Voluntary Restraint

Some of my readers will be pleased to read this and some perhaps not so much. I am placing myself under voluntary restraint on Facebook. On my blog, sailingtowardwisdom.blog, I will continue to publish sermons I have preached and articles I have written, but never of partisan political nature, though some may deal with political matters.

Why? When I was a pastor at Brunswick Church, I wasn’t on Facebook, following wise counsel. I pastored a congregation with wonderful diversity, including wide political diversity. I didn’t want any of my political convictions and leanings to shape the congregation in a partisan way—I certainly didn’t want the congregation to be just like me. Every Sunday that I led the pastoral prayer, I mentioned those in governance, usually mentioning the president by name. The Bible leads me to do that. In my preaching I touched on politics, but never in a partisan way. I think the Gospel has a political edge to it. It speaks to how governing should work. The Gospel and politics share some concerns: how people treat other people, how law and mercy are balanced, how life is honored, how the needy receive care, etc.

When I retired, I went on Facebook. Along the way, I used the newfound freedom of my retirement to post some political statements and thoughts, usually written by me, but sometimes taken from others that I respect or whose thoughts I found worth pondering. I sifted those carefully, seeking to be fair and gracious, while speaking from my convictions. I expect that I failed that self-imposed test at times, for which I ask for forgiveness from those that I caused unnecessary offense. I did not post anywhere near half of what I was tempted to post, writing a good number of articles that never went public. Writing helps me to think through matters, so I always am writing and that will continue.

As of this day, I am entering a discipline of voluntary restraint, largely because in a short time I will join a church staff as a quarter time pastor. That means that, as in years past, I will be serving a congregation of healthy diversity—and I want it to be so. I don’t want to cause any unnecessary offense by my political views. I want to be faithful to the Good News (gospel) of Jesus, my Lord. In my preaching and teaching I will continue to touch on matters political, as I understand and am compelled by the scriptures, but never from a partisan perspective.

I am writing this just a few days before the 2020 election. It is a time of heightened rhetoric and tension. I will vote consistent with my convictions, but I don’t want to add to the political tensions in our nation. To the contrary, I want to be a person of grace and understanding, not putting aside or denying my convictions, but holding and expressing them in ways that are respectful of those holding different convictions. After all, I could be wrong. There is a quote I need to re-read from time to time: “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” (From Oliver Cromwell to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on 3 August 1650, and later quoted by American Judge Learned Hand.) This is not always easy for me, but this is my goal. Whatever the outcome of the elections on Tuesday, I will pray for those that win and those that lose. I am an American patriot. I care about my country. I want it to be the best country it can be, which means I cannot overlook its errors. I have no illusions about its many flaws, historically and currently. And I hold to its highest ideals.

I am not leaving Facebook, because I appreciate the way it allows friendships to continue and grow, and for the many and varied perspectives that are expressed there about most everything. Granted, I skip some posts after two or three words because I find them offensive or inane. But I find many posts worthy of my time and thinking.

This development in my life, mentioned above, was not something I was seeking, but I am absolutely thrilled about it and have a deep sense of calling as I move into it. I didn’t know retirement was going to be so enjoyable! Some friends wonder if I am working too much in retirement. I appreciate their concern, but I respond that all I am doing in retirement is of great meaning to me (and I hope to others) and fits this season of my life really well. If that changes, I will make adjustments. I am grateful to God for the measure of good health and energy that I am experiencing, beyond anything I deserve. That may change at any time—any pastor knows that, as we minister with people at every stage of life and in every circumstance; we know well that life is filled with unfairness. And we know that life is filled with wonder. I take on this discipline of voluntary restraint as a good development for me in this time of my life. If you find that I fail to honor this, it was probably done in a weak moment. Be gentle with me.

Heads or Tails?

[This message, based on Matthew 22:15-22, was delivered at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, Henrietta, NY, on October 18, 2020.]

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.  Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

“Death and Taxes.” The phrase has taken on a life of its own. Ben Franklin wrote it after the Constitution was ratified in 1789. “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” By mentioning taxes, and thereby politics, this morning, I may be hastening my own death. But this passage assigned me by the lectionary leads me to address politics in the form of taxes.

There could hardly have been a more fitting month than this one for this passage dealing with Jesus’ teaching about taxes, hence politics, and about our loyalties.

  • A presidential election is just over two weeks away, and millions of Americans have already voted early.
  • A global pandemic has been especially hard on our country, with over 8,000,000 cases of inflection and over 220,000 deaths due to it. Millions of people are suddenly unemployed or underemployed. Thousands of small businesses, and some large ones, across our nation have been forced to close down because of this pandemic.
  • A nominee for associate justice for the Supreme Court has been in hearings with the Senate judicial committee all last week. When her nomination comes before the Senate, it is sure to be a contentious time with a close party-line vote.
  • It is reported that our president has paid no federal income taxes in most of the last

15 years and just $750 in his first year in office.

Is that enough? Are you tired of it all? I am planning to vote early. I will be in line Saturday morning when early voting begins. I will feel some relief when I cast my ballot, but not much.

We often hear churchgoers say, “We don’t want the preacher talking about politics.” I agree and I don’t agree. I think the better thing to say is, “We don’t want the preacher talking about partisan politics and telling us which candidate to vote for.” I agree with that. Yet I want preachers to talk about politics, but not in a partisan way. Politics is a good word that has been too much abused these days. It comes from the Greek word for city: polis. From polis we get metropolis, Minneapolis, and police. And politics. The word means the governing of the city, or town, or state, or nation. All of social life is political. It has to do with how people relate to each other in society. In a sense, marriage is political, parenting is political, school is political. Life is political. Jesus fields a political question from some Pharisees and Herodians.

This conversation takes place during Holy Week, as Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover and for his passion at week’s end. The Pharisees have regularly been looking to entrap him. Jesus threatens them, for they hold religious power and don’t want to give it up. In the New Testament, the most dangerous occupation is not fishing or tax-collecting: the most dangerous occupation is religious leadership. And the religious leaders are frightened by this young rabbi Jesus, for he won’t fit into their religious categories, their neat boxes, their lists with checkmarks, their circles defining who is in God’s favor and who is outside God’s favor. Now it is worse: they team up with Herodians, effectively a political party. Now we have an alliance of religious leaders and political leaders and that can be toxic, then as well as now. It will be a coalition of religious and political leaders that will sentence Jesus to crucifixion. For good reason did our founders call for a separation of church and state. Our nation is a secular nation, with no state sanctioned or favored religion, but freedom for people to believe and worship as they will.

They start with a classic butter up, then set the snare. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The mousetrap is baited with gooey peanut butter. If Jesus says that taxes are good, he sides with Rome, the capital of an empire that holds people under its heel. If Jesus says that taxes are bad, he is a protester, an insurrectionist, even a criminal against the Roman governmental system—no better than one of those football players kneeling for the national anthem. Knowing exactly what they are doing, he asks for a coin. One is brought to him. He holds it up. “Whose image is on it?” They all know the answer: “The emperor’s.”

I picture a moment of silence. A pregnant silence. What will he say? If this is a movie, the music stops and the camera slowly scans the questioners, then stops with full frame on the face of Jesus. The tension is palpable. What will he say? Will he take the bait? Will the trap snap on him? Unlike so many politicians today, he doesn’t evade the question. He answers, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

They are amazed, but not in a positive way. They are stunned and silenced. They walk away dejected. The trap misfires. But they don’t forget what he says, even if they will not understand. Do we understand? Jesus acknowledges that paying taxes is good. Even if the receivers of the taxes are not. Taxes serve a good purpose. Romans 13:7 says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” We should not resent paying taxes. If we like paved roads, and well-placed traffic lights, the snow on our roads plowed, and good schools for all children, then we like taxes. If we like having law enforcement, emergency services, clean water, fire departments with the best equipment, and working sewer systems to make life healthy for all, then we like taxes. Paying taxes, when they are fair and honest, is good. I find it troubling that 91 of the largest 500 corporations in our country paid no taxes last year. I find it troubling that the super-wealthy often pay no taxes or small taxes, while middle class and poor people pay a higher percentage of their income, because tax codes are unfair and those that can afford clever lawyers can beat the system.

Jesus endorses paying taxes as does the rest of the Bible, but he has something more to say. If our money bears the image of our political leaders, whose image do we bear? You know the answer. We find it in the first chapter of the Bible. We are created in the image of God. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Every human being, even the ones that disagree with my political convictions, bears the image of God.

When I cast my early ballot next weekend, it will not be with any illusions that my candidate will be able to solve all of our problems. While I believe in the institution of human government, I know that human government is flawed because all humans are flawed. Democrats are flawed and Republicans are flawed, and independents are flawed. My assumption this morning is that some of us are Republicans, some of us Democrats, and some of us independents. Good. I don’t want us all to be exactly the same. Whatever our political leanings, let’s be generous in spirit with one another, for we are all image bearers of God.

President Shirley Mullen of Houghton College wrote a letter last week calling for a courageous middle. There was an incident on campus that was dividing the student body. President Mullen named the matter, an act of good leadership, and then called for being people of a courageous middle, bridging people together rather than erecting walls of separation. That is a good description of how the church should be a time of political division and too much partisanship. Whether Democrats, Republicans, or independents, we can be people of the courageous middle.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was prophetic when he wrote these words a generation ago, during a time of civil unrest in our land: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

The next time a tax bill comes, let’s smile that we are able to pay taxes and pay our fair share.  But let us never forget that we bear the image of God. Our first allegiance is not to any political party or any nation; our first allegiance is to God our creator.

I Don’t Like This Parable

[I gave this at Community of the Savior in Rochester NY on October 4, 2020. The parable mentioned in the title is in Matthew 21:33-46, accompanied in the message by Philippians 3:4b-14. This can also be found in video form on the Community of the Savior YouTube or Facebook channel.]

I don’t like this parable. Do you have a favorite parable of Jesus? I bet it isn’t this one. Perhaps it is the Good Samaritan. I love that one. Or the waiting father with the runaway younger son—the Prodigal. I love that one. Or that pithy one about finding the pearl of great price. I love that one. But not this one. It’s like watching a Martin Scorsese movie: we know that whatever the story line, some unnecessary violent bloodshed is likely coming. It comes quickly in this parable.

A landowner has a big crop of grapes ready for picking. He has tenants working for him. He sends in three servants to do this hard work. The tenants seize them, beating one, stoning another, and killing the third one. The landowner sends in another group. The same thing happens. The landowner sends in his son, thinking surely his son will be treated better. His son is also killed. Jesus is telling this in Jerusalem as Passover is approaching: it is holy week. The city is filled with religious leaders and pious people. Jesus asks the religious leaders, “What will the landowner do those merciless tenants?” The answer is obvious: “Kill those wretched tenants.” Then Jesus deftly quotes from Psalm 118: “Haven’t you read in the Bible: ‘The stone which the craftsmen rejected was selected as the cornerstone?’” It’s a gotcha moment.

In “The Message,” Eugene Peterson identifies the targeted hearers this way:

“God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life.When the religious leaders heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them.” 

In “The Cotton Patch” version of Matthew (a fresh take on the Gospel by Clarence Jordan, setting it in 20th century rural Georgia), the parable ends this way:

“The God Movement will be taken out of your hands and turned over to people who will be productive. . . . The ministers and church people listened to his Comparison, and were aware that it was aimed at them.”

What would you see as the most dangerous occupation in the New Testament? I have my choice and I think I’m right. It is an occupation with which I am well acquainted. Does that give you a clue? Yes, I think the most dangerous occupation, the one most to be avoided, is religious leader. The New Testament sees being a religious leader as dangerous. Ouch! Jesus had the hardest time with the religious leaders, or perhaps more accurately, the religious leaders had the hardest time with Jesus, who wouldn’t fit into their neat religious categories.

Saul of Tarsus was a religious leader. His credentials were impeccable. His sash was filled with merit badges. His pedigree was impressive—he was best in show. He lists seven items: circumcised on the right day, an Israeli citizen, born in the elite tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew to the core, a Pharisee keeping the whole law, so zealous for his religion that he persecuted followers of Jesus, and flawless in attaining righteousness through keeping the law. His bottom line? If anyone could earn God’s favor, it was he. Yahweh had to be thrilled to have Saul on his team.

And then—boom! —everything changes. The risen Jesus reveals himself to Saul, and old Saul’s transformation is so radical, so thorough, that his name has to change too. Old law-keeping goody, goody Saul becomes captured-by-the-grace-of-Jesus Paul. He is saved, redeemed, and transformed—not by meticulous law-keeping, which he had worked so hard to do, but by the amazing grace of Jesus that found him, which he could never earn or merit.

This new-found freedom means that Paul enters a journey of letting go of what he once held so tightly and pressing on toward living in this incredible grace found in Jesus. Paul will take all that he once valued: all his merit badges, all his Sunday school perfect attendance pins, all his Bible memorization certificates, all that he once used to prove to himself and others that God was pleased with him, and trash them. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. . . .” “The Message” lets Paul’s words be more earthy: “The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash. . . . All the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.”

That word translated “rubbish” in the NRSV is more accurately the “dog dung” of “The Message.” I don’t like to use Greek words in preaching, but here I make an exception. The word is “skubala” and it literally means—what you probably are thinking it means. Refuse, dung, dog dodo, excrement. Sometimes we experience or observe things that hurt or bother us deeply, so much so that we are prone to use more colorful language than we usually use. Earthly, salty language. Here is such a word found right in the New Testament: “skubala.” I think that gives us permission to use it, but, please, only at appropriate times and ways. Did Jesus ever use salty language? Yes. Read Matthew 23: “hypocrites, blind guides, white-washed tombs.” Again, I find “The Message” effective at getting Jesus’ colorful language:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, . . . six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” The whole of Matthew 23 is Jesus speaking to the religious leaders of the day. The bishops and presbyters. The clergy. The right reverend doctors, with their flowing garments, stiff necks, and cold hearts.

A New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce, wrote a magisterial book on Paul’s life journey. He entitled it: “Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.” My story is not as dramatic as Paul’s, but it is similar. I was raised in this faith, knowing about Jesus from my mother’s knee. And never have I strayed far from it. I worked hard at pleasing God and was somewhat successful in the eyes of others. I was a good kid, faithful in Sunday school and worship. I memorized enough Bible verses to go to summer camp free. I have been a religious leader for most of my adult life. And that is dangerous. Religious leaders can be enemies of God’s grace, territorial tenants like those in that terrible parable. I have increasing sympathy with people that find Jesus more attractive but the Church less unattractive, as it too often communicates judgmentalism and harsh legalism, as it looks down at the kind of people Jesus loves to be with. As religion is popularly understood, I don’t want to be religious. Because I love the Lord, I love his Church, even though I am often offended and embarrassed by church leaders and religious people. I want my love for Jesus to grow, and I want the Church to work at being more like him. I want to be more like Jesus, who is ever reaching out to the unlovely, touching the untouchables, caring for the most needy. I have so far to go.

With Paul, I want to leave behind and forget anything that leads me to think I have earned God’s favor—all that skubala—and exchange all that religious stuff with the grace of God in Christ that has found me and set my heart free.

“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Understandable Grumbling or Extravagant Grace?

[The sermon was preached for Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester, NY, on 9/20/20. The texts: Matthew 20:1-16 and Exodus 16:1-8.]

On a whim, my wife brought home a young pumpkin plant from The Garden Factory when she went to get garden plants and seeds last spring. We hadn’t planted a pumpkin plant before. Rachel is the master of our veggie garden and I am the day laborer. So I had to find a place for the pumpkin, which spreads quite a bit. There was an unsightly corner behind our shed, so I cleared the weeds and turned the soil—and in went the pumpkin plant. By early summer we saw four very small, still green pumpkins forming. By mid-summer they were larger and becoming orange. A few weeks ago I noticed that they had stopped growing and were just the right color so I decided to harvest them for decorating in our home. They were still small, but bright orange. I lifted the first one, and found that it has rotted on the underside. Three to go. The second one also was rotting. And the third one. And the fourth one.

I guess I made some rookie errors, particularly in not checking them by hand daily and in waiting too long to pick them. A good grape farmer knows better. There is a right time to pick grapes. Too early and their flavor is not mature. But a day too late may be too late. Grapes are dependent on weather conditions, liking cool nights and warm days. When it is time to pick them, they are to be picked. It may turn too cold or too warm or to windy or rainy tomorrow. To make fine wine, the grapes must be picked at the right time.

This parable of the day workers in the vineyard is probably not anyone’s favorite parable of Jesus. Do you have a favorite parable? I wonder if it’s the parable of the prodigal, or the lost sheep, or the lost coin. I love those parables. Only Matthew records this parable and it causes some head scratching. It runs against our well-developed sense of fairness.

The parable depends on knowing the setting: the vintner needs extra workers today. There was, and is today, a place in Jerusalem where day laborers go to get what work is available. My dad was a union carpenter and had a regular job, but he knew there was a carpenters’ union hall where unemployed or underemployed carpenters could go in the morning and see if day workers were needed, where he could go if he needed work.

The landowner has a crop of high quality grapes ripe and ready for picking today. There is urgency in this. He goes to the grape-pickers’ union hall to get some day workers. He finds a crew at 6am and employs them for a fair day wage, say about $100. Soon he realizes that the grape crop is a bumper crop and he needs more workers today. He goes back to the grape-pickers’ union hall at 9am and hires a few more. And again at noon. And again at 3pm. Still, he sees that he will need more help before sunset, so he goes back to the all at 5pm, probably thinking there wouldn’t be anyone there, but he was desperate. Aha! There are a few workers hanging out at the hall at 5pm, probably having a beer and playing darts. They don’t look very motivated, probably content with some unemployment checks. He hires them for the rest of the workday, which is precisely one hour.

These five waves of workers get the job done. Since they are day workers and not salaried, they are to get paid at the end of the work day. The landowner now does two things no one sees coming. First, he says to his business manager, pay the last workers first. That is the wrong order: you should pay the first ones to arrive, the ones who worked all day, first. Second, his manager pays the one-hour workers the full day’s wage, $100, and all the others can see it. When they saw the one-hour workers getting such a generous wage, they did the math and figured they would be getting 12x$100=$1200. But they all get $100, the one-hour, three-hour, six-hour, nine-hour, and 12-hour workers. The 12-hour workers are irate. This isn’t fair. The 12-hour workers grumble and complain, and for good reason. It isn’t fair.

Jesus sets a tension before us: will it be understandable grumbling or extravagant grace? With which day workers are we identifying now? The one-hour latecomers or the 12-hour exhausted workers? Are we with the one-hour latecomers, smiling all the way to the bank or are we with the 12-hour workers with sore backs and sun burnt brows?

The landowner makes his defense to the grumblers. “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? . . . .  I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Are you envious because I am generous? Ouch!Extravagant grace can be a tough pill to swallow when we have a sense of violated fairness. This isn’t how the game is supposed to be played.

Let’s be clear. This parable is not about marketplace economics, minimum wages, or union rules. Jesus takes an everyday situation, one his hearers could easily picture, and uses it to make his point. And it is a staggering point: in the economy of God’s grace, the old ways of bookkeeping don’t apply. The ledger can’t handle this. There is something about God’s grace in Jesus that smashes old categories and throws our old sense of fairness out the window. As the hymn has it:

            There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;

            There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty. . . .

            For the love of God is broader then the measures of the mind

            And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. (Frederick William Faber)

And the 12-hour workers grumbled. If we have lived any length of time, we know there is much in life that simply isn’t fair. This person smoked heavily for 50 years and is cancer free and is golfing three times a week, while this other person who never smoked has lung cancer and can hardly walk. Unfair! This single mom worked to open a small business she had dreamed about only to see COVID-19 cause it to close, while this other person got a huge inheritance and bet it on a race horse that won big and ended up wealthy. Unfair! You get the picture: there is unfairness all about us. Sometimes we seem to be on the upside of it and sometimes on the downside. It’s like Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, in the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus and generates an enormous list of toys she wants. Then she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” Charlie Brown sees this list and despairs over his sister’s greed. Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.” (I found this in notes on the passage by Scott Hoezee in The Center for Excellence in Preaching.) Do we choose understandable grumbling or extravagant grace?

And the 12-hour workers grumbled. Maybe they took their cues from the people of Israel right after God delivered them out of slavery in Egypt. They had cried to God for deliverance. God heard and answered. Then one month removed from Egypt, on their way to the promised land, they started grumbling. “At least in Egypt we had three meals a day. Better to die there than live like this.” They grumbled against Moses and against God. The word grumbling or complaining is found seven times in this short passage. God had every right to send them back to slavery or let them starve in the wilderness. But, instead, God showed extravagant grace and provided them fresh bread for every day of the journey. Do we choose understandable grumbling or extravagant grace?

I said earlier that this parable of the workers in the vineyard is probably not anyone’s favorite parable of Jesus. Except, maybe, it is the favorite parable of Jesus for one small group in every church: the latecomers. I don’t mean people that arrive for worship 10 minutes late every Sunday. I mean people for whom the grace of God in Christ dawned late in their lives. I mean people that lived years and decades away from grace, either because they wanted to live their own way or they just didn’t know about Jesus until late in the game. I am also talking about church people that once lived by the old bookkeeping system, keeping track of who was there every Sunday and who put an envelope in the offering plate every Sunday, and keeping count of people with too many tattoos and body piercings—and then finally saw that God’s grace couldn’t be contained in their old containers. I am seeing good news in this surprising parable about God’s lavish, extravagant grace. Do we choose understandable grumbling or extravagant grace?

Some Election Year Thoughts

Both major party conventions are over. Yea! While both parties said this would be the most important election in our lifetimes (or in the history of this nation, or of this planet, or of the universe), I say:

  • This will be the most important presidential election since the last one.
  • This will be the most important presidential election until the next one.
  • Every presidential election is important.

It would be refreshing if the candidates campaigned primarily on what they offer to us: their vision for our country, their values, convictions, and experiences.

Voting should be made easy and convenient for every American citizen. That should include in-person voting at sites close to the voters, located and staffed so that there will not be lengthy waits. That should also include mail-in voting, whatever the reason, and early voting. Days of presidential elections should be national holidays, making voting readily accessible to all persons. Our economy can handle that every four years.

Every vote cast should count the same as every other vote cast. One person equals one vote. Because one lives in a large state or a small state, in an urban area or a rural area, in a Democrat-leaning state or Republican-leaning state, should make no difference. One person gets one vote, with all votes carrying the same weight.

To get an accurate vote count, it is acceptable that we not know on the night of the election which candidate wins. But (except in extraordinary circumstances, like the 2000 election) we should know the outcome in a few days. In the matter of the 2000 election, a Supreme Court ruling of 5 to 4 was unfair to a democratic system of government. That meant that one Supreme Court justice effectively decided which candidate would be president. We can do better than that.

The debates should have a fact-checking report in a closing 10-minute section, done by a non-partisan group including media representatives and one advisor to each candidate (this was someone else’s idea—Thomas Freidman’s, I think). Debates should help us see where candidates disagree and why, and how they intend to govern. They should also show us where candidates agree.

When debate moderators give a time limit for answers, it should be enforced. At the very least, the mic of the candidate speaking too long should be turned off at the time allotted. If the candidate keeps talking, audio and video coverage should stop and time be deducted from that candidate’s next response. Candidates should be allowed to challenge and question each other, with the moderator(s) moderating.

Most police officers are doing a good job. Some police officers, probably a small percentage, are not doing a good job, showing racist and brutal tendencies; they should be identified and removed from duty. Then they should receive due process. If found guilty of crimes, they should lose their jobs as police officers for life, as well as face other punishments commensurate to their crimes.

Most protesters are protesting in peaceful ways. Some protesters, probably a small percentage, are not protesting in peaceful ways. If they are harming other people or property, they should be identified and arrested, but not violently (violence breeds violence). Then they should receive due process. If found guilty of crimes, they should face punishments commensurate to their crimes.

Most protest marches are peaceful and respectful (I have been in several; family members of mine have been in more). People should be allowed to march for their causes. People should be allowed to make public protests. This is a constitutional right. This nation was founded on political protest.

There are both right-wing extremists and left-wing extremists. Always. There are both right-wing zealots and left-wing zealots doing harm to our common causes and concerns. There are both right-wing hate-mongers and left-wing hate-mongers. Every political party and every political viewpoint has some extremists. I believe that the majority of Republicans and Democrats agree on much, perhaps more than they know.

Patriotism is not blind loyalty or uncritical allegiance to one’s country. Patriotism is a critical love of and appreciation for one’s country, with a desire to see its flaws, past and present, honestly named and addressed. Patriots press us on to be a “more perfect union.” Patriots don’t say things like, “America, love it or leave it.” Patriots say things like, “Let’s make our country better than it has ever been.”

Most Republicans and most Democrats share a love for our country and a desire to help it become a better country. Most conservatives and most liberals share a love for our country and a desire to help it become a better country. Most independents love our country and desire it to be a better country. Let’s find ways to hold our political convictions and advocate for our causes with respect for those holding different political convictions.

It Starts with Stop

[This message was given for the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY, August 30, 2020. The lead text is Exodus 3:1-15. A video can be found on their FaceBook page.]

 

Here! When I was in college, a long time ago, some professors took attendance by reading the names of the students. When your name was read, you would say, here. Some professors never looked up, they just read the names and checked as present those that said, here. A few of us in one class noted this and designed a plan to be marked as present while skipping class. It was in southern California, so the weather was usually boringly pleasant. Before the professor arrived, we made sure the windows on the side wall were opened. When class was starting, we were outside the classroom next to the windows, ducking so as not to be seen. When my name was read, I said, here, and took off with a few friends, probably for a serious study session at the beach nearby.

 

Here! That makes me feel somewhat akin to Moses. Not every day does one walk casually by a bush that is burning but not being consumed by the fire. That catches Moses’ sight. He stops and takes a closer look. God has caught his attention and addresses him by name. Not every day does one see a burning bush that isn’t being consumed, and from which one hears one’s name called twice. “Moses, Moses!” A few days ago I read that Anthony Martignetti died. If you are of my generation, you will likely remember a TV commercial for Prince spaghetti. It was filmed in Little Italy in North Boston, where Anthony, then 12, lived. An Italian mama opens her window and yells, “Anthony! Anthony!” Anthony leaves his afterschool game and runs home. Then a voiceover explains: “Wednesday is Prince spaghetti day.”

 

“Moses, Moses!” Moses answers, “Here I am.” In the original language, it is a one-word response: here! Present. Here I am. Right response. God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This is the first time in the Bible the word holy is found and it is not used of God or of Moses, but of some little ordinary plot of earth. Earth is holy. Psalm 24 begins, The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it….”

 

This makes me think of a favorite little poem by Emily Dickinson:

Earth is crammed with heaven, // And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees // Takes off his shoes – // The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.

This would be a good time for us to take off our sandals, or shoes and socks or flip flops or slippers. We too are on holy ground as we worship the living God and hear his word. God is present with us; we are on holy ground. When we learn this from Moses and God in Exodus 3, perhaps we will start seeing all ground as holy because God is the creator of all the earth and the entire cosmos.

 

It all starts at stop. God initiates and Moses stops. God gets Moses’ attention. All relationships with God start with God initiating and our stopping. God sets a bush ablaze and Moses stops. God is always the initiator. We are always the responders. God initiates; Moses responds. Bushes are still ablaze in our world. God is still getting our attention and speaking our names. The Black Lives Matter movement has a powerful phrase: say their names. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake. Names are important. Black Lives Matter and blue lives matter. Six years ago, a Rochester police officer was killed in the line of duty. His name: Daryl Pierson Names matter. “Moses, Moses!” Bushes are still ablaze. God is still speaking. God knows our names. If we stop, we may hear God calling us by name. God has called me by name, but the voice has never been audible. But I know others that have heard God call them in audible ways.

 

The conversation that ensues is fascinating.

  • God speaks first. “I am the God of your ancestors. I have seen the suffering of my people. I have heard their groanings. I know their sufferings. I have come to deliver them. I’m going to do it, Moses. Now, you go tell Pharaoh.” Now STOP has changed to GO.’; from red light to green light.
  • Moses responds, perhaps while his bare feet are shaking: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?” “Here I am” has become “who am I.”
  • God speaks again: “I will be with you…”
  • Moses responds again: That will be great, but, “What if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
  • God speaks again: “God says, ‘I am whoI am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 

 

In the next chapter in Exodus, we find Moses voicing yet one more objection and offering a plan B. In Exodus 4:10, Moses says that he is not eloquent, but slow of speech. God answers, I know, and says, Go. Then Moses counters with his plan, “Lord, please send someone else.”

 

The Bible tells of many reluctant prophets. We think of Jonah, but he is not alone. Isaiah and Jeremiah weren’t always thrilled about God’s directions for them. Neither was Amos. Neither, at one point, was Jesus. When we are hesitant about heeding God’s direction for us, we are not alone; we are in good company.

 

Moses would go to Pharaoh and God would deliver his people out of bondage. And Moses would never forget a burning bush, a voice calling his name, and a strange name for God. My biblical Hebrew is rusty, but my friend Richard Middleton’s biblical Hebrew is current. He shared some insights with me about this ineffable name for the mysterious one. The most common translation is ‘I am who I am.’ We can’t go wrong with that. Jesus uses that divine I AM of himself repeatedly, especially in the Gospel of John. Jesus says on John 8:58, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”  But there is another equally valid translation: “I will be who I will be.” That fits well in Exodus 3, where God tells Moses that God will deliver Israel and Moses gets to share this good news with the powerful Pharaoh. Moses, tell Pharaoh “I will be who I will be” sent you and watch will Yahweh will do.

 

Either way, we don’t define God. God reveals God. We respond. In my Presbyterian tradition, we have a brief, classic definition of God: “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism) That’s good, but it’s also audacious of us. We don’t define God, this Yahweh, this “I am who I am,” this “I will be who I will be.” God is the glorious mystery, the mysterious glory, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. My wife has a favorite quote that goes something like this: “Theology isn’t a way of explaining everything, but is an ultimate grounding in hope.” I like that.

 

Moses engages in honest conversation with Yahweh. God can handle honest conversation.  I don’t have trouble with Peter pulling Jesus aside and saying, “It shouldn’t go this way, Jesus. We don’t want this to happen to you.” That is honesty. I agree with Peter, but then Peter and I aren’t God. I AM is God. Yahweh is God. We are relieved of the burden of trying to be God.

 

I find that a lot of my praying is telling God what to do. Is that true for you too? God, heal this one. Lord, get that one a job. God, help my candidate to win. That is not altogether bad, but it can be. If we only tell God what we want and when we want it, it doesn’t say much about who we believe God to be. It isn’t a very healthy relationship. As if God were dependent on us to remind him what needs to be done. That is a kind of prayer, but it is not the purest form, the deepest kind of praying. When Jesus faces the impending suffering and death that he had told his disciples about, he shows his full humanity. First he asks for a plan B, but then he leaves it to God. I like the way “The Message” renders that prayer: “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?”

 

“Earth is crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God….”  The next time we see a burning bush or hear some mysterious voice calling us by name, whether audibly or not, here is how we might respond: “Here. Here I am. Right here on holy ground.” Then we might just get a new glimpse of the mysterious glory of Yahweh, the I AM, the I will be.” And God might just say something like, “I’ve come to deliver people in bondage. Now, you go and work with me.”

No Insignificant, Unimportant Parts

[This sermon was proclaimed for the Perinton Presbyterian Church on 8/23/20. While I was in the sanctuary with two musicians and three people doing the technology, the remainder of the congregation was worshiping in a virtual way. The text is Romans 12:1-8.]

 

Last week I started to take a bike ride. But before I got on the bike, I could tell something was wasn’t right. It wasn’t the brake system. It wasn’t the gear shifter system. It wasn’t the steering system. By now, you have probably guessed: it was a flat inner tube. That’s about the cheapest part of a bike. It takes a few dollars to buy a new inner tube. Getting it on the rim just right takes some time and patience, but it’s not rocket science. Yet it just takes one flat inner tube to bring everything else on a bike to a grinding halt. To keep a bike running, there are no insignificant, unimportant parts.

 

On a far greater scale, I am remembering January 28, 1986. I was at a presbytery meeting in Albany, when the announcement came after lunch, interrupting whatever business we were doing. The space shuttle Challenger has exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The seven astronauts were dead. One was Christa McAuliffe, the first person chosen to be a teacher in space. Her class and her school in New Hampshire were watching a big screen in the school auditorium. President Reagan appointed a blue-ribbon team to investigate. Here is what they found. The right side solid booster rocket failed at liftoff. The right side solid booster rocket failed because a simple O-ring failed because of the temperature on a cold Florida morning. That O-ring was likely the least expensive part in that space shuttle, smaller than an inch in diameter. To send a rocket into space, there are no insignificant, unimportant parts.

 

To keep a church running in a healthy way, there are no insignificant, unimportant parts. I am concerned that the churches, the local expressions of the body of Christ, are too often crippled in their effectiveness by missing one little thing, one New Testament truth. We find it in Romans 12:1-8, especially in verses 6-8. There is a natural flow in this passage, which I see in three movements. We get there by starting at verse 1.

 

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” All worship is in response to God’s mercy. All Christian living is in response to God’s mercy. We don’t initiate, but we respond to God’s initiative. Our true and proper worship is responsive to what God has initiated in Jesus. At the heart of worship is not what we take away or how worship made us feel. The heart of worship is offering ourselves, body and soul, brokenness and wholeness, as living sacrifices to God. “… to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

 

That kind of worship puts us in right perspective with God. It should be like going to a chiropractor to get our skeleton in right alignment. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…” We learn to think of ourselves with sober judgment. When it comes to assessing ourselves, there are two big errors we tend to make. The first is to think too highly of ourselves and the second is to think too lowly of ourselves. There are some generalizations I observe in self-assessment. Because these are generalizations, there will always be exceptions. Males tend to think more highly of themselves and females tend to think of themselves more lowly. Children raised in wealth tend to think too highly of themselves; children raised in poverty tend to think too lowly of themselves. People in majority status (that would be Whites in our country) tend to think of themselves more highly than people in minority status, like Black and Brown skinned persons.

 

We see how this has played out in how voting rights expanded in our country.

  • In 1789, only White men owning property could vote.
  • In 1828, White men not owning property could vote.
  • In 1870, after a bloody Civil War, Black men could vote, though Jim Crow laws often prevented them.
  • In 1920, women could vote, though most Black women were prohibited by local sanctions, like poll taxes and quizzes.
  • In 1924, native Americans could vote, except not in every state.
  • In 1962, native Americans could vote in every state.
  • In 1965, Congress passed and the president signed the Voting Rights Act, making clear that all American citizens, regardless of gender, skin color, or ethnicity, were eligible to vote.

That timeline evidences why some people tend to think too highly of themselves and why some people tend to think too lowly of themselves. Notice how voting rights gave preference to certain groups. And my group (White male owning property) was at the top of the list from the beginning, which might lead me to have too high a view of my group and myself. I am a product of white privilege. My new six-month old granddaughter, who is Black, will have a different experience in the journey to sober judgment than I have had. She is being raised by loving parents, supported by loving extended family, but she will have a different experience than I had.

 

The biblical understanding of who we are is based on two realities. First, we are created in God’s image. That is clear from the first chapter of the Bible, where God creates us in his image, male and female. Psalm 139 says that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 8 tells us that we are created just a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned with glory and honor. The second reality is that we have sinned, marring the image of God, but never eradicating it. Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We are the pinnacle of God’s creative activity and we have fallen short by our sin of God’s glory. A sober view of ourselves will include both realities. We are the at the pinnacle of God’s creative work, bearing the very image of God, and we are flawed beings by our own sin. We are deeply loved and we are deeply in need of redemption, of God’s mercy in Jesus our savior.

 

That leads us to the one simple truth that we too often miss. To keep a church running in a healthy way, there are no insignificant, unimportant parts. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” Every one of us is gifted for royal service. Not just pastors. Not just church leaders. Not just seminary graduates. Every one of us is gifted. A bike needs inner tubes that hold air. A rocket needs good O-rings that don’t fail in cold temperatures. No part is insignificant. No member is unimportant. In a healthy congregation, no member is insignificant, no person unimportant. Every member of every local church is a vital part. Every member of this Perinton Presbyterian Church is a vital part of this body. Some speaking the word of the Lord, some serving others as deacons, some teaching others, some encouraging those needing encouragement, some giving generously to support the church’s ministries, some leading diligently, and some showing God’s mercy to others.

 

We are wondering what church life will be like post-pandemic and we don’t know for sure. We do know that precautions we have learned over the last six months will continue. We do know that some of our members that are in vulnerable populations may not be able to come back to in person worship for some time or, in some cases, ever. We do know that streaming of worship services will continue and will serve people in vulnerable populations.

 

Here is what is on my wish list for post-pandemic church life. Every follower of Jesus will respond to God’s mercy in whole-hearted and whole-bodied worship, whether in a literal sanctuary or a virtual one. Every follower of Jesus will have a healthy self-assessment, based both on bearing God’s image and having sinned. And I hope and strive for the day when all followers of Jesus will take seriously that they are gifted by God for vital service in the body of Christ. Let’s hear that list one more time:

  • Some speaking the word of the Lord,
  • Some serving others as deacons,
  • Some teaching others,
  • Some encouraging those needing encouragement,
  • Some giving generously to support the church’s ministries,
  • Some leading diligently,
  • And some showing God’s mercy to others.

 

Did you identify yourself on that list? In the body of Christ there is no insignificant member, no unimportant part. Every bike needs good inner tubes. Every rocket needs good O-rings. Every church needs you and me doing our parts.

 

 

 

 

 

Good News and Beautiful Feet

[This was recorded on Friday, August 7, for streaming on Sunday, August 9, for the John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Henrietta NY. So, if you are really disciplined, you might wait till Sunday or Monday to listen to it. But if not….  The text is Romans 10:5-15, along with Isaiah 52:7.]

 

Do you know how many bones are in the human body? Do you know where 1/4 of those bones are clustered? In the adult body, there are about 206 bones. About a quarter of those bones are in our feet. The human foot is an amazing creation. Each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. I am a jogger, so I appreciate how my feet work and keep working. I give the 52 bones, 66 joints, and over 200 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in my two feet hard workouts, including one this morning—and they keep performing.

And so, I am struck by this phrase that occurs in both of our readings this morning: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Do you think of feet as beautiful? Do you think of your feet as beautiful? I don’t mean to get too personal, but feet are beautiful in what they can do. The next time you are trimming your nails, note the intricacies of the human foot.

And that has me thinking about some of the ways we refer to our feet. “Put your best foot forward.” Do you have a favorite foot, a best foot? “You really put your foot in your mouth.” How do you do that? I should know; I have done it enough. “Footloose and fancy free.” “I’ll foot the bill.” Is that something a football player does? In our climate zone, we wear socks and shoes most of the year. One of the delights of summer is not wearing shoes. I love being bare-footed. I really love walking bare-footed on a sandy beach. If you not already bare-footed now, please take off whatever is on your feet.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” I guess that means that preachers of the good news have especially beautiful feet. I have beautiful feet! But not more than anyone that brings good news to another. Not more beautiful than your feet, as you bring good news to others.

I have been following the lectionary readings in Romans this summer, preaching from several of them. Some background will help us understand how this passage fits in Romans. Romans is the most theologically rich of all Paul’s letters and has shaped Christian thought over these 20 centuries. This letter was written in about 57 AD. Paul didn’t start the church in Rome and had not visited it yet, but he knew people in it and he longed to go there. He knew it was in the center of the Roman Empire, the most powerful empire of that time.

Two issues loomed before those believers in Rome, one political and one racial. The political issue was that the emperor was Nero, who was ruthless. He demanded absolute loyalty and dealt harshly with anyone that withheld it from him. Before his reign ended, he would unleash brutal assaults on his perceived enemies. Because those Christians honored Jesus as Lord, they could not and would not call Nero lord. The Latin word caesar comes directly from the New Testament word for lord. Nero would eventually display his wrath on Christians for not calling him lord.

We are in a presidential election year. Though our political situation is nothing like theirs, still we are reminded that no political leader may claim our absolute allegiance: not Trump or Biden, not Lincoln or Washington, not Reagan or Obama. I have my favorites, but I am under no illusions: they are all flawed persons. Jesus alone deserves my absolute allegiance and full loyalty. Jesus alone is Lord over all creation. No political leader can demand the total allegiance and loyalty of a follower of Jesus, for Jesus alone is Lord.

The second challenge dealt with the long-standing enmity between Jews and Gentiles. That certainly rivaled the Black-White racial challenges we face today. Racial injustice is not unique to our country; it exists everywhere. And it certainly exists in the United States. We do well to take it seriously. Much of my summer book reading has been about the American racial history and current expressions of it. As former congressman John Lewis’s faith in Jesus compelled him to march, protest, and call for civil rights and voting rights for Black Americans, my faith in Jesus compels me to care about people that have been enslaved and people that continue to be dealt with unjustly.

The Jew-Gentile situation in that time was comparable. The first followers of Jesus were mainly Jewish; the second wave were largely Gentile. Most of the early leaders were Jews. While glad that Gentiles were responding to the good news, they were a bit threatened as well. What if the Gentiles take over the church? I trust that you can see how contemporary this letter is. The struggle was real. Paul himself was a Jew of impeccable credentials, then God sent him to share the good news of Jesus with Gentiles.

If the young church didn’t meet the Jew-Gentile challenge, it would have splintered and become so far removed from God’s design, that it may have died in one generation. Instead, they worked it through, empowered by God’s word and Spirit. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Saying there is no distinction doesn’t mean they weren’t aware of racial differences. It means there is ultimately no distinction—we are all created in God’s image and moved by our creator. Our common humanity is greater than our racial differences.

In Galatians, Paul writes: “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.” Clearly, male and female still exist, as much as Jew and Gentile, and Black and White. But now in the light of Christ, the differences aren’t allowed to divide us. I am White, from European heritage. I now have three grandchildren. Two are half-Asian and one is African-American. I am White and my wonderful grandchildren are people of color. And we are family. I am thrilled to be part of a family with diversity and several shades of pigmentation. That is how the church was meant to be and always should be. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Everyone, without distinction, may call on the Lord. Everyone, without distinction, is welcome here. In Christ we have a unity that transcends all human differences of gender, color, class, or national origin. It doesn’t obliterate our color and racial distinctions, our gender distinctions, but it makes them the occasion for glorious diversity, not division. In Christ, we all belong in one body. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Are there any fans of Mr. Rogers listening? I thought so. I love Mr. Rogers and my love for him grows as, now dead, he continues to remind us of God’s love in our neighborhoods. Do you remember what happened in episode #195? It first aired on May 9, 1969, but clips of one section of it continue to be shown. Officer Clemmons, a Black police officer, came on the set to visit Mr. Rogers. He had just finished his shift, which meant his feet were tired. Mr. Rogers had a little wading pool with water in it, the kind we use for toddlers to cool off on hot days. Mr. Rogers said that his feet were tired, so he was going to soak them in the pool. He asked Officer Clemmons if he wanted to soak his feet too. With socks and shoes off, and pant legs rolled up, a Black man and a White man put their feet in the same water as they sat side by side and talked. In many parts of our country it was still the custom that Whites and Blacks not be in the same water, sometimes enforced by law. And there on national TV, Mr. Rogers showed children and watching parents a better way. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The words “foot” and “feet” occur almost 400 times in the Bible. These feet of ours are important to God. One passage with many references to feet especially moves me, found in Luke 7.

“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.  And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.  She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. [The Pharisee took offense at this.]  Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.’”

How beautiful are the feet of Jesus. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compassion Must Lead to Action

[This sermon was given for Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, on August 2, 2020. It can be found in video form on their YouTube channel.]

 

This is a tough season for parties. I have a grandson that graduated from college two months ago. No graduation party. I have a grandson that graduated from high school one month ago. No graduation party. It’s a tough season for parties.

 

There are two parties in Matthew 14, the one we just read about, with thousands being fed, and the one that preceded it. One was delightful and one was despicable. The first party was thrown by Herod. The beginning of today’s gospel passage alludes to it. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. What kind of party was that? It was a degenerate party which climaxed with the beheading of John the Baptist. That explains Jesus’ withdrawal. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. Who could blame him for wanting some time away from the crowds to grieve for his cousin? To be away with some intimate time with his heavenly father to draw comfort?

 

But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. Faced with this needy crowd, Jesus doesn’t hide from them. He sees their need and responds. He had compassion for them…. The word passion is used too much and too frivolously today. People today talk about being passionate about anything and everything. “I am passionate about rocky road ice cream.” “I am passionate about the musical ‘Hamilton’.” I like good ice cream and I like “Hamilton,” but not to the point of being willing to suffer for them. This word passion is a word of depth. Compassion means to suffer with. It is not used frequently in scripture. The word compassion is only used about eight times in the New Testament. It has the sense of being moved in the depths of one’s being and acting accordingly. True compassion emerges from deep within us and leads to action. Compassion must lead to action.

 

Having poured out himself in curing the sick, Jesus might have thought, “now I can get some rest.” The ever alert disciples recognize another challenge. It is evening and the crowd is hungry and they are in a deserted place with no caterers nearby. This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves. 

 

Send the crowds away? No. God loves these folks. We can’t send them away. They need not go away; you give them something to eat. Do I see a hint of a smile on Jesus’ face? You give them something to eat. I see Peter taking charge. “Andrew, you go to the 7-11. James, you go to Dunkin’s. John, you go to Tim Horton’s. Thomas, you go to Costco. Matthew, go to Wegmans. Tell them we are in a desperate situation. We need food or this crowd will become a mob. Tell them to donate their leftovers, their day old stuff, their out of date stuff. Tell them they can make it a tax write-off.”

 

Jesus said, you give them something to eat. They replied, ‘We have nothing here but….’ Do we hear their desperation? “We have nothing here but…” In their frantic lack of faith and vision, they overlooked the power of what they did have. We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.  Five loaves and two fish do not equal nothing. Not in God’s economy. God specializes in multiplying what we bring. In the fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Zechariah, Jerusalem is in ruins. Zerubbabel has just started the enormous work of rebuilding the temple. It looks hopeless, like putting out a raging forest fire with a squirt gun. The God tells the prophet to say this: Does anyone dare despise this day of small beginnings? They’ll change their tune when they see Zerubbabel setting the last stone in place! God likes small beginnings.

 

The disciples aren’t being unreasonable, for they know that five loaves and two fish wouldn’t feed thousands. They just don’t reckon what God can do with what little things we bring.

Annie Flint wrote a poem, which has also been set to hymn form, about God’s giving. I love the second stanza:

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

 

When they bring Jesus those five loaves and two fish, the Lord goes to work with it. We see a pattern here that occurs throughout the New Testament when bread is broken.

  1. Bring them here to me. 
  2. Blessing what has been brought.
  3. Breaking the bread that was brought. He looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves….
  4. Giving it away. the disciples gave them to the crowds.

I see this as the essential pattern for the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion. We bring our meager and modest gifts to Jesus. He blesses and breaks them. And then he lets us share the gifts with other.

 

I read recently of a nurse serving in a major urban hospital, which is being challenged by the COVID-19 cases. “Dressed in blue scrubs, she was taking a break in a supply closet to participate in a Communion service at her Lutheran Church. She was communing with a dinner roll and cranberry juice in a medicine cup.” We find out that she has been married five years and has one child. When the service is over, she leaves the supply closet and goes back to work. She wrote, “I cannot stay home. I’m a nurse. We fight when others can’t anymore.” (I read this in The Presbyterian Outlook, June 1, 2020, in an article by Barbara Wheeler.)

 

Today we commune with the Lord in his supper. We bring our meager and modest gifts, and he blesses and breaks them. Then he sends us out to share the feast with others.

 

There are tired and exhausted nurses and medical personnel in this season. Let’s bring them refreshments. Brownies, cookies, cold water. There are protesters and marchers in Rochester most every weekend, working for justice. Let’s bring them refreshments. Wouldn’t it be amazing if churches were bringing them refreshments?

 

Of all the miracles Jesus did, this one holds a special honor. It is the only one recorded in all four gospels. It seems it is saying something we need to hear again and again. In God’s hands, five loaves and two fish can start a feast. In God’s hands, our compassion in response to the needs of others, leads to action in meeting those needs.

 

A few days ago, John Lewis was buried. I have long held him as a hero, an American patriot. As I have been reading since he died, and I heard it said in so many ways in his memorial service a few days ago, that John Lewis was a giver. He brought his life, his five loaves and two fish to Jesus. And then he obeyed Jesus in sharing the feast with all. His faith compelled him to act. Compassion leads to action.

 

Jesus just wanted a little time away, some needed rest and renewal. But the crowd found him. And after all were fed, this is what happened: And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. I have one question. What do you think they did with twelve baskets full of blessed and broken bread? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God Working in All Things

[This sermon was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on July 26, 2020, and can be seen and heard on their FaceBook site.]

 

When I’m home at 6:00pm, if nothing else is going on, I usually have the local news in TV. It often sounds something like this:

The global pandemic infected thousands more people in our country today… Protests about systemic racism nationally and locally are happening downtown regularly, and now even in the suburbs and rural towns…. Local schoolboards are trying to figure out how school will open this fall semester, if it does… The Congress in Washington DC is trying to hammer out a relief package to help the nation get through the economic crisis facing thousands of small businesses and even large businesses…. But wasn’t the weather great today? Let’s take a quick look at the weather for tonight and tomorrow. Wasn’t it a beautiful day! Really? The world is in upheaval.

 

Neil Postman wrote about this in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” The torrent of global, national, and local news can be overwhelming and numbing. No wonder that if I’m doing nothing else at 7:30pm, I like to turn on “Jeopardy!” and escape the messiness of our world for 30 minutes.

 

But there is no escaping for people that take the Bible seriously. If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to redeem people in their brokenness, we had better be concerned about the world and our corner of it. Every book in the Bible was written in a particular time and place about which God cared. When we read the Bible, we don’t leave it back there and then, but we hear God speaking here and now. God still loves this world and Jesus is still redeeming us in our brokenness.

 

This has to be the craziest summer of our lives. COVID-19 is a global challenge. In our country, which leads the world in cases and deaths from this novel virus, we are at the same time facing the challenge of systemic racism being unmasked. Nothing about this summer is what we thought it would be six months ago. The baseball season just began, almost four months late with no fans in the stands. Our world is topsy-turvy.

 

The world in which Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome was topsy-turvy. The Roman emperor, Nero, was corrupt. He was crazed about his power and ruthless in exercising it. In that fledgling young church, set in the greatest city of that time, the struggle between Jewish believers, the first wave of the new church, and gentile believers, the second and larger wave, was raging. They were dealing with political corruption and rampant racism. Sound familiar? It is no wonder, then, that Paul addresses both ethnic groups in this letter. Under Nero, the persecution of the church would get worse. It was no easy matter to become a follower of this Jewish peasant Jesus of Nazareth. The road was often hard and bumpy and dangerous.

 

At the heart of Romans is chapter 8, half of which is before us today. It is in some ways the hinge of the letter. If we don’t get this understanding right, we won’t get the rest of the letter right. Two of the verses are particularly memorable. I memorized them in my youth and have not forgotten them. They stand like the vertical suspending towers of a great suspension bridge. Those suspending towers enable the deck of the bridge to carry pedestrians, cars, trucks, and heavy cargo.

 

The first is verse 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This verse is sometimes translated, “and we know that all things work together….” This NIV translation is preferable. It is God at work in all things. This is not a call for stoicism, for a stiff upper lip, or a Pollyanna optimism. Rather, it is telling us that God is at work in every situation, every circumstance. Sometimes people say that everything happens for a reason. I don’t know just what that means. Many things happen because of human sin and human stupidity. Many things happen because God has established natural laws that are predictable. That is why science is valued by people of faith. God is at work in the natural order. The powerful truth of Romans 8:28 is that God is working in all things—both the good things and the bad things—for the good of those that love God.

 

There is a global scope to God’s work among us. In Colossians 1, Paul writes in the most expansive way of God’s work in Jesus. Listen for the uses of that little word “all”:

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in all things he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:16-20)

This is our confidence: “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him….”

 

The second suspending tower closes the chapter in one all-encompassing statement: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Having established that God is at work in all things for the good of those who love God, Paul reminds us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God experienced in Jesus. Nothing. Our faith isn’t dependent on circumstances. Our faith isn’t dependent on happy moments. Our faith isn’t dependent on how good life can be or how bad life can be. Our faith isn’t dependent on our ability to explain it or understand all that is going on around us. Our faith is dependent on the love of God exhibited in Jesus.

 

Back to the news in our world. A hurricane is thrashing the Gulf coast of Texas…. Yesterday about a thousand American died from COVID-19. Over four million have been infected thus far…. And this was in our news. Nine days ago, a great American, Congressman John Lewis died. Two years and four months ago, our Congresswoman Louise Slaughter died. I was still new to this region and didn’t know her, but I heard that John Lewis was going to be one of the speakers at the public memorial service at Kodak Hall. I went to it to hear John Lewis. Several thousand people attended. I was seated in the third balcony. There was a former president of the US, a former candidate for president, many members of Congress, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives present. And John Lewis was there. It was a thrill to be in the same room with him and hear him speak. Now our nation is rightly remembering and honoring this icon of the civil rights movement and the conscience of the Congress…. We do not despair. God is at work in all of it. And nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Two nights ago, I stood at the edge of a cornfield in Marion, Wayne County, with my wife and four family members. We gazed at the sky to the northwest for 30 or 40 minutes, until we began to see a comet just under the big dipper. That comet called Neowise was about 64 million miles away. It’s nucleus is just three miles wide. But we saw it. I was awed at the majesty of creation. Behind us Jupiter and Saturn were bright and brilliant. Overhead we could see some of the stretch of our galaxy, the Milky Way. And there was a comet that won’t be visible to this planet for about 68,000 years. We were awed at the immensity and grandeur of the universe.

 

We worship and serve the God of all creation. And that God is working in all things on this little planet for the good of those that love him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.