Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Bonfire of the Vanities...

 


“Bonfire of the Vanities”

 

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

1:12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,

1:13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.

1:14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

2:18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me

2:19 --and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.

2:20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun,

2:21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

2:22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?

2:23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

 

Tom Wolfe’s novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, is a drama about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New York City. The book’s title was taken from an actual historical “bonfire of the vanities” that happened in Italy in 1497, when a priest, Girolamo Savonarola, ordered the burning of objects that the church had declared sinful, such as cosmetics, mirrors, books, and works of art. It’s amazing how much drama emanates from religion, and often, specifically, from the church. It often seems that the church over-reacts or under-reacts to goings-on in the world, but rarely does it rightly react. And in terms of internal affairs, it either punts or persecutes, with little regard for the lousy witness these produce for on-lookers in the wider society. Isn’t it interesting that what Savonarola decided was “sinful,” are the very things that bring a great deal of meaning to life? Cosmetics and mirrors help us put our “best face forward” as we journey out into the world, and books and art give form to things deep inside us, and expand our worldview. The idea that faith should be restricted to biblical limits (which, honestly, are really defined by our interpretation of what those are), exclusively spiritual or “heavenly” pursuits, and activities that someone has decided “glorify God,” robs us of our uniqueness and creativity—things which the Creator “designed” and gifted to us. So, what is the Ecclesiastes author trying to tell us in this passage?

 

First of all, the author—at least according to most commentators—is a “preacher” (Koheleth), so the wisdom we get from this piece of wisdom literature has strong moral overtones. And yet, the author is rather practical in her or his overall assessment of the futility of shallow living, which may be defined as pursuing vain, “surface” satisfaction in material things, personal appearance (of our selves or others), or power for power’s sake—“chasing after wind,” in the author’s words. Former President Jimmy Carter, in one of his recent books, writes:

 

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

 

If I’m to interpret it right, Ecclesiastes says in this passage that these futile goals may give way to depression and anxiety, two things that certainly mark the century in which we live! We grow anxious when we put undo importance on our jobs, or more particularly how “successful” we are in them, such that it “keeps us up at night.” I confess to spending the entire COVID nightmare in high anxiety, as I felt the weight of trying to guide a large, vital church through the pandemic. I often lie awake well into the night thinking up ways we could still “be the church” and meet needs while severely restricted in one of its primary tasks of “meeting together.” I both thanked God and cursed God for the availability of the Zoom platform! It DID make leadership conversations possible, but was a poor substitute for person-to-person caring and fellowship. And it sometimes facilitated EIGHT OR TEN meetings a day, something that probably would have NEVER happened in the “real” world, and these “popcorn” meetings generated too much information, lengthy “to do lists,” and even more anxiety for pastors and leaders. As a pastor, I know I was not at all alone during the COVID crisis, but it often felt like it. 

 

All that said, however, it was a real crisis, and not just a matter of how my hair looked or whether I may be worried about what the car I drive says about me. These are the matters Koheleth is engaging. Obviously, there may be a fine line between what is important and what is not, in life, but this line is a moveable target, often affected by timing. Assessing where it divides the two is an on-going challenge, and is, at least partly, what today’s scripture is addressing. Anxiety arising from dealing with important things may bring a heightened sense of passion and wisdom to the problem, while anxiety over things that fall below the threshold of importance is usually just unhealthy, and may even negatively affect our ability to discern the difference, going forward. Even when we are anxiously ruminating over the issues of importance, there comes a time when our mental deliberation becomes obsessive, and we must find a way to stop and rest. On many of those COVID nights, as I lie awake contemplating the steps I might need to take the next “waking” day, I would draw wisdom from one of my favorite baseball movies, “For the Love of the Game.” I would literally invoke the focusing line of pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) on the pitcher’s mound: “Clear the mechanism.” I would tell myself this, and begin quieting my racing brain. I visualized the cacophonous background going silent, and the anxiety-provoking thoughts “march out” of my mind, one by one. It worked. Soon, I would be asleep. Imagine now how foolish and “vain” it is to waste good thinking on things that really don’t matter—or shouldn’t. This is what Ecclesiastes is about.

 

If not anxiety, then depression is an enemy let in the door by undue vanity. The text suggests that regular life evaluation that is mostly concerned about one’s “impact” on the world, or the legacy one may leave, will often lead to depression, as these are never going to be as great as that left by countless others, nor is it ever insignificant, particularly if we follow the path mapped by our experiences and work, as well as God’s lead. A sober view of one’s contribution leads to better mental health, as well as may provide “course correction” guidance for the life remaining. Troubling over it, or making false comparisons around it, usually lead to disappointment and its resulting circumstantial depression. [Any time I touched on this during my sermons, I would be quick to distinguish between clinicaldepression and that provoked by an event or circumstances, as it is never helpful to insinuate that persons who suffer from the former can “fix” it by repressing it. Hear that now, any of you reading this who have a clinical diagnosis!]

 

Maybe you never thought about these negative outcomes around the subject of vanity? The author of today’s text understands that. The “all is vanity” line is not jocular, but is there to remind us that God’s greatness and “bigger picture” renders even our serious concerns less significant, though they be “huge” to us. Remember the “timing” issue I raised earlier—If we address our important concerns in a timely and reasonable fashion, we can deal with them, solve them to the extent they are solvable, and move on. If we fixate on them, they become a vanity, and unduly troubling. If we ignore or repress important issues, it may soothe for the moment, but problems usually grow rather than shrink when shelved. Avoiding them thus also becomes vanity. And if we stress over what are really non-issues, this is the very definition of vanity. So “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” is a way of saying timing is everything, and our response to what we assess as important has the power to keep vanity in check. 

 

About the word “vanity,” one bible commentator writes:

 

“The word translated as ‘vanity’ (hebel) is notoriously difficult to render in English, in part because it a tensive symbol that simultaneously signifies multiple meanings. One author proposes ‘vapor’ because vapor is at once insubstantial, transient, and sometimes foul or poisonous. Throughout the book, the Teacher asserts that all things in life are ephemeral and vaporous. Consequently, much of human activity is futile and pointless.”

 

Again, this goes to holding our individual, human efforts up against the Divine plan, activity, and will. As Judeo-Christians, we believe that God does not view humans at all as “insignificant,” but we are to understand from Koheleth that our days on this earth are limited, and their impact, variable. I say “variable,” as on one hand, they may be negligible, but on the other, they may be essential in the greater scheme of things. Koheleth suggests that we may be picking up where another left off, and someone will “take the baton” from us when exit the stage. It is a relay race we run. Not all of us will cross the finish line. To update Paul, “running the race set before us” may mean we only run a leg of it, and may not feel the joy of breaking the tape. Does it matter, if we are faithful in our race? It is vanity to think less of our race if we don’t get to see the finish. Let me share my personal example of this.

 

I am proud of my 36 years in ministry, as I did my best to remain faithful, and I never had a period during those years of service when I “coasted,” not in the least. But my last appointment as lead pastor at St. Paul’s was indeed a “leg” of a relay race! I “took the handoff” from a lead pastor who had a 22-year legacy of growing a church into an important contributor to the life of the communities it served, and touching the lives of countless children and youth over those years. I felt my job was to help our leadership team and the congregation “update” our mission and vision to keep us forward-looking and planning, and then give the baton to a future leader who had the potential to be another “long-termer,” unlike me, who knew my tenure would be seven years, at the most. I was comfortable in this “interim” role, and took it very seriously, desiring fervently to not lose any of the lead the previous pastor had handed over to me, and to make sure the handoff to my successor would be as smooth as possible. Then the pandemic hit. Being fortunate to have a wonderful team around me, and a seriously-engaged congregation, we worked synergistically to successfully navigate COVID, keep our stellar children and youth programming alive, and maintain healthy funding for the church’s future, post-COVID. You have no idea how blessed it felt to be “running the race” between a Ron Hoellein and an Amy Wagner. My “leg” of the race was essential, but not all that significant, in the bigger scope of things. I am proud of my work, but not to the level of vanity. Had I expected a larger role in such a significant church, and suffered the disappointment that the timing could not allow, that, too, would have been vanity. As it is, I got a blessed satisfaction out of the experience, and think I made a difference. I hope THAT is not vanity!

 

Let me try to summarize, in closing. Koheleth is trying to tell us to have a sober view of who we are and what we are about. He or she is saying that anything BUT a sober, honest view may lead to vanity, which may lead to a degree of futility that provokes anxiety or gives way to depression. There is a much greater “race” occurring in the Realm of the Divine. We have a significant part of it, but it may not be the “glory” lap. If we follow God’s call and guidance in life, personal desperation may be avoided if not outright defeated. A fulfilling degree of pride in one’s faithfulness and resulting accomplishments is our reward, and that is not vanity! The caution is when we transfix ourselves on some unreasonable, overly-inflated “future,” and then suffer when we don’t deliver on it. As they say, “Remember, Moses never saw the promised land.” And to loosely quote a song lyric of my era, “Don’t be so vain you think the whole song is about you!” Amen.

 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Your package has been delivered...

 


“Your Package Has Been Delivered…”

 

Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
2:6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him,

2:7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

2:9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

2:10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.

2:11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ;

2:12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

2:13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,

2:14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.


2:15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

2:16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.

2:17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

2:18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking,

2:19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

 

 

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' down the street,

Oh please let it be for me!

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' down the street,

I wish, I wish I knew what it could be!

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' now

Is it a prepaid surprise or C.O.D.

 

O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' down the street.

Oh, don't let him pass my door!

O-ho the Wells Fargo

Wagon is a-comin' down the street

I wish I knew what he was comin' for.

 

O-ho, you Wells Fargo Wagon keep a-comin'

O-ho, you Wells Fargo 

Wagon, keep a-comin'.

O-ho you Wells Fargo Wagon, Don't you dare make a stop

Until you stop for me!

 

You may well recognize these lyrics from a song in The Music Man musical. I left out the verse written with a “lisp” for little Winthrop, played in the first film version by a very young Ronnie Howard.  The song was about the anticipation the famous overland shipping company’s delivery wagons brought to distant—especially West of the Mississippi—customers. 

 

[Funny Ronnie Howard story: a good number of years ago, one of the TV morning shows held a Happy Days cast reunion, and most of the cast was present, gathered together around a sofa. Marion Ross was there, along with TV husband, Tom Bosley. So was Erin Morgan, Don Most, and Anson Williams. After hearing their recollections of working together, along with a few requisite “funny things that happened” outtakes, the morning host welcomed Ron Howard to the show, electronically, via a split screen (now we would say Zoomed him in). After hearing from him, the host invited the cast to greet him. They did, saying “Greetings, Mr. Howard,” or “What are you working on NOW, Mr. Howard,” displaying obvious subordination to the highly successful producer/director. The host joked about this, reminding them this was their beloved “Richie Cunningham.” But they insisted on continuing the “Mr. Howard” line, with Tom Bosley finally chastising the host, “No, no, we’re all out-of-work actors looking for WORK and this is Mr. Ron Howard, one of the busiest and most powerful directors in film and television today. We’re AVAILABLE, Mr. Howard, if you could use us!” The host, “Mr. Howard,” and I’m sure a large segment of America got a good laugh out of that.]


OK, back to Wells Fargo. It’s just a banking company, now, but what has taken its place in provoking such delivery anticipation is AMAZON! We’ve all gone ga-ga over online shopping! Is there ANYTHING you can’t find and order from Amazon? And it’s delivered RIGHT TO YOUR DOOR, and usually within two days. They email you “Your package has been delivered!”, and ask, “How was your delivery?” (Was it good for you?) They send you a PHOTO of your package, sitting on your doorstep. If you have one of their Echo devices, “Alexa” will announce that Amazon Shopping has delivered your goods “From Amazon Shopping, an item for JEFFREY has been delivered!” And we all run to the door. “O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon…”

 

Since January 1 of this year, I have ordered:

 

                        -About 15 different cell phone cases

                        -Who knows how many DVDs (Amazon knows)

                        -A raft of KN95 disposable masks for COVID

                        -Stainless Steel RIVITS for my workshop

                        -Several Internet SECURITY CAMERAS

                        -A new BIBLE for my mother

                        -LED lights for our kitchen

                        -WATER FILTERS for our refrigerator

                        -A new DECK BOX for our deck

                        -A string of LIGHTS for our deck

                        -Ratchet TIE-DOWN STRIPS for hauling stuff with our car

                        -Green TABASCO SAUCE

                        -New BED SHEETS for our $8,000 BED we got

                        -A DESK LAMP for Dara’s sewing room

                        -A “tool kit” for the Charcuterie Board I made for Dara

                        -A new pair of BEDROOM SLIPPERS for me

                        -A MOUTHWASH PUMP DISPENSOR 

                        -OFFICE CHAIR MATS after we got our new carpet

                        -DRESS SOCKS

                        -A STYLUS PEN for my iPad

                        -A MAGNETIC PIN HOLDER for sewing

                        -An APPLE WATCH BAND

                        -A CLASSIC EDITION TRIVIAL PURSUIT Game

                        -A set of WINDSHIELD WIPER BLADES for my sports car

                        -MORE KN95 Disposable Masks for COVID

                        -An LED SHOP LIGHT for over the BAND SAW I bought!

                        -A WEATHER-BLOCKING DOOR SWEEP 

                        -A FABRIC SHOWER CURTAIN

 

AND that‘s all just 2022, and only MY ORDERS. Dara orders her own stuff, usually for her sewing hobby. And, of course, this does not include the books we order through the Kindle accounts we both have, or the videos through our Prime Video account! Our neighborhood in Adams Ridge has so many AMAZON SMILE delivery trucks zooming in and out every day, they are thinking of opening a dispatcher’s office in our CLUBHOUSE, I swear!

 

The genius of what Jeff Bezos did was invent a way for thousands of companies to market their products through his website—AMAZON—and set up an amazing distribution network. Add to that a way for customers to REVIEW their purchases, and you have a pretty amazing system. The shutdown of the global pandemic not only didn’t slow Amazon’s business much, but it actually exploded it, as most of us didn’t leave the house for months. I could pull out my phone RIGHT NOW and order groceries that would be brought right to my front door. 

 

I’m not here to argue over the obvious problems with the Amazon “monster,” ranging from the packaging waste, to labor issues, its effect on local retail, or even the fact that it has created the richest man on earth with an oversized ego. Actually, there are several of those out there, but Bezos shares the spotlight for the power he has amassed. I do want to highlight the “miracle” of our package being delivered, and the almost “organic” system Amazon has created for getting it there. 

 

THE AUTHOR of today’s SCRIPTURE, though, says that God trumped even JEFF BEZOS!

 

I’LL BET that if I asked you to WRITE DOWN all of the needs you have in life, your list might be as long as my shopping list, but our text from COLOSSIANS today says that God already built a DELIVERY SYSTEM to meet those needs.

 

HIS name is JESUS CHRIST! Jesus is a “one size fits all” Savior, yet is custom fit to every child of God, and every need, beginning with, as the Colossians author says, humanity’s need for forgiveness and salvation. Since Colossians is typically ascribed to Paul, we say Paul, uses poetic phrases to describe how the eternally expansive Divine was “packaged” into the human form as Jesus Christ and delivered as a gift to our world. We are not only the beneficiaries of this “care package,” but are now invited to live in full communion with the Living Christ, inspired, empowered, and guided by the “Spirit of Jesus,” the ever-present Holy Spirit. There has never been a “delivery system” like this! I guess God is one thing you will not find on Amazon, but the Bible brings God right to your home. 

 

In today’s text, Paul draws a direct connection between the Godhead and each and every human being who gives ascent to Christ in faith. However, he also cautions against “buying” the restrictive, law-based religion that was prevalent in the Judaism of his day, and that was infiltrating the fledgling Christian church. His cautions are just as appropriate today, as this kind of religion has never gone out of vogue. There are those today who wish to impose human-contrived doctrines and dogmas as necessary precursors to “legitimate” Christianity. In Paul’s words: 

 

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”

 

The author uses one of his favorite phrases when describing the “juvenile” theology of those who seek to control religious faith: stoicheia tou kosmou, which is translated here, “elemental spirits of the universe.” One could view this as “the devil’s realm,” but I am convinced it refers to this kind of universal, human need to “control” God, or at least keep a tight rein on how God is meted out. Since we can’t actually control God, people—especially religious leaders—instead seek to control ACCESS to God. I know lots of people who think they are God’s business agents, and they try to make God’s grace be a contractual arrangement. Paul clearly juxtaposes this to what God has done and pronounces it “not according to Christ.” Christ is a gift, not a doctrine, not a dogma, and he does not come with strings attached. As a favorite song says of Jesus, “ They cut me down and I leaped up high, I am the life that will never, never die…” Jesus is “Lord of the Dance,” not “Dancer of Doctrine” or “Riverdance of Rules.” Paul’s Jesus “dances,” and is the free gift to all of humanity, rendering each person a child of God. Christ is, indeed, the “complete package.”

 

And WE are made complete in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God does all of the “heavy lifting” in redeeming humankind. In Christ, God meets every need of humans. We are baptized into Christ, as a sign of our continuing transformation. In Christ, we fully participate in the unfolding Kingdom of God. 

 

I think we can get Paul’s point, as this Gospel is meant to be a simple one, delivered to the door of every human heart. One orders the gift by simply believing, and following. Remember the “complex” invite Jesus offered each of the twelve: “Follow me.” We get the same invite, when we “open the package.

 

So, Paul is saying, in a manner of speaking, “Your package has been delivered. How was your delivery?” Only life will tell!

 

O-ho the LORD JESUS Wagon is a-comin' down the street,

Oh please let it be for me!

O-ho the LORD JESUS Wagon is a-comin' down the street,

I know, I know I know what it can be for ME!

 

O-ho, you Lord Jesus Wagon keep a-comin'

O-ho, you Lord Jesus Wagon, keep a-comin'.

O-ho you Lord Jesus Wagon, Don't you dare make a stop

Until you stop for me!

 

Amen.

 

 

Friday, July 15, 2022

Wonderlust...

 


Colossians 1:15-17


1:15 Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;

1:16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.

1:17 Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

 

“It makes our spirits soar.” This is a line spoken by the character, Cliff Buxton, a scientist played by actor Sam Neill, in the feel-good film, “The Dish.” The film is about the radio telescope crew at Parkes, Australia that had the awesome responsibility of relaying communication from Apollo 11—including the live TV pictures--during the historic moonwalk. His assessment of that event could well be applied to this week’s revelation of the first photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope, or “JWST” as it is known, including the photo above. One would have to be brain-dead to not gaze in wonder at these pictures, and they are just the first of a cornucopia of startling images we will see in the years of the JWST’s life. Our spirits will indeed soar, again and again.

 

The early images released by the James Webb Space Telescope team are astounding, to say the least. I have a 27 inch Apple MacIntosh computer with a “Retina” screen, meaning it is extremely sharp. It’s actually sharper than the five megabyte images released to the public thus far, but still, the first image I downloaded to my Mac caused me to lean forward on my writing desk, bringing me just a foot from my computer’s large screen, put my chin in my hands, and just stare at the photo. Everywhere I looked, I could see galaxies. Now, the Hubble telescope had taken a similar “deep field” image of a narrow section of the sky, and its image was certainly spectacular for its time, but this—THIS JWST was astounding! Even MORE galaxies popped into view on the screen, and the colors were just as astounding. I have just enough “space brains” to be dangerous, but I am aware that many of the colors represent the distance the object pictured is “away” from us (an almost meaningless term, actually) and/or how fast it is traveling as it moves opposite our direction of travel through the cosmos, as the universe continues to expand. A “red shifted” object is far away, and is probably moving away from us at a great deal of speed, both facts of which cause the light we see from it to be from the red spectrum. One could only gaze in wonder at the JWST’s tiny, tiny slice of the space “sky,” which yielded so many other galaxies in our universe. Looking at the other pictures thus far released provoked my coining the phrase, “wonderlust.” It wasn’t a word, but it is, now!

 

Before we consider the theological and spiritual questions these new photos of the cosmos raise, let’s just “wonder” a bit about what we see in them, in terms of what science is telling us. Here is the first image we were shown:

 


In it, we see all of those galaxies I mentioned earlier. GALAXIES! Can we comprehend that these hundreds of things dotting this photo—some large enough to see their spiral nature, and some that appear just slightly larger than stars—are galaxies made up of millions and millions of stars, just like our own Milky Way is? And just imagine how many of those billions of stars in all of those galaxies may have planets circling them, just like our own solar system. And what are the odds that some of these may have also been gifted with sentient, intelligent life like we profess to be here on Planet Earth? Forgive the expression, but it’s probably “astronomical.” Then, take a moment to ponder two additional, incredible facts: 1. These galaxies (and therefore their stars and planets) are so many billions and billions of miles apart that it is most likely impossible for one of those civilizations to visit another, even with whatever advanced technology they could contrive. Even Star Trek’s “warp drive” could not traverse these distances, at least in the lifetime of the average human. And 2. The light we see from many of them is billions and billions of “years old,” in that it took that long to reach us, traveling at 186,272 miles PER SECOND! Which, of course, means that even if one could travel to one of those distant galaxies, it may not even be there anymore, having lived out its life and burned out or burned up, or been swallowed by a Black Hole. Keep staring at this photo, and let your imagination run wild—life’s too short to limit one’s “wondering!”

 

The second photo released is the one pictured as the lead-in to this week’s sermon. These beautiful clouds of space dust have been dubbed “star factories” by the scientists of the JWST team, meaning that in the midst of this “gold” dust, gravity is gathering material to ignite yet another new star. Some of the bright stars pictured around the cloud may well be new ones that just were “created” within the past few billion years, or so. Hubble gave us a similar view of a dust cloud/star factory that literally looked like fingers reaching into the heavens, an image some folk dubbed, “The hand of the Creator.” Again, spend a few moments just “wondering” about what you see in this photo. Try to put higher reasoning and conjecture together beyond just how “pretty” the colors are—come up with a few theories of your own, as to what is going on. While we’re not astronomers, astro-physicists, or space scientists, we have the right to advance our own ideas, and have almost as much to go on as the former bunch does! Maybe more, if you add in our childlike way we do our “wondering,” unencumbered by book-learning and Ph.D.s. I just can’t look at these photos without inserting an “intelligence” into them. Are not they just too beautiful, awesome, staggering, and inspiring to be a snapshot of random, cataclysmic events? Those of us who reckon ourselves to be at least “grassroots” theologians have to ask ourselves, where is GOD in all of this?

 

As we examine a few of my thoughts on this matter, let me say, first of all, that I have the utmost respect for any of the scientists on the JWST team who would declare themselves to be “atheists” or “agnostics.” These declarations serve as scientific “partitioning” or “controls,” allowing them to study the phenomenon revealed by the James Webb Space Telescope with purely their “science minds,” themselves unencumbered by the burden of proving or disproving a “Creator’s hand” is at work. Let their science do its work, then we’ll see what happens to the prevailing witnesses to the majesty being uncovered. I have often said that I most enjoy good conversation with those who “don’t believe in God,” as long as both parties don’t judge the other as deluded, right off the bat. The same will certainly be true for these “wonder” workers, in the case of the JWST.

 

If the cosmic reality we see in these mind-boggling photos is the culmination of a series of random, unplanned or unguided events, then I will say that such randomness has, itself, risen to the level of cosmic consciousness, and deserves to be given a divine seat. In my life, when randomness prevails, things go to hell in a hurry, never organizing themselves into anything coherent. Witness this sermon, for example, or many of them I write, for that matter. But then, if this universe-wide series of random events has been going on long enough—and it has, when they talk about billions and billions of years—maybe it would succeed in creating such a beautiful, systemic universe. After all, enough time has passed that a whole host of inferior universes conjured up by chance could have come and gone, only now leaving in their place the masterpiece we now behold. I just can’t get there, however.

 

At the my first glimpse of the James Webb Space Telescope photos, what immediately came to mind was the recent experience of standing in a large, dark warehouse building surrounded by beautiful strains of music and animated projections of the art of Vincent van Gogh moving all around me. I marveled at the creativity of this man, and was momentarily “lost” in the all-encompassing beauty of it—“immersed,” as they said. If the technical geniuses who put “Immersive Van Gogh” together just wait a few months, collect the photos surely to be handed down by the JWST team, and give them the same treatment as what I witnessed in that Pittsburgh warehouse, we will most assuredly be treated to an inspiring display by another artist! Maybe we should dub the Divine the “God of all Randomness”? Whole galaxies spinning in space, newly-minted stars, and colorful dust clouds will take the place of impressionistic water lilies and “starry nights.” Surely—SURELY—there is an “artist” behind what we are seeing in these revelatory photographs from a telescope parked at “Lagrange Point Two,” a million miles out in space? 

 

Now, let’s let today’s passage from Colossians really blow your mind: This divine artist not only sculpted the “random” galaxies and stars in our universe, but the Divine also visited us in human form! Colossians 1:15-17 gives us the unique description of the “cosmic” Christ, the one for whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible.” Don’t you just love the author’s “scientific” theory that “in [Christ] all things hold together”? Modern science has demonstrated that the forces in a single atom of matter are exponentially strong, and that this power is “held together” by something called the “strong nuclear force,” which they don’t understand, but for which there is incredible empirical evidence (witness nuclear power and, of course, nuclear weapons). The author of Colossians may be postulating that the Son of God is not only a co-creator of all things visible and invisible, but that his “hand” may be this strong nuclear force literally holding all matter together! Even if one is to take this sentence figuratively, it is still an important truth—Jesus is that which brings meaning and “sense” to the whole of creation, especially our human lives. And all of this power “pitched his tent” among earthly humans—the “Word made flesh,” as the Gospel of John tells us in its first chapter. The “human” Christ is also the “cosmic” Christ, as well as the Savior Christ. Look into your own heart, and you will find Christ’s divine love at work. Look at the images from the James Webb Space Telescope, and you will see the results when that same love is expanded to a cosmic size!

 

For me, the “magic” of my faith has always been this deeply personal, yet immensely cosmic creativity and love I see in Christ, my Savior. I have never had the idea that I would want to “hug” Jesus when I get to the Divine Realm, but step back and just take him in—just like I have been doing with the photos from his “family photo album” from the JWST. I’ve been less impressed with the question, “What would Jesus Do?” than I have been with the reality, “Look what Jesus DID!”

 

At a few funeral services of dear, dear parishioners who “got” this deeply human, yet universally cosmic view of God, I have shared a few sentences from Robert Fulghum’s book, “From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives.” In the book, Fulghum tells of buying his grave plot, and going out on starry nights and lying on it on a blanket and staring up at the heavens. He recounts:

 

"Looking up and trying to conceive of the magnitude and complexity of space, I was caught between two overwhelming thoughts: that there may be no other intelligent life out there or that the number of worlds occupied by life like us may well be infinite. Either point of view staggers my mind. Just being able to consider such questions is amazing enough...I have never liked the phrase that says we're just made of dust and return to dust. We are energy, which is interchangeable with light. We are fire and water and earth. We are air and atoms and quarks. Moreover, we are dreams, hopes, and fears held together by wisdom and driven apart by folly. So much more than dust. The biblical verse should say, 'Miracle thou art and to Mystery returneth.' 

 

'The light I see from my grave started toward me before I came into being. The source of the light may have died out by now. That's a scientific fact. My life gives off another kind of light as it consumes its energy. That light may shine long after the source is gone."

 

May it be so for the light of each of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Amen!

 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Plumb Crazy...


 

Amos 7:7-8
7:7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.

7:8 And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;

 

Luke 10:25-28
10:25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

10:26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?"

10:27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

10:28 And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

 

 

My late father-in-law was a union carpenter. He once told me, “Give me a plumb line, and I can build you a perfectly straight house, hanger, or hospital with no problem!” One “true” plumb line is all it takes. Why is that?

 

A line weighted with a plumb bob will point directly toward the center of the earth. Use it to “square out” out from when building something, and all of your walls and corners will be “plumb,” meaning they will technically extend straight up between the center of the earth and heaven. Now, please note here, that because the earth is a sphere (sorry, you flat-earth people, but it IS), all vertical elements set “plumb” will actually fall along a radius from the earth’s center, meaning that they will radiate along the surface of the sphere, but since the earth is immense, this minor deviation due to its curvature, is all but immeasurable. To us, our levels, and our plumb line, your building will be “square and plumb.” So, the plumb line is a standard, against which all else is measured.

 

The Amos text is famous for the “God’s plumb line” declaration. Israel will be measured against GOD’S standard, not her own, or that of any other earthly authority. On one hand, it is a promise—that God’ will make God’s standards (commands and guidance) clear and ever-present. On the other hand, it is a statement of accountability for Israel, namely that God will hold its behavior up to God’s “plumb line” to see how “true” they are building their lives, their society, and by association, the Kingdom or Realm of God on earth. “Building” by God’s plumb line standard makes for less stressful, more abundant living. Building a society by God’s plumb line means less conflict, greater collaboration, and that society prosper as a people. On the third matter—cooperation in building the Realm of God on earth—God will demand, not request, the builders meet God’s “true” standards, and that the building be square at every corner.

 

Incidentally, I live in a really nice townhouse built by the Ryan Homes company. While it isn’t evident that they cut too many corners, it is clear that a plumb line must have been absent, or those who knew how to use one were, on the build team. I can’t testify that all of our corners are out-of-square, but at least two where I wanted to hang corner shelves are. I did successfully hang the shelves, but a 90 degree shelf unit fit into a 90 degree corner should not leave a wedge-shaped gap large enough to lose a key fob through. Apparently, the “art” of building off of a plumb line is becoming a lost one, or if some “new” technology of squaring walls and corners has eclipsed the simple plumb line, it was in its beta release in the townhouses of Adams Ridge!

 

So, God is going to put a plumb line in the midst of the people—a promise of reliable standards for them to follow, as well as a measure of accountability for how the “builders” are doing. Obviously, when we read Israel’s history as recorded by the Hebrew Bible, or fast-forward to our time, when we can see first-hand how modern Israel is doing, it becomes clear that both have often been the “Ryan Homes” of Godly nations. Their religious leaders have made lots of rules, but many of the ones they have propagated and enforced seem not to have been guided by God’s plumb line. This is why Jesus goes postal on them so often—their rules are oppressive and alienating, not helpful and useful to the gathered community. And they pretty much either ignore or oppress marginalized folk. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the Christian church hasn’t always yielded to the lessons Jesus taught, either, even as he sought to reestablish God’s “plumb line” in the midst of the people—US.

 

The Lukan passage this week reveals what Jesus sees as God’s universal “plumb line” standard. The lawyer, who has not formulated his question out of integrity but instigation, asks about “inheriting eternal life.” From his perspective, this would be the “gold standard” of peace with God. And why not? If one believes in the whole medieval “heaven vs. hell” scenario, “eternal life” is a code phrase for receiving God’s blessing at death to continue life in the eternal realm of God we call “heaven.” If one misses the mark, then it’s “no soup for you”—hell. From a more liberal theological perspective, we might rather ruminate on “life after death,” or better yet, the QUALITY of our life after death. If we believe in the transforming, saving power of Jesus Christ, then we may eschew the dualistic “heaven vs. hell” understanding for one where pretty much anyone who WANTS to be present with God in death, can be. (I had a wise preacher suggest to me once that “No one is going to be in heaven who doesn’t WANT to be there,” and human free will causes me to believe that.) Life in the Realm of God after death is a gift of God’s grace, made possible by the life, ministry, and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and has little to do with human agency. However, the QUALITY of that life does. If we follow the teachings of Jesus, squaring ourselves against God’s “plumb line,” the life we live now AND then will be so much richer and far less self-centered. It will mirror  the perfect line and squareness of the plumb line—Jesus, the LIVING plumb line! In this model, evangelism is heralding the grace of God available to all people, and then guiding and aiding them in “plumbing” their lives to Christ’s standards. It is an abundant and peaceful life, both here, now and there, later. 

 

I understand that this interpretation will not square with my more conservative friends who see “eternal life” as a much more exclusive club requiring a “secret word” to get in (saying the right “sinner’s prayer; knowing WHEN you were “saved,” etc.). And some go as far as to judge some behaviors so taboo that they negate access to the restricted “club” of the redeemed. But let’s look at what Jesus set as the standard.

 

Lawyer: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 

Jesus: “What do you think?”

 

Lawyer: “Love God with everything you’ve got, and your neighbor as yourself.” 

 

Jesus: CORRECT! Now go do that!

There’s our plumb line, from the Living Plumb Line, himself. It is my conviction that when Jesus made the statement, “Narrow is the way that leads to eternal life…and broad is the way that leads to destruction,” he was saying that the “narrow way” is the simple way—love God and neighbor.” The “broad way” is one littered by excess rules, human-derived standards, and riddled with potholes created by selfishness and exclusivity. It is a false plumb line. Jesus said “few” find the ”easy” or “narrow way,” probably because we want to believe we are more special than others, especially the others we consider inferior or “more sinful.” We may be easily seduced by the rules-based faith and the “secret passwords” that filter out the “riff-raff.” The church often does a decent job of OFFERING the grace of God, but then weigh it down with a plethora of rules, or create a whole slew of “private plumb lines” against which to measure new disciples. The newly discipled are chased off by these. I pray they find the “narrow way” of Jesus—loving God and neighbor—wherever they go, for if not, we are the source of the “millstone” that sinks them.

 

Another important question in interpreting these “plumb line” texts is: What is it that we are building? It’s one thing to have a plumb line against which to measure what we build, but quite another to know what we’re building in the first place! No one builds a building without plans, or in other words, just starts putting up studs and walls, figuring “we’ll just see what develops.” That would be just plumb crazy! It sure looks to me, however, that this is what is happening in the United Methodist Church, as it faces schism, and both “sides” may fall prey to this mistake. As we look back into Christian history, it seems that the church has done this any time it allows rules and dogmas to take precedence over the “love God and love neighbor” standard of Jesus. Deciding that we will follow the “narrow way” of loving God and neighbor allows a ”bigger picture” theology that would lead to a clearer set of plans to enhance each generation’s love of God, and to better deduce what the needs of our neighbors are, that we may organize to meet them. The “building” we build by this methodology will more likely be both a community center AND a worship space, and one that is adaptable to the time and need of the people it serves. It is a place of grace with an “open door” policy. If we instead continue to build on the rules and dogmas of “orthodoxy,” we will just keep putting up studs and walls, never developing a plan that amounts to anything that has the power to change lives. Right doctrine begins to usurp right living. When that happens, we may become preoccupied with policing the ranks of the “saved” and less focused on the teachings of Jesus—the plumb line.

 

Friends, I’m playing with a few images here to get us thinking about how different and diverse the community of faith could be if it were to build on the “love God and neighbor” standard. How many people have seen through the historically popular “rule and control” form, and have “voted with their feet” to leave the organizations it created. Again, it is my conviction that the “narrow way” is also the easy way—build a place where people can learn how to love God passionately, and a storehouse of resources and tools to help them love their neighbors better, and I’ll bet they’ll beat a path to its open doors.

 

Those of you savvy with the Common Lectionary know that I left off the second part of the “Lawyer and Jesus” story from Luke. It’s the part about when the lawyer—who came to trick Jesus, remember—asks “Who is my neighbor?” The answer Jesus gives is one of the most beloved and quoted stories in the whole Bible, the one we have dubbed “The Good Samaritan.” In this story, a hated stranger makes a great sacrifice to help an injured person who hates him enough to wish him dead (which was a real-life scenario in that day between Jews and Samaritans). Does THAT sound familiar? Yes, the lawyer, who is trying to trip up Jesus so they can snuff him for breaking their rules and dogmas, is ultimately saved by a great sacrifice made by the one he hates. 

 

We now have the Living Plumb Line in our midst. We are called to build a place that teaches people about loving God passionately, and resource them as they go home to love their neighbor. It’s that simple. To again quote Winston Zeddemore from the film, “Ghostbusters,” “We have the TOOLS, we have the TALENT!” And we have the plumb line. Had the Christian church “kept it simple, stupid” down through the ages, we might not have a thousand divergent denominations, a gaggle of “independent” churches, and may not be facing a split in yet another major Christian Communion. However, it is never too late to “revisit” our personal relationship with the “love God, love neighbor” standard, “true up our corners,” and remodel the church to be the “community life center” those plans call for. Amen? Amen! 

 

 

 

 

Friday, July 1, 2022

Special Delivery...

 

“Special Delivery”

 

2 Kings 5:1-6
5:1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 

5:2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. 

5:3 She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." 

5:4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 

5:5 And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel." He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 

5:6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." 

 

Luke 10:1
10:1 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.

 

I want to talk about letters of reference. As a pastor for 36 years, I was often asked to write a letter of recommendation for a parishioner, often a young one applying for a scholarship or a first job, but not always. The request could also come from a “seasoned” parishioner who was looking to change jobs, careers, or jump back into the classroom at a local college. Depending on the circumstance that precipitated the request, I would often give the disclaimer that, unless they were looking for a “character” reference, pastors are often not the best sources for letters of recommendation. We are not swift to tell the truth about a parishioner if we feel they are not a good candidate for a given slot, and in good Christian love, we may also have a penchant for “puffing” our recommendation on behalf of one of our people out of a desire to build their self-esteem. Either way, we are largely an unreliable source. As a trained journalist, I usually sought to eschew these errors when writing “those letters,” which, more often than not, led me to electronically tear up the negative ones as being not “accurate” but mean, or to rewrite the overly nice ones so as to sound more genuine. In the end, I’m guessing that my pastoral letters of recommendation were just as useless as those written by clergy that embodied the aforementioned errors. Moral of the story: If you want your pastor to write you a letter of recommendation, let them know WHY, and offer specific, prudent content suggestions so they may write it with conviction, while maintaining her or his integrity. 

 

In this regard, I frequently wrestled with two thoughts: Could I write the letter in such a way that it was honest, yet something I would have no ethical problem with copying it to the one who requested it; and if I wrote the letter in a fully honest light (and it wasn’t so flattering), could I defend my assessment of the individual, should they gain access to its contents, or at least the gist of it? Do you see the ethical dilemma you put your pastor in when you DO ask them to write one of these letters? So, the ultimate moral of the story is, live an exemplary life, fully moral, ethical, and above board, volunteer regularly around your church, unselfishly giving of yourself to help the poor, and never miss attending church—then your pastor will passionately and accurately craft an Epistle of Stellar Endorsement on your behalf. Otherwise, find someone who has known you longer and lies better.

 

I’ve referenced two portions of lectionary readings for this sermon this weekend: the “letter of recommendation” the King of Aram wrote for Naaman, the commander of his army, to the king of Israel, commending Naaman as worthy of a cure for leprosy they had heard was available in Israel. Some might say that it was more of a “shipping label” or a letter of transmittal, covering the political bases for why Naaman, a military leader, was arriving on foreign turf. Others might simply call it a bribe letter, as it was arriving with a few trunks of booty, in an effort to both alleviate the fears of this being a prelude to an attack, and to “pay” for the cure. The king of Israel pretty much freaks out, fearing the former, and it takes the newly-minted prophet, Elisha, to settle him down and give Naaman permission to be healed by their Yahweh mojo. When Elisha gives the good word to Naaman, telling him the mojo required him to wash seven times in Israel’s Jordan river, then Naaman freaked out and ranted. Again, it was his people who quelled the riot, and humbled him to take the mojo. He did, and he was healed. 

 

The second “letter” I reference in the Lukan text is the “guinea pig” letter Jesus “writes” by sending 70 of his disciples out, two-by-two, to the towns where he intended to go, to see how they were treated. Like the King of Aram’s letter to Israel, Jesus is using this “human mail” to test the waters. As his ministry was growing in leaps and bounds, and attracting a large audience, I’m sure he figured, “Why go to places where they are not going to accept me?” It makes sense. Years ago, when I was serving as Dean of the Pastor’s Academy at Olmsted Manor (our adult retreat facility), I was in one-on-one negotiations with a leading clergy author, hoping to land them as our presenter a couple of years down the road. All was going well, including persuading this individual to give us a substantial discount on their usual speaking fee, until they found out that Olmsted could only host and house 66 pastors for such an event. The person literally hung up on me and I never heard from them again. I’m guessing this is what Jesus would have done about the towns the 70 were sent to if they freaked out like the king of Israel or Naaman did. They would have just been deemed not worth of his making the trip. In the Luke 10 passage, however, they were received with much excitement, and Jesus probably took his road show there.

 

We are just concluding our week at the Chautauqua Institution, where I have been serving as chaplain at the United Methodist House. It’s a dirty job, but SOMEONE has to do it! Seriously, a Sunday sermon, a “Chaplain’s Chat” on the porch of the UM House on Tuesday, and a presentation of some sort (we bored them with slides from our “Native American Immersion Experience” last October in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference) on Thursday evening, and you and your partner get a full pass to most of the Chautauqua activities for the whole week and a “free” room! Oh, you do have to vacuum the porch in the mornings, and aid the host couple, but it’s quite light duty for the wonderful benefits! Anyway, where I want to go with this is how thought-provoking and inspiring the daily speakers have been here. The topic this week is “What is America’s Place in the World?” What I have been hearing from the international experts, and interfaith speakers as well, is that other countries still WANT the United States to be the leaders of the free world, but the “letters” we have been sending with our internal, political infighting and democracy-poisoning activities, have set them all on edge at best, and have them freaking out, at worst. When our President tries to send a reassuring message to the world community, our words are writing a check our behavior can’t cash. These speakers have all been pleading with us to vote for responsible leaders who will preserve and reinforce our democracy, and who will rebuild our “street cred” on the international scene. The other countries are counting on us as much as our own destiny as a democracy—what Ronald Reagan called the “shining city on a hill”—is.

 

How about you? Did you ever think about what YOUR life sends out in advance as ITS “letter of recommendation”? If you are a well-educated person, those you encounter will expect that you will “live into” your education, be open to dialogue and conversation with even those with whom you may disagree, and reason with rational logic when presenting your positions or arguments. Do you see that if you instead pick fights, speak or write with much vitriol, or reject “the other’s” ideas out of hand, they may “freak out” on you? You are “out of character” from what your ”advance letter” sends ahead. If you are a “values” person with strong ethical views or deeply religious convictions, your “public” will not expect hateful responses or violence from you, in response to conflicting ideas or divergent opinions. And if we are trying to live as Christians, what kind of “letter of recommendation” does how we spend our money or use our wealth send to others whom we want to trust us—or “like” us? 

 

The Chautauqua speakers this week suggested that what made America the world’s leader in freedom was a unique “marrying” of individual rights with communal responsibilities as a public. We used to elect leaders who helped us preserve and grow our democracy at home as well as truly serve as a “shining city on a hill” to the world. And we backed them up, regardless of party affiliation, especially when we were challenged as a nation, or had to challenge another nation on their behavior. George Packer, a renowned author and commentator, suggested that the current bent toward absolute, personal rights almost opposed to any communal accountability is “holding a gun to the head of democracy” as it has been practiced in the United States since its birth as a nation. When asked what we could do to restore us to democratic sanity, Packer said, simply, “VOTE.” If we don’t recover from the toxicity we are now showing to the world, our reputation will not survive, and it is our stock in trade. 

 

Monday is our nation’s birthday. Someone wrote on Facebook today that we don’t deserve a birthday party. On the contrary, we need one, with flags, fireworks, and lots of Americans of every stripe celebrating together. “Together” is the magic word. On Thursday, Dr. Satpal Singh, a Sikh originally from India, and a neurological researcher spoke as our interfaith lecturer. As he told about his first July 4 celebration in America—July 4, 1976, as we were observing our 200th birthday—he spoke of the flags and fireworks, and people around him enjoying American life together, he literally had to pause as he got emotional, just recalling the experience. And later in his talk, he again had to stop as he talked of seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. He tried to quote Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, “The New Colossus,” and couldn’t even get through it. It made me, a native-born American both emotional and ashamed, as I was again reminded of the great gift this country should be to us all and to the world. Who will be our Elisha, calming down both parties and affecting healing?

 

Remember that as you enjoy your Independence Day gathering. And remember that it was a letter that was sent “Special Delivery” to the King of England that started it all—a letter that spoke of “inalienable rights” and the “pursuit of happiness, and all [men] being created equal—that started this whole thing, and it was Benjamin Franklin, as he signed that document, who said, “We must hang together, or we will most assuredly hang separately!” This is as true of the Christian Church and the community of faith Jesus called it to be, as it is of the United States of America. Amen, and Happy 4th of July!

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...