The Awe-filled Journey

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on January 1, 2023, which was my final Sunday serving there as their parish associate. The message is based on Matthew 2:1-12, which should be read in as many Bible versions as you have, or can find on the internet. It can also be watched on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page.]

I have been married for 54 years, which means my wife knows me really well. She knows me better than anyone else. Only God knows me better, and sometimes I think she may have the edge. So when she tells me something about me, I am wise not to argue but to listen and learn. Like when she says that I always prefer to get someplace new in the most indirect way possible. I have listened, but not learned very well. I do like scenic routes. And I trust my internal GPS more than I trust that one on the dashboard of my car with the snarky voice. I know how to get where we are going! I can prove it—I have always made it there. Though sometimes late and usually covering lots of extra miles.

I identify with the magi. The star—how is that for a GPS?—is leading them to Bethlehem, but they go to Jerusalem. Who wouldn’t want to cruise through Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem? Jerusalem is a beautiful city; Bethlehem is a backwater town. Let’s get some pictures of us on our camels next to the western wall of the temple. Look how the temple gleams in the sunshine. There is no straight four-lane divided highway to little Bethlehem. It is an awe-filled journey.

What would have happened if they had been Wise Women instead of Wise Men? They would have asked directions right away, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and cookies, and brought practical gifts like baby toys, diapers, and formula, and there would be peace on earth. But, alas, the Magi were men!

I love the story of the Magi, but we need to do some clarifying. We don’t know how many there were, but likely far more than three. They don’t arrive to find Jesus a new-born baby in the manger. They find Jesus a “child” (a different word than “baby”) living with his parents in a house, probably a rental. They likely arrive months after Jesus was born, maybe a year, but within two years of his birth.

The Gospel of Luke gives us all the details about Elizabeth and Zechariah, about Mary (and precious little about Joseph), the stable (no room available in the inn) and the manger, the angelic chorus and the shepherds. Matthew gives us the Magi and their awe-filled journey. What Luke and Matthew both us give us is lots of traveling. Hundreds of miles of traveling. They racked up serious frequent flyer miles. Mary and Joseph would travel at least 300 miles before they returned to Nazareth. The Magi travel between 500 and 900 miles one way.

There are several key players in this narrative: (1) the Magi, (2) King Herod, and (3) the religious leaders Herod gathers. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are playing passive roles, never saying one word.

  • The Magi are probably from Persia, once known as Babylon and today known as Iran. They are astrologers, which today would be astronomers. Think astro-physicists. They may serve a priestly role in Persian religion. To Israelites, they were considered pagans. What is essential about them is they are willing to follow a star a great distance without knowing just where it would lead them.
  • King Herod is a typical power-hungry politician, embellishing his resume whenever it serves his purposes. He was born Idumean, hailing from Edom, but pretended he was Jewish to curry favor with the Israelites he governed. Herod has religious leaders (chief priests and teachers of the law) in his pocket, beholden to him, ready to tell him what he wants to hear. What is essential about him is that is crazed with jealousy when he hears a baby has been born who is called king of the Jews.
  • The chief priests and teachers of the law know their scriptures. When Herod gathers them, they are quick to quote Micah 5 about Messiah being born in little Bethlehem. Yea for them. Then they make no effort to go to Bethlehem themselves. They take not one step down on the six-mile or so road to Bethlehem. What is essential about them is that they do not take one step toward Bethlehem to see this child. They represent religion at its worst: textbook answers without living faith and warm hearts. Bono, the lead singer for U2, recently said, “It’s almost like religion is what happens when the Spirit has left the building.”

I think the most dangerous profession is religious leader. Which is why I don’t want to be known as a religious leader. Religious leaders are ever in danger of memorizing right answers and living without vital faith, without love for God and neighbor. Just call me Harry and don’t take any religious titles that might be applied to me seriously.

Of these three groups of key players—the Magi, King Herod, and the religious leaders—which did the right thing? Yes, the pagan foreigners. They take the journey of faith. They follow the star. They listen to heavenly nudges and get up and go. I want to be numbered with them.

How they act when they finally get to Bethlehem is a model for faithfulness. First, they worship the child. The word used means to bow down, face to the ground. Literally, it means kissing forward, all the way down. Their worship is full-bodied and expansive. We Presbyterians can learn from them. Too often, our worship is carefully restrained: no displays of emotion; no verbal responses; no outbursts of joy.

Second, they bring lavish gifts. These are strange gifts for a young child, but they reflect their Persian culture. And they are costly. It is because of them that we exchange gifts at Christmas. They started it, and I am grateful. Gift giving is a wonderful custom. I believe in re-gifting. Some gifts need to be paid forward. Like the mittens and hats my auntie Lida used to knit each year. And that brick of a fruitcake that Ruth gave us. I think our mail deliverer got it, nicely wrapped.

Third, they experience joy. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” The literal translation is mega-joy. They are mega-joyed even before they see the child. They are traveling with joy. We could use a big dose of mega-joy in our journeys. Madeleine L’Engle penned a poem entitled “The First Coming” that concludes:

We cannot wait till the world is sane/ to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,/ He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

No Christmas pageant is complete without them. Every nativity set welcomes them. I love them. They make me want to journey in awe-filled faith. They make me want to follow God’s star, to dream God’s dreams, and to see God’s visions.

Many of you have been asking me what I will be doing in my next chapter. I don’t fully know and I don’t have to know. But I just answered: I want to be more like the Magi. I will seek to journey in awe-filled faith, to follow God’s star, to dream God’s dreams, and to see God’s visions. What about you? What will you be doing in this new year?

Mary Oliver has written a little poem entitled “Summer Day.” It ends with this question, for you and for me: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

A Light is Shining in the Darkness

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian on 12/4/22, the second Sunday of Advent, based on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Galatians 4:4-7. It can be viewed on the Perinton facebook page.]

“Hello darkness, my old friend/ I’ve come to talk with you again.” (Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence”) That haunting opening line in the song made famous by Simon and Garfunkel comes to mind when I read the opening words of this messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

The Bible deals with darkness and light a lot. Darkness is mentioned about 200 times; light over 260 times. The Bibles declares that God is present in both darkness and light. Psalm 139 says it well: “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:11-12) Darkness may sneak up on us, but it never sneaks up on God.

Artists know the power of darkness and light on the same canvas. Rembrandt was a master of using light sparingly against a dark backdrop, as in the “Descent from the Cross.” Notice how the body of Jesus commands the sparse light. In Van Gogh’s most famous work, “Starry Night,” against the darkness of the night sky, light is radiating. While darkness often conveys a sense of the ominous, even evil, it is not always so. Darkness is often the canvas for God’s light to shine.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

This was a word of hope. Judah, the southern kingdom had suffered a series of bad kings, with Ahaz the latest. It was a time of spiritual darkness. A new king was arising, Hezekiah, with promise for a better day. Isaiah couldn’t see it all, but he points beyond any earthly king to a king unlike any other: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” For them, that would come about seven centuries later; for us it happened about 2,000 years ago. That birth in Bethlehem is the hinge of history. In the darkness of that time, with Israel occupied by the Roman Empire, the light of God came as never before. As John 1 says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.”

God’s faithful people have always lived in the midst of spiritual darkness, but always filled with hope for God is always with them, with us. That is just as much our reality as it was in times past. There is much spiritual darkness in our land. There is a wave of violence in our day. In November there were more acts of mass violence in our country than days in the month. There are so many that we don’t even hear of all of them. Too often, such violence targets people groups, minority groups. Three groups are especially vulnerable to targeted violence:

  1. There is much anti-Black targeting, such as earlier this year when a young white racist killed ten people in a Tops Market in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo.
  2. There is much anti-Semitic targeting, such as the killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a few years ago.
  3. There is much anti-LGBTQ targeting, such as the killing of five people and wounding of another 19 at the Club Q in Colorado Springs just two weeks ago.

There are no safe places. Schools are vulnerable, like Sandy Hook in CT and Robb Elementary in Uvalde TX. Houses of worship are vulnerable. We remember that killing of nine people at a Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, just a few years ago. Just last weekend, anti-Semitic and anti-Black symbols and words were sprayed on the welcome sign of the Church of the Resurrection in this town. Up until 2000, under 1% of acts of mass violence were in houses of worship. The last three years, that number is approaching 20%.

The Department of Homeland Security issued an alert last week: “Targets of potential violence include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQI+ community, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, U.S. critical infrastructure, the media, and perceived ideological opponents.”

This is no time for people of the light to say, “Let’s move on. God is in control so we can sit back.” Spiritual darkness is real. True faith is never an excuse to ignore bias, hatred, and violence. Biblical faith recognizes that God is present in the darkness and in the light, and we are called to be present with God in the darkness and in the light. God calls us to be people of his light, his justice, and his righteousness. Jesus commissions us to be with him in his ministry as he is with us.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

The darkness is real, and God is present. In Isaiah 9:2-3, the word darkness occurs twice, the word light occurs twice, and the words joy and rejoice appear three times. We do not forfeit our joy in the midst of spiritual darkness; we let our joy shine, even as we work for God’s justice and righteousness.

Let this sanctuary be a place of great joy, but also a place of honest faith and struggle. This is not a place for people who have everything together; this is a place for searchers and seekers, for believers and doubters, for the hurting and the rejoicing. All people are welcome here. We seek to follow the orders Jesus gave us: to love God with our whole beings and to love others, all others.

Advent calls us to prepare carefully. I love the thought of Dag Hammarskjöld, who was the second Secretary General of the United Nations and a thoughtful Christian: “How proper it is that Christmas should follow Advent. For him who looks toward the future, the manger is situated on Golgotha, and the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  We look forward to celebrating the birth of the one called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We look for the day when his peace shall be known in every corner of this weary planet. We look for that day and we work for that day.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” A newborn is laid in a manger. From crucifixion will come his resurrection. In the darkness, God’s light is shining.

People of the light are making a difference. I read a few days ago about the small parish of St. Thomas in Kagiso, South Africa. The pastor said to some American visitors, “Everything we do is worship.” This congregation, comprised of predominantly poor families, feeds lunch to children in the neighborhood school; brings school books, shoes, and uniforms for children in the community; stands as guardians for families of child-headed households; and makes sure that those dying from AIDS have their homes cleaned, are eating healthy food, and know they are loved. They are showing that God that cares, through their caring.

People of the light are making a difference. The Rochester chapter of Habitat for Humanity is planning to build or remodel 300 homes in a needy neighborhood just east of downtown. What a vision that is. I see this congregation supporting and participating in that vision.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Jesus has come to shine God’s light in our lives and all over this planet.

Isaiah ends this passage with this proclamation: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” We will never be able to bring about God’s kingdom in its fullness. We will never be able to bring the reign of Christ’s peace in its fullness. God will do that. Jesus will do that. But he calls us to work with him. Let us be people of his light, the light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome.

I live in hope for that day when cancer is gone, when hunger is gone, when poverty is gone, when hatred is gone, when are is no more. God will bring that day, but the pattern in the Bible is that when God does something momentous, God uses some ordinary people to work with him, like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph. Like you and me. Let us walk in the light of the Lord. Amen.

Gordon Fee, Mentor and Friend 1934-2022

May the mind of Christ my Savior, live in me from day to day,

By his love and power controlling all I do and say.                                      –Kate B. Wilkinson

It was in my middle teen years that a young couple with four little stair-step children happened into the life of Western Avenue Assembly of God in Los Angeles.  My life would never be the same.  Gordon and Maudine Fee gave me permission to think, to ask hard questions, to leave behind that from my faith tradition which was not worth carrying on, and to love God in all aspects of my life.  It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but it first shook and then shaped my foundations.

As Maudine Fee was teaching me on Sunday mornings, Gordon Fee was teaching my mother.  Coming to America as a child, my mother was never much of a student in the formal sense.  But she was a fine student of life and faith.  When young Gordon Fee entered her world, she couldn’t stop talking about him.  He taught her as she hadn’t been taught before.  Instead of telling tired old stories he opened the world of the scriptures for that adult class.  And hardly a week went by that he wasn’t so touched by the truths he was teaching that tears flowed from his eyes and from those of his eager students.

Gordon Fee preached in a different way than I had known.  To be sure, he was enthusiastic and emotional.  He was, after all, a third-generation Pentecostal.  The distinctives of this movement were stamped in his DNA.  Yet he opened a passage of scripture in a different way.  He had not only prayed over his message; he had studied it.  He opened insights into local custom and culture.  He sometimes offered options when one answer wasn’t obviously the only one available.  And he brought a sense of humanity to his preaching.  Toward the end of that sermon on Matthew 6:33 he spoke of how children are so excited about Christmas gifts they receive, but may rather quickly put them aside.  He spoke specifically about how his oldest child, Mark, then a youngster and seated by himself in the front row, had outgrown a bike.  He saw that Mark was embarrassed and had begun to cry.  Gordon stopped mid-thought and apologized to his son in front of the entire congregation.  He spoke tenderly to his son of what he had meant to illustrate and how sorry he was to embarrass him before us.  I am writing this decades after it happened, yet I have never forgotten it. 

In the fall of 1964 I began studying at Southern California College (now Vanguard University).  Studying might be an exaggeration.  My first year was given to fun:  dorm pranks, dating, getting into and out of trouble, and thoroughly enjoying life at a little Pentecostal college.  Gordon Fee, having finished his PhD in New Testament at USC, arrived for my second year.  I had no idea what I wanted to study or what I wanted to be.  Gordon Fee came to teach New Testament.  I already had known some of his teaching, though not as much as my mother, so I signed up for New Testament Greek 1.  And my life began to change again.  I have never had great skills in learning languages, but this was different.  We were soon reading 1 John in the Greek text.  Gordon didn’t just teach the rudiments of an ancient language—he taught the New Testament.  During any class there might come a moment when we were brushing back tears.  Everything would stop and we were hushed in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  He wasn’t just teaching us a language; he was teaching us to understand the Good News and to respond to the living Lord.

Gordon left SCC a year after I graduated.  As I understand it, he was forced to leave by the Southern California District leaders of the Assemblies of God (the college was part of the district’s ministry and under its direct supervision). His teaching sometimes caused great consternation for the district officials because he wasn’t there to teach a party line, but to open his students to sound scholarship.  Gordon was merely doing what a professor should do:  pointing out the options available in any area of study and helping the students to think critically and carefully.

Pentecostalism wasn’t well positioned for what Fee and a few others brought to SCC.  The Pentecostals were so intent on remaining a movement (not a bad thing at all), that there was little tolerance for nuance and intellectual inquiry.  The party line had to be maintained.  We must be a movement, not an institution or denomination.  We knew what they were like!  A number of us, in retrospect probably a small number, increasingly sensed that we couldn’t go back to being the good Pentecostal kids we once were.  We questioned doctrines and practices like speaking in tongues as the initial (and virtually only) evidence of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, and the dispensational end-times framework in which everything hinged on a secret rapture of the Church.  Most of us as very young adults had already outlived prophecies we heard in our home churches as children and teens about when Jesus would return. We began seeing Spirit-led worship and well-designed liturgy as mutually inclusive.

Gordon always landed on his feet.  From his rude exit from SCC he ended up teaching New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, not a Pentecostal college but one of the nation’s most respected Christian colleges (the Harvard of Christian colleges, some called it).  From Wheaton he went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA, in the fall of 1974.  I graduated from Gordon-Conwell in the spring of 1974.  Gordon and Maudine stayed with us in our trailer on one of his interviews there.  At both those schools he influenced scores of students as he had at SCC.  The man couldn’t teach New Testament without touching lives in profound ways.  When I served at the Mockler Center at Gordon-Conwell in the late 1990s, Gordon had already left Gordon-Conwell for Regent College in Vancouver, BC, his last teaching post.  When I asked students and former students what professors had made the greatest difference in their lives, two were mentioned more than any other:  Gordon Fee and Christy Wilson.  I was fortunate to know both before my years in seminary.

In that period at Gordon-Conwell there was something of a “purge.”  Harold Lindsell, then known for his book “The Battle for the Bible,” (which I found to be mean-spirited) assumed a place of some power on the board of trustees.  Since, in Lindsell’s thinking, Fuller Seminary had been lost to the moderate evangelicals, those uneasy with the way the word “inerrant” was being used to attack other evangelicals, Lindsell sought to save Gordon-Conwell from going the way Fuller had. And Gordon went to Regent College (a seminary) in Vancouver, BC, for some of the richest teaching of his long career.

When Rachel and I were preparing to be married, we dealt with the question of who would do the honors.  Our home pastors were still alive and available, but there was no question in our minds about who really knew us and had been with us during our courtship:  Gordon Fee did the honors on June 14, 1968.  As in every other way he touched my life, he did a good job.  Gordon first opened the world of New Testament scholarship to my mother as Maudine opened up the world of books and thought to me.  My world has never been the same.

I will always remember Gordon as a deeply committed to women in church leadership, to intellectual and emotional integrity, to honest faith, willing to question and search, and to an infectious love of God, love of neighbor, and love of life. I am deeply grateful for the many ways Gordon Fee opened for me the world of God’s abundant grace. He helped me to read the New Testament as the dynamic witness to the Good News of Jesus. He urged me to see the Church, with all its struggles and flaws, as the Body of Christ. He did all this with good humor, humble humanity, and generous spirit.

Gordon was a peerless student of Paul’s letters, so I close with words from Paul’s magisterial letter to the Romans. This beautiful translation is from the New International Version, which Gordon helped to translate. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Friends in Low Places

[This message was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 10/23/22, based on Luke 18:9-14. It can also be viewed on the Perinton YouTube page.]

You probably didn’t notice this last Sunday. The sanctuary was pretty full for our 40th anniversary service. I noticed because for the first five minutes or so of the service I am moving around the back looking to see that everything is going right, and I’m always looking for people I haven’t yet met. During the first hymn, with all of the congregation standing and singing, I saw two women enter, close to each other but not together. One was dressed very nicely, everything color coordinated; not one hair out of place. The other was rather shabbily dressed and more than a few hairs were out of place. Both entered through those double doors, one going one way and the other the other way. I wanted to make sure both got worship bulletins and were greeted. Which should I go to first? Which would you go to first? I quickly made my choice and walked toward one; and she was gone. Then I turned to find the other, and couldn’t find her. She was gone. I couldn’t find either one. Did they get greeted and welcomed?

Did that really happen? No, but it might have. I just told a parable based on a parable. Parables are pithy little stories from everyday life, told to make a point, usually one simple and often surprising point. Jesus didn’t invent parables, but he is the master of telling parables to make his simple and surprising points.

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” It is notable that Luke tells us that. As if to say, “you don’t want to miss this, just in case you too have a tendency to think more highly of yourself and look down on others.” Like four days ago when I was in the waiting room of a physical therapy clinic and saw one young woman who looked like she had slept on the streets the night before and was talking too loud on her cell phone. Yes, I was really in that place—no parable this time—and had to work on not looking down on her. Yes, this parable is for me and I expect it is for you too. This parable also involves a religious type person and we are here today, which suggests that we care about religion in some way. So we better listen. Are we listening?

Two people approach the temple to pray. One is a religious leader and one a tax collector. They both are there to pray; they have that in common, but that is all. There is an obvious divide between them. The Pharisee is on the right team, a faithful member of the Jewish people, a nationalist. The tax collector works for a foreign mega power that has occupied little Israel as part of its empire. Sound familiar? Yes, that happens in our world today. It is happening right now in Ukraine and plenty of other places we don’t know about.

The Pharisee is ritually clean. That is, his religious practices are in order. We tend to like that. The tax collector is ritually unclean; he does the bidding of the foreign power and gets paid well to do so. We tend not to like that.

Which one of these would we want to join our church, the tither or the employee of the foreign government? I think I know your answer and mine. Give us the one that tithes. We need tithers. We need people with good religious practices. We need people that know how to dress up on Sunday mornings, and volunteer to work at the food drive, and keep their lawns mowed to three inches without any weeds. Now Jesus has us right where he wants us, as we listen in on their prayers. First the Pharisee: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ Then the tax collector: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  How would you grade their prayers? Which one would you want to lead our opening prayer in worship this morning?

We have a showy, self-exalting prayer and a simple, honest plea. The Pharisee’s prayer has this danger in it: he is thankful that he is better off than someone else. I don’t want to be thankful to God at the expense of another person. I want to be thankful because God loves that other person as God loves me. Which one shows us how to pray?

And look at their postures. One raises his head and voice in preening pride; one lowers his head and voice in humility. The Bible uses the words humble and humility over 100 times. I briefly looked at them. The Bible uniformly lifts up humility as the right way to live. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens…. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” In Matthew 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a borrowed donkey, and it says, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey.” In Philippians 2, it says that “He humbled himself, taking the form of a servant.”  This is how the Lord of glory comes to us, in humility.

Here is a humility quiz. I will give you a statement and you tell me if it is humble or not. Let’s consider Josh Allen, the star quarterback for our Buffalo Bills, in whose mouth I will put some words. First, he says, “I’m not a good football player. I don’t run fast or throw accurate passes or leap over other players.” Is that humble or not? Next, Allen says, “I am clearly the greatest quarterback ever to play football. (Move over, Tom Brady). There is no other player even close to how good I am.” Is that humble or not? One more: Allen says, “I have been given a lot of athletic ability and I work hard at improving it all the time. I hope to be a player on the Bills when they win the Super Bowl.” Is that humble or not?

Humility is not being dishonest about ourselves. Trying to look humble is the worst kind of pride. It isn’t putting ourselves down. It is never comparing ourselves to others. It is having an honest understanding that we are fearfully and wonderfully created by God, crowned with glory and honor, made to serve others as Jesus serves us. Rather than looking down at others, humility listens to others and seeks to understand them and lift them.

I love stories that show genuine humility. I read last week that Jim Redmond died at his home in Northampton, England. I recognized the name. It was 30 years ago that he was seated in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Spain, to watch his son, Derek Redmond, run in the semifinal 400-meter race in the summer Olympics. Derek was favored to win. At the halfway mark, Derek was ready to make his move and win the race. Then, suddenly, he grabbed his hamstring and fell to the track. His hamstring muscle had snapped. He lay on the track in pain, then got himself up and began hopping on his good leg to finish the race. Jim, his father, leaped from section 131, row 22, seat 25, and ran onto the track. Safety guards tried to stop him, but he would not be stopped. He told his son that he didn’t have to finish the race, but Derek said that he must finish the race. Jim put an arm around his weeping son and walked with him to finish the race. 65,000 people were on their feet cheering. Millions more watched on television screens around the world. That is a picture of biblical humility. It is seeing the other in need and coming alongside the other and giving the other a lift. It is what Jesus does for us. He comes to lift the fallen, to exalt the humble.

The parable gives us a choice: exalt ourselves or humble ourselves. If we choose to exalt ourselves, we will be brought down, whether sooner or later. But if we choose to humble ourselves, never looking down on others, God will lift us up. God loves to lift those who humble themselves. It makes me want to pray, not in some flowery, wordy way to impress others, but as a tax collector once prayed: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Will you pray with me now in this way? ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 


Lord, Decrease our Faith!

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on October 2, 2022, World Communion Sunday, based on Luke 17:5-10. It can be watched on the Perinton Presbyterian webpage or YouTube or Facebook.]

I am not that much interested in monarchies and kingdoms. Now that I think of it, I have watched every episode of “The Crown” on Netflix and every episode of “Downton Abbey” on PBS. If I don’t much care about monarchies and kingdoms, I like to see how people live. How leaders lead. How servants serve. I don’t want to know everything every member of the British royal family does. But I do have one favorite. Which one? Prince Harry, of course. The one who moved with his American bi-racial wife to my home state of California. I was totally caught up with the death of Queen Elizabeth 2 a few weeks ago. I admire how she understood her place in life. She didn’t earn it; she didn’t seek it; she didn’t pursue it. It was given to her and she accepted it. While my convictions for government are more democratic, and I find the monarchy too classist in so many ways, I liked how she did it. She struck me as authentic.

When the young Billy Graham was preaching to thousands in London every night, she had him come to meet with her at Buckingham Palace several times. While she was the temporal head of the Church of England, she wanted to know more about Graham’s faith. Some leaders of the Church of England thought she shouldn’t meet with this flaming American evangelist, but she wanted to and did. She even had Graham preach to the royal family in the chapel at Windsor Castle where her final service was and where she is now buried. That was royalty with humility, willing to learn from another.

The only kingdom that I deeply care about is the kingdom of God. When I study the leadership Jesus gives to his realm, I am often surprised and always humbled. Consider how Jesus lets his subjects speak to him: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” That is not really a request: it is a demand. If we are going to demand something of the Lord, that is a pretty good demand. Would you like your faith to increase? I would like mine to. Jesus, as he almost always does, answers indirectly, with an image and a story.

First, he gives an image: “The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” The mustard seed was known for its smallness and its pungency. Jesus is saying something like this: “You want greater faith? Good. Then go small. You don’t need the seed of an avocado; a tiny mustard seed is sufficient.” The nature of faith is not measured in quantity, but in quality. The power of the mustard seed is not in its size, but in the stuff within it. Perhaps we should not be asking God for bigger faith or larger faith, but for smaller faith rightly placed.

Smaller is a surprisingly common image in the Bible. The prophet Zechariah says, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.” (Zechariah 4:10 TLB). Jesus uses the image of the mustard seed at least one more time. “He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’” (Matthew 13:31-32) The same point is driven home. God is not impressed by large faith, but God works through small faith rightly placed. Jesus says to his disciples, Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:31-32) The word translated little is micro.

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” Jesus responds to their demand with an image, the smallness of a mustard seed, and a parable. Fittingly, this parable centers around a table, as we gather around a table this World Communion Sunday. Two words are key to it. The first is a word that can be translated in two ways: slave or servant. Some translations use slave and some use servant. I prefer servant, which the NIV and The Message both use. Every slave serves, but not every servant is a slave. The point being made is not about slavery, but about serving. The second word is used just once. It is the Greek word diakonos, from which we get deacon. It is essential to understanding the ministry of Jesus. It is that word that Jesus uses when he declares, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) Jesus, the Lord of glory, the only true sovereign, comes among us as servant. Deaconing is the essential New Testament word for serving and Jesus identifies himself as a deacon, as a servant.

Here is how that word is used in the parable: “Prepare supper for me; put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink.” Jesus is served when his servants are serving. I have a favorite line in the song, “Be My Guest,” from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Life is so unnerving, For a servant who’s not serving, He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon.” That is precisely what Jesus is getting at. As Mother Teresa often said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” When the servants are serving the chief servant, then all the servants are being served.

The little parable ends with a warning about doing anything for the praise of others. So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Praising people for doing things can be wonderful and it can be toxic. I like to thank others for doing things well. But if people start doing things with the expectation that they will be endlessly praised, that can become very unhealthy. There is a healthy place in life of doing what one ought to do without any expectation of being praised for it. To do the right thing in the right spirit is sufficient. No gushing praise is called for when one does the right thing in the right spirit.

 “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” Jesus answers with an image, the little mustard seed, and a curious parable about a supper table and servanthood. Small things matter more than we know. It is a good time for us to get this clear. In the kingdom of God, our strength is made evident in our weakness, we serve not with entitlement but with vulnerability, our wealth is not in earthly riches, but in spiritual vitality.

My favorite of the stories that emerged after the death of Queen Elizabeth is this. Every year when a new session of the British Parliament begins, the reigning monarch appears to call the session to order. The queen would appear in royal array, with that jeweled crown, and enter by a grand staircase. In her later years, Elizabeth couldn’t manage that long staircase, so she took an elevator. The first time, the elevator stopped at the wrong floor, the maintenance floor. The door opened and Alice, a cleaning lady, pushed her cleaning cart into the elevator, then realized that she was standing next to the queen. She blushed; the queen laughed. When the elevator arrived at the right floor, the queen insisted that Alice walk into the chamber next to her. What choice did Alice have? She walked in the hallowed chamber of the British Parliament next to the queen and stood there as the queen opened the session. Afterwards, the queen invited Alice to come to Buckingham Palace for tea. And for the rest of Alice’s life, once a year Queen Elizabeth would have Alice come to Buckingham Palace for tea with the queen. Elizabeth wore her royalty lightly. That hardly compares to how Jesus came among us and comes among us. The only crown we find Jesus wearing is a crown of thorns. His coronation is his crucifixion. He reigns in humility.

In a few moments, we will come to the table of the servant, the servant-sovereign, to partake in the meal the servant Lord has provided for all his servants. Queen Elizabeth never had a higher honor than to partake of the servants’ meal hosted by the servant king, Jesus, the only true sovereign. “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” In this small meal, Jesus’ reign is magnified, in all its smallness and greatness. Lord, give us smaller faith rightly placed.

Caddying for Maury Wills

He should be in the baseball hall of fame. On September 20, I read that Maury Wills died the day before. He was the shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, starting in 1959 and for much of the 1960s, the spark plug of a team that won three World Series. He should be in the baseball hall of fame. I don’t say that because he died this week; I have been saying it for years.

When he arrived on the Dodgers, power hitting was ascending. In 1961 Roger Maris hit 61 homer runs, breaking Babe Ruth’s long-held one season record or 60, set in 1927, and Mickey Mantle hit 54. Maury Wills, standing 5’10” and weighing about 170 pounds scored runs in a different way. He got to first base by hits, usually singles, or walks and then began stealing bases, being the first player to steal a hundred bases, with 104 in 1962. He was the National League Most Valuable Player that year, a little shortstop who never hit more than six home runs in a season. But he changed the game by mastering the lost art of stealing bases and making a science of it. He studied pitchers and learned their habits and tendencies. I was at many Dodger games during his time there. When Wills reached first base, the fans went crazy in anticipation. And he rarely disappointed them.

But there is another memory, deep in my bank of memories. When I was a teenager, one day my cousin and I were walking to the driving range of the Western Avenue Golf Course (now named Chester Washington Golf Course), a Los Angeles park system public course near my home. My cousin and I learned to play the game on our own at that course. As we walked toward the driving range that day, there were Maury Wills and Don Newcombe hitting golf balls. Newk was a good pitcher, one of the first Blacks to pitch in the majors. Newk was tall and imposing; Wills short and slim. Los Angeles was not a segregated city, but many of its country clubs were. This course, being public, was open to all. Some of the greatest Black athletes played there when in Los Angeles, like Jim Brown and Joe Louis. That day these two magnificent Black baseball players were at the driving range getting ready to play 18 holes.

My cousin and I decided that we should caddy for them. How should we offer our services? We just walked up, introduced ourselves, and said that we’d like to caddy for them. They said yes, to our surprise and joy, and we carried their golf bags and handed them their clubs for four hours. They gave us some money at the end of the round, but I don’t remember how much and didn’t really care. I just remember being in the presence of two Dodger greats, who were friendly and decent men. And good golfers. To reach the highest level of any sport, one must be a very good athlete, and most excel in several sports. In high school, most of them were superstars in two-four sports.

Maury Wills should be in the baseball hall of fame. While his career was not that long, it had enormous impact on baseball. That should be enough to get in the hall. Not many players change the shape of the game. Wills did. Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson would follow in Wills’s steps. The other player I think should be in hall is Roger Maris. What he did in 1961 is enough for a career. I am sorry that baseball’s stodgy old hall of fame voters, whoever they are, are so short-sighted. Maury Wills belongs in Cooperstown. So does Roger Maris. Besides, I once caddied for Maury Wills. He was a good guy and a great base-stealer. He belongs in the hall of fame.

The Monarchy and the Pastorate

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has been a profound moment of reflection on the nature of her 70-year reign and the manner in which she lived out her royal standing. By most accounts, Elizabeth was an amazing person, accepting her role in life with a heightened sense of duty and loyalty. Like millions, I have enjoyed watching “The Crown,” the fictionalized, but based in history, story of the Windsors over the last century. In the multi-season unfolding of “The Crown,” Elizabeth has been the constant, as she was in the life of the United Kingdom for two generations, for the entire lives of most of her subjects. And I have appreciated watching the retrospectives on her life and reign.

One of the defining marks of Elizabeth’s reign was that she revealed very little of herself in deference to the crown, to the place in life not chosen by her but assigned to her. Many commentators and royal family watchers have observed that Charles, now King Charles III, enters his reign as a much more known person. His views in a number of matters of state and politics are well known. Elizabeth assumed her reign at age 25; Charles at 73. Elizabeth knew from her teen years that the mold was set for her and it didn’t take very long for it to happen; Charles has known from early on, too, but his wait has been decades, the longest wait in the history of the British monarchy. So it is not surprising that some of his views have become public. In addition, there may be a temperamental difference between the mother and son. And perhaps differences influenced by gender identity and expectations.

All this has me thinking about a line, perhaps a tension is a more accurate word, I sought to honor as a working local pastor. The common wisdom is that a pastor should not be seen as a partisan (Republican, Democrat, etc.), because most congregations have major and minor political parties represented, and should. If the pastor becomes known as a Democrat or a Republican, to use the two major American parties, one section of the congregation will be pleased and another section of the congregation will not be pleased. “We want our pastor to be above partisan politics,” people think and sometimes say. “If our pastors have partisan political affiliations and leanings, those should be kept in private and not allowed to divide our congregation.” Indeed, there is wisdom in that expectation.

Yet pastors deal in politics all the time. Politics is not a bad word; it means ordering or governing a city (polis in the Greek, from which we get politics and words like metropolis and cities like Minneapolis and Indianapolis). Pastors serve congregations that invariably have parties, like the “let’s get it done now” party and the “let’s wait and see if it needs to be done” party. Pastors try to keep both parties working together. And congregations have Republicans and Democrats and independents, and conservatives and liberals, and libertarians and progressives. Pastors try to keep them all working together for greater purposes, for the advance of the kingdom of God (which sounds rather political).

The queen excelled at keeping her own political views largely to herself. She worked with prime ministers of just about all political stripes. To what extent should a pastor do that? What if it involves matters of public concern, as it did in the rise of Nazism in Europe? Some German pastors remained silent as Hitler gradually assumed dictatorial powers and then unleashed the holocaust. Others named the evil they saw; many of them were killed for doing so.

What do you think?

On the Basis of Love

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 9/4/22, based on the letter of Paul to Philemon. It was not streamed or taped; hence, no video is available.]

They were Presbyterian pastors. Well-educated. Distinguished. Some of their writings were published. Some of those writings are still read in some circles today. James Henry Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney were their names. One was based in South Carolina and one in Virginia. There is one more thing about Thornwell and Dabney that I didn’t mention. They were slave-owners. They didn’t just employ Black workers, they owned them. And they defended owning other people as their right, a right they believed was supported by the Bible.

The New Testament letter to Philemon is all about a runaway slave named Onesimus. Slavery was widespread in the ancient world, and has remained a present reality. Ten of our first 12 presidents owned slaves. Some were on record as seeing slavery as wrong, but had trouble acting on those convictions. Slavery still exists in our world today. There are estimated to be somewhere from 35 to 45 million people today caught up in forms of human slavery, often in the way called human trafficking. Ways in which some people own other people and use them for their own economic advantage.

It’s Labor Day weekend, and we realize that slavery was and is an economic tool. Slavery provided cheap labor. In the American south, slavery was understood as an economic necessity, to plant and pick cotton. James Henry Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney were Presbyterian pastors—and slave-owners and defenders of the institution of slavery. Did Thornell and Dabney ever have twinges of conscience about owning slaves? Did they listen to people like Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman and Abe Lincoln?

We have a triangle here: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. The year is about 60 AD. Paul is in prison in Rome. Philemon is living in Colosse, in western Asia Minor, now Turkey. It is about 1300 miles from Colosse to Rome. Philemon is a leader in the local church, well respected and well to do. Paul knows Philemon and that church. Paul has had a significant role in Philemon’s faith journey. Onesimus is a slave belonging to Philemon, but has run away. When a slave runs away, they usually head for a large city, where they will not be noticed. Like New York City in our time. Like Rome in that time. In Rome, Onesimus gets arrested, probably for thievery and for looking like a runaway slave. He is thrown in a prison cell with Paul. Now it is dangerous to be thrown in a prison cell with this Paul. Paul tells his new cell mate about Jesus. Onesimus becomes a disciple of Jesus. In their new friendship, Onesimus tells Paul that he ran away from a man named Philemon in Colosse.

There is no question for Paul of what to do. He will write Philemon about welcoming back Onesimus and he will send Onesimus back to Philemon in Colosse. Paul will send a letter that will lay out in brief, what is the right thing to do. Paul will back it up with his own integrity and, if needed, with his own money. “On the basis of God’s love, do the right thing.”

Slavery was common in the ancient Roman Empire. About 10-15% of the population were in slavery, about 5,000,000 people. They had no rights. They were property. They were bought and sold in public markets. They were the ultimate cheap labor. And they were human beings. So, like Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, some would take the risk of running away for freedom. Douglass did that 184 years ago this weekend. Wouldn’t you take the risk of escaping slavery for a shot at freedom? I would. Onesimus does. He escapes. He runs. And he gets caught in Rome.

We are still reading Paul’s letter to Philemon on behalf of a runaway former slave named Onesimus today. At the heart of Paul’s letter is this appeal: “Though I am more than bold enough in Christ to command you to do the right thing, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.On the basis of love. The word for love that Paul uses is agape, which is God’s love. On the basis of love, Paul pleads, do the right thing. On the basis of God’s love, Philemon, do the right thing. Take Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother, your brother in Christ. On the basis of God’s love, do the right thing. When facing any kind of moral dilemma, I can think of no better counsel that this: on the basis of God’s love, do the right thing.

James Henry Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney were not the only people that found ways to support slavery in the Bible. If one searches for a desired outcome, one can likely find some Bible verses supporting it. But if we look at the Bible as the story of God’s love for humankind, sending Jesus to save us, we find the Bible calling for setting free those in bondage. In Luke 4, Jesus begins his public ministry by opening the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and reading these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (vss. 18-19)

Jesus is bringing a new way. Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” These are not isolated verses that I have cherry-picked; they represent the great teachings of the Bible, to love God and love one’s neighbor, to care for the oppressed and those in greater need, to honor the image of God imbedded in every human being.

Working out these teachings is often two-fold: first, we care for those suffering, and, second, we work to remove the cause of the suffering. We need to be doing both. On the basis of God’s love, do the right thing. That leaves us with this question: Did Philemon do the right thing? We do not have a letter from Philemon to Paul, though one may have been written. But we still have the letter Paul wrote to Philemon. If Philemon had rejected it, do we think he would have preserved it? Never. He would have shredded it and thrown it in a fire pit.

We do, however, have a letter written about 50 years later, over 1900 years ago. It was written from an early church leader named Ignatius. He wrote it to the church in Ephesus, which is a little west of Colosse. He writes about their bishop, named Onesimus. He writes: “Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop.” Could the runaway slave have become a respected leader in the church? Yes. On the basis of God’s love, let us be people that do the right thing.

There are no slave owners here this morning. Not in the sense that Philemon once was. Or James Henry Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney. But we are people called to live out the Good News of Jesus in a world in which there is still human bondage. Are we letting that Good News work at the deepest levels in us? Forty-nine years and one week ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke from the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial, one of my favorite places in this country. His sermon/speech ended that day with these stirring words: “From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.’” On the basis of God’s love, let us stand against every form of human bondage, slavery, and oppression. On the basis of God’s love, let us be people that do the right thing.

A Prayer of Lament for Our Nation 

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice.” Psalm 130:1

On May 24, the night we began grieving a terrible act of violence at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Pastor Laura Fry and I wrote the prayer of lament below for the congregation of Perinton Presbyterian Church.  Lament is a prayer form used many times in the Bible. There are many laments in the Psalms, for example Psalms 6, 10, 38, 42-43, and 130. Lament psalms are not without hope, but express honest struggle, sadness, and sometimes anger. There is a book in the Old Testament named Lamentations, a five-chapter lament during a difficult time for Israel. We offer this lament as an honest prayer to our God at a time of national distress.

Great and Loving God,

We lament the horrific act of violence that took the lives of 19 schoolchildren and 2 teachers today in Texas, so soon after the violence in a market in Buffalo and a Presbyterian Church in California;

We lament that over 200 acts of mass violence have occurred in our nation thus far in 2022;

We lament mass shootings in public places, including markets, schools, theatres, concerts, churches, synagogues, and mosques;

We lament the proliferation of hatred and fear in our land;

We lament this evil.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our laments.

Knowing your heart of love and your redeeming grace at work in our world, we pray:

For officers of the law: police, sheriffs, troopers, detectives, chiefs, and judges; for attorneys, private and public;

For social workers, doctors, nurses, first responders, emergency room workers, and fire fighters;

For counselors and therapists in our schools, hospitals, and in private practice;

For our children—those of our own blood, by adoption, and all children we hold in our hearts—as well as all children of our land, and for their parents and grandparents;

For those in political office at every level, local, state, and federal; for our president and vice-president; for our governor; for the 535 members of Congress: Republicans, Democrats, and independents;

For pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams;

For school administrators, school boards, teachers, and staff;

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice.

Vivid Vivifying Vision

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on May 22, 2022, based on Acts 16:6-15. It can be watched and heard on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page.]

Have you ever seen something before you saw it? In 1971, John Denver recorded a song with the memorable phrase, “almost heaven, West Virginia.” It has since become the official state song of West Virginia. John Denver had never been to West Virginia when he recorded it. Bill Danoff wrote the words. Danoff had never been to West Virginia. But he had a vision of what West Virginia looked like.

Jack Norworth was riding a subway train in New York City in 1908 when he saw an advertisement for a baseball game. He started writing one of the most famous and best known songs in American history: “Take me out to the ball game….” He had never been to a baseball game. He wouldn’t attend a major league baseball game until 32 years later, when his song was sung during the seventh inning, as it is in just about every ball park in America.

Beethoven, one of the greatest composers ever, was deaf when he wrote some of his greatest music, including his great Ninth Symphony, the final chorus of which we sing joyfully (“Joyful, joyful, we adore thee….”). What he could not actually hear with his ears, he could hear clearly in his heart. We thrill to “Ode to Joy” whenever we hear those notes he couldn’t hear.

Such is the power of vision. “During the night Paul had a vision.” A plan was developing to take the good news of Jesus to people that hadn’t heard it yet, but they were stopped. It seemed a good plan, but God squashed it. When I develop a plan, a good plan, I want to see it through to completion. Don’t you? I don’t like it when a well-conceived plan of mine is rejected. But sometimes, the change in plan is just what is needed. God uses vision to keep us moving in the right direction. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia.”  Instead of going north, they were going west. The vision compelled them. I first memorized Proverbs 29:18 in the King James Version: Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A more accurate translation would be, “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint.”

God gives us visions to move us forward. How do we know a vision is from God? I have several questions I use:

  1. Is this vision consistent with the nature of God?
  2. Does this vision serve to glorify God?
  3. Does this vision keep working on me?
  4. When I share this vision with wise friends, do they support pursuing it?

Paul’s vision meets those tests. God’s nature revealed in the Bible is for the Good News to be shared. Bringing the Good News to a new region would glorify God. The vision, once received, could not be forgotten. Paul never traveled alone. His co-workers supported the vision. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” 

Macedonia was the northern region of Greece. They set out for Macedonia, not knowing anything more, except a compelling vision. They end up in city called Philippi. It is a prosperous city under Roman authority. On the Sabbath, they look for a place to worship. They find a place for prayer by a river. There are some women there for prayer. They start conversation. One of the women is named Lydia. She is a businesswoman, dealing in purple cloth, for which the region was known. The Lord opens her heart to listen intently. She receives the message and is baptized, bringing her household. What does household mean here? We aren’t sure. There is no mention of a husband. Many assume that Lydia wasn’t married, had a large house because of her prosperous business, and may have had extended family and employees staying in her home. She brings them to be baptized. Then she urges Paul and his team to stay at her home. They do. The first Christian Church in Europe begins in Lydia’s home.

In this Eastertide series, we have had two visions in two Sundays. Last Sunday, Peter had a vision of a sheet dropping from heaven, filled with all kinds of animals. God used that vision to show Peter that Gentiles could receive the Good News of Jesus. Peter went to the home of Cornelius, a Roman military officer, and shared the Good News, leading to Cornelius becoming a new follower of Jesus. That was a major cultural breakthrough. Peter’s religious tradition taught him to beware of outsiders; a vision compelled to go to an outsider.

This week, it is Paul receiving a vision that leads him to share the Good News of Jesus with Gentile women. That is an even larger cultural barrier. Jesus had broken barriers in speaking in public with women, all kinds of women, even non-Jewish women, and showing them the grace of God. But some of his followers had trouble believing that they could do that. Did you notice that in the vision, it is a man calling for Paul to come, but when Paul goes, he speaks to women? Maybe if the vision had been a woman calling, Paul wouldn’t have believed it.

It would be accurate to call Paul a Jewish supremacist. He believed his ethnic people were exceptional. Special. Superior. Do you remember when God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, a non-Jewish city, and tell them about God? Jonah booked a ship going the opposite direction. He couldn’t believe that God loved the people of Nineveh the way God loved the people of Israel. But God’s vision was precisely that God loved the people of Nineveh. Jonah would reluctantly learn that. Paul, too, would learn of the expansive love of God that transcends nation.

There is a tendency in religions to become exclusive. To think we are right and all the others are wrong. Jesus doesn’t bring more of that kind of religion into the world, but Good News of God’s inclusive vision. The Book of Acts, which we are walking through this season, is an ever-opening and widening circle. In Acts 2, Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks, the old way is shattered by the gift of the Holy Spirit: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)

Peter needs a vision from heaven to go to a Gentile official of Rome named Cornelius and welcome him. Paul needs a vision from God to go to a Greek city and share the Good News with a group of women, including a businesswoman named Lydia. Paul was raised in strict Judaism, a Pharisee. He was taught to despise Gentiles and be suspicious of women. All those barriers fall as he follows God’s vision for the Church. When the Good News of Jesus is understood and embraced, walls start falling. Crusty traditions start crumbling. Barriers start breaking apart. Gentiles are welcomed. Women are welcomed. Once despised minorities are welcomes. The downtrodden are lifted.

Paul sums it up in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” 

Last weekend our world of western New York was stunned, shocked, and saddened by a mass shooting, an act or racist violence. An 18-year-old white supremacist, filled with fear and hate for Black people, targeted a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, and randomly shot 13 people, killing 10 Black people. Every indication we have is that the killer believed in white supremacy and carefully planned to kill as many Black people as he could. Here are their names:

  • Roberta A. Drury of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 32
  • Margus D. Morrison of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 52
  • Andre Mackneil of Auburn, N.Y. – age 53
  • Aaron Salter of Lockport, N.Y. – age 55
  • Geraldine Talley of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 62
  • Celestine Chaney of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 65
  • Heyward Patterson of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 67
  • Katherine Massey of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 72
  • Pearl Young of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 77
  • Ruth Whitfield of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 86

In the face of such hatred and fear, we cannot be silent. Our silence would be compliance. We gather here to worship God, but not in a bubble or perceived safety or insulation. Years ago, someone gave me this framed saying, which has stayed in my study ever since:

“A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task are the hope of the world.”― Inscription on a church wall in Sussex England c. 1730.

We have a vision of what God wants the church to be. And we have a task to do in our broken world. To live the Good News. To speak the Good News. To embody the Good News of Jesus for all people.