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. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What is Heaven Like?


            Have you ever wondered what heaven is like?  It comes up sometimes when people are in trouble; have serious illnesses or some kind of great trauma, or when someone whom we love has died.  We think about heaven and wonder about it.  It isn’t a question that has much of an answer.  We can only really speculate.

            The disciples didn’t know much about it either.  In the 14th chapter of John’s gospel is the passage that is frequently read at funerals.  Jesus begins it with set your troubled hearts at rest, then he says believe in God, believe also in me. He goes on to tell them that he goes to prepare a place for them so that where he is, they will be also and the way there is known to them.  Thomas, the disciple who was always ready to question, says we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way? Thomas was like all of us.  He had no idea of what heaven was all about.

            C.S. Lewis wrote an excellent book called The Great Divorce, in which he tried to contrast heaven and hell so that we could all understand it  Hell, for Lewis was a large city in which it rained constantly; people walked around not really noticing each other and where no one ever even smiled.  There was a bus that loaded frequently and took everyone on it to heaven; which was a place, lighted brilliantly and full of people who worked together, cared for each other and seemed to have a good time. 

            These bus trips to heaven were described beautifully and were full of stories about the people on board the bus and how they reacted.  There were frequently people who got off the bus, saw someone whom they thought ought not to be in heaven and got back on the bus to go back to the rainy city.  Judgement was the issue of the day for a lot of the bus riders.

            I don’t know if Lewis knew a lot about how our afterlife is constructed.  He certainly wrote with wisdom and knew how to describe what most people on this planet think about what we will experience when we meet our God after our lives are over.  I loved what he said about it all, and I hope that he was somewhat accurate in his description.

            I think that Jesus was trying to help us all to understand what he meant when he was talking about the Kingdom of Heaven.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is describing heaven for his listeners in a series of parables.  Most of these describe a great treasure that surprises the finder and lets us all know the value of being in the place where God resides.  He talks about heaven being like a mustard seed that is the smallest of seeds, but after it is planted, it grows into a magnificent bush; large enough for the birds to come and find a place to nest in its branches.  He also talks of heaven as if it is leaven that is mixed in with three measures of flour until it is all leavened.  Those are rather subtle descriptions of heaven.  It is described as something that more or less sneaks up on you.  That certainly fits with the way that most of us experience heaven while we are still living.  We only speculate at what it must be like.

            His other parables are a bit different.  They speak of people who find treasures; one a treasure hidden in a field and another a pearl of great price, both of which cause the finder to sell all that he has to make certain that he can hold on to this treasure.  I think that is a beautiful way to describe the kingdom of heaven.  I once was with a woman in the last moments of her life in a hospital bed, who almost with her last breath said all of a sudden: it is so beautiful! just before she died. That told me a lot about heaven.  It is a place of infinite beauty that we can all look forward to experiencing.

             Jesus final parable describing the kingdom of heaven is to say that it is like a net thrown into the sea that caught fish of every kind.  The net was dragged out of the sea and the fish were separated into the good and the bad.  They put the good into baskets and threw out the bad.  He said that this is how it would be at the end of time; that angels would come and separate the evil from the good and that there would be considerable gnashing of teeth.

            That doesn’t make me feel particularly good.  I know that there are things inside myself that I am not really very proud of. things that I wouldn’t want to show to God ever. But what I hear in this parable is an echo of what scripture means when it speaks of the refiner’s fire that cleanses all of us in the presence of God, so that we appear finally before our God in the perfect state in which he created us.  I remember that great passage from Isaiah that describes the prophet being caught up and thrust into the presence of God.  He thinks of himself as not being worthy.  An angel comes and touches his lips with a burning coal that seems to make him worthy.  He then responds to God’s instructions to him to go and to prophesy and to tell the world what he has seen.  That is what the angels do in this final reckoning.  They receive us all and cast out those things that shame us and help us to go forward as people who know the goodness that we were at our creation.  That, for me is what heaven is all about. 

           


                         

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Weeds and Wheat

                          It is sometimes amazing to listen to the political debate in this country.  I am thinking about the healthcare legislation proposed by both parties in our congress.  After the Affordable Care Act was passed, the congress tried unsuccessfully over fifty times to repeal it.  Finally, they have proposed a different kind of healthcare act that will curtail many of the provisions of the original act and provide better tax conditions for the wealthy. 

            I am thinking about all of this in light of Matthew’s Gospel and the story of the farmer who sows good seed, but the devil comes right behind him and sows weeds.  His workers come to him and want to know if he wants them to clean out the weeds.  The farmer says, “No, let them alone.  When we reap these fields, we will separate the weeds from the grain and destroy it and keep the grain.” 

            Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable and he tells them that the sower of the good seed is the Son of Man and the devil is the one who sows the weeds.  It will all grow up together and at the end of the age, the grain will be separated from the weeds and the weeds will be destroyed.  He also says that at this end time, the righteous will shine like the sun.  Jesus ends his explanation with the words:  Let anyone with ears listen!   What this story suggests to me is to relax to all of the turmoil around us and to understand that it is God who is charge of this world.  We need to do the best that we can to take care of the people who are hurting whom we have around us; but that we also need to expect opposition to what we are trying to do.  This is a world full of greed, egotism and a tremendous amount of selfishness.  All of this comes into play when we try to make our society a better place for people to live. 

            When we try to do good things, we usually mix in other things that aren’t really helpful.  We offer aid to people living in poverty, but then require them to meet criteria that is sometimes impossible for them.  The issue is usually the same, we want to control those to whom we give help.  Jesus always gave his help without condition.  I remember the woman at the well in Samaria, who had five husbands and the man that she was living with wasn’t her husband.  Jesus gave her living water to drink anyway and sent her back into her Samaritan community to tell people what had happened to her.  This resulted in an outpouring of people to come to hear what Jesus was preaching and a giant inclusion of people who had heard the Gospel. 

            Reaping the wheat and the weeds together is an excellent idea.  When the harvest is completed, it is much easier to separate the weeds from the wheat.  The problem with a lot of the rules that we make for other people is that it isn’t always easy to separate the two.  Jesus is asking us to be faithful to what God has created in this world; to not restrict the goodness that God provides with weeds of our own making.  We need to understand that it is our selfishness that undermines goodness in this world.  When we give freely, without conditions, that which we give can help those who are in critical need.  When we try to make sure that what we give is used properly, we sometimes make it impossible for those who are in need to solve their problems.

            Yes, there are those who misuse the good things that they are given.  When we create rules to stop that from happening, we are simply sowing weeds among the grain.  But sometimes it isn’t easy to see the weeds.  What Jesus is trying to get us to understand is that even when we think we are doing good things, some of the turn out not to be so good.  Instead of plucking up what we think are the weeds, maybe we need to leave it all alone and let God help us to know what is weeds and what is grain.  The most helpful part of this parable is the promise by our Lord that all will be made right at the last judgement.  The weeds will vanish and the grain will all survive.  What we need to do is to continue in our work on behalf of the Gospel; to do good for those who need it and to let God be in charge of where it all winds up.

                                

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Parable of the Sower

                                          
            The New Yorker has an article this week about the state of Texas and how its legislature is in many ways a mirror of what is going on all over this country.  There is a core of right-wing zealots who want to take over the state.  One of their leaders is the Lieutenant Governor who is also the president of the Senate.  This man is an outspoken evangelical Christian who looks at all of the political action in the state through the eyes of his particular Christian faith. His faith is composed of a lot of rules that he wants to enforce by law.  He is a rich man with resources that are adequate to his needs.  His is the kind of politics that we are seeing on a national level.  I saw a car with a series of faith related bumper stickers on it that also carried a Trump/Pence sticker.  I was certain of the origin of the owner’s politics, it was rooted in the certainty of his faith.

            We all have faith related politics.  Most of us are not as certain as others.  Most of us would not claim that somehow God got Donald Trump or Barack Obama on the ballot.  We all know that we have a responsibility for all of this; to not only elect, but also be responsible for those whom we elect and for what they do when they are in office.  This is mostly a kind of a tricky problem.  We don’t always agree with our elected leaders or with each other, even if we were part of the voting block that elected them.  We know that all of us are responsible for what goes on in this country; and one end or the other of the political spectrum is only a part of the answer at any given moment.

            Jesus tried to describe our political and moral problems to us in his intricate and helpful parable of the sower.  He speaks to a gathered crowd by the sea, sitting in a boat.  He talked of the way that God’s love comes to humanity.  If God is the sower and God’s love is the seed that is sown, it comes to us in different ways.   If we are the ones who receive it as it falls on the path, then it evaporates before we can do much of anything with it.  If we receive it as the seed on rocky ground, it lasts as long as it causes us no trouble; but the minute that we are threatened by the love that our God has lavished on us, we shy away.  When we receive it as the seed that falls among the thorns, we simply take that love and integrate it with all of our other concerns.  Sometimes, we make it seem to be primary as we use it to laud the things that are really on our mind.  I think that this is what is going on with the absolute religious community who want us all to think that their political certainties are coming as the voice of God.  When we receive God’s love as the seed that fell on fertile ground, we take it and integrate it into ourselves.  We learn, as Jesus taught us to love each other with the same zeal that God has lavished on us.  We make the world better because of our love. 

            I had a good friend who was a priest in this diocese named Lynn Chester Edwards who had his own set of health and other problems.  In the process of his ministry, he created the Shepherd Wellness Community; a religious organization that was designed to help anyone with problems to get over them and to get back to their communities. He did this because of the love that he felt had been given to him by God.  He was sometimes lauded for this work, but mostly he kept it in the background.  He was one of the interim priests who served after I retired from Christ Church, North Hills and he made a loving impression on the people of that parish.  He died a short time ago and we deeply miss his life and his work. 

            He is a perfect example of what our Lord means by the seed that falls on fertile ground.  Lynn took the love that he had been given and shared it with others.  He never got rich, he never attained a high rank, or anything else.  He was simply a good priest doing God’s work in a world that needed that work desperately.  That is why God loves all of us; so that we can lavish that love on others.  There are so many people who have not received that love.  It is up to all of us to see that they do.  It is really the way to make this world a much better place, so that as we say in the Lord’s Prayer: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May God bless us as we do our best to spread that love.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Mission of the Church

             There is probably nothing more impressive than watching someone give up their own agenda and take care of someone who is hurting.  I’ve seen this a number of times and it always makes me humble and joyful at the same time.  Jesus came to us to help us with our burdens.  He promised to make lives easier and more meaningful.  In Matthew’s gospel, he tells us to come to him, all who are carrying heavy burdens and he will give us rest.  That is a beautiful statement and the essence of the ministry that Jesus brought to this world.  It isn’t the rich and the prominent who need the care that Jesus offers, it is the downtrodden and the poor who need his work the most.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to that ministry first and foremost.  Our job is to take care of each other; to look out for those who are hurting and oppressed and to do what we can to make their lives better.  When we do that, we are spreading Jesus’ love into the world.

            When we go downtown to the theater or to a sporting event, there are always people on the street trying to get the crowds attention.  They have signs talking about hunger and being homeless and other problems.  They are only a small portion of those who are hurting in our community.  I know that I can’t fix very much of it, but I try to do something for those people who are asking.  I am always being told not to do it because they will probably take the money and go buy booze or drugs with it.  I reply that after I give the money, it doesn’t belong to me anymore and whatever they do with it is their option.  Focusing on the worst that people are and what they do doesn’t help much.  It only prolongs the pain.  Yes, sometimes the money that we give goes to simply continue the problem; but we have no real way of knowing that. There was one man in Washington DC who pounded on my car window and said: “Preacher, give me ten dollars so that I can go into this liquor store and get me a bottle!”  I drove right on. I know that I didn’t help him at all, but I was terrified. When we really want to help, the gifts that we give come from our hearts and are intended to help.  That is really the beginning of honest help.

            Jesus wasn’t really appreciated for who he was and what he brought to humanity.  As he says in the lesson from Matthew, John came neither eating or drinking and they say he has a demon.  The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say: Look a drunk and a glutton”
All that the establishment saw in Jesus was trouble.  He called them on their hypocrisy and their treatment of those who were poor. He called his disciples to watch a poor woman putting a small mite in a collection box and commented that she had given more than any of the rich people who were calling on the poor to give.  He was impressed with her willingness and desire.  More is not necessarily better.  It is intention that means everything.  

            Jesus created our mission as a church to provide care in this world and he also provided for us a way to measure what we are doing.  The important thing is to care for those who have less and to provide comfort for those who are in distress.  When we do that, we are continuing Jesus’ mission on this earth.  That is why the church exists.

           


                       
            

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Our Christian Mission

   
            I have never liked the story of Abraham taking Isaac to Mount Moriah at the urging of God and to there offer him as a sacrifice.  I know that it was simply a test, to see how Abraham would respond and if he indeed would obey God at all costs.  It seems to me that God tested Abraham at the beginning by requiring him to go from Ur to the vicinity of Jerusalem and again when he told him that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  He also tested him when he gave Sarah and Abraham a son at their old age.  Why is it necessary now to see whether or not Abraham is obedient?  God certainly had plenty of evidence of this great man’s loyalty.

            Sin is certainly a constant in our lives.  Paul tells us not to sin willingly because our sins will be forgiven, even if that is certainly the case.  What God gave to all of humanity in the gift of his only Son Jesus is the constant of forgiveness.  That God’s love for all of us is stronger than any attempt that we might make to make gods of ourselves.  I am heartened by this wonderful information because of the age that we are living in where bombast and arrogance seem to be the political means at work.  Looking back at history, this has probably always been the case.  Attila, Alexander, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were all arrogant and narcissistic and they produced a great deal of injury in this world.  Through perseverance and care, these people were all defeated and better cultures took their places.  We still have people like this trying to rule the world; but it seems clear to me that this is not the way of God.  The tyrants in our midst will all find that their way is not God’s way and they will not ultimately prevail.

            When I look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, I see a deeply Godly man who lived a life of constant love.  He taught, healed, forgave and moved his world forward.  He created a group of followers who took his life and his teachings into the world to continue his work.  Jesus eventually lost his ministry and his life to those who thought that they were superior to him.  The people who ruled the church and the society conspired to shut down his work by arresting him, trying him and crucifying him.  This was their way of dealing with a threat to their arrogant work.  The wonderful ending of this story is the resurrection of Jesus and his appearance to his disciples and sending them into the world to continue his work.  All of those disciples, except John lost their lives also, but the love, the care and the forgiveness that Jesus brought into this world continues today in the work of the church universal.  God’s love prevails.

            Our mission as Christians is to continue that work.  To look at this world through God’s eyes and to see the pain and the suffering that is all around us.  Politicians don’t do that.  They look for the place where votes will emerge and keep them in office.  It is up to those of us who love God to do what is necessary in this world to alleviate the pain that is so obvious to us, if not to our elected leaders.  God’s gifts to us are numerous.  We are loved and we are forgiven.  There is not much more that we need.  Those who suffer need more.  They need our caring for them to help to take their suffering away.  This is the gift that we can give back to God for the incessant love that has so graciously given to all