Sunday, August 26, 2018

What Happens When the Church is No Longer Safe?

I Kings 8; Ephesians 6:10-20

        When Solomon, the tenth son of David ascended to the throne, he accepted the task of building a Temple. His father had wanted build the first edifice to Yahweh, but tradition tells us this honor was given to the son. Tradition also tells us the prophet Nathan predicted that the Temple would be more for the men who ran it than the God it was suppose to honor. Some could make a good argument that Nathan was right. With the Temple, the Mosaic cult of the wilderness quickly dissolved into an institutional religion that adopted many of the customs of the Canaanites. Solomon’s Temple became both the central place for worship and a symbol of the nation. The Temple was destroyed by foreign invaders three times and rebuilt twice. Today, the site of the original building is the foundation for the famous Muslim shrine, The Dome of the Rock.

        Solomon’s idea was to bring tribal worship under one roof. David had attempted to establish a nation but Israel remained divided into twelve tribes. David had hoped to unite the people when he established Jerusalem as the capital. Solomon wanted to continue this unification by centralizing the worship of the nation. On completion of the Temple, Solomon erected a new Palace beside the Temple. The symbolism was unmistakable. The King and the King’s God stood united.

        Solomon, allegedly the smartest man in the kingdom, somehow wasn’t smart enough to figure out that God doesn’t go out on double dates. Solomon filled the Temple with men loyal to the King. The religion of the Wilderness was based on a strict moral code. The religion of the Temple was established by the man in the palace. Those who occupied the Temple quickly learned two things. Their first allegiance was to maintaining this new institution. Their allegiance was rewarded with wealth and power. So what happens when a house of worship is turned into a institution bent on self-survival? It collapses upon itself.

        The Apostle Paul knew his Bible. He speaks of the conflicts that arose between the prophets of Israel and the men who occupied the Temple. As a Pharisee, he originally was persuaded that Jesus was trying to tear down the religious establishment. But once Paul he saw the light, he realized those occupying the Temple were more interested in self rule than God’s law. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that the church was established to celebrate God, and warned against it becoming a house overrun by corruption. Using the image of a Roman soldier, Paul paints a vivid picture of a follower of Christ. “You are to fasten the belt of truth around your waist. Adorn yourself with the breastplate of righteousness. Grasp the shield of faith, wear the helmet of salvation, hold onto the Word of God and proclaim the Gospel of Peace. Begin and end your day with prayer and supplication, always giving praise to the one who is Lord of us all.”

        Paul implores this congregation to stand strong in their convictions, strong in their faith, and strong in the Godly moral code of the wilderness which always lifts up the powerless, the young, the widow and the orphan. This focus on being a people of integrity, this desire to maintain a pure heart, upholds the original intentions of the early prophets who warned that the way of God has nothing to do with maintaining institutions and everything to do with conforming to God’s tender mercies. 

Maybe congregations should start listening to Paul because I believe our clergy leadership is failing us.

        As someone who has dedicated his whole life to the purity of God’s church you cannot even imagine how horrified I was to wake up to the news that Bishops in Pennsylvania tried to hide the molestation of over 1,000 children by more than 300 priests. We know that number is low because in the past years we heard similar reports from Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Portland, Denver, and Washington. Children are abused and churches keep covering it up to protect the reputation of the institution. If this is all the church stands for, I am amazed folks keep showing up on Sunday Morning.

        Monday I heard a Cardinal remark that his thoughts and prayers were with the children who had been molested. While I am a great believer in the power of prayer, his remarks fell on deaf ears. A child who has been molested needs more than prayers particularly if those prayers are spoken by the institution protecting the predators.

        I am aware that no one wants their Sabbath disrupted by such horrific thoughts, but the truth is silence has been a co-conspirator in this evil. Imagine how many children spoke, only to have their words silenced by those who found the truth too horrible to hear.

        Four years ago our Personnel Mission Team, led by Amelia McCulley, Bill Nevill and Sue Fulton began the tedious task of developing guidelines to assist folks in breaking the silence should an abusive situation occur in our congregation. We know that this epidemic is not just something going on in the Catholic Church. Each denomination has its horror stories. Two years ago a booklet outlining the policies of our session was complete. Many of you have taken a workshop to be introduced to the document. It can be found on our web site. Yet some still wonder if going to this extreme was really necessary.

        Ask any of those children from the Pittsburg area. Ask Ann Mische or Wendy or Ron Culberson who were members of Vienna Presbyterian Church. Ask any woman who has felt uncomfortable in her minister’s office. Ask one third of the Irish population who have stopped attending Mass in the last ten years because of clergy abuse.

        This place, this holy place, from the beginning was created to be a sanctuary for the weak and the broken. It is where we come to be lifted up and restored. It is a place where trust is paramount. Only a few have betrayed that sacred confidence. But what does it matter if 99% of our clergy are trustworthy if you have encountered the 1%.

        I grieve that churches are hiding behind silence to protect the institution. I grieve that that many predators have been relocated to other churches. I grieve that the clergy cannot monitor itself because silence is easier than confrontation. Most of all I grieve that I have to preach this sermon. Members of my vocation, not you, are the guilty. So I ask, no, more than that, I beg you to be both mindful and watchful. If at any time my words or actions seem inappropriate, please tell me. If I ignore your warning, tell Sue Fulton, our Clerk of Session.  It is my job to earn your trust. It is my job to insure my reputation is unblemished. 1% of my colleagues have eliminated any forgiveness or second chances for the rest of my peer group.  Clergy has proven that it is incapable of reporting colleagues. So it is up to you. For the sake of our children, for the sake of members both male and female, for the sake of God’s church, do not be silent. For if we are silent, our grandchildren will never enter this temple we claim to be holy.       TGBTG      Amen     

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Word Becomes Bread

John 6:51-58


        At a local coffee shop a rabbi, priest, and minister regularly meet for breakfast. Good friends from different traditions, they enjoy poking fun at each other’s beliefs.

The rabbi begins, “Why do you insist on taking an amazing Jewish child and insisting he was God. Not even King David was perfect?”

The minister explains, “St. Paul claimed God became humbled, taking the form of a human, in order that we might know how to perfectly live.”

“Ah yes Saul of Tarsus, another Hebrew boy committing the sin of trying to define the Master of the Universe.”

The priest offers his wisdom. “I don’t think any of us claims to know God completely. But while we see dimly, we still want to expand on our vision.”

 “Like calling Jesus, the Bread of Life?” the rabbi asks.

 The priest and the minister give each other a high five as if they are finally helping the rabbi expand his understanding of their savior.

But the rabbi is far from finished, “So when you participate in your Holy Feast, which by the way you stole from my tradition, is the bread you consume the actual body of Christ or is it a symbolic act?”

Trying to be as diplomatic as possible the minister explains, “As you know this is one of those places where my good friend and I might have a difference of opinion.”

The rabbi continues, “Oh I understand completely. What I don’t understand is this. Do you believe Christ, the resurrected Bread of Life, to be real or symbolic?”

The priest reaches over and picks up his friends check.  “That is the question which you will never find my answer satisfactory, but at least we can still break bread together.”

Remember the old days when Christians, Jews and Muslims were never in a conversation together. Truth is those were also the days when denominational affiliations kept us out of any serious conversations. In days past Catholics were seen as papal followers, Presbyterians associated with predestination, and Baptists were just trying to make sure no one saw them having a good time. My how the times have changed. This congregation is a salad bowl made up of a lot of denominational flavors. I could invite an Imam or a Rabbi to come speak and you would welcome either with open arms. In this house we have expanded our understanding of other faiths and no longer limit God to our particular religious persuasion. Yet we still cling to the one we faithfully call The Bread of Life.

Can you imagine how odd the words, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” must have sounded to new converts within the early church? Think about how odd those words must have sounded to folks taking a critical look at this strange new cult called Christianity. Today, when we take communion, we use a variation of those words and seldom see them as radical. Yet to our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters those words are beyond scandalous because they simply do not believe God walked among us.

Increasingly, they are not alone. Forty some years ago when I began my ministry as a Christian Educator I would never hear folks questioning the divinity of Jesus. This is no longer the case. Biblical scholarship can make a solid case that the idea of the physical resurrection of Jesus was not introduced until fifty years after his death. I understand this is a discussion best suited for the Sunday School hour rather than this monologue where I control the microphone, but there is no denying that in cultures with advanced economies and a higher standard of living the idea of God becoming flesh and walking  among us is no longer taken for granted. I might even suggest there are some sitting with us today who find this idea puzzling.   So let me suggest something that may or may not be helpful as we address this scripture in John. Perhaps the writer of John’s gospel was not only thinking of the sacrament of communion but also the appearance of manna in the wilderness.

You remember the story. The Hebrew people escaped Egypt and made their way into the wilderness. Having left in a rush they soon began to run out of food and water. As was their nature, they turned to Moses and began to complain. They even accused Moses of bringing them out into the wilderness to die. Soon they were reminiscing about their wonderful times of slavery in Egypt. Moses’ only response was, “God will provide”. 

The next morning, all throughout the desert, appeared the Bread of Life. It was only there briefly. If not harvested, it melted in the morning sun. If not eaten immediately, it became sour. This bread of life had to be consumed or it was worthless. Those who would not go into the fields or complained the manna was not enough, went hungry. But those who ate were given the strength needed for the coming day.

John begins his gospel by claiming Jesus is the Word. In chapter six he expands on this idea by calling Jesus the Bread of Life. Like the manna in the field, the Word become Bread in order that it might be consumed. No one is excluded. All are invited to the table. Those who refuse go hungry but those who eat, live.

It is at this intersection that the theological discussion begins. Some of our Christian friends understand this to mean accept Jesus as your personal salvation and live eternally. But perhaps it is more. I like the phrase, “You are what you eat.” It is painfully apparent that I am a walking billboard for that axiom. While I am selective when it comes to vegetables, I never met a candy bar I didn’t like. What if consuming Jesus is the starting point to being more like Jesus. We have all read the gospels. How did Jesus spend his days? If people were hungry, he fed them. If people were sick, he healed them. If people were downtrodden, he lifted them up. If people were lonely, he stopped to talk with them. If people were full of guilt, he lightened their burden. From an ethical perspective Jesus was a very good Jew. Come to think of it ethically he would have made a fine Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or even agnostic.  

Maybe our problem is when we eat the Word, when we consume the Bread of Life, our discussions and our disagreements center on the future, not the now. Why should I be so concerned with who someone thinks Jesus is if that same person is living a life which compliments who Jesus was. I keep falling back on the quote by Gandhi. “I’ve read the teachings of Jesus. I find them to be wonderful. My problem has always been with the way Christians follow those teachings.”

Perhaps the writer John is saying to us, “Consume the Bread of Life and be consumed by God.” Jesus wants his bread to reach our stomachs. Jesus wants his bread to be digested in order that it might flow though our veins, nourishing our hearts, our souls, and our minds. Jesus wants us to sit across the table from a neighbor and love them. Jesus wants us to acknowledge an enemy and at least listen to them. Jesus just wants us to break bread together.

So the next week the rabbi, priest, and minister showed up at their regular spot for breakfast.  After the usual pleasantries the rabbi picks up from the following week. “So, did you boys decide if you are real or symbolic Christians?”

As if rehearsed the priest and minister replied, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Echad,” which translated means, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One.” The rabbi reached over, picked up their checks,  and then said …….. Amen.





Sunday, August 12, 2018


II Samuel 18

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “No one shall ever write a better tragedy than King Lear.”  While I would dare not argue with Shaw, the relationship between Lear and Cordelia is certainly rivaled by the story of Absalom and David. We all know Absalom as the fair haired son of David whose death drove the king to the brink of insanity. Yet my previous sermons on this text have failed to capture real tragedy of this story. Recently I reread the masterpiece William Faulkner spawned from this Biblical narrative. Despite Shaw’s love of Shakespeare, many a good Southerner would rate Absalom, Absalom!  ahead of King Lear. Regardless of your linage, the story of Thomas Sutpen and his son Henry cast a dark shroud upon David. This morning I would like to amend my past mistakes by suggesting David is responsible for the death and sins of his sons.

A casual reading of the story portrays David as a loving father captured by a tragic moment. This is because a casual reading ignores the storm brooding within the family. A deeper reading begins five chapters earlier and includes Joab, Amnon, and Tamor to the list of characters.

Joab was the royal fixer. He was the guy David went to when the problem required the king to dirty his hands. If you remember the story of David and Bathsheba, you will remember that Joab arranged the convenient death of Urriah. In Absalom’s revolt against David, Joab was the only one with both the courage and anger to kill the boy.

Amnon was the oldest son of David. Before Bathsheba, David had six sons by six different wives. Then David had four sons with Bathsheba. The last was Solomon. David eventually had 19 sons born to 15 of his wives. The Bible mentions additional sons born to concubines. Then there was a daughter named Tamor. She was Absalom’s sister.

Why all those wives and children? The art of remaining king in the days of David depended on relationships with foreign neighbors and internal foes. David’s first wife was the daughter of Saul. They didn’t love each other. In fact they hardly knew each other. It was a marriage arranged to insure Saul and David would not kill each other. Once David was king, he took wives to insure allegiance from those who sought his crown. But those marriages also insured the children who would became rivals. Amnon was the first born. This gave him the right to the throne. But Absalom, the third born, possessed the charisma of his father.  All we can say of Amnon is that he inherited David’s sexual appetite.

Imagine the example David gave his children. One spring, when armies go to war, David stayed home. Was he too old to fight? Was he too valuable to be lost in war? We are not given a reason. We only know David, full of energy, full of craving, stayed behind. His eyes fall upon Bathsheba. Her husband was an officer in David’s Army. He was off protecting his nation’s borders, leaving no one to stand between David and his desires. So he rapes her. As king, David had the power to do anything he desired. Who dared stand against him? You don’t think his first born knew what had happened? More importantly, don’t you think the first born remembered what happened?

A few years later, Amnon decided to act like his father. Worse than that, he even enlisted the king in his plans. Pretending to be ill, Amnon asked David to send Tamar to his bedroom that she might give him something to eat. Do you really believe for one moment David thought his son was ill? David had to know Tamar was in danger. All David had to do was look into a mirror and see the reflection of a past tragedy. He knew what was on Amnon’s mind, but he still sent Tamar to the room. There Amnon sexually forced himself upon her. She fought but was not strong enough. When the deed was done, all she had left was her voice, and she used it.

Some might argue Tamor was the originator of the METOO movement. She let everyone know what had happened. David claimed to be angry but did nothing to punish his first born. Absalom, the brother of Tamar, was sickened by the rape but he took no immediate action. Instead he raged silently, waiting for the moment he could avenge his sister.

For two long years Absalom planned his revenge. A party was arranged and Absalom invited his father and his brother. The invitation read, “Let’s forget the past and start all over.” Amnon had already forgotten. He was ready to renew his relationship with his brother. The family came together, the wine was poured, and the party went deep into the night. But before the sun came up Amnon’s throat had been slit. David, grief stricken over the loss of his first born, called on Joab to throw Absalom out of the palace. Joab banned Absalom from Jerusalem setting in motion the revolt that would eventually lead to the execution of Absalom. A daughter was raped and abandoned. Two sons were killed. And David was left to wonder how such a tragedy could have happened in his household.

Our story ends with David locked up in his room mourning the death of another son. Can’t you hear him lamenting, “What did I do to deserve this pain?”         (stop)

Had David forgotten he had demanded Bathsheba be quiet because her cries were too painful for him to hear? Had David forgotten Amnon demanded the same of Tamar? Had David forgotten Absalom was also quiet, but with a rage that burned to the core of his soul and an anger that eventually led to murder and revolt.

Tradition tells us that Psalm 51 was David’s prayer after Nathan revealed that the rape of Bathsheba was an abomination. It is a powerful prayer that almost says everything that needs to be said.

        Have mercy on me, O God.

        Wash me of my iniquity.

        Make me whiter than snow.

        Create in me a clean heart.

        Restore me to the joy of my salvation.

        My sacrifice to You is a broken spirit,

        And contrite heart.


It seems to be the perfect confession. What could be missing? Allow me to share verse three and four.

You know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before You. Against You, and You alone, I have sinned.

Nowhere in Psalm 51 or II Samuel does the king ask forgiveness from Bathsheba or the parents of Uriah. Nowhere in Psalm 51 or II Samuel does David apologize to his wives. Nowhere in Psalm 51 or II Samuel does David explain to his six sons and one daughter that his actions were inexcusable, driven by lust and power. Except to God, David is silent, and that is simply not good enough. Deb and I recently visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One display told the story of  African women mournfully crying as they pushed into the hull of a slave ship. The captain threatened to whip them if they didn’t stop singing.  He cried out, “Be quiet! Your songs are too painful for my feelings.”

Because of David’s silence, Amnon assumed if you are soon to be king, women have no voice.

Because of David’s silence, Absalom assumed if you desire to be king, murder is your privilege.

Because of David’s silence, his heart was broken.

We are mistaken when we believe silence can heal. We risk relationships when we believe memories will dissolve. No one has the right to abuse power. No one has the consent to take another’s life. Both are sins, not just against God, but against another. And when sin is excused, or overlooked, or concealed, or even justified, silence and memories divide us, not just for a moment but for generations to come.    

Absalom war against his king imitated the violence he had learned from his father. This vicious cycle is not unknown to parents and children of every generation. Have we not modeled behaviors and values that our children’s children have imitated?  Have we not been silent too long?

Jesus shares the glorious tale of a son who takes his inheritance prematurely and runs off to the city to have a grand time.  He soon spends all the money, ends up sloping hogs and finally a broken man, comes home to the waiting arms of the forgiving father. This is not the David and Absalom story. In this case the prodigal does not come home and the waiting father’s embrace is empty. Which story really reflects life as we know it?

Many of us are grandmothers and grandfathers. Our grandchildren adore us because we are not the rule makers. They have this mistaken conception that we are perfect. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give a grandchild is to break the silence and share an experience when we wished we had acted differently. Imagine our grief if they someday make the same mistake because of our silence.  

To God be the glory.                     Amen.