letter, the disciple was surrounded by skeptics. Peter was a witness to the resurrection yet those to whom he preached wanted proof that Peter wasn’t delusional. They had not seen Christ. They had every reason to doubt. The story Peter told created serious concerns among those who could not imagine God walking among us. They lived in a Greek culture that placed a premium on the present moment.  But Peter spoke of a life beyond death, a concept that left them baffled and amused.

It sort of reminds me of today. Many older Christians have invested highly in the heaven question. We are pretty evenly divided on how we get there. What would be considered traditional theology, beginning with Augustine and certainly running through the Protestant Reformation, claims salvation by grace alone. In simple language, we are saved by the love of God who conquered death through the resurrection of Christ. But if you ask the average guy on the street, I guarantee you he believes heaven is only opened to those who believe in Jesus and live a good, upright life.

So what do younger folks believe? My guess is, unless millennials were raised by Young Life or currently attend a very evangelical church, heaven is the last thing on their mind. The majority of older Christians expect to die and be with their dearly departed loved ones. Young folks find that kind of talk delusional. They claim Christians talk about heaven so we can avoid being held responsible for today’s world. The elderly hold up heaven as the goal to which we should strive while the young shake their head in disbelief and question our reason for faith.

So what is truth? Or is the whole thing a myth? I can’t answer for you. But I am curious. If our faith is so important, why do we hesitate to talk about it? We can’t stop talking about our children and grandchildren. We go crazy about the sporting teams we follow. But we insist faith talk is private. No wonder so many young people aren’t part of the conversation. To be honest there never was much of a conversation because when we do engage with others it often becomes an adversarial battle rather than a sharing of how faith has sustained us through life time of experiences.

Let me suggest part of the problem is we want to prove God exists and I promise you, we are not going to win that battle. Peter, in the last years of his life, probably loved to tell the story of the Transfiguration. He would gather folks and tell the story they had heard a hundred times.

There we were up on the mountain. We were up so high up even the birds were trying to catch their breath. One moment the clouds were so thick I couldn’t even see John and then there was a burst of light that exposed the very essence of heaven. I fell to my knees knowing this was the last moment of my life. The clouds were no match for the brilliance of God. I kept my eyes to the ground, afraid to encounter the majesty of the Almighty but then I heard Jesus say, “Peter, what do you see?” I shielded my eyes against the piercing light and saw not only Jesus but two strangers standing beside him. Only they were not strangers. I knew these men. I had never met them but I knew them just as any other boy raised in the synagogue would have known them. It was Moses, the giver of the law. It was Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. They were standing beside Jesus. No it was more than that. They were looking up at Jesus as if to say, “This is the son of God.” I looked away, both amazed and confused. I raised my head a second time, and they were gone. But I know they were there. It was Moses. It was Elijah. What more proof could I ever want? Truly Jesus was the son of God.  

Peter knew he had witnessed the mystery of God. But I wonder if one or two of the faithful questioned if they were hearing an eyewitness account or the vivid imagination of an old man with one foot already in the grave? Was Peter speaking the truth or was Peter caught in a myth he had told so many times it had become believable? What really happened up on that foggy mountain?

A few years ago I found myself co-teaching a confirmation class. We had eight fifteen year olds mostly because their parents had told them they had to show up. In this particular community when you turned fifteen was pretty much expected you became a member of the church. My co-teacher stood before the class and sternly admonished them with these words, “Over the next eight weeks Dr. Andrews and I are going to tell you what you will have to believe to be a member of this church.” Eight heads nodded in agreement. I sat in disbelief. This was not some merit badge to be earned. It was the beginning of a journey that hopefully would last a life time. But even more importantly, their faith could not be based solely on what I believed. My truth could not magically be transmitted into their soul. My story, Peter’s story, is unique and so is the faith journey of each person.  Maybe that is why we spiritually keep ending up in different places.

So what do you believe? Part of the beauty of Lent is it offers an opportunity for a careful examine of our faith. Many live vicariously through the faith of others but what good is that? Retreating to the faith of others can easily turn our adopted truth into myth. Samuel Jackson asks, “What’s in your wallet.” I want to know what is in your heart.

I have five questions I want you to consider as we dare to move into this cloudy season of Lent. Take your bulletin and write them down. Come back to these questions as often as possible during the next six weeks. You might be surprised when an answer or two changes. You might even lose some certainly only to discover a new revelation.

Question Number One – Why do you believe in God? Obviously if you don’t believe in some notion of a higher being  you can put your bulletin down, stare out the window, and enjoy the beautiful day no one brought you.

Question Number Two – When do you believe in God? Does your belief come and go? Is God only invited to particular conversations?

Question Number Three – Where do you believe in God? Is God found in both the beauty and ugliness of life?

Question Number Four – How do you believe in God? How is your life inspired or motivated by your faith?

Question Number Five  - Who is God? Is God truth? Is God myth? Does your faith rely on a combination of both?

Walter Brueggemann recently wrote, “The core truth of our faith is this; the God of the gospel brings life out of death. We can line out our move from death to life  physically, historically, literally, metaphorically, symbolically …. any way you want. But the foundation of our faith is a rock bottom acknowledgment that God can probe into our deepest negations and create new space for life, new energy for obedience, and new waves of joy.”

 That’s what God does. But sometimes we cannot see this until we are willing to accept the demand of Lent which implores us into a journey of relinquishing old visions of a reality that has failed, and being surprised by a new life given in glad and inconvenient obedience. Why, When, Where, How do you believe in God? Are you caught between death and life, between truth and myth, wondering and knowing? It really doesn’t matter as long as you are participating in the journey. I am sure Jesus said, but Matthew forgot to record, “Blessed are those than wonder and wander, for they shall stumble into the kingdom of God.”

To God be the Glory.  Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Striving for Perfection

Matthew 5:48


        Who among us is perfect? Well that is a loaded question. Claiming perfection pretty much eliminates one from being perfect. I went bowling with my grandchildren a few weeks ago. Despite the distraction of seven very bad bowlers on his right the person next to us had a streak of 12 straight strikes. Unfortunately this streak was accomplished as part of two games. I asked if he had every rolled 12 strikes in one game. He smiled and said, “Ah the elusive 300 game. I have only two in the last twenty years.”

        Perfection is hard. Over the last 140 years over 210,000 major league baseball games have been played. 23 three have been recorded as perfect games and only one of those happened during a World Series. Amazingly this feat was accomplished by Don Larsen, a guy with a career losing record. Even in perfection Larson was flawed.

So why does Jesus insists on perfection? What kind of nonsense is that? Even though I keep working on my knuckle ball, I am really too old to consider major league baseball as a second job. And as for bowling, I average one game every four years and have only broken 200 once. Perfection doesn’t seem to be much of an option. I would like to think each of us are really good people. But perfect? Give me a break!

As you might have guessed this particular proclamation came from the scriptures known as the Sermon of the Mount where Jesus is a both dreamer and pretty ornery at the same time. Everything he says is way over the top. And that creates a problem. Folks would love to boil the sayings of Jesus down to a pithy non-threatening Hallmark card, but that is not the way it works. Jesus not only demands perfection, he says the road to perfection begins by loving our enemies. Are you kidding? I have a hard enough time loving friends and family members.  So where do we start?

We could ignore the text. The easiest way to do this is to explain it away. Maybe Jesus was only speaking to his disciples. If Jesus selected them they must have been extraordinary guys. The problem is we know the resumes of all 12. They were a stumbling bumbling bunch that never had the right answers and were seldom found to be in the right place. Truth is, if Jesus had wanted an amazing dozen he probably would have started with Mary and Martha.

We might suggest the words of Jesus are far too simplistic for our modern world with its complex relationships and global economics.  Today who would ever set perfection as the goal of their business? In fact name  one company other than Ben and Jerry’s that has reached that goal. I’m just kidding. Even Ben and Jerry’s made one mistake. It’s called Confetti Cake.

Maybe Jesus set the bar so high knowing it could never be reached. I find that kind statement to be insulting to both us and God.  Why shouldn’t perfection be the goal? As flawed as Don Larson was he did catch lightning in a bottle once. Perhaps instead of dumbing down the text, we should reconsider what we need to do to make the text possible.

Let’s face it, loving anyone, not just our enemies, but anyone who might not think exactly as we do can be difficult. How could anyone possibly see the world different than me and if they do what is wrong with them.

In the 1930’s Richard Rogers wrote the gorgeous tune My Funny Valentine. Twenty years later Chet Baker covered it while playing trumpet with the Gerry Mulligan’s band. But the most stunning version may have been in 1965 by Miles Davis. After hearing Miles version Rogers declared he wished he had never written the song. Why do we so easily assume there is only one way of achieving perfection?

Maybe it is just human nature. We have just gone through an election where many folks on both sides of the aisle saw their candidate as a god and their candidate’s opponent as the devil incarnate. We do the same thing in sports. Anyone who is not from New England think the Patriot’s cheat and most folks who don’t live in Texas hate the Cowboys. Could our most glaring imperfection be our obsession with identifying the imperfections of everyone else? Could the first step toward perfection be empowering someone with whom we disagree?

In a couple of weeks we will enter the season of Lent as seen through the eyes of writer of the Gospel of John. We will meet four flawed personalities that Jesus encountered. The first was Nicodemus. He was a righteous man, greatly honored among his peers. But the peers of Nicodemus declared Jesus to be a dangerous heretic. Nicodemus was caught between the mystery of God and his own understanding of reality. To claim Jesus as Lord would mean to disclaim his very nature. How is that done without losing one’s soul?

Then we encounter the woman at the well. Remember her? Nicodemus meets Jesus at night where in the book of John nothing good ever happens. The Samaritan woman who has been divorced five times meets Jesus in broad day light. Is she flawed, at least in the eyes of her community. So how does this “imperfect” soul recognize perfection?

Next Jesus encounters a man who is blind. To the culture, his blindness signifies his imperfection. His blindness is believed to have been caused by the sins of his parents. Then when Jesus heals the man, the religious elite denies the man was ever blind. Even when Jesus perfects the imperfect, people with memories refuse to forget.

Finally Jesus encounters Lazarus, a man who was dead. What perfection can be discovered in death? If Jesus was perfect why did he let Lazarus die? Mary and Martha certainly questioned the perfection of Jesus’ timing.

John gives us four imperfect people. We have a teacher, a divorcee, a blind man and a dead friend . It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke followed by the punch line, “What does the one who is perfect do when he encounters imperfection?” What is the answer?  Jesus empowers them to be more than they could ever imagine.

There is no doubt that the road to perfection is made messy by the imperfection we constantly encounter. Those around us are lazy or crazy, or worse yet, bleeding heart tree huggers. And they dare to stand right in our way! We can’t avoid them anymore than Jesus could avoid Lazarus or Nicodemus or everyone in between.  So what do we do?

What would happen if instead of fighting with those with whom we disagree, we work harder to empower each other? Now that is a crazy idea that could never work because those folks with whom we disagree are such idiots. How could anyone dream of discovering perfection in a guy who spends his Saturday’s drinking beer and eating pretzels at a bowling alley? Likewise can you imagine how that same guy would characterize many of us who spend too much time riding around in a golf cart searching for a hole in one?

Jesus said, “Strive to be perfect because your heavenly father is perfect.” Jesus had the gall to say that to a bunch of folks who are as imperfect as ….. you or me. And then Jesus empowered them to begin a journey toward perfection that could not commence until they were willing invite the idiots who were blocking their way to join them. That must have been one holy mess. But could it be any worse than the unholy mess we have on our hands today.  I am not sure any of us really have a clue where we are going. But I am sure of this. Through God’s grace we are invited to take a giant step toward perfection. Of course there is a catch. Along the way Jesus challenges us to graciously invite those with whom we disagree to join us on the journey.

Nobody ever claimed the Jesus way was easy.

To God be the glory. Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

If You Don't Want an Answer, Don't Ask Jesus!

Matthew 5:21-30, Deut. 30:15-20


        It is always nice when the lectionary texts work together in perfect harmony. We love it when the law of the Old Testament is made somewhat digestible by the words of Jesus. But that does not always happen. This morning we have a train wreck caused mostly by our curious desire to discover loopholes in Godly decrees. It is human nature to see how far we can push the boundaries of ethical behavior. For example, imagine traveling to Charlottesville. It is a beautiful day, traffic is light and the speed limit is 70 mph. For some of us this is an opportunity to test the limits of the law. It has been assumed by many that our courageous state police will excuse exceeding the speed limit by no more than 5 mph. So if we are traveling 73 in a 70 mph zone are we actually breaking the law? To take the argument further, if we are traveling 79 in a 70 mph zone and are not pulled over, are we innocent? Is guilt only applicable if we are caught? Does obeying the law depend solely on our interpretation of a particular law? You see we could push this argument to the point where we might actually believe the job of the police is only to enforce our particular understanding of the law.

        So what about God’s laws? How far do we expect God to bend? What kind of 5 mph cushion do we believe God gives us? What if we get away with breaking a Godly law? Do we reinterpret God’s laws to fit our particular situations? Those are the questions before us this morning.

        The Book of Deuteronomy dramatically recreates the last sermon of Moses. After 40 years in the wilderness, the children of slaves have finally committed themselves to entering the Promised Land. Deuteronomy lays out the difficulties of creating a new community and the laws that will assist Israel in making this new community function. Foremost of these laws are the Ten Commandments. I am sure you remember them. You shall worship only one God. You shall not worship idols. You shall not use God’s name to promote your own schemes. Keep the Sabbath. Honor your elders. Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or crave your neighbor’s good fortune. Obviously keeping a healthy relationship with God and fellow humans is very important.

        You might think the Ten Commandments are pretty self-explanatory but there is always a voice which desires to raise a question, push the limits, and perhaps justify a particular way of understanding even God’s commandments. I imagine the initial conversation went like this.

        Moses, could you elaborate on how old one must be to be considered elderly?

        Moses, could you explain the difference between kill and murder particularly when it comes to folks I don’t like?

        Moses, how are we to understand this one God thing?  Moses, have you read the Jimmy Carter’s explanation of adultery? Is that really what you meant?

        Imagine what Moses must have been thinking. Of all the adults who left Egypt, only Moses, Joshua and Caleb are still living. Now the children are getting ready to receive the dream of a lifetime. Moses knows he will not make the trip. He is dying. He has no energy left. He has fulfilled his promise to God and his job is done. He just wants to lie down and let nature take its course. So he says to them.

        Look, you all know right from wrong. If you follow God’s instructions things will work themselves out. Get along with your family members. Share lemonade with your neighbor. Make sure gossip ends with you. Be satisfied with your life. Set aside time to give thanks to God. It is really not all that hard. Just think beyond yourself and everything will be OK.

        Moses went off to die and for the next 1,000 or so years people continued to debate what the commandments really meant. Then one day someone asked Jesus.

        The problem with asking Jesus is Jesus does not always say what we want to hear. When we question a point of law we want the interpretation to represent our point of view. We already know the answer we want. We just want it verified by a person of authority. When Jesus speaks, he often speaks on behalf of the person without voice. This takes the conversation to a place we never intended it to go. For instance, if we were to ask Jesus about the speed limit on I-64 I suspect Jesus would say, “It’s 70, unless conditions are bad enough that going slower would protect those folks in the cars next to you.”  You see, don’t ask Jesus a question if you really don’t want an answer.

        Imagine that sunny day on a Galilean hillside when Jesus caused a few really dark clouds to roll in. Someone wanted illumination on commandment number 6.

Jesus, can you clarify between killing and murder?

        Jesus responded, “Are you angry with your brother or sister? If you are, then in your heart and in the eyes of God you have already committed an act of murder.”

        Can you imagine the buzz that must have gone through the crowd? Some folks aren’t all that happy unless they are angry with someone. Anger gets our juices going. It is the center piece of many of our conversations. If it wasn’t for anger, radio and TV would go out of business. How dare Jesus challenge our most basic constitutional right!

        But Jesus didn’t stop there. He talked about adultery, he talked about divorce, and he talked about swearing. And he didn’t say what folks wanted to hear. Listen to his words.

        If you look at a woman lustfully you have committed adultery.

Do not swear using the name of God to justify your words. Why make God a partner in your lies.

Why could Jesus say such things? Maybe his words made sense 2,000 years ago but I hardly think they are appropriate today.  I can’t imagine anyone treating a woman like a sexual object. And when have you ever heard someone say, “I swear to God, I am telling the truth.” 



During my Doctoral Studies I took a course in Biblical Ethics taught by Marcia Riggs.  Dr. Riggs had a favorite phrase. “Jesus locates himself within the tradition, but does not allow the tradition to be the last word.”

In the time of Jesus, violence ruled the day. Those with the sword used it. Those without the sword resorted to an anger fueled by hate. Jesus did not speak against a violence he could not control. He spoke against an anger that challenged a person’s humanity. Once the soul succumbs to rage, the voice and reason of God is reduced to a whisper.

In the time of Jesus, women had no voice. Single women were objects of lust. Wives were little more than property. Jesus radically spoke on their behalf, elevating women to the status human beings.

Perhaps you see where this is going. Jesus asked his followers, “What is your unique gift from God?” Before they could answer he said, “It’s your humanity. When has killing, adultery, stealing, lying, or coveting ever been humane? When has reducing another’s humanity ever been part of God’s vision?” Then Jesus got real personal and added, “You need to focus on God’s truth. You need to understand God’s truth is not just about you. It is about all of God’s children.”

What is truth? We search high and low looking for answers that mirror what we already believe. We move quickly through preachers from Louie Andrews to Franklin Graham hoping to find one that is palatable. You don’t think preachers have their own agenda? Of course we do!

So why not go back to the beginning? Instead of looking for loopholes why not look for life holes and then jump right through them. Why not treat God and your neighbor the same way you expect to be treated. I suspect that is the quickest way to any Promised Land.     Amen.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Light in the Darkness

Matthew 5:13-16
        Five years ago Deb and I became the proud owners of our wonderful townhouse on Lakeside Close.  The previous owners had done a great job of maintaining their property and now it has fallen on Deb and me to continue this tradition. In other words, Deb and I have moved into that phase of home owning called “preventative maintenance”.  You know what I am talking about. Over the past five years I have power washed, scraped and painted everything I could reach. Now I need a professional. Inside we have replaced various appliances, but now we need the expertise of a plumber. I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to get a painter or a plumber to come to Nellysford for a few hours work. I started searching the internet. Much to my delight I discovered folks who advertise themselves as Christian painters, Christian plumbers, and Christian electricians. My gracious, I figured all I had to do was call and identify myself as a Christian minister. I was sure being in the same ecclesiastical union would get me a tremendous financial break. Boy was I disappointed. It turns out Christian plumbers not only charge the same as regular plumbers, they don’t like coming to Nellysford either. Once I realized my comrade in Jesus wasn’t interested in hooking up my new water heater, I dared ask why he advertised himself as a Christian plumber. He answered, “You of all people should know that we Christians have to stick together.”    Obviously it’s been a while since this plumber read his bible.
        I am not sure if Jesus was a very good electrician but I guarantee you Jesus knew a whole lot about darkness and light. In the gospel of John, Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world.” On a bright sunny day it is difficult to distinguish one light from another. But Jesus entered this world half past midnight. It is hard to hide your light in the midst of darkness. Deb and I have lifelong friends who live up the hill. If we are walking home after 9:00, no artificial light is needed. The moon and stars provide all we require to find our way home. It reminds me of a quote by Annie Dillard. “If you want to see stars, darkness is necessary.” Well the light of Jesus certainly shone through the darkness of his night. Everywhere Jesus walked he left a footprint on how this life can be lived. I have read the gospels so many times the pages are wearing thin. It seems the only folks Jesus rejected where those who believed themselves to be holier than God.  Remember the chief gripe among religious leaders about Jesus? He spent too much time with sinners. Where else should the light of the world be?
        More and more I have been depressed by the apostasy that our brand of faith gives us privilege. We speak of Christian values as if we are the only folks who live an ethical life. Then we lament Christians are constantly mocked, persecuted, overlooked, insulted and eventually deprived of their God given rights. Would someone please explain to me what those God given rights are because I seemed to have missed that class in my theological training? Unless I got it wrong I believe Jesus spoke about our responsibility to others rather than society’s responsibility to us. Jesus said, “Guess what, not only am I the light of the world, so are you. But no one is going to know this unless you are willing to enter the darkness of another’s life. Don’t be afraid. I’ll go with you.” Think about it. YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. Is there anything on your schedule more important than this?
        On the news the other night there was a story of a soldier coming back from Iraq. He landed at LaGuardia in the midst of all the difficulties of folks trying to get back into the States. The person he sat beside on the plane, a perfect stranger, was an Iraqi interpreter who had worked with US troops. Three years ago the man had relocated his family to New York. Sensing there might be difficulties entering customs the soldier reached into his bag, pulled out his Purple Heart, pinned it on the lapel of the stranger and said, “I wasn’t just wounded for my family. I was wounded for your family as well. Let’s walk together.”
I don’t know if that young soldier was Christian but I guarantee you this, he was doing what Jesus would have done. Jesus wasn’t just wounded for my family, or your family. He was wounded for every single family that walks in darkness.  Is it any wonder Jesus joyfully proclaims to us, “Let your light so shine that no one will ever have any doubts that you are a child of God.”
How will someone know we are Christians if we have no joy? Why would anyone want to be a Christian if the Christians they meet never exhibit excitement? When we let our light shine it is to be done with exuberance, hope, and the knowledge that we are the hands and the heart of Jesus. When we let our light shine we are not doing it for ourselves but for our neighbor, for our friends and especially for those with which we might be just a little bit sideways. Jesus has already pinned his purple heart on us. It’s called grace. Now Jesus is saying to us, “Let’s walk together, joyfully.”
When I was a kid my father took seriously the Jesus passage of turning the other cheek. He was just out of seminary and probably was embarrassed by all his fights he had growing up in a cotton mill village. Dad was determined I was going to be different. It seemed every other day I was told fighting was not only the last resort but the wrong resort. That sounded great in theory. But then one day playing sandlot baseball there was misunderstanding over a close play at second base. I had clearly put the tag on the runner. He jumped to his feet and declared he had beaten the throw. I responded, “You are as crazy as you look.”  He punched me in the nose. As I got up from the ground, sort of forgetting the life lessons of my father I looked him in the eye and repeated, “You are still as crazy as you look.” He hit me again. Getting up the second time I figured I needed to change of strategy. I looked him right in the eye and told him, “You can hit me as often as you want but it will not change two things. I won’t fight you and you are still out.”
The next day the kid came up to me after school and asked if I was a chicken. Not knowing what else to say I blurted out, “I’m not chicken, I’m a Christian.  Jesus didn’t believe in fighting and neither do I.”
My soon to be friend responded, “Well I bet Jesus got beat up a lot.”
Never have truer words been uttered. If you are going to be the light of the world you are going have to take a few lumps. But the last time I checked Jesus was still getting off the ground and still turning darkness into light.
So what about us? What about us? How willing are you to be the light of the world to someone lost in darkness?
Will you pray with me? God your way is so hard. We would rather be righteously indignant and live with our anger, than be reconciled with a foe. Turn us inward to you that we might eventually turn outward toward each other. Restore our relationships through the light of your grace. Make both of us instruments of your peace. Amen.