Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Love and the Law

            I remember the first of the Indiana Jones movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, when they discover the Ark of the Covenant that had been owned by the Hebrew tribes since Moses got the Law on Mt. Sinai. There are a lot of adventures and finally, Indiana and his companion are all tied up at the end of the movie while some Nazi’s open the Ark  and are destroyed by the fires that erupt from within.  Finally, Indiana takes the Ark and transports it back to the United States where in the last moments of the film, as the credits roll the Ark disappears into a massive government warehouse probably never to be seen again. 

            I loved that scene for a number of reasons.  First of all, how God’s law superseded the Nazi militancy and dictatorship.  Secondly, the way that the whole thing was stored away at the end so that we still have it, but presumably don’t really know where it is.

            The truth of it all is that we really do know where it is.  The Ten Commandments were given to Moses early in his prophetic life, have been with us through all of the development of our religions.  We know on some level that they are true and that we need them.  Many people have been tempted to worship them.  There is the story of the judge in Alabama who wanted to build a monument to the ten commandments in his court and was prevented by other judges who told him that this wasn’t quite right. 

            The Ten Commandments became a foundation of the law that was added to and expanded in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to include all manner of things that humans like to do; the law is expanded throughout the Old Testament.

             One of the great gifts that Jesus gave to humanity was to tell us what it is that God wants from all of us. In the Sermon on the Mount are the beatitudes that outline God’s grace for those who suffer: blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the earth; and blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Then finally Jesus gives us his commandments.  The first of these is to Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul and mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment, Jesus says.  And the second is like unto it:  Love your neighbor as a person like yourself.  On these two commandments hang all of the law and the prophets.

            That is incredibly good news for all of us.  Love is the critical issue.  We don’t have to spend our time acting like the supreme court analyzing the commandments to be sure that we obey all of them.  All that we have to do is to love our God and each other. 

            But that isn’t really easy, is it.  Look at this society of ours.  I get to the point sometimes that I don’t want to watch the news.  One thing after another seems to cloud our contemporary lives.  How many shootings have we had this year? This month? This week?  I’ve also been disgusted at the way that the kids at the border have been treated – taken away from their parents and locked in cages.  We can certainly do better than this.  On the good side, what a wonderful show of love was given to those soccer players stranded in the cave in Thailand.  One of the seals who was trying to rescue them died, but all twelve were rescued along with their coach.   

            Love has always been elusive to us because of our human greed and egos. There are lots of stories about how we have failed to love.  The story in Mark’s gospel about John the Baptist telling King Herod that it isn’t lawful for him to marry his brother’s wife does nothing but get him imprisoned and finally beheaded when Herod’s daughter Salome danced and asked for John’s head on a platter. And it certainly didn’t take humanity long to deal with the beauty that Jesus offered to all of us.  He threatened the established religion to the point that they had to get rid of him. 

            As soon as it was possible, he was arrested, turned over to Pilate and the Romans and crucified on the cross.  But even with all of this, God wasn’t finished.  From his place on the cross, Jesus forgave those who crucified him; he invited the thief who was crucified with him to join him in eternal life and three days after his crucifixion, Jesus was raised from the dead to remind us once again that Love is the issue.  God’s extravagant love of us all to not let Jesus’ death be the last word; and to continue to love each of us in our lives.

            So how do we continue to love in the face of all of the noise and corruption that is around us?   I know that there have been prayer meetings about the kids on the border and that a number of churches have gathered food for the hungry.  This is the kind of good work that love for one another dictates.   A number of churches are supporting the kids on the border by holding prayer meetings, raising money and doing other things to help.  These things might seem to be small, but they make a difference.  Continue to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as a person like yourself.  That is our work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Resurrection Reflection

             We watched the television production of Jesus Christ Superstar the other night. This was an outstanding production with all of the elements of the original stage play and motion picture in place.  The story was familiar, compelling and acted with great talent for all of us.  As always, I was deeply moved by the way that Jesus did his ministry, healing and comforting while the establishment looked on with dismay.  The black-clad Pharisees and Sadducees surrounded him in the early parts of the story and eventually took him into custody and delivered him to Pilate who condemned him.  John Legend played Jesus with great talent and Alice Cooper was a harsh Herod.  At the end of the story, Jesus is hung on a cross and disappears through a cross-shaped hole in the scenery and just disappears.  We all know what happened next. 

            The story of the resurrection is a remarkable one.  We have nothing else like it in our memory or in our lives.  We know very well that death is at the end of all of our lives.  We go through our own story knowing that we at the end must leave all that we have on this earth.  Our fate is certainly in the hands of our loving God.  Jesus’ resurrection is a great sign to us that the God who made us will not let us go.  We have resurrection to look forward to after our deaths. 

            I have done a number of funerals in my ministry.  All of them are somber with families in mourning and friends surrounding them.  I always try to say something about the person who has died and move on to the story of Jesus’ resurrection as our eternal hope.  It isn’t always easy.  I remember one man who had been a mean alcoholic who had left behind a family that more or less detested him.  They all sat in a knot on one side of the church during the funeral.  I could see the anger in their eyes.  I wanted somehow to reconcile them to the man who had died, but it was not something that I was going to be able to do in the course of one religious service.  I did what I could to assure them of God’s love for him and for them and to assure them that what had happened was all over and that they could get on with their lives even with their dark memories, and that if they desired, all could be well.  Resurrection wasn’t what any of them were looking forward to at that moment. They were happy that he was gone.

            But that isn’t the case with most of us.  Resurrection is a happy thought in the middle of death.  It gives a hint of what our God has in store for us for eternity:  joy in our maker’s presence forever.  I have also had a few moments when that was emphasized to me eloquently.  There was one woman who was close to death in the hospital when I visited.  Her family was around her and as she took her last breath, she looked up and said, Oh, it is so beautiful!  I knew that she had seen something wonderful in that moment.  I believed that it was a glimpse of heaven.

            If I had one small criticism of Jesus Christ, Superstar, it would have been that there was no resurrection portrayed.  I would have loved it if they had included that wonderful moment from John’s gospel when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds it empty.  She sees Jesus and thinks that he is the gardener and asks him where they have put Jesus’ body.  He turns and says to her: Mary! and all of a sudden with that word of his, she knows that it this man is her risen Lord. That for me is probably the most significant moment in all of scripture.  Mary knows that the resurrection has happened, and it is right in front of her. 

            I think that the woman in the hospital saw something like that.  I hope that is the vision that we all will see with our last breath.  Spending eternity with those whom we love in the presence of our God is a gift beyond anything that we could ever desire.  That is what resurrection means for all of us.



Sunday, March 11, 2018

Snakes and God

            My daughter was bitten by a snake once.  She was white water rafting in Fayette County, went ashore and climbed up some rocks.  There was a large snake sleeping there and she stepped on it.  She was bitten on her leg and immediately knew that it was trouble.  Her friends got her to Uniontown hospital where she was treated and released.  She came home and told us what had happened, and we took her to Passavant hospital’s emergency room where a doctor began to care for her.  She stayed overnight; the doctor did a lot of research to find out what kind of a snake it was and what she needed to do about it.  It turned out that the snake was a cottonmouth, an old snake, which meant that the venom wasn’t as strong or as intense as a young snake’s venom would have been. Our daughter got through all of this with some pain and some difficult moments with her leg, but it all turned out all right. She is at this moment living a happy life in San Diego with her fiancĂ©.

            I don’t think that snakes have been a large part of my life.  We saw some rattlesnakes when we were driving in Arizona, but they stayed away from us.  Snakes pay a part in the lesson from Numbers when the Hebrews become discontented with Moses and with God because they are in the desert with no food and little water.  Because of their anger, God sends poisonous snakes among them and some are killed.  I hate to criticize God, but  I thought that this was a bit of an  overreach, but nonetheless, they complain to God about this and God tells Moses to create a snake on a pole so that anyone who is bitten by a snake can look at the snake on the pole and live.  The other use of a snake in scripture is in the Garden of Eden when Eve wonders about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the snake tells her that she can eat of it without trouble.  After she eats of the fruit of the tree, the snake tells her that she can also let Adam eat of the tree.  This results in both of them getting thrown out of the garden by God and from that moment on, humanity has been cursed by not having peace, but always knowing the difference between good and evil in the world, in others and in ourselves and making our own judgements about what we think of the evil that we see. 

            Then we have the story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s two sons.  They were vastly different, Cain a wanderer, a hunter and Abel a farmer.  Cain was very jealous of Abel because he seemed to be accepted where Cain was not; so he killed him.  When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain answered with that famous line: Am I my brother’s keeper? Cain was also exiled and lived in the land of Nod. 

            We all have moments when our selfishness leads us into sin.  Sometimes we find ourselves in dark places needing very much to find healing and hope.  This is why we all live in community, where we can take care of each other in these dark times.  In my ministry, I have seen many people in difficult situations where they needed help to get through them.  Without care from others, life could be difficult and even dangerous.   I have known young people who were addicted to drugs and who needed to be given help to get away from their addiction.  It was only by conversation and caring that they were enabled to do that.  The twelve-step process created by Alcoholics Anonymous has led many people through hard times back to a semblance of normality.  I think that programs like this are what are meant by the snake on a pole that people who are in trouble can look at and find curing.  Helping each other is the essence of religion.  Jesus told us to love one another as we are loved by God.  That is what we are asked to do in this world to help each other with the hard times and to help us to know what joy is in the middle of our lives.   

            Jesus alluded to this in John’s gospel when he says that just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so Jesus must be lifted up so that people can see him and find the way to eternal life.  That is a great use of the Old Testament lesson.  It tells us that there is the way through evil.  Evil that exists all around us and that can invade our lives easily.  Keeping our eye on our Lord Jesus, who died for all of us that we might lose our sin and be admitted to everlasting life is the essence of Lent.  It is why we are here together in these pews each week.  We are here to love one another and to take that love with us into the world where there are people being set upon by evil all over the place.  When we help them, we help our God to make this earth a more heavenly place.  That is what was in God’s mind when he sent Jesus to teach us.



Sunday, March 4, 2018

God's Gifts

            The first gift that God gave to humanity were the Ten Commandments.  What is amazing about that is the amount of time that it took all of us to discard them and to make up our own rules.  As Moses was coming down from the summit of Mount Sinai with the tablets in his hand, the tribes of the Hebrews were worshiping a golden calf created by Aaron out of the gold that the people of the tribes had on their fingers, on their wrists or in some other place.  Here they were breaking the second commandment before they had even read it.  Keeping the commandments has never been an easy thing.  We have stumbled and fallen constantly trying to keep them. 

            What is also fascinating is that the religion that the Hebrew people devised for their people included Scribes and Pharisees who interpreted the laws, making them stronger or easier, as time went on.  It wasn’t long before many people were being ostracized and left out of the culture because they couldn’t keep the law.  This resulted in a multitude of people who were poor and alone among them.  The scripture is full of stories about the people whom Jesus encountered who needed to be saved from others.  I think of the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped and took care of the poor man at the side of the road after the priest and the Levite had passed him by; or the woman in the territory of Tyre and Sidon who asked Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus at first told her no because she was out of his area and she convinced him that her life and her daughter’s life were important to God by telling Jesus that even the dogs licked up the crumbs that fell from the table after Jesus told her that he could not give the children’s food to the dogs.  Jesus was taught by her and led by her into an important ministry.

            We have broken all of the commandments.  Even the one that says simply, you shall not commit murder.  We do that when we racially disparage others or keep them in bondage like slavery for our own use, or when we deprive others of what they need to live.  Murder is not only killing others, it is causing death, which happens more often that we want to admit.  God knows who we are and what we do and we need always to know that we need to repent and find forgiveness for the commandments that we have broken.  But forgiveness is the second great gift that God has given to humankind.  Each Sunday we confess our sins before God and the priest pronounces absolution and forgiveness of our sins.  At that moment, we are clean again and we can go forward with our lives knowing that we have to that point kept the commandments and that we are continually loved by God.  I discovered a lot about forgiveness when I did my prison ministry.  In our group, we talked about forgiveness frequently.  Occasionally, one of the members of the group understood forgiveness applied to them for what they had done in their lives that got them into prison.  Those were eloquent moments in the group and I was honored to see it happen.  If there is anyplace where forgiveness is a gift to be not only accepted but revered, it is our prisons.  I have one convict who is in his sixties who has applied for commutation.  I hope that it is granted because he would make a fine member of any community that he was able to join.  I keep him in my prayers constantly.

            One of the prime reasons that God sent Jesus to live among us is that God knew how hard it was to be human.  God came to us in the form of Jesus of Nazareth to live human life along with us and to see the difficulties that we encounter.  He was born into poverty in a stable instead of a room in an inn.  He watched countless people in need with hope in their hearts.  I love the story of Jesus watching the woman put her tiny mite into the temple’s collection and the way that he told his disciples that she had given more than anyone else.  She gave out of her poverty while others gave of their wealth. 

            What is finally true is that, like the people whom Jesus came to heal, he was also rejected by the Scribes, the Pharisees and really everyone else and given over to the Romans for trial and for judgement.  He was crucified, died and was buried in a donated grave.  The third gift that our God gave to humankind was Jesus’ resurrection.  On the third day after his crucifixion, Jesus rose from the dead and continued to live among us.  His disciples, who ran away from the cross were amazed by this and set out to follow their Lord and to teach his ways.  All of them lost their lives also, except John who died on the Isle of Patmos in the Aegean Sea after writing the Book of Revelation.  But even with their deaths, the church continued to this day, telling all of humanity that we are loved and forgiven by the God who gave us the commandments and finally God has promised us resurrection.  We are blessed indeed.  As we continue through Lent, let’s all remember these gifts and get ready to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord when at last Easter comes.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Faith and Facts

            When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God came to him and promised him that he would be the father of many nations and that he and Sarah would have a son.  Abraham was almost a hundred years old but yet God made such a promise.  It happened soon after.  Sarah gave birth to Isaac and the promise began to be fulfilled.  There was another moment when three men came to visit Abraham and he knew that they were God.  Again, they made their promise that Sarah would give birth to a child and Sarah hid behind a door and laughed.  The wonderful thing is that Isaac means “laughter”. This birth became not only the beginning of Abraham’s family, but the cornerstone of the many nations that God had promised.  It is also true that Abraham is the cornerstone of not only the Hebrew religion, but also Islam and Christianity.  Faith is what has caused this to happen.  It certainly isn’t facts.  A hundred-year old man and his equally aged wife began a family that has changed the world.  

            Jesus came to us to give us faith.  In Mark’s gospel is the story of how he told his disciples what was going to happen.  He told them that he would be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, be killed and then three days later rise again. Peter took him aside and rebuked him, saying that this must not happen.  Jesus said to Peter, get behind me Satan, you are setting your mind on human things, not divine things. And it all happened, just as Jesus told them.  They made their way to Jerusalem and Jesus was taken captive, tried before Pontius Pilate then crucified and died.  Then three days later he rose from the dead.  When he was crucified, the disciples all ran away; Peter denied him and the rest simply hid.  Three days later, they were all together in an upper room with the door locked when Jesus suddenly appeared to them.  They knew then that what their Lord had told them was true and that they no longer needed to be afraid.  

            Faith is a beautiful thing.  It can change our lives, give us strength and help us through the worst of times.  When I left the television industry and went to seminary, I had a wonderful wife and three kids.  Rosie and I agreed to take this step.  Rosie went to work outside the home to help to provide for all of us.  I remember in my senior year, I applied for a grant to help with our finances.  They wanted a budget, so I worked out the numbers.  It amounted to about $20,000 which surprised me.  In looking back, it was apparent that those funds had been provided for us by Rosie’s work and the few donations that we had received, but I didn’t know it at all.  It was faith that had gotten us through these years and I was amazed.  Faith is what can provide for us even when we have no idea of how to get through our lives.  Belief in God is critical to the living of full lives that respond to the plan of God to make this world into a place more reflective of heaven than earth.  I know that is what Jesus meant by his words to Peter about thinking about human things instead of divine things.  God stands ready to be with us, to help us and make us whole.  Here in the season of Lent, we can look forward to the certainty of the resurrection, not as an item of fact, but as the reality of faith. It is not what we have created, but it is what God has promised.   


Monday, January 8, 2018

The Tree of Good and Evil

            How did we all get here?  Well, we know that we were born.  Most of us have birth certificates that spell it all out for us.  In this world, though there are countless people who have no idea where or when they were born, who their parents were, and any of the particulars.  They are simply here.  Agencies try to fill in some of the details; they are often counselled and given hope that somehow they will discover their roots.  But for most of them, they will lack the hoped for news of their birth and their parents and simply live their lives.  That isn’t easy.  Understanding our heritage gives us some clues about who we are and what we are doing here.  Without knowing any of this, we are often left to just get on with our lives without any inkling of how we got here.

            The lessons in the first week of Epiphany try to offer some help for all of us to understand our parentage and our beginnings, who we are and why we are here.  Genesis begins with the magnificent words: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form or void; and darkness covered the face of the deep.  Here, we are given the basics of how this world was formed.  We are wedded to this world, which was created by God to provide a place where his will could be worked out.  After creating the world, God created humankind in his own image.  Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to be the earthly supervisors of God’s kingdom.   God’s plan was to have a place where heaven was replicated with its goodness intact.

            To create all things, God placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden and told both Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of this tree.  Also in the garden was the serpent; the snake that worked on Eve and told her that it would be perfectly all right for her to eat that fruit and to offer it to Adam.  The result of this was that these two first beings immediately knew that they were naked and that naked was bad and then did everything that they could to hide themselves from God’s sight.

            The knowledge of good and evil has been the basis for our legal system, our political system and all of the ways that we interact with each other.  I think that even if God wishes that we didn’t know about it, we would not exist without having a knowledge of good and evil.  I think that Jonathan Edwards great sermon in Northampton, Massachusetts called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sets the tone for God’s interaction with a world full of argument about who is right and who is wrong.  Edwards thundered to his congregation about how we are being held over the burning fires of hell by a thin, fragile strand held in God’s hand.  That strand Edwards called Grace, that wonderful characteristic of God that expresses the divine love for all of humankind.  When the people in that congregation heard that sermon, many of them got up and ran out of the church in terror.  Edwards was one of the heralds of what we call the Great Awakening, a largely Puritan evangelical movement in the eighteenth century that re-established protestant theology in this country that included other great preachers such as George White, a largely Methodist theologian from Georgia. 

            The notion of God’s grace spelling out his incredible Love has helped many people come to an understanding of the authority of God in this world.  We are a country founded on Puritan values from the time of their landing in Massachusetts and William Bradford’s governance.  These Puritans has escaped religious persecution in England only to re-establish it in their new homeland.  Roger Williams was chased out of the Massachusetts Bay colony to establish his own theological area in Rhode Island.  We are continually eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil.  What is important in this world is that God’s love continues to keep us safe and bring us back into the reality of goodness.  May God continue to bless us in this Epiphany season.



Monday, January 1, 2018

The Peace of Jerusalem

            When we made a trip to the Holy Land in 1983, it was fascinating to see what Israel had done to the Palestinians who were in the West Bank, which included part of Jerusalem.  Palestinians and Jews had different license plates.  It was easy to tell one from another.  There were numerous check points where Israeli cars were waved through and the Palestinians were all stopped.  Israeli troops were everywhere.  In those days, in the eighties, there was not much open fighting, not much outward turmoil; but in the hearts of the Palestinian people, there was a great feeling of being ostracized and left out. 

            Of course, the Israelis claimed all of the West Bank as their own and were just beginning to open “settlements” in that area, which have surged in the years since until at the present time they occupy a great deal of the territory.  In Jerusalem itself, Israelis are occupying much of East Jerusalem, where Palestinians have long been the chief residents.  Jerusalem is not a peaceful place at all, nor has it ever been.

            Pray for the peace of Jerusalem has long been a standard prayer in most churches.  It signifies the longing that the world has to see peace and harmony in that place.  We have been aware of the turmoil in the Middle East for a long time.  The movie Exodus with Paul Newman was an excellent story of the beginning of the struggle.  Finding a common solution to the division that exists in what we call the Holy Land seems to be farther and farther from what is possible.  There have been a number of attempts to bridge the gap, but they have all ultimately failed.  We need to keep Jerusalem and all of the Middle East in our prayers that somehow God will intervene to help us to calm the chaos.

            Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which is now in the West Bank; lived his early life in Nazareth in Galilee and spent his ministry helping the people in all of Israel to find healing, comfort and peace in their lives.  When finally, he entered the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday it was on the back of a donkey while the Roman military entered the city with horses and troops.  Jesus came to Jerusalem to live the last days of his life that ended with his betrayal and crucifixion and finally his resurrection and eventually his ascension.  Christianity was born in Jerusalem.  His followers began small churches that spread the word of the risen Christ throughout the known world. 

            Today, Jerusalem is divided into three divisions:  Christian, Jewish and Muslim.  All of these religions are present and in places of worship.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a Christian church where Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox worship. This Church is the place where the story of the last days of Jesus’ life are told, with his sepulcher in the middle of the church.  The Western Wall is the remains of the last Jewish temple where faithful Jews gather every day to pray, and the old Temple Mount is the home to Al Aksa mosque and the highly visible Dome of the Rock where supposedly Abraham offered Isaac to God and also where Mohammed on his horse leapt into heaven.  This is a powerful city to visit and I can see little hope that one religion will finally occupy it alone.

            It also seems to me that Jerusalem is a powerful symbol of what God has in mind for all of humanity.  Living together with different religions and different views of the world is God’s plan for all of us.  If we can learn to put our differences aside and respect one another, we will eventually find the peace that passes understanding.  That isn’t easy.  Money and politics sometimes dictate our beliefs.  None of us die rich.  Eventually, we all stand before God as who we are and who we have become.  Who has the most money or the most powerful political standing doesn’t mean a thing in God’s sight.  It is only how much we have loved and cared for those around us that matter as we stand before our God.   May God bless us in this new year as we try to look past our differences to a world of peace and harmony.