Thursday, August 25, 2022

Car 54, Where ARE You?

 


“Car 54, Where ARE You?”

 

Jeremiah 2:4-13
2:4 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel.

2:5 Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

2:6 They did not say, "Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?"

2:7 I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.

2:8 The priests did not say, "Where is the LORD?" Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.

2:9 Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children's children.

2:10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing.

2:11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.

2:12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD,

2:13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

 

There's a holdup in the Bronx, 
Brooklyn's broken out in fights. 
There's a traffic jam in Harlem 
That's backed up to Jackson Heights. 
There's a scout troop short a child, 
Khrushchev's due at Idlewild 
Car 54, Where Are You? 

Officers Toody and Muldoon never seemed to be where they were most needed, in this goofy police sitcom that hit the airwaves in 1961. As a kid, I never missed it. And I followed the career of Muldoon actor Fred Gwynne from this silly comedy, on to become Herman Munster, and eventually on the bench as a Southern judge in My Cousin Vinny. It was the daffy theme song of Car 54, though, that I thought of as I read this week’s lectionary offering from the Prophet Jeremiah. “Car 54, WHERE ARE YOU?”

 

Maybe it’s me, but the warnings and pronouncements of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible sure seem to be speaking to 21st Century America. It’s no wonder so many people think God has gone missing. Remember the old bumper sticker? “If you feel separated from God, guess who’s moved.” Has GOD really gone missing, or have we moved so far from God’s “precinct” that we THINK it is God who is absent? We all know the answer to that question, don’t we? 

 

Now, some will readily agree with the proposition that we have “moved away from God,” but their diagnosis of what that means is mostly in error. I had several parishioners who would say, “Our problems began when we took prayer out of the schools.” Really? There is nothing about this postulate that is correct. Prayer and Bible readings in public schools was a SYMPTOM of the problems that pervaded in the United States. In a nation founded on religious freedom, and that guaranteed in its constitution there would be NO state establishment of religion, we had readings from the Judeo-Christian BIBLE in public school classrooms, and prayers led by school teachers, usually concluding with the Lord’s Prayer, which is obviously a Christian prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples. And many times the morning Bible reading was from the New Testament. This “exercise” in public religion was held every morning in my first and second grade classrooms back in the late 50s and early 1950s. I distinctly remember sitting in class as the teacher was reading from one of the Gospels and leading the entire class in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, all the while, I was glancing around the room at my friends named Levine, Siegel, Goldberg, and Slesnick, and wondering what THEY were thinking? Some of my best friends in school were from dedicated Jewish families, part of the Tree of Life Synagogue that was just a block below my home on West First Street. I can tell you that I was just as happy as they were when Third Grade convened, and this practice was now outlawed by the United States Supreme Court. While I was happy with the Christian faith I was being raised in by a regular church-going family, I was also taught to respect the faith of others, be they Catholic (and this was pre-Vatican II, so there was a real chasm between Protestants and Catholics) or Jewish, especially since Oil City had a vibrant and fairly large Jewish population, for a small town. 


No, the ills of our nation were not CAUSED by “prayer in schools,” but this was a symptom of our segregation and hostility toward members of minority races and religions, as contrary to the establishment clause, Christianity had become our de facto national religion. Isn’t it interesting, how many “simple blames” people can come up with as to why a society has problems? Our shared problems are created by complex systems of inequality, oppression, and dominance of a majority faction, be it political, religious, racial, or economic. And yet, there are those quick to blame “taking prayer out of schools,” or “It’s God’s judgment on us because of abortion, or gays, or drugs, or sexual promiscuity.” Sure, it’s never ME! I’M not to blame for racism or sexism, or crime, or poverty! It MUST be the judgment of God, somehow. Or, maybe YOU’RE to blame! If only you would become a good Christian like ME, and believe the way I do, everything would be just fine! The problems with this line of thinking are myriad, and give rise to hostile, oppressive systems, in an attempt to bring about the “fix” as envisioned by what may be a slight majority of folk who make up a voting bloc. I suggest that overly simplistic “solutions” for complex problems are ultimately to blame for oppressive systems that drive wedges deeper between people. Jeremiah got this.

 

God set Israel up in a plentiful and fruited land, gave them everything they would need to be prosperous, with enough for everybody. How did they respond? By crafting their own Gods to serve their selfish interests, and creating factions that divided the people. “Tribe pride” crept in. They forgot the heritage of Yahweh, who had delivered them from the bondage of Egypt and led them to freedom through the wilderness. They forgot the strong leaders God called to deliver them, and in the midst of promised prosperity, began to hoard the spoils of the land, eschew the wider community, and prey upon the weaker members, rather than offer them compassion. They began to violate one of the “prime directives” of Judaism—welcoming the stranger and treating them like a citizen. All these are signs of a people who have moved away from the one, true God, and gone after gross profit and individual wealth and power. To make up for this spiritual vacuum, they fashioned their own gods. And when the trouble started? Trouble that threatened their way of life? Even the priests had forgotten how to call on the true God of Israel. The prophet’s words cut like a newly-sharpened sword: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

 

God IS the ultimate answer to what ails us, even as God was the answer for Israel in the days of Jeremiah. But the simplistic, ridiculous, solutions proposed by many people of faith—even religious leaders—are not the answer:

 

*NO, “putting God back in the schools” is not the answer, but families returning to church together, where “love your neighbor” is taught, and prayer is a tool of the righteous, not the self-righteous, may be.

 

*NO, electing “God’s man” as President is not the answer, as we have seen. We are not at all good judges of who “God’s man” is. Possibly electing “godly persons” as leaders might be OK, but only if this means persons who are formed BY their own faith, but who fully respect and guard the faith of all others, including those who choose NOT to believe. And only if these “godly persons” don’t try to impose their faith on others, either by the way they lead, or in the legislation they propose. 

 

*NO, outlawing all abortion is not the “magic formula” for fixing America, as many have believed. Now that we are unwisely doing this, we will see that like forced prayer and Bible reading in the public schools in the early 1960s, it will add to the problem, rather than be a solution. There are good alternatives to abortion, such as free and readily-available birth control, better reproductive education, and better OB-GYN care for teenagers, especially those in poorer communities. It has been proven that these are the things that begin to reduce the need for abortions, if that is your aim. Abortion numbers in America were on the decline before the recent Dobbs decision. Removing the rights of women to make decisions about their own reproductive systems is immoral, as is forcing women to give birth. We know how to fix this problem, but won’t do it, either because: some distorted religious doctrines outlaw birth control; some people do not want their ”tax dollars” paying for education and better healthcare for young women; or because we have turned this into a political “killing field” where outlawing abortion is a “win” over the “libs.”

 

*NO, throwing money at our problems is not the answer, either. While serious, well-conceived solutions will certainly require funding, the temptation to just dump money into trouble spots because we can may certainly do more harm than good, as we have seen. When money is seen as plentiful, cavalier policies about how to use it abound. When we understand that good stewardship requires careful thought and adequate planning, money becomes a tool for positive change. The prophet saw this when referring to “building cracked cisterns” that do not hold water. 

 

“Moving away from God” means ignoring the teachings of God. It means making our own gods out of values and policies that protect OUR wealth, status, and power. Forcing others to believe what we believe, or to accept our “tribe’s” policies and doctrines is NOT how God is honored. It is how we are obeyed, not God.

 

So, if the prophet is right that “moving away from God” is at the heart of the problems God’s people face, how do we fix this? Do we start screaming, “Car 54, WHERE ARE YOU?” Here are a few suggestions that MAY help us apply our faith to these broader issues:

 

*Christians can review the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Start with the Beatitudes. Jesus was trying to show us how to become compassionate, caring people who, like God, wish that “none should perish.” The teachings of Jesus demonstrate how we apply our RESOURCES to the problems around us—our talents, our time, our treasures, and our best smarts, NOT our religious doctrines, which divide and destroy community.

 

*Prayer—by each believer and by communities of believers for the problems of our country and our world. Don’t try to force OTHERS to pray (such as public school students) when you, your family, and your church are not using your religious freedom to pray. Be aware, however, that the most effective prayers change US, and then we answer God’s call to affect change through compassionate acts and acts of mercy toward others. 

 

*Forming alliances with other believers, especially those who are NOT of your faith, for the purpose of serving the needs of the less fortunate, and to break down oppressive structures. All religions have been “commanded by God” in their holy writ to care for the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the imprisoned. Remember that in Jesus’ day, most of the “widows and orphans” were women and their children who had been unfairly dispatched from home and hearth by a selfish husband who applied the unjust “laws” of divorce in the ancient Mid-East to simply kick the woman and her offspring OUT, when he had tired of her, or wanted to bring a new girl home. The same thing is happening today in America where people in poverty are thrown to the streets by unjust landlords unfair housing laws, if not by escalating rents levied by slumlords “because they can.” Again ALL religions have the common goals of feeding and housing the poor, caring for the children, and working for social justice when policies are creating myriad new victims.

 

*All faiths, and most especially Christians, are called to generous giving. “Almsgiving” in the Bible was specifically a way to give to the poor. How is your faith compelling you to be more generous, especially to causes that benefit the less fortunate among us? Christians are called to work toward “tithing,” or giving 10% of income toward church and charity. I did a study of this for a stewardship project I was part of several years ago. Denominational Christians (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian) gave, on average, less than 2.5% of income. “Bible-believing,” fundamentalist Christians who claimed to believe in the 10% tithe gave about 4%. You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that we are nowhere near our “generosity” goal. 

 

*Read and be informed, using reliable news and information sources. Know what the real problems we face are, not the ones a biased information source tells you they are. Use this new-found knowledge to vote OUT political leaders, local, state, and national, who don’t support reasonable policies to address legitimate problems, and vote IN people who will. How will you know? If you inform yourself as to what the legitimate needs and problems are, you will know which leaders are addressing them in their campaign rhetoric because they will not propose idiotic, over-simplified solutions, nor will they just say we need to spend more to fix them. There ARE real ideas and solutions, but they are NOT simple and they will take time to institute and unfold. Be listening for them to be articulated by intelligent, less-partisan candidates, and vote for them. You might also notice that women and minorities may be more represented in this better base of candidates because they “live among” the issues (or are the victims of them, in many cases) and understand them better than upper-class, white lawyers, business owners, or reality TV show stars.

 

When you understand the teachings of the prophets, or those of Jesus Christ at a “problem-solving” level, you will be surprised how applying these may actually help solve problems! Forcing prayer back into public schools or outlawing all abortions in the name of your Christian faith is like massacring your Christian neighbors so you can “send them to heaven.” It’s immoral, Un-American, and illegal, according to our constitution. 

 

As I have said before, God is not the genie in the lamp that if we just rub it right, God will come forth and grant our wishes. Neither is God “Car 54” that we call to the rescue. God has given us guidelines in scripture that will enable us to end oppression, build a more just society, and care for the needs of those who are still behind the rest of us. Jesus elaborated on these teachings and personally demonstrated them. When he said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” this is what he was talking about. God sent the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us on this task. Our broken society needs righteous people doing righteous things, and living righteously. It doesn’t need self-righteousness being legislated against those who have little or no power. This has been demonstrated time and time again by history. In the name of Christ, let’s break the cycle. Car 54, stand down. It’s our turn to come to the rescue. Amen.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Perks...

 

“Perks”

 

Psalm 103:1-8
103:1 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.

103:2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all of God’s benefits--

103:3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,

103:4 who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

103:5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

103:6 The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.

103:7 He made known the divine ways to Moses, and God’s acts to the people of Israel.

103:8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

 

When I was first employed, long before I became a pastor, benefits were often referred to as “bennies.” “Perks” is a more modern word for the benefits of employment beyond the basic paycheck. Is healthcare included in your benefit package? Pension? Profit-sharing? How much vacation do you get each year? Sick days? Personal time off? 

 

We live in a time when the perks of employment are on the decline, while the basic salary or hourly pay may be increasing, especially in the wake of a pandemic that provoked many to change jobs that offered higher pay. Perks, though, are not what they used to be. When I first entered the ministerial track in the United Methodist Church, we were told that the “bennies” (way back then) were great! We had a Board of Pensions that provided a super retirement benefit, with our churches putting in the majority of the funds toward it. We had “first dollar,” deluxe healthcare with no deductibles, and no housing expenses, as we lived in church-provided housing, including free utilities. These “benies” were then “sold” as compensation for a low starting, full-time salary of $14,000 per year, which was well below what secular workers were being paid, especially when you figured our pastoral jobs had us on call 24/7, typically requiring up  to 60 hours per week of on-the-clock time, between visits, sermon preparation, counseling, and administration of church affairs.

 

While the starting, full-time salary for pastors in the UMC has increased, it is still well below most secular jobs that require a masters degree. The value of the parsonage (supplied housing) has dropped as well, on three counts: the houses are much smaller than what families are buying on their own today; many of them are located within poor school districts; and pastors are building no equity by not owning a property themselves. Couple this with the reality that pastors are “homeless” when they retire, and this greatly devalues the “perk” designation of the parsonage. (We were “warned” by seasoned U.M. pastors to put extra money into our pension fund to prepare for owning a home in retirement, which we did, thankfully.) Healthcare? Like almost everybody else, deductibles have soared, coverage has waned, and premiums now have a shared cost with those covered. I and my colleagues were spared the level of shared healthcare premium costs experienced by those in secular employment, but after paying nothing toward premiums, any change is significant, especially when the deductibles have gone through the roof. Our pension is still pretty decent, given that secular jobs have been abandoning traditional pension plans (either defined contribution or defined benefit) for 401k plans that require an investment on the part of the employee to be vested. If you are lucky, your employer offers a match of some sort, but not always. Basically, many are “self-pensioned,” receiving only the tax benefits involved, coupled with their individual investment.

 

No, the perks of employment are not what they used to be. I know that my wife and I made the necessary adjustments, to the best of our ability, down through the years of ministry, including increasing our personal contribution to my pension fund, as best we could. The perks of THIS decision became evident upon retiring. We were fortunate that the market was on a “high” when we retired in 2021, as the “church” share of our pension fund is annuitized upon one’s retirement, and this occurred when this fund was at its peak. The money we receive from our personal investment component of our pension fund is a welcome “boost” to the church pension, thanks to our efforts to put as much into it, as we were able. The careful management of these funds by a stellar General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (now called “Wespath”) gave us a firm financial foundation for our retirement. Added to our shared Social Security benefits, we are able to maintain our simple standard of living. We feel most fortunate. I do worry about younger colleagues who have a much stiffer benefits “headwind.” If they are unable to invest in their personal pension account, adequately, housing costs when they retire may cripple them.

 

I’m using these personal stories from my own, more recent transition to retirement to highlight what caught my attention in one of the Psalms from this weekend’s lectionary passages, Psalm 103, verses 1-8. Verse three says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits.” The Psalm goes on to elaborate on some of these benefits, from the viewpoint of the author:

 

*forgives our sins

 

*heals our diseases

 

*redeems our lives from “the pit” (possibly a metaphor for the suppressed or “down and out” life that just seems to keep spiraling)

 

*”crowns” or embraces us with steadfast love and mercy

 

*satisfies us with “good” for as long as we live

 

*renews our “youth” like that of an eagle (a biblical symbol for strength and vitality)

 

*vindicates the wrongly-accused and delivers justice for the oppressed

 

*God’s attention to us is merciful and gracious, and God is “slow to anger” and abounding in steadfast love

 

Not a bad list of perks for those who believe, and who offer our souls as a blessing to God, would you say? This brings us to one important insight here—these are the perks of belief, not the primary “employment” of it. We choose to believe in the Lord our God by offering the allegiance and praise of our very soul to God, thus establishing a relationship with the Almighty. This relationship is the primary purpose of the “job” or “employment” of our faith. What God offers us are the perks, and thems ain’t bad pickin’s! The bottom line is that according to this psalmist, what God offers humanity is far, far, far more than what God asks of us—a sincere soul relationship. I am convinced that the biblical record makes clear that a key reason God created us was to have a relationship with us. And like a great friend—or like the loving father from the story of the Prodigal Son—everything God has, God offers to us. The perks of such friendship or family far outweigh the buy-in.

 

Have you ever really meditated on what YOU see as the benefits of faith in God, other than the “basic” ones listed in this Psalm? They are somewhat obvious—forgiveness, healing, a relationship with God that stands the test of time, even eternity. Many have made these the theological “center” of faith, have turned them into doctrines, and even created a corpus of judgments that may occur to those who don’t believe. But what of some of the more personal “perks” of faith that grow out of our experience with God?

 

Here are a few I came up with:

 

*Understanding. My faith in God, and more particularly in Jesus Christ, has opened me to a much broader understanding of life, love, and relationship. It has caused me to not “settle” for shallow ideas of these that often pervade modern thinking. Just listen to the lyrics of popular songs, and one hears the “affairs of love” described, but rarely do these ruminations get much beyond eros, or sexual love. And when they do, what you hear is the pain of failed love. And what of life? The tyranny of the mundane has caused many to falter in our time, fogging themselves in a cloud of cannabis, or worse, drowned in alcohol or drugged into a false euphoria. The desperation all around us is palpable, for those who have not explored, found, or experienced the spiritual realm. And let me make clear that what I’m calling understanding is not immediately revealed by merely saying a “sinners prayer” or even in entering a “personal relationship” with Christ. These things are pathways to redemption—important, but the most basic element of faith. The role of the Holy Spirit is primarily as a teacher to help us begin to understand the deeper affairs of human existence—life, love, and relationship. And the Holy Spirit teaches us and leads us to plumb the depth of our relationships with God, others, and even within our own selves. Have you ever wondered whom you are talking with when engaging your “inner dialogue? I’m guessing at least one of the insightful voices is that of the Holy Spirit! Spend time there; grow in understanding!

 

*The Wideness of God’s Mercy. A maturing faith is one that, through reading scripture, reviewing the traditions of faith, searching our history of experiences, and using growing human reason, comes to understand a much more broadly loving and merciful God than we imagined when we first found faith. In all faith-seeking-understanding, God is ready to welcome God’s human creation into a loving, saving relationship. The most profound evidence of this is found in the Christian tradition, wherein we accept that God came among humans, initially at a moment in history (Galatians says “in the fullness of time”), and then continues to abide with us through the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit. I believe the wideness of God’s mercy is much greater than I ever imagined. II Corinthians 5 tells us that in Christ, God is reconciling the world to God’s self. This is a much more generous activity than what some evangelical doctrines have limited it to. That God would continue to “work” through the incarnational Christ and through the Spirit of Jesus, alive in the world, to bring humans to faith should not be a surprise to any honest reader of the Bible, nor should this “ministry of reconciliation” be fenced in by dogmas that say only some will be “saved.” It is God’s will that “none should perish.” Limiting how God is working among humanity to reconcile and redeem persons is quite beyond our pay grade, as I mentioned earlier. 

 

*The Good News of the Good News. This reconciling work of Christ is good news for the whole world. It is something Christians are compelled to herald for all to hear, and yet not limit how persons must respond to what Christ has done and is doing for us. The first message from the lips of mature Christian messengers is that of the overwhelming love of God. Years ago, an evangelical organization called Campus Crusade for Christ published what they called their “Four Spiritual Laws.” It was put out in a small, printed tract, and “Law One” was: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I always liked that one, and it is indeed GOOD NEWS for anyone who hears it. The other “spiritual laws” laid out a fairly traditional “evangelical” rubric of HOW to act on this love, and we could debate the efficacy of them, but “Law One” is what the world needs to hear—and maybe even YOU need to hear! ALL PEOPLE are loved by God, and God desires each to live an abundant (Jesus’ word) life. “God’s plan” for their life is much less a blueprint, than the best wishes of a deeply loving parent for any of her or his children. A truly loving parent doesn’t “prescribe” what this “wonderful plan” will look like, but does everything within their power to help their children experience it. If we would just make this initial piece of GOOD NEWS our main message, more may be willing to listen, and many would certainly come to faith. Reconciliation is God’s action, according to II Corinthians, and we are called to join God in this ministry by inviting. “God loves you and wants you to have an abundant life” is one of the best invitations I can imagine, especially to a world that needs to hear such good news, over and against “Sorry, buddy, you’re on your own.” Let us not spoil it by too specifically defining just how God will act in a life, based on human-contrived doctrines. The greatest “perk” revealed in the Bible is that God is in Christ, reconciling the world to Godself. May we turn Christ loose on the world and then get out of the way!

 

*God can be Fully Comprehended in the Human Heart. You know what I mean when I use the phrase, “a gut feeling.” Our minds may never be able to comprehend, let alone apprehend, the Creator of the Universe. However, the fullness of God is able to be fully comprehended in the human heart. (Obviously, I am using the “heart” as the deep center of human emotion and compassion, regardless of where it “resides,” medically or scientifically!) As limited as our minds may be to the “length and breadth” of the Divine, our hearts “get it” when we come to believe, and this comprehension grows as we grow. As a grassroots academic and theologian (all pastors should be?), I love to explore the scriptures and theology with the best knowledge my mind can muster. But as a Christian believer, the comprehension—and apprehension—of God that changes me and shapes me, happens deep in my heart. Both elements of faith are worthy of our exploration and endeavor, but if we restrict our comprehension of God to our analytical, logical mind, our faith will be too shallow to sustain us, especially when the joys and pains of life hit us in “the gut,” or the heart. One of the great perks of faith is that, because God is strongest in our hearts, faith is truly an “equal opportunity” thing! All of us have a heart, and these hearts are equally capable of providing a habitation for God to dwell. We may not all be on the same intellectual level, but we all are on equal “heart footing.” This is why some of the most god-fearing and faithful people I have known are those without gobs of education, or were even persons with some form of diminished mental capacity. The sad truth is that some people reject God if they are unable to comprehend God in the mind, or if their minds limit them to only “accept” a God who can fit into their logical matrix. Of course, there are persons who have been so traumatized in their hearts that it is very difficult for them to “open” their hearts to anyone, even the Divine, out of fear for being hurt once again. 

 

*The Mystery and Power of Prayer. Prayer was never a mystery to Jesus. When he needed his personal “batteries” charged, he would steal away to pray. Paul spoke of “fervent prayer.” What is fervent prayer? One answer is that it is prayer that works! Praying until whatever you are praying for is resolved, would be “fervent prayer,” I suppose. Fervent prayer may be that prayer that succeeds in “connecting” our hearts and our minds. One of the great contributions of John Wesley to Christian practice is the bringing together of the sharpened mind and the strangely-warmed heart. This can happen profoundly in prayer. Our minds “form” the substance of our prayer, and the heart makes the connection to God. How else could Jesus have prayed so fervently in the Garden of Gethsemane that he “sweat drops of blood,” if his heart wasn’t fully engaged in the process? We have the words Jesus prayed, but the anguish and fervency came from a much deeper place. For me, prayer will always be a mystery, but it shall also be a regular practice. I am not a “closet” prayer, like some. There is certainly a place for this, and I would not disparage it. I’m a “peripatetic prayer,” in that my best prayers are when I’m in the shower, waking up in the morning, when I am walking or driving, or when I’m reading. I need some intentional solitude and silence to pray in a way that changes me, but intercessory prayer for others or the world usually happen on the spot and on the go. I think this is what Paul meant when he encouraged his people to “pray without ceasing”—developing the ability to pray in whatever context or setting we may find ourselves, and at any time. I believe prayer to be one of the greatest of the “perks” of faith!

 

I could certainly go on with some of my personal “perks” of faith, but I again want to challenge the reader to think of a few of your own. I have known persons who lost a parent when they were very young, or were raised by a single parent, and who have told me that one of the “perks” or benefits of their faith in God was that they viewed God truly as a “heavenly parent,” and had come to trust God’s guidance and wisdom just like God were their mother or their father on earth. You may have circumstances in your life that have brought you to understand your own “Explanation of Benefits”—EOBs--of belief. Whatever these are for you or for me, the psalmist urges us to “forget not” the benefits of God.

 

In all the pages of scripture, we read how “forgetting not” what God has done for God’s people may be one of the highest levels of praise imaginable. God is honored when we “forget not,” and when we “forget not” God’s benefits, we don’t miss out on any of them, especially when we need them the most! In my retirement, when I have had a few extra bucks to throw around, I have bought a few tools that I always wish I had, when working on various projects. Because I DIDN’T have them, I learned to improvise, and that didn’t always translate to a successful outcome. Unfortunately, now that I have some of the “proper” tools, I tend to FORGET that I have them at my disposal! I have actually finished a project or two, often with great difficulty, and then while cleaning up, remembered the really neat power tool I had purchased to make things like this project easier! I feel so dumb when I do that. Maybe we do this with the benefits of faith, as well? So, how do we “forget not” the “tools” God has given us? One way is what this psalmist has done—make a list! Use this list as a regular prayer of gratitude, until you don’t forget! 

 

Friends, the psalmist reminds us that we have so much to be thankful for, but also that we have “perks” of our faith in God, and that these perks—benefits—can make our lives so much easier and more meaningful. They also are good news worth sharing with the world, but only if we offer evidence of what they have done or are doing in our own lives! And again, “make your list” of the benefits of your faith. Not only does this list become a prayer of gratitude, as we see in this psalm, but it also serves to remind US of the benefits when we’re facing challenges. The list is also a great witness of our faith. When we are a living witness of the joy and fulfillment an active, growing, inquisitive faith in God makes possible, we may find ourselves on the other end of an “interview” by a friend or neighbor who wants to know what the “sound of the extra motor running” is. As I have said in many a sermon, it’s much easier to be a witness for Christ when you find yourself on the other end of an interview! 

 

May we “forget not all of God’s benefits,” and live the daylights out of all of them, to the glory of God! Amen.

 

 

Thursday, August 11, 2022

A God at Peace with the Universe...


 A God at Peace with the Universe… 

Jeremiah 23:23-29
23:23 Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off?

23:24 Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.

23:25 I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!"

23:26 How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back--those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart?

23:27 They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal.

23:28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD.

23:29 Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

 

Just how good are we? The earliest biblical creation story tells us that God made the world in stages, and considered each of them “good.” Given that humanity seems to be the “crown” of God’s achievement in these stories, can we therefore assume that God considered us “good,” as well. Then something happened. Theologians have debated throughout the eons just what happened. Literalists will say that Adam and Eve ate fruit of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” and this caused “the fall.” Others will say that this story is a metaphor for humanity deciding that it knew better than God, and selfishly began making its way in the world, forgetting a God that wanted to “walk with them” in the cool of the evening. Some will even say there was no one-time, cataclysmic “fall,” but that humanity is regularly challenged with choices as to whether we will acknowledge God—or even others—as being worth our energy, efforts, and reflection, beyond satiating our “creaturely” desires. Which is it?

 

Frankly, they all work for me. If there was such a tree as the “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and eating of it gave wisdom, one from the other, this could have given birth to “I’m right and you’re wrong” that is the modern human plague. If the story is a metaphor for human selfishness that disconnected us from God, that is certainly what has happened. Or are we daily being confronted with “fall” or “fly” choices? You tell me. I know I am. And my track record on choosing the right one is ”iffy” at best, though I consider myself among the redeemed. More often than not, this latter thought hastens the conclusion that we are screwed, as a people.

 

Here's what I know—the Universe is good. Have you seen its snapshots, lately? Amazing, indeed. A monumental telescope, named after a visionary but flawed man, is reawakening our sense of wonder as we look beyond the polluted clouds of Planet Earth. Countless galaxies, each a cavalcade of stars and planets in its own right, spinning in the blackness of space, animated by either the primal forces of creation and/or the tug of hidden “Black Holes” at their centers, elicit curiosity and trigger adulation for the energy that keeps it all suspended. I’m having a tug of war within my mind, trying to imagine a God larger than what we are now witnessing, thanks to the miracle of the James Webb instrument. I find myself asking if, instead of God creating the universe, what if the immensity of the Universe gave birth to God? Is God the intelligent, sentient “energy” at work, maintaining and expanding the Universe? Is God what the incomprehensible Universe evolved to manage the system, including designing its “living” occupants and establish relationships that can’t be governed by equations? Or, is God really that all-encompassing, all-knowing, powerful, and far-sighted? A God who spoke and all of this “became”? Frankly, the former makes more sense than the latter, but we have the matter of scriptural revelation to deal with, don’t we? 

 

The God of today’s Jeremiah text gives me great hope—and some degree of sincere evidence—that the latter is true. It is, after all, what we believe and proclaim. Whether you call it “Intelligent Design,” or believe God just has an immense canvas upon which to joyously paint, is probably irrelevant. Can I look at the photos from the Webb (or even the “ancient” Hubble, for that matter) and not see that something wonderous has, and is, occurring? And can I come to the conclusion that it is all just a “happy accident” emanating from the “Big Bang,” without seeming crazy? This is not a question we are able to answer, let alone prove. It is relegated to the annals of belief. Science looks to analysis and evidence to draw its conclusions, and for the most part, must rule out a “Divine mind” from its equation as to how the Universe began and evolves. As soon as science accepts an unprovable “theory” that a divine force is responsible, its work goes off the rails. We should not fault it for this. In fact, we are indebted to science for its detailed experimentation and hypothesis-seeking-proof that has advanced the human cause so far in our limited experience (limited at least as far as the timeline of the Universe is concerned!). There are some important things about God that this text tells us.

 

Firstly, God IS a “God nearby.” The Christian idea of the Incarnation aligns well with the Jewish concept of an “earthy” God who is not afraid to get her hands dirty while journeying with her people. It also signals the kind of devotion to the Divine we see in the tenets of Islam. Some of the brightest people I know are of the Muslim faith, and to see them prostrate themselves before God in prayer, admiration, and respect, reminds me we, too, are called to “have no other Gods” before Yahweh. The bottom line of the faith equation is that God IS a God nearby, and that God has stepped into human history. God encourages believers to develop an intimacy with the Divine, with an understanding that God has provided a clear pathway thorough the Incarnation of Jesus Christ into our world. God is a God both of the Universe AND the individual human being, or even the tiniest creature inhabiting God’s world. As the text also says, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” The same God whom we see in the cosmic expanse is the same God who held children on his lap, and who intimately listens to the prayers of God’s people. The Cosmic Christ is also a “God nearby!”

 

This is not an easy concept for us, and it wasn’t for Israel, either. Our human minds come with a necessary “governor” that keeps them from “spacing out” too much on the grandiose nature of the Universe. They are set to keep us “in the game,” and are much better at apprehending a “personal” God, but our modern revelation of the Universe via Webb and Hubble images, and the work of people like Einstein and Hawking, has often “blown our minds.” As I said earlier, the latest images from space prompted me to wonder if the Universe “created” Yahweh to be the bridge between living creatures and the celestial realm. Modern scientific revelation has made it much harder to imagine a God who is so much larger than the billions—now they are saying TRILLIONS—of galaxies spinning in space. And yet, today’s text, and most of the biblical witness, says that is exactly what we believe. And when we DO make the “leap of faith” to believe this, it may render the “personal” connection to God more distant. As a Christian, I will say this: to me, Jesus Christ as the “Word made flesh” who “tented among us” is every bit as amazing—if not more so—than the Universal “light show” we are presently being treated to! That God would do both of these things—create a Universe of wonder, AND compress all of the “stuff” of God into a human carcass and humbly redeem humanity—is the true miracle of the biblical witness. 


God is at peace with the Universe, and that includes redeemed humankind. We still strive for peace with God, though. If, by faith, we receive God’s grace and resulting pardon, we may feel God’s “personal” touch (and should!), but we may doubt the scope of the Divine when we get a gander at the majestic Universe. OR, we may be taken in by THAT, and have a tougher time believing that its Creator would have anything to do with little old us. But both are profoundly true—this is what we believe! We are compelled by the scriptural witness to accept that God IS at peace with the Universe, and this includes US! We are also compelled by scripture (and of course aided by the rest of Wesley’s “Quadrilateral” of tradition, experience, and reason), to believe that WE can be fully at peace with God, NOW, and in the world to come. 

 

The Jeremiah text is telling Israel to stop their goofy “daydreaming” and just accept God’s words of pardon, reassurance, and peace. The daydreaming is what humans do when we want more, but feel it is beyond our reach. This text, like many others, is trying to remind us that God is the one who has done the reaching! We are free to grasp God’s hand and join God on the great journey of life, discovery, and faith. We will always have one hand free to invite others to join us on the trip, as well. 

 

Do you need a “God nearby” today? You have one who has already opened God’s heart to you. Read the Gospels to hear just how much God loves you, expressed through the lips and life of Jesus! Do you want to believe in a God so huge that even the “Black Holes” obey God’s creating, sustaining Word? You are free to do that, too. The Bible says so. Genesis isn’t science, its art! And it’s personal. And if you are like me and trying to fit faith and science together, you are free to do this, as well! Even as the Bible isn’t a science book, neither is science able to tell us about God. It just isn’t in their paygrade. However, they can tell us more about the wonders of the Universe, and their method can enlighten us, heal us, and save our planet. Let’s not set up a false dichotomy between the two! God IS at peace with the Universe, and is inviting us into God’s soothing, uplifting, empowering, and stabilizing peace through taking the hand of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

A Sneaky God, Checking Up...

 


A Sneaky God, Checking Up…

 

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
1:1 The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

1:10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

1:11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

1:12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more;

1:13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

1:14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

1:15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

1:16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil,

1:17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.


1:18 Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

1:19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;

1:20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

 

Luke 12:32-40
12:32 "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

12:33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.


12:34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

12:35 "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;

12:36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

12:37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.

12:38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

12:39 "But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.

12:40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

 

Others need saving more than you do. Does this statement surprise you? Chances are, if you are reading this sermon, you have already partaken of the free gift of God’s grace—the forgiveness of your sins (Ally-Ally IN free!) and will inherit eternal life in God’s heaven, whatever that looks like, courtesy of Jesus Christ. And no, I’m not suggesting that you go out now on a “scalp hunt,” seeing how many poor, retched souls you can get to “confess Jesus” as their Lord, thereby “saving” THEM from their sins. They are just as saved as you are, again, thanks to Jesus. As we said a week or so ago, there is no magic formula for appropriating the forgiving, redeeming love of Christ other than to open your arms and receive it. But there ARE people who need “saving,” and you may well be one of them!

 

Jesus spent most of his time trying to get us to live right. His teachings were clearly life-blueprints. In the Sermon on the mount, he gave us a clear plan for living as one of God’s redeemed, and the thrust of that life was to get over ourselves enough to help those who still struggle. Who are these people? Here are a few of the ones yet struggling that Jesus addressed, from what we call the “Beatitudes”:

The Beatitudes

When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:


“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


God pronounces a blessing on those who are humble and not so inwardly focused, but since they are part of the human community, we who are of the “redeemed” should look out for them and make sure that their humility is not taken advantage of by the many unscrupulous ones around us whose egos and bank accounts like to prey on honest people. These “poor in spirit,” humble folk could be the elderly, the widows, the orphans, the immigrants, those living with disabilities, the mentally ill, or the just plain POOR. God obviously loves them, and sets them up as the neighbors WE should love. They need a type of “saving” we have the power to give them.


“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.


God certainly is in the corner of those who mourn, and I’ll bet pretty strongly. As God demonstrated in Jesus Christ, God hates death, and anything that leads to it, ultimately, but death happens. I don’t know why it happens, other than to believe that God put us on this beautiful planet, and if it weren’t for people dying, there wouldn’t be room for the new people being born. (I know that some will say that it is “sin” that causes death, but that’s ridiculous, and is a bad, literal interpretation of what we find in scripture. The death that sin causes comes from good people doing nothing, or at least enough, to prevent suffering on the part of others.) Still, death is a painful thing, most especially for the loved ones left behind, and mourning, grief-stricken people are everywhere. Those of us counting ourselves among the redeemed should be looking out for them, praying for them, making sure they have what they need to get by during the stages of grief, and then helping them reincorporate themselves into life as it subsides. Taking a casserole to the grieving family next door may not be enough, but it’s a good start.


“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.


Meek doesn’t mean “weak.” Meek people are those comfortable in their own skin, and who have a sober view of themselves, characteristics that make them great neighbors and potentially good leaders. Here is one of the places WE are the ones who need “saving.” If we follow Jesus’ teachings, we will strive to be like them—just as comfortable in OUR skin, and with as sober a view of ourselves, our abilities, and our calling as they are. We should make good neighbors, too. When we are selfish, or pig-headed, or argue over why the next door neighbor decided to put up a fence or put in a pool, we are not “meek,” at all. And when we throw a hissy-fit about the group home or half-way house going in down the street from us, we’re not doing well, either. So much “meekness” is lost over property values, it is no wonder Jesus promises THE LAND to those who manifest this characteristic.


“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.


I frankly can’t imagine being “hungry” for righteousness. I wish I could, which means I’m still one in need of being “saved.” I want to be a Christian, and engage in “right living,” and there are things I do to learn about righteousness, like attend weekly worship, read the Bible, and talk with God through prayer. But am I actually HUNGRY for it? Not yet. It’s no wonder, then, that I rarely feel “filled” with it, nor do I wear myself out by doing so much good that I’m working up an appetite. How about you? And remember when Jesus said that when we gave a cup of cold water to one of the “little ones,” we were doing it unto him? I rarely give away enough cups of cold water to develop a spiritual thirst, so I may still be a bit of a stranger to Jesus. How about you? Unless we work up an appetite and give away enough cold water to those who need it, I doubt we’ll ever “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”


“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.


Christians in this time in history are not seen as merciful people. Large groups of “Evangelical Christians” have ginned themselves up over what they call “rights of the unborn” that they have become merciless regarding the lives, needs, and rights of women, even to the degree of throwing them into jail when they decide to save their own lives over a fetus. Countless “Christians” are upholding Second Amendment rights over the safety of our children and the at-risk “unarmed,” which tells the world, “To hell with mercy, I want my guns!” Is a “good guy with a gun” who shoots someone to death actually being merciful? Frankly, I’d rather see less guns, so maybe a potential shooter might find it harder to arm himself, rather than just arm everybody and let the “good guys” with guns hope to be the ones left standing, but that’s just me. Still, I don’t think the gun people are being too merciful. And have you ever noticed how angry the gun people get over this subject? And I’m talking about the ones who profess to be Christian. The more people who have guns, the less mercy there will be. And locking up physicians who care for pregnant women who can’t continue their pregnancies, whether for medical, financial, or mental reasons, or even locking up the women themselves? Where is that ever merciful? Oh, and what about what the church is doing to LGBTQ people? I can guarantee that if Jesus were walking the earth today, he would have called someone from the LGBTQ community as a disciple—maybe more than one—and he would have allied himself with them. We may living in one of the least merciful times ever on the historical human timeline.


“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.


There aren’t too many of these folk around, and that is why we probably have a distorted view of God in our time. Jesus promised us an “abundant life.” People like Joel Osteen say God wants us to have “our best life now,” meaning overflowing with prosperity. I don’t think they are the same thing at all. Not at all. Jesus modeled an “abundant life” by multiplying it—helping the poor, healing the sick, uplifting the children, and making world-changing disciples out of riff-raff. His life was so abundant, it spurred such jealousy on the part of the religious leaders and the Roman government that they tried to rub him out. I have to ask myself, when’s the last time my generosity or advocacy for the poor put me in danger of being censored by the religious community or the government? And if not, how “Jesus like” am I? How “pure in heart” am I? Is it any wonder that we often feel like our prayers are hitting the ceiling? I am more and more convinced our raunchy-in-heart behavior—and I’m talking Christians here—may be why we have such a warped view of God, or little of one at all.


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.


Talking about peace should not be fighting words. But they often are. And in church. “Peacemaking” is often met with little respect in church circles, or at least with little interest. Why? Because peacemaking means, first and foremost, working for justice. Theologians and ethicists have said for centuries that “If you want peace, work for justice.” As long as there continues to be such monumental economic disparity, rampant racism, and political one-upmanship that divides society like a Ginsu knife, we will not have peace. And as long as national borders and ruling power are what drives international relations, we will see brilliant people make convincing arguments—and excuses—for war. Peacemaking is far, far more than the “absence of war,” though. Before the Ukraine/Russia war, we were largely a world without a major war, but we were very far from being a world at peace. This particular Beatitude is not promising some kind of an award called the “Child of God” medal, or whatever, but it IS telling us that until we fix this peacemaking thing, we have no right to proclaim ourselves “children of God.”


10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


There are those today who claim they are being “persecuted,” but most don’t have a clue, frankly. Are you a persecuted Christian because your child may be asked to read a book at school which YOU think should be banned? Are you a persecuted Christian because a pastor in your denomination believes in supporting LGBTQ persons and maybe has even performed a “same sex” marriage ceremony? Are you a persecuted Christian because your child’s teacher doesn’t read from the Bible in the classroom and offer a Christian prayer for a class that may have Jewish, Muslim, or other children in that class? Are you a persecuted Christian because your State still has laws that render abortion legal? If so, you are among those who don’t have a clue. In Jesus’ day, persecution meant being locked up for what you believed or preached, if not murdered. It meant having laws passed that kept you from exercising your rights, just to protect the privilege of the ruling elite. At least in this country, more Christians and Christian sects are on the side of the ones DOING the persecuting, than those suffering persecution. Remember what we uncovered earlier about what Jesus called “righteousness,” now. Right-living meant feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, caring for the widows and the orphans, and welcoming the immigrants in the land. THIS is the righteousness for which someone will be persecuted. It is not “persecution” when your own religious views don’t dominate the world like you think they should. Please get over that, or you may miss out on “the kingdom of heaven.”


11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


In some ways, this is a continuation of the previous discussion, but the votes at this year’s Western PA Annual Conference demonstrated that it was precisely those who are WORKING for justice and peace who are being “reviled and persecuted” by the majority. Did we actually vote to protest having “non-binary” as a choice for “gender” on a church statistical report? Did we actually vote to ask our PA legislature to deny transgender persons opportunities to participate in school sports? There is a smugness about many folk who are among the self-proclaimed righteous that makes it hard to take them seriously. And much of their condemnation and judgment they spew, they claim they are doing on Jesus’ “account,” which he soundly condemns here. Jesus compares the truly “reviled and persecuted” to the “prophets who were before you,” and if you read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other prophets, rarely would you find a message that would win a majority vote in our Annual Conference.


I have offered this little “excursion” through a most famous section of the Sermon on the Mount as a case history as to why our “sneaky God” is checking up on us, and giving a warning, about which we read in today’s two lectionary texts. Both the Isaiah text and the Lukan text give us a “crib sheet” on what God requires of us, and both include: “doing good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow,” along with giving alms, which meant raiding our personal “Osteen” bank to help the poor. And what if we don’t? What if we rather adopt an agenda of what WE believe and what WE want to see in the church and the world, and then call it “God’s will?” 


Well, the Master may come like a thief in the night and catch us living FAR from these ideals. If our “treasure” is only invested in our own selfish religious prejudices, in oppressing those who don’t believe as we do, and advancing laws that punish others for their “unbelief,” then that is where our heart is, not with the poor, the disenfranchised, the lonely, the needy, or the immigrant in our midst, let alone the widow or the orphan. Death often comes like a “thief in the night,” so should we not be on the right side of Jesus when it comes, because none of us knows, do we? Even Jesus himself will return at an “unexpected hour,” and these texts are offering us a ruler to measure ourselves as to our “readiness.” Remember, this is not about salvation, for that is a gift of Christ, but it IS about “saving,” meaning how we are working to save those who have needs, and saving ourselves from selfish ambition, a need to be “right,” not righteous, and from living a life that may be “our best life now,” but not the one to which Jesus is calling us. A popular song intones, “God is watching us, God is watching us,” not “from a distance,” though, but from within our very heart. Amen.

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...