Thursday, May 26, 2022

Was Jesus Just a Lousy Prayer?

 “Was Jesus Just a Lousy Prayer?”

John 17:20-26
17:20 "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,

17:21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

17:22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,

17:23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

17:24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

17:25 "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.

17:26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."


This is my favorite of the four lectionary passages this week, not necessarily for what it says, but for what it doesn’t say! It is a part of what is often known as the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus, a prayer for the disciples AND all of the disciples (i.e. the church) that will come after. While there are occasional biblical references to Jesus “going off by himself to pray,” we have accounts of at least three of Jesus’ prayers: the “Lord’s Prayer,” which he offers to his disciples when they say, “Lord, teach us to pray”; his prayer in Gethsemane—“Lord, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me”; and this John 17 prayer for us all. If we look over what is being “asked for” in each prayer, we may come to the conclusion that Jesus was a LOUSY prayer! Not much of what he asks God for did come to pass, or at least YET. Has God’s “Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? Did the “cup” of his punishment and death on the cross pass from him? Or, has the church manifested the kind of UNITY Jesus had within the Godhead, such that the world is convinced that it IS the “Body of Christ,” alive in the world? The answer to all three is NOPE, if your definition of “prayer success” is that your prayers must answered in the affirmative. Of course, one needs only to watch the movie “Bruce Almighty” to see what chaos would result if this were to become true! 


For those who haven’t seen “Bruce Almighty,” the main character is given the responsibility God normally carries, and the power to go with it, for a brief time. “Bruce” receives all of the world’s prayers via email on his computer. After reading through a few of these prayer/emails—some sublime and detailing serious issues for God’s consideration, and others not so much—he decides to just answer everyone’s prayers with a simple “YES.” Total chaos results, as an affirmative answer for some folk puts them in direct conflict with a “yes” for someone else’s prayer. In some cases, the conflict is laughable, but in others, tragic. “Temporary God” Bruce must reluctantly reverse his flippant “answer all prayers with a YES” strategy, posthaste. Think about it—if you were God trying to answer prayers benevolently, how might you prioritize them? Answer the life-threatening ones first? The prayers of frightened children first? The poor? The disabled? And even then, there could be devastating interactions with the needs or circumstances of other people who are also “children of God.” Honestly, there are times when a little pondering on the hypothetical “If I were God” question might be helpful. We could at least find some empathy for God and how hard it must be to have to arbitrate prayers in such a way that some get what they ask for while others are denied, but all for the best, in the big picture. It might be like a parent having to choose to meet the needs of one child, while neglecting the other, at least for a season, knowing that ultimately, both could benefit. Seeing the denied child suffer would be murder.


Of course, as I write this sermon, “breaking news” indeed broke the silence—at least 14 children gunned down, and a teacher or two (updated to 19 students and two teachers, and with several still in critical condition in area hospitals) in Uvalde, Texas by yet another 18-year-old who used the “privilege” of his attaining legal age to buy guns and mass murder. Now, if I were Bruce Almighty, I would answer the prayers of many that guns would just disappear from the planet, or the prayers of still more that we would find a way to stop this “senseless” violence and death. I put “senseless” in quotes, for when is violence ever “sensible”? A few of you might say “in wartime,” but is it really, even then? Maybe Bruce Almighty could answer THIS prayer by making it possible for us to arbitrate our differences through negotiation, or to get professional help to assuage the angst caused by “being bullied” as a child, which is the earliest “explanation” for why the teenage murder/domestic terrorist killed in Texas? Why do we always have to “win” to have a positive outcome? “Winning” here means to have the last word. In the case of Salvador Ramos, he had the last word, as he himself was gunned down by the authorities, from what we have heard. 


“Thoughts and Prayers” has become the watchword for the aftermath of these frequent mass shootings. It’s a polite way to say, “We’re not going to do a damn thing about this, but here, salve up your pain with my kind thoughts and empty prayers.” Personally, I think we should call upon Congress to revoke the NRA’s tax-exempt status unless they rename themselves, “Thoughts and Prayers.” It’s an honest appraisal of what they have become in America’s “shoot ‘em up” culture, and it would keep them from rolling out that tired, trite phrase with every week’s eight or nine mass shootings around the country (Yes, there have been almost 200 shootings where at least four people were shot or killed since January 1, 2022).


I wasn’t going to go the gun violence route in this sermon on “Was Jesus a Lousy Prayer,” but since the Kingdom has not come on earth as it is in heaven (unless heaven is like a shooting gallery), this latest tragedy amplifies my assertion that maybe Jesus has the same problem getting HIS prayers answered as we seem to. So, now we’re back to my point—should you feel bad that YOUR prayers aren’t being answered the way you would want them to be, either in scope or timeframe, if even the Son of God is still waiting for HIS to be answered? Of course, one of his was answered, but the answer was “NO, this cup will NOT pass from you!” Do you think Jesus ever stopped praying just because the answers to his prayers were still pending? I doubt it, and neither should we. However, there is another important point here, and that has to do with what IS prayer?


Obviously, the prayers of committed faithful people may be prayers of praise and gratitude for answers, blessings, or guidance already received from God. Prayers may also be US answering GOD regarding something God has called us to do. I remember when I first prayed to God after discerning a call to ministry, my prayer began like I was gifting God something, but the more I prayed, the more I realized that I was doing something more like reporting to my local draft board (you have to be at least as old as I am to understand this one). I wasn’t “giving” God anything, but was responding to God’s “calling me up” for service. Had I said “No,” I’m guessing the call would have persisted until I finally reported for duty. Unfortunately, I have heard the stories of those who resisted “the call” until it went away, and most of them reported having to live with a certain misery over that, but thankfully, God issued a substitute call that they did answer, in many cases. Answering a call to ministry turned out to be a blessed thing, but one that demanded much more of myself than I may have offered to a different career. (I can’t imagine staying to long with an employer who rang me up all hours of the night, or required me to jump out of bed, get hastily dressed, and head over to the office to deal with a crisis at 3:00AM, but ministry required this on numerous occasions.) 


However, somewhere along the way, most prayers finally get to “intercession” for the needs of others, or direct address for our OWN needs, something I like to call the “laundry list.” It’s important to note that even “The Lord’s Prayer,” the one Jesus taught us, includes most of these elements, but does get to “Give us this day our daily bread.” I read years ago that the word used for “bread” in Greek is somewhat unique. Scholars had a hard time finding a literal translation for it until something was unearthed during an archeological “dig” in the Mid-East a handful of decades ago. It was a woman’s shopping list, and this word was at the top of it. So, when we pray this line from The Lord’s Prayer, we are asking God to give us all the stuff on our “shopping list” for the day. In all honesty, even as Bruce Almighty found out, the majority of our prayers are asking for something of God. But if the woman made a shopping list, did she not also go shopping? Perhaps our prayers aren’t as effective because we “make the list” but do little to help stock the pantry? So, what if there is much more to prayer than we acknowledge? What if prayer is quite more “complicated” an exercise than we have made it out to be, and our participation in the resolve we are asking for requires more than just voicing it to God?


Here are four things I came up with that prayer actually does:


1. Our prayers set GOALS. Prayers are where we specify stuff that is important to us, or with which we want to deal.


2.  Praying helps us focus on “the other”—other people and their needs, and God, as part of a solution beyond ourselves.


3.  Prayer helps us identify and prioritize needs. This “sorting” function is valuable. People who tend toward “depressed” thinking often feel everything is against them, and that the world is falling apart. When they begin to list what their actual concerns are for a prayer list, it may be revelatory that not ALL is so bad, and much of what they list is “fixable.” Those of us who live more on the “manic” side of life are served by prayer when it reminds us that there are many legitimate needs out there, and that not everyone is as “well off” as we are. Our prayers become an agenda for action, and not just a “wish list.”


4.  Prayers cast a VISION. What we pray for may not be “answered” in the way we want it to, or in the timeframe we want, or even answered at all. However, as we “refine” our goals through prayer and set them before God, we move from intercession to creating a “prophetic” view of what we would like things to look like. 


Years ago, I heard an old British evangelist disagree with the adage, “Prayer changes things.” He suggested instead that “Prayer changes PEOPLE, and PEOPLE change things.” While I personally don’t discount HOW God will answer a prayer, I have seen the latter version more than the former. Another author used the phrase “putting feet to our prayers” as a way to engage our partnership with God in bringing “fruit” to them. Maybe some folk see their prayers as “ineffective” because they are basically “rubbing the lamp” when they pray, hoping the “genie” will pop out and grant them their wishes? The Bible describes God as a lot of things, but “genie” is nowhere among the narratives. 


As a child of the 60s and 70s, I loved the old, campy science fiction TV shows created by Irwin Allen: Lost in Space; Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; and Time Tunnel, to name several of my favorites. They rarely addressed serious issues, but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea did hit on some environmental issues and Time Tunnel tried to get a few of us more enthused about history. There was one episode of Lost in Space that stayed with me, though. The character, “Dr. Zachary Smith,” a terroristic stowaway and malignant narcissist, found an alien device in a cave on one of the random planets the “Space Family Robinson” wound up on. When he put the device on his head and wished for something, it “granted his wish,” causing that which he wished for to materialize before his eyes. Of course, the narcissistic Dr. Smith wished for all kinds of stuff, including riches galore. But when glitter and gold wasn’t enough to satiate his ego, he put the thing on and wished for a “servant”—basically a slave to wait on him hand and foot. He had gone beyond the pale for the device’s creators, and the aliens showed up and incarcerated the good Doctor. John Robinson, the patriarch of the “Space Family Robinson” ended the show with a moral lesson about ego, largess, the craving for “more,” and most especially, the oppression of people to serve one’s desires and needs. It was a simple speech, but it obviously stayed with me. I remember it every time my prayer list gets too long, and most especially when I check over the list and find that a majority of the items on it benefit Yours Truly. And while I don’t fear aliens, I DO “fear” God in the way the Bible uses the word!


If we review today’s passage from the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus, we will see that it is more a prayer of “casting vision” than it is a prayer of supernatural fulfillment of his “wishes” for his disciples and the church. For his prayer to be answered, we most CERTAINLY must play a part, and it is an ongoing one! I’m guessing Jesus is not too happy with how his prayer is going, though, and is probably pretty unhappy with how we are steering the vision of the church “being one” so that the world may see the love of God in action. Why, our very own United Methodist Church is about to split in two (or three or four, depending on who you listen to).


I don’t really think Jesus is a “lousy prayer,” nor do I think that we are, either. But we may be guilty of too often not being willing to “put feet to our prayers,” and falling prey to oversimplifying just what prayer is. Part of my testimony is that I grew up praying every night before I went to bed, and that WAY to long into early adult life I was still praying the equivalent of “Now I lay me down to sleep…” until I had my own personal “Aldersgate” experience that awakened my “real” faith. But honestly, while the words have changed, I’m probably still guilty of praying infantile, overly-simplistic prayers, and hoping the “genie” shows up. 


Finally, there is one type of prayer that Jesus taught us—confession—that is always appropriate. “Forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me”—remember that? Interestingly, God sets confession up as a proposition that also requires our participation. I am forgiven to the extent that I FORGIVE others who have wronged me! That one will get you, friends. If you ever feel like your prayers are just hitting the ceiling, first check yourself for depression, which may require you seeking help. But if that is not the issue, search your heart and see if you are still harboring ill-will against someone or are “carrying a grudge.” If so, go fix it. Put feet to your prayers and ask the person to forgive YOU for holding whatever they did (or that you PERCEIVE they did) against them. You may be surprised that: a. they never MEANT to offend you; and b. they may not even be AWARE that you were offended by something they said or did. Either way, your “prayer” will be answered by your reaching out, and rest assured, God will uphold God’s end of the confessional “bargain.”


Friends, this week’s message is a pretty heavy rap, but it is an important one, especially in such troubled times for our world and the church. May our prayer lives grow, mature, and become much more participatory on our part. And may our prayers begin to cast some vision that our feet can bring to pass, with the guidance, assistance, and love of Almighty God! Amen.


Saturday, May 21, 2022

From Visions to Vision...


“From Visions to Vision”


Acts 16:9-15
16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."

16:10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,

16:12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

16:13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.

16:14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.

16:15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.


I don’t know about you, but I have not had many experiences I would call “visions” in my faith walk with Christ, unless you count my dreams. Oh, there was one dream where I was kidnapped by aliens and held captive at Walmart. To this day, I freak out at seeing those yellow “smiley” faces. Or a dream I had just the other night, wherein an unknown companion and I got into a “temporary” construction elevator and it went up, then turned upside down, and deposited us in a different time zone—actually a different TIME zone, as in a parallel reality. The rest of the dream was about trying to get back to our time/space, but given that we were using bicycles, we were not successful. Where is Einstein when you need him? On second thought, let’s NOT use my dreams as examples of “godly” visions…


Seriously, why do we not have vivid visions like Peter, Paul, and other apostles did back in the day? There are certainly a few charismatic Christians I have known who claimed they had visions, but when asked to describe them, they were either pretty pedestrian, or so outlandish they made my Walmart dream seem like a “What I did on my Summer vacation” story. In my young adult Christian experience, I remember a “vision” that was being circulated around the Christian community in my home town of Oil City, a town that had a bad habit of Winter flooding, due to ice jamming up at the confluence of Oil Creek and the Allegheny. A prominent member of a Catholic charismatic fellowship “had” the vision, and it alarmed people as it was spread like a bad rumor. In this “vision,” “God” was telling us that if the people of Oil City didn’t find God and quit their sin, the next Winter’s flood would have waters running as high as the old high school. Given that during this “boost phase” of the charismatic movement had people taking these visions pretty seriously, this particular chilling vision was spreading like a Santa Anna-bellowed wildfire. Of course the whole thing was absurd. First of all, the totality of the citizenry of Oil City was not going to “get saved” before Winter set in, and even if they did, I’m pretty sure sin would not cease all that quickly. But beyond that, there was science and reality. Had Oil City been “flooded” by God up to the level of the old high school, I’m pretty sure we would have lost most of the East Coast. Pittsburgh would have been “Sea World” for sure. So, let’s set aside THESE kinds of ecstatic visions for now.


Fact is, we mature in Christ, and God doesn’t have to “spoon feed” God’s people direction any more. After the Holy Spirit came upon the church, the “dreams and visions” began to subside, as now the Holy Spirit could give guidance. Other than the incredible series of “visions” that make up the Book of Revelation, what visions that remained were more like God’s GPS, sending people like Paul and Peter off to specific locales to minister and preach the Good News. 


The vision in today’s passage is a wonderful one, as it sends Paul off to Macedonia, where he and his little band “went outside the gate by the river…and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” How huge is this in the maturing and growth of the early church? Sharing the gospel witness with a group of women? This would have been pretty much as “taboo” in this context as it was when Jesus took the time to speak to a Samaritan woman at the well. Obviously, if Paul was compelled by this “vision” from God to go there, he most certainly also believed it was God compelling “them” to offer Christ to these women! Something wonderful was happening in the church, and while the full inclusion of women would later give Paul a few fits in Corinth, it was still a great wave of the Holy Spirit sweeping through ALL people, including women, who had long been marginalized in Palestine and the surrounding world. 


One of the women who responded to the gospel and was baptized was a “seller of purple” named Lydia. She became a leader in the church, and her name pops up from time to time in the New Testament. Paul comes to respect her, and some even suggest that she becomes a “financier” of missionary journeys in the early Christian ministry. This would make sense, as purple fabric and the dyes to make it were precious and expensive commodities at that time. Even as Peter was sent to the home of Cornelius, which led to a major outreach to Gentiles, so Paul may very well have been sent to Macedonia mostly to bring Lydia into the household of faith, helping feed the fertile ground that would be female leadership in the fledgling church.


Again, the role of the Holy Spirit was to lead and empower. Visions and other “special effects” begin to subside as the church matured, and learned to “listen” to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. For United Methodist Christians in our age, this might be a good time to renew our understanding of a “tool” of Mr. Wesley’s he used and taught us to discern God’s will and receive wisdom and direction via the Holy Spirit of God. 


The late Albert Outler, a famous Wesleyan theologian and scholar, wrote about this “tool” under the collective name of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” The Anglican Church, of which Mr. Wesley was a priest, had a “trinity” of guiding, illuminating “forces” they saw as being employed by the Holy Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Dr. Outler professed that, based on an analysis of the sermons of John Wesley, and his “track record” of ministry, Wesley added a fourth “tool” to this toolbox, that of Experience. Suspicions over “tradition” and “reason” set the Anglicans at odds with the Calvinists, who like the Lutherans, pretty much held to Sola Scriptura, or “scripture alone” as the source of God’s guidance and “message” to humanity. Pretty much everyone was suspicious of Wesley’s use of Experience as a valid guiding factor, and this persists to this day. In the current debate over “scriptural authority” that may lead to a schism within the United Methodist Church, those who hold to a doctrine that sounds a lot like “biblical inerrancy” don’t have a lot of time for Experience as a reliable teacher, or at least a desirable one. Some of these folk often blame reliance on “experience” for the habit of others to interpret the Bible differently than they do, based on what they “learn” from it. We could go on and on about this, so let’s not, and just look at the elements of the “Quadrilateral.”


Outler argues that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a hierarchy, with Scripture on the “top,” followed by TraditionExperience, and ReasonReason brings up the rear not necessarily because it is on the bottom of the “pile,” but because after “consulting” the three “sources” of wisdom for the Christian believer, it is the God-given, human MIND that sorts out this input, organizes it and makes sense of it, and draws conclusions that lead to direction, action, mission, and vision, both for the individual believer, and for the broader community of faith. 


It is the use of “tools” like this Quadrilateral, fed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that helped make the transition from “Visions” to vision. “Visions” are supernatural images or “messages” that give “marching orders.” Discerning a Vision is a reason-driven, participatory process that brings together facts, history, and experience to set a course for a church and/or a person who is responding to God’s call. Of course, one prays that the Holy Spirit is both inspiring and “weaving together” this process such that the outcome is one that God desires, not merely a ”manmade” plan, but still, the mature corpus of Christianity is entrusted by God to “work the process” and “write the vision.” And then we work together to bring it to fruition.


Looking to Scripture first for God’s “guidance input” is a widely agreed upon priority. As mentioned earlier, Outler believed this was the “top of the pyramid” for John Wesley. Obviously, for Christian believers whose whole faith finds its origin, roots, and “story” in the Bible, this is the first place to look, when weighing the important questions of life. Paradoxically, the Bible does not address a wide range of contemporary challenges and issues, requiring serious “extrapolation” of its wisdom, or what we call “interpretation,” in exegetical parlance. This is one place where our “unity” over the primacy of scripture often breaks down—in the mode of interpretation. Seminary gives one a series of helpful “tools” to use in interpreting the Bible: text-critical factors—who wrote it and when, and syntax issues within the two major biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek; an understanding of historical contexts regarding when the texts were recorded; and “form” critical skills to understand the varying types of literature we find in the Bible—history, prophecy, wisdom literature, gospels, and epistles, for example. One may choose a more “literal” interpretation over these seminary-taught skills, which often leads to divergent views of what a text “means.” Another point of potential conflict for believers in the Wesleyan tradition is what John Wesley might have meant by “primacy of scripture,” related to the other elements of the “quadrilateral.” No one argues that John Wesley was a serious student of the Bible, but in reading the sermons of Wesley, it is also clear that he is much more the ”topical” preacher, and regularly engages in “proof-texting,” neither of which are strong evidence that he interpreted the Bible exceedingly “literally.” We mostly agree, though, that the Bible was “primary” for John Wesley, one way, or another, but it would be hard to assert that he engaged in sola scriptura, or “scripture alone.”


In keeping with his Anglican roots, John Wesley looked next to Tradition. In this context, “tradition” was the collection of practices, discovery, and teachings of the Christian church throughout its history, filtered through the “local” traditions of one’s own sect or denomination. Liturgical and sacramental practices, worship rubrics or “styles,” polity, rules governing the ordained ministry, and theological views specific to a given religious group would be examples of Tradition. While one’s religious tradition may also color how one views the Bible, for Wesley, this element of the “Quadrilateral” helped him narrow his search for divine guidance to what would make sense in his adopted faith context. In some cases, his religious tradition—especially its codified doctrines or social principles—offered direct answers, ones that were already “tested” against Scripture. United Methodists have our Book of Disciplinethat brings together our doctrinal statements, social principles, and polity into a single volume. A second collection of political and social legislation passed by General Conferences down through the years is found in the Book of Resolutions, which is actually a series of volumes with indices. 


John Wesley’s unique addition to the Scripture, Tradition, and Reason of his Anglican heritage was that of Experience. The good news is that our own history may well be helpful in our quest to discern God’s “voice” in life. The “bad news” is that personal experience may be “tainted” by our own prejudices or values with which we were raised, or that we have acquired on our own. Life certainly educates, but it may also cause us to get “dirty” by responding negatively, ill-advisedly, or even sinfully to its challenges, events, or temptations. These may also leave “track records” or “ruts” that are hard to erase. Still, Experience is a valuable piece of the “Quadrilateral” framework. As one works one’s way through these helpful elements of guidance and discernment, caution is in order as we descend the “hierarchy.” As we look to our personal Experience, we are wise to screen out ones that lead too quickly to a rash decision, whether it be in the affirmative or the negative. And if the experiences reviewed cause us to change directions from what we had started focusing on after consulting Scripture and Tradition, it may also be wise to retreat to a fresh look at them, too. 


So, how do we govern our use of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” so it is more helpful than confusing to our situation? And what aids us in arbitrating between the “steps” of it? That would be the fourth element—Reason. In short, God gave us a brain for a reason! Or should we say, TO Reason. The well-tempered human mind, inspired by one’s faith and the Spirit of God, is a powerful tool in the process of discernment. Critical thinking is one of the most important things any of us can learn and employ. If there is a shortage of anything in our world today—and in the church—it is the quality of critical thinking. Becoming adept at carefully weighing all the information and options before us, and drawing logical conclusions or building on the foundations of life philosophies, theological insights, and Spirit-led “vocation,” can certainly enhance our own lives, as well as be edifying and “enlightening” to the broader community of faith. It is troubling that in our current time, learnings and information that may lead to more astute critical thinking and reasoning, are being viewed at the least skeptically, and at most, are actually being outlawed! Smart people should never fear new knowledge, especially when it may call into question long-held prejudices or assumptions. Years ago, a TV commercial for the United Negro College Fund asserted, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” This is doubly true in our time! Reason is a powerful gift from our Creator!


The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is a powerful tool, as we have tried to illustrate, but it doesn’t come with an instruction book. It also benefits from practice, and works best when eventually and seamlessly “woven” into one’s entire discerning and thinking processes. Also, for those who hold John Wesley as a sacrosanct figure, please be reminded that the “Quadrilateral” is a construct of Dr. Outler, based on his own study of Mr. Wesley. If in meeting John Wesley in heaven you ask him about the “Quadrilateral,” you will get crickets.


With the frequency of supernatural visions and dreams fading, and the importance of “casting vision” growing in importance, the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” can certainly help illuminate the way forward. In today’s passage, Paul’s vision leads to the whole new experience of inclusion of women into the leadership circle of the infant church. In our time, may the visions we cast, as inspired by the resident Holy Spirit, similarly open new vistas for the church. And may we promote processes like the “Quadrilateral” that lead to sharper critical thinking, which may mean we must oppose forces in the society that seek to limit the free flow of information. Amen!

Friday, May 13, 2022





Acts 11:1-18
11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.

11:2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,

11:3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"

11:4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,

11:5 "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.

11:6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.

11:7 I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.'

11:8 But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.'

11:9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'

11:10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

11:11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.

11:12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house.

11:13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;

11:14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.'

11:15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.

11:16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'

11:17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"

11:18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."


There is something comforting about seeing a Sheetz store. I have one of their gasoline discount cards, so that means a few cents off on gas, which, with its current price, is better than nothing. Sheetz stores also usually have large, clean restrooms, a boon to any traveler. Their coffee is pretty good, their “MTO” food OK, and the selection of other drinks, slushies, donuts, and other foods you should definitely not have is exquisite! Of course, they are a somewhat regional treat, with what one newspaper reporter called the “Sheetz/Wawa line” almost bisecting the State of PA. I’m not the only one who gets a bit jazzed over a Sheetz store. Years ago, when Sheetz was just expanding beyond their home turf of Altoona, one came to Franklin, PA, where my office (from a prior career to ministry) was. I didn’t know much about them, but an intern who came to work with our program that Fall almost lost his mind when he saw our new Sheetz store, exclaiming, “AHHHH, SHEETZ!!!” Turns out he pretty much lived at one of these places that was near his college. After all, they had cheap coffee, lots of sugar, and two hotdogs for 99 cents, at the time. What college student wouldn’t like that? My brother-in-law owns his own industrial electrical business, and he did a lot of work for Sheetz during their hectic expansion phase a few years ago. He couldn’t speak highly enough of how he was treated by the company, and how generous and kind the Sheetz brothers had been to him. I remember when he first told us about their “newer” stores he was helping design that would have so many “full service” features, it seemed like a pipe dream. And then they began to show up, and they were, indeed, a convenience store version of the New Jerusalem. 


This sermon is not a commercial for Sheetz, though. “Sheetz” is just the first thing that came to mind when I was writing commentary for today’s Acts text. Like the convenience store, what we read should be comforting to all travelers on the journey of faith! Of course, there could be some other parallels…


The story picks up in verse one, where Peter is being “called on the carpet” for hanging out with the “uncircumcised.” This was a collective code-word for pretty much anyone not of your faith “caste,” or those you don’t ever want to sit beside in church. Yes, it had its roots in Judaism, and the law that males of that tradition were circumcised on the eighth day after their birth, but it was a code word a bit more “polite” than “Gentile.” Calling others “Gentile” or “Goy” wasn’t exactly “politically correct” at a time when the “love of Christ” was supposed to be the driving force behind evangelism efforts, but the fact was that many of the earliest Christian converts either had been Jewish, or were trying to “straddle the fence” between the two faiths. This may sound irresolute or even fickle, but given the hundreds of years of Jewish tradition, is it any wonder these early Christ-followers had a hard time “substituting” their new faith for one with such a profound history? Of course, we don’t have ANY issues today with coded words used to partition off folk from “castes” that aren’t part of the dominant or “desired” cultural pedigrees, nor do we have any religious traditions that anchor us to a past that cuts off our future to spite our face, do we? (Sorry, I’m being sarcastic…)


But Peter had a vision as his defense—the “great sheet” lowered down from heaven! Lots of “freedoms” were being signaled by the Divine in this vision. First of all, we have the “forbidden” animals in the great sheet, and the Divine voice tells Peter, “Kill and eat.” Basically, this was a vision that totally dismantled the Jewish dietary laws, of which there were many. My dietitian/spouse has taught me over the years that, while most of the Hebrew Bible dietary laws were “commanded” by God as a way to honor and obey God (doctrines), they were most likely God’s way of keeping his people from dying prematurely from food-born illness. The animals God tells the Jews to refrain from eating were the ones that typically bore parasites. If these foods were not cooked adequately, these parasites could launch a fatal assault on the human body, especially against children and the elderly. Given that the whole “Passover” thing was about getting your butt out of Egypt ASAP, such that they couldn’t even let the bread rise, it is a safe assumption that careful cooking of parasite-bearing meat was not going to happen. And on the journey in the wilderness, likewise. There were other dietary restrictions in the ancient law code, such as “don’t eat meat with milk” (red meat and dairy). Red meat had necessary nutrients such as iron, but if combined with the fats and enzymes in dairy (“milk”), the body did not absorb enough of the iron available. Now one can ask, is this a sure sign that the Divine “voice” was at work, protecting God’s people? Or if you are more of a skeptic, might the religious leaders that penned this stuff have been more “closet scientists” than we know of? (Please don’t go to that “Maybe it was aliens?” argument, or I’ll scream!) Because Christians were now being opened to new dietary freedoms, it did later precipitate arguments about what “meat” one could eat, and in front of whom, such as we see in Corinth, and Paul will later have to address stuff like “weaker vessels” and “not causing a sibling in Christ to stumble.” 


Why was this revelation lowered down on a “sheet,” something usually associated with bedding? It may be a stretch, but I believe this could also be a Divine commentary on the “freedom of the marriage bed.” In the time the church was born into, the husband “owned” his wife, and whatever sexual expression happened in the relationship was totally under hiscontrol. Could this “sheet” vision be signaling both that women were now to be empowered in the life of the newly-birthed church? And could even the sexual love expressed in a covenantal relationship now be a shared and mutual experience? Paul’s later teachings and writings about the matter sure seem to say this. Some of the Bible’s language about the “husband loving the wife like Christ loves the church” and the wife “submitting to the husband” and “offering herself to him” are certainly moving in this direction, though in a “first century,” primitive kind of a way. Still, when you realize how “barbaric” and male-centered sexual power and expression was in that century, it is clear that the advent of the love of Christ and his church was bringing a whole new perspective on marriage and sex! (I’ll not go into the argument that this may have even included same-sex, intimate relationships, but it is one that can be made, both from scripture and church history.)


The central truth of the “great sheet” vision is that, like the modern convenience store, God was proclaiming the church “open for business” for ALL people. Boundaries, laws, and religious traditions were being discarded and a whole pile of new freedoms were being “lowered to earth” in Peter’s vision. This most certainly included the “gentile” or non-Jewish world. Peter initially rebukes the voice of God (not a new thing for him), saying that “nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But when the voice of God in the vision responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” Peter gets on board. For those Peter fans out there, sound familiar? He often over reacted, kind of like John the Baptist when he said he was “unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.” Remember when Peter at first refused to let Jesus wash his feet at the Passover gathering, and Jesus rebuked HIM? Here’s the dialogue from John 13:


“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. 

Peter’s impetuousness is so human and so “us,” isn’t it? We should be thrilled that Jesus offers us all so much grace!


Three important points about this story we should not forget:


1.    The vision happens THREE TIMES. This was the sign of a “credible witness,” legally, in that day, meaning it would “stand up in court. When a man decided to divorce his wife in Mid-Eastern tradition, he would say to the wife, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” And that made it legal and final. By the way, this is why Jesus spoke out against divorce the way he did—it was an unjust system in his day, fully favoring the man. The woman divorced in this manner was required to leave the home along with her children. They effectively became homeless. When the Bible speaks of “widows and orphans,” it is not necessarily talking of women whose husbands had died or children whose parents were deceased. “Widows and orphans” would also apply to women and their children who were “divorced by a husband who had tired of them and legally threw them out.


2.    Cornelius and his “whole household” were saved by the message Peter shared. It was a message of freedom, a message of their inclusion in the Christian body, and a message of openness to people of all cultures, nations, and races. Remember, “Gentile” was a code for the “undesirables” in that day. Christ ALSO CAME for the “undesirables,” and if you take the gospels seriously, he even seemed to favor them.


3.    In Acts 11:17, Peter gives the other Christian leaders this apologetic: If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God? It is more than a testimony, it is an argument that the OTHER leaders may be guilty of vexing God and the work of God’s Spirit if they were to hinder this new outreach to the world beyond the only religious tradition they knew, to this point. Peter punctuates the lesson further, proclaiming: Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.


Even in our time, there lingers this nasty habit of believers wanting to “limit” or “control” who ELSE may adopt our Christian faith. Why is this? Are we trying to keep the club “exclusive”? Are we subconsciously attempting to screen out those with whom we would rather not sit with in church? (Maybe a lot more “consciously” than we care to admit?) Are we using terms like “purity,” “holiness,” and “righteous” as code words to mean “people like me”? The answer is probably “yes” to these questions, but there is another element at work here, and it is the sinful belief that the resources of God are limited. If all of these other people (“Gentiles”) get what God is offering, there will be less for me and my family. When we look around the universe, or listen to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, I just don’t see where we get this? And this compression of compassion is not exclusive to God’s grace, either. Politically, there is such a temptation to see all resources as “scarce,” and to limit what we do for “the poor” because it will come out of our own coffers (tax dollars). The Christian is called to believe that God’s resources—of both grace AND provision—are unlimited, and that if we help “the least of these,” God will more than adequately take care of us, too. Friends, this sheet of Peter’s was HUGE! And it was overflowing with abundance!


Maybe it’s time that we study the Bible with a new prejudice—namely that God wants to “supply all our needs in Christ Jesus,” and ALL means ALL. This means ALL our needs, and ALL the needs of our neighbor, and ALL the needs of those who don’t look like us, live like us, or act like us—you know, the types we may not want to sit beside in church!


The next time you go into one of those “Taj Mahal” Sheetz stores, look around. Notice how many needs of yours they are trying to meet, and especially notice the many things they stock or offer because they want to “bless” you beyond just what you “need.” It’s time for the church to adopt this model, and that is precisely what Peter’s “SHEETS” vision is all about. What is wrong with believing that “we can do all things through Christ who strengthens (supplies) us”? May we do a 180 from “hindering” the work of God to engaging in it, in the name of the LOVE of our Savior, Jesus Christ! Amen!

Friday, May 6, 2022

God's Tissue for Your Issue...


“God’s Tissue for Your Issue”


Revelation 7:9-17
7:9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

7:10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

7:11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

7:12 singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?"

7:14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

7:15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

7:16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;

7:17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."


First of all, it’s “Mother’s Day,” and when this text from the Book of Revelation is talking about the “great ordeal,” it is probably not talking about motherhood…or maybe it is! At a time when all pregnant women may soon be forced to be mothers by law, an “ordeal” may indeed await. Secondly, being a mother today is more difficult, regardless about what some may say. When Moms send their children out into the world today, more hazards may await them. Oh, sure, there are the obvious ones like drug addictions, gun violence and sexual assault, and human trafficking, but for most middle-class children today, other life-altering threats may lie in wait: crippling student debt; racist or sexist attitudes that seemingly are being mainstreamed and even “welcomed” into our schools and places of work; religious bigotry masquerading as “evangelicalism”; and gender and equity gaps that hold down women and other marginalized peoples. Yes, it is harder to be a “Mom” today, or even a “Dad,” for that matter.


Still, when our kids take notice of the love you offer and the sacrifices you have made for them, Moms, it is indeed rewarding. As many have said, it is nicer when this gratitude grows beyond the second Sunday in May each year, but I’ll bet you are still good with the “Hallmark Sunday” you get. 


There are four women in my life that really get me jazzed. My own mother is our last surviving parent, and will turn 92 in July. She is now living happily in a senior care facility in the town in which I grew up, and we visit as often as we can. She even still gets a kick out of it when I call her on the phone. My Mom, who was a registered nurse for over 50 years, made huge sacrifices for me and my two brothers, including working the 11 to 7 shift for most of her career so she could put us to bed, would be there to get us up and send us off to school, and after a brief “nap,” would also be there to welcome us home from school. She made sure we were well fed, which wasn’t easy, as we weren’t a wealthy family, my dad was a REALLY fussy eater, and three boys could be like a thrashing machine when we hit the kitchen. We drank so much milk we should have had a cow, but they weren’t allowed on West Second Street in Oil City. Mom made great casseroles, fed us 99 cent “Apian Way” pizzas out of a box, was a good baker, but could turn almost any piece of meat into a “jerky.” Still, we were nothing but grateful. Interestingly, when we now tell her how much we appreciated all of the sacrifices she made for us and for our late father, she just “t’weren’t nothin’s” it and tells us she would do it all over again. The second woman in my life who totally makes it worth living is my spouse, Dara. She’s amazing! Three things she told me when we married, though, were: We FOLD OUR TOWELS IN THIRDS and don’t “stuff” them into the towel racks; I will do all of the laundry, because I have my system, and I don’t trust you with it; and I am NOT your mother, so never, ever give me a Mother’s Day card! I have tried to heed all three. But I should report that, for a woman who really fretted over motherhood because of a near total lack of “maternal” instincts or feelings, she knocked it out of the park. I can’t imagine a better mother to our two children, and the way they turned out is the undisputed evidence. She was so good, she even made up for my regular “buffoonery” lacing through my attempt at dad-hood. The other two women who have made an indelible mark on my heart are my daughter and HER daughter (my granddaughter), both of whom are just a “blessing blast” to watch experience life and successfully lasso every ounce of joy it may offer. I may be viewing them all through “rose-colored glasses,” but I’ll keep these suckers on until they ship me off to the crematory. 


Oh, there was one other “chosen” woman in my life—Hillary Clinton. But we know how that turned out…


If you do nothing else on this Mother’s Day, retell your “Mom” stories. If she is still with you, retell them in her presence, and in the presence of your family. If she is on the other side of the “Great Divide,” retell them to God and say a prayer of gratitude. Moms still like cards, though, too.


What of the other “ordeals” we face in life that this text from Revelation addresses? It is important to remember that Revelation is a REALLY WEIRD BOOK, and should not be taken literally. This is just a fact. First of all, it is mostly “someone else’s mail,” written to sooth, comfort and encourage an early Christian church that was besieged by persecution, especially by the leaders of the Roman Empire. We call this “apocalyptic literature.” Most of any “prophecies” found in Revelation have already come and gone in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Still, there are a good many “encouragements” found in this book that are valid eternally, such as what we read in today’s text.


There is a strong temptation to couch these verses in what we typically call “heaven,” as its metaphors of “great multitudes,” “the one seated on the throne,” and the really weird “elders and four living creatures” offer praise and adoration to “the lamb.” All of this may simply be the author’s way of giving the weight of what he is writing eternal significance, knowing full well that his era of “ordeals” will not be the last one faced by the people of God. I know that the text says this was a great “vision” given to the author, but people were having visions all the time in the Bible, and we really don’t know what they were “seeing” beyond what they wrote down. Their take on these visions may be as warped or biased as witness accounts of an accident, or a politician’s take on what she or he thinks is “the biggest problem facing us.” We have to do our best to filter out what may be the central truths the “vision-ee” is attempting to communicate.


Things start to get “unHollywooded” when one of the “elders” asks, “Who are these robed in white, and where have they come from?” Note, however, that the elder asks the AUTHOR of the account who they are! Is this rhetorical? Or is the one receiving the “vision” having some kind of a test, here? Once a teacher asked me a question in class, and I gave the impudent answer, “You’re the teacher, you should know that!” It didn’t go well, either. Thankfully, the weird elder in today’s story didn’t shoot a lightning bolt out of one of his numerous eyes or gore the poor inquire-ee with one of his horns. Instead, he tells him that they are the ones who have come out of “the great ordeal.” Is this “great ordeal” life on Earth? Is it referencing the persecution the church is facing at that time? Or is it referring to various ordeals God’s people may be facing then, or throughout the countless “thens” of human history? My answer to these questions would be “YES.”


I think the “great ordeal” is a label for any challenge we may face that has the power to overwhelm us. It is relative. Like all problems, the magnitude is best defined by the one experiencing it. When I have a bad cold, it is a huge thing to me, genuinely. It puts me down, makes me miserable, and disrupts my schedule. It even sours my usual peppy and delightful disposition, which may be the reason my wife often threatens to pack a bag and head off to a motel when I start sniffling. But is it like having cancer? Of course not. We are told in the scriptures to “judge not,” and this should apply to not judging how other people assess and face their troubles. This is why as a pastor, I never pshawed a parishioner’s request to pray for their sick cat. It was a BIG DEAL for that pet lover, and praying for the ailing “furby” alongside my prayer for a dying father or someone recovering from serious surgery is just part of what we DO in the Body of Christ. Don’t JUDGE, people! An ordeal is an ordeal, no matter how we define it. To paraphrase an old adage: “Trouble is in the mind of the beholder.”


God seeks to lift us up from our “ordeals.” This is not just a reference to snatching us awayfrom them into heaven. God “lifts us up” in the midst of them, even occasionally offering some kind of temporary respite from them. This may be where others in the Body of Christ come in—to be the presence of our “lifting up” God for the one who is suffering. It certainly is the reason “pastoral care” is so important in ministry. Hospital and senior care facility visits are HUGE for people. Having their pastor show up to pray with them, and to “be” God’s presence for a while with them is something people never forget. (And pastors, don’t “go negative” because some people “expect” you to do this! Just do it! It is one of the easiest and most blessed things you will do in ministry!) Two quick stories about pastoral visits:


Don’t be alarmed when people AREN’T expecting your visit, and are extremely grateful for them. And don’t be thrown off by the wiseacre who exclaims when you walk into the hospital room, “UH oh, it’s WORSE than I thought!” My brother (who is also a pastor) and I once visited a Pittsburgh hospital where our goofy uncle was recovering from surgery, and when we walked into his room together, he made this exact comment, given that TWO clergy had descended on him. Of course, be aware that some of our YOUNGER parishioners, who maybe don’t KNOW it is fairly routine for their pastor to visit them in the hospital, may ACTUALLY be concerned that we have shown up. And if they grew up with a Roman Catholic background, the specter of “last rites” is always looming…


My second story is one I’ve told before, but it bears repeating. A fellow goes to visit a close friend who just lost his spouse to cancer. His bereaved friend has taken great consolation in his church, and begs this friend to join him at worship that Sunday—“You just HAVE to hear my pastor!” So the comforting friend attends, and is less than whelmed by the pedestrian message the pastor offers. At lunch afterwards, he asks his grieving friend, “What is it you think is so great about your pastor’s preaching?” With pathos, his friend replies, “He sat with me and held my hand for hours while my wife was dying. I’d walk across hot coals to hear what he has to say.” 


Helping people out when they are experiencing a “great ordeal” is like “washing their robes” white. Don’t make the mistake of believing that this “robe washing” is just about being “cleansed” of sin. Sure it is, but the “power of the blood” of Christ has much more cleansing and uplifting power than just that! The “Lamb of God” is about being a “Good Shepherd,” about “feeding my lambs,” and about life being in the blood. You had better believe that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is about SO MUCH MORE than just “washing away” sin! It is also about walking with people through their “ordeals” and suffering. It is about helping them find solutions to the problems they face. It is about offering comfort in a world that can be so cruel to those beaten down by life. Our “robes” get very, very dirty, and sin is not the only “dirt” they get tarnished with. In fact, sin is the easiest stain to “wash out” for God, as it just requires pardon. The stains left by suffering, addiction, racism, sexism, caste divisions, economic hardship, violence, and other things that devalue and divide persons are so much harder to erase, even for God. This is why the Bible gives us verses like “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for THOU ART WITH ME.” Sometimes God and God’s people “lift us out of the ordeal” by just helping us get to our feet.


John Wesley believed that Jesus was about saving PEOPLE, not just “souls.” Atonement for sin was just part of a much larger redemptive “package.” Otherwise, Wesley would have spent his entire time just “preaching the Word,” and less time feeding the hungry, helping the widows and orphans, and working for justice in the corrupt and inhuman prison system in 18th century England. Wesley was a “robe washer,” and he encouraged his people to be so, too. His view of the Kingdom of God was colored by the words of Jesus, who said that it is “like a great dragnet that is lowered into the sea and catches all kinds of fish” [Matthew 13:47]. Why do so many seem to want to turn it into a kitchen strainer, screening out those they can’t abide?


Note two final things about this Revelation passage: the “remedies” promised by God are temporal ones, not “pie in the sky, by and by” ones. Hunger, thirst, and shelter are cared for. The “Good Shepherd” offers guidance and protection. And God will “wipe away the tears from their eyes.” Friends, God WALKS WITH US during “the great ordeal,” offering comfort, grace, and a warm embrace. Most of the time, God uses some of God’s people as the delivery agents of these. If God chose to be some kind of “genie” that just snaps the fingers and snatches us away from our suffering, there would be no tears. God understands the human condition because God “dwelt among us,” but did so “full of grace and truth.” It’s the grace that leads to the wiping of tears. 


Why would God “allow” such suffering, rather than just “genie” it away? Because suffering is part of what makes us human, and forms our “heart.” Suffering sensitizes us to the needs and hurts of others. Without it, our penchant for turning inward and selfish would run amok, destroying us AND the community of faith. Today’s passage reveals God’s “tissue for our issues”—the Lord Jesus Christ, and the “body” he left behind, which we call the church. Never believe that God doesn’t care about whatever “ordeal” you may be facing, but also never believe that your ordeal is somehow greater than that of your neighbor, or that you are entitled to “better treatment” because of your Christianity. Tears are tears, and grace is grace. They are available to all. Amen, Dear Ones!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...