Friday, April 28, 2023

All Things in Common

 


All Things in Common

 

Acts 2:42-47
2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;

2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

2:46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,

2:47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

In the earliest days of the Christian church, it had begun to develop into more of an “organism” than an “organization.” Several factors probably served as catalysts for this reaction: these were people living under persecution from the Roman authorities and the prevailing religious leaders; they were mostly a group of folk from “the other side of the tracks,” as we might say today, and they had real, human needs; and there was a genuine sense of familial fellowship among them, possibly fanned into “warm heart” flames by the spreading experience from Pentecost. Their focus was on their common relationship with the Risen Lord, and the newly minted, “internally synthesized” Holy Spirit. Material possessions took on even less meaning than they already had to a generally low-income people. Survival was more necessary than “keeping up with the Joneses.” As a consequence, the early “house church” movement shared resources, selling possessions they no longer “worshipped” so the resulting funds could be pooled for the common good in their fellowship. Less understanding, critical folk might label this “Communism,” but it was almost the opposite of that. These early believers offered their goods for the collective benefit of all willingly, and the effort had nothing to do with power, governance, or territorialism. Unfortunately, this “experiment” in faith-inspired sharing was short-lived, with little evidence it persisted much beyond the first century. There could have been many reasons for this beyond the rebound of selfishness. Remember that there were cultural practices such as wedding dowries in that day, and “giving away” possessions or funds that were meant to be part of a young woman’s “hope chest” could have contributed to the demise of collectivism. Protection of familial property could have been another. And remember that the powers-that-be taxed land, like they do today, and since they had no easy way to tax bartering or land sales, they would have looked askance at these practices by Christians, offering yet another reason to ramp up persecution on them. Of course, once the “novelty” of such open sharing wore off, human nature and our tendency toward pessimism probably crept in, too. Like modern Republicans who seem always to see any form of public assistance for those trapped in poverty as a “handout,” and who want to force recipients of taxpayer-funded aid like Medicaid to “work” for it, early Christians who “had” may have begun to develop resentment for those who brought far less to the shared “pot,” and who seemed to be taking advantage of them.

 

We really don’t know what happened to end the practice of volunteer sharing like this we read about in Acts 2, but what we do know is that very soon after, the Apostle Paul was doing a lot of fundraising to support the church and his missionary travels. The need to now ask church members for money to support ministry began the church’s migration from “organism” to organization. Another element in this progression was the development of a leadership hierarchy. Other places in the Book of Acts offer accounts of Paul’s interaction with the “Jerusalem Council,” made up of Peter and some of the other apostles. And the movement from the house church into larger, designated worship and ministry facilities—what we call “churches” today—also nudged the church to a more “business-like” model of function. Obviously, our modern churches ARE run more like businesses, with larger ones even hiring professional administrators or “business managers” to oversee operations. Government oversight, while kept at a minimum in the United States, has still increased, necessitating some form of informed management. We United Methodists even ordain our Elders to word, sacrament, and ORDER, recognizing the need for learned leadership. 

 

The lectionary passage from Acts this weekend makes this period of the budding church seem so romantic and ideal. The early believers “spent their day” in the temple worshipping God and “breaking bread” around the common table with “glad and generous hearts.” The account also leads one to the conclusion that it was this “Primrose Lane” vision of the church that attracted new converts as “the Lord added to their numbers.” Is it any wonder that countless “New Testament” idealists have tried, over the centuries, to rebirth this vision of the church? Mostly to no great success, of course, especially in our day and our country, which is firmly ensconced in the capitalistic way of life. Beyond very tiny pockets of “house churches” that have succeeded, from time to time, more of these efforts than we’d like to admit descended into cultism, with adherents being “fleeced” by charismatic leaders who eventually self-destructed or wound up behind bars!

 

So, what are we left with? Today, the Christian church is more like a department store, with various “competitors” (Walmart, Target, Macys—Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics…). And the “product” they offer is just as diverse, and designed to bring in new “customers.” Some of the mega-warehouse churches almost mirror the bulk stores like Costco or Sam’s Club! This is not all bad news. Our contemporary culture understands this model and deals with it every day in their secular living. That their chosen church mirrors the system they are used to makes it comfortable for them, providing little discord. Also, that the “quality” of the church and the effectiveness of its ministry is proportionally “rewarded” by its members as reflected in their giving, fits our Western cultural model. We may decry this, but it “works.” Even as our worship styles have evolved over the centuries to find an audience in each generation, so the model of church administration and financing has, as well. The worst of the “news” about the church’s lot today is that, as many of them have fallen behind this cultural “taste” of younger people, they have abandoned it, leaving many of our small, community churches less “marketable,” and struggling to survive. Independent ones just close when they lose critical mass, while denominational “branch” churches may be buoyed and sustained by the denomination. 

 

As a pastor who, during my long career, tried to keep my churches viable and growing—meaning I and my fellow staff persons had to be constantly studying and applying lessons about what people were looking for in a “home church”—I would share several observations I hope you find helpful:

 

·      No matter what style of governance, worship, or sitz im leben a church may employ or find itself in, if it is centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and focused on prayer and biblical, spiritual disciplines, it CAN be empowered and led by the Holy Spirit. No one has a “corner” on this. Some will argue that the Holy Spirit only “shows up” for the most hip, up to date models of church, while others advocate that only those who have stayed with the Apostle’s Creed or maintained “traditional” doctrines have a corner on the “genuine” Holy Spirit. Both are wrong, or right, as the case may be. 

 

·      There is no going back to the “New Testament church.” The only way to reclaim the “movement” aspect of that day is to go FORWARD, not backward. While the Good News of Jesus Christ doesn’t change, the ways we communicate it must, as also must the sociology and psychology we employ to relate it to the lives of people in our time, especially the skeptical, younger ones. 

 

·      A given church must study its setting and community context. What are the needs of the people around you? What is necessary in order to meet them? Can your church afford to do ministry as a “station,” or would it do well to band together with other local churches to meet the scope of need you see? There is no magic “system” a church may “buy into” and implement that will instantly turn it into a vital congregation, and no pastor gifted or “charismatic” enough to rescue a struggling church in a receding community. 

 

·      Churches in thriving, suburban settings would do well to mirror the benevolence of the early church by “partnering” with smaller or older urban churches, either of which may be struggling to survive on their own. The “healthy” church may infuse new life into the ailing congregation, while the heritage and setting of the urban or “neighborhood” congregation may offer opportunities for more diverse or ethnic ministry, something usually “missing” in predominantly white, suburban churches.

 

·      There are times when the most “Christian” response smaller, struggling churches can make is to hold a funeral, put their church to rest, and join with another congregation that offers more “bang for their buck” in terms of ministry (as opposed to every dollar they give just trying to keep their outdated building from falling down). Selling their building may raise important dollars for ministry in the adopted setting, or may be used by the denomination to plant a new congregation where one may thrive.

 

·      Churches, like people, need to find a “niche.” Most modern churches are surrounded by OTHER churches, some much larger and others smaller, some that have feeding programs for the needy, while others have exploding youth programs. Examine this reality, and see if there is an area of needed ministry that is not being addressed. Maybe the Holy Spirit is leading YOUR church to embark on such a ministry? Don’t just duplicate what others are already doing well. Also, if yours is a denominational church, your judicatory office may have local demographics for your zip codes (our Western PA Conference of the UMC does). You should look these over, as they may offer strong clues as to what the local needs may be.

 

Let me say a word about endowments and trusts. There are those who resist forming endowment funds or designated trusts for churches, but in our time, these are almost essential, especially for ministries that own buildings and property. First of all, I have seen a serious sea change in the motivation for church giving over the past twenty years or so. My generation—the “Baby Boomers”—may be the end of the “bricks and mortar” givers. Our generation and those older LOVED to give to church building programs, new additions, and remodeling projects. Our giving to support church staffs, evangelism efforts, Christian education, and worship ministries was secondary to the “bricks and mortar” needs. The only exception to this rule was that, if we were raised in a mission-minded church, we maintained an interest in giving to missions, especially “overseas” ministries. However, the younger generations have done almost a 180 degree shift in giving priorities, making supporting current ministries, youth programs, and social justice outreach their highest priority. They actually DON’T like to give to bricks and mortar needs, any more than they absolutely HAVE to. Case in point: St. Paul’s UMC, the last church I served, has an INCREDIBLY ambitious agenda of community ministry, youth and children’s ministries, and outreach, which are well-supported by its largely younger congregation. However, driving into the parking lot of its “campus”-sized facility is like entering a minefield. The potholes rival anything on the post-Winter Pennsylvania roads! If we were an OLDER congregation, fund-raising for repaving the parking lot would have been job one. Since it is NOT populated mostly by Boomers and older, that is not the highest priority for its financial resources.

 

The role of endowments and trusts, going forward, will be to provide investment funds to fix, repair, and sustain property, while the younger church members predominantly give to ministry and programs. Churches that don’t have such invested funds will struggle with the declining “health” of their property. There is great good news though, for churches just starting out to build an endowment—most of the funds that will be used to build them will come from bequests. With such an emphasis on “saving for retirement” and wealth-building during working careers coming at us from almost every angle, and none any stronger than what we hear from organizations like Forbes, Money Magazine, or the AARP, more of our people will have residual funds and wills. The church should have an on-going campaign to remind its members to put their church in their estate plan. As a pastor, I heard many church members make “excuses” as to why they couldn’t meet the biblical idea of “tithing” (giving 10% of income). I made it my practice to suggest that they at least put the church in for 10% of their estate, an idea that many later adopted. If your church has gone through the necessary steps to create an endowment committee and a formal endowment fund or funds, members may be assured that the “system” is in place that will protect their estate gift, and even assure that it will perpetually be available as part of a protected principal or core fund. Another “pitch” I used to make to church members when doing their estate plan was to take stock of how much they gave their church, annually, and then put a large enough gift for the church in their estate plan, that when invested, would give an annual return equal to what they GAVE when alive. This, too, was a kind of “Ah-HA” idea for a number of church members. On the sad side, I was often disappointed when a member who was a perpetual, generous giver, who obviously had considerable financial means, passed into eternity and the church received nothing from the dissolution of their estate. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because they waned in generosity from life to death, but it happened because no one ever pitched the idea to them of putting their church in their estate plan. 

 

After 36 years of church ministry, I continue to be VERY passionate about the local church and its place in building the Kingdom of God through Christian evangelism, mission and ministry, and interfaith involvement. The “system” we have evolved for ministry requires funding, and creative funding, at that. My attempt in this message was to make the “leap of faith” from the “house churches” of Acts 2 to the organization of the contemporary church, without losing the passion of the Gospel and the possibility for Holy Spirit empowerment. Again, to be more like the early church disciples, we must look FORWARD, not backward, and this means redefining what it means to “have all things in common.” We have in common our living Lord Jesus Christ, the indwelling of God’s Spirit, a “home church” where we can nurture our own families and our spiritual life, and a passion for ministry that can change the world. We have in common a desire to be more diverse, as congregations, to attract and serve younger church members, and to keep our facilities in good order so they are assets to ministry and not liabilities. We have in common the responsibility of providing for the temporal, fiscal needs of our home church. And we have in common the reality that we will all pass from this life someday, and I’m guessing we all want to “leave a mark,” too. Planned giving may be one way we can do this. 

 

My wife and I are having our wills updated even as I write this message. We are certainly not wealthy people, hoping to instead have saved enough and provided enough to sustain us through our “old age” so our two children don’t have to worry about us. However, it is very possible we will have residual funds after we pass into eternity, between savings and life insurance. And since our children have done well for themselves, we are going to leave any residual funds to our church, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (for the two degrees I got there that totally resourced my ministry), and the United Methodist college both of our children attended, and that gave them so much. Even if these estate gives wind up being more symbolic than substantial, we want to be a positive example to other generous Christian people. 

 

This message has sought also to address the kind of “where the rubber meets the road” issues that the church often struggles to address, unless it finds itself in crisis. The early Christians of Acts had in common the priority of carving out a life that glorified and served the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. May we hold in common the same aim, Dear Ones. Amen!

Friday, April 21, 2023

Spring Cleaning

 


Spring Cleaning

 

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
2:14a: But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,

2:36 "Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified."

2:37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Friends, what should we do?"

2:38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

2:39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him."

2:40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."

2:41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

 

 

Well, it’s SPRING (finally) and for many of us raised in Western PA households, that means it is time for SPRING CLEANING! Back in the days of my grandmothers, it meant washing down the walls, a throwback to when houses were heated with COAL during the Winter. Black gunk was spewed EVERYWHERE by those old Pennsylvania coal furnaces, which had no blowers, but were “gravity fed,” meaning the heat rose and the cold air sank, setting up a disgusting, black-sooted warm wind in the house. Washing the walls in the Springtime returned them to their original, painted color.

 

Today, we probably all have our Spring cleaning rituals, but many of them are practiced in the out-of-doors. This week, we moved all of the furniture, the deck box, and the gas grill off of our deck, swept it, pressure washed it, and then reapplied a coat of Thompson’s Water Sealopaque deck stain to protect the aging “outdoor” wood out of which it’s made. A quick, funny story…we have a heated, large “bird wash” basin that is mounted to the upper railing of our deck. Coupled with our huge, Audubon bird feeder that holds about 15 pounds of black oil sunflower seed, our backyard is a Mecca for birds of all kinds. And while they all like the bird wash, both to drink and bathe, the Mourning Doves REALLY like it. It’s not unusual to see three or four of them STANDING in the bird wash, and occasionally, when the spirit strikes, splashing around in it. Then they drink. (God has apparently designed birds to drink filthy water with no ill effects. Me? I get sick just watching them, when they drink out of that self-created cesspool!) ANYWAY, I removed the bird wash so I could stain the top of the railing. And while waiting for the deck to dry after pressure washing it, Dara looked out the dining room windows and said, “Hey, come look at this!” Sure enough, three of the Mourning Doves were perched on the top of the bird wash mount, looking forlornly in the window at us, as much to say, “HEY, where is our BATH WATER?!? They are quite happy that it has been cleaned, remounted, and filled with fresh, clean agua, which lasted about half an hour, once the birds returned.

 

I’m guessing some of you get the garden or the lawn ready for the Summer rituals? But perhaps some of you STILL do some actual “Spring cleaning” in the house? Or, in the garage, that is now filled with all of the stuff you should have discarded last Fall but couldn’t bear to part with? 

 

Spring cleaning, whether you do it indoors, outdoors, or both, usually consists of some of these activities:

 

Throwing things out—rounding up “stuff” that you have held on to because you know that Spring and Summer trips to Lowes or the neighborhood garage sales mean you will need room for the NEW stuff! It’s hard, letting go, isn’t it? All of that junk has a reason and an attached memory as to why you still have it. I’ve found that if I take a few moments to think through its history and my attachment to it, and say a brief prayer of thanksgiving for it, I am freed to throw it into the toter or set out the larger items for the trash truck. 

 

Dusting—My mom always used “Lemon Pledge” and a soft rag to do this, but Dara uses a thing that looks like someone robbed a turkey and pasted the booty onto a handle. Thankfully, we don’t have coal furnaces anymore, but depending on your HVAC system, and how often you change the filters, we DO have assorted “white” dust covering everything. They tell us this is mostly dead skin, insect parts and poo, mixed with some of the “road dust” the furnace blower sucks in. Sounds worse than coal dust, doesn’t it? You see why we need to dust? The Lemon Pledge treatment makes some sense. The foamy liquid “captures” some of the dust in the dust rag, and leaves behind a waxy polish, accompanied by a nice lemon scent. The turkey butt just scatters the dust, allowing it to land on a lower perch, preferrable on the floor, where it can be vacuumed up.

 

Vacuuming—This is the part of Spring (and regular) cleaning I like! Of course, my wife might say, “It uses a DEVICE!” We got a Hoover upright vacuum cleaner as a wedding present from my parents when we were first married. It weighed about 80 pounds, and would almost suck linoleum off the floor. We had it for years, at least until we were appointed to Coraopolis. There, we lived in a mansion that congregation had purchased on “mansion row” (State Avenue), right beside the church. Being that it was a large house, and that Dara worked full time then, we retained a professional cleaner (who was a church member) who had been used by the previous pastor. Wilai was from Thailand, was one of the nicest persons I have ever known, was an AMAZING cook, and made that mansion look brand new every time she cleaned. However, after having to lug that old Hoover upright up the winding flight of stairs for a time or two, she announced to me, “YOU need NEW vacuum! I done with THAT one!” In all fairness, the vacuum probably weighed more than Wilai. We bought our first new vacuum cleaner in over twenty years. Later, when we were appointed to Warren First UMC, the parsonage had all hardwood floors, so we got rid of our vacuum cleaner. Then, when we came to Allison Park and bought our townhouse, we had to buy new ones, but because a townhouse has more carpet than a golf course does grass, we bought TWO—one cordless “stick” vacuum, and one “ball” vacuum, both Dysons. (Dyson is the SpaceX or Tesla of the vacuum cleaner set.) I do the vacuuming because…you guessed it…it utilizes DEVICES! And the Dysons are high, high tech!

 

Hopefully, by now, you have done a little “overhearing” the Gospel on your own, as I have expounded almost endlessly about Spring cleaning. You probably know where I am going. Today’s text is the “punchline” to Peter’s simple, yet profound sermon at Pentecost. You know, the one where over 3,000 people came to Christ? In the message, Peter suggests to the crowd that the time is perfectly ripe for a little LIFE Spring cleaning! He tells of how humanity is filthy with sin—even worse than from a coal furnace—and that no amount of human “cleaning” can banish it. Then he tells the story of Jesus Christ, and how God sent Jesus to redeem the world. Humanity responded the way we usually do to change we don’t understand, we kill the messenger. And yet, God was so loving and bent on saving the world that he raised up Jesus from the dead! 

 

The question, “Friends, what should we do?” is brilliant. It’s time we ALL ask this question. It’s the Wesleyan question, “What should we then do?” The answer from Peter’s “Spring cleaning” sermon is three-fold:

 

*Repent—recognize your need FOR “cleaning” (having your sins forgiven by God’s grace in Jesus Christ), and turning your life “godward,” as someone has said. The Greek word used in this passage for “repent” is metanoia, and it means stop, turn about, and go in the opposite direction. Repentance is much more than just “confessing” sin, although that is an important place to start. After grace is applied, GO AND LIVE DIFFERENTLY than you did before, which is why you were in the mess you were in!

 

*Be baptized—So as not to get into a second sermon on HOW to be baptized, suffice it to say in Peter’s day, ALL new Christians were baptized as an outward symbol of in inward, and spiritual cleansing. Today, we often baptize infants and have their parents vow to RAISE them in a Christian environment so as to give them a fighting chance to start their lives OUT on a different path, rather than have to “recalculate” later. As a Methodist, I like the idea Mr. Wesley had that baptism (whether infant or adult) was a “means of grace,” meaning God was “in” it in a way that made it far more than a mere symbol.

 

*Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit—This was, after all, a Pentecost sermon, and the Holy Spirit had just “descended” upon those gathered in the upper room. What a novel idea! The brilliance of Peter (Spirit-led brilliance, I’m sure) was to offer the Holy Spirit to EVERYONE who came to Christ Jesus in faith. How tempting it would have been to believe the Holy Spirit, and all of that God-ordained power and wisdom therein, was “only available” to a select few chosen to lead. And before Pentecost, someone like Peter would have been a strong candidate to do just that! But here, he starts the work of the newly-arrived Holy Spirit off on her universal journey for all people of all time, everywhere! Note the interesting phrase employed by the Spirit-led Peter: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." That’s about as universal as you can get, especially when you remember that God is out to embrace and redeem the whole world, and for all time!

 

Yes, friends, what we should “do” is engage in a little “Spring cleaning” of the soul. Just like we regularly clean our place and our stuff, our soul can stand a regular dust up. Repent, remember your baptism, and receive afresh the gift of God’s Holy Spirit! And use the “means of grace,” such as regular partaking of Holy Communion, to strengthen your bond with Christ. Just think of it as a kind of sanctified “Lemon Pledge.”

 

And as Columbo would say, “Just one more thing…” Peter’s unction to “Save yourself from this corrupt generation” should be interpreted in our time to mean, “WORK TO SAVE this corrupt generation!” As Winston said in Ghostbusters, “We have the TOOLS, we have the TALENT!” Thanks to the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers and in the Church of Jesus Christ, we DO have the means to share the Good News with all of the others “who are far away” who need some Spring cleaning! Evangelism is not so much telling someone ELSE their “house” is dirty, as it is “offering them Christ,” as Mr. Wesley would say, so they can ask God to help them with THEIR Spring cleaning. Amen? Amen!

 

Friday, April 14, 2023

Shifting Into Drive

 


Shifting Into Drive

 

Psalm 16
16:1 Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.

16:2 I say to the LORD, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you."

16:3 As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.

16:4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.

16:5 The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.

16:6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.

16:7 I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.

16:8 I keep the LORD always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

16:9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.

16:10 For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.

16:11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

 

 

I like to drive. I REALLY like to drive. Cars, that is. It’s not a chore to take long car trips, like to Louisville to visit our grands and their family, therefore. Almost every nice night, we take a run in my sportscar with the convertible top down. I love shifting through all six gears on that thing! Truth-be-told, I’ve never gotten over the joy of passing my driver’s test at age 16 and hitting the road. I don’t know whether it was the freedom the car gave me, or just the idea of driving for driving’s sake? I actually got more excited when my two children passed their driver’s tests than THEY did. My wife thinks I’m crazy. Maybe you do, too. For many folk, driving IS a chore, and the necessary “short trips” to the market or for other local “rat killing,” as my dad used to call it, drive THEM right up the tree. Not me. I’ll gladly jump in the car—either car we own—and putz around to do the menial tasks. (If that isn’t enough to make you think I’m nuts, how about this one: I LOVE to go to the supermarket to do the shopping, even for the “short lists” of stuff we need, from time to time. Again, Dara is so happy I DO like to do this, as she really DOESN’T like going to Giant Eagle.)

 

Being an addicted “gadget freak,” I was an early adopter of the dash-mounted GPS (Global Positioning System) device—a Tom-Tom—when they first came out. Having a space age piece of hardware with a backlit screen and a direct link to several orbiting satellites to guide me, now I could go ANYWHERE with little fear of getting lost! (This is another of my unusual “charms”—I’m a guy who likes to travel and to drive, but I have very little sense of direction. Every car I have owned since has had either Apple Car Play (using Google Maps) or a built in navigation system. 

 

So where am I going with this? Well, this weekend’s scripture—Psalm 16—is a balm for those of us who like to “travel” or “drive” in life, but who need external guidance, because of an inherent lack of direction. Verse eight says, “I keep the LORD always before me; because God is at my right hand…” In the car, this makes God my co-pilot (with apologies to Dara, who actually sits in that seat). A friend who’s life was saved by Alcoholics Anonymous, used to have a bumper sticker that said, “If God is your co-pilot, you are sitting in the wrong seat.” No, I still won’t let God drive, but at least the Lord is “before me” and at my “right hand,” rendering the protection and navigation I need to keep from getting lost. 

 

Back in 2002, we took a trip to Great Britain, rented a car, and I drove all around through England and Scotland. I was on the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road, and if you think that wasn’t a challenge, you’re mistaken. We put several hundred miles on that car, with nary an incident. Well, there WAS that little “tight spot” I got us into in Lincolnshire, and that time I turned in front of another car when I forget which side of the road I was on, but neither resulted in damage to the vehicle or the psyches of any passengers in it. Life can put you into British driving mode, sometimes. Think about times in your experience when driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road would be a good metaphor for where you found yourself. When this happens, we REALLY need to “take refuge” in God, as the psalmist says, AND we have to STAY ALERT! Regardless of when or when we are “driving,” letting yourself slip into autopilot is when bad things happen. Staying alert, keeping your “eyes” on the road, scanning the shoulders of the road, and being ready to hit the brakes is a good formula for safe driving in a car and in living. I have hit several deer in my automobile experience, and while I know they can just jump out in front of you, I can honestly say that each time I hit one, I was sort of cruising on “autopilot” and was not watching for them. The times I have AVOIDED hitting a deer, I WAS staying alert and conscious of driving where and when THEY tend to cross, and I caught them in my field of vision and awareness in time to hit the brakes. See what I’m saying? The psalmist says that taking refuge in God is good, but we have to keep things in front of us, too. Safe “navigation” in life is a team effort.

 

Let’s step back and take a “big picture” look, for a few moments. A question that I learned from one of my mentors is this one: “What is your understanding of the nature of God?” In short, how do you see God? Is God an autocratic “author” of all of life who set up a bunch of rules to keep us “in line?” Maybe for some of you, God is the benevolent, yet detached deity of the Deists, who believe that God set us and the universe up with resources and turned us loose, hoping we wouldn’t destroy each other, and yet pretty much vowing to leave us alone. If you believe in a God who needs “obeyed” as the highest form of praise, then most of your life will be colored by “lawyering” the rules God set down, and painstakingly trying to keep them. You might even be prompted to become an “enforcer,” advocating for a society where God’s “rules” are codified into rules for ALL of your neighbors to obey, whether they believe, or not. But what of the God of Jesus Christ, and of this psalm?

 

The God of the psalmist clearly cares for the creation by “protecting” it and us. The psalmist believes that God created and maintains “good” in us, and is a “good” Creator. The psalmist sees “holy ones”—those who follow this good God—as “noble,” not just as obedient rule-keepers. They are the “good drivers” who obey the rules of the road to keep themselves and others safe, and not just so they don’t get pulled over by the cops. The God of the psalmist gives “good counsel” and is a caring teacher, helping the student learn valuable lessons. I had driver training in high school, and our varsity basketball coach was the instructor in the car we all trained on. He NEVER threatened us with what would happen if we disobeyed the rules of the road. Instead, every lesson about why the rules were important was couched in safety for ourselves and all other motorists, as well as about being a “courteous” driver who gave the other guy a break. This is the “mood” of the God this psalmist describes. This God shows us the “path of life” and the “fullness of joy.” Those who choose other gods condemn themselves to lessor powers and find perdition without any help from the psalmist’s God. Still, this God seems not to revel in even the people guilty of wrong choices being cut off from salvific opportunities. The God of the psalmist is a God of caring, joy, and loving, “parental” supervision of the created order. 

 

I would argue that the God of Jesus Christ is the same God the psalmist describes. In fact, Jesus Christ becomes the ultimate in-breaking remedy for the redemption of all of humanity, one who fulfills the psalmist’s hope that the “boundary lines” between humans and God are lowered, or even demolished by the Christ Event. Are there people who will choose “other gods” even in the post-incarnational era? Of course, but the God of Jesus Christ never gives up on them, and ultimately, unless they full-out reject the overtures of God’s Spirit, and do it perpetually, God will win them over with love, forgiveness, and acceptance. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. And Jesus, like the God of the psalmist, is a benevolent, “parental” teacher who helps us “get it.” We are taught why the “rules of the road” are important—not to “please God,” but to make the Kingdom of God and the Beloved Community possible. Courtesy and “love of neighbor” is what is behind our “obedience,” not just appeasement of an angry deity. 

 

I pray this Psalm finds you open to this view of the nature of God. If not, there is no time like the present to open your hearts to it, and to Jesus Christ, who accepts us, and teaches us the “rules of the road” like our basketball coach did! I also pray that if your current view of the nature of God is of the divine autocrat who “made you and can break you,” and who desires, above all else, your obedience to laws and rules “because he said so,” you might examine the broader witness of scripture to have this oppressive theology lifted off your shoulders. Those who are afflicted by this patriarchal view tend to see a choice between law and love, not that the law is given to help us live out the “rule” of love with each other in the here and now. Again, to use my driving metaphor, if the compelling reason you obey the “rules of the road” is that you don’t want to get pulled over by the cops, you will NOT be a safe driver, and may not see why the safety of OTHER drivers should be a concern of yours. But if you “see the light” and adopt the view that the rules of the road are designed to keep us ALL safer and make driving more pleasurable, then you will “get” the God the writer of Psalm 16 is trying to tell us about. 

 

As I’ve mentioned before, in seminary, I was drawn to the Process model of doing theology. This model posits a loving Creator who “goes on before us,” and who attempts to lovingly “lure” us to making better choices on our “driving” path. The God of Process Theology incorporates our past experience, the circumstances of the present moment, and God’s loving “lure” to form “actual occasions” along a more positive path. What makes it a more positive path? It is one that encourages our own joy and well-being in life, but one that also interfaces well with our neighbors, or fellow-travelers with us on the journey. It is also one that helps advance the “bigger picture” of God’s desire to bring about the ultimate Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God. Now that I have a “high tech” car that uses all kinds of sensors and radar to guide my driving journeys, keep me and other safer, and make my driving experiences less of a “chore” and more of a joy, I can see how the Process model “works” every time I get behind the wheel of my Prius Prime!

 

I once read that the Global Positioning System (GPS) in my car “looks” for three satellites sailing around the earth to get its “fix” and provide direction. In another sermon, I paralleled this to the “fix” we get when we look to the Holy Trinity for guidance on the journey of life. Both “drives” can become less of a chore and more of a joyous “vacation trip” when we adopt a view of the nature of God that is not oppressive, one that is instead loving, nurturing, and redeeming. This is the God of Jesus Christ. This is the God of the author of Psalm 16. And may it be the God of your journey, too! Happy motoring! Amen!

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Pop! Goes the Weasel

 

 

Matthew 28:1-10
28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.

28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

28:5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."

28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

28:10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

 

 

William Archibald Spooner was a late 19th, early 20th century English cleric who had a “gift” for a unique type of syllable-shifting malaprop that have come to be known as “Spoonerisms.” One of my favorite word-mixing Spoonerism occurred when he was once asked to lead a hymn at a large public gathering. He embarrassingly declined, telling the crowd that he only knew two tunes: “Pop Goes the Queen,” and “God Save the Weasel.” I’m not sure which of these I like best…

 

Which leads me to the words of a “child’s version” of a little ditty often called just, “Pop Goes the Weasel”:

 

All around the Mulberry Bush,

The monkey chased the weasel.

The monkey stopped to pull up his sock,

Pop! Goes the weasel.

 

And this leads me to one of the most frightening toys I had as a kid—a Jack-in-the-Box. I’ll bet a number of you had these. “Jack” was a really scary-looking clown, and he resided in the darkness of a metal box. There was a small crank on the outside of the box, and when you turned it, the tune of “Pop! Goes the weasel” played. When the tune reached the “Pop!” strain, the lid to the box flew open and up popped the clown. I never got over the fear that thing invoked, nor did I ever really get used to the “surprise” when that thing jumped out of the box. As a little older child, I discovered the tiny, metal latch that could be pulled back to make the lid pop open without playing the tune, and this gave me ultimate control over when and IF the clown would pop out. Having control alleviated most of my fear.

 

And all of THIS leads me to the subject of this sermon—Easter! After three days in the dark tomb, POP! Goes the weasel! The Matthean text puts the “pop” in the resurrection story of Jesus Christ. Just look at the drama:

 

“…and suddenly there was a great earthquake…”

 

“…an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

 

“[The angel’s] appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.”

 

“For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”

 

“So [the women] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

 

Other gospel accounts don’t seem to go as “Hollywood” in their accounts of Jesus “popping” out of the tomb. As we veteran preachers know, there are many ways to tell a story, and each storyteller has her or his own way of embellishing and emphasizing its parts to get the desired attention and reaction from the audience. Matthew wants this to be a real “Pop! Goes the Weasel” moment, like my clown-in-the-box, scaring the wits out of everyone, and yet it is a fear leading to “great joy.” What novel emphases can the preacher add to the story of the resurrection of the Son of God to cut through the eggs, the chocolate rabbits, and the fashion finery of the “culture” of Easter so we marvel once again at this history-changing event? How can we make the “weasel” go “POP!”?

 

As one who tended to be didactic in my preaching over my 36 years of ministry, I would retell each year how what occurred in the resurrection was a cosmic miracle, not just the revival of a three-day corpse. I would mention the Apostle Paul’s metaphor that in the resurrection, Jesus became the “Second Adam,” raised by God as the “firstborn of the dead,” to usher in a whole new way of thinking about life, death, and life AFTER death. Jesus is raised in a “glorified” body that no longer is ravaged by age or disease. He has corporeal form (as evidenced by the incidents of Thomas’s touch and Jesus’s eating fish on the shore of Galilee), yet he was now no longer held captive by linear time. From now on, for the resurrected Jesus, his “now on” would never end. And the writer of the Epistle of John would say that someday, “we shall be like him,” meaning this “Second Adam” experience was the “prototype” for an eternal, non-perishable existence for US, too, not as disembodied spirits roaming around some cosmic heaven, but as living, breathing beings in what the Bible calls the “second resurrection.” We will taste death in our current, human form, but then, thanks to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, “Pop! Goes the Weasel” for us, too! This “teaching” is one of the places where science must at least temporarily give way to faith. That we will “inherit eternal life” because of the resurrection of Jesus is something to believe, and yet that same Jesus and the story of Easter is our evidence of that promise! 

 

Some Easters, I might wax philosophical with my best Sherlock Holmes hat on, suggesting that the “facts of history” are a pretty good “proof” of a spectacular event that occurred on that first Lord’s Day a couple thousand years ago. Fact is, even as the gospels tell us, there were many powers-that-be in that day who would have LOVED to produce the body and bones of Jesus to refute any thought that he had “risen from the dead,” but of course, none were to be found. The gospels—and other historical witnesses—tell us that the disciples of Jesus ran away after his crucifixion, afraid that they would be rounded up next. SOMETHING happened to suddenly transform them into brave, public witnesses willing to give their lives for the gospel they would preach, and this was even before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. What could it be, short of experiencing the Resurrected Christ? And finally, we have the witness of “Saul,” a Pharisee and oppressor of Christians who is suddenly poleaxed by his experience on the road to Damascus—he is directly encountered by the living Christ and is immediately transformed into a passionate, sacrificial, driving force in the fledgling “church.” The Gospel of John says that these early apostles “turned the world upside down,” and that nothing could have empowered them to leave behind their fears but the fact that they were getting their marching orders from the Living Christ!

 

Over the years, I ALWAYS lifted up the courage and brave faith of the women who DON’T run and hide. They, too, were seen with Jesus, probably as much as the twelve, and yet they went to the tomb with little fear of reprisal by the authorities. In more than a few sermons, I suggested that, if they had NOT gone to the tomb on humanity’s behalf, God might have been so discouraged that the Divine might have just spirited Jesus off into heaven and given up on us all. But, because the women RESPONDED and went to the tomb, they may have been the exclamation point on this event for all of the world. Not that we ALWAYS don’t, but certainly in this historical event, we owe so much to the courageous women.

 

Some years, when life has been hard for so many, such as in the pandemic Easter, I tried to use the image of the Resurrected Christ as a universal symbol of hope and new life. After all, resurrection can be about FAR more than just being “raised from the dead.” Often, in our hearts of hearts and our pain-inflicted psyches, a resurrection of the “dying” is what is prescribed. We believe in a God not only who raised Jesus from the dead, but one who gives second chances to all who fear they blew the first one, and who breathes new life into the stale air of tired lungs. We BELIEVE in a broad-based “resurrection” that frees us from all that afflicts us and holds us down. To quote a popular phrase, “When they go low, we go high,” or we Christian believers might say, “When things get us down, God lifts us up!” In those toughest of years, Easter became a time not as much for celebration, as for healing and wholeness, comfort and the loving embrace of God.

 

But this year, I chose to focus on the “surprise” of what happened on that first Easter Sunday. While all of these other stories of the event are most certainly still valid, at my age, and in a day when many are eschewing faith, we need a little “pop” in our Easter. Matthew thought so, too!

 

Now, someone will protest that I’m calling Jesus a weasel. Weasels are clever animals, escaping predators by their speed and prowess, and they do their best work when buried! There is a reason both weasels and Jesus “POP” up from the earth. One of my favorite Easter hymns is “Lord of the Dance,” and the last verse that says, 

 

“They cut me down and I LEPT UP HIGH,

I am the dance that will never, never die,

I’ll live in you if you live in me,

I am the Lord of the Dance, said he!”

 

In the nursery rhyme about the monkey chasing the weasel, I suppose we humans could be seen as the “monkeys” doing the chasing, as this is precisely what “religion” is—some practice meant to “catch the weasel,” or apprehend the Divine and attain a blessing. But the Christian story has the weasel surprising the monkey, popping up when least expected. Jesus IS the “weasel of God,” and on Easter we celebrate his “popping up.” We no longer have to chase the weasel. God came to US, conquered sin and death, and now lives on in the heart of each and every believer. Matthew captures the energy of the Risen Christ in his account, when he reports that Jesus tells the women he is going on to Galilee, and to tell the twelve to meet him there. Even after his triumphant resurrection, Jesus is going on to Galilee, and the Good News marches on! POP! Goes the weasel! If the Celtic Christians can embrace the Wild Goose as their symbol of the Holy Spirit because it “pops up when least expected” and “goes where it wills,” so we Easter Christians can appropriate the crafty, scurrying weasel as a symbol for the Jesus we love and serve, and who is always going on before us!

 

And, lest we ever again grow complacent in our discipleship, we might adopt another Spoonerism as our rallying cry. Supposedly, in one of his sermons, in meaning to say that the Lord is a Loving Shepherd, he malapropped that the Lord is a “Shoving Leopard.” May our Loving Lord ALSO be the “shoving leopard” who keeps us growing up in faith, out in witness, and forward in mission and service!

 

Happy Easter, Beloved. Christ is RISEN! He is RISEN INDEED! POP! Goes the weasel!

 

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