Monday, September 18, 2017

Revelation Violence or Resurrection Love

           
            There are some people in this country, and probably all over the world who want to take the Book of Revelation literally.  They want us to understand that a great apocalypse is coming and coming soon.  That the skies will open and God’s army, led by Jesus will descend and kill all of those who are not born again.  Mostly these are very conservative evangelical Christians who believe all of this.  It is disturbing to me because they leave the essentials of the Christian faith behind them when they preach these things.  There are a lot of examples of violence in the scriptures.  God frequently helps the Hebrews destroy the Philistines.  The destruction of Pharaoh’s army as the separated Red Sea closed around them as the Hebrew’s fled from Egypt is another example.  But things changed when Jesus came among us.  The issue no longer was violence, but forgiveness.  That is what Jesus taught all of his life.

            I spent twenty-two years working as a part time chaplain at Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh.  I saw a lot of men who had done some very bad things.  Some of them seemed to be almost lost because of their crimes.  We talked constantly about forgiveness.  This was a welcome subject, but very few of them believed that forgiveness for them was even a remote possibility.  One old man, who had come to prison in his mid-seventies would always tug my sleeve at the end of a group session that talked about forgiveness and would say to me, “listen preacher, there are two people in the graveyard because of what I did.  God is never going to forgive that!”  One day a year or so later, I saw his eyes light up when we were again talking about forgiveness.  He, all of a sudden understood that we were talking about him.  His life changed drastically after that.  He was living in the hospital and would be wheeled out and across the yard when we had group.  When he got to the yard, he would be swamped by other inmates who wanted to be near him because there was a light around him that was undeniable.

            Forgiveness is the theme of the passage from the 14th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel.  Paul talks about the constant problem that we have with judgement.  He asks why we judge one another when we are all accountable to God.  He says that in the end, God will judge all of us.  In Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus how many time he is supposed to forgive, could it be as many as seven times?  Jesus answers him that it should not be just seven times, but seventy times seven.  Jesus is saying essentially that forgiveness needs to be endless in our lives with each other.  The most revealing story of forgiveness is when Jesus met Peter and the other disciples on the shore of the sea of Galilee after his resurrection.  He was cooking fish over a fire.  He asked Peter, “do you love me?”  Peter answered, “yes Lord, you know that I love you”.  Jesus asked Peter this question three times, the number of times that Peter had denied Jesus at the time of his arrest before the crucifixion.  The effect of this encounter was to forgive Peter for his denials.  If Jesus could do this for Peter, how wonderful it would be if we could do this for each other. This is God’s desire for all of humanity, to be willing to forgive those who have hurt and sinned against us.  Peace would be the result of this.

            None of this sits very well with the Revelation preachers.  They want us to stay away from those who are not born again and remember the great apocalypse that is about to descend on humanity.  With the threat of North Korea and its nuclear capacity, this is sometimes easy to imagine.  I believe, however in a God who loves humanity and will do everything necessary to keep us alive, despite even our worst desires.  The proof of God’s love is that he gave his only begotten son, Jesus, to come to us, to die for us and to be raised from the dead as a gift to us all to show us that forgiveness is the one constant that we can count on from our God. 

           
           
                            

Monday, September 11, 2017

Moving Beyond What Divides Us

 We have two monstrous hurricanes hitting our country as I write this.  One has hit Texas and another one has hit the west coast of Florida.  Harvey has done unimaginable destruction to the Houston area of Texas.  Hurricane Irma is currently causing destruction in Florida and wherever it will go from there.  There are uncounted people affected by these storms.  Houses have been destroyed, people’s lives have been put on hold as rescuers work hard to save people from the high water and get them to safety.  We all know that we should help these people in their distress; money is being donated to a number of organizations that are doing everything in their power to help the affected people. 

            What I notice about all of this is that people are being helped regardless of their beliefs.  Nobody is asking any questions about who people voted for, what issues they support or if they have any same sex marriages in their families.  Nobody cares about any of these things, which makes me wonder how terribly important they are in the wider scheme of things.  What is important here is that we take care of one another.  That means putting the “issues” aside, the things that seem to drive our politics; and working only for what is important:  the welfare of the people in front of us.

            These aren’t the only destructive problems facing us today.  There are massive fires in our Western states that threaten many houses with destruction with many lives being upset.  Here, firefighters from all over are working hard to put out the fires and to help those who are affected find relief.  Again, issues are not important, only the welfare of those affected.

            Rosie and I had some experience with this kind of destruction.  In March of 1993, a monstrous winter storm that put three feet of snow all over the east coast and generated winds in excess of 100 miles per hour that destroyed the beach house that we had had in North Carolina for over fifteen years.  It was a terrible moment in our lives and I can understand how the people who are losing their primary residences feel about these storms.  In a strange way, these things are a blessing for all of us.  They get our attention away from the issues that divide us and focus our concern on the needs that these dear people have.  I know that this is what love is all about. 

            St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, tells his readers: Owe no one anything, except to love one another. He lists the commandments, stealing, adultery, murder, coveting; and tells them that all of the commandments are summed up in the great words, Love your neighbor as yourself.  He makes it clear that love does no harm to anyone, but is the fulfilling of the law.  That is what our Lord wants us to do for all of these people who are in distress, not only from the storms and fires, but in all of the ways that this world creates misery.  Our job is not to judge, but to help.  That is the essence of our faith.

            In a letter to the editor in our local paper, a woman was chastising her church for leaning too much toward what she called “liberal beliefs” and getting away from the teaching of the church.  She was talking about churches that provide a place for same sex marriages, allow people to have an abortion if it is absolutely necessary; and making an effort to include everyone in their communities. She didn’t approve of any of this. She wanted the rules to be obeyed.   When I read the stories about Jesus, they all seem to be of a man doing his ministry and taking care of people, regardless of their background.  He healed the Centurian’s servant and the Syrophonecian woman’s child.  He did all of this because of his primary ministry, which was to love and to care for the people whom he met. Whatever issues that were current in those communities were not his concern.  It was the welfare of the people.  Caring for each other is the mission of the church.  We need to always put our pettiness aside and focus on the need that is around us.

            

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Loving is Our Mission

             
            I spent the month of August preaching at Holy Cross church in Homewood.  Homewood is a suburb of Pittsburgh and difficult place for many people to live.  For a long time, there were signs up all over those neighborhoods that said: Stop shooting, we love you!  If you watch the news, you see lots of crime in that area of our city.  There is a lot of pain.  With all of the threatening activity that has been going on in our country, in Charlottesville for example, the threat is particularly felt in Homewood.  Those African-American people have endured endless prejudice over the years and have felt themselves frequently to be outcast.  I preached out there thirty years ago when the Rev. Junius Carter was their rector and I heard horrible stories of the way that prejudice and being outcast affected their lives.

            I wish that I had a quick answer to fix all of this.  We live in a time when hatred seems to be growing in this country.  I have never felt a more urgent time for the Christian message of Love above all things to be preached and understood.  It isn’t easy to love.  There are many things that prevent it.  Most of all it is our concern for self that gets in the way.  Our scripture lessons offer some thoughts about this problem and if we take them seriously, they point to some solutions.

            Paul speaks about the radical nature of Love in his letter to the Romans.  His words aren’t really very easy to hear:  bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…do not repay anyone evil for evil…If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  These are words of advice to his followers in Rome.  Those are good words, but hard to live out.  When we are offended by someone, we tend to respond with anger and retribution.  It isn’t easy to bless those who persecute us. 

            Jesus has some words for his disciples about their trip to Jerusalem.  He tells them that he will go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering at the hands of the priests and the elders, be killed and on the third day rise again.  Peter took him aside and rebuked him: God forbid it. Lord, this must never happen to you!  Jesus responded to him by saying, get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me because you are setting your mind on human things, not on divine things.  It was hard for Peter to understand the suffering that Jesus knew that he was going to have to undergo.  Jesus was speaking about the extreme difficulty that Godly love poses not only to each of us, but also to Jesus himself who came to redeem us all by his suffering. Jesus confronted all of the hatred in the world with love; by offering himself to all of the hatred so that God’s love could prevail in his resurrection.  Continuing that Love is our mission as Christians.  It is our job to reach into this world and to find those who need love and to provide it for them.  That means taking care of the poor and the neglected; those who have no resources, and doing for them what they can’t do for themselves. 

            I have been heartened by the response that so many people have made to the horrible flooding in Houston and all of Southeast Texas.  Beautiful stories are emerging of how people are giving of themselves to make other people’s lives easier.  These are people who have frequently lost everything in the storm, but are given back love and concern by people whom they don’t even know.  The people who are helping are not asking questions about what the people in need believe; who they voted for, or anything else.  They don’t necessarily agree with the people whom they are helping.  That is what St. Paul was talking about when he said bless those who persecute you, as far as possible live peaceably with all.  That is the essence of his messages. That is how love works. 

            Many of the people in Homewood need help.  Holy Cross church does some wonderful things in that community.  Even with all of their own fears and wounds that have come from years of prejudice, they still want to help.  St. Brendan’s has always had a tithing ministry that had done unseen wonders for the charities that you support. You are offering the Episcopal Relief and Development as a place to offer support to all of the people in Texas who have suffered so much.

             I thank God for the persistent love that comes from churches who care for others in the name of Love.  God bless us as we do what we can to spread that Love as far as we can.

                        

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Love Trumps Hate

             We live in a time of great anxiety.  There is a lot of anger in this world and it is directed toward people who sometimes seem not to have much power.  I am not much impressed with the people who arm themselves and want to riot and make so many people uncomfortable.  I remember the Civil Rights movement in the sixties and how marches were organized, particularly the march across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma without weapons on the part of the marchers that changed the minds of many people. Pettus had been a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  That was a very significant thing that the marchers did.
           
            One of the great heroes of that time was a young man named Jonathan Daniels.  He was from New Hampshire, was a seminarian in the Episcopal church.  He watched with horror what was going on in the south.  He heard Dr. King’s call for people to come south to help those who were rising up in the struggle for civil rights.  He went to Selma, spent some time tutoring children and helping with voter registration.  Eventually, he was arrested with several others.  After he was released, he was confronted by a deputy with a shotgun who wanted to kill one of his African-American companions. He stepped in front of his friend just as the man pulled the trigger.  Jonathan died in that moment as has become one of the church’s great martyrs.  We celebrate his memory on August 14 in Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

            What we are seeing now is different.  These are armed instigators trying to assert their majority status by demonstrating power.  It worries me to see this going on in our neighborhoods.  Some of it is caused by the overwhelming presence of guns all over the place.  This is certainly something that we should be able to do something about, but it never seems to happen.  The other problem is the rising of hatred in this country.  Hatred is harder to comprehend.  Our Lord taught us to love one another as we have been loved.  That is the key to peace and to hope in this world.  When hatred rises up it destroys hope and love.  We are left with misery and destruction.  Hatred is something that the church has been created to counter.

            The stories that we have in scripture that talk about the power of God to take care of God’s people.  After Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt because they hated him, he went down there and obtained the favor of the pharaoh, who put him in charge of keeping the stores of the country.  There came seven years of feast and seven years of famine and Joseph during the years of plenty put a lot of it aside to wait for the years of famine.  In the meantime, his brothers and his father stayed back in Israel doing without. In the Old Testament lesson today, we hear that a new pharaoh has come into power in Egypt, a man who as it says; knew not Joseph.  This new leader hated and oppressed the Israelites who had come into Egypt and made them to be slaves.  This was the beginning of the time of oppression in Egypt that was so notable in the history of the Hebrew people.  In the lesson today, there is hope created. 

            The Hebrew women were having children and the Egyptians were trying to get rid of them to continue the hatred.  One Levite woman had a child whom she put in a basket and hid in the reeds of the river.  Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket and took the child for her own.  She named him Moses because she found him in the water.  So, begins the story of Moses who would later so wonderfully liberate the Hebrew people from their slavery in Egypt that grew out of pure hatred. 

            In the Gospel, Jesus is talking to his disciples and he asks them who people say that he is.  His followers reply that some say that he is John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  Jesus asks them, but who do you say that I am?  Peter says, you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.  Jesus blesses Peter for this statement and tells him that flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to him, but God in Heaven.  He goes on to say that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Here again is God coming into the world with all of the power of Heaven to take care of the people who have been created and to do something about all of the hatred that exists. 

            This is the work that you and I have before us as members of the Church that was created by our Lord.  We are the means to counter hatred by our love for each other and the love that we can offer to our society.  Love can indeed conquer hatred.  People who hate are isolated and alone.  Those who love have companions and resource.  That is the lesson that we are here to teach the world.  God blesses us in this work.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Being a White Minority

        
            I remember when I first felt like a minority in my white skin.  I was studying at Virginia Seminary in the seventies.  For my Clinical Pastoral Education experience in the summer, I was working out of a Lutheran Church at the corner of Sixteenth and V streets in Northwest Washington, DC.   This was in the corridor that was burned during the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. King a few years earlier.

            I was assigned by the pastor of the church to visit people on a street that was composed largely of abandoned buildings.  The people who lived on the street were mostly African American, but there was one white family living there.  I went to the street intending to visit them.  There were no numbers on the houses, so I didn’t know where anyone lived.  There was a kid on one of the corners, about 5 years old, leaning against a wall smoking a cigarette.  I asked him where the family that I was looking for lived.  He responded to my question by saying:  who wants to know?  I knew immediately that I was foreign to him and obviously an outsider.  Eventually, I found the family and spoke with them.  The mother and one child were in their living room and the father was upstairs, closed in his bedroom.  The mother told me that he rarely came out of the room, mostly only for infrequent meals.  He was depressed and alone and she said that she didn’t know what to do about it.

            I thought about this family a lot in the days after that visit.  I talked with the pastor of the church and he asked me what my goal was for that man and for his family.  I told him that I would like to get him out of the room, have a good conversation with him and find a way to get him a job.  The pastor reached over, touched my arm and said, and finally, by your grace, he will attain everlasting life! I knew then what a foolish man I was being and how I was trying to make all things well with a man whom I knew not at all.

            I learned a lot that summer about who I was and what it was that I could reasonably do as a minority in an African-American neighborhood.  Minorities are what we all are, in one way or another.  Certainly, the Caucasian race is a minority in this world.  That is becoming increasingly clear.  It is probably the main reason that we are having trouble with groups that claim the status of white supremacy, such as the KKK or the neo-Nazis at work out there.  Speaking as a member of the white race we all need to understand what being a minority involves.

            Jesus learned something important in the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew.  He was travelling in the area of Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite populated area.  A woman came to him and asked him to heal her daughter whom she claimed was being tormented by a demon.  Jesus told her that since she was a Canaanite, it wasn’t proper for him to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.  She quickly responded: yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table!  Jesus knew immediately that she was right and he praised her faith and cured her daughter.  There are two things that I love about this passage.  The first is that the poor woman’s child was healed by our Lord, regardless of the belief, or lack of belief of the mother.  The second is that Jesus learned something profound in this encounter.  That God loves all of the people of the earth, no matter what their color, religion or anything else.  That means a great deal to me when I look at this world of minorities and know that I am a part of it. 

            Over the centuries, we have divided ourselves into many different classes.  These divisions are based on all kinds of things: our race, our religion, our nationality.  We sometimes trumpet these differences and claim that they are the best.  I learned a lot at that Lutheran church, and one of them was that Lutherans have a very nice religion.  I learned a lot in that African American community, that they care for each other and make a healthy neighborhood out of the fact that they have many problems.  They would take turns going to the various charitable groups in the city; the Salvation Army, the Lutheran Service Society, and other places that offered free food or services.  They took turns so that they wouldn’t be turned away for coming too frequently, and it worked. 

            I am repelled by terms like “America First” or any of the statements that make us all sound as if we are the most important people on earth.  The truth is that God loves all of us.  God doesn’t particularly care if we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever.  God created us all to be the people of God and to take care of each other.  That is what those people on that block that I visited were doing.  It is what we all need to do.  When we take care of each other, the shooting and the shouting won’t stop, but it will tone down a lot, and we can get on with our lives.

             

           

                

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fear and Faith


               What is it that creates your faith in God or in scripture?  It certainly isn’t facts, since hardly any of the stories in scripture can be proven by facts.  The bible is full of stories and myths, all of which are there to tell us truth.  Truth is the object of our bible.  I don’t know which stories are true and which ones are only there to help us understand the truth, but they are all helpful in giving all of us a sincere faith in our God who created and sustains this world. 

            The story that we have in the Gospel about the disciples out on the lake in a boat while a storm surges around them while their Lord was off somewhere in prayer is there to help us understand what it means to have faith.  A terrible storm had brewed up on the lake the disciples were terrified by their situation and all of a sudden, Jesus comes to them walking toward their boat on the water.  They were amazed by this and also fearful.  Some of them said, it is a ghost! But it wasn’t a ghost, it was Jesus.   Peter called out to him and said, Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.  Jesus replied, Come!  Peter got out of the boat and walked toward Jesus on the water.  It wasn’t very long before he began to sink, and he cried out and asked Jesus to save him. Jesus came and took his arm and helped him to walk.  Jesus said to Peter, you of little faith, why did you doubt? That’s why this is a story about faith.  There were certainly no facts to prove to Peter that he could walk on the water; only Jesus’ example.  But because of what he saw Jesus do, he was convinced that he could do it himself. That is the lesson for all of us in this story.

            What I know about faith is that it can conquer fear.  Fear is something that can devastate us.  When we are afraid, we are very much alone and sometimes have very little expectation of help.  There was Peter walking on the water, very much aware of what an impossible thing that he was doing.  The minute that fear took hold of him, he began to sink.  Jesus came to him and asked him why he was doubting.  Sounds a bit like a ridiculous question to me, but Peter had asked Jesus to call to him to come and walk on the water.  It was his own self and his ability that he was doubting.

            Fear can take hold of us in amazing ways.  In this world today there are a lot of things that we can be afraid of.  That was a terrible riot in Charlottesville, VA this weekend with white supremacists and members of the Ku Klux Klan fighting with black people and others who were trying to support the city’s desire to take down a Robert E. Lee statue.  This was an eruption of hate that we don’t need in this country.  And we also have all of this talk about a nuclear North Korea, which can make anyone very nervous.  I certainly don’t want us in the middle of a terrible nuclear war.  Outside of reasonable political help, the only thing that can protect us from such a catastrophe is faith.  Faith that our God loves us absolutely and will do everything possible to keep us safe and well.  Economic devastation is another source of fear.  When we are afraid that we can’t pay our bills or won’t have food on our table or medical care for ourselves and our loved ones, fear can take over.  This is when faith is very helpful in understanding that our God loves us and can be our source of help.

            The thing that attracts me to this story of the disciples on the lake is the way that Jesus responded to Peter’s cry for help when he was sinking.  He immediately went to him, took him by the arm and lifted him up.  Yes, he commented also about Peter’s lack of faith and the presence of doubt, but in the end, he lifted him from the depths of the water and helped him to continue to walk.  That, for me, is a lesson in how our Lord hopes that we will respond to each other in this world.

            There are a lot of people in trouble out there.  Yes, they doubt and have no faith in themselves.  When we listen to their cry for help and respond to it, we are doing God’s will in this world.  It is God’s hope that everyone will live in peace and harmony.  In the turbulence that there is in this world, that just isn’t possible.  That is why so many people live lives of hopeless misery.  Helping and caring is the work of the church.  I know that you see it all the time.  The solution is to care and with compassion to react to the pain that you see and do what you can to lift the person up so that they are back in this world and the misery is lessened.  That is why we have a church.  This is a place where we can gather and care and sometimes share stories of what we see in the world.  It is also a place where we can gather resources to help us to make lives better.  God bless us in this incredibly important work.  It is what our Lord wants us to do.

           

                       

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Jesus Transfigured

             
            Rosie and I went on a tour to the Middle East with Nancy Lapp back in the early 80s.  We visited lots of sites in Israel and the West Bank.  One of the most intriguing visits was to Mount Tabor,  a bit west, but located not far from Nazareth in Galilee.  This is supposedly the mountain on which Jesus along with Peter, John and James had the experience of the Transfiguration. 

            We got to the mountain in a bus, were quickly joined by a fleet of taxis driven by Palestinians who took us to the top.  The trip was frightening.  The road was very narrow, other cars were coming down as we were going up and I was never sure that we were going to be able to pass.  The drivers didn’t care how fast that they went, which added to the worry. 

            Finally, we got to the top and began to see the wonder of that mountain.  There was a fine covering of mist; a German tour group was singing in the chapel and we had conversation with a monk from the abbey on the top of the mountain.

            It was easy to imagine Jesus and his three disciples here and what their experience was all about.  I could picture him kneeling in a small field covered by the mist and the experience of God speaking to all of them.  It was an almost incredible feeling being on the top of that mountain. 

            In Luke’s gospel, the story is told that Moses and Elijah joined Jesus as he was praying on the mountain.  Peter, with all of his enthusiasm said: “let us build three tents, one for each of you here on the mountain.”  At that moment, God entered the cloud of mist and silently said to Peter: shut up! Then God said to all of the three disciples, This is my son, my chosen, listen to him! Then all of them were alone on the mountain. 

            This is a powerful story of the identity of our Lord.  When he was baptized by John, God said, this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.  It isn’t clear who heard this, whether it was the crowd, or only Jesus.  Here on the mountain of transfiguration, there is no doubt about who heard it.  It was the three disciples. 

            This is a great event that we celebrates today, but an even more impressive part of the story happens when all of them come down the mountain the next day.  They find the other disciples trying to heal a young man whose father has become quite agitated because he has asked the disciples to heal his child and they have not been able to.  Jesus rebukes the spirit that has thrown the child to the ground, asks that the young man be brought to him.  Jesus heals him and gives him back to his father.  There, in action, is exactly what God said to all of them on the mountain:  this is my beloved son, listen to him. 

            I think that this was a powerful turning point for the disciples.  They were on the road to Jerusalem and finally the death and resurrection of their Lord.  Up to this point, they all had followed Jesus because he was very charismatic.  Now, Peter, James and John had been told by God the absolute identity of this man whom they all were following.  It certainly played out in the days that followed.  The disciples were terrified by the events in Jerusalem, but in fits and starts, they continued to follow their Lord.  After the resurrection, Jesus came to them and proved the truth of what God had told them on the mountain.  They went on to create the church that we have all come to love. 

            So, what is our mission, in light of all of this?  Is it simply to come each week and worship; or is it something more.  Jesus and his disciples went into the world in search of the poor and the afflicted and gave them hope and healing.  That is also the mission of the church.  It isn’t important what kind of worship we engage in, as long as we celebrate the risen life of Jesus Christ in our midst.  What is incredibly important is how we translate that faith into action to help those in this world who are in sorry states, who have nothing and need healing and hope.  When we help them, we are celebrating the glory of our Lord Jesus, who on the Mountain of Transfiguration was celebrated by God to be our redeemer, our leader and our friend.

            Rosie and I are celebrating our 62nd anniversary today.  Sixty-two years ago, in 1955, we were united in matrimony at the First Christian Church in Indiana, PA.  It was a beautiful moment for both of us.  Rosie belonged to that church and she loves to tell people when they ask her about her religion, she always says: “I used to be a Christian.”  She certainly was, and still is.  She has been an inspiration to my life and my ministry and I thank God for her.