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.



Sunday, December 24, 2017

Mary, the Mother of God,

            For far too long, women have been excluded from all or part of public life.  It wasn’t until 1920 that they were allowed to vote.  Hillary Clinton was the first woman nominated to run for the Presidency and that wasn’t until 2016.  It has been a long time for these people to wait to have access to the power that runs this country.  Yes, we have some representatives and senators from the female gender and even a few governors; but largely, it is men who run the country, make the laws and determine our course in the international world.

            Even in the world of religion there have been some profound changes.  The woman deacon who read the gospel at my ordination to the priesthood told me that it was the last time that she would do that.  I believe that it probably was because she was ordained to the priesthood in 1976, the first year that women were allowed to be priests in the Episcopal church.

            I have a sense that much is changing.  The #metoo movement has sparked commentary and argument across the spectrum of politics and it is obvious that women are not going to simply retire into the background and be quiet.  It is necessary to have conversation about the things that are troubling this country and all that crosses the lines of gender.  Things are never going to be the same as they always have been.  That is a positive outcome of all of this turmoil. 

            Mary, the mother of Jesus was a remarkable woman.  She endured the pain and the ostracism that carrying Jesus to term entailed.  She had Joseph as a companion on this journey, but it was a difficult trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where her baby was born in a stable because as the story is told, there was no room for them in the inn. 

            When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of the Lord, she didn’t argue with him.  Instead, she replied with the Magnificat, a glorious song that proclaimed the greatness of God and spoke of the favor that she knew had been given to her.  Her song offers the mission of Jesus even before his birth.  In this beautiful song, she says about God:  He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.  He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.

            Mary’s greatness is also told to us in the second stanza of the Rosary, when it is said: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.  Mother of God indeed.  Certainly that is true because we know that Jesus was God incarnate on this earth.  It is because of Jesus that we know that God understands what it means to be human and to know all of the limitations and difficulty that human being entails. 

            Thank God for Mary.  Thank God for all of our mothers and the women who have helped to create a world where goodness happens every day.  I hope that out of all of this trouble and difficulty that is being experienced in the present time, that their strength will be allowed to serve this world in more leadership roles and to help us to be the people that God intended us to be from the moment of creation. May God bless you and may you have a very merry Christmas! 


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Ministry in a Changing World

                         Time marches on.  I have noticed that all of the World War II veterans are now in their nineties.  That should not be surprising, but I remember that war.  I heard the notice of the attack on Pearl Harbor on our radio in our living room when I was eight years old.  I have grown up with those memories.  We have moved into another era as things have changed in this country.  That isn’t a bad thing, it is just different.  We need to constantly look at what our work must be in a changing time. 

            Jesus came into our world as a newborn in Bethlehem and lived for thirty some years.  His ministry from the time that he was baptized by John in the Jordan until his crucifixion lasted about three years.  In that time, he offered healing, comfort and care to the people whom he met throughout Israel and even into some of the surrounding territories.  After his death and subsequent resurrection and his ascension into heaven, his apostles created small house churches that met constantly to celebrate their common ministry that they inherited from their Lord and to create communities that acted in concert to keep these ministries working.  Those house churches became the model for later Christians as they worked to carry on the ministry that Jesus taught to all of us by his life.

            The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s purpose for humankind in the 61st chapter of his prophecy when he said: He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed; to bind up the broken-hearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to comfort all who mourn. That is the ministry that Jesus took for his own during his life and has passed on to what has become the Christian church afterwards.  Christianity is composed of a number of denominations, each with their own view of what their worship and ministry means.  We ought not to confuse ministry with our prayer books.  We can cooperate in our ministry while we worship in our own singular ways. 

            What we share with those original disciples of Jesus is our common community that we call our churches.  They are the means by which ministry can be moved into our neighborhoods.  There are many homeless, people in poverty and those who have lost friends or members of their families to death, or are suffering in many other ways around us.  Our job is to make their worlds brighter by our presence and our caring.  When we do this, we are doing God’s will as expressed by Isaiah in his insightful prophecy. 

            We are living in a turbulent world with changing politics all around us.  In this unsettled time, our ministry is more and more important.  When we can lift up those who are hurting and give hope to those who are fearful, we are making a profound difference in this world.  That is why ministry is so important.  God will bless us richly as we do this work.