May 28, 2017 | Matthew 7:1-5 & Acts 1:3-11

As many of you probably know, one of my favorite expressions is, “Just because you have a problem does not mean that there is a solution.” I love this expression because it’s true, and because it confronts the deeply-held, false myth that “every problem has a solution.” This belief that “every problem has a solution” is engrained in us almost from birth. We are assured in a million ways by a million people that nothing is impossible. We cling to this myth because it makes us feel powerful. We somehow have come to believe that as a species, we are entitled to success: in all things, and at all times.

Like all myths, this one has some basis in reality. As a species we have encountered many problems, and we have found solutions for many of them. In the face of larger animals, we evolved opposable thumbs and learned to use tools and weapons. When we needed to migrate into climates not suitable for our hairless bodies, we developed clothing and shelter and learned to harness fire. To cross oceans we made boats; to travel faster we invented planes. To cure illnesses we created medications, and to solve engineering problems we developed math.

Clearly, many problems do have solutions. But if we are honest, we know that not all problems can be solved. Some marriages fail, some children go off the rails, some cancers cannot be cured. Some conflicts — inevitably it seems — end in war.

The church is not immune to this assumption of success. We have encountered many problems along the way, and we have either solved them or… well, when we can’t solve them we just shove them under the rug. Problems under the rug are no longer seen, and so the illusion that we are powerful remains intact. Sadly though, it is these hidden problems — the ones left unattended to — that most often trip us up as a species: in relationships, in global political conflicts, and also in the church.

Today’s story of the Ascension is a form of shoving a problem under the rug. It is a pseudo-solution to a problem that the Church has never solved. For two thousand years, people have asked, “If Christ was raised, where is he? Where is this man who overcame death, who came back from the grave? Why can’t I see him? Why is he not holding press conferences or something?” It is a legitimate question. And it is a question to which we have no good answer. Instead, we mumble sheepishly that he had to slip away for a bit, but that we are awaiting his return. This creates another problem, which is that we cast our entire religion into a passive stance. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, the world says, “Well?” And we keep saying, “Honest, he’ll be right back! Really, just wait an itty bit longer. To which the world finally says, “Why bother?”

So: is there a better solution to our missing Jesus than the Ascension? No, not really.

One option some people take is to veer toward Pentecostalism. They say to the great, impatient world, “OK, the purpose of the church is not really to wait around for Christ’s return. The purpose of the Church is to live in God’s Spirit! God is now! God is here! Umm, not in the person of the Risen Christ (whom we do seem to have misplaced), but in this other thing called the Holy Spirit!” To which the world replies, “If the church is about living in God’s Spirit, why did you need Jesus in the first place? What’s the point of a messiah if you can come to God directly, like we all did before he showed up?”

An even more radical move, made by people like John Dominic Crossan, is to say that the resurrection never happened: Jesus died on the cross and he did not come back. We are his followers in much the same way that Buddhists follow Buddha, Muslims follow Muhammad, etc. Gulp. So much for Easter.

We Christians have a problem at the dead center of our faith. We can keep Easter and the problem of our missing messiah; or scrap Easter, focus on the Holy Spirit, and essentially give up on the divinity of Christ.

In truth, my dear friends, all great world religions have a central problem: those unanswerable catches in their otherwise fleshed out theologies. Hindus and Buddhists have no answer to global climate change or unchecked population growth. Their central tenet of reincarnation is based on everything staying the way it is now. In the event of human extinction — or even a vast de-population — these religions crumble into meaninglessness. No more humans means nothing to reincarnate into, and their religions die with humanity. Muslims are stuck in an intractable nationalism. Their faith was designed for a very particular culture, time, and language. Their crisis is that Islam only really works if you are a fourth-century Saudi Arabian. They keep squeezing people from around the planet into archaic dress, into a foreign language, into a prayer position that demands they face a homeland they do not claim allegiance to. Modernizing is simply not a part of their theological wheelhouse.

Incidentally, the problems that Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims face are easy-peasy for us Christians. Unlike Hindus and Buddhists, we have a highly developed end game: we celebrate the end of human existence. It brings on the return of Christ! Our religion not only survives past human extinction, it kind of demands it. The earth, we have always claimed, is not our final kingdom; it’s just a rest stop on our way to glory!

We scratch our heads at the central problem plaguing the Muslim world. “Why do you force women to wear burkas?” Watching Trump uncomfortably line dancing with a bunch of dignitaries dressed in archaic robes, I heard someone mutter, “Why is it that everything they do is so old fashioned and… weird?” The truth is that Muslim problems simply don’t make sense to us. Since the days of St. Paul, we Christians have cherished a faith that is easily adaptable to any culture, any language, any place. On the other hand, our problem — the fact that we have a risen but missing messiah —is easily absorbed by other theologies. Hinduism (and to some degree, Buddhism) have divine humans coming and going all the time. And as for the Muslims, they happily buried their founder in the ground and never thought he was coming back.

So what is the lesson for today? What do we do, right here, right now, with this story of the Ascension? What do we do with all the various theological problems we create with our elaborate triune divine-human matrix?

Well, the first thing we do is agree to admit that there are some problems — even in our cherished faith — that do not have satisfactory solutions. In fact, since we have such a beautiful and elaborate theology compared to many other faiths, we have more problems than most.

Second, in the face of our honest self-reflection, we resolve to see the problems in other religions with a bit more compassion. I know the speck in their eye may seem weird to us, but they are no weirder or larger than the various specks in our own eyes.

Finally, though, let us accept that problems do not mean that our religion — or theirs — is somehow insufficient. Religions were never meant to completely resolve the mysteries of God. Understanding God is not like solving a calculus problem (hard but achievable). When discerning the nature of God, we will only ever have shadowy glimpses of the truth; and that’s OK.

Like our brothers and sisters and those in-between of all the great world faiths, we live and move and find our being here in the imperfection of our beliefs, while trusting in the one who is perfect.

Amen.

May 14, 2017 | 1 Peter 2: 2-3

Good friends, I stand before you, a preacher of the Word of God, experiencing a sensation not often experienced by pulpiteers on Mother’s Day. And by that I mean hope.

Mother’s day is one of the days most dreaded by preachers. We men and women of the cloth pale at the mention of Mother’s day, knowing that there is only one day more daunting— by that, of course, we mean Father’s day. But today is Mother’s day, and believe you me, that is challenge enough. Why is it, you may be asking yourselves, that preachers wake up every Mother’s day in a cold sweat? Well, before us lie several choices, and none of them are good.

The first choice is whether or not to take the bull by the horns (or do I mean the cow by the udders? I’m not sure!) and take on the issue of Mother’s day in our sermons. Or, shall we run for the hills and mumble something about mothers in the blessings time and leave it at that? I confess, I tend towards the later over the former: the duck and hide strategy. After all, I do not think the church NEEDS to address secular holidays.

I hold a very high premium on holy worship, and every Sunday when I am urged to bring up announcements for events or community gatherings, I ask myself, “Is this really ‘sacred?’” After all, this is God’s temple, not our club house, and as a minister of Word and Sacrament am I not duty-bound to uphold the sanctity of worship? In my lectionary group, most of my clergy colleagues stridently refuse to mention Mother’s day in their messages. “We are preachers of the ‘Word!’” they thunder, “and we will not sully the call with such folderol!”

But, the thing is, to not preach on Mother’s Day may be a way of avoiding God’s voice more than protecting it. After all, most of us will think of our mothers today. If they are alive and near, we will take them out to lunch, and if they are gone, well, we will stand at their graves and weep. And what is more sacred, I ask myself, than the flood of tears that will fall: tears of loss, of loneliness, of regret, of anger, of thanksgiving. No, addressing Mother’s Day in the sermon is not unwarranted. At least, it seems to be so this year.

But having resolved the first question, we preachers are posed with an even greater question: what to say? We can veer towards anthology and talk about earthly mothers. But how do we do so honestly? Platitudes of old-fashioned stereotypes are neither useful nor correct. Every person in this room holds a different image of mother. My feeble attempts to weave a tapestry that does justice to even a small portion of them only highlights the images left out.

Of course, we could also choose to veer towards divinity instead: speak of God the mother. But is this not also an invitation to convey traditional gender roles writ large? Wandering those paths smacks of idolatry, pure and simple. There is another problem with speaking of God the mother. By definition, it highlights that we are not speaking of God as father. And just as we learned in the 1970s that using “Father” language creates a barrier for many, so does using “Mother” language.

In truth, for forty years the church been hog-tied by pronouns. The church I grew up in went gender-neutral when I was a child. All the “Fathers” got tossed from the prayers and the hymns, and in their place, we started to worship a watery, neutered thing. Oh, it solved a problem, I guess. And it was better than laying a stumbling block, to quote our Matthew passage, before those more vulnerable.

When I went to college, I attended an evangelical fellowship that stridently used “Father” even when it didn’t make sense. Stumbling blocks was their rallying cry! Let the liberals like it or leave. Most of them left. In seminary, it was quite the opposite. It seemed like all the crucifixes had large breasts on them, and if you dared to claim that the risen Christ was not a woman, you suffered the rage of the feminazis. They also seem to hold stock in stumbling blocks. Indeed, although I am unhappy with the amorphous, pronoun-less God, it remains the one I address our prayers to, even to this day. Although, that may change.

Remember, my dear brothers and sisters, and those unaffiliated, I told you that I stand before you on Mother’s day, for the first time in my career, with the sensation of hope. That hope rests in the wise and caring hands of those who are “unaffiliated.” It is the transgendered of our society who have suffered the slings and arrows of daring to see the world and themselves outside the old models of male and female. By refusing to simply accept the binary assumptions of the past, they not only force us to see each other differently — they allow us to see both our mothers and our God in new ways as well.

Have they made mistakes? Can they be self righteous and annoying? Will they double back and change course, causing migraines for well-intentioned school principals, the makers of bathroom signs, and members of the house of representatives? Yes, of course. All change agents stumble in the beginning, but still we should be grateful to them. Especially  we in the church.

When I went to work at the hospital seven years ago, we all received training on how to address transgendered people. And for the first few years, most of our transgendered patients were strident about their chosen pronouns. During shift report, we would be told, “male to female patient prefers female pronouns,” or “female to male prefers plural pronouns.” And we would write down on our crib sheets exactly what we were told, and try our best not to forget. But we would forget, of course, because it was hard to say “she” when talking about a patient with a full beard. And if we were talking to them and got it wrong, they would be angry, and we would apologize, and sometimes we would have to be talked to by our nurse manager.

A lot has changed in the last seven years. We are all now much more comfortable with bearded “shes” and breasted “hes.” And “they” and “them” flow off our tongues these days with ease. And as their cause becomes more mainstream, our transgender patients are also less defensive. They still correct us when we get it wrong, but they no longer assume we got it wrong on purpose.

What is more, the transgendered community is growing up and discovering more about themselves each day. The new realization they are sharing is that for many of them, their gender identity is not stable — male, female, or plural—but fluid. Today they feel “he,” tomorrow they may sense a longing to be called “she,” all last weekend they went by “they.” They are demanding the right to be migratory and inconsistent. Furthermore, they are claiming the right to call others by the genders that make sense to them — quite the opposite of what we were taught just a couple years ago. For example, the one who they once called their “father,” they now see — and call — their “mother.”

Interestingly, in my experience, the shifting is not based on the stereotypes of old. I’m not quite sure they know what the shifting is based on either. It is just a feeling. A certain person, at a certain time, calls for a pronoun — calls for a certain role: mother, father, friend. But these things are more fluid now, at least in their minds.

What, you may wonder, does this have to do with us? How is this related to Mother’s Day? Well, I see a day when we will gather in this room and give thanks for our “mothers,” whoever they are at that moment in our lives. And it will not surprise us when one of our pew mates recalls a “mother” whom others understood to be a kindly neighbor. And it will not surprise us when another pew mate uses the word “mother” to refer to someone they used to call “grandpa.”

In my first church, interestingly enough, we lit candles in honor of our mothers, just like we do today. But the idea of mother was more solid, frozen. And for better or worse, everyone had only one name to offer, one candle. Friends, I hope to live long enough that traditional words like “father” and “he” and “mother” and “she” will trip off our tongues when we are speaking of God — not based on traditional gender roles or out of some political allegiance, but because at some deep unconscious level, the right word will simply appear: the word or title that unconsciously describes what we are trying to express.

So, my beloved flock, happy Mother’s Day. I pray that your mothers, whoever they are and whatever their sex, sense your love. Or, if they are gone, that they are held gently in your memory. Be they hard or kind, wise or foolish, emblems of love and peace or not, they have — and maybe still are — gifting you and shaping you, and you should claim them as your mothers on this day. And we should all give thanks to God — Mother, Father, Great Spirit — for God’s gift of mothers and for their witness of God to us.

Amen.

April 30, 2017 | Luke 24:13-35

It is easy to pull out the moment of revelation and preach upon it. For all that Cleopas and his partner experience that day, walking from the Passover festival in Jerusalem back to their home in Emmaus, they do not recognize Jesus — not until the breaking of the bread. It is that moment, and not before, that their eyes are opened and they recognize the person with whom they have spent the day. As I said, it is easy to focus on that moment — the moment of revelation — and by doing so, to diminish the importance of what came before.

I know. I know you can preach that sermon because I have many times. I think I did last year. The concluding salvo of such a sermon is that though we may hear of Jesus through many avenues, we only recognize him when we offer hospitality to the stranger: when we get involved in mission work. Certainly, this is the sermon that our bishops want us to preach. Missional ministry is all the rage in the Methodist church. “It is our social outreach,” they say. “It is our involvement in the neighborhood, our service to the least of these that matters.” And everything else, if you read the statements of bishops, seems to matter not at all.

The revelatory moment, the concluding scene in today’s drama, the power of offering hospitality: this will be the sermon preached most often from Methodist pulpits this year. As I said, it is the sermon I most often preach myself, especially when this text is read. But try as I might to write that sermon, somehow it seemed wrong: here in the wake of the march for science, here in the uncritical celebration of the world’s “new religion.” I am tired of elevating one aspect of today’s story over the others. I’m tired of forgetting the long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus in favor of the final verses. I do not believe revelation is found simply in the breaking of the bread — as if the previous eight hours of the day meant nothing.

I think revelation is a recipe that takes time and the inclusion of many things, usually put together in a specific order. Cleopas and company finally recognize Christ because they spend the whole day with him and discover along the way the steps to revelation.

First, they need to understand their pain. If they didn’t verbalize the trauma of the passion, the stranger would not respond to their cry, “but we had hoped!” If you read the story carefully, you will notice that they are the ones who raise the subject of his crucifixion. Normally when you meet a stranger, the talk remains shallow. You comment on the Blazers or the preponderance of pot holes across the city. Maybe if you’re getting intimate enough, you ask them what they do for a living. We remember the journey to Emmaus because those undertaking it choose to go deeper with the stranger they meet. It begins when they, not he, bring up the subject of his trial and their hope in what might have been.

In other words, brothers and sisters, we do not stand a chance of recognizing Christ, here in our midst, if we don’t come to this room with him already on our minds. Come here looking for friends, for the comfortable rhythms of an earlier age, or out of sheer boredom, and you will find exactly what you are looking for. Come to this place — to this room — with your mind fully on Christ; well, you may not see him right away, but at least you are on the right road. Intention is the first ingredient: the first step to our eyes being opened.

Jesus’ response is the second ingredient. In response to their clear interest in him and his ministry, and in response to their hope that somehow there was a rational explanation for his death, he returns the travelers to the wisdom and insights of their tradition. He starts by telling them about Moses, and one by one, each of the prophets. He outlines passages from Isaiah and arguments from Jeremiah. He references Daniel and reminds them of what they were taught about Hosea. He brings up Joel and the central thesis of Amos. He lifts up Obadiah and lays down the truth about Jonah and Micah and Naum and Habakkuk and Zephaniah and Haggai and Zechariah and even little remembered Malachi.

It’s a long, long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and Jesus uses every step to go back in time and remind the travelers that truth existed before he did — before the current crisis that they are facing. All those things which may seem archaic and out of date, he says, contain the truth about himself and the answers to the questions with which they are wrestling. And yet, still they do not recognize him. The last step seals the deal: the invitation to stay, to eat, to rest; the missional conclusion.

You don’t find God just because you look for God. And you don’t find God just by respecting the wisdom of the past. And, brothers and sisters, you don’t find God merely by being missional. Any one of these ‘humors,’ by itself, is insufficient.

Sometimes I worry about our denomination. At the moment the call to missional living is so loud that we have grown arrogant and blind to the theologies of the past, which too often we openly scoff at. Where is our theology of heaven, of the second coming? We deride the “pie in the sky” as if our ancestors were ignorant. But I wonder, will we survive our environmental collapse without them? I do not believe so.

When the march for science is over, when this new religion falters — as it will — will the old religions be there to pick up the pieces? When the Methodist obsession with mission collapses — which it will, because secular forces do service better than we do, and we’ve given up on the one thing that we do better — will the old theology still be accessible? Not if we ignore the wisdom of our past, not if we “poo poo” the words Jesus says along this road.

I love today’s story. I love the way it concludes: Cleopas and his partner are so surprised and so excited when their eyes are opened that that they rush all the way back to Jerusalem. I love also that in their pain, they place their hearts and minds on Christ even before he says a word. Most of all, though, I love that when the world is melting before them, Christ comes not to reiterate his social gospel, but rather the salvitic wisdom of the saints who came before: trusting that the past can help unlock the blindness of the present.

Amen.

April 23, 2017 | 1 Peter 1:3

You’ll be glad to know that I had great fun this past week getting ready for this morning. Sometimes the background work — the academic study and the spiritual gymnastics that happen before sermon, sexy as it all sounds — can be, well, kind of dry. But not this week. This week, writing the sermon was all dreamy ruminations. The part of the Mary Oliver poem I did not read earlier includes the lines, “you will swim away along the soft trails // for hours, your imagination / alighting everywhere.” And so it was getting ready for this sermon.

I love the way the author of 1 Peter ties together the resurrection of Jesus Christ with the assertion that you and I can be born again. Two stories which in the gospels are inextricably miles apart are tied together here in 1 Peter by a master theologian. And with the braiding together of these two actions comes the invitation to muse on our own born-again experiences, even as we spend the glorious fifty days of Easter reflecting on Jesus’ resurrection.

We all have born-again moments, whether or not we feel comfortable calling them that: moments when normal existence is transcended, when our hearts are strangely warmed, when God is so close that we are indeed being cradled, as if newly born, by the creator. I love the Buddha’s description of this experience when he is under the Bodhi tree and even more how he spends the rest of his life trying to find that born-again sensation. This past week, I too spent a lot of time under the Bodhi tree as I floated around and between old memories of being born again. And for whatever reason, my reflections kept bringing to mind the old Hebrew word dayenu.

It was there on the fading end of sleep Tuesday morning. And Wednesday after supper, sitting in my tea house, it danced over the top of the poetry I was trying to unravel. By Thursday, that single word had crystallized around it a memory: one of the many times that I have felt born again.

It was just last year, actually, at Passover. Rebecca (from the choir) invited me to her parents’ home for the celebration. Being an introvert, and the only goy, and not knowing anyone but Rebecca, I found the dinner itself to be a little uncomfortable. My Hebrew stinks, and muddling through the long prayers was tiresome — even for someone as annoyingly pious as I am. Still, her parents were gracious, the food was delicious, and a night dedicated to God is something I cherish even if I was a bit confused here and there.

But then, when the meal was over and we all retired to the living room, that gaggle of opera divas which is Rebecca’s family gathered around the piano. Though I thought my ears would bleed, my heart was transported out of my body and I was born again by the sheer beauty of the sound: my infant soul cradled by the undisguised love they had for their tradition and for the power of the ancient music which they sang.

Dayenu means, “it would have been enough.” At the center of the Passover is the repeated claim that it would have been enough if God had done only a tiny part of what God had done, is doing, will do. The tension melts away.

We will have been like dreamers standing by an empty tomb — a tomb turned into the cradle of our own new birth. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with songs of joy; then will they say among the nations, “YHWH has done great things for these.” YHWH is doing great things for us; we were, we are, we will be joyful.

It would have been enough (Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu dayenu. Great God it would have been enough! Dayenu dayenu). It would have been enough if Jesus had come to us as a peasant child, God of the universe born in a manger, emblazoned with poverty, embracing vulnerability, proclaiming a majesty unlike no other. It would have been enough.

It would have been enough (Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu dayenu. Great God it would have been enough! Dayenu dayenu). It would have been enough if he taken the water at the wedding, the simple domestic moment where two families join together around individuals proclaiming a private covenant of love and commitment. That God would be so present, so active, celebrating with them in the intimate festival of human emotion and procreation. It would have been enough.

It would have been enough (Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu dayenu. Great God it would have been enough! Dayenu dayenu). It would have been enough if he had taken the young boy’s offering, the bread and the fish, respecting that it was given freely and there on the banks of the great lake shown us the miracle of generosity and divine abundance. It would have been enough.

It would have been enough (Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu dayenu. Great God it would have been enough! Dayenu dayenu). It would have been enough for him to sit with us as our demons raged and our epilepsy flared; enough when he laid his hands on our leprous skin and our blind eyes wept for joy of new sight; enough when he showed us the way to heal and the need to serve and the gift which is the risk of love. It would have been enough.

It would have been enough (Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu dayenu. Great God it would have been enough! Dayenu dayenu). It would have been enough to accept the cross. It would have been enough to die though completely innocent. To suffer. That would have been enough, but to come back — to willingly come back to the very people who killed him, who denied him, to come back and to break our bread and to open our eyes — it would have been enough. But after all he suffered, he cradles our infant hearts, again and again, eon after eon, and calls to us, and nurses us, and allows us to be born again and again and again in his love.

It is more than the mind can hold — such love, such grace, such divinity. It would have been enough for God to do much, much less. But God always does more that we see, more than we deserve, more than we can fathom. That is Easter: a resurrection that not only returns him to his life, but repeatedly returns us, also, to our lives again — as if we were newly born. That is the gift of this season. That is the reason for our proclamation, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Amen.

April 16, 2017 | Acts 10: 34-41

One of the great struggles facing all the major religions is determining what is universal in their message and what is particular.  This is a challenge that did not exist when they were formed.  It used to be that geography and theology were synonymous.

Why did you worship Shiva?  Well, you were born in Southern India.  Theravada Buddhism belonged to those south of the Mekong, while the Chinese to the north followed Mahayna. Jews came from Israel, and the people of Japan, by definition, followed Shinto. But huge advances in physics during the late 1700s led to the development of the schooner ship — a vessel that could cross the oceans in days, rather than weeks or even months. And, like tectonic plates, geography and theology began to drift apart: a cabin boy from Massachusetts was as likely to be seen entering a temple in Calcutta as his twin from Sudan could be spied having a free meal at the Salvation Army in Boston. In about two generations, the survival of a religion started to turn from a dependence on nationalist tradition to one of doctrinal appeal.

What started with the schooners has only become more true.  Now that everybody, with the click of a mouse, lives everywhere, defining who we are and what is unique about our faith is almost impossible. Since we are constantly rubbing shoulders with people whose faith is different than our own, we have become afraid to ask and even more afraid to share. It’s just easier now to talk blandly — when religion does come up — about how we all love God and can’t we just get along.

But today, this morning, we remember what it feels like to be special.  Easter is still recognized — well, not at the Dollar Tree, but most places — as a Christian-only event. When we put on our Easter best and go through the check out aisle with our white lilies, we say to ourselves and to the world: “Look, we are different! We are unique! We have Jesus — at least this story of Jesus — just for ourselves.” It is our claim of Jesus’ resurrection that makes us different from the Muslims and Hindus who also lay claim to this Middle-Eastern prophet.

At least, I know I feel this way most years.  I’ll be honest: part of what I love about Easter is the way it wraps me up in my own religious bubble.  Easter, more than any other day — even Christmas — allows me to enclose myself in the warm cocoon of particularity.

Which is why today’s passage irks me.  Someone suggested this year that I not preach the Gospel, as I have for the past 24 years straight.  “Preach the Acts,” they prodded.  This passage, I learned, has been sitting silently in our lectionary, right next to the Gospel, for decades — although to be honest I’ve never noticed it before.  Furthermore, I was told, it needs to be preached upon because the World Council of Churches placed it there for a reason.

Our passage, from Acts, is Peter’s Easter sermon.  It is all about the death and resurrection of Jesus, but while Peter is preaching away about this particularity of our faith, he also is saying things that many, secretly, don’t want to hear.

“I am learning,” Peter begins humbly, “I am learning that God does not show partiality to one group of people over another.  Rather, in every nation, (or in the parlance of the day “every religion,”) whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable to God. And, I am learning,” Peter continues, “that this same message — that God has sent to us by proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ — God has sent to others in other ways. God,” he concludes, “is Lord over everyone.” Peter goes on, in the midst of his great Easter sermon, to indicate that it was God’s plan — God’s choice — that the resurrected Jesus be seen (and again, here I quote) “not by everyone but only by us.”

So…  our story is particular.  We are unique in that we alone are the witnesses to Christ’s resurrection.  But, that does not mean, Peter insists, that we are better or more enlightened.  Peter argues that Christ’s resurrection was not designed for everyone.  It was designed just for us, just as God designed other religions to fit the needs of other people.

Remember, friends, this is Peter preaching — the one upon whom the church was built — the one who was standing right next to Jesus when Jesus said “go and make disciples of all the world.”  But clearly Christ was not saying that all those disciples would know him “by the marks where the nails when in.” Not all of them would claim him, like Paul, “Christ crucified” and then raised.  Only we would.  It is our witness.  That witness makes us unique and makes our path particular.  But it is not — as Peter admits he is beginning to learn — it is not the only path that God will use.

If Peter’s sermon were written today it would be easy to say this is all just post-modern drivel; an acquiescence to the political correctness of our time.  But Peter preached this soon after the events we remember today first took place.  In the shadow of the empty cross, Peter proclaims a universality that we are still struggling to accept today.

Easter is our celebration.  We are the ones who know God crucified and raised.  Why were we chosen for this particular path and not another?  Why were others gifted with other paths which are not open to us?  I don’t know.  Peter doesn’t say.  It is enough, though, he says — it is enough that we know God this way.  And we celebrate it and even share it with others, in case they are to know him through the gates of crucifixion and resurrection.  But not all will, and that is not due to our poor evangelism. It is the result, Peter reminds us, of God’s own choice.

So, brothers and sisters: proclaim your faith — our faith. Proclaim how it is that God has shown God’s self to us.  Glory in the witness that we have been given, for truly it is blessing and a gift — to us.

He is risen (He is risen indeed) He is risen (He is risen indeed) He is risen (He is risen indeed)

Alleluia, amen.

April 2, 2017 | Ezekiel 37: 1-14

In her Pulitzer winning novel, The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields suspends the plot on one occasion to discuss the power of speech: its uses and effect on the audience — and also on the orator. While elaborating on the shifting obsessions of the protagonist’s father, Shields describes how language changed the man from being a heartbroken recluse to a great speaker whose words were sought after by the thought leaders of his day. She states that, “Language spoke through him, and not — as is the usual case — the other way around.”

One gets this same sense in our passage from Ezekiel. God is clearly the speaker: the author of the language that the prophet dutifully channels through him and into the dry bones of the Israelite people, enslaved as they are on the banks of the Chebar River. To this immigrant people held in the detention centers of Babylon, the word of God — as transmitted through the faithful Ezekiel — knits sinew upon sinew, bone to bone, and reestablishes hope where all hope was lost. Here in today’s remarkable lection, we witness the resurrection of a nation: the re-creation of a people once dead but brought to life by the power of language — by the power of truth, spoken and heard.

What a strange passage to reflect upon here at the height of what history may call the “veracity wars” of 2017. “What is truth?” Pilate will ask Jesus in about two weeks. But when this ancient question is queried again in this darkened room on Good Friday, it will not, sadly, sound very fresh — not this year. No, this question is overdone, stretched out, worn thin. The tread on the tires has been frictioned away and we have been skittering off the road of reliability for months now.

“What is truth?” Sean Spicer asks the White House press corps week after week. “What is truth?” Adam Schiff asks his good friend but political adversary Devin Nunes. “What is truth?” TV-personality-turned-President asks all of us in his early morning tweets.

What is truth, brothers and sisters and those unaffiliated? Is truth just a series of “alternative facts,” dealt out by a card shark, to distract and distort? Something flayed like a piece of meat, tender to the ravenous base but gristle to one’s enemies? What is truth? Is there any language that we can trust anymore? Can mere words mean anything solid on this spinning lump of clay? Can anyone’s word, I wonder, still knit sinew upon sinew and bone to bone? Is there a prophet in the land who will allow God’s words, unencumbered, to flow through her or him and thus reestablish hope to our Church, our nation, our world?

In Seminary we studied many ancient confessions, declaration of faith, and testimonies as to the nature of God. We read hundreds of pages of what the saints of the past professed. But when I get together with my battle-worn classmates, there is one phrase that still, after all these years, rippled in our hearts, stings on our tongues, if we dare to utter it aloud: “The word preached is the word of God.” This is what the Scots Confession claimed; but how can it be true?

I share this with you in case you think that I am casting stones — in case you think I am pointing out the speck in the eyes of Spicer or Trump. I am fully aware of the logs extending through the pulpits of America, the mighty trunk that exists, always, in my own eye. What hope do we have? Are any of us really Ezekiel? Can any of our words be trusted to be truth, to be the actual word of God? I think not!

Sometimes when the weight of the pulpit is too much, when the claim of the ancient Scots is too daunting, I drive over to the Grotto and walk the upper garden. I stroll through their great stone diary of our gospel faith — the mute statues that speak but always without words. And I sit in the garden and wish that I could return to the Quaker meetings of my youth where words were rare, suspect, and no one claimed too much or expected too much.

And sometimes I think also of this old oak table, and the cup that it carries, and the bread that it offers: truth without words. But I know, even in these reveries of silence, that God — as in the days of Ezekiel — that God is calling us to prophesy.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” God whispers. And we respond, “O Lord God, you know.” “Prophesy,” the urgent whisper returns, “Use the breath I have given you, the ‘Ruach’ by which you were created, use it to prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘Oh dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.’” And so we must. In spite of all the odds, we must. We cling to the faith of the old Scots’ creed and pull ourselves up to the pulpits once more — the pulpits which God gives to each and every one of us in our offices and at our family tables, in the pages of editorials and while standing at the bus stop.

We stand at these pulpits and we preach, trusting somehow that what we say holds the seeds of God’s very own words. We speak of our faith, we declare God’s justice, we proclaim the day of liberation, we confess the ethics of Jesus, and we say to our Church, to our nation, to the world, “Dry bones, get up! Live! And claim the breath within yourselves, the imago dei.”

Though it is not our inclination, though we would rather remain silent, today’s passage reminds us that our breath is borrowed for a purpose – the ‘Ruach’ is lent to our dry bones so that we might speak. Let us pray:

Holy One, may your language, your truth, speak through us, and not — as is the usual case — our empty babble be spoken in your name.

Amen.

March 26, 2017 | John 9:1-41

Story tellers from the Middle East have a tradition that goes back, I hear, to the very beginnings of human existence. Certainly back to the days when Jesus himself was telling stories. When they introduce a tale, they sometimes say, “I don’t know if it happened like this or not, but I know that it is true.”

Not long ago, someone chided me for sharing a story from the gospels, and not being explicit that it “should not be taken literally.” This person wanted me to stress the point that maybe it didn’t really happen. “But,” I retorted, “It did happen!” It happened in the hearts and the minds of the early church — it is part of the fabric of the faith because it led people to God. That most certainly did happen, and as for all stories in the gospel, that is precisely the point.

Today we have a healing story. Did it really happen? Perhaps there is some historicity to it, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is true.

A man who is blind from birth comes to Jesus. And he says, “in the history of all the world no one blind from birth has ever been made able to see.” This is — for the most part — a simple statement of fact. A person who has never seen does not have the neurodevelopment necessary to see. It is not the eyes that are blind, but the very mind: the brain itself. A brain which forms without sight allows all those neurons to be repurposed. A person blind from birth must literally be born again — must have their very selves, their infant minds — remolded and reformed. No physician in biblical times — or, I believe, even today — can make a brain that cannot see, see.

Now, a person who could see at one time but who, because of an eye infection or a fungus or some corneal dysfunction, lost the ability to see, still has the neuropathways necessary for sight. Fix the eyes and the brain once more kicks in: sight is restored. They are blind simply because of the eye, and not a malformed mind or brain. A skilled physician applying a poultice made of the right herbs or compounds might be able to heal an infection, kill a fungus, maybe even treat a corneal dysfunction — I don’t know— and thus could cure the blindness. That is not going to work with our protagonist, though. The man in this story must undergo re-creation.

Over the years I have heard people ask, “Why does Jesus need to use mud here, and could not just heal by his words like he does in most places?” But to the first audience, the question was, “Why does he use a mud unlike the herbs and plants that most miracle workers would have used?” Jesus, though, is not merely healing the man’s eyes: he is out to recreate the man’s very self. The mud he applies, symbolically or not, is the very mud of Genesis 2:7. Like God, who took mud and breathed into it to mold us all, Jesus takes mud to remold this man’s very nature: his mind, his thoughts, his soul. The man who was blind of thought — like all of us once were — can see because he is a new creation, born again by Jesus’ administrations.

The Pharisees, the ones who are supposed to be enlightened, don’t understand this kind of sight. They are narrowly focused. To them, sight is a matter of the eyes, and if some new practitioner is meddling in their wonder-working arena, they want to know. “How did he do it?” they ask again. “What was the herb, the compound, the procedure? We’re the bosses around here and we want the clinical data behind this new cure.” As you know, the whole event begins to fall apart as they go skittering from the man to his parents and back to the man, getting more and more frantic and more and more closed-minded. The man who knows that his sight came from being remade presumes that they, too, want to cure their blindness — by that he meant blindness of heart, blindness of faith. But this only irritates them more.

Did this really happen? Can we see only as far as the historical facts, the transcripts from the court recorder? Or can we see the truth in this ancient tale: the story of how the blind see but those who see are too often blind.

Did this really happen? Yes, it happens each and every time that we look deep into our hearts and recognize that truth is not an event, not an accurate rendering, but an encounter with God. The truth exists in us when we have an encounter with God that molds our very nature anew so that not only our eyes are opened, but also our minds and our hearts. That is the truth in this story, and hopefully, the truth in our stories as well.

Amen.

March 19, 2017 | Psalm 95:1-2

Monday, March 8, 2032

Good morning class. (Good morning Mr. President.) Thank you! As you well know, I am President Besigye. I am very glad to be here today to speak to you. Mrs. Zimba, your English teacher, wrote me a very kind letter inviting me to spend some time with you. I don’t really think she believed that I would come! She knows that because of my busy schedule, I do not get the opportunity very often to spend time with my beloved citizens. But the chance to talk about English, a subject I loved when I was in school, was one that I could not pass up.

I must admit, though, I most often speak with governors, business leaders, generals, and heads of State from other nations. With them I am very comfortable — but eighth graders? Well, excuse me if I seem a little nervous. I remember when I was in eighth grade and we were not always so polite to guest teachers — but I know that you will be respectful to me today — otherwise, maybe, I will throw you in jail. No, not really!

Today, I want to talk to you about prefixes. Every language has them, but English — English has lots of them! A prefix, you hopefully remember, is attached to the beginning of a word and changes its meaning. There are, of course, also suffixes, which come at the end of a word. They tend to change how a word functions in a sentence. Sometimes they change its meaning, but not usually. Today, though, I want to concentrate on prefixes.

Often a prefix is obvious. Let’s use the word “normal” as an example. We all know what the word “normal” means: “within common expectations.” The prefix “ab-” means “not,” and when added makes the word “abnormal,” meaning, “outside common expectations.” In our country, many people used to believe certain others were abnormal if they loved differently than they did — but not anymore. Another example might be the word “moral,” which becomes “amoral” when the prefix “a-” (also meaning “not”) is added.

Mr. President, you are probably thinking, Did you make a mistake — did you think you were going to be talking to six graders?! We know all this. Right, but some prefixes are more hidden. For example, take the prefix “com-” which means “alongside.” It is sometimes used with words that no longer are used by themselves. Like the word “prise,” which we don’t use in English any longer, although we do use the word “comprise.” The point being that not all prefixes are so easily spotted. If you continue studying English, which I hope you do, then you will learn many of these prefixes — some obvious, and some more hidden.

On occasion, through the way language develops, a single word will develop its own prefix, which is just used for itself and no other word. These are very rare but also ever so interesting! Today, I want to spend most of my time talking with you about one of these rare prefixes and how it came into our version of English. I say “our version of English” because only in Uganda does this particular English prefix exist. I like it because it is an important part of how I came to be your president. Now how special is that?

The word which this particular prefix developed to modify is the word “villain.” Villain, as you all know, means, “a despicable person, an evil person, a person who has hate in her or his heart.” To understand how this special prefix came into being, you need to know about one particular villain. He was, as they say, a doozy. His name was Scott Lively. And he came to Uganda from the United States. Now, by and large, Ugandans have always had a positive feeling about the United States. We don’t love everything their government does, but Americans — well, they are a lot like us! They are lively and gregarious and they make us laugh.

Scott Lively came from an area in the United States called Oregon. Can you say that? Oregon. And Scott Lively was so evil, so villainous, that although Ugandans like Americans, myths developed about the devils that were bred in the area called Oregon. We used to think Oregon was an evil place because the villain Scott Lively came from there — that people from there were abnormal and amoral. But we have come to recognize that is not true.

What made Scott Lively so evil was that he was crafty, and he knew how to twist peoples’ hearts and minds around their fears. When he left Oregon, he gathered together the most frightened and evil people in Uganda. He told them lies and myths about homosexuals and convinced them that homosexuals should not be tolerated — as we were beginning to do. In fact, he wanted us to kill them, and though we never allowed that, we did make homosexuality illegal. Can you believe it?! It was illegal to be homosexual or to even protect others who were. It was a very sad time — an evil time — in our history. And many good-hearted Ugandans blamed the people of Oregon for sending them this devil.

However, there arose a small group of people in Oregon who felt bad for what had happened—that they had allowed Scott Lively to come here. Their hearts were moved by the suffering of innocent people in Uganda because of one of their fellow Oregonians. Because of this, they began to pray, and they talked about what they might do to redeem this great wrong which had come to us from their region.

So they raised money — lots of money — for the Liberty Africa Youth Foundation, which I know you all know about from history class. The foundation, however, was not always so powerful. Indeed, when this small group of people from Oregon began their work, the foundation was — how do they say it? — living on a shoe string. In fact, it might not have survived without this small band of Oregonians. But they did help, and in time the foundation grew and other groups came into being, and I, who was hated by Scott Lively and the evil man who was then president, came to be your current president. And together, faithful Ugandans have stricken down the evil laws and are working to change the hearts of all Ugandans, so that all people, heterosexuals and homosexuals, might live joyfully and in peace.

They called themselves Montavillains, these people from Oregon. They were the anti-villains. And the prefix “Monta-” meaning “anti,” came into being because of them.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Amen.

March 12, 2017 | Psalm 121:1-4

When I read today’s passage a few weeks ago, I was struck by that last line, “The guardian of Israel will never slumber, never sleep!” Wow, I thought, what does it mean to “never sleep?”

We’ve all had nights when sleep is evasive, and I’m pretty sure we’ve even all had nights when we have not slept at all: the birth of a child, covering the graveyard shift at work, the big paper due in college… the honeymoon. But good or bad, an entirely sleepless night is rare. Physiologically we cannot endure staying awake all night for very often. Literally, we go psychotic if we try. And yet God, the psalmist claims—God does that exact thing: stays awake, every night, all night, for eternity.

But you know, since I started working on this sermon, I’ve been keeping tabs. And it seems to me now that never sleeping is not nearly as rare as I had once believed. The last few nights, for example, I have noticed that my nurse manager doesn’t seem to sleep very much. She has been sitting there, by my bedside, as I toss and turn. I have my annual review tomorrow, and so when I get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, she follows me down the hall, questioning why I have not completed the mandatory 20 hours of continuing education.

Earlier this week it was Jacob’s French teacher dogging me through the wee hours. She was concerned that if he does not get his assignments in, she might have to fail him, and since language is required for graduation, he would have to take French again next semester, and he hates it so much… she and I wondered together if he would even bother to stay in school.

Last week I was visited by the guy who inspected our house for mold. Although he gave us his report months ago, he thought that 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday was the right time to remind me how important it is that we address his concerns. He was accompanied, incidentally, by our financial planner. “You know,” the banker confided, “diverting contributions away from your retirement means you will be working into your seventies, leaking skylight or not.”

Of course, then, there’s always Trump. Most nights, he wanders through at some point with a cheery tweet or two. No, to my way of thinking, there are lots of people who never seem to sleep. Which is to say that today’s passage is all the more important because God is not unique. Indeed, the only thing that makes God different is that when She’s around, the other nocturnal visitors seem less restless, more amenable, and sometimes not even there at all. God, when I remember to turn to her, cradles my thrumming heart. She whispers deep in my soul that I am not alone with all those walking shadows. And though I cannot see a path through the crowds, She takes my hand, quiets the cacophony of the other insomniacs, and gently leads me into the way of sleep.

I know… I know that I am not alone. I have heard from many of you how you toss and turn, billowed by the storms that blow. Remember this passage, friends, recite it before you sleep and when you are awakened by the tenacious host that assails you.

Pray to God that She hold you gentle in your beds, for She also never sleeps, and will, if you let Her, watch over you so that you can.

Amen.

 

What are your commandments?

  1. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. However, you shall not pretend to speak for God or impose your specific beliefs about God on others. Respect everyone’s right to their own religious beliefs. You may, and should, offer your insights to others, but do not force your beliefs and interpretation on them. Do not allow others to do so either. Defend the right of everyone to their own beliefs and religion, as long as these respect everyone’s right to their own interpretation and respect the basic human rights outlined in these commandments.
  2. You shall not kill, commit any violence, lie, cheat, or steal in the name of God, or do anything to disgrace the name of God. Do not wage war or enslave people or rape in the name of God. Do not swear in the name of God or on God’s word, for it is not yours to offer.
  3. You shall love everyone as you love yourself. You shall treat everyone equally, with respect and courtesy. Do not discriminate against anyone on the basis of anything.
  4. You shall defend those not able to defend themselves. Stand up to those that would threaten, demean, or bully anyone for any reason, including their ethnicity, religion, appearance, or gender identity. Challenge government actions, policies, or laws that are in conflict with the basic teachings of Christ. Do what you can, and don’t be afraid to put it on the line if needed.
  5. You shall honor your elders. Listen to their insights and wisdom, and treat them with respect. Winnow their observations for wisdom. You do not have to take everything they say as truth or follow all their commands, but listening will not hurt, and you can learn a lot.
  6. You shall not commit violence against anyone, except to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Even then, you must try to protect them without violence if possible. Violence and killing should always be the last option. Killing and violence should never be used as punishment. Do not torture. (This commandment does not apply to single cells, even eggs and sperm, so birth control is fine. Your body creates and destroys cells all the time by the millions.)
  7. You shall be as generous and charitable as you are able. Give of your time and energy and comfort as well as money. Take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. But do not make a show of your charity and do not expect earthly rewards for your gifts or good works.
  8. You shall not lie to or deceive anyone with the intent to gain for yourself or others. You shall not bear false witness against anyone. Very small social “white lies” to comfort people are acceptable occasionally, and exaggerations are allowed for fish stories and for creating good parables (but be careful you do not use these as an excuse to do harm).
  9. You shall not steal property, money, or ideas. Give credit to those that teach you ideas and share the rewards with them. You shall not covet that which belongs to others.
  10. You shall love and respect the Earth. Do not let your desire for goods, or comforts, or many children destroy this world, for you will have no other. Do not destroy the Earth in the name of God—there is no manifest destiny. Treat the Earth as God’s temple, for it is.

March 5, 2017 | Matthew 4:1-11

Something to consider: the season of Lent, of which this is our first Sunday together, consists of forty ordinary days plus the Sundays in-between them. All together, Lent is around forty five days, maybe up to forty seven some years. Incidentally, this is the exact number of days President Trump has been in office. In other words, a lot can happen in this season — if you pay attention to it — if you allow it to.

Although the electorate is deeply divided on the success or failure of Donald Trump’s Lenten journey, calm, rational people from both sides of the political spectrum tend to agree that he is charismatic. That charisma was on full display during his meeting with Congress this past week, and his speech helped exemplify how it was that he was able to create a movement built on white working class men — a demographic that has been politically under-motivated and underrepresented in recent American discourse. But not any longer. Trump has brought them out from the shadows and allowed them to take their place in the pantheon of special interest groups. Love him or hate him—it was an amazingly difficult and yet successful strategy.

Calm, rational people from both sides of the political spectrum also tend to agree that the move from leading a private financial empire to being the president of a diverse populace has been difficult for him. The simple truth is that a lifetime of being the employer does not easily prepare you for being the most scrutinized employee in the world. One wonders if these first few weeks would have been easier for Donald Trump if he had truly embodied and embraced the reality that he now works for us.

Although I can, at times, be angry and disappointed with our president, this week I have felt nothing for him but the milk of human kindness. That, brothers and sisters, and those unaffiliated, that is the power of scripture. For one cannot feel anything but sympathy for him if one truly walks, breaths, and lives this story of Jesus’ temptation. If this text does nothing else, it should remind us of our common struggle: to see beyond our wants and accept that we are all called to be servants.

The fact that this struggle is more visible for the President does not mean that we are, in any way, less susceptible to its challenge. All of us want to be the employer, the boss, the one to whom others cow tow, the one who is “always right,” the one whose ego must be coddled. But today’s passage reminds us who is God — and who is not. If even Jesus has to prove his worthiness, if even Jesus has to endure testing, then why are we surprised when God doesn’t cater to our every desire?

One of the great weaknesses of the American Church is that in our desperation to find new members — and keep old ones — we have turned the tables around. Over and over and in a thousand ways, we have shattered the first commandment and preached the great idolatry, “The Church is here for you.” But that is a lie. The Church is here to serve — and we are all called to get in line with that. God is not our employee — we are God’s employees. And testing reminds us of that.

It is no surprise that we do not like to be tested. I doubt Jesus was fond of starving in the wilderness and being poked and prodded by a personification of evil. And yet, Jesus could not do his ministry — could not be the messiah— until he had humbled himself: until he embraced and embodied the call to be a servant.

Trump, also, has been heavily tested these past forty-plus days. And, in all sincerity, I hope his season of Lent is coming to a close — if only so my ulcer has a chance to heal. Here’s a quote for the yearbook: “Trump is a little bit like Jesus — a remarkably charismatic man who will only become great if he accepts that he was called to serve.”

Friends, testing is never enjoyable. No one would choose it. But being tested is not without its benefit. Testing helps realign our perspective. Testing reminds us who we are. When we are tested, we remember that it is God who issues our call: the call to serve, love and respect our neighbors— especially, the poor, the widow, the needy and the immigrant. When we remember this, then and only then are we able to be creatures made in the image of God.

Likewise, Donald Trump will never be the truly great President his natural charisma would allow him to be if he does not accept that he is no longer in charge, no longer the boss, but rather the humble servant of the whole nation: white, brown, black, rich, middle class, poor, immigrant and Native American, male, female and trans.

And, my dear friends, we the Church will only be the body of Christ here in America if we find the courage to say to our visitors and to ourselves: “The Church is not here for you — it is here only and always and entirely for God.”

Amen.