Sunday, December 30, 2018

Lost and Found in God's Grace

Luke 2:41-51; Col 3.12-17
            In all the gospels, we have only one story concerning the childhood of Jesus.  That is why the Sunday after Christmas we are reading about Jesus when he was twelve.  Of all the stories Luke could have shared this one is incredibly irritating.  Just the idea of a child being lost sends tremors up our spines.  A week or so ago I was finishing my Christmas shopping at Target.  As I turned down an aisle I saw a young boy with a commode brush in one hand and its container in the other.  He was desperately trying to return the brush to its proper place but was having little success.  I started to help him, but then I stopped.  Surely his mother was just around the corner.  She wouldn’t dare let him out of her sight.  If I approached the boy she might call 911 and have the security guard arrest me.  On the other hand, what if the boy was lost?  His mother must be out of her mind with worry.  Maybe I should see if he was OK. As I was playing out all the possible scenarios in my mind, another young boy, obviously the older brother, came running around the corner screaming, “You better come quick or mom is going to light up your butt.”   I looked around the corner and spotted a rather perturbed woman headed our way.  The commode brush was the last of this young man’s problems.  He dropped the brush at my feet and scampered away.  As I picked it up a Target Associate looked at me with that, “You break it you pay for it look.”  And folks wonder why I hate shopping.
        Sometimes the mother is not just around the corner.  Sometimes she is not even in the same town.  Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover on his twelfth birthday.  This was a huge event. Boys would go to the Temple to recite various scriptures to the priest.  At the end of the ceremony, anyone passing the examination would be declared a man.  There is no doubt that Jesus had been reading his Torah for the past year in preparation for this ritual.  Obviously the event had gone well. Mary and Joseph joined the rest of their friends from Nazareth for the trip back home.  It was assumed Jesus was playing with friends so his disappearance was not discovered until they stopped to rest.  Imagine the fear of the parents when they discovered Jesus was missing.  There was no way they could travel the dangerous roads at night so they were forced to sit and worry until daybreak.  Then they retraced ever step, disappointed with every turn.  Finally they went to the Temple, and there he was, unharmed and unfazed by the events of the last three days.  Mary probably didn’t know whether to hug or strangle him.  As her love overcome her anger she embraced the child and asked why he had scared them half of their minds.  Jesus’ choice of words left a little to be desired.  “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” 
        For three days Jesus had sat among the wisest men of his religion.  At first he had recited the words he had learned.  Then he took the second step in biblical interpretation.  He began to ask questions about the scriptures he had memorized.  Finally he began to interpret those scriptures with such a depth of understanding that even the wisest priests were impressed.  Jesus embraced God’s word in such a way that it became impossible for him to continue to be just the son of a carpenter.  Jesus discovered the word, the vision, the hope, the grace, the imagination, the possibility of becoming a child of God.  As a child, in the house of his Father, the Word embraced the word and the child of God became the Son of God.  
        This story is about more than Jesus.  I like to think of this church as our home.  I like to imagine this is a place where we feel safe, secure, challenged, embraced and loved.  I like to believe this community is where we come to discover a new way, a different way, a transforming way of living.  But is our church a place we would risk being lost in order that we might be found?  That takes more than viewing the church as a haven for good fellowship with friends.  It calls on us to embrace God’s word to the extent that we discover what an irritating effect it can have on our minds and our souls.
        I was in seminary when I first met Al Winn. He was the minister at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond Virginia.  He had done a lot of other things including being President of Louisville Seminary and moderator of our General Assembly. The year before Dr. Winn Second Presbyterian had been served by some very polished preachers.  Then Dr. Winn arrived.  It was to be his last church before retirement.  He was a bit smallish, almost frail.  His voice always needed to be aided by a P.A. system.  The first Sunday he arrived the church was filled with anticipation but to be honest, his sermon was a bit disappointing.    A month later, the church was not quite as crowded. By the end of the year some folks had found their way to one of the other Presbyterian churches.  But those who stayed discovered something fascinating about this man.  In his hands, the Bible became a living, breathing document, touching us in ways we had never been touched before.  It was obvious that at some point in his life Dr. Winn consciously declared the church to be his home and God to be his Holy parent.  Along the way Dr. Winn had quietly but firmly committed himself to the strange decision that God’s word was to be valued over conventional or worldly wisdom.  Dr. Winn could read Colossians 3:12, “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”, with an absolute straight face.  How many people do you know who can say, “I am going to be unconditionally kind, humble, meek, and patient” and then turn around and act that way? 
Dr. Winn kept insisting this was possible and yet I would always think, “Who in their right mind can live up to the gospel?  That is not the way the world works.”  Yet, with a straight face, that kind and gentleman  would continue to read, “Bear with each other, forgive each other, clothe yourself in harmony and let the peace of God rule in your hearts.”  Those are crazy words, impractical words, words which might lead us to ruin, or defeat, or something even scarier; a deep and irrational trust in the one a 12 year old dared to call Father.
Imagine the consequences of devoting your life to being more compassionate, kind, lowly, meek, patient, forgiving and loving.  Imagine if this could become our top priority.  Imagine joining with Jesus in following the ways of his Father. Imagine being lost and found in God’s grace.  We are all looking for a New Year’s Resolution.  Imagine adding this one to our list.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Who Was Mary?

Luke 1:26-38


        Have you ever heard a song and dismissed it to only later discover it was not the music but rather your lack of rhythm that caused the original rejection. Sometimes we think we hear the music but we fail to feel the poetry.

        Back in the mid 70’s a friend suggested I take Deb to see a young singer who was on her maiden tour. “You’ll love her. She used to sing for Graham Parsons.” So Deb and I spent big bucks to hear a couple of songs.  That’s all it took. With Deb in tow we headed for the exits.

        Thirteen years later Deb and I headed for San Angelo, Texas. Now for those of you who have never visited West Texas it swings to its own rhythm. While the temperature was a bit too hot, my family and I loved spending better than a decade embracing an enchanting culture quite different than my beloved South.

        A couple of years into our stay I was riding through the desert with a friend listening to the radio when a song called, “Waltzing Cross Texas” oozed through the dashboard. With a couple of years of Texas culture under my belt I found myself swaying to the hypnotic voice. “Do you know who is singing that song?”

My friend looked over in disbelief and said “You’re kidding? That’s Emmylou Harris.” 

        In disbelief I blurted out, “Emmylou Harris! I walked out of a concert of hers a few years ago.” 

In the great state of Texas, claiming dislike for Emmylou is akin to saying you don’t remember the Alamo. My friend just shook his head and turned up the volume.

        Sometimes we think we know everything when we really know nothing at all. In our infantile state we hear a song but never fully appreciate the blessing we received.

        During the Christmas Season, with the possible exception of Santa, no one gets more air time than Mary. The interesting thing is we all view her differently. Some see an obedient woman embracing her rightful place in God’s family. Others argue she was a strong woman who didn’t need a man in her life. Many of our Catholic friends exalt Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Our Orthodox friends adore her as the God-bearer. Hallmark Cards romanticizes her and the U.S. Postal Services puts her on Christmas Stamps. We intellectual Presbyterians argue over the significance of her virginity. Each, in our own way,adore Mary. But do we actually know who she was?

        Mark, our earliest gospel has no birth narrative and only mentions Mary once. The gospel of Matthew is more interested in Joseph. John only mentions Mary when Jesus turns the water into wine. Even in the gospel of Luke, Mary is only mentioned by name in the birth narratives. It is from this gospel that most of our stories and mythologies are born. So who might Luke have imagined Mary to have been?

        Luke begins by describing Mary as a virgin, betrothed to a man. In the Hebrews culture, girls celebrated their marriage at the age of 16. But the girl was betrothed, promised to a man, when she was 12 or 13. She lived with her parents until the wedding. So we know Luke’s Mary was a young girl between 12 to 15.

        Mary is greeted by the angel with the words, “Greetings, Favored One. The Lord is with you.” A more literal translation would be “Rejoice! You are full of God’s grace. The Lord is with you.” This is a standard greeting shared each Sabbath as people entered the synagogue.

        What is not ordinary was what Mary was told next.

        The Spirit will come upon you.

        The power of the most high will overshadow you.

        The child born will be called holy, the Son of God.

        Mary responded, “How can that be? I am not married.”

        For 2,ooo years our primary understanding of Mary begins and ends with the word VIRGIN.  In our minds this makes her extraordinarily different from the rest of us.

        But what if we view Mary as an ordinary child, with nondescript parents, in a little known village, of an obsolete country? Who would we see? In other words, before the 2,000 year old discussion declaring Mary to practically be God, what made her different from us?

        In a word, “Nothing.”

        One thing that we miss when casually reading the Bible is the authors believed God had remarkable sense of humor.

        Abraham and Sarah, the mother and father of the Hebrew Nation were in their 90’s when Isaac was born.

        Esau, the strong trustworthy hunter gets rejected in favor of his scheming little brother Jacob.

        Joseph, the mama’s favorite, gets thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his own brothers.

        God located Moses in the middle of the desert where he was wasting his life herding sheep.

        Need I continue? I challenge you to name one hero in the Old Testament who was born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth. Every one, in some way or the other was flawed or ordinary. And so was Mary. Oh yes, Mary was full of grace. But so was Sarah and Abraham; so was Isaac and Rebekah; so was Jacob and Rachel………. and so are you.

        The wonder of Christmas is not that Mary was a virgin. The wonder of Christmas is that God wants each of us to become pregnant and give birth to something divine.

Like Mary, we cry out, “How is that possible? I am so ordinary?” But the angel of the Lord continues to sing, “You are a child of God. You have always been blessed.”

I think the real miracle of Christmas begins when we not only hear the music but we sway to the rhythms. For so many years Christmas has been about Mary, Joseph, and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. It is a miraculous story centering on our preconceived notion of the magnificence of Mary.  But what good is Christmas if only Mary is full of grace? It is sort of like hearing Emmylou with a tin ear rather than a longing heart.

You are filled with the ordinary and the holy. Each day the grace of God within you longs to expose new horizons and possibilities. So this Christmas, Waltz Across Bethlehem and be introduced to the rhythms of God’s melody.   Waltz Across Bethlehem and be reminded you too are full of grace.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Tender Mercies

Luke 1:68-79


        The last story in the Old Testament is found in the book of Luke. I know what you are thinking. Luke is not in the Old Testament. Yet the narrative leading to the birth of John the Baptist reads like something we would find in Genesis or First Samuel. It begins like this. Once there was an old woman who was barren.

        A lot of folks assume Luke’s gospel begins, In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be taxed. But as you astute Biblical scholars know, that verse comes from Luke 2. Before Mary meets Joseph, we are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth. We are told this couple lived blamelessly according to all the regulations and commandments of the Lord, and yet Elizabeth was barren. How can this be? Regardless of their righteousness, the couple was cursed to live in disgrace.

        According to Hebrew beliefs, the righteous are rewarded as God’s elect, but the unrighteous are marked by divine judgment.  Zechariah believed he was destined to live with this curse. Even though Zechariah was a priest, he was treated with disdain. After all, if he was truly righteous, Elizabeth would have given him a son.

        One morning Zechariah entered the temple to light the candles. He encountered Gabriel, an angel of the Lord and Zechariah was terrified. But Gabriel spoke the mantra that appears throughout the Gospels, Do not be afraid.

        How could Zechariah not be afraid? It is not every day the angel of the Lord stands before you. Zechariah must have thought, finally I am going to discover what Elizabeth and I have done wrong. We lived our lives the best we could and yet we have been cursed. People have looked upon us with contempt. Many have openly wondered why I am a priest.  I am old, I am tired, and some days I just want to lie down and die. And now here comes Gabriel to pronounce my final verdict. I want some evidence of God’s accusations. I demand at least 27 8x10 color photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each picture.

        But Gabriel had not come to condemn. Instead the angel said, Your wife Elizabeth will have a son and you will name him John. He will be the new Elijah. He will prepare Judah for the coming of the Lord.

        Zechariah looked at the angel and said, You have got to be kidding. Do you know how old I am?  Let me remind you that Elizabeth is not much younger. Is the child going to be born in the geriatric ward and will Medicare pick up the bill?

        The angel of the Lord lost all patience with Zechariah. Because of your lack of faith you will remain speechless until the child is born. And Gabriel disappeared.

        So Zechariah went home. He walked into the kitchen and Elizabeth asked how his day had gone. Zechariah was speechless. Come on old man, what have you been up to today? Zechariah just shook his head, grabbed a pencil and wrote, Today I had a visit from the angel of the Lord. Guess what he suggested we are supposed to do?


        Nine months later John was born. Each of those days Zechariah was imprisoned by silence. Imagine how maddening that must have been. How can a priest bless folks if he cannot speak? How can a vengeful man brag of his wife’s pregnancy if his lips are sealed? For months Zechariah must have stewed, caught between his inability to fulfill his calling and the powerlessness to tell the neighbors what he thought. But at some point Zechariah allowed the silence to inspire rather than torment. Like any expectant father, Zechariah pondered what his initial words might be to his son, this gift from God. He thought long and hard about the words he received from Gabriel. Finally he realized, My son will announce the coming of the salvation.

        Initially he might have been jealous that his son would not be the Messiah. It is sort of like being Robin to Batman. No matter how great you are, your destiny is to always be second best. In a way, once again Zechariah and Elizabeth had been slighted. For years they were barren and when vindicated, it is only to be the opening act.

        But nine months is a long time. The closer it came for the boy to be born, the more Zechariah understood. For his entire life he and Elizabeth had lived broken lives. Who they were and certainly who the community imagined them to be was predetermined by their inability to have a child. They lived holy lives only to be judged by the hole in the middle of their existence. Now Zechariah began to think outwardly. He was not the only person prejudged by communal standards. He seldom thought about the folks who lived on the edge of town. Last year Jacob lost his wife and Zechariah had yet to drop by to offer his condolences. As he expanded his vision Zechariah realized he was not alone in his misery and his self doubts. One way or the other, I suspect we are all broken……waiting……..hoping for God’s tender mercies.


        The Hebrew word for salvation is a bit different than the word folk use today when they talk about their free pass to heaven. In the Old Testament salvation is understood as deliverance from an oppressive place or state of mind into the broad safety net of freedom and right relationships. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed for salvation. They desired to be seen within the context of a healthy community. Somehow they considered the condemnation of their neighbors as a sign that God had forgotten them. During nine months of silence Zechariah remembered that God heals rather than destroys. In his epiphany, Zechariah discovered that God also calls each of us to become vessels of healing, reconciliation, or you might say……. salvation.


 Finally the child was born. A father, once broken, was now made whole, not by a birth, but by the realization that we all walk this earth with the opportunity to offer salvation to others. When he could finally speak, Zechariah lifted his child and said, You won’t believe the plans God has for you.


Could it be that God has the same plans for us?

To God be the Glory.   Amen.     

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Why Advent?

Jeremiah 33:14-16


A number of years ago I had a church member come to me and say, “I will see you in January. The Methodist start singing Christmas carols right after Thanksgiving and the minister preaches happy sermons about angels, shepherds, and wise men. You like those dark Advent hymns and scriptures. I need more Ho-Ho-Ho in my Christmas.”

I can understand her frustration. We like Christmas to be that break from the ordinary where we run away from our reality by thinking a baby born in a born is going to make everything perfect. Of course we shop till we drop, indulge in all those foods Dr. Oz said were not healthy, and go out way too often. By January 2nd, other than having gaining fifteen pounds and misusing our Visa Card, nothing has changed.

So much for Ho-Ho-Ho.

Maybe this is why before opening presents and singing about Mama kissing Santa, I like to spend some time reflecting on the songs and stories of Advent.  Advent is dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and dashed dreams. The stories emerge from a landscape where sin reigns supreme and it seems hope has gone on vacation. And yet, in the midst of the darkness, like that sliver of light seen before the dawn, we receive the promise of the emergence of a new day. To fully understand this promise, one cannot skip to the conclusion. We must have time to slowly chew on what God has promised. We must taste the stories and the songs in order to discover the world of yesterday is not so foreign from our everyday lives.

But this adventure should not begin without a warning. Jeremiah is not the book you pack for your summer vacation. On the surface, Jeremiah is the writings of a soulful, some would even say, delusional man, who correctly predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. But the reason the writings of Jeremiah survived are not because of his ability to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future. Truth is no one, not even the king, felt Jerusalem could endure the onslaught of Babylon. The reason Jeremiah’s writings survived are because in the midst of horrific destruction and death, Jeremiah could visualize the dawn.

“The days are coming when God will fulfill the promise to the house of Israel. A righteous branch shall spring up from the seed of David, and God will execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

What good is a promise when you are living in the valley of death?  A couple of days ago I sat with a woman whose son has been deployed to Syria. He is a helicopter pilot who transports Special Forces Units in and out of the desert. She said, “He loves God and attends church regularly. I know God will take care of him.” I was speechless. No words could give comfort to her fears. Even thanking her son for his service seemed a bit artificial. People who live in the midst of death face a world few of us ever encounter. Such was the situation of Jeremiah. He knew the odds were very good that he would die in the coming days. He also knew there was nothing he could do to avoid this fate. King Zedekiah summoned the prophet to the palace for words of hope. The King asked if he should sign new treaties, refortify the city, or bargain with Babylon. Jeremiah replied there was nothing the King could do. Actions of the past had sealed the fate of the future. Zedekiah responded, “Then what good is God.”

Jeremiah responded, “Give thanks to the Lord for the Lord is good. God’s steadfast love last forever.”

That ishardly what anyone wants to hear. In our moment of darkness don’t we all want to know what God is going to do? We want God to protect us. We want God to rescue us. We want God to deliver us.  The Advent response is, “Yes God will”, but not necessarily on our time table or by the means we might desire.

The promise of Jeremiah was, “There will come a day when people will not live through strength and power but rather with justice and righteousness. There will come a time when people will live in peace, when they will not fear the stranger. On that day people will open their arms to the powerless. It will be a day when trust replaces fear and truth is spoken freely.” 

The skeptics among us might ask, “When has there ever been a day when strength has relinquished its grip allowing the defenseless to be lifted up?” That is when the dreamer, or perhaps the one with the heart of a poet will respond, “When is it ever the perfect time to have a child?”

Madeleine L’Engle wrote,

        This is the irrational season

        When love blooms bright and wild.

        Had Mary been filled with reason,

        There’d have been no room for the child.


Mary was a virgin. Now for those of you who want to get into a discussion of Mary’s virginity, feel free to debate the possibilities of having a child without intercourse during the coffee hour. But this isn’t a story about biology. I believe Mary’s virginity was cerebral. The idea of anyone deciding to have a child is overwhelming. Childbirth radically changes life.  In the case of Mary, perhaps she looked at the Galilean landscape with all the political intrigue of Jerusalem and thought, “Who would want to bring a child into this mess?”

But our God has a habit of creating something good out of our chaos. Mary saw birth as impossible. But God’s imagination exceeded the limited vision of a young woman already crushed by her perceived reality. Mary could imagine nothing beyond a society controlled by power, greed and ultimately fear. But God announced a new creation in which justice and righteousness would spring forth and the child would be called the Prince of Peace.

Listen to the poets. Sing the advent carols. They have not been limited by pragmatic eyes. They perceive with hearts released to the likelihood that God can still do a new thing. The miracle of the virgin birth is that Mary opened her closed mind Godly possibilities. Mary accepted God’s vision by giving up the virginity of her limited imagination. The she sang, “My soul rejoices in the Lord for God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. God’s reign will be one of justice and righteousness.”

So why celebrate Advent? Why not just go straight to the tree and the dinner table? Because Advent affords us the opportunity to lose our virginity.  We have convinced ourselves that life is predictable. We believe nothing new can happen and even if it did would it really matter. We are stuck in our reality fearing change, suspicious of anything thing new and most of all accepting death. Then along comes Advent reminding us that God has never been limited by our lack of hope. Out of the ashes of Egypt, and Babylon, and Jerusalem, God created a new day. Do you really think God stopped confronting chaos when the biblical message was complete? Surely you can remember one time when you broke through the rigidity of your own expectations?

THAT WAS GOD AT WORK. Spend this month dreaming. Spend this month visualizing a new creation. Allow yourself to become impregnated by the imagination of God.      Amen.         

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Give Thanks

Psalm 98
        I realize today is Christ the King Sunday but I thought I would break from protocol and talk about giving thanks.   I know for most folks Thanksgiving means turkey, Pilgrims and football.  But when I am serious about giving thanks, I go straight to the Psalms. One of my favorites is Psalm 98, a delightful song written at the end of the Babylonian Captivity.  It captures a nation’s joy as God welcomes the Hebrews home.  The Jews had spent a generation in captivity.  Their sadness and despair is captured in Psalm 137, “How can you sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  But with news that the Persians were releasing the Jews, sheer delight leapt from the lips of the Psalmist as he “sang a new song to the Lord.”
        Some of you may think I am getting a bit too excited over a song written 2400 years ago.   For me, the Psalms are as relevant today as they were when they were first created. They are songs of joy, sorrows, delights, and disappointments.  That stuff never goes out of date.  Did you know the inspiration for   “Joy to the World” was Psalm 98?  Psalms live forever because they express the very essence of who we are in our ongoing relationship with God.   I like to think of the Psalmist as yesterday’s folk music. The Psalmists remind me of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Mavis  Staples, or Doc Watson.
        I have been fortunate enough to witness each of those folks in concert, but perhaps my favorite was Doc Watson. I realize in the last 50 years there have been a plethora of great guitar players.  But most of them weren’t blind.  Doc was born in Deep Gap NC in 1923.  He contracted an eye infection as an infant and was blind before his first birth day.  Doc referred to his blindness as a hindrance, not a disability.  He grew up listening to his father and mother singing gospel songs in their Baptist Church.  Through their music Doc developed a relationship with God  that lasted his entire life.  As a teenager Doc bought his first guitar from money he had earned sawing wood.  For the next 30 years this blind musician sang gospel at church. At local events he would sing songs from Appalachia about lost loves, shady groves and blackberry blossoms.   In 1963 he played the Newport Folk Festival and became a national sensation.  Doc’s singing and playing allowed him to share his music to listeners all over the United States.  One of those listeners was his son Merle.
        At 14 Merle decided he wanted to follow in his famous father’s footsteps.  Doc’s wife Rosa Lee taught Merle his first chords.  The boy was a natural.  Together Doc and Merle toured and made more than 20 records.  It all came to a tragic end in 1985.  In a freakish accident Merle rolled his tractor down a hill and was killed instantly.  Pain still swelled in Doc’s voice when he spoke of his son but he did not allow tragedy to still his voice.  Doc continued to use his music to heal anyone with a broken heart.  Yes Doc sang about prison, lost love, and all those tragic stories that accompany Appalachian folklore. But even when he sang a sad song he sang as a witness to his God who could heal all pain.
        What a gift to be able to sing in the midst of personal tragedy.  How often, when our lives go sideways, do we allow the circumstances to completely derail us?  Some folks wonder why God would place such an obstacle in their way.  They look for cosmic reasons for the misfortune.  The hard truth is when adversity occurs, often the pain is self-inflicted.  Health problems can be related to heath choices.  Financial problems are usually connected to priority choices.  Relational problems are usually linked to behavioral choices.  Add to that the reality that we live in a world where too many folks are only concerned with their own agenda.  How are we to do to respond to this obvious recipe for destruction?
        Perhaps we should try singing.  Why are we so quick to blame God for our calamities? Why not give thanks that God seems to never leave us no matter who deep a hole we may have dug. I’ve shared the story of Doc Watson, but I suspect each of you has a friend or family member that seems to handle adversity better than the rest of us.  How do they do it? I suspect they have an unquenchable faith in God, and I suspect they love to sing, even if they can’t hold a tune.
        Because he spent a good part of his early life in the spinning room of a Cotton Mill, my father was deaf in one ear and the other one wasn’t much better.  Even with the miracle of hearing aids, he was pretty much has been reduced to reading lips.    When more than one person was talking around him it was virtually impossible for him to hear anything because of the multiple sounds. So he would start humming to himself.  My father loved music but he always sang out of tune.  When Dad started humming, it was so far off key it drove the rest of us crazy.  But it didn’t matter. Amidst the chaos of all the noise swirling through his head, he hummed.  Sometimes it resembled a hymn.  Sometimes I thought he was recreating a jazz favorite. It really didn’t matter. Whatever he was humming was a song of salvation that triumphed over the chaos.
        Listen once again to the amazing words of Psalm 98.  “Sing a new song to the Lord for God has done marvelous things.  God has remembered to be steadfast in love and faithfulness.  Make a joyful noise to the Lord.  Let the sea roar, let the floods clap their hands. For the Lord will judge the world with righteousness and the people with equity.” 
I can’t imagine not having a song in my heart. It would be like taking for granted that each morning the sun rose. How can one live without inspiration. I have a friend who gets excited by reading the obituaries and discovering his name is not there. I watch the way you celebrate your children and grandchildren?  I’ve yet to hear a grandparent remain silent over a child’s first step or first word. So why don’t we celebrate, why don’t we sing more often?   What if each morning we got up excited about the possibilities before us?   What if each evening we gave thanks for clean running water, road systems, refrigeration, vaccinations, farmers, and all those unnamed folks that make our life comfortable?  What if, as we prepare to retire for the evening, we spend just a moment remembering that in the best of times and the worst of times, God still knows us and God still loves us?  That would certainly give us something to sing about.  As the great saxophonist Charlie Parker explained, “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your own wisdom, sung. When you sing what you thought was ordinary, you create something you never imagined possible.”
        Or to borrow words from Harry Chapin,
        Music is our life, not our livelihood.
        We sing to make us happy,
We sing to make us feel good.
        We sing from our heart and we sing from our soul.
        It doesn’t matter how well we sing,
        It just makes us whole.
        We all need to sing, not for an audience, but for our mental and spiritual health.  We need to sing a song to the Lord, always remembering, that even in the midst of overwhelming tragedy or personal grief, the Lord continues to do be with us, giving us reason to sing even it might be the blues .  We need to celebrate God’s hand in our lives so we can sing songs of praise, songs of joy and songs of hope.
        Now I know many of you swear you can’t sing a note. So let me teach you a song you can whisper or shout each day.
Repeat after me:
        Sing a new song,
                Sing a new song to the Lord,
                        For God has done marvelous things.     Amen.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sometimes God Turns our World Upside Down

Mark 13:1-8; I Samuel 2:1-10


        When our “formulae for life” works, our days may be dull, but they are none-the-less predictable. I find the older I get, predictable works for me. There is only one problem. I don’t live alone on an island. Sometimes my vision of truth and justice might not be the same as a person I greatly respect. Sometimes values I hold dear begin to crumble. Sometimes, life, with all its ups and downs, crashes upon me in ways I least expected. The situation might be financial. It might be a crisis created by the health or welfare of a family member. And then sometimes, my “formulae for life” explodes. My existence is turned upside down and I find no stability in the assurances of the past. I suspect I am not the only one here who has experienced such a dilemma.

        In my 20’s and 30’s my father and I saw eye to eye on two things.  Golf was the most difficult sport ever invented and Harry Chapin our favorite song writer. One of my favorites was,

All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown,

Moon rolls through the night time,

till the daybreak comes around.

All my life’s a circle, but I can’t tell you why.

Seasons spinning round again,

The years keep rolling by.


That song, that faith in the circle of life, gave me this incredible belief that if I could just hang on long enough to what I knew to be true, a normalcy, a sense of peace, would always return to my soul. But then a frightening revelation destroyed my anchor.    GOD DOES NOT DO CIRCLES!

Once there was a woman whose name was Hannah. She lived during a time when Judges ruled the land of Israel. One verse that continually runs through the Book of Judges declared, “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of God.” Time after time God would appoint a judge to rescue the wayward people. Some of the judges were notable. Others were not. Regardless, when the crisis was averted, the Israelites would return to their old habits and the circle of corruption would return.  Eventually God grew weary.

Hannah was childless. Being a woman was hard enough. Being barren eliminated any social status. There is no circle of life for a woman incapable of reproduction. In desperation Hannah prayed that God would give her a child. She promised to make the child a ward of the Priest if her request was granted. The request was given and Hannah offered an astonishing prayer to an extraordinary God. 

There is no one as Holy as You.

You break the bows of the mighty.

You give strength to the weak.

You give life to the barren.

You lift up the poor and bring down the rich.

You guard the faithful.

You cast the wicked into darkness.

Your adversaries shall be shattered.

You judge the earth with righteousness.

You will anoint for us a king and give him your virtue.



The child was called Samuel. He became the anointer of Kings. First Saul, then David, received the blessing of the son of Hannah. The day of the judges was over.  Israel entered a new era. Unfortunately the kings turned out to be no better than the judges. Amos, Micah, Elijah, Jeremiah and others, reminded the kings of the prayer of Hannah. One by one the prophets proclaimed, “This is the new way of our God.” But the kings returned to their circle of death and Jerusalem was eventually destroyed by Babylon.

But out of the ashes arose a new song. Out of the ashes came a proclamation that God was going to do a new thing. God would restore Jerusalem. God would rebuild the Temple. God would build a new heaven and new earth. In Isaiah 61 the prophet proclaimed, “God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed and the brokenhearted. God will release the captive and out of ancient ruins will create a kingdom based on justice and righteousness. Strangers will be welcome. The orphan and the widow will be lifted up. Everlasting joy will spring for all the nations to witness.”

The temple was built, the city restored, but those who ruled were no better than the judges and kings who had come before them.  But God does not grow weary. God does not faint. Even though the Temple turned from the ancient commandments, God would not be discouraged.

The story I told may not be familiar to all of you. It was the story of God’s faithfulness to the children of Abraham even when those same children couldn’t remember their grandfather’s name. But you will know the next story I share. Once again a woman was selected to be the vessel of God’s grace. On learning her fate Mary offered a prayer of thanks to God. The words aren’t original. She prays practically the same prayer offered by Hannah.

My soul rejoices in God my savior.

God has looked with favor on my lowliness.

God will scatter the proud.

God will bring down the powerful.

God will lift up the lowly.

God will fill the hungry with good things.

God will remember the promise made to Abraham.


Jesus was born. But while God continually pushes us forward, we cling to a circle of death which repeats the mistakes of the Judges, and the Kings, and eventually the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus saw this coming. He pointed to the Temple and said, “It is about to be destroyed but something new will emerge.”

In the year 70 AD, about forty years after the death of Jesus and a couple of years before the writing of Mark’s gospel, The Roman Empire destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. It has never been rebuilt.

But it has been replaced. Slowly but surely a new heaven and earth emerged right under the nose of the most powerful empire known to humankind. Small communities of faith burst through the soil of oppression and bloomed. And who were these brave souls? They were woman without power, slaves without freedom, men without prestige, save for the power, and freedom, and prestige they discovered through the righteousness of God. They broke the circle and found life by looking toward the promise of a new tomorrow.

They became the early church. Against all odds they survived. Yes, the history of the Christian church has been as problematic as the story I shared from the Old Testament. Yet God’s righteousness, God’s mercy, and God’s love continue to point to a new heaven and new earth. 

We understand life within the small circle of our limited experience. We understand power within the restricted scope of what we think to be true. This story of God moving through history defies our logical thoughts. How is it possible to create life out of chaos?  Perhaps we have become so intelligent, so advanced, so proud, that we can no longer see beyond our own existence. Even as we move into the season of Christmas, we surround ourselves with silly songs, dancing elves, and marathon shopping lest we pause to examine the absurdity of God’s imagination.

Zechariah spoke these words to Mary. “Blessed be you. By the tender mercies of God, the dawn will break from on high upon us. Light will be given to those who dwell in darkness and we shall walk in the way of peace.”

Who could have seen the birth of Jesus coming? No one! It had never happened before. And the imagination of God did not stop with that birth. God continues to do new things. God continues to invite us to follow a path of righteousness, of justice, and of peace. O yes it is a bumpy road. O yes it defies conventional wisdom. O yes we will become discouraged. But do not allow the weariness of the day to deter you from bursting into tomorrow. That is where God is found. God never circles the wagons. It is always full speed ahead.

With God, the covenant is always being renewed.

With God, hope is always being realized.

With God. no chaos is beyond transformation.

This is what God has always done.

Why should tomorrow be any different?





Sunday, November 11, 2018

Fidelity and Hospitality

Mark 12:38-44; Ruth 3:1-5
        In the text this morning, three women, two named and one unnamed, are defined as righteous. Ironically, all three are widows, all three are poor, one is a resident alien and each understands fidelity and hospitality as essential tenants in one’s relationship with God.
Let’s begin with the unnamed widow in the Gospel of Mark. During Stewardship season I can’t imagine a more popular example flowing from pulpits all over America. “This woman gave everything she had.” Ministers take that line and do what we do best.  We explain to you what Jesus was really thinking. 
Some of my colleagues will cease on this text as an opportunity to make you feel GUILTY because if we make you guilty enough, you might succumb to any request. The guilt sermon goes as follows.
Look at this poor woman. She has been deserted by her culture. Even her family has abandoned her. She has nothing, except two coins. She had planned to use them for one last meal but then she thought, “The Lord has a use for them.” She placed her coins in the offering plate. She gave everything she had to God. In light of her sacrifice, how can we who have been so blessed, not return a portion of our abundance to God. The Almighty doesn’t want it all but don’t you think God deserves more than our measly two cents.
A generation ago that sermon was a killer. Many a church budget was supported by pleas of guilt of which had as their mantra give till it hurts.
Well times have changed. Guilt is not as motivating a factor it once was. Folks long for a different massage from the high holy places. And we ministers, if nothing else, are flexible. The new approach has been the widow gave everything she had, and God blessed her.  The common name for this newest approach to Biblical interpretation is “The Prosperity Gospel.”  The sermon might sound like this.
The poor widow got up facing another day which appeared would be like every other day. There were no possibilities, no hopes. But on that morning a friend came by and persuaded her to come to the synagogue to hear the words of the new rabbi. He spoke a fresh message. Rabbi Joel promised that if we trusted God, if we gave our hearts to God, wonderful things would happen. So the widow went to the synagogue, she heard the promises of Rabbi Joel, and she gave all that she had. Miraculously, from then on every morning the widow woke up with enough food to make it through the day. Imagine what God will do for you if you follow the example of that poor widow.
Excuse me for being a bit cynical but I have looked all through the Gospel of Mark and I can’t find anything about the fate of the widow once she left the synagogue. But that doesn’t stop ministers, especially those with TV contracts, from making it up as they go. I wonder how many folks spilt their contributable giving between TV shysters and lottery tickets, hoping one of them will pay off?
I can understand why ministers want to manipulate this passage. Better to preach about the widow than reveal that Jesus’ real interest is in the clergy who, “walk around with long robes, dispatching lengthy prayers as they devour widows houses.” This is not a stewardship text but rather a condemnation aimed at the synagogue or any other place of worship which has forgotten who they are supposed to be. Well I can play the imagination game with the best of them.
The widow makes her way to the synagogue just as she had done every other Sabbath.  The reading for this particular morning was the story of Naomi and Ruth. Two women, both widows, both poor, leave Ruth’s native soil to seek sanctuary in the land where Naomi was born. Naomi tells Ruth in her tradition righteousness is defined through the fidelity of God and the hospitality of God’s people.  Ruth believes this and tells her mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go. Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God.”  They settled near Bethlehem. A righteous man named Boaz allowed the pair to take grain from his fields. The story ends with Ruth marrying Boaz and Naomi embracing her new role as grandmother. The rabbi closed the scroll and declared, “Let us be a holy people, inspired by the fidelity of Naomi and the hospitality of Boaz.”
The widow was inspired and thought, “I cannot change the world but I can do my small part toward the safety and welfare of those next to me.” So she gave her two coins.  Only the coins never reached their intended destination. They went into the pocket of the Rabbi who used them for his own pleasure. And no one noticed, except Jesus.
Churches are known for their grand plans. 100 years ago every denomination had a missionary fund. We collected money to send missionaries throughout the world to convert the heathen. Fifty years ago we started concentrating on the local population filling tents and football stadiums as traveling evangelists would arrive with promises to drive Satan from our midst. We are too sophisticated for that kind of nonsense today. Churches are program driven. Churches have turned Sunday morning into a magical mystery tour. Churches are doing whatever they can do to increase membership and budget. Our emphasis is growth, a competition that creates rivals rather than brothers and sisters in Christ. What happened to fidelity and hospitality? What happened to faithfully caring for each other?
I see an incredible parallel between Veterans Day and the image Jesus had for the church. Now don’t get excited. We are not going to end the service singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” But I want you to notice a similarity between church members and soldiers. I was in the Army briefly, but more significantly in Virginia Beach I served a church filled with combat veterans.  I listened and wept as they shared stories of losing friends.  Universally they joined as patriots desiring to fight for a glorious cause. But somewhere patriotism was replaced with the welfare and survival of their closest comrades.  Shakespeare best describes this in his play Henry V. On St. Crispin’s Day, Prince Hal stood before an outnumbered group of farmers on the wrong side of the British Channel.  They couldn’t even remember why they are fighting. Hal speaks, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
One by one veterans have told me in the end they didn’t fight so much for their country, or for some great cause but rather for that person beside them. Their world became no larger than those brothers and sisters in their platoon. 
The church is no different. We are not here primarily because of our loyalty to some ancient Theological Creed. Each Sunday we come to sit in the same pew and be comforted by those closest to us. We care for each other’s welfare. Gradually we expand our band of brothers and sisters to include someone all the way across the sanctuary. We wave at them during the passing of the peace and catch up with them during the fellowship hour. And then eventually, we take on the role of a Naomi, or a Ruth, or Boaz.  We expand our band of brothers and sisters into the community. We seek out rather than ignore the poor. We shelter rather than exclude the widow. And sometimes we even dare to hear the story of the sojourner. This is when we become the church Jesus always envisioned. You see the church of Jesus Christ is not about big programs, complicated theological axioms, or deep pockets. It is about deep hearts and clear eyesight inspired by God’s fidelity. It is about clergy and church members practicing endless acts of hospitality.
We few; we happy few; we band of brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s make the most of the gifts God has given us.
To God be the Glory.   Amen.