Thursday, March 31, 2022

Tax Cuts

 


“Tax Cuts”

 

John 12:1-8
12:1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

12:2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,

12:5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"

12:6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

12:7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

 

This is another variation on the famous duo of Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. In one of the other gospel stories, Jesus comes to their home and is teaching a group. Martha is fixing lunch for the crowd, and Mary chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet for the teaching, rather than help Martha prepare the meal. Martha goes postal and demands Jesus tell Mary to come into the kitchen and help. Jesus does this infuriating “Martha, Martha…” thing, which I’m sure really torqued Martha off, but Jesus justifies Mary’s absence, saying “She has chosen the better way.” Obviously, this is a variation on the story as given us by the author of John. Those who take the Bible very literally would have to postulate that Jesus spent a lot of time at Lazarus’s home, and this story is of a different time.

 

For those of us not so caught up in the “literalist” view of scripture, we can surmise that the two authors are telling different versions of the same incident. This idea is not all that unusual, really. Ask two or three people who are guests at a dinner party what was the highlight of the evening, and you will most certainly get two or three different stories. In the Lukan version of the story, that author was impressed that Jesus calls Martha out for being so caught up in trivial details, and praises her sister for paying more attention to deeper, “spiritual” things. This account of the event has graced many sermons, providing preachers with affirmation that spiritual things—and paying attention to Jesus—are more important, or at least AS important—as taking care of more menial, daily tasks. Going further, one could suggest it is a story about prioritizing one’s life, giving more attention to important matters, while being less anal about stuff you have to do, anyway, somewhere along the line. Frankly, this is not a fair assessment of the story in Luke, though. Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha, as he realizes that her Jewish faith requires her to provide adequate hospitality for her guests. This IS a priority for the Jewish believer, as the Hebrew code of hospitality—“welcoming the stranger”—would be one of the “five pillars” of Judaism, if it had pillar like Islam. Mary could be seen as negligent of this code, and even selfish, as she chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, rather than to serve. There’s a sermon here, too! The Christian church is rife with folk today who “church hop,” or move from one church to another because they are not “getting fed” at their former church. Martha could teach these people a thing or two. Which is the “better way,” getting “fed,” or having opportunities to serve God and others? Maybe the Mary and Martha characters are archetypes? 

 

This is where we went at St. Paul’s UMC, years ago, with the Lukan version of this story. We used the Luke 10 text as the theme scripture for our vision-casting process back in the early 1990s that resulted in a vision statement that guided the church for over 20 years, until we drafted a new one during my tenure as lead pastor. We saw “Mary time” as essential to building faith and discipleship in Christ followers, as spiritual formation is the very foundation of these things. “Martha time” is what we believed was the other “pillar” of a Christian disciple, as serving others—what John Wesley called “acts of mercy”—is what gives the church its mission and outreach. Every believer needs “Mary time” and “Martha time,” and nurturing both and striking a balance.

 

In turning back to the Johannine version of the Mary and Martha story, we do note a common theme, though the authors take a different tack. Both stories focus on the importance of Jesus, and the fact that he would not always be “available” to his followers in the way they were accustomed, and that it was okay for them to make the most of his incarnate presence. In John’s version, Mary doesn’t just SIT at Jesus’ feet, she anoints them with a costly perfume. In this case, it is not Martha who goes postal, but Judas Iscariot, the guy everybody loves to hate, anyway. The author provides some commentary here. Judas claims to care about Mary’s “wasting” of this costly perfume by suggesting it could have been sold for a small fortune and the proceeds used to feed poor people. John opines that Judas didn’t reallycare about the poor, but wanted more moolah in the till, which he was supposedly raiding, as the “treasurer” of Jesus’ little band. Jesus rebukes Judas, telling him that the poor will always be around, but he won’t. Who saw that coming when you first read this story? Seems kind of selfish, doesn’t it?

 

In our time, the Judas/Mary controversy is somewhat played out in the issue of tax cuts vs. government programs. One philosophy (libertarian) is that we should all get to keep all of the money we earn, and other than paying scant taxes to provide for national defense and basic infrastructure such as roads, it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves. Another philosophy (socialism) says that we are our “brother’s keeper,” and that taxes are a way a society can help assure that its poor don’t starve to death or die of exposure, due to improper or non-existent housing. Since the birth of Social Security, public assistance, and public education, the USA has been what some would call a “democratic socialist” republic, with these programs helping assure some sense of basic needs being met for most of our population. Public education has sought to create some level of parity in terms of preparing Americans—regardless of resources—for life and a career. Two conservative administrations have instituted large tax cuts which, regardless of how one tries to argue it, tend to be weighted heavily toward benefitting well off citizens. As a pastor, and with a spouse who worked part-time, our income wasn’t an earth-shattering amount, ensconcing us fully in the middle-class, and I can say without a doubt, that the Trump era tax cuts made absolutely NO difference in what we owed in taxes. On the other hand, we have certainly benefitted from numerous government programs over the years and now are most grateful for Social Security! As a pastor, I also know that for every “welfare queen” (a horribly degrading term coined by a former President), there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who are grateful for the public assistance “safety net,” and who only use it in accordance with the laws that govern it. It keeps them afloat until they can find or resume employment. These people have their pride—believe me, as a pastor, I know how many could have lost everything, if it weren’t for a temporary “leg up” from these programs! 

 

Taxation and government programs serve as a way to help the “least of these,” in the words of Jesus. Persons of more libertarian philosophies often suggest that, rather than take their money in the form of taxes, we “let the churches” or the non-profit entities take care of “the poor.” Here are the facts: if you took every dollar of every offering plate from every church in the United States—EVERY dollar—it might cover the SNAP (“food stamps”) program for a given year, which is only one small part of the national “safety net” programs. This is an “economy of scale” issue, friends. A prosperous and powerful nation like the United States SHOULD have a decent “safety net” program! AND we should provide the best public education program on the planet! And we should have a system to support and care for our elderly! AND we should have available health care for all citizens, if we are even “half” the “great country” we constantly brag about. These things cannot happen without taxation. Tax cuts that mostly benefit high-income people serve only to derail these kinds of programs and add to crippling deficits.

 

When Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you,” he was not making a statement steeped in futility, but was stating an obvious truth. He was also saying those of us who HAVE resources would ALWAYS need to share them to keep the poor from starving or freezing to death. Giving $50 to the local foodbank will not suffice. A system of revenue sharing via taxation is how a moral nation helps its poor. In Jesus’ day, there were a variety of ways to help the poor, including “almsgiving,” because the poor WERE to be cared for. It was not an option in Rome, and it was not an option in Judaism. In the early church, two disciples were “elected” to supervise the ministry of “waiting on tables,” which was a way the Jewish faith collected food for the poor. Christianity adopted this program, as well. In 21st century America—as in other developed nations on earth—we must care for the “least of these,” and such a monumental effort requires large programs supported by tax dollars—far beyond the purview of church and charities. It was Jesus who said, “to whom much is given, much shall be required.”

 

In today’s story from the Gospel of John, had Judas Iscariot really MEANT that the funds from the costly perfume used to anoint Jesus’ feet by Mary should go to help feed the poor, this could have been a good thing. Obviously, he didn’t, at least according to the author of the gospel. Jesus’ statement about Mary’s gesture was a parallel to his “Martha, Martha…” statement in the Lukan version. God has no issue with the “finer things” we have and do in life, as long as we make adequate for those less fortunate and help everyone find a path to at least the basics of human survival and opportunity. Serving ourselves and serving God by serving others must be balanced endeavors, if we are to be true to the gospel. No Christian in our modern American society can support tax cuts and cuts in social programs with a clear conscience. Is it wrong to want to build a nice life for ourselves out of the resources we generate through our careers and/or financial legacies we receive? No, as long as we also give generously to help others, and support public taxation to build the necessary “safety net” programs and public education for our children. Is it wrong to work for responsible oversight to these programs so our tax dollars are not being wasted? Of course not. (Had someone been watching Judas more carefully, maybe he wouldn’t have been so easily tempted!) Interestingly, in our current political climate of deeply polarized philosophies, so many want “better oversight” of tax dollars that go into social programs, but I don’t hear nary a soul crying out for better oversight and reining in tax spending on the largest share of the federal budget, which is the defense budget. 

 

Jesus also told the disciples to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Even the Son of God knew that taxes were a necessary means to provide for the public good! Even as we need our private “Mary time,” which one may interpret as our “self” emphasis, so we also need our “Martha time” of serving others, and making sure their basic needs are met. This is the way of Jesus, and it is the central message of the Christian gospel. Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Reconciling Ministries...

 


“Reconciling Ministries”

 

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;

5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

 

[See also Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32]

 

Reconciliation is a beast. It has to be one of the hardest things to do in the world. When a trust is broken, when two or more parties part ways over not just disagreements, but something that hurts to the core, restoring them to a “right” or righteous relationship often literally requires an “act of God.” 

 

As a pastor, I have counseled troubled couples who are struggling in their relationship with each other. Diagnosing the glitch and helping them find the way back is difficult enough, but if there is a breach of trust involved—a series of lies, an infidelity—the job is so much harder, if not impossible. If an affair was involved, for example, I would simply ask both parties if they were willing to commit to the necessary steps in the process of reconciliation to proceed. If one of them said “no,” then we were done. (Of course, I typically offered to refer the couple to a professional relationship counselor, as the task was beyond my paygrade.) Even if both were willing to commit, an arduous effort would be required to build relationship “bridges” for reconciliation to happen, and rarely could the level of trust be restored to that which existed before the break. Could the offending party live with that? If not, again, the effort was doomed to failure. Was the offended party willing to begin the process by forgiving, even if it had to happen in small, deliberate steps? Again, if not, healing the breach would be all but impossible. And what of their willingness to understand what went wrong? It was rare that all of the “blame” rested on only one party, barring an abusive situation, at which point I would sign off on the effort myself, and encourage both the abused and the abuser to seek immediate, professional help, if not legal representation. (Abusive situations, in my experience, usually require a complete break, therapy, and a fresh start for the victim.) 

 

I can hear some of you saying, “But as a pastor, didn’t you use prayer and scripture as healing tools with these couples?” It’s complicated. Of course prayer was important to the process and each of these reconciling sessions began and ended with it. I also encouraged the couple to pray individually and as a couple, depending upon their comfort level, especially in the early stages of the reconciliation process. I did NOT use most of the scriptures having to do with marriage, as frankly, most of them were written in ancient eras when “brides” were the “property” of their “husbands,” and were sworn to “obey” them. Most of the biblical guidance in marriage is not helpful in our current cultural realities. I cited texts about love, grace, forgiveness—sure—but with caution added about how these lofty ideals must be woven into and tempered by the day-to-day “real” life of the couple in the relationship. When a breach of trust has occurred, one of the first casualties of an ailing marriage is intimacy, which must be painstakingly rebuilt, nearly from scratch. This, too, requires human patience—what the Bible calls, appropriately, “longsuffering.” 

 

Prayer IS important, but it, too, should be a part of the rebuilding of the couples’ essential communication in the reconciling effort, and NOT applied as a falsely spiritualized “balm,” invoked as a kind of miraculous “short cut” to the hard steps of healing. They need to learn all over again how to talk to each other, from simple, efficient exchanges of information to “love language,” and prayer may actually get in the way if either party or both try to substitute it for active listening to each other. They need to talk to each other, not God, certainly in the early stages.

 

I know that my launching into this long account of my experience in guiding struggling couples may seem like a tangent, but from my perspective, it is where the word “reconciliation” may find its hardest context. Real couples, having real problems—including ones that have led to an initial separation, or even talking to divorce lawyers—trying to really rebuilt that which has been hurt, harmed, or shattered is one of the hardest things human beings must ever do. Many of these same concerns can certainly be applied to horrific breaches in other family relationships brought about by things such as addiction, or in severed friendships, but in my experience, maintaining relational health is most challenging in covenantal relationships that have involved life-long goals and planning, careers and finance, the complications of children and family, and, of course, sexual intimacy. Full disclosure: not all of my couples counseling involved heterosexual couples, as gay and lesbian relationships are just as vulnerable and fragile, sometimes more so because up until recent times, they have had to exist in hostile environments, if not in total secrecy. 

 

So, let’s build back to this weekend’s text, which is one of my all-time favorites in the pages of sacred writ. Here are the cogent truths revealed in II Corinthians 5:

 

·      God is a reconciling God, desiring to restore God’s relationship to humanity, maintain it eternally, and help the human community be reconciled internally.

 

·      The Godhead came fully into the human realm in Jesus Christ, and in this “incarnational,” divine/human amalgamation, reconciled humanity’s relationship to God by making God more “human” and humans more “divine.” Christ experienced the dreaded power of human sinfulness that poisons relationships, and Christ, through the reconciling power of God, humans are “connected” to God for all eternity, eventually “becoming like Christ” in that we inherit a “heavenly” yet corporeal existence in the second resurrection. Through this process, in time, “all things become new.”

 

·      Now, we are called to a “ministry of reconciliation.” Probably within this larger “call” upon all of God’s people, each of us must discern what this “ministry” looks like for us.

 

·      We are also commissioned as “ambassadors for Christ.”

 

·      Looping back to the first verse, the theme of the whole passage is that we are to “from now on…regard no one from a human point of view…”

 

Yes, there are multiple sermons here—MANY, MANY sermons, and over 36 years, I’ve only scratched the surface of this passage, even though it is one of my all-time favorites. For the purpose of today’s narrative, let’s look at some of the key points.

 

·      God is a reconciling God, desiring to restore God’s relationship to humanity, maintain it eternally, and help the human community be reconciled internally.

 

First of all, the II Corinthians 5 passage tells us much about God. God IS a reconciling God, and God, in reconciling the world to Godself, now expects US to pick up that mantle. We are in the unique position of living fully in the human community, but since being reconciled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we and build the discipline of see others from the divine perspective, which is that of wanting them redeemed and accepted as a child of God. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or more appropriately to this passage, “Do unto others what God has done for you in Christ Jesus!” 

 

Paul is trying to tell us that the God of the Bible has always been a reconciling God who loves humanity, and yet in that love, has over the millennia developed a process to reconcile us, after we putted things up. Now, we could go into a major theological debate here about “original sin,” and just how humanity blew it—in fact, I’ve come to believe that our real“original” sin was that we DID, from the beginning, choose to regard others from a human point of view, meaning we planted a seed of selfishness that took root real fast. Until the Christ Event, we had grown incapable of seeing other human beings from the divineperspective, instead always watching out for ourselves, first. Christ came to break this DNA chain and re-introduce the “divine” gene. Jesus did this through his life, his teaching, his sacrificial (or we might say selfless) death, and the new strand of DNA we see demonstrated in the resurrection. God IS a reconciling God. To view God as a judgmental God, or a legalistic God, or even a doctrinal or dogmatic God is to miss the whole point of the Christ Event. And to NOT see the human qualities of acting out the divine compassion in Jesus Christ is to miss the whole purpose of the incarnation. To reduce Jesus to nothing but a “blood sacrifice” to wash away “my sin” may be the most selfish act perpetrated by “original sin” and perpetuated by the “old DNA.”

 

If you struggle with theological reflection, the lectionary this week gives us a story that illustrates the reconciling nature of “the father.” It is the passage from Luke 15 we have come to know as “The Prodigal Son,” or more appropriately, “The Loving Father.”

 

·      The Godhead came fully into the human realm in Jesus Christ, and in this “incarnational,” divine/human amalgamation, reconciled humanity’s relationship to God by making God more “human” and humans more “divine.” Christ experienced the dreaded power of human sinfulness that poisons relationships, and Christ, through the reconciling power of God, humans are “connected” to God for all eternity, eventually “becoming like Christ” in that we inherit a “heavenly” yet corporeal existence in the second resurrection. Through this process, in time, “all things become new.”

 

Regarding the second bulleted point above, I really doubt we’ve even begun to understand the “magic” of the incarnation and the resurrection. God fully understands the “human condition” now, and humanity is empowered to see each other from the perspective of God, with an eternal desire to “fix” all of our relationships so that love, grace, and peace reign. Most Christian doctrine—especially that of the fundamentalist or the “evangelical”—has so devalued this element of the Christ Event that Jesus is, himself, devalued. Jesus LIVED for our sin, more than “died” for it, and in the resurrection, he was not simply “revived” from the tomb, but “reconstituted” in a form that carries this “new” DNA for all of humanity—a form about which a later epistle suggests “We know not what we shall be, but know that when he appears, we shall be like him.” The eternal, reconciling “self” born at the resurrection of Jesus is the destiny for all of humanity if we respond “yes” to the redemption offer.

 

·      Now, we are called to a “ministry of reconciliation.” Probably within this larger “call” upon all of God’s people, each of us must discern what this “ministry” looks like for us.

 

What of the “ministry of reconciliation?” If we, as God’s people, are now injected with the ability to “not regard others from a human point of view” but a divine one, we are necessarily thrust into a life of finding broken relationships and working to heal, or reconcile them. This is not just about “collecting scalps” or “saving souls,” as some would have you believe, but doing “Jesus stuff” means working to heal ALL broken relationships we encounter, at least to the best of our ability. It begins with a huge slice of humble pie, as each of us has collected a few relationships that can stand strengthening, if not outright mending. Who likes to admit that? And how hard is it to look for the hurt and aim for healing in the relationships that may be under our own roof? Ouch. I won’t tell my personal stories, and I won’t ask you to confess yours, but we each know where we must begin, if we are to take up this “ministry of reconciliation.”

 

I will confess to becoming so passionate in my later days about social justice that I have often crossed over the “righteous indignation” line into pretty much hatred of those on the other side of the political aisle when all I see in their rhetoric is racism, sexism, or down right selfishness, bordering on narcissism. Even if my take on this has merit, as a Christian commissioned to be a reconciler, I must find a way to build a bridge to these people and develop a willingness—with God’s help—to engage in conversation aimed at finding common ground. I will never be reconciled to these people if all I do is denigrate them and “write them off,” and I certainly won’t be successful in persuading them to see my “justice” views one iota. But it’s just so easy to dispatch them and even detest them, and when I hear labels like “libtard” and “snowflake” coming my way, it’s not only obvious they have similar views about me, which makes it even easier to snipe all the more. Friends, this is really hard stuff, here. THIS is why Jesus was willing to go to the mat for reconciliation, even when that “mat” was not a wrestling one, but a cross.

 

Again, this “ministry of reconciliation” may be as simple as starting anew a friendly conversation with your neighbor over the fence you installed (or they did?) BECAUSE of who they are or what they do in their back yard. It may be as simple as listening more carefully to the ways you disrespect or hurt your partner or your children, and working to fix these things. It may be harder—seeking reconciliation with others with whom you have or have had major disagreements over social, religious, political, or financial issues. Or even harder still—accepting and building even a small “foot-bridge” to someone who hurt you very badly OR whom YOU have hurt very badly. The latter requires confession, of course, as most of us cannot live with ourselves without rationalizing our behavior. Confession pulls off this scab, with no mercy. 

 

What if the one you must approach with this “ministry of reconciliation” is yourself? This may be the hardest one of all. Are you carrying around stuff locked away from your own psyche because it pains you too much to think about it? What have you locked away from God (or think you have)? Are you living with sores or secrets so buried that it will take the power of the resurrection to dig them up from the graveyard you have submerged them in? Dear One, YOU are the object of what Jesus came to heal and reconcile! Stop trying to reconcile others until you have yourself been reconciled to God! This may be exactly what Jesus meant when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Please seek counsel about this, if you see yourself in this “Mirror of Reconciliation,” whether that be a pastor or priest, or a professional counselor. Your God is a RECONCILING God—remember that!

 

For some of you, when you saw the title of my sermon this week, you probably thought, “Oh, he’s going to talk about LGBTQ issues, again.” Obviously, this was not the primary aim of this message or of this text, but my LGBTQ siblings ARE certainly a central audience to the “ministry of reconciliation.” It’s about time that we set aside our “human point of view” concerning sexual attraction, identity, and relationships and give people their dignity. If we accept the central tenet of II Corinthians 5, that in Jesus Christ, God is a reconciling God, then we must step down from the judge’s bench and advocate for the “accused.” That is where the gospels always show Jesus, after all. That science has come to view human sexuality as a “spectrum” or continuum, and not merely an “either/or” leads me to believe that part of human evolution includes de-polarizing whom we may be attracted to or love. For my more “conservative” friends, let me put it this way: our reconciling God would never hold you responsible for respecting others for engaging in a healthy, human relationship that does not match your own views of marriage or covenant. However, you may be in a danger zone if you take up the judge’s gavel and pronounce judgment when it is beyond your paygrade. I cannot see the God of Jesus Christ looking down on you at the judgment seat and castigating you for not hurtfully judging another person, casting them out like a “demon” from the camp. If we are called to a ministry of reconciliation, is there room for us to set up court and sentence others for views and values other than our own? The secular law is written to protect other people, their property, and their “rights” under the law. When it is used to persecute someone who has engaged in behaviors that in no way harm or infringe on others, it is unjust. So it is with the laws of God. 

 

·      We are also commissioned as “ambassadors for Christ.”

 

Remember what I said about a number of sermons from this passage? This would be one. Lots of words have been written about what “ambassadors” for a country do when they are actually doing the job of being an ambassador. In our time, it is not unusual for a leader to give an ambassadorship as a reward for support during an election campaign, or to a close friend, as these may be cushy jobs with a palatial home in a fascinating country. However, “real” ambassadors are called upon to live, teach, and reinforce the values of the “home country” in a foreign land, and some of these lands may even be hostile to the cause. To be an ambassador is to give up one’s own quirks, causes, and values, if they compete or mask those of the sending entity. In the case of Christ, it’s best if we adopt, as best we can, the values of Jesus, and then live these out in the company of the “foreign land” of our community, hoping that when people witness our behavior, they may be getting a glimpse of what Jesus is like. That’s a tall order, friends! It may actually be easier to say what an ambassador shouldn’t do. A couple of years ago, one of my staff colleagues at St. Paul’s UMC told of being in a retail establishment when a customer absolutely “went off” on the manager, spewing profanity, threatening to tell others about how bad the business was, and demanding they get their own way. The party was wearing a St. Paul’s t-shirt. Ouch. Can you see how bad this is on so many levels? And one does not have to be sporting a convicting article of clothing to spew anger in such a way that witnesses present won’t remember who you are. Of course, today, you may wind up in a viral video on social media! If you have a temper, seek help to temper it, before you sign up for your “ambassadorship.” As a reconciler, come to recognize that people do the best that they can. Their performance or attitude may not meet your standards, but neither do they deserve your wrath to such a degree as creates a public spectacle, even if the two of you are the only witnesses. God is always watching.

 

·      Looping back to the first verse, the theme of the whole passage is that we are to “from now on…regard no one from a human point of view…”

 

And, of course, the last point takes us back to the central point of Paul’s address on reconciling. Imagine if God were to view the human race from a human point of view! We would have all been toast long, long ago. The human “fuse” may be the shortest thing in the universe. Instead, in Jesus Christ, God viewed humanity through human eyes, but with God’s heart. And in being the recipients of this grace, we are now sent out bearing this ministry of reconciliation, ourselves. Our eyes need refocused, and our hearts need a transplant, if we are to be successful at it. And if we are to aspire to being ambassadors for Christ, we should be willing to make sacrifices that may well dizzy our own views and require a courage far beyond our norm. Do you see now why the Holy Spirit was such an essential continuing presence of God in the world and in the lives of believers? Both of these jobs are impossible, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Amen.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Ukraine...

 

“Ukraine”

 

Luke 13:1-9
13:1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

13:2 He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?

13:3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

13:4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

13:5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

13:6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.

13:7 So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'

13:8 He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.

13:9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"

 

Ukraine and the great injustice being savagely imposed upon it by the Russian army is on everyone’s hearts right now. If you speak to anyone who has friends among the people of Ukraine, or take stock of the cultural impact of this independent country, you are even more saddened by this atrocity. The Ukrainian people and their heritage are world treasures, indeed. From the iconic “Ukrainian eggs” of Easter to the aeronautical contributions of Igor Sikorsky (the helicopter), the Ukrainian people have enriched the world. Pittsburghers know that our most famous artist—Andy Warhol—was of Ukrainian dissent. Did you know that Bob Dylan and the late opera star Beverly Sills were from families that hailed from Ukraine? 

 

And now, in the name of political power and one man’s ego, the beautiful land of Ukraine is being laid waste, and thousands of its citizens—ones not among the millions who have fled to neighboring countries—have been sacrificed to a pointless and cruel war. The Russians are systemically attacking civilian sites, hoping this “reign of terror” will scare the Ukrainian people into submission to “Mother Russia.” In fact, it just seems to have steeled their resolve. What did the Ukrainian people do to bring this calamity upon themselves? 

 

Jesus’ answer to questions like this is what we find in today’s lectionary passage from Luke. His answer? They did nothing to “deserve” this. Not the people of Ukraine, not the Galileans Pilate slaughtered, not the eighteen killed when the tower of Siloam fell. People don’t get terminal illnesses because they angered God. Businesses don’t fail because of revenge visited upon them by an overly mean deity. Bad things don’t happen to “good” people for any reason, at least according to Jesus. Oh, and the man born blind we read about in this gospel wasn’t born blind “because of his sin or his parents’ sin.” He was just born blind. It happens. 

 

Jesus does use this occasion to promote repentance, which is a balm for all kinds of things, including a deep soul cleansing. Repenting of the stuff we do wrong doesn’t make us do right—this is an acquired skill. And repenting doesn’t “vaccinate” us against tragedies or just bad outcomes from time to time on our journey. This simplistic dualism—that well-behavior breeds blessings, while errant or “sinful” behavior necessarily leads to immediate judgment via bad events—is just too easily bought and believed by way too many people. As in Jesus’ day, human nature loves to jump to conclusions, especially when the “jumper” stands to gain a leg up on someone else. As was the case of the man born blind, God chooses to minister to the victims, often claiming solidarity with them. Jesus chose his lot with the poor, the suffering, and the misunderstood. When he performed his “mission work” among the religious leaders, he attempted to help them see the futility of pushing dogma and judging sinners, and the joy of helping “the least of these.” Some of them, like Nicodemus, became Christ-followers, while others refused to yield their power and banded together to oppose Jesus, even provoking his trial and crucifixion. 

 

Today’s passage has a brief parable attached to it. We could dub it the “Patience Parable,” or the “Story of Second Chances.” Note that it doesn’t promise a full pardon, unless the fig tree protagonist produces, but it does offer a temporary reprieve with the hope of permanent rescue. 

 

As we now add the Ukrainian people to this biblical story, we pray for, work for, and hope for the divine spark in humanity to stand up and help save this nation. And what if Russia is the fig tree in the parable? Just as it is so easy to buy the “good behavior=blessings; bad behavior=judgment and retribution” duality, so is it easy to just develop and culture a global hatred of Vladimir Putin, his army, and even the Russian people for standing by as “their” nation obliterates a neighbor. But does the parable Jesus tells remind us that “there but for the grace of God go we?” Even as we pray for the salvation and rebuilding of Ukraine, so shall we pray for the reconciliation of the soul of Russia and its leader. Jesus would not have it any other way.  

 

The sentence that has often been misinterpreted in this Lukan narrative is in verse 5: “…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” If read wrongly, it starts to sound like Jesus IS saying that the tower falling was some kind of divine retribution for the sins of the 18 who died. No, Jesus is just bringing the positive action of repentance into the story, turning a sad and tragic story into an opportunity to basically say, “Because of happenings like the tower falling, none of us really knows how much time we have left in our lives. We could get hit by a bus tomorrow. SO, let’s make sure we are right with God, right with others, and right within our own soul and psyche.” He basically negates that older adage, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” No, repentance is always the first door to a new and better life. Confession, forgiveness, and “turning over a new leaf” puts on a path to be a better person, and to make our life count for something. Interesting—that “turning over a new leaf” saying fits in with our fig tree parable! Turning over a new leaf can lead to fruit production, and “fruit production” is a wonderful biblical image for doing God’s will, loving one’s neighbor, and helping usher in the just realm of God in the world. 

 

So, today we remember the people of Ukraine. We pray for their triumph over the tragedy that has befallen them, from no fault of their own. We ask God to change the heart of Mr. Putin, and to reawaken the divine spark of compassion in the Russian people. We pray for all world leaders including our own President, as they seek to bring aid and relief without escalating the war. And, we read this passage in Luke over a couple of times to see where each of us may be delivered from our sinful tendency to absolve ourselves, judge others, and then label that judgment as being from God. We have been given another year to bear fruit before our “tree” is just wasting earthly nutrients. And, if nothing else, may this sermon be a bit of manure heaped on the struggling tree! Amen.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

A Backwards Lament...

 


“A Backwards Lament (A message NOT about music)”

 

Psalm 27
27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

27:2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh-- my adversaries and foes-- they shall stumble and fall.

27:3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

27:4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.

27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

27:7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

27:8 "Come," my heart says, "seek his face!" Your face, LORD, do I seek.

27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

27:10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.

27:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

27:13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

 

The Book of Psalms is one of the most popular books in all of the Bible. While the Bible, itself, is a collection of books of history, wisdom literature, prophecy, gospels, and epistles (letters), the Book of Psalms is actually a hymnbook—some go back to the very first Hebrew temple. 

 

Don’t get me started on the dichotomy of religious music! On one hand, music is an essential part of both the worship life of the congregation and its journey into spiritual formation and direction. Of course, this is also true of the individual believer. On the other hand, music is the subject of much debate—and even some serious infighting—in the history of the Christian church. 

 

Some churches have chosen to ONLY sing the Psalms of the Bible, set to music, but not accompanied by instruments. At the other end of the spectrum, there are churches that have gone “full contemporary,” embracing rock bands that rival stage-performing secular ones, complete with pyrotechnics, excruciatingly loud volume, myriad instruments and musical effects, and wild costuming for the “performers.” Just about everything else in the middle happens musically, too. Pipe organs—once the chosen instrument of the secular world and disdained by the church—later took on the identity of the only “sacred” sound allowed in it, in some corners. Then, as gospel and contemporary music came on the church scene, it fell, once again, into disfavor. I’m thrilled that it is making a comeback in our time, although the fact that many churches have, in the interim, left these instruments fall into disrepair may doom the revival. Colleges and music conservatories used to teach “sacred organ,” producing instrumentalists for many churches sporting pipe organs. Few do, now. Some Pittsburghers may remember that about 35 years ago, a local Roman Catholic university began offering full scholarships to youth people who would major in the pipe organ, but I don’t think that offer was well received, and may not have survived. 

 

One more interesting little sidebar on the pipe organ revival: a little over three decades ago, a young boy named Cameron Carpenter began taking pipe organ lessons from my late second cousin, William Witherup, in Meadville, PA. Carpenter—now 40 years old--has gone on to more study and great fame as a “radical” in re-birthing interest in this timeless instrument. (Here is a link to a PBS interview with him: Cameron Carpenter PBS Interview) You will want to Google him and play more samples of his flamboyant and fantastic work. 

 

Classical music of different periods and varieties was, for centuries, the staple of religious music in worship. Then along came the great hymn writers like Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts, who have worshippers something to sing about other than just the Psalms of the Bible. The words of these masters—and many others who followed—were set to a plethora of tunes, ranging from serious, classical strains from composers like Mendelssohn, to bawdy melodies known at the corner pub. Pick up a modern church hymnal today, and you will find hymns with dates from the first millennium of the church right up until the publication date of the hymnal! And within any hymnal’s pages, you are apt to find adaptations of various Psalms of the Bible coupled to a wide variety of musical settings, including what we might call “chant.” For Christians of Methodist heritage, we note that Charles Wesley—who some document as many as 9,000 hymns to his writing credit—methodically (sorry) incorporated the central, essential theological teachings of the Methodist movement in his hymns. If one reads John Wesley’s very interesting primer on what hymns should be used in the church and how we should sing them (it’s in the front pages of the current United Methodist Hymnal), you will find it quite fascinating, if not a bit restrictive. But his concern was that the people of his day—a majority of whom were illiterate—may miss the central Christian teachings of the church if they didn’t learn the Wesleyan hymns.

 

Personally, I consider myself a “hymn guy.” Following my young adult faith re-awakening, I could be found at a “Christian Rock” concert, sitting in front of an outdoor stage at a Christian “Woodstock” like “Jesus 75” or “Creation,” and most certainly bopping to an Andre Crouch up-tempo African American spiritual. But after learning the Methodist emphasis on the teachings embedded in our hymns, and gaining a deep appreciation for church musicians and choirs, I have settled on loving the hymnody of my denomination and the wider Christian church. This is not to say that I do not enjoy the other forms of Christian music, as I certainly do. And four of the five churches I served in ministry during my career hosted worship services that were primarily based on “contemporary” or at least more modern forms of songs and choruses. But when I choose to attend a worship service myself, I like one that includes a church organ and hymns. I won’t denigrate the other forms, but “to each her/his own,” as they say. 

 

One more sidebar: Dara and I grew up in a church that had wonderful music and could afford to support it. The church I worked in as a layperson before my call to the ordained ministry (and the one we were married in) had fantastic musical talent that could offer a scintillating survey of styles of music, vocal and instrumental. In that era, Grace United Methodist Church of Rocky Grove, PA had a music director and pianist who was a professional “honky-tonk” and jazz pianist before his faith got ahold of him. Carl Hedglin, Jr. had once played a duet with Errol Garner, and could absolutely thrill my soul when he performed, which he did to the glory of God. He also composed music for several famous Christian singers including Doug Oldham, a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. All that said, I had a phobia about being appointed to serve small churches after seminary that I doubted would have such stellar music offerings. (I have attended some of these, and the music—while shared from faithful hearts, I’m sure—was just terrible. If I were God, I would have plugged my celestial ears.) God is GOOD, though, and from my first appointment as a student pastor in Turtle Creek, PA to my final weeks in the pulpit at St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park, I was treated to AMAZING music in worship and throughout the lives of those congregations. I won’t use this space to gloat, but as a pastor, I sat under the most spectacular music directors and organists this Conference has produced. 

 

How’s THAT as an introduction to a sermon that is really not about music? Well, at least it didn’t start out that way, but HEY, music is such an important part of my Christian spirituality, how could I not expound on some of my ideas and experiences about it? That’s for free. Now, let’s look at today’s preaching text of Psalm 27…

 

If we focus on the words of the Bible’s “hymnbook,” the Psalms, we find quite a mishmash of subjects, moods, and requisite prayers that go with them. Some of the Psalms are “laments,” where the writer is pouring out her or his troubles (or his spleen, in some cases) to God. Others are just tone poems to God, looking through the eyes of love, or nature, or God’s “steadfastness.” The Psalms of lament have always been some of my favorites. Jesus himself quoted one of them—Psalm 22—as he hung on the cross to die: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” In these cathartic words, the psalmist begins by laying the sad case before God, sometimes pretty much blaming God for her or his lot. Then the middle section of the teary opus compares the writer’s suffering to all kinds of things that likewise are down on their luck, and may even try to make the reader “feel his pain.” And finally, toward the end, it becomes clear that God DOES somehow intervene, even if it is only in the heart of the individual and not by “fixing” the actual circumstances, and the author goes postal with effusive praise to God for helping out. Is there any of us who have not had this experience of needing divine intervention when we are at the bottom of some “pit” in life? 

 

Psalm 27 is of a very different form, though. In it, the “troubled” writer begins with metaphors of how God has taken charge over “my adversaries and foes,” regaling us with bold affirmations of courage and a complete purging of fear. The beginning of Psalm 27 could be summed up thusly: “With God on my side, I’m SUPERMAN (or WONDER WOMAN)!” Then, things begin to back up.

 

Starting in verse 5, now the writer is hoping God will hide him (“…conceal me under the cover of [God’s] tent…”). Now his enemies are all around—surrounding him. Where is the “all powerful” God boasted about in the earlier verses? The writer now hopes that God will show up to fight the enemy, which clearly has NOT stumbled and fell. The praises to God for God’s overwhelming strength have morphed into prayers for God to “answer me” and not abandon him. It’s clear that the supernatural “power” echoed in the first couple of verses has given way to the child who wants to hide behind his mother’s garments. And God just seems smaller, in this case. It’s almost like a “bait and switch” episode parlayed by a cunning salesperson. “Buy THIS and you’ll get all of these other things,” only to find out that the product actually received is not all it was cracked up to be, OR lesser things are substituted after the “deal” is consummated. And in the case of Psalm 27, the “switching” is not done yet.

 

In verse 11, the writer is pleading with God to teach her/him “God’s ways” and to “lead me on a level path because of my enemies.” It seems now that what is sought is not so much “supernatural” agency, but “life lessons” on how to survive these challenges. One can imagine a young Jew asking to learn God’s commandments and to keep them, believing that if she does so, she will be automatically protected from her enemies, or at least be less fearful of them. The fearful groveling continues in verse 12: “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries…” Now the appeal has deteriorated into a plea for mercy, and not power. And one final step back occurs in the final two verses.

 

“I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” and “Be strong; WAIT for the Lord…” These are the words of someone who has pretty much given up hope for being “delivered” in the present, and is setting his hope farther off into the future, with the recognition that “victory” may not even come in this life. And yet, with every weakening breath, the psalmist implores his reader to WAIT FOR THE LORD and to “be strong.” The words “take heart” are used, as well, which is one of my favorite biblical phrases, as I think it summarizes a multitude of hopeful energies in the “heart” of the troubled soul. Indeed, it seems that Psalm 27 is like a lament psalm “in reverse,” beginning with strength and ending with a whimpering, yet faithful hope. 

 

As such, friends, it may be the most honest of all of the Psalms of the Bible. And while one could argue these are the words of someone suffering from the manic-depressive cycle (also sounds like words from John Wesley’s personal journal, as he was probably bi-polar), I submit that they are meant to show us a more reality-based path to applying our faith to what we face. 

 

I think of many people of faith—strong faith—who have faced a serious diagnosis and/or illness. They often talk boldly of “fighting this,” or of believing God will miraculously “deliver” them from it, but after the reality of the malady shows itself, that initial confidence tends to shrink into a lesser aim and a more honest prayer: “Hide me in your shelter in the day of trouble…Do not hide your face from me, oh God!” I do not believe these are the cries of someone who has a waning faith, but the genuine askings of someone whose faith is hitting “where the rubber meets the road,” as the tire commercial used to say. This is real. The threat is real. The fear is real. But so is the faith that God plants in the human soul. And that faith and that soul, though it, too, may take a beating at the hands of the cancer or the virus or the injury, will not be obliterated. EVEN IF the faithful believer does NOT ultimately receiving an earthly healing, God does not abandon us, nor does God deny us our eternal “healing.” That is a poignant lesson of this psalm!

 

Modern readers will also indirectly receive the message of taking some personal responsibility, knowing that God may not “leap” to our aid. This means reaching out to one’s supportive community in times of trouble, and possibly seeking professional help. We don’t seem to have a huge hang-up with this when our challenge is a physical/medical one, but when it involves the mind and our psychological health, way too many still balk at making a counseling appointment. These are two ways the church may help—a healthy one may be a supportive community for you, while competent clergy are a good “first round” of psychological triage through pastoral counseling. 

 

And the didactic message of the Psalm is its conclusion, reminding those of us who maybe have not yet faced such trials to “study up!” Learn God’s ways, enjoy every moment of life in the “land of the living,” and do not live in fear of what MAY be, but rejoice in what is right now, including the steadfast love of God and the everlasting presence of God in the life! What a wonderful Psalm! Its pleas are genuine, its promises quite “tactile,” and its outcomes favorable, regardless of the directions they take. “Study up, buttercup!” Take heart! And when the going gets tough, don’t think you can make the rest of the journey alone—WAIT FOR THE LORD!

 

No one has lived the exemplary and yet “real” life of Psalm 27 better than God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder that Jesus so many times uses the phrase, “Take heart.” Obviously, he knew THIS hymn from the ancient temple, and he knew the “Take heart” tune of the “Take heart” psalm. Friends, I commend Psalm 27 to you as some of the best spiritual guidance you will find in all of the pages of scripture. Keep it close to your heart. And when you face something you probably never thought you would face, BELIEVE! Amen.

 

 

 

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