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.




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!

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...