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.

Preparing for Passion Week (or Holy Week)

As I am working on my Passion Week pastoring (preaching on Maundy Thursday/Tenebrae, reading on Good Friday, preaching at Easter sunrise, leading in Easter worship later in the morning), I am also preparing to speak about journeying with Jesus through Passion Week for the Intervarsity chapter at the University at Geneseo, about 25 miles from where I live, this Friday evening. I found it helpful to listen to Peter Marshall’s stirring narrative sermon, Where You There, last night. You can find this on YouTube. I don’t preach like Marshall (few can), but my preaching is always enriched by listening to or reading his sermons (there are several books of his collected sermons). He was a master of narrative preaching. The conclusion of that sermon never fails to stun and thrill me.

Last Sunday I told–rather than reading it–John 12:1-8 and then preached it in narrative style without notes. I didn’t post the manuscript on my blog, but it can be viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page. The hymn that followed the message is a rather new and uncommon one, “A Prophet-Woman Broke a Jar,” which touches the several anointing of Jesus narratives in the gospel (the poetry of the hymn is beautiful and scripturally sound). If you don’t know that hymn, look it up. That passage, John 12:1-8, right before John has the entrance of Jesus on that borrowed donkey into Jerusalem, got me into the spirit and rhythm of Passion Week. From it follows the entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, which begins his and our Passion Week, the week unlike any other.

Some suggestions that I will give the Intervarsity chapter, and offer you:

–Read less scripture next week, but read it more. I will limit my daily Bible reading to the passion in John starting in chapter 12, reading slowly and re-reading more than I usually do.

–Select one gospel as your guide and stay with its treatment of Passion Week. Start at Matthew 21, or Mark 11, or Luke 19, or John 12 and keep reading that gospel through the week until its resurrection account.

–Consider some form of fasting, whether from food, electronics, etc., as spiritual discipline. Fasting should never be legalistic. Don’t fast in ways that are harmful to your health. Fasting can serve as a reminder to pay greater attention to greater realities.

–Be in gathered worship on Thursday and Friday in anticipation of Sunday. We don’t hurry to Easter; we journey with Jesus on the path to his resurrection. If your worshiping community doesn’t have services on both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, you likely can find one near you that does. (If you live in the greater Rochester area, I invite you to the services at Perinton Presbyterian.)

Today I continue to work on these ministry assignments and ponder the wonder and glory of Passion Week. Lord, prepare my head, heart, and hands and feet for the journey of Passion Week. I want to follow you. Amen.

Taking the Fork

[This message was delivered on the Third Sunday in Lent, 3/20/22, at Perinton Presbyterian Church. The video of it is on the Perinton Presbyterian facebook page.]

It was a risky letter that Jourdan Anderson wrote on August 7, 1865. Jourdan and his family were freed by Union troops during the Civil War and fled from Tennessee to Ohio. A few months after the war ended, Anderson’s former slave owner wrote to him, asking him to return to the plantation to help with the harvest and promising a good wage and freedom. Jourdan dictated his reply to his abolitionist employer, who was so impressed with its wit he had it published in the newspaper.

To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdan, and that you wanted me to come back, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt.

I am doing tolerably well here. I get $25 a month, with [food] and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy and the children. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated.

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits for me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.

If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker [the Lord] has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire. –From your old servant, Jourdon Anderson

What do you think Colonel Anderson did in response to Jourdan’s letter? This is what we know.

The slave owner was forced to sell his plantation and died a few years later at 44. Jourdan lived a long life, had 11 children with his wife and became a staff member in his church. (This was reported in the Washington Post, March, 2022.)

Contrast that with Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector that Jesus once visited. Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’” (Luke 19:8-10) That sounds like true repentance.

“Unless you repent, you will all perish….” That terse word from Jesus is said twice in this brief passage. Repentance is a major theme of the Lenten season. Even more, it is a major theme of the Good News of Jesus, indeed of the entire Bible. The Old Testament prophets regularly called on the people of ancient Israel to repent. To turn away from false gods. To turn away from injustice. To turn away from selfish greed. To turn away from old ways to God. John the Baptist called people to repent. Paul called people to repent. And Jesus calls people to repent. After his 40 days of fasting and being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, the first thing Jesus says is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt. 4:17)

What is repentance? It is more than remorse. Remorse is feeling badly for something we did, something we ought not to have done. But remorse may remain only a feeling and never lead to a real change of behavior. Repentance is more than regret. Regret is feeling badly for something we didn’t do that should have done. But regret may remain only a feeling and never lead to a real change in behavior. Remorse may lead to change, but not automatically. Regret may lead to change, but not automatically.

The biblical word for repentance means a change of mind, a change in thinking. The word used in the New Testament doesn’t mention the heart, save by implication. But it mentions the mind. In the Bible, the mind and the heart are closely related, more than we tend to think today. Repentance means a change of thinking that leads to a change of feeling that leads to a change in doing. That is what happened with Zacchaeus, but not with Colonel Anderson.

In today’s passage, two disasters are mentioned. One was induced by Pontius Pilate, having Jews executed and mixing their blood in sacrifices. The second is a tower falling and causing the death of 18 people. It sounds like today’s news. Rather than explain what cannot be explained, Jesus calls for repentance: “Unless you repent, you will all perish….” That is bracing and sobering. It is a word we need to hear as much as they did.

That leads Jesus to tell a simple parable about a fruitless fig tree. When we moved into our new home eight years ago, I bought three young spruce trees and planted them near each other with my grandsons. For eight years I have been watching them grow. They are now taller than my grandsons and me. Except for one. Last spring I noticed that it wasn’t showing any new growth and was losing its color. The other two, bought from the same nursery and planted by the same hands the same day, were thriving. I watched it all spring as it shed more and more of its needles. Those that weren’t shed were becoming brown and brittle. Late last spring I got out a saw and cut it down. From my study at home, where I prepare my sermons, I could see that empty space every time I looked out the window. So I bought a new tree, an ornamental Japanese maple and planted it right there. And now I watch it every day. Planting it was a kind of repentance: removing the old dead tree with a new tree. The parable is about patience, but not without limit. If that fig tree doesn’t bear fruit in one more year, cut it down. Give it a decent dignified death and plant a new tree.

John the Baptist brought the call of Jesus and the parable together in Luke 3:8-9, Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” If we stop at remorse or regret and do nothing, we haven’t repented.

I think of two aspects of repentance, Bible-style. The first might be called the big repentance. Many of us can mark a significant turning toward God in our lives. It may have been a decade or two or three or more ago. But there is more. The second kind is ongoing repentance. That is the repentance lifestyle. Once we have turned to God, the turning is not over; it has just begun. When a rocket is launched into space, it usually needs small course corrections. When I am sailing in my little Sunfish sailboat, I keep my eyes forward to read the surface of the lake, the wind pattern, and where other boats are, while my hand is on the tiller, which controls the steering, making minor adjustments. There is no automatic cruise control when sailing. And there shouldn’t be any in following Jesus. The follower of Jesus is always making course corrections.

Yogi Berra, the late Yankees hall of fame catcher and everyday philosopher said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yes. We are well into Lent, a season for repenting, for making course corrections, for giving up that which holds us back and moving forward following Jesus. Every day in Lent is a potential fork in the road, inviting us to choose the way of life. Last Sunday, Pastor Laura mentioned that she has been experiencing some stress. That is common to being a pastor. I, too, have been experiencing some stress. I read last week that in the two years of the pandemic, just over half of mainline Protestant pastors have considered leaving pastoral ministry. This season is an opportunity to make some course corrections. Am I taking criticisms too personally? Am I seeing people that are troubling to me the way Jesus sees them?

How about you? How is your Lenten journey going? Are you identifying areas in your life that need some course correction? If you can’t identify areas in your life for course corrections, then perhaps you are spiritually dead.

See him, listen to him, follow him

[This message was delivered on Transfiguration Sunday, 2/27/22, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on Luke 9:28-36. It can also be viewed on the Perinton Facebook page.]

Have you been to Walt Disney World? Before there was Walt Disney World, there was … Disneyland. Before there was Disneyland, there was … Knott’s Berry Farm. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was well acquainted with both, but first with Knott’s Berry Farm. It started as a roadside berry stand, where Walter and Cordelia Knott sold their fresh berries, especially boysenberry: jelly, ice cream, pie, and juice. As more and more people stopped at their stand, they decided to offer more. And the country’s first theme park began as an old west ghost town, well before anything Disney.

Walter Knott, the son of a pastor, found an old chapel that was out of use, bought it, and had it moved to his farm. In that chapel there was a painting of Jesus being transfigured. Lines would form all day to enter the chapel at assigned times. We would look at the painted image of Jesus in the light, and then the lights would slowly go down until it was completely dark. The image of Jesus began to glow in the dark. As we exited each of us got a little cardboard standup of Jesus to put at our bedside. When the lights went out, the face of Jesus glowed and his eyes stared at us. It was kind of spooky. Soon I replaced it with a transistor radio and listened to Dodgers baseball games as I went to sleep. What Peter wanted to do, but didn’t get to do, Knott’s Berry Farm did. It made a tourist stop out of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Peter was an entrepreneur before Walter Knott or Walt Disney. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” Then I hear Peter saying, “We can have a sign at the base of the mountain, generating interest. We can have a little gift shop where people can buy a memento of their visit, for a modest price, of course. We can have bumper stickers: ‘this car climbed the mount of transfiguration.’” If Peter had become a pastor in our time, he would have been leading any congregation he served in building projects. (Ouch! I was a pastor of a congregation for 38 years and led them in three building projects.)

Mountaintops and glory tend to go together. I have climbed some mountains, including some of 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks. But my greatest climb was Mt. Baker in Washington state. It took three days to reach the summit and we thought we were on top of Mt. Everest, though we were just shy of 11,000 feet. It was glorious.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, last public words, spoken on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, TN, echo today: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land…. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything…. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next morning he was killed, but not before getting to the mountaintop.

Jesus invites Peter, James, and John to climb a mountain, probably Mt. Hermon. While Jesus is praying, glory breaks out. His face is aglow. His clothes become dazzling white, beyond anything Tide could ever do. Moses had a mountaintop experience on Mt. Sinai. Elijah had a mountaintop experience on Mt. Carmel. Now Peter, James, and John are seeing God’s glory on display in shimmering ways. This is a mountaintop experience. Jesus is transfigured right there in front of them. The word means to be changed, metamorphosed. It is the word used in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Another way of saying it is glorified; “they saw his glory….”

I like Peter. He is caught up in this mountaintop experience and he doesn’t want it to end. I know that tendency. Do you? There are some moments in life that are so good, so glorious, so transforming, that we don’t want them to end. So we try to build monuments to them. I love to visit Disneyland, for there I had a significant date with the woman I would marry. For Red Sox fans, it is the 2004 world series. For Buffalo Bills fans, it is next year. Peter is having a mountaintop experience and he doesn’t want it to end. Can we blame him? Peter has an idea. A building project. Three shelters: one on the left for Moses, one on the right for Elijah, and in the center, at the top of the mountain peak, Jesus. If we follow Peter through the gospels, he is rarely speechless for long. It is Peter who says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” It is Peter who says to Jesus, “Master, I want to walk on the surface of the Sea of Galilee with you.”

A thick cloud envelops the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah are gone. All is quiet. Eerily quiet. A voice breaks the silence: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” How do we follow that? “When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” A cloud. A voice. Then silence.

A little boy was afraid of the dark. One night his mother asked him to go out on the back porch and bring her the broom. He said, “I don’t want to go out there. It’s dark.” His mother said, “You don’t have to be afraid of the dark. Jesus is out there. He’ll look after you and protect you.” The boy asked, “Are you sure he’s out there?” “Yes, I’m sure. He is everywhere, and he is always ready to help you when you need him,” she said. The little boy thought about that for a minute and then went to the back door and cracked it a little. Peering out into the darkness, he called: “Jesus? Would you please hand me the broom?” We want Jesus to do what we want him to do. We want him to conform to our agenda, when he comes to conform us to his agenda.

What is the point of the transfiguration of Jesus? I think the old time-travelers, Moses and Elijah, are getting it: They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This is not a special effects extravaganza. This is a glimpse of what is to come. Earlier in this chapter, Luke 9, Jesus tells them for the first time that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. At the end of Luke 9, Jesus sets his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. In the transfiguration of Jesus, we are getting a sneak preview, and it is glory. Fanny Crosby wrote “O what a foretaste of glory divine.”The gospels see Jesus’ greatest hour of glory as when he hangs on a cross on a little hill, not a dramatic mountaintop. In his suffering, Jesus is glorified. In his death, Jesus is glorified. It was not by coincidence that the first words we sang this morning were, “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim.” This Wednesday, the day of ashes, we begin this holiest time of the Christian year.

When I began working here among you, the pandemic was already underway. On Sunday mornings, I would drive past a home with a sign on the front lawn: No new normal. I would ponder what that meant. I think it meant that the people in that house wanted to go back to life before the pandemic, that the thought that some changes might happen bothered them. Jesus has come to bring a new normal. He comes to bring change to our living, to get us aligned with God. Peter wanted, perhaps fleetingly, to stop the parade and settle on a mountaintop. But what happened on the mountaintop was but a brief stop on a journey moving forward. We want to build monuments; Jesus comes to form a movement.

The transfiguration of Jesus is a sensual experience, with all the senses are engaged in beholding Christ’s glory. But two stand out, sight and hearing: See him and listen to him. See him high and lifted up. Moses and Elijah leave; Jesus stands alone before us. See him. A voice pierces the cloud: Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” Listen to him. See him; listen to him. This is how we move into Lent, ever pressing forward to see him and to listen to him. Our calling is to see Jesus, to listen to Jesus, and to follow Jesus to the next mountaintop, which is a hill called Calvary.

Winter Olympics Thoughts

“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…”

That was the memorable intro to the ABC Wide World of Sports, a great TV show that ran on late Saturday afternoons in the 1960s-1990s. It catches what the Olympic Games are all about. There are many reasons not to watch the Olympics. Here are some (you may others to add):

  • They are too nationalistic.
  • There is widespread cheating.
  • There is illegal doping.
  • Some of the events look like they were invented by people doing too much doping.

And yet, there are so many good reasons to watch, namely:

“The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…”

I don’t love the agony of defeat, but the great majority of athletes that make it to the games go home without a medal. And the much greater crowd of athletes that train for the games don’t even make it on to their national teams. It’s that way across the board. Tomorrow, as I write this, the Rams or Bengals will win the Super Bowl. Back in September, 32 teams started the season with high hopes. Thirty-one will have ended the season without the big trophy. Athletic competition teaches us that we aren’t very likely to win the last race, the big prize, the ultimate goal.

In these games, at the mid-point, I was most moved by what happened to Nick Baumgarten. Nick has been a crazy snowboarder for almost two decades and has been on US Olympic teams since 2012, but without a medal. He made the team again this year at the age of—get this—40. On Thursday night, our time, he finished tenth in the snowboard cross men’s singles. And he wept before the NBC interviewer and millions watching, as he saw his last chance for a medal slip away. Nick is bigger and older than most in his sport, so his agony was all the more pronounced. But, he then got placed on the snowboard cross team event (one woman and one man form a team) with the gold medal winning Lindsey Jacobellis, herself 36, racing against youngsters. He won the men’s race and then watched at the finish line as Lindsey won the women’s race. Tears are flowing. Nick will return to Iron River MI with a medal: a gold medal. Though I am 35 years older than Nick, I think I’m his age as I watch him in this crazy, exciting event in which I want to compete (and believe I would be about as good as Nick). Nick has broken numerous bones and endured operations over the years. And the hours and hours and hours of training. And the personal expense. And the sacrifice. He had good reason to call it a career after not winning a medal four years ago. But now he knows “the thrill of victory” and that on the biggest international stage there is for athletic competition.

I continue to be troubled by the nationalism, commercialism, politicization of these games. And I think ice dancing should not be a medal sport (my wife loves ice dancing and I can’t convince her about this!). I want the majority of events not decided by nationalistic judges. I want most events decided by what happens on the playing field: who crossed the finished line first, who jumped the highest, who hit the most targets, etc. I trust Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski to tell me what happened on the ice in figure skating, but I don’t always trust the judges.

Maybe we should blame the ABC Wide World of Sports for some of this. They found quirky events in Podunk places and made us care. They showed us people striving for the thrill of victory and far more often dealing with the agony of defeat. For that I am glad. Let the games continue. And keep room on the team for an occasional over the hill but not admitting it athlete like Nick Baumgarten. After all, he is about my age.