Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who Are You?

Who are You?

Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41

        The Book of Job is known by everyone but read by very few.  It is a dangerous poem that exists on the edge of Old Testament theology, challenging time honored tradition of Israel’s faith while giving no easy answers to the questions raised. Discussions of this book too often begin and end with the simplistic question, “What happens when bad things happen to good people?” But the deeper, darker message of the poet is that neither Job nor his friends understand the mystery and wisdom of God. Having experienced the suffering that arises when property or a family member is lost, we side with Job. But this poem rises above our tragedies, daring us to look beyond our own pain. In an incredibly sarcastic response God asked Job, “Who are you? Were you around when I laid the foundations of the world? Job, it is not just about you.”

        Job defined righteousness within the parameters of the Deuteronomic code which declared if you do what is right, good things will happen. We have a similar code. Each morning the shadow of Monticello falls upon our county. We have been raised to believe we have the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   When we are denied those revered privileges we raise our Job-like complaints to the Almighty.  But what happens when laws evolving from the gospel according to Jefferson are not harmonious with the gospel of Jesus? What happens when our rights appear to be threatened by the existence of sojourners who are also part of God’s holy creation? We have created laws which protect our constitutional rights. But does legality replace morality when those laws are used against the widow and the orphan? If we claim Christ, I believe these are questions we have to raise.

It was late in the afternoon when Jesus said to the disciples, “Let’s jump in the boat and travel to the other side of the lake.” The disciples saw this as a terrible idea. Why on earth would Jesus want to go to a foreign place where no Jewish laws were observed? Where would they eat? Who would give them a place to stay? Had Jesus lost his mind?

We understand the fear of the disciples. Jesus is always asking us to leave the satisfaction of tested shores and undertake a journey toward the unknown. But who wants to encounter bumpy waters? Life is hard enough without the Godly tug to deepen our humanity and care for folks we really would rather not think about.

My last Presbytery had a covenant relationship with Presbyterians in Villahermosa, the capital of the Mexican state of Tabasco. I twice had the privilege of traveling and staying in the homes of Mexican Presbyterians who are working to build a hospital to insure better health care for their woman and children.  The trips were exhausting yet spiritually enlightening as I witnessed folks living out their faith for the sake of those who were invisible.   On returning home I would often be asked where Tabasco was located. When I mentioned Villahermosa was on the Gulf of Mexico more than once the reply was, “That’s nice, but when we vacation in Mexico we prefer Acapulco to Cancun.”

Jesus wasn’t taking the disciples on a vacation. He was going to the other side of the lake where marginalized, often demonized folks lived. The disciples knew what they would find in Gerasene and they had no desire to go.

During the night a storm arose on the lake which threatened the lives of everyone on board.  You know the story. Jesus awakened; spoke; and the wind and waves became calm. The disciples respond, “Who ARE you?”

I believe the storm was a metaphor for the chaos that was exploding within the heart of each disciple.  What happened to the people on the other side of the lake was not their concern. Those folks were Gentiles. They raised pigs. They were unclean. By making this trip the disciples would once again bring down the wrath of the Pharisees. So why did Jesus choose to step into this mess? These unnecessary side trips threatened the life, liberty, and happiness of each of the 12 disciples.  Why couldn’t Jesus understand this was the last place they desired to be? I think it was beyond their imagination that Jesus wanted the disciples to look the face of a stranger and recognizing her as a child of God.

We are no different. How often are people, especially children, invisible. How often do statistics replace names? The captured, the outcast, becomes a pawn in debates over what is legal or illegal. Then God muddies the water by asking what is moral and immoral. God drags us into the chaos and we desperately look to Jesus for help.  But that calm we so frantically desire comes with a price. Once the storm ended, Jesus asks disciples of every age to continue rowing toward the distant shore.

In moments of chaos, our nation has a history of listening to Godly voices. In 1944 Richard Niebuhr wrote, “Our capacity toward righteousness makes democracy possible. But our inclination toward injustice makes democracy necessary.”

From the inauguration of Washington until today, we as a nation we have tried and failed, tried and failed, but we always try again. In the midst of our chaos our leaders have found the courage to call on a higher power. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln was asked if God was on the side of the Union. Lincoln responded, “What matters is that we try to be on the side of justice and righteousness.” When asked to justify his reasons for supporting the Marshall plan Harry Truman responded, “God will judge us on how we respond to those who are weak.” On September 12th 2001, George Bush preached, “The world God created is of a moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a moment. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end.” In Charleston S.C., after the murder of nine members of the Mother Emmanuel Church, Barak Obama paraphrased a beloved hymn when he practically sang, “Grace is not merited. It is the free, benevolent favor of God upon sinners. God has visited grace upon us as a nation for God has allowed us to see where we have been blind.  Then God has allowed us to find our better selves.”


Perhaps the most beautiful expression of our dependency upon God’s favor was written in 1893 after Katherine Lee Bates visited Pikes Peak. Fifteen years later, Samuel Ward added music to the poem and retitled it America the Beautiful. We all love the song. I wish we would sing the second verse more.

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life.

America, America, God mend our every flaw.

Confirm thy soul, in self control,

Thy liberty in law.


Historically, there are never simplistic answers to complicated problems. Historically, we will often find ourselves at odds with each other when trying to discover creative solutions. The book of Job suggests no matter how good we think we are, holy answers are found when we have the courage to look beyond our own plight.  The Gospel of Mark assures us Jesus can always be found in the midst of our chaos. But Mark also reminds us if we turn to Jesus, there is always a catch. Jesus will encourage us to keep rowing our boat toward the orphaned, the widow and the forgotten.                      

I pray that our nation will never lose the yearning to turn to God in our times of chaos.

I pray equally hard that we will have the courage to listen, and hopefully, find our better selves.
To God be the glory.             Amen. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Arising Out of Fear

II Corinthians 5:14-17; Mark 4:30-32


        During my 40 years of ministry I spent a lot of time engaged in youth ministry. I can remember when rope courses became all the rage. If you are not familiar with this phenomenon, both mental and physical obstacles are created to help the participants learn to trust others and themselves. The low ropes course was performed no more than a foot off the ground. Obstacles were created and the group had to figure out how to get from point A to point B without leaving any members behind. I always found these particularly helpful in addressing trust issues with group members. But then there was the high ropes course. These were individual tasks designed to challenge ones strength and more importantly, one’s nerves. Securely fastened in a harness, the participants tackled one challenge after another, often at heights that for me were beyond my comfortable level. Why did the kids do it? I guess for the adrenalin rush. Why did I attempt it? I really don’t know.

        The task that still interrupts many a pleasant night’s sleep was the pole climb. Imagine climbing what appeared to be an ordinary telephone pole. Only there was nothing ordinary about it. From the ground it seemed to be a thousand feet high. Spikes protruded from the pole allowing access to the top where there was a flat platform. Once the climber ascended the pole, the task was to stand up on the platform, step to the edge, and jump into a net below.  all of this was done in the Texas Hill country where the wind seems to never blows less than 20 mph.

        One or two 18 year olds raced up the pole, stood up, did some kind of victory dance, and jumped. Then everyone looked at me. Not wanting to disappoint, I put on the safety harness and climbed skyward. The first twenty feet were easy. But then something happened. The pole began to gently sway. My legs started to feel heavy. An inner voice began to scream, “Go back.”  I took a deep breath, knowing two things, I was frightened out of my mind and quitting is not part of my vocabulary. Refusing to look down I continued climbing until I reached the platform. I clung to the pole until both feet were safely on the flat surface. All I had to do was stand up, turn around, take two steps forward and jump. But my legs were frozen. They would not move. Here I was, 50 feet in the air, suspended between heaven and hell, absolutely paralyzed. Where was my faith in myself, in God, and in those holding the ropes attached to my harness? 


        What does this story have to do with the parable of the mustard seed? I am sure you remember it.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of the seeds yet when it is sown, it grows up to be a bush large enough for the birds to use as their home.” The sermon that most often follows this parable insist if have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can accomplish anything. The prime time for preaching this scripture is during stewardship season. The minister will gather the children around her, open her hand, and show the kids a mustard seed. She will ask the children  to notice how small the seed is. Then she will show them a picture of a mature plant. The catch phrase is, “If you believe, God will do the same with you.”

        Session members pull this parable out of their hermeneutical hat at session meetings when the projected budget is a few dollars short of the anticipated revenue. An elder will stand and say, “My friends, our work here is a lot more important than worrying about a shortfall of funds. If we have faith the size of a mustard seed, everything will work out. We will find the money.” On hearing those brave words the budget is approved yet rarely does anything change. There is still a shortfall and six months later the stewardship committee will make the necessary cuts. Is that faith or good financial management?

        Maybe a different question needs to be asked. Is the parable of the mustard seed really about an individual expression of faith or courage? Too often we jump the gun and assume every parable is about our personal salvation. What if we stop, hear the parable again, and pay particular attention to the first phrase in this story.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like the the smallest of seeds. Yet when planted it becomes a bush large enough house nesting birds.

The parable doesn’t say, “You can accomplish anything if you have even a little faith. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” I am not a farmer. I am not even allowed in the church garden because I can’t tell a plant from a weed. But I can read. I looked up mustard plants. The article I read said mustard plants are annuals. I had to go to another article to find out what that meant. Did you know mustard plants die at the end of every season and have to be replanted each year? I would be much happier if Jesus had said, “The kingdom of heaven is like an acorn.” Once planted, the acorn manifests itself into a mighty oak that might live for centuries. Think how many generations of birds could nest in the oak’s branches?

But Jesus picked a mustard seed. Jesus picked a plant that must be sown year after year after year. This doesn’t sound like heaven to me. Isn’t heaven the place with streets of gold and townhouses with a “to die for view”. Isn’t heaven the place where we will be reunited with loved ones? Isn’t the reason most of us spend our Sundays in church is to insure our tickets are punched for the great by and by? Isn’t the Kingdom of God more permanent than an annual plant?

Allow me to gently suggest when Jesus uses kingdom talk he is not talking about the future but the now. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven he is not speaking of one grand event but a series of moments that were never intended to be eternal. Jesus sat down with the downtrodden and those without much hope and announced his kingdom was like a fragile seed that would give temporary shelter. Then when Jesus had their attention he continued, “My kingdom is brought about by fragile folks full of fear and doubt who look a lot like you.”

So there I was on that platform, scared for my life. I could not find the courage or the faith to let go of the pole. And even if I could, where would I go. My legs refused to move. From below I heard the voice of the guy at the end of the rope. “Louie, you are OK. We’ve got you.”

Of all the moments in my life to be a stickler for pronouns, this was not the one. I knew the trainer was at the end of the rope. I knew he had done this before. I knew he wouldn’t let me fall, but I didn’t believe it. Only he didn’t say, “I’ve got you.” He said, “We’ve got you.”

Calling on all of my nerve I looked down. I witnessed every kid in my youth group holding onto that rope. All those tiny mustard seeds were finding root, finding purpose, finding the strength to make sure I wouldn’t die. It might have been my clearest understanding of the kingdom of God.

How many times have you been rescued by the words or actions of another? I bet it is more often than you might imagine. And how many times have you been holding on to the rope that brings deliverance to another.  If you think about it, you probably do it every other day.  Over 275 years ago God planted a seed on this spot. And a bush grew. For almost three centuries new seeds has been planted and replanted. Out of those seeds annually grows the courage, and the hope, and the faith that we are here to hold onto the rope for one another. In theological jargon that is called bringing about the kingdom of God.

To God be the glory.       Amen.





Sunday, June 10, 2018

What do you do when the Ben and Jerry’s runs out?

Psalm 130

        If there is any one here who has never been angry, or depressed, or both at the same time you are excused to go to the fellowship hall and lead a discussion on compulsive lying. Everyone, with the possible exception of Joel Osteen, has had a least one bad day. I count it a great month if I have only one or two hiccups along the way. I also suspect, when we have a particularly bad day, there is a convenient antidote to help take the blues away. I am told some folks shop till they drop. My medication is Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

        For health reasons I try to limit this excelsior to no more than twice a year but sometimes, particularly in January, when it is too cold to do anything but work, I will open a pint, dive right in, and not stop until the container is empty. On consumption of my guilty pleasure, I consume enough sugar to forget why I was upset in the first place.

        I heard about a guy who would take a spoon and push it into the ice cream cup as deep as possible. He would navigate around the chocolate and through the cherries until he was certain he had reached the bottom of the container. Then he would try to extract the entire treat with one quick twist. He called it his “King Arthur” move. He probably named his spoon Excalibur.

        We all get the blues and while most of us we have a formula for righting our ship, sometimes things really go sideways.  That’s when we start blaming everyone else for our failures. In the history of Biblical Literature the most pathetic words ever uttered had to be, “The woman gave it to me and I ate.”

        I love the myths in the Book of Genesis. Someone with an amazing imagination, and a keen understanding of human nature, re-crafted stories from other cultures and presented them as a prologue for the Old Testament. Unfortunately, instead of discovering the great truths in these stories, we  spend all our time trying to prove they are real. James Ussher, a 17th century Archbishop from Ireland calculated the date of creation to be October 23rd, 4004 BCE. Now I am certain Jeri or Ken Engebretson could tell you the Packers played their first NFL game on October 23rd, 1921. If my father were still alive he would remind me “Les Miserables” opened in Paris on October 23, 1991. But I doubt anyone here still believes the Earth was created 6,000 years ago.

Imagine the Archbishop’s surprise when on arriving in heaven God informed him his calculations were only a few million years off. Of course Ussher was no more surprised than the Apostle Paul. I can see Paul discussing the concept of original sin with a bunch of angels and Jesus interjecting, “Paul, you do know Adam wasn’t real?”

Poor old Adam. He had nothing to wear and his best friend was pretty much a snake. The fact that Adam lived in paradise didn’t mean he wasn’t beyond having a bad day. He loved Eve but felt she just didn’t understand him.  Every day it was the same old routine: pick some fruit, name a few more animals, and go to the country club and wait for someone to invent golf. One day Adam woke up with an amazing   idea. “If I could be God, my life would be perfect.”

He shared this discovery with his friend and to Adam’s surprise the snake had some interesting thoughts.

“You know that the secret to perfection is found in the center of the garden.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you tried the forbidden fruit?”

“Well of course not. God said not to eat it and that is good enough for me.”

“Do you know why you are not to eat it?”

“It’s poisonous.”

“Says who?”

“Says the woman. She said God said if we ate that particular fruit we would die.”

“How do you know that to be true? Maybe God is trying to keep the fruit from you. Maybe the fruit is the secret to God’s perfection. I bet the woman has been eating it behind your back.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Well, she certainly seems a lot smarter than you.”

The next morning the National Institute of Mental Health reported the first case of depression. Adam woke up lower than the overripe peaches in the south end of the garden. In other words he experienced anxiety. Ever notice how anxiety is the first step toward broken relationships, alienation, and often estrangement. It is difficult to trust someone if you think they are working against your best interest. Adam was suspicious of Eve, and God and I suspect even himself. The results were he found himself all alone.

One of my favorite theologians, John Prine, might have had Adam in mind when he sang,

What in world’s come over you?

What in heaven’s name have you done?

You’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness. You’re out there running just to be on the run.

I believe there is a little of Adam in each of us. And unfortunately there is not always enough Ben and Jerry’s to make it better. Sometimes we just have to admit we dug the hole with our own shovel, and we might need a little help from our friends to get back to level ground.

Before there was ice cream there was Psalm 130.

Out of the depths I cry to you. Hear my voice.

Be attentive to my pleas. I know, and you know, and in fact everyone knows, I really messed up.

All I can do now is hope for words of forgiveness.

So I wait, more than those who watch for the morning.

And I believe that through love, I can be redeemed.

Notice the difference between Adam and the Psalmist?  Adam’s sin is that he trusts no one but himself. That’s kind of like selecting yourself as your own defense attorney. Loneliness and anxiety will separate you from God…….. from God’s community…….. and eventually you will end up running just to be on the run.

Somehow, the Psalmist discovered a better way. I imagine initially he tried to do it on his own. But like Adam, all he did was fail. But then he learned to trust those folks he had originally viewed suspiciously. What an incredible discovery to realize we are all flawed folks in search of a little mercy. What a grace filled moment when we acknowledge that the only perfection that matters is when we are able to forgive others and ourselves equally.

I think God created houses of worship because God knew we can’t always navigate life on our own. Every day we hear stories of folks victimized by tragic cycles of violence and exploitation. The greater tragedy is many too many folks believe they deserve what they get. The church must stand against this oppression.

But another tragedy is there are a lot of folks who feel they don’t deserve God’s love. They can’t seem to understand we are all flawed and yet God still loves us.  That’s why we are here. Within these walls, no one is any more perfect or imperfect than anyone else. Within these walls, mercy, not condemnation, is not just expected, it is required. Within these walls, stories are heard, tears are shed, and laughter exchanged. Within these walls each person is celebrated, each person is lifted up and when necessary each person is forgiven. I like to think the most important thing we do within these walls is to prepare ourselves to go outside these walls and spread a gospel of trust, a gospel of reconciliation and a gospel of love for one another.

In a world dominated by suspicion, false news, rumors, social media, and darkness, where on earth can we begin? Allow me suggest a crazy idea. Take your bulletin home and put the cover on your refrigerator. I want you to look at it until you think of someone who is discouraged, whose anger has raged too long, who has shut out the rest of the world, and has no song in their heart. Then want you to go to your local grocery store and buy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. Unannounced, drop by on your friend, show them your best King Author move, and eat that pint of Cherry Garcia………together.    To God be the Glory,    Amen.    

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Old Rules, New Rules

Mark 2:23-3:6


        If you know anything about the English Monarchy, you know an extraordinary event took place last month. An American divorcee married someone in line for the throne. For anyone under the age of 35 this was no big deal. After all, three of the Queen’s  four children have been divorced. But those of us who are a bit older are familiar with Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne. In 1936, the King desired to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice divorced American. Both the Church of England and the common folk erupted with disdain. Edward gave up the throne, married Wallis, and sailed off to the Bahamas.

        How things do change. What did you think of when you listen to this morning’s scripture concerning the Sabbath? Could the Blue Laws have crossed your mind? While the keeping of the Sabbath has always been part of many religious traditions, it became legalized in America in the late 1800’s. Even Chief Justice Earl Warren defended the blue laws when in 1962 he declared, “There ought to be a day of rest from work when family and friends are able to gather together to worship or recreate.” The Blue Laws seem like such a long time ago. Today, very few stores close their doors on Sunday. So why concern ourselves with Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees over how one keeps the Sabbath? Things change with time. Today, Sabbath keeping is an individual choice.

        But maybe Jesus was concerned with more than cultural traditions. Two examples are presented. The disciples are hungry. As they went through the fields they plucked the grain in order that they might have something to eat. The Pharisees argued that they should have prepared for the day before and not broken Sabbath laws.

        The second case seems a bit more urgent. In the synagogue Jesus came across a man with a withered hand. Instead of waiting for the following day, he healed him on the spot. True to form the Pharisees were outraged at Jesus’ lack of respect for their laws on keeping holy days sacred. Again we shake our heads. What is more important? Feeding the hunger, curing the lame, or obeying an ancient ritual? The answer is obvious to us, but the response of Jesus was so upsetting to the Pharisees began to conspire with the Herodians. To put that alliance into context, it would be like Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi co-sponsoring a bill. 

        Something much deeper is going on in this text. Why does Jesus seem determined to upset the Pharisees? They are not hard-hearted, tyrannical men. Why can’t Jesus and the Pharisees just get along? Why must every meeting between Jesus and the Pharisees be so confrontational?

        Nibs Stroupe, a delightful minister and a good friend from Decatur Georgia has a great take on this. Nibs says, “The religious leaders correctly perceived that Jesus was offering a new vision of life and of God. If this frightened the Pharisees, the progressive members of the Synagogue, imagine what the Sadducees must have been thinking. Both groups preferred a dormant God, subject to old rules and regulations rather than an active, category busting God who is ever present in our lives.”

        Blue Laws and strict adherence to Sabbath Laws take all the pressure off us. Last time I preached a sermon concerning the Sabbath someone came up to me and said, “I remember we could not do anything on Sunday afternoon except gather in Grandma’s parlor and play card games.”

I not so innocently asked, “Did you enjoy the card games?”

They responded, “Not really.”

“So why didn’t you just go outside and play.”

“That would have been against the law.”

“Whose law?”

“God’s Law!”

I have to tell you, as a pretty good Biblical scholar I can find no place in the Holy Scriptures where playing cards is preferable to recreation. Just think about it. The very notion of recreation is re-creation. And that is where God is at God’s best. Blue Laws restrict. God’s laws create. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “If a man is hungry, and you have the resources, feed them, no matter day it is. If a woman is hurt, and you have the bandages, patch her up. Don’t live by the calendar, live through the possibilities.”

The Pharisees reacted, “But we have to remind people how important it is to worship God.

Jesus responded, “No, your job is to joyfully love your neighbor seven days a week. By doing so, God is both worshiped and served.”

This is a very generous congregation, especially when it comes to helping those in need. But someone always asks, “How do we know someone is not taking advantage of us?

Imagine God asking one of the angels the same thing. “Hey Gabriel, how many times has that guy Louie Andrews prayed on Saturday for some extra inspiration for his sermon. Didn’t I see him out playing golf with The Bunch on Friday? Are we responsible for his bad habits? Do we always have to bail him out? Next time you tell him he has gone to the well one too many times. We are not responsible if he refuses to do the work we expect.”

Pharisees love rules and regulations that dictate how we are to respond to and dispense the generosity of God.

But God did not make up those rules, we did. We like to control what we believe God expects us to do. I might be wrong on this one but I believe God simply desires us to pray unceasingly and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. I also suspects God wants us to do both every day of the week.”

To God be the glory.  Amen.