Thoughts on Good Friday

How often do we hear calls for someone to be crucified? Maybe we don’t hear exactly that language, but we are no strangers to crucifixions – justified or not. This past Sunday evening there were candle light vigils for Trevon Martin who was killed very recently in Sanford, Florida. He was killed by George Zimmerman, who claims self defense, yet there are many who do not believe him and there seems to be mounting cries of “Crucify him” by outraged citizens around the country. I am not suggesting his guilt or innocence; I am merely commenting on one particular instance where blood lust is still very much a part of our daily lives. In another area of life, let us consider the political primary seasons, when depending on who is in the oval office and on which party is trying to figure out how to replace the president with their own candidate, both Democrats and Republicans do their best to crucify, discredit or destroy one another in the press as they seek the nomination. On an international level, we do our best to crucify foreign leaders and it seems like we are doing more and more to oust those who we decide are not leading their people properly. In our personal lives, it is not uncommon when we have a disagreement with someone these days to kill the relationship rather than try to iron out our differences. We are no strangers to either blood lust or crucifixions.

Of course, just because we are not strangers to crucifixions, does not mean they do not disgust us. Back in Jesus’ day, crucifixions were reserved for the worst of the worst and they were used in order to make a public example of what would happen to those who dared defy the power of Rome. So why is it the story of Jesus is still so shocking to us? Why is it that a man the state thought innocent was put to death anyway in a manner befitting a murderer? Poor Pilate, what pressure he must have been under! On the one hand, he has a group of religious leaders who bring him a man that some refer to as a rabbi, some as a prophet, some as a healer and others as a Messiah. On the other hand, he has examined the man and can find neither threat nor any real fault with him. He does his best to make Jesus their problem. He tries several times to give him back to them, but they keep refusing. Pilate even went so far as to go to the people’s court, literally to let the people decide which of the prisoners scheduled to die, will be given amnesty, will be set free. The people, whether incited by the chief priests or of their own accord want Barabbas freed. Jesus is sentenced to die. Pilate tries for a third time to return Jesus to the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin, but the religious leaders are adamant. “Do you want me to crucify your king, he asks them. They answer; we have no king but the emperor.” They insist that Pilate crucify him and in a desperate attempt to convince him, they go beyond the claim of sedition, to the claim Jesus made that he is the Son of God.  Pilate is finally out of options, he hands Jesus over to be crucified.

Crucify him! Crucify him! And they did. We know the story, we have heard it time and again. As we gather this night, it strikes me that it is worth asking ourselves why we are here. Are we here to remember the story? Sometimes we come to this night and we darken the sanctuary as the service progresses so that the physical environment we are in reflects the story we are hearing, reflects the approaching darkness of death. Sometimes when we gather here we read the whole passion narrative and we hold nails or hear sounds of symbols or try to use dramatic representations to help us feel the anguish and the torment of Jesus suffering. Remembering the story helps us to put our believing in perspective.

We might be here for different reasons though. We might be here to wrestle with some personal stuff, or because it is tradition for us to be here, or perhaps other reasons. Tonight, I am struck by the fact that by and large we live our lives, denying our sin, well any really serious sense of sin. We deny it and tell ourselves that it was other people a long time ago who put Jesus on the cross. It strikes me that we find some comfort in being let of the hook for not being part of the crowd that yelled crucify him or even the people who came before them and apparently messed up things so bad that Jesus had to come in the first place.

It strikes me tonight that it is good we are here, because we need to be. Jesus was on the cross just as much for you and for me as he was for anybody else. There is more than enough guilt to go around. There is more than enough selfish life-style choices made by the people in this room and around the world; more than enough self-serving as opposed to God-serving behavior in our lives to put Jesus on the cross. I guess what I’m trying to say, that although it is hard for us to imagine or admit or perhaps even understand, Jesus death is as much a result of behavior today as it was all those years ago. So we come to this night and we plead with God to forgive our self interested choices and we plead with God to help us again choose the right path. We come this night to mourn that which continues to make forgiveness necessary. While Pilate may have been the one to give the final order for Jesus’ crucifixion, the people’s court still calls for crucifixion today. Lord, have mercy on us. As we gather this night to remember the one who suffered in our place and on our behalf, may we resolve to live lives of grace, mercy and forgiveness and end our personal calls for crucifixion – no matter what arena in life the supposed culprit shows up in.

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A God, A Prophet, A Widow

A God, A Prophet, A Widow – a sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-24

A God: In the verses just prior to this story, God sends the prophet Elijah to the wilderness, to camp and live beside a stream and promises ravens will bring Elijah food. Eventually, the stream runs dry because there has been no rain for a long time. God, without much explanation then sends Elijah to a widow and simply tells Elijah that the widow will feed him. Even though God commanded the widow to feed the prophet, when he asked for something to eat, she informed him she had nothing, that she was going to bake a small loaf of bread for her son and herself and then they would die of starvation.

            The prophet: Elijah follows what he believes to be the word of God. He goes and camps in the wilderness. When sent by God, he goes and asks/commands a woman who has nothing to feed him. When she hesitates, he tells her not to fear, but that God will provide so she should do as he asks. When the widow’s son dies and she blames the prophet for her loss because she experiences it as God’s judgment, Elijah takes the dead boy and cries. He prays to God and pleads with God to bring the boy back to life. God does. Elijah takes the boy and gives him back to his mother. The prophet’s pleas are answered.

            The widow: Consider the experience of the widow, someone today we would describe as being on a fixed income, not very powerful and who lived off of the charity of the community.  God sends a prophet to live off a person who depends on the charity of the community to live in the midst of a drought. She has accepted that she will die. She is going about the chore of preparing a meager last meal. A stranger, someone she is ordinarily bound to offer hospitality to asks her for the last of her food, which is not even enough for herself and her son with the promise that she will never run out. What should she do? What would you do? She chooses to believe. She makes the food and offers it to the stranger. Unfortunately, her son dies. Now she not only feels betrayed and angry but perhaps also the final despair of having her worst fears realized. In the midst of her grief, she turns against the prophet. The prophet is despairing also, wondering why God would promise one thing and do another. It is only after the miracle of her son being restored to life that the woman is able to believe what Elijah said to her was really the word of God all along. Neither the woman nor the prophet are understanding of the ways of God and perhaps only in hindsight, only when they realize that God truly does have the power to give life in the midst of death were they able to reinterpret the things they had gone through with the understanding that God was there all along.

            Us: Life, as I’m pretty sure all of us agree has its shares of highs and lows; unexpected joys, feared losses and even unexpected disasters. As individuals, we often start out in life by testing our limits, growing, trying things on our own, achieving things we never dreamed we would achieve and then are reminded that we are human, that there are things we cannot do any longer, that our strength leaves us, our neighborhoods change, our children if we have them often grow up and move away and the new people in the neighborhood often don’t seem to have the same values we have.

            The rhythm of life and death and new life is true for institutions as well. Names like Hess’s, Leh’s  and Peischler’s remind us that few institutions are forever. The United Church of Christ, Greenawalds is nearing its 100th birthday. We’ve been around a lot longer than some and not as long as others. We began as a Sunday School and several years later joined a denomination and became a church. Shortly thereafter, the congregation faced the challenge of existing and became a mission church, then part of a charge (the same pastor served this congregation and what is now St. John’s on Grape street). After a time, we were able to become a self sustaining congregation again, a congregation that has historically struggled with having sufficient funds for the ministry it wanted to have. It was not easy. The women’s guild, in part, began the practice of doing what they could to raise funds for what they thought was important for the church. Women were not allowed on the Consistory in those days so the women’s guild in congregations was often referred to the second consistory. The land around the church and Kratzer school began to be developed and the church grew. In 1972 we built a Sanctuary, the room we are in today. Families moved in and became part of the church at the invitation of their neighbors. Some families moved away, but continued to remain affiliated with the church family they grew up in, in some cases driving many miles to worship, learn and serve here. Some of those families continue to do that to this day. In the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s the development was complete, there were not scores of new families moving in and the church that had more than doubled in size began the battle of trying not to shrink and to hold onto its members. The battle seemed mild at first, we fussed about finances, but there always seemed like there would be enough to do what we wanted, even if we had to make a plea at the end of the year to erase our deficit which often varied between 4,000.00 and 15,000.00. Now in 2012 there are some of us who might describe us as being in the midst of a severe drought. We are not alone, this is happening throughout Protestantism. Needless to say, according to the cultural standards of bigger is better and biggest is best, we are going in the opposite direction than we want to see the church going.

            Often, when we think we are failing, we look for some reason, some explanation, and perhaps even someone to point the finger of blame at for things that must have gone wrong. It’s not very comforting to face the possibility that people today may just have different values and going to church on a Sunday morning is not one of them. It’s not comforting to feel forced to do summersaults to keep a hold on our “market share” lest we slip away. How do we react when we believe the church we love is in a severe drought and we are feeling uncertain about its future?

            What did the widow do when her son died? She took a risk and fed the stranger and her son died despite the assurances of the stranger. She got mad. She angrily confronted Elijah and asked why he brought the curse of God on her sinfulness? She needed someone to blame and she chose the prophet and God. What did Elijah do? He prayed and he sought God’s way, he sought God’s restoration of life and healing. He prayed for God to breathe new life back into the boy. It seems to me that we have the same two choices. We can get mad at each other, at the people who aren’t showing up who we think should be and we can point fingers and scream and the church will be just as dead. Or we can take a page from the playbook of Elijah and seek God’s life, seek God’s healing, resurrecting power; seek a new lease on life. Despair and anger ruled when blame was the name of the day. Life resulted when prayer and the power of God was recognized. It can’t be that easy can it? Why not? If we believe that God is leading us, or will lead us when we seek God’s wisdom, why can’t it be that simple? This isn’t my church. It isn’t your church. The last time I checked, it was the United Church of Christ. When we lose sight of Jesus, when we engage in the pity party and the blame game, we lose sight of what it means to be the church and we spin our wheels while we die. The testimony of this story is that God gives life. God is faithful and God will deliver God’s people. Life came when Elijah prayed and asked for what he wanted. There’s a lesson here that I hope we don’t miss.

 

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Walking The Talk

It’s been a while since I posted; I couldn’t quite put into words what has been going through my mind (after you read this, you may be convinced I am still having trouble putting it into words). I have been thinking a lot about the phrase, “walking the talk” as it applies to the church as a collected group of believers; as a community of the faithful. Usually when we use the phrase, we apply it to ourselves as individuals – do our actions need to match up with our words; does our doing give evidence of what we way we value and believe. We tend to judge whether or not a person is genuine by the sum total of their activity. Do we think the same way about the church?

Perhaps it depends on how one views the church. For me, it seems accurate to suggest that the “American Way” is to see ourselves as unique individuals who choose to be parts of certain activities and organizations as those activities and organizations meet our needs and appeal to us. We are consumers who pick and choose our way through life depending on what strikes our fancy and meets our needs. The same seems to hold true for the church, or whatever religious or spiritual groups we are a part of. In this sense we view ourselves as participating in a church in order to receive particular benefits. We see ourselves as consumers of religious goods and services so to speak. If this is indeed the way things are, then how does the church, which in my understanding is a group of people gathered by God for the sharing of the good news, decide what its ministries are? Where does the church look for its values? If the purpose of the church is to provide religious goods and services to keep the most consumers happy, is the church walking the talk of the gospel? Is the church guilty of trying to meet people where they are and give them what they want?

It seems to me that a more appropriate way of imagining ourselves is to understand our individual participation in the church as communal. In a sense we lose our individual status and take on the role of a member of a community that is engaged in something together. Church is not something that primarily benefits me, but is a community that impacts me and the world in which I live and work and play. This community is gathered by God for the purpose of loving the world, sharing the gospel and living together in such a way as to give witness to these things. My participation in this community then will help shape and form the community while at the same time it shapes and forms me. Understood in this way, I suddenly find myself involved in something far bigger than just me and my happiness. Church is not a place to go to get religious goods and services, it is a group of people who participate with me in living out the faith we all profess.

If the church is going to walk this talk, it seems to me that we need to really question the notion that the church is a business that caters to consumers and instead challenge ourselves to be a community engaged in changing lives and modeling the gospel. In a world that makes money catering to unique and individual needs and tastes, this is an incredible challenge.

 

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A Testing God?

These reflections are based on the story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and then his command to sacrifice a ram instead. The story is found in Genesis 22:1-14.

It is not uncommon for someone who is currently undergoing a health challenge or a relationship struggle to say something like, “it is difficult to go through but then God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, right?” More directly to the point some will express outright that God is testing them that the unfortunate circumstance of their present condition is due to some kind of test of faithfulness. I confess I am uncomfortable with this line of thinking because I don’t believe that God picks us randomly to test to see if we are faithful enough for God. I don’t believe that God says “I’m going to give that one cancer to see if she will keep her faith in me.” As we leave the story of God, Abraham and Isaac we hear those words, but our first encounter this story confronts us with a God who tests and who tests faithfulness at the deepest levels. To understand this story is a challenge. To embrace it as part of our faith is an even greater challenge; how are we to understand this story of a God who tests and a God who provides? There are no easy answers, but it is here for us to deal with, it is a part of our inheritance of faith. God commands Abraham to present his son on the altar as a sacrifice. We might argue that God had no intention of Abraham actually sacrificing his son, but wanted to see if Abraham loved God enough to do what was asked of him. Abraham didn’t know what the outcome would be, he had to deal with his own decision as to what to do in regards to what God was asking him to do. Will Abraham obey God and make the decision to offer his son on the altar? He chooses to make this act of faith, this sacrifice. It is a choice that slaps us in the face, that pushes us back a few steps – how could anyone …, but let’s stick with the story. It is only after Abraham demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice what is dear to him that God intervenes and supplies a substitute sacrifice in Isaac’s place. Abraham still makes a sacrifice, but God has provided the means (the ram) for the sacrifice. It was only when Abraham placed his ultimate trust in God, when he decided to do what he believed God was asking him to do, that he was able to see that God would even provide what he (Abraham) was supposed to offer, to sacrifice. Perhaps the ram was there the whole time, we don’t know and it really doesn’t take away the fundamental choice Abraham faced: was he willing to remain faithful in all things, to give up even that which was most dear to him to follow our God?
Let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Do we believe in a God who asks us to make sacrifices all the time? Does God test us? To think that God is testing us because we’re not strong enough yet or haven’t learned something yet means that we don’t have to believe that God will provide – no matter what! But let us pay attention to this story, the test is not some adverse circumstance that comes our way, the test is the voluntary giving up of something that is most dear to Abraham. What if the tests God sends our way are the same thing, to test the extent we are willing to go to love God, to follow God, to believe in God’s promises? This changes the nature of our thinking doesn’t it? Rather than some trial to endure, God’s tests are tests of our willingness to go beyond ourselves and into God’s love. In its most basic form it is the sacrifice of giving up what we want in order to choose what God wants. We sacrifice what would make our lives better, more comfortable, easier, more immediately pleasing and choose to do what will grow God’s way, God’s love, God’s blessings for all of us.
There’s no way of sugar-coating the fact that few if any of us could do what Abraham did; that kind of radical faith and trust is not easily come by. In fact, we sin and turn away from the God who blesses us and toward our self interests. The good news is that like Abraham’s ram, God has provided the means of our returning to God’s good graces. Jesus (notice how many times Jesus is referred to as the lamb) was the sacrifice on our behalf to God. Through his death and resurrection, we are redeemed, restored, offered salvation. Through Jesus, God has provided for our ultimate needs. If we believe this to be true, why is it then that we find it so difficult to place that kind of trust in the promises of God? Time and time again, the bible reminds us that God will provide for us and yet, unlike Abraham, we are unable to raise our eyes above what we perceive that God is asking us to sacrifice and therefore are blind to what God has already provided us or is about to provide for us. Even if the ways of death seem inevitable and certain, this story tells us that God’s steadfast love will prevail and it tells us that God will provide. What gets in our way of believing this?

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Lent

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of the Christian year called Lent. It is a time when we are invited to reflect on life, faith, our humanness, and on the role of God in our lives. A reading from the 6th chapter of the gospel according to Matthew in which Jesus was teaching about the new ways of honoring God, challenged us to consider how we live and how we worship. Three words jumped out at me from these passages and I want to think more about them and about how they affect my life. Hypocrite, Reward and Treasure.
In Greek, the word hypocrite means actor. A hypocrite is one who acts for the benefit of others, who plays a role to be seen and hopefully applauded. To what extent are we hypocrites, to what extent do we play for the crowd in place of genuinely dedicating ourselves to living a life of humble service to God?
Reward. In this passage, Jesus mentions over and over again that God will reward what we do in secret, what we do not as hypocrites, but as genuine people honoring God with our lives. What kind of reward is Jesus speaking about? It’s not entirely clear to me, but I wonder if the reward is the joy of being in communion with God, if the reward is the benefit of being involved in the Kingdom here and now?
Treasure. This is one we all can relate to. The translation of the bible known as The Message asks us to consider that the truth is that our hearts will want to be where our treasure is, and ultimately they will be. Do I treasure God and God’s ways in my heart, or do I treasure stuff and accumulation? What is truly most important to me in life?
Acting, Reward and Treasure: as we journey through this season of Lent and think about our lived lives of faithfulness, I invite you to join me in taking some time and explore how these three words are are part of our lives and our faith.

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Pole Dancing

Let me just say, it’s probably not the kind you are thinking about – there are no tips involved, but the rewards are great. I have spent some time these past few months pole-dancing – hooked up to an IV pole while receiving something called IVIG therapy for a condition I have – I won’t bore you with the details.  Each dance lasts about four hours and I do them for five days in a row, once every four weeks. There are many inconveniences I could complain about, but they are far outweighed by the fact that if I were not pole dancing, my condition could worsen and the quality of my life would be significantly lessened. So, given the choice, I think I’ll stick with the pole dancing.

Every time I have to go to the bathroom, I have to wheel my pole with me and the IV pump has to run on battery power. When my rear end gets tired of sitting, I have to waltz around the room with my partner in tow, making sure I avoid the other pole dancers sharing the room with me. If I stray too far from my partner, it yanks on my arm where the needle is attached and reminds me quite quickly that I need to keep my partner with me. One of the things I have come to appreciate about pole dancing is that it gives me time to think about the different realities in life we don’t often concentrate on if we don’t have to. For example, we often carry a lot of baggage around with us. Some of it is obvious. At its worst, the baggage that is connected to us can become so cumbersome that we have to pay more attention to it, spend more time lugging it around, letting it sap our energy and make us tired; than we do in enjoying and appreciating all that is joyous and good and energy-giving in our lives. Just like pole dancing, the things we are connected to may be inconvenient. On the other hand, it is good every now and then to be reminded that we rarely journey alone in life and can be helped and strengthened when we are paying attention to our partners and the other dancers in the room. We need to remember to keep those we dance with in our considerations and in our hearts. After all, if we weren’t connected to each other, the quality of our lives would be significantly lessened.

Another reminder courtesy of pole dancing is that we are not in control of as much in life as we’d like to think we are. Sometimes things happen to us that we don’t like, didn’t invite or cause, seem unfair or just downright lousy and we still are left with trying to figure out how to live with it. For me, this is where faith comes in. As a Christian, I am not immune to the trials and challenges of life. Bad stuff happens to everyone. My faith is what offers me hope in the future and a more joyous vision of the present life. My faith supplies me with lots of dancing partners who hold me up in prayer, who help me when I need it and who share their own unique dances with me. I really do believe that God is involved in the dance right along with me and you too, for that matter, whatever your dance may be.

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Happy? New Year

Lately I have been thinking about happiness and what it is that makes any of us happy. When I look back on my life at my own definitions of what might bring me happiness, I realize as an overweight twenty-one year old college student, I used to think that if I was thinner I could be happier because it would be easier to find a special someone to love me. A little later in life, as a young pastor, I was sure that if I could find the perfect congregation – one that had more volunteers than opportunities, one committed to and excited about mission and evangelism, one where everybody loved me and I loved everybody and most important, one where there was no such thing as conflict – I would be happy. Later I came to believe that if the church could pay me more so I could afford my own home, I would be happy. Once children came along, I believed that if I could give them everything that other parents seemed to be able to afford to give their children, we would all be happy. When my first marriage was falling apart after sixteen years, I believed that happiness could be found if my then wife would change. After the divorce, I wanted to believe that happiness would take the form of my bills being forgiven or someone else paying them. As I write all of this down, I marvel at how I’ve grown in accepting life and rejoicing in what is, not in focusing on the words if and if only.

Here is what I have learned about happiness:

How one looks will not make one more or less lovable.

There is no perfect congregation, at least in the sense of impossible ideals.

Conflict is part of life, it helps people grow.

More money usually will not make one happy because the more money one has the more one usually wants.

More stuff will not make our children or us happy.

A spouse is not responsible for one’s happiness.

Having bills and sometimes living from paycheck to paycheck and trying to figure it all out is a fact of life for many people.

This is what I think; if we are not happy with who we are, there is no amount of money that will fill the void, there is no other person who can change what is missing inside of us and life will always be less than satisfying until we can find a way to be happy, to be at peace with who and what we are. It has taken me most of my 52 years to come to terms with this truth certainty with regard to my own life. My happiness depends on me, it depends on realizing that I am loved; by God and if I’m lucky an incredible family. My happiness depends on recognizing life as a gift –all of life. Happiness depends on being content with the blessings of the day. So I wish you all a happy new year, a time where you can love and accept who you are, what you have and what you are learning. I wish you joy and peace.

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