Sunday, October 15, 2017

What Does Love Mean?

            In the movie, The Ten Commandments, Aaron, played by Edward G. Robinson, urges the Hebrew people at the foot of Mount Sinai to build a golden calf while they are waiting for Moses, played by Charleton Heston to come down from the top of the mountain, where he had gone at the command of God.  God sees all of this and tells Moses that his people are doing a bad thing and that he needs to go down and to stop them.  Moses does this and the people are indeed stunned at their leader’s anger.  

            That story has always puzzled me a bit.  Those Hebrews have been freed from their slavery in Egypt and have been in the desert for a while coming to terms with it.  They are a bit confused as to what circumstances they are in and what is coming next.  Other than a “promised land” that seems to them to be a bit vague, they have no sense of what the future holds.  With Moses away for a while, his brother Aaron takes charge and offers a rationale for their condition.  He asks for all of the gold that these people have as earrings, rings and such, and fashions a molded golden calf from it and tells the people that this calf is the god who has brought them out of Egypt and invites them to worship this newly created symbol.  God is of course furious and sends Moses to break it all up. 

            I’m not surprised at all at the Hebrew’s confusion.  How are they to know what God has in mind for them.  Moses is at that moment receiving the rules of behavior for his flock, rules that they don’t even know about yet.  Aaron is simply giving them an answer for their confusion. 

            I am equally puzzled by Jesus’ parable of the king who was having a wedding banquet to which nobody was coming.  There was no understanding here, either by the king or by the subjects.  The people who were invited killed the slaves who invited them and the king sent his troops to kill them.  Eventually, the king sent his slaves to invite anyone whom they saw in the streets and soon the banquet hall was filled with guests.  The king comes in, sees one man who has no wedding robe, asks him how he got in without being properly dressed, orders him to be bound hands and feet and thrown into outer darkness.  He ends the story with the curious words, many are called but few are chosen.  Why is Jesus telling this parable?  What is he trying to get us to understand?

            In both of these stories, God is expecting some kind of understood behavior from those who worship their creator.  In talk after talk during his lifetime and his ministry,  Jesus tells us that the most important thing that we can do is to love one another.  The primary commandment is to Love the Lord our God with all of your hearts, mind and souls and to love our neighbor as a person like yourselves.  Jesus went on to say that on this primary commandment hangs all of the law and the prophets.

            I think what is going on in these stories is that God is assuming that love will be the foundation on which these people build their lives.  The creation of the golden calf is contrary to that and denies the existence of the God who created the world and all of the people who have been freed.  In the parable that Jesus tells, the king, who is God has invited all of the people to come to the wedding banquet and is astonished that one man has no wedding clothes.  The wedding clothes stand for the essence of love.  That is why the man is thrown out of the banquet.  It isn’t easy to understand, which is why at first these stories confuse me.  Knowing that the God whom we all worship is the God of Love helps me to comprehend what is being said.  If only we all could love one another, this world would be a place of peace and comfort, just like the Kingdom of Heaven.  That is what our creator, and his Son, our Lord have in mind for us.

            What makes all of this come together for me is that shortly after all of this was said comes the confrontation with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes and Jesus’ arrest, condemnation and crucifixion.  God’s ultimate answer to this horrible treatment of Jesus is to create the Resurrection three days later and give us all the gift of eternal life as a result.  What more can we ask of the God who loves us so completely?  Our response is simple; we need to embrace Love as our guiding star and focus on taking care of each other. 
           

           
            

Monday, October 9, 2017

Tragedy and Blame

     There have been a lot of horrible tragedies in the last few weeks.  The devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico that crippled that island.  The earthquake in Mexico that killed so many people and destroyed countless buildings and homes.  The fires in California that has caused so much displacement; and just this past week the horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas by a strange man that killed 59 people including himself and wounded nearly 500 more.  There is no answer for this terrible shooting, no motive, no way to understand what was in the shooters mind.  We can only wonder and grieve.   

            In the wake of these awful things, there has been a tendency to add blame to the list of tragedies.  The mayor of San Juan has cried out for more help from the United States and has received criticism from the President.  Mr. Trump went on to tell us what a wonderful job that he has done to deal with what that island needed. He minimized the lack of timeliness in the efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico and took credit for a “tremendous job”.  

            When we look at the Las Vegas shooting, it is easy to find blame.  We certainly want to blame the shooter.  That is our first instinct; but there is a deeper place to look. We really need to find fault with ourselves.  We have created a gun culture in this country.  The Second Amendment to the Constitution speaks of being certain that we permit guns to be in the hands of our militia so that we can all be safe.  In recent years, that amendment’s words have been stretched and interpreted to permit anyone at all to possess a gun, even semi-automatic guns that only have one purpose, to kill people.  I remember NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre saying “what we need to take care of a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” With the probability that the shooter in Las Vegas had some mental issues and the fact that he was high in a hotel and certainly unavailable to anyone with a gun, I know that Mr. LaPierre’s comment has no meaning.  In addition, I’ve never been able to understand how a hunter would take an AK-47 into the woods to harvest a deer for the table, let alone one that has been modified to shoot like a machine gun.  That makes no sense at all.  If we want to assess blame for mass killings, the place to look in inside ourselves. 

            In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he speaks to them of his qualifications for receiving the love of God:  He was circumcised, is a Hebrew, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church and blameless as to righteousness under the law. Yet he goes on to say that whatever gains that he has because of all of this, he has come to regard as loss because of the presence of Christ among us. Paul is eloquent in speaking about the presence of Jesus Christ in this world as the basis for all of us to be loved and understood by God.  It is not because of what it is that we have achieved, but what has been done for us by our Lord Jesus.  He says that he wants to know Christ completely, his sufferings and his death that he may obtain resurrection from death.  That is a powerful statement from a man who had achieved the highest rank among his fellow Hebrews.  He held the coats of the people who stoned Stephen, the first martyr.  He was on his way to Damascus to further persecute Christians when he was knocked to the ground, blinded and turned into a Christian himself.  Paul was not above assessing blame.  He blamed the Corinthian Christians for fighting among themselves; but this passage from Philippians reaches deep into his heart to show us his true religion.  He holds the Love of God as his highest goal, not perfection in his own life.  That is a lesson that we all need to hear in these difficult times if we are going to ever find resolution. 

            Whatever we decide to do about guns is important.  Blame is not helpful to a solution, it only complicates things.  Let’s lash out at the problem and find a way to get our gun problem in control.  It is possible if we can come together.       

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Depth of God's Love

   
            When we visited the Middle East, we were taken to a remarkable site in southern Jordan called Petra.  This was the home of a tribe of Arabs called the Nabataeans who raided the caravans of merchants who were going from Sheba to Israel.  It is a place with elaborate carvings on the mountains of Corinthian columns as the entry doors to tombs.  It has a long history.  It is also supposedly the place where Moses struck the rock and produced water for his hungry people when they had been in the desert for a long time without water. We rode down into the place on the backs of donkeys and saw the beauty of Petra from the beginning.  It was great to see such a place and it gave me a sense that God is continually present in this world, even when we aren’t very aware of that presence.

            One of the things that amazed me at Petra was the Kodak signs that adorned some of the tables of the people trying to sell things to the tourists.  Petra is one of the most popular tourist sites in Jordan and the local residents make some money selling souvenirs to the people who visit.  Petra also was a place with an elaborate water system, which helped the original residents of the place to fill their needs, which reflects Moses ability to strike the rock and receive water for the use of his people who were very thirsty.

            Our guide for this trip was Nancy Lapp, a retired archeologist who explored many sites all over the Middle East with her husband Paul.  She taught us a great deal about the places that we visited and about the religion that we all professed.  I thank God to this day that we had that trip and that we learned so much from visiting those remarkable places described in scripture that we read about all the time.

            Even though I had had a seminary education, being in the geographical presence of the places described in scripture had great meaning for me.  To travel from Galilee to Jerusalem and to see Nazareth and Bethlehem made a great difference for my education.  I was able to better understand what was said in the gospels and in Paul’s letters because of these travels. 

            Jesus came to us to teach us the extreme love of God.  He spent his time with us contradicting the religious leaders who constantly argued with him.  He told a great parable to show them the extreme of their religion.  He offered the story of the vineyard owner who had two sons.  He asked the first to go and to work in the vineyard and he refused, but later changed his mind and went.  The second son said that he would go and work, but didn’t go.  Jesus asked the leaders which of the sons obeyed the will of the father.  They correctly said that it was the first son.  Jesus said to them that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of heaven before them because John came full of righteousness and told them about God and they didn’t believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.  Jesus went on to say that even when you saw it, you didn’t change your minds and believe him. 

            Jesus was telling these leaders about the difficulty that so many humans have with understanding the reality of the Kingdom of God.  This was certainly proved out in the arrest, condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus for again telling all of them the reality of what God has in mind for humanity.  God bless us when we believe and know that Jesus’ teaching was real for all of us in this world, and what our God wants for us all is our presence beside him in his Kingdom.

            Going to the Middle East helped me with this.  I was able to see the vastness of God’s work in this world and appreciate how deeply humanity has been loved through the ages.                       

Monday, September 25, 2017

Living In Love

         
            When I got out of the army, I tried to go back to the radio station where I had been working before I was drafted.  They didn’t only want a disc jockey, they also wanted me to be an engineer so that they could easily fulfil the Federal Communication Commission’s requirement for every station to have qualified engineers as well as announcers on their staff.  I would have had to go to a special school for several weeks and get a certificate.  I didn’t want to do this, so I told Rosie that I was going to apply to a television station for employment as an announcer.  She told me that they better pay me more than the radio station had paid me.  I went off to audition.  Fortunately, I got the job and came back and told her of my fortune and of the considerable increase in salary that accompanied it.  I loved that work.  It was back before the days of teleprompters, so I had to memorize all of the commercials; and I learned to do the weather there. 

            Working has always been important to me.  I have enjoyed all of the careers that I have chosen.    When the last TV station that employed me went bankrupt in the early seventies, I spoke to the bishop of Pittsburgh about being an Episcopal priest.  He was enthusiastic about that and made sure that I was enrolled in Virginia Seminary that September.  I did well in the seminary, graduated and was ordained.  I have loved this profession, serving a number of churches and meeting some of the best people that I could ever have known. 

            In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is trying to describe the Kingdom of Heaven to his listeners. He tells them that it is like a landowner who goes out in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  He agrees with them on a daily wage.  He then goes out several more times and hires more laborers each time.  At the end of the day, he pays them all the same wage that he agreed to pay those who were hired first.  The early workers were upset and complained that they ought to be paid more.  The landowner pointed out to them that they had agreed when they were hired to be paid what they received.  He told them that he ought to be able to do as he pleased with his own money.  He finished this comment by saying the last shall be first and the first will be last.
This is Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of Heaven, not the economy in which we live.  That is important for us to know.  There are a lot of inequities in the world in which we live. Jesus is telling us that those inequities will disappear when we come into his kingdom, even if we don’t think that it is fair that the least who are among us are treated as we are. 

            That is a beautiful description of God’s kingdom, where love is the predominant feature.  It is love that we are taught needs to be the foundation of our world also.  When we love, we learn to forgive and to accept our differences.  Ultimately this results in our learning from each other, not constantly arguing.  If we can learn this, wars will cease and our economies will prosper and all of us will live lives that make much more sense that then ones that we are living now.  That is what Jesus is trying to teach to both his apostles and the crowds that come to hear him.  He gathered up all of the hatred in the world, went to Jerusalem and presented himself to the authorities, who arrested him, handed him over to Pilate who ordered him to be whipped and crucified.  God’s response to this incredible demonstration of hatred was the incredible love of Jesus’ resurrection.  That is the message that we need to hold in our hearts as the essence of our religion.  To learn to love above all things is the way of life that our God gives us.  When we learn this, our world will drastically change.

               

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.