Saturday, July 13, 2024

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 with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.

6:3 They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart

6:4 with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark.

6:5 David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

6:12b So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing;

6:13 and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling.

6:14 David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.

6:15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

6:16 As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.

6:17 They brought in the ark of the LORD, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the LORD.

6:18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts,

6:19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

 

I have made it my practice to entitle most, if not all, of my “first” sermons in each new church to which I was appointed, “What’s Next?” That question is one that “begs” to know what the change in pastoral leadership will bring, in each appointment. It’s a legitimate question for the people of the church, as they now have a “new” preacher and clergy leader, and they must “scope out” this new person to see what will indeed “come next.” Meanwhile, the new pastor must begin to learn his new congregation, its sitz im leben, and help discern what GOD has “next” for them all. As a retired pastor, I figured this “What’s Next?” dance between pastor and congregation was over, but this week, I began my new “assignment” as part-time pastor of the Faith Community United Methodist Church in Rochester, PA. This message—or at least a version of it—will be my first one in this “new” congregation. Why this week instead of the first Sunday in July, when these things typically take place? Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that Dara and I have been in Alaska since June 18, visiting our son, and that we just returned home this past Tuesday. This trip had been planned for over six months, so it preceded the appointment to Rochester. It was during this trip, however, that I came across a wonderful metaphor for how a pastor—or any person, for that matter—may approach the “What’s Next?” question.

 

Our son, Evan, works for the Bureau of Land Management in their Fire Protection Services. He coordinates medical services for the wildfire fighters in Alaska, and while we were visiting with him, he gave us a tour of their office, warehouse, and facilities located at the Wainwright Army Base in Fairbanks. Alaska, as our largest State, geographically, and one that has multiple climates, actually has a “wildfire season” that begins in the Spring and is usually winding down in mid to late July. Wildfires are a fact of life in heavily-wooded lands, and in Alaska, where much of the wooded area is Boreal forest, this type of forestation NEEDS wildfires to survive and flourish. Hence, those who fight wildfires have decisions to make. In Alaska, aircraft are widely employed to survey wildfires in order to get the “big picture” of newly detected fires. Next, a decision is made whether to deploy Smoke Jumpers (firefighters who parachute from the spotter aircraft). If the wildfire seems to be natural in origin, and is not endangering people or structures, it may be left to burn. However, if “up close” surveillance is needed, the smoke jumpers exit the aircraft, after careful decisions are made regarding where they may land safely away from the fire, but close enough they may view its surroundings and scope. Smoke Jumpers are highly trained to access the situation, and jump with initial equipment to begin fighting—or “steering”—the fire, if they deem this necessary. Then, if they call for more help, larger stores of equipment including chainsaws may be parachuted down to them. And finally, if more “manpower” is needed to contain the fire or protect people or structures, “Hotshots” may be transported in. Like the Smoke Jumpers, Hotshots are specialized personnel trained to fight wildfires. They do not jump from airplanes, but may be trucked in or arrive by helicopter transport. If the wildfire is considered to need more serious controlling, large water-bearing aircraft are used to dump water on the fire in strategic spots. All of this activity must be coordinated by veteran wildfire managers who, as Kenny Rogers use to sing, know when to “hold and fold.” As mentioned earlier, some of these fires need to be left to burn, for the health of the forest, while others must be vigorously fought, either to protect inhabited areas, valuable structures, or younger forests. And all of this is to be done with as little risk to the firefighters as is possible. Our son’s teams provide medical support for these courageous firefighters, often at great risk to themselves, being flown in by helicopter to set up aid stations close to the fire lines, in many cases.

 

If you are (or were) a pastor reading this summary, you have probably already “placed” what we do when “parachuting” into a new appointment among these job descriptions of wildfire fighters! While not all church “forests” we land in are on fire, all of them require assessment, on our part, as to what the most pressing needs are, as we put “boots on the ground.” Sometimes, we DO put out fires, metaphorically, as some crisis in the church has precipitated the change of pastoral appointment. In other cases, the fire is “natural and needed,” in that it is just time for a change, and/or our predecessor has asked for a move, for personal or professional reasons. Like the wildfire that is helpful, our role, in this case, is just to receive the “baton” from her or him, and do our best to keep things moving forward without creating or feeding any drama. Either way, we may take on the role of “Smoke Jumper,” landing ourselves in a safe place—always the first priority for these specialists—and then accessing the scene. We rely on the “aircraft” flying overhead to help us get the lay of the land—God, the Holy Spirit, maybe even the district superintendent. We also should be asking helpful questions of the staff and lay leadership of the church, trying to understand the “forest” we are now called to manage and nurture. Might we find we need other resources? They are available through the Annual Conference, continuing education opportunities, or specialists who may be able to address specific problems or situations. I like to think the Annual Conference is a resource, but I have seen a few times when “those on high” have inadvertently “dumped cold water” like one of those tanker aircraft on a church situation that may have been better left to “burn itself out.” This turns the pastor into a kind of “Hotshot” who must then smooth over the deluge released ill-advisedly by some other “manager.” And if things get dicey, smart pastors know when to call in the “fire medics” to address issues of health, wholeness, and caring. I have served on such a Conference “Care Team” that may be employed to sooth hurts and pains that sometimes accompany a change of pastors. Of course, ALL Christian pastors are advised to “radio the spotter aircraft” (God!) flying overhead, as it is always in the best position to describe the emerging “big picture!”

 

Today’s text has new King David wanting to make an impression upon his charges. He chooses 30,000 top men, and has them accompany him as he passionately “dances before the Lord” before the Ark of the Covenant, the literal presence of God among God’s people. What better way to make an impression? AND, David had them put the Ark on a “new” cart. Again, what a wonderful metaphor of what we pastors want to do when we address a new congregation:

 

--find new ways to bear the Word of God to our people, so they may renew their desire to grow in their faith and discipleship

 

--“dance” passionately before the Lord in our own witness, hoping to inspire our people to rejoice in the Lord, as well

 

--“feed” our people with good, spiritual food, that they may, in turn, feed the community they serve as an act of justice, compassion, and witness

 

And, like modern wildfire fighters, we aim to light “prescribed burns” to bring heat and light to our congregations in a day when so many things are seeking to dampen and lessen their impact!

 

For all of those pastors beginning new assignments, and congregations welcoming new pastors, may you find exciting, passionate, and strategic answers to the question of the day: “What’s NEXT?” Amen.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Out of Focus

 


Out of Focus

 

Ezekiel 2:1-5
2:1 The Lord said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.

2:2 And when the Lord spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard the Lord speaking to me.

2:3 The said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.

2:4 The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, "Thus says the Lord GOD."

2:5 Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

 

 

When things are out of focus, the picture is not very appealing. I minored in photojournalism in college, and have, for most of my life, been interested in photography. I kind of “grew up” in a darkroom, as my father was a real estate photographer in his “moonlighting” job. We would spend Sunday afternoons after church driving around my hometown to homes that a local realtor was putting on the market for his clients, and my dad would get out at each location to take photos of the homes. If we kids were really good on these Sunday afternoon “drives,” we would get a Skyscraper ice cream cone from our local Isaly’s. Then, on Sunday evening, as the “eldest” son, I would help my dad in our home darkroom, processing and printing the photos he took earlier in the day. After a long darkroom session, Dad would sit at the kitchen table with a big, chromed, electric print drying cylinder, putting a glossy finish on each drying print. The realtor paid him so much for each home he photographed. Darkrooms and its pungent chemicals kind of “got into my blood,” and by the time I was in junior high, I was toting my own camera around, and had learned how to print my own pictures. 

 

One of the first things any good photographer learns is, make sure your photos are well focused. Other than some fine art photographers who made candid, out-of-focus images hip like Henri Cartier-Bresson, sharply focused images are what grab the viewer’s attention. The king of sharpness was most certainly Ansel Adams, the late, great American landscape photographer. Of course, photography has explosively changed over the past two or three decades. My expensive film cameras now adorn my “wall-seum” as decorations. Even my second generation, auto-focusing Nikons are boxed and packed away, not that anyone is interested in buying them, since they use film that is harder to get, and expensive. Darkrooms? Oh, they’re still out there, but mine and all of its equipment was given away to a young photojournalism student over 20 years ago. And while I own two expensive, “mirrorless” digital cameras and several lenses for them, frankly, 90% of my photos today are taken with my Apple iPhone 13 Pro, with its exquisite, high-resolution cameras—and yes, I said cameras, for it has three! 

 

Back to the focus, focus! When things are out of focus in a picture, the viewer is not only distracted, but the subject matter is distorted, colors are blurred, and shades and lighting are distracting, instead of illuminating. Out of focus pictures are just plain bad. In the darkroom, when I would put what I thought was a nice negative into the enlarger, and would try to focus its image onto the easel, if it was, unfortunately, taken OUT of focus, there was nothing to do but discard it. There was no way to “fix” an out-of-focus negative. Why have I gone to all of this detail about “focus” from my photography background? Because it was God’s aim to FOCUS God’s people, Israel. God, through commandments and leaders, was relentless in trying to keep Israel focused on a common aim, in order to draw them together as a community. Absent something that would do this, they would do what they did WAY too regularly—bow to human selfishness and “territorialism,” divide, and fight amongst themselves. Not only did this make community impossible, but it opened them up to external threats, such as other nations and kings who wanted their land, their possessions, and their loyalty. God loved God’s people, but they so often just didn’t see it, and gave in to these basic human flaws. As I have stated in many other sermons, it is my view that God was less interested in “being worshiped” by the people as God was in using Godself, the temple, and the “trappings” of religious devotion to “Yahweh” as a means to focus God’s people, bringing them together in a common, benevolent, and formative cause. And while together, God could use prophets and priests to teach them how to live together in harmony, via this devotion, and how to live ethical, moral lives. Doing so would not only guard against “backsliding” into the human selfish state, but would also advance human evolution, moving away from barbarism and warring as a way of life, and toward a more functional, peace-loving governance. 

 

The role of the prophet was to laser-focus the people on what God was asking of them. I can’t emphasize enough how God was desiring their attention NOT to appease Godself, as much as to give them a common, shared focus, as a people. In this passage, we see the rudiments of what a prophet was to do, as Ezekiel is put into some kind of “trance” so he could hear clearly God’s message to the people. Surely the people would take notice when the prophet was able to proclaim boldly and with confidence, “Thus says the Lord God…”

 

And the message, while couched in the euphemism of “God’s anger” at the people’s disobedience, was that Israel needed to GET FOCUSED again on its devotion to their shared faith. If not, they were in danger of “God’s wrath,” which would be “manifest” by their being torn asunder by their surrounding enemies. Of course, God was not actually BEHIND Israel’s countless failures that led to their defeats at the hands of other armies, and such, but God was “using” these events—brought about by ISRAEL’S OWN loss of focus and falling prey to selfish behavior—as a way to “bring them home” to what God knew was better for them. We have no idea if the prophets were “in” on this “focusing” tactic, but they certainly gave the clear messages God wanted to send to the people. They, too, often were persecuted when Israel got so caught up in “doing their own thing,” instead of Gods, as the prophets were the visible and present reminder of how far the people had drifted from their devotion to Yahweh.

 

Sharp focus is an essential element to every good photograph. However, if the subject matter of the photo is not something people are interested in, it may all go for naught. No matter how great a photo one takes of a garbage dump, even if it is in perfect focus, it most likely won’t garner many “oohs and aahs,” as photographers say. This was also part of Israel’s problem. If one is caught up in the throes of one’s own desires and lusts, a sharply focused “picture” of what life “should” look like according to God’s standards, might not be of much interest. This is also where the role of the prophet was to “create” the interest in the audience before showing the “picture.” Prophets often did this by calling out both the selfishness AND the negative result of the people’s “bad” behaviors, what this text says is their “rebelliousness.” This is something our contemporary culture doesn’t digest well, either. There is a BIG difference between being a “rebel” and being “rebellious.” Rebels against injustices may be heroes; rebellious people seldom are, at least in the witness of scripture and human history. The prophet had to fly in the face of human failings, calling out rebellion against God’s law and God’s values, for what it was—and is. And they weren’t popular for it. Even in the modern idiom, “prophetic” ministry is often not at all popular, as it seeks to right injustices and wrongs that many may be being enriched or empowered by. Nobody likes to be called “selfish,” but call someone a “good capitalist,” or a “shrewd business-person,” and they will acknowledge it with a broad smile. And yet, too often these “compliments” are affirming truly selfish and/or self-serving values that may be exploiting or undervaluing others to get to the desired payoff. 

 

In one of the other lectionary texts this weekend, even JESUS said that “prophets aren’t welcome on their home turf.” Why? Because the locals KNOW the prophet, and will quickly dispatch their message, no matter how powerful or insightful, because of their familiarity with the messenger and her/his “family.” “Oh, that’s just JOSEPH’S son, you know, the CARPENTER!” Bring this concept to the ordained pulpit minister, and we preachers find it harder and harder to “speak with authority” when so many have sold themselves out to their OWN interpretation of scripture that they will dispute the word of even someone who has spent years in seminary training. Let’s call this “selective focus.” The Christian “picture” is a busy one, and our folk may choose to train their eye on something ELSE in the photo than what the photographer intended. Even good, well-intentioned preaching runs afoul for many listeners when it tries to change the focus of the people in order to “see” what God’s word actually has in mind. This is exactly what befell the prophets of old.

 

It's 2024, hundreds if not thousands of years removed from what we read today in Ezekiel. And yet, as I write this, ISRAEL is again suffering from an incredible and dangerous lack of focus. It is being torn asunder by internal strife over its war with Hamas, and its seemingly heartless disregard for civilian lives. The military forces of Israel possibly killed hundreds of Palestinians, including women and children, to liberate FOUR hostages that had been taken by Hamas during their initial assault. We don’t need to be Ezekiel, or Jeremiah, or Isaiah to know how God’s heart must be broken with this mess. The whole world grieves what is happening in THAT picture!

 

Friends, our faith is designed to give us a clear focus of God’s loving, forgiving, and redeeming grace, as meted out to ALL of the people through Jesus Christ, our Lord. And we are ALL called to be “prophets” of this “change of focus” message, both through our words and the witness of our lives. It’s not easy when so many, like Israel of old and modern Israel, just can’t get their focus shifted from “what is best for ME.” I had a good friend tell me recently that before he votes, he looks at how his 401k is doing. This kind of “me-ism” will do just what it did for Ezekiel’s Israel—tear it apart, if not outright destroy it. We believe in a God who offers us a different “picture” of what could bring peace on earth: “I will do well if ALL do well,” which might be considered the “motto” of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “The Beloved Community.” Will we commit to being “rebels” to make this Beloved Community a reality over and against human “me-ism”? Or will we continue to be seduced by a rebellious spirit that serves me first? This is a question we all must answer for ourselves. Focus, people, FOCUS! This is God’s Word to us today! Amen.

 

EPILOGUE:

 

I wrote this sermon before we began our trip to Alaska, as I didn’t know how constrained our time would be in the 49th State. While here, as many of you know, I do what I usually do as one who minored in photojournalism—I take a ton of photographs, and post the “travelogue” on Facebook! I didn’t bring along my “best” digital cameras for two reasons: They and their accoutrement are on the heavy side, and we already were “overpacked” for a three-week foray into bear country; and I wanted to continue to “learn” how to maximize the use of my iPhone 13 Pro camera system (I’ve actually taught a couple of classes on how to take and “punch up” good photos on a smart phone, given I’ve seen such horrible ones often posted). Using only my iPhone Pro smart phone, however, I’ve learned something—it isn’t all that smart. I’m sure “A.I.” (Artificial Intelligence, for you Luddites out there) is involved in the software that “suggests” how your camera should render what it sees, but it often horribly misplaces the focal point of a prospective picture. I might aim my iPhone at one of the beautiful, distant mountain ranges here, and they are legion, but put something like a wildflower or a closer vista in the foreground. The smart phone goes to work, trying to decide which of the “subjects” to focus upon, and which to give the better exposure. Half of the time it is either dead wrong, or chooses the opposite from what I intend. Even with its computerized features and “intelligence,” I often have to make the choice of where I want it to focus. (There are several ways to adjust your smart phone’s camera, and while I’m not sure I know all of them, I’ve learned enough to get from it what I want, most of the time.) And then, after I finally get the picture I want recorded, I open the iPhone’s editing program. This gives me an opportunity to re-crop the photo if it will make the end product better, and/or “fix” extraneous stuff I may have gotten into the frame while squinting at the washed out screen in a bright sun, or if I had to hold the thing over my head to get the shot I wanted. Secondly, I will “touch up” the color, not to change it, but to make it look like what I SEE in the live-eye view. All cameras tend to be overwhelmed by sunlight and much blue sky, both of which may either bleach out or “blue out” the primary subject. These things can be adjusted toward “actual.” Most editing programs have a “magic button” that will use A.I. to do that for you, and I find this works about 50% of the time, but again, it’s not all that smart. The final thing I do is go to the “vignette” function and do what we darkroomers used to call an “edge burn.” Lenses and exposure systems will make the entire photo frame “equal,” as to exposure and appearance, while our two-eye, human visualization system built into us “sees” scenes with a bit less light in the fringes. A very slight edge burn (vignette setting on an electronic camera) can make the photo “fit” into our human scope of vision. These simple techniques can make a photo “pop.” People often ask me how I get such good photos, and these techniques are the first thing I will tell them. The second “secret” is: ONLY SHOW THEM YOUR GOOD ONES! Back in the day of “store prints,” I was forever amazed at family and friends who would painstakingly show me EVERY print in the pack, making me wade through the pointless, LOUSY ones with them, sometimes even including the “free doubles” that a particular drug store or Walmart provided! 

 

There are numerous “focus” related spiritual principles at work here, and I’m guessing you have already lifted a few of your own, as you read this late-added “epilogue.” Run with that. Here are a couple I find:

 

Choose your focal points wisely. It will make for a much better view in life. If you don’t, “something” or “someone” else will, and that’s rarely good. Even God gave us free will so we may choose our own focal points. And don’t be like the automatic cameras that try to set themselves to put EVERYTHING in focus in a photo, for this makes for a very “flat” photo that is uninteresting, or in order to do it, the camera has to “stop down” to get a very deep depth of field, which usually underexposes the photo, making it gray and lifeless. Again, choose your focal points wisely.

 

Secondly, prayer is like touching the screen to tell the smart phone camera where you WANT it to focus. It will do that, if it is possible, but sometimes it just has to compromise. This works for both you AND God, while praying, doesn’t it? Tell God what your concerns are, and don’t mince words! Since God isn’t a “genie” who grants “wishes,” God will weigh your desires and try to do what is best for YOU, for God’s “plan,” and for the wider community of which you are a part. In this way, GOD is kind of like the A.I. in your smart phone, only God is just a lot smarter. When YOU tell God what your focus is while praying, you are not only sending a clear message, but you may also be convincing—or “unconvincing”—yourself of this particular “focus.” As a wise pastor once told me, “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes PEOPLE, and PEOPLE change things!” We are often the “people” prayer changes. When WE become convinced our focal points are correct and just, we are more empowered to act on them ourselves, and may leave the prayer room ready to answer a good share of our own prayers. The key lesson here is: be direct in prayer—all this “if it be thy will” stuff is like pushing the “magic fix” button on your phone’s photo editing program and hoping for the best. 

 

Here ends the second sermon, from the beautiful State of Alaska!

Thursday, June 27, 2024

For Only $19 a Month...

 



For Only $19 a Month…

 

Mark 5:21-43
5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.

5:22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet

5:23 and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."

5:24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

5:25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

5:26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

5:27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

5:28 for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well."

5:29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

5:30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?"

5:31 And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'"

5:32 He looked all around to see who had done it.

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

5:34 He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

5:35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?"

5:36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe."

5:37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.

5:38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.

5:39 When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping."

5:40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.

5:41 He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!"

5:42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.

5:43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

 

 

St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital is one of them. Wounded Warriors and a number of pet rescue organizations are also examples. Of what? Maybe this will jar your memory: “For only $19 a month, you can…” Ever wonder why it is always “$19 a month” in those ads for charity fundraising? The “Negative Nellies” will tell you the $19 a month, for a total of $228 a year, “flies under the IRS radar” of $250, when they require charities to send a written receipt for contributions. In fact, all responsible charities—and ones that want to be successful in raising the funds they need—already DO send acknowledgements of ALL gifts, along with countless mail or email appeals for more. The real reason? Psychology. “For only $19 a month” is like why things on sale are “$9.99” instead of $10, and gas is priced “$3.79.9” instead of $3.80. Sounding “less,” sells. I don’t mean to disrespect legitimate charities like St. Jude’s, or others, for that matter, but you must admit, it’s an interesting introduction for a message about healings from the Gospel of Mark.

 

“Healing” is one of those heart-grabbing topics, isn’t it? The St. Jude’s ads grab you because they picture very sick children and their heavily-emoting families; the veteran’s and rescue-pet ads do the same, aiming at our heart strings. The reality is that these charities MUST raise funds to survive and to fund their mission. Guess what? Your church has to do the very same thing. Have YOU bitched about your church “asking for money” more than what makes you comfortable? Do you turn off the “movie of the week” or favorite sporting event on TV when the St. Jude’s ads come on? I doubt it. Neither would you if your church’s stewardship campaign letter and pledge card arrives in the mail the same week your beloved mother dies, who will be respectfully laid to rest by her pastor, and you will be embraced by volunteers from the congregation. Human nature being what it is, we all need our “heart strings” strummed, from time to time, to get in touch with our “better angels.” 

 

In this week’s text, we have two touching, healing stories. The first is a bit “political”: Jairus, a “leader of the synagogue,” is losing his “little daughter” to some disease that would be quickly eradicated by an antibiotic in our day. He pleads with Jesus to do something about it. Jesus, who needs to get his message past the “filter” of the synagogue, would be predisposed to use his divine power to heal the young woman, so he accompanies the official on the way to his home where the sick daughter is. Along the way, Jesus is “accosted” by someone else in need of her own healing.

 

A woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” does a little figuring of her own. The “code” in the text would cover what was probably a “female-related” issue of blood, most likely from fibroid growths in her uterus. Not only was this a dangerous (rendering her anemic) and inconvenient situation, but for a Jewish woman, it would render her permanently “unclean,” behaving like a 24/7 menstrual period. Probably based on other divine healings she has seen Jesus perform, or possibly from stories heard about them, she decides that all she has to do is “touch his clothing” and she will be healed. This was a common superstitious notion. We see it in the Book of Acts, where handkerchiefs “blessed” by Paul or one of the other apostles transmitted a “healing touch.” Of course, her scheme works, and she is healed, instantly. What the “doctors” of her generation could not do, touching the “hem of Jesus’ garment” did in seconds. (I’m not sure how she knew that she was healed so quickly, but let’s go with the text.)

 

Jesus responds by asking the disciples “Who touched me?” Incredulous, they reminded him he was in a PRESSING CROWD, and hundreds of people had touched him, as he tried to make his way. But Jesus was somehow aware that “power” had gone out of him, and that something wonderful had happened, due to it. The woman who was healed ‘fessed up. Interestingly, Jesus addresses her as “daughter,” in a parallel story construction to the fact that he was headed to Jairus’s home, where HIS daughter was dying. So, here we have another parallel—two people who desperately needed a healing, and who had prevailed upon Jesus to be the agent of that healing—one who asks him directly, and one who, in her attempt to “fly under the radar,” sort of “steals” the power of God he represents, to affect her own healing. Both, in their way, “asks” for help.

 

The inference in the story is that the woman whose hemorrhage is healed delays Jesus, and during the delay, Jairus’s daughter succumbs to her illness, turning her “healing” into a resurrection story, eventually. Once at Jairus’s house, Mark gives us much more detail than he usually does. Typically, he would just say something like “Jesus healed her IMMEDIATELY, and went on his way.” Instead, we get more of the story, possibly because the famous “trailing teenager” was fascinated by all of it? There was the mourning and “wailing,” the grieving parents, a dead twelve-year-old, and the mystery of how Jesus would handle the situation—lots of fodder to pique a teenager’s interest. The text gets curiouser and curiouser…

 

We know that the little girl is healed, or resurrected from the dead, we just don’t know which it was. Death back then wasn’t quite the same “science” it is, today, hence the testimonies of Lazarus being “in the tomb three days,” and similarly, when Jesus dies. The writer of these stories wants us to know these two men were dead, dead, dead. It was not the same thing with Jairus’s daughter. What was important, in this author’s mind, was the actual words Jesus spoke to her: “Talitha cum,” which he then translates for us. Some scholars say that a better translation would be, “Little lamb, arise.” If this is true, does this, then, become a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own coming resurrection? Maybe. Other commentators have pointed out that Mark gives us this “rising” phrase to show that Jesus didn’t do any “mumbo-jumbo,” or incantation, but simply told the little girl to “get up.” I like this assertion, as throughout the Bible, we have “necromancers” and magicians replicating some of God’s miracles with their own legerdemain, but they obviously cannot top the genuine results of what God does with God’s power. And then, as seems to be the “proof” of the fact that the resurrected one is actually alive, they are given something to eat. Ghosts don’t eat, and neither do people who just recover from being passed out, as they continue to be woozy for some time. They may receive a container of water, but no food, as no one wants them to choke to death in their weakened state. Lazarus, Jesus, and Jairus’s daughter all eat something as a sign that they are truly alive and well.

 

Healing stories always catch our attention, as all of us have been deeply touched by illness, and aggrieved by loved ones and friends who have succumbed to it. We all want miraculous healings, and pray for them almost every day, for someone, don’t we? We modern people should direct more of our prayers toward gratitude for the great gifts God gives the healers of our time—the doctors, nurses, PTs, and mental health therapists who are most often the agents of our healings. The last thing Christian people should do is eschew these healing practices and medicines in “deference” to wanting God to heal, as some do. (It’s like that story about the drowning man who prays for God to save him, and who drowns after refusing aid from a helicopter and a lifeboat, saying, “No, GOD is going to rescue me!” After arriving in heaven, the guy asks God what happened, and God says, “I SENT a helicopter and a lifeboat, what do you want?”) Don’t wait, friends, take whatever healing first comes along!

 

Another lesson from this story is, ASK, or in the case of the hemorrhaging woman, REACH OUT to God. Actually the two stories work well together, if you put the pieces together: ASK God for healing (Jairus, for his daughter) and then DO what you know is best (the woman). Pray, then go to the doctor, or the emergency room. Either way, God will touch you. Of course, this is the flaw in the story—both figures ARE healed. This is not always our experience, either with divine intervention and/or the best efforts of gifted medical personnel. My late home pastor used to say, when someone succumbed to a disease or illness, “They received the ultimate healing,” meaning they were now fully in the presence of God. It was at least a comforting thought.

 

Bringing us full circle back to St. Jude’s, we are reminded that it is HOPE that drives our prayers as well as our philanthropy. Those who send $19 a month to St. Jude’s (or Wounded Warriors, or one of those pet rescue outfits) sincerely hope that their contribution will be the “tipping point” that will make a difference for those who suffer. While the sentiment is certainly one we find in the pages of sacred writ, God’s people are urged to “be careful” to make sure the charities they support are honest and worthy of our support. Consult “Charity Navigator,” or one of the other two ratings non-profits who police this. Incidentally, St. Jude’s passes muster, according to them, as does our own United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) that was again recently give Charity Navigator’s top rating for using almost every sent given to aid its clients. 

 

And in all of these HOPEFUL stories, we may do well to adopt “Talitha cum!” as our encouraging rallying cry! In the name of Jesus…Amen.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Better Door than a Window...

 


Better Door Than a Window…

 

2 Corinthians 6:1-13
6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.

6:2 For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

6:3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,

6:4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,

6:5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;

6:6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,

6:7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;

6:8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;

6:9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;

6:10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

6:11 We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you.

6:12 There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.

6:13 In return--I speak as to children--open wide your hearts also.

 

When I was a kid, and playing on the floor of our family room, it was usually in front of the TV, since this was the largest “free” space in the room. The TV may or may not have been on, but we would spread out our Legos, the Lincoln Logs, or a board game to play in that “expanse” before the TV. (The TV was always one of those large console models that was basically a piece of furniture with a TV tube and circuits built into it. It was always fairly large, but since we were one of the first families in Oil City to get a COLOR TV, that made the TV even a larger, more prominent item in the room.) However, in the evenings, when my dad was home for the night, he would sit in his easy chair in front of the TV to read the evening newspaper and watch something on the tube. My brother and I would again land on the floor in front of the TV for additional playtime, but every once in a while, one of us would unconsciously stand up, not paying attention that we were now between dad and the TV. This prompted my dad to utter an expression I’m sure he got from his parents, at some point: “You make a better DOOR than a WINDOW!” We go used to this being his way of saying, “Please sit down so I can see the TV.” This is exactly what Paul is saying in this passage from II Corinthians:

 

We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry…

 

A key in ministry, whether that of clergy or laity, is “don’t be an obstacle,” keeping anyone from seeing Jesus in us, or in what we are doing on his behalf. It happens far too often.

 

Just this week, another “popular” Christian leader has stepped away from ministry because of some “moral failure” that has come to light. Doesn’t Luke tell us in his gospel, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” We all make mistakes, for sure, but Paul tries to set a standard in the earliest days of the Christian church, that we who are leaders should do our best to NOT become a “stumbling block,” or a DOOR, when God wants to install a window. Mistakes are one thing, but “secret sin” that has the power and magnitude to derail one’s ministry WILL come to light, at some point. At least that’s what Luke says in chapter 12 of his gospel. 

 

Not all “doors” or obstacles are sins. Sometimes they are things like racism or bigotry. When these are either manifested by church leaders, or even “excused” by them, they become a huge stumbling block to the church becoming a functional community, let alone helping it reach its goal of being a “beloved community.” Clergy who short-change being “life long learners” can become stumbling blocks, too. One of my disappointments in leading our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry for four years was seeing how resistant so many of my colleagues were at attending to their continuing education requirements, and most certainly to being “accountable” for doing so. A blue-ribbon committee we called together formulated a rigorous, yet reasonable four-year plan of continuing education based on Conference goals and vision. It included annual meetings with the Staff-Parish Committee to both report on the clergy’s progress AND to write a report for the District Superintendent. Both clergy AND lay church leaders resisted being this accountable, and the whole system was eventually discarded, giving way to a lack of accountability and watered-down standards. Much like doing away with mandatory driver training for teens has resulted in highways full of careless drivers today, so reducing or deleting required continuing education for pastors will—and already has—resulted in less competency in church leadership. “Stale” pastors certainly become more of a “door,” in this case, when God calls us to be enlightened, and enlightening windows through which our people may see Jesus. Either “stuckness” or ignorance in church leaders can block the view our folk need to see, if we are to be true servants of the Risen Lord.

 

As Paul often does, he champions how the “afflictions” he and his team faced as they engaged their itinerant ministry were formative, developing in them “great endurance.” They were, for Paul, a “badge” of dedication and a certificate of experience. He never let them become an obstacle. In this text, he lists some of the important values our people should be able to see in their leaders: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, and truthful speech, all of which demonstrate and even “bear” the power of God to the church. When we examine these values, it is plain to see how easily they can be obscured by negative behaviors, excessive griping and complaining, or most certainly habitual moral failure. It’s hard to see “genuine love” modeled by a pastor or leader who harbors a critical spirit, who is always complaining about something, or who holds on, white-knuckled, to doctrines or theological perspectives that suppress or harm the people whom God loves. 

 

I have been deeply saddened by clergy colleagues who have given in to what psychologists label “counter transference,” to the degree that it damages or even destroys a marriage. All seminary-trained clergy have courses in pastoral counseling and/or counseling therapy wherein we learn of “transference.” An overly simplistic definition of transference is that it is what happens when a parishioner or counselee, who is being comforted and helped by the clergy through conversation, listening sessions, and other supportive ministries, begins to have “feelings” for the clergy—a version of “falling in love with the doctor” syndrome. If and when this happens, and is expressed either directly or hinted at by the “patient” (parishioner), it is incumbent on the pastoral counselor to explain what it is, so it may be disarmed. “Counter-transference” happens when the pastor (therapist) responds to the indicated transference by reciprocating on these affectionate “feelings.” Clearly, the resulting “smoke” in these situations may quickly become a fire that can destroy one, if not two, marriages. And in a great many situations I have witnessed, it has. Talk about an obstacle that obscures “genuine” love! Obviously, ignorance of the transference/counter-transference cycle may give way to relationship disasters, but so can the clergy who allows her/his own self-esteem to become so low or battered that they are ripe for failure in this arena. Maybe this is why Paul cites, over and over again, how he regularly EXAMINES his experiences that might typically erode his self-image and chafe his emotions. By doing so, he purposely turns them into “positives” that build character, rather than threatens it. This is good counsel for pastors and other church leaders.

 

These truths are what Paul fully lays out in this text from Second Corinthians. Why? Because he had a unique challenge in Corinth, and the young church there was always on the edge of imploding, due to its “diversity” of potential threats handed it by its sitz im leben. The church today faces these issues afresh, due to OUR rapidly changing culture and the challenge the “nones” (those who choose not to have anything to do with the church) put before us. Speaking a word of grace, love, and acceptance to an apathetic audience is never easy, and most certainly requires making our message as well as ourselves as the “medium” is as transparent as possible. Like Paul, we must do all we can to assure that our integrity is impeccable, or no one will hear us.

 

I fear that we spend too much time “defending” the church, our rules, and our doctrines, and by doing so, are indirectly bashing the people we are trying to reach. What good does it do to put so much energy laying out our “requirements and rules” to people who, frankly, are not interested in the church, to begin with? Most of us believe God is doing some amazing things in the church today, and if we develop a missional attitude and issue invitations, we have the hope of being windows for salvation and grace, rather than doors that shut in the face of potential members. For the remnant United Methodist congregations (post-disaffiliation), we must flesh out our message to be far more than “We did away with the anti-LGBTQ language, so Y’all come now!” Transitioning to a welcoming church will take time and intentional strategy, or we run the risk of missing the wave.

 

When we were kids, often all we needed to do to “be a better WINDOW than a DOOR,” in my dad’s words, was to sit back down. This, too, is a strategy that should not be ignored. As clergy, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be made the center of attention. In fact, we are at our gospel best when we are encouragers, supporters, and prompters of vision, such that our people “catch it” for themselves and run with it. Like John the Baptist, “we must decrease that Jesus may increase.” Some of us are old enough to remember a popular campaign in United Methodism that said, “Catch the Spirit!” When more of our people “catch the Spirit,” we clergy may fall back into our encouraging, teaching role, and let the people lead. Windows, not doors, friends. Windows, not doors! Amen!

Friday, June 14, 2024

Alive and Kicking...

 



Alive and Kicking…

 

Psalm 20
20:1 The LORD answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you!

20:2 May the Lord send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.

20:3 May the Lord remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices. Selah

20:4 May the Lord grant you your heart's desire, and fulfill all your plans.

20:5 May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners. May the LORD fulfill all your petitions.

20:6 Now I know that the LORD will help the anointed; the Lord will answer them from God’s holy heaven with mighty victories by God’s right hand.

20:7 Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.

20:8 They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.

20:9 Give victory to the king, O LORD; answer us when we call.

 

 

Have you noticed that people keep trying to kill off the church? Despite the statement of Jesus that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” the church IS somewhat an endangered species today, but mostly from within. Sure, the apathy of so many in our society who were not “raised” in the life of the church does not bode well for it, but there ARE still a lot of folk who did grow up around the church, who may populate its ministries for the future. There are myriad churches that seem bent on their own demise by refusing to be inclusive, staying anchored in 1962, and/or who insist on enforcing doctrines and “orthodoxy” over preaching, modeling, and manifesting the love of God. And the fault is not solely on the clergy and religious leaders; there are just as many “pew-sitting Christians” who are quite comfortable preserving their church as a “private club” that caters to THEIR views and needs. Honestly, I have heard for myself with my own ears actual church members say that their main goal is to see that “their church” survives until it hosts their funeral, and then they don’t care what happens to it. Didn’t someone write, “Without a VISION, the people perish”? As a contemporary author once pointed out, you can swap out “perish” for “parish,” and this indictment still holds true. Then, there are the schisms that have occurred in the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and now the United Methodist denominations over inclusion of persons in the LGBTQ community; these, too, have added fodder to the prediction that the church is “on its way out.” But, here we are, and the gates of hell are still nowhere in sight.

 

One of the reasons the church is still alive is due to the dedicated, committed Christ followers who refuse to bow to the threats, or be derailed by change. They are “adapters” who understand that meeting needs, loving God’s people, and designing new ministries that address what is happening in the community around them, is what the church has done since instituted by Jesus. Maybe even earlier! Take a look at this Psalm.

 

This Psalm couches God’s “work” among God’s people WITHIN the language of the worshiping community! “May the Lord send you help from the sanctuary…” is a timeless reminder that God DOES move from the temple (or church), outward. “May the Lord remember your offerings…” is a reminder that God meets us in worship, encouraging us, comforting us, pardoning us, and “recharging” us, both for what we may face in life in the coming week, AND for empowering us for what God may call us to tackle in the way of ministry in the days ahead, as well. A word about offerings, here: God is “pleased” when we give offerings, but probably not because God is needing them, be they monetary gifts or “sacrifices” designed to appease the Almighty. In the Hebrew experience, God called the people to offer “meat” sacrifices on the altar, and in the Christian church, we are told “God loves a cheerful giver,” in terms of what we plot into the plate. Might it be true that God is ”blessed” by these offerings, not because of God’s—or the church’s—need, but by our willingness to GIVE them? Being willing to part with things that are considered highly valuable to us (animals in the Hebrew Bible and money in the New Testament) on God’s behalf might be the thing that God gets off on. God “counts” in our psyche when we are willing to give generously from a grateful heart, not just because the church “pesters” us to make a pledge so they can pay their pastors and their light bill. I know I’ve told this story a few times in past sermons, but when I would preach my “stewardship” sermons in the churches I served, I would emphasize that God doesn’t need our money any more than God needs our ideas about how to run the universe. However, WE need to give of our time, talent, and treasures, both to keep us from hoarding them, selfishly, thereby allowing them to become excessively controlling influences in our lives, AND to support and empower our Community of Faith to collectively conduct ministries that serve others and offer opportunities to share the Good News with their potential constituency. In my earlier parishes, I would say something like this about this “need” on our part to give: “Even if tomorrow someone would give this church several million dollars, such that by investing it, the return could pay our ENTIRE budget for the years ahead, WE would still need to give, because GIVING is an essential part of our discipleship.” This was a new concept for so many of the folk I served, and they told me so. I backed it up with scripture, which is not hard. It was the perspective of Jesus, and is greatly amplified and heralded by the Apostle Paul in his writings. 

 

Then, God played a little “trick” on me—God sent me to a church that HAD been gifted with millions of dollars by past benefactors, and COULD have paid their entire budget from the return, if they so chose. But, thanks to a long history of good pastoral leadership, strong lay leaders, and a healthy understanding of the spiritual nature of financial stewardship, the people of that church were some of the most generous givers of ANY of the churches I served! They didn’t give to the NEED, because it had been met, but they give because of THEIR need to give, as a response to God for what God had done for them. This meant that that church could generously give hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a wide variety of global and local needs and ministries. They paid the annual salary of a family counselor for the county Family Services agency; they paid the wages of a cook who made meals for the “soup kitchen” ministering to the unhoused residents of the community (which was a ministry of a local PRESBYTERIAN church!); they heavily supported a local Christian “Coffee House” that was just getting off the ground to reach youth; and they supported many other kinds of missions. Those folk NEVER gave begrudgingly, and were proud of what their generosity had wrought. I say all of this to illustrate how important “the offerings” are to this Psalm’s assertions about how God works in us, and in the world. God DOES “remember” our offerings, and God is somehow “motivated” by them, especially when they are given out of our gratitude, and “cheerfully.” 

 

Even though the “current” of Psalm 20 flows toward the individual, it is clear that the community is the larger beneficiary, and that the Community of Faith is central to the workings of God. From the earliest days of the Hebrew Bible to the end of the Revelation in the New Testament, God desires to work IN and THROUGH the Community of Faith. Regardless of the fact that many today eschew the church (we now call them the “nones,” by the way), GOD does not. 

 

It's important to point out a modern reality about the church. While there was a time when weekend worship was the “fulcrum” or the backbone of the church, that time may have passed. Worship is still an important element of the church, for it is typically the largest “ingathering” of God’s people on any regular basis, but my experience is that the church is now made up of MANY different bodies of people with different needs and gifts. Some engage through small-group ministries, study groups, youth and children’s programing, community ministries, feeding programs, or Volunteers in Mission opportunities. We may not see many of these folk in Sunday worship, partly because of societal changes, especially in myriad jobs that now may only afford workers one day off in seven, and that is often Sunday, unless you’re in retail or the food business. The time has come to NOT “persecute” those whose connection with the church is through its teaching or ministering/serving programs. One of the most pejorative things we can say to a church member is, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in CHURCH for a while”—basically accusing them of delinquency in their duties as a member, when they may be VERY “plugged in” via some other vital avenue. Instead, we would do well to expand the ways someone may find community in our church without trying to “funnel” everyone into a worship service. 

 

Two additional themes I pick up from this Psalm about what it means to be a believer, and to live our lives as growing disciples: 

 

-There are “burnt offerings” encountered along the way; of course the Psalm is referencing the altar practices of the Jewish temple in that day, but one could stretch the meaning a bit to talk about what psychologists now call “burn out” that happens when persons stretch themselves almost to beyond the breaking point in their jobs—or in ministry. When someone is “burned out,” they lose not just energy, but creativity, and their ability to analyze a situation and apply logic to solve problems may even take a serious hit. Burned out individuals require a respite, and possibly clinical therapies to recover. When I was on our Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, I was often saddened by how many of our pastors experienced “burnout,” and how limited our resources were to help them. On top of this, they were often “shelved” by those in authority because of their temporarily limited ability to function. This Psalm is promising that God—THROUGH the faith community—will “be our strength” and healer. When the faith community doesn’t prioritize “helping our own” who are struggling, are we not disobeying God’s command, here? Someone has said that Christians are the only ones who “kill their own wounded.” I have seen that happen when church leaders shun rather than treat victims of burnout. 

 

-The “some trust in chariots” section is there to remind us that war and violence is a last resort, and should only be resorted to as a last line of defense, not a “strategy.” We are called upon to trust the living God, and we do this by eschewing our “Lone Ranger-ness” and banding together as the People of God—in our case, the CHURCH. God’s goal, as we stated last week, is to build a Beloved Community on earth, a place of peace and respect for all people. The church is to orient itself to be the “model” of what this might look like in the wider society. Right now, our model is incomplete at best, broken at worst. Our “chariots and horsemen” with which we are fighting are the doctrines and dogmas we bash each other with, and defend even to the schisms we have wrought. What we need to see is that in beating each other up, we are telling whole groups of persons—God’s people—outside the church that THEY don’t matter, even that God CAN’T love them, because of who they are. As a United Methodist pastor, I must take responsibility for moving on from the schism that has rocked my denomination, turn the swords we rattled against each other into plowshares, and get planting the seeds of reconciliation. And no, I’m not talking about reconciling with those who have abandoned United Methodism (that may happen someday?), but those who have been cast aside by the church because they had officially been deemed “persona non grata” by the written rules of our church. Reconciling with these folk will take time, as they have little reason to trust us, especially the ones who had not yet even tried to enter the enclave we had turned the church into.

 

The GOOD NEWS is, as this Psalm says, God will grant our heart’s desire, raise us up, and fulfill our plans! We look forward to the day when this prophetic verse of Psalm 20 is fulfilled: “May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners.” Now, these banners may include the Rainbow of Welcome for all people! The “So What” of this Psalm is that we will give the “victory” to whom it belongs—the Lord God—and will stand ready to “answer when God calls.” Are you ready? Believe me, friends, the church IS alive and kicking! And the renewing United Methodist Church is ready to enter the loving, hopeful fray! Come join us! Amen.

 

Saturday, June 8, 2024

If You Know What's Good for You...



If You Know What’s Good For You…

 

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
8:4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah,

8:5 and said to him, "You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations."

8:6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to govern us." Samuel prayed to the LORD,

8:7 and the LORD said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.

8:8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.

8:9 Now then, listen to their voice; only--you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them."

8:10 So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.

8:11 He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots;

8:12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.

8:13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.

8:14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.

8:15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.

8:16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.

8:17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

8:18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day."

8:19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said "No! but we are determined to have a king over us,

8:20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."

11:14 Samuel said to the people, "Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship."

11:15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the LORD, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.

 

 

What might Israel have looked like without a king, except their allegiance to the Lord their God? I guess we’ll never know, because due to their stubbornness, they got their king. How might it have gone, though?

 

God’s plan seemed to be that God would give the people a few rules to guide their behavior and keep them from infringing too much on the lives and properties of their neighbors. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to know we’re talking about the Ten Commandments, the “laws” God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. Later, as another ministerial colleague of mine recently detailed in her sermon, God gave Israel the “Schema” as a simplified reminder of the intent of these ten rules: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.” A text in Leviticus says that Israel was to “love their neighbors as themselves,” which Jesus later attached to the Shema prayer in his teaching. These simple commandments summarize the decalogue—“Love God” is the subject of the first four; “Love neighbor” the remaining six. Had the people of Israel chosen to live by these rules, God would have “reigned” as a kind of loving, “King from on high,” they would have prospered as a people, and the “love your neighbor as yourself” part might have led them to make peace with other peoples, instead of fighting them as enemies. These simple rules could have been the basis for a harmonious society, complete with mutual respect, and brought together by a common love and devotion for a benevolent God. But that wasn’t enough. 

 

The first thing the people of Israel did was turn around the direction of the commandments. The ones meant to keep them focusing on a common, caring Creator, which was key to sustaining a unified community, metamorphized into warnings that God would judge and punish them if they “disobeyed the rules.” The commandments meant to be rules guarding the rights and property of others—the “neighbor”—were turned around to be protections and rights of Israel, “shielding” them from the dangerous stranger—the “neighbor.” Then, the religious leaders began to add to these simple rules, “discerning” lists of hundreds of laws they believed would “bless God” and keep the people in line. The resulting society, which couldn’t possibly keep all of these complicated rules, grew more and more selfish and lawless. A “strong-arm” leader was needed, they felt, to restore order—a king. Samuel tried to warn them it was a bad idea. We could summarize his counsel to them with the contemporary phrase, “If you know what’s good for you…”

 

Why a king? Because other peoples had a king. Israel’s wanting a king may well have been more a case of “keeping up with the Joneses” than a desire to have a tough leader and a policing government. Samuel tried to warn them, even telling them what he “heard from God” as a result of the prayer he said on their behalf. Even God knew they were a stubborn people, and ultimately told Samuel to listen to the cries of the people. This is an interesting element—rather than getting “angry” with Israel because they were rejecting God’s reign by wanting an earthly king, God seems more concerned that Samuel not ruin the rapport he had with the people by going postal on them over the king thing. Talk about a pastoral heart!

 

God told Samuel to warn the people of the problem with kings—they are high maintenance. They will demand compensation that makes a modern CEO look like a panhandler, and will even enslave your friends and family—if not you—to add to their entourage. The crown they will adorn themselves with is just the cherry on the top of the decadent “Sundae” they will have you whip up for them. AND, on  top of all of this narcissism, they may ruin your people with their incompetence. Their ego may even cause them to threaten neighboring people—if not ordering your army to attack them outright—and get you into all kinds of trouble. Why in the WORLD would they want a leader like that?

 

I dunno. Ask Americans after November of 2016. Saul had nothing over the guy Americans elected, and may be on the verge of electing again. Was Samuel not right, in each case? The warnings of this passage and the words of God through Samuel were WAY understatement of the travesties that resulted from desiring an authoritarian leader. Governments ARE important, as they guard the rights of the citizenry, and they pass laws to protect the poor, innocent, and vulnerable from both the psychological narcissists AND the “wealthy” who have let capitalism and money-grubbing drive their ambition. However, authoritarians usually have a “nice” blend of both of these major flaws, and wind up persecuting the very people they are to serve. Of course, in the history of Israel, there was King David, who is heralded as a “great king” in their history. Was he?

 

We all know the “David and Goliath” story that catapulted David into the “king succession.” Saul was a disaster; David might be their salvation. But as we also know, David was no prize. Defeating Goliath was good, but having Uriah sent to the front so “the King” could steal his wife, whom he had lusted after (of course this kind of sordid thing NEVER happens to modern “kings,” does it?). My wife, who is actually a much better student of the Bible than I, reminds me that what made David special was that he was a “man after God’s own heart.” But what does this mean? In reality, it means that David had a grain of integrity in that he never fully bought into his own press. He KNEW he had many flaws and weaknesses, and when things came raining down on him, he SOUGHT God and God’s forgiveness. He also loved his out-of-control son, Absalom, so much so, that even though Absalom tried to kill his father, David fell into deep, deep grief when Absalom met his demise. If being a person “after God’s own heart” means realizing that without forgiveness and honest repentance we are truly LOST, then I can buy it. And we believe in not only a God of forgiveness, but second and third and fourth chances, when we genuinely lay our sins before God. If this “normal” human admission of failure and seeking God’s redemption makes a good national leader, than more power to you, but needing much more than this, as a people, is probably one reason why God told Samuel that a “king” was a bad idea.

 

Let me make something clear: people need governing authorities to maintain the wider peace, and to protect the vulnerable. Good governments are empowered BY the people, respected by the people, and are REMOVED by the people when they fail to live up to their constitutional job description. When this system fails, and the “kings and narcissists” are put in authority, bad things happen. It was usually bad for Israel, and we are learning, unfortunately, that it is still bad for us in the 21st century. Of course, if we were smart, we’d learn a lesson from the wider scope of human history—incompetent, narcissistic, and authoritarian leaders have both failed and victimized civilizations for centuries. 

 

DO we know what’s “good for us”? Can we reclaim our true faith in a loving God who visited us in Jesus Christ, who was literally willing to “put it all on the line” on the cross of Calvary to display just how much God loved us? Can we put enough trust in the Almighty that we “risk” voting in competent leaders who have the interests of ALL citizens in mind, not just the greedy and well-healed ones? Can we trust enough in the “Prince of Peace” that we resist electing warmongers and advocates of the military/industrial crowd as “kings” of the realm? And what would happen if we elected and empowered leaders at all levels of society who took the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, or the benevolent teachings of the Koran seriously and formed policies around their ethical standards? We might just live happily ever after…if we know what’s good for us. Amen.

 

Friday, May 31, 2024

A Better Potter

 



A Better Potter

 

2 Corinthians 4:5-12
4:5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. 

4:6 For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 

4:7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 

4:8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 

4:9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 

4:10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 

4:11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 

4:12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

 

 

II Corinthians 4:7 is one of my favorite scriptures in the whole Bible: “But we have this treasure in clay jars…” The treasure is the gift of God’s forgiveness, redemption, and grace as delivered to us by Jesus Christ, during his time “camping” among us. WE are the clay jars—clay, because we are both malleable AND fragile, but also because we can be “shaped by the master potter. The problem is, we WILL be shaped, one way, or another, and the resulting “pot” may not be something we—or God—would be proud to display in public.

 

Making pottery is not an easy process, believe me. Discounting commercial operations that use computerized machinery to mold them, glaze them, fire them, and package them for mass distribution, making pottery is more of an art in our day, than something we do because we need a pot to hold something. Most of us buy pottery to display, and those who make it, are artists. My first effort at making pottery was in public school, where, as one who enjoyed art, I took several art classes. The first thing I learned was that I wasn’t very good at drawing things, especially living things. Then came “pot week.” My instructor was one of our public school art teachers who had a major side business selling incredible, hand-make pottery. Not only was he a master at creative use of the potter’s wheel, but he had a great eye for innovative shapes and eye-catching decorating, including mixing some of his own slips and glazes. The good news for his students was that he liked to teach others how to throw a pot, and he was good at that, too. A number of my peers were soon rather expertly wedging clay, throwing simple pots or vases, and preparing them for firing in the large, “community” kiln that was filled each day for firing at night when electrical rates were lowest. I never got much beyond the wedging.

 

Wedging clay is basically what bakers do when they knead dough. It smooths the clay, giving it a consistent, soft texture, and helps identify and extract any dried/hard impurities. It also exorcises any air bubbles, which are murder when encountered on the wheel, and may burst and destroy all in the community kiln, when they survive to that stage in the wall of a pot. I could expertly wedge clay. Beyond that, the potter’s wheel won each and every time. After wedging the clay, the budding potter slams an appropriately-sized slug of it onto the center of the wheel. The wheel is turned on and begins to spin. The potter starts applying a little water (actually a very thin slip of clay and water) to the lump of clay with a small sponge. Then, in a kind of clay-oriented Karate move, arms and hands are braced against the body and applied to the spinning clay in a move called “centering.” The goal is to gently nudge the clay into the very center of the wheel, and flatten it into a perfectly round, flat mound of clay ready to be “opened” by the thumbs of the potter. This step was my Achilles’ heel. No matter what I did, I could never successfully center the clay. “Success” in clay centering was marked by the “hump” of clay being so perfectly centered that, as it is spinning, it literally looks like it’s stationary, with no wavering at all. I could never make it do that. My teacher tried everything to help me learn this step, but to no avail. He gently encouraged me, while counseling that I was “fighting the clay.” There was a three-way battle going on, actually, between me, the clay, and centrifugal force, and apparently I was never able to balance these forces. The clay lump always wound up with a slight waver in its rotation, and believe me, even the slightest waver will ruin the amateur’s effort to open and “bring up” the walls of clay to form a pot. I should state that an experienced potter can throw a pot even with a warpy clay slug, as they have learned the art of “centering as they go.” This requires a REALLY gentle touch, and almost building an “empathy” with the clay. Expert potters also “feel” the texture and moistness (or lack of) in the clay, adjusting their touch and technique to compensate. The rank amateur, working with a decently-centered lump of clay, is often successful at bringing up a simple pot or vase, usually only running into trouble when they try to get too fancy or ambitious, early on, or applies too much moistening slip to the pot as they go. Me? Not getting the darn thing centered in the first place is a dealbreaker. It was even worse than that, though. Feeling pity for me, my instructor would center a lump of clay for me, leaving me with the “raw materials” to throw a pot. I could sometimes succeed at “opening” the clay, using my thumbs to turn the lump into a centered “ring” of clay, which could then be “brought up” using the fingers of the left hand inside the ring, and the right hand fingers on the exterior. Nope, not me. Each and every time, I was again diagnosed as “fighting the clay,” and a half-formed pot would begin to waver when about half-formed, and would eventually fall back down onto the spinning wheel. Because my art experiences in school were relatively short-term, we had to move on, and Yours Truly never—NEVER—successfully executed a pot on the potter’s wheel (or maybe I should say I did “execute” quite a few, as this term is used in capital punishment?). 

 

Don’t cry for me, Argentina. My creativity emerged when we were to draw “thumbnail” sketches of pot designs, or later, jewelry pieces. Turns out, I’m a pretty “out of the box” thinker when it comes to designing at this level, and my teacher gave me an “A” for the pieces of jewelry I designed and made (I’m not bad with tools). He also picked a couple of my pot designs he fancied, and showed me how to “hand build” them using the coil and scorew method, avoiding the potter’s wheel, altogether. I got a good grade for a couple of these hand-built jobs, and carried one around as a pencil and pen holder for decades, until it was broken in one of our clergy moves. Many years later, while in college, my daughter had the same luck I did with throwing pots, and my “wall-seum” is home to an incredible hand-built pots she made that looks like it was excavated in some ancient Mayan digs.

 

This extended story illustrates why I like II Corinthians 4:7 so much! Pottery is hard stuff! When the hymn echoes this text with the words, “Thou art the potter, I am the clay,” it totally gets the story right! I already know what happens if I try to form my “own clay” of my life: I’m OK with “wedging” the air out of it; however, I’m lousy—let’s say unsuccessful—at getting it centered, and will throw it out of kilter, even if I let GOD do the centering; and my personal efforts to “bring up” the clay [my life] to look anything like God’s plan will fail. God is the better potter for all of these metaphorical processes. And God has the “right touch” for the consistency (or lack of it) and texture for the “clay” of my life. 

 

The text says much more to us “clay jars.” Here are a few of the key “treasures”:

 

*We are proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus Christ

 

*We are the recipients and vessels of the “light of God” as revealed in Christ Jesus

 

*Like an old Timex watch, we can “take a licking and keep on ticking,” thanks to our commitment to a higher power and a higher purpose.

 

*Through our experience as “ambassadors for Christ,” we learn the difference between being “perplexed” and despairing. Despair leads us to sadness, depression, even grief. Being “perplexed,” when responded to properly, leads to curiosity, learning, and self-discovery. THIS is truly a treasure in the “clay jar” of our life!

 

*We know we carry around “death” in our earthly bodies, for it is the natural order, but as ones who have yielded to the redeeming and transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ, we ALSO carry around the seeds of resurrection!

 

The fragile, clay jar of our existence may never be “brought up” to something that holds water unless we offer our “raw materials” to the Better Potter. My experience of attempting to throw a pot on the potter’s wheel is a great metaphor for the senselessness of “picking oneself up by the bootstraps,” a practice WAY too many wielding “horse sense” say is the remedy for human suffering. Grace, forgiveness, opening oneself to the illumination of the light of Christ, and offering God some well “wedged” clay, truly IS a healing balm. Yielding to the Better Potter will not just raise OUR “pot,” but will also “bring up” other pots, as well. Christ didn’t come just to save your SOUL, but to restore and reconcile all of humanity! This is also why we need the Better Potter to mold the clay—with superior knowledge of its texture, empathy for its “feel,” and the creativity to form something outstanding! So, we are being called by this text to “Wedge, yield, rise, and shine” by putting ourselves in the hands of the Better Potter. 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...