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.

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.

The Crux of Peace

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 1/30/22, based            Ephesians 2:11-22. A video version can be watched on the Perinton Facebook page.]

I’m going to blindfold you. Then I’m going to take you in a car on a road trip. When I park the car, I take you by the hand and lead you into a large room. You sense that it is beautiful—and you are right. I tell you that it is a house of Christian worship. In a moment I will point your head toward the front wall, up above the table. I will take off your blindfold and give you one second to open your eyes and then close them again. I then ask you, are you in a Protestant or Roman Catholic house of worship and why do you think so?

I was raised in the Protestant tradition, and we were very clear about that cross on the front wall. Jesus was not to be on it, because he is risen. I think I detected a sense of pride that we were right about this. Indeed, Jesus is risen, but I think we may have taken Jesus off the cross too soon. The apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, especially chapter 2, makes me think that.

I grew up memorizing Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 was bedrock for us. I believed it then and I believe it now. But I think we stopped too soon. We needed to read the entire chapter and get the rest of the story. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

Now when I see a cross with a figure of Jesus hanging on it, I stop and look at it. I look for how Jesus is portrayed. Is his skin tone light or dark? Does he look like a first century Palestinian Jew or a 21st century American? Does he look serene or anguished? Do I see myself in him?

Take a look at “It Is Finished” by Sandra Bowden. Note how Bowden portrays the crucifixion.

The backdrop for Paul’s teaching here is a story ever old and ever new. The human family doesn’t act like a family a lot of the time. Human history is filled with division. Male and female. Black and brown and white. Poor and rich. One religion against another religion. In Paul’s time the great divide was racial/ethnic: Jew and gentile. For the Jews, this was the insider/outsider divide. Paul was an insider. That shows in Ephesians, written to a largely gentile church far beyond the borders of Israel. Early in today’s passage, he addresses his gentile sisters and brothers this way: “Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth… were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” The divide could not have been more stark. Paul, the ultimate insider, is writing to these ultimate outsiders.

In my world, I am an insider. I am a white male, comfortably middle class, suburbanite, well-educated. Further I was raised in the majority religion in my country. I have known a good deal of privilege in my years. It is dangerous to be an insider. We insiders can think that we are simply better than outsiders. That we have earned our privileged status. That God loves us more than God loves the outsiders. While my insider credentials are solid, they pale next to Paul’s, whose insider credentials were impeccable. He was a one-percenter. Elite. When he was confronted by the grace of God in Jesus, all that privilege fell away. Paul would spend much of the rest of his life inviting outsiders to enter the community of grace. Paul, once the insider, now identifies with those he once saw as outsiders.

At the very heart, the epicenter, of this Good News was what Jesus did on the cross. Not just that he died on a cross, but on what he did on that cross. Paul presses the limits of language. He becomes an artist with a large canvas and a palette of color. “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down [destroyed] the dividing wall, the hostility between us.He has abolished [rendered obsolete] the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Now my personal identity is not in my insider credentials, but in Jesus and what he has done.

We have too often reduced the work of Jesus on the cross to one thing: saving our souls as individuals. We have individualized the work of Calvary as if it had nothing to do with the human community and its dividedness. Paul uses powerful words: Jesus has destroyed the dividing wall, putting to death the hostility that separated us. Yes, Jesus died for me, but not me alone. He died for us and all our divisions. In his own body on that cross, he became insider and outsider, Jew and gentile, black and brown and white, male and female, young and old. He did it to bring insider and outsider together on level ground. To build a church in which there will never be outsiders. A church built on Jesus himself, the true cornerstone, in which radical grace welcomes all, without distinction.

Sometimes we see what the Church ought to be in non-churchy settings. Last Sunday night (1/23/22) there was a football game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. Though the outcome broke our hearts in western NY, it was a thrilling game. Since that game, something more amazing than the game has happened. Kansas City Chiefs fans have donated over $465,000 to the Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. Those donations will help ensure that their medical team has the tools, training, and programs to care for sick kids in Western New York. I love the game of football, but I am more moved by moments that show our common humanity.

Early this week (1/25/22), there was a fire in the Pines of Perinton apartments. Over 60 people were suddenly displaced and homeless, about 40 of them children. There has been a wonderful response in the town, from all the churches, the town government, and townspeople. The churches of Perinton are not competing in this, but cooperating. I am moved by moments that show our common humanity, moments is which the Church is being the Church.

A few days ago we received this message from the director of World Relief in Western NY:

“We have a new couple living at the Ellison Park apartments named Ahmad and Khatera. I’m wondering if we can connect this couple with a Good Neighbor team made up of folks from Perinton Presbyterian. Their English is limited, but their ability to communicate is quite good. They could use some good friends and greater sense of being welcomed here to Rochester.” I am confident that some of you are going to become welcoming friends to Ahmad and Khatera. I am moved, sometimes to tears, by moments that show our common humanity and show the Church being the Church Jesus calls it to be.

My younger daughter’s best friend has been a dear friend of our family for over three decades. She posted an old photo of her extended maternal family, living in Poland in the 1930s.

It looks just like a photo of my extended maternal family, right down to the red wine Italians always have on the table. But Shira’s family isn’t Italian: they are Jewish. Within several years of that happy photo, everyone in the photo was murdered by the Nazis. Another part of the family fled and eventually survived. I am blessed to know some of that family. I remind us that most of the German state church supported the rise of the Nazis. The Third Reich promised the church its favor and the church liked the privileged status the government gave them. And that state supported church stood by silently as millions of Jews were murdered. For shame.

If we look at the work of Jesus on the cross as only individual, as only about forgiving me, we miss the fullness of what the New Testament teaches. Christ died not only for my individual sins; he died for our corporate sins, our societal sins, our systemic sins. On the cross, Jesus brought together in his body all the divisions in our divided world, to create one new humanity. Hear it again from “The Living Bible.”

“For Christ himself is our way of peace. He has made peace between us Jews and you Gentiles by making us all one family, breaking down the wall of contempt that used to separate us.By his death he ended the angry resentment between us…. Then he took the two groups that had been opposed to each other and made them parts of himself; thus he fused us together to become one new person, and at last there was peace. As parts of the same body, our anger against each other has disappeared, for both of us have been reconciled to God. And so the feud ended at last at the cross. And he has brought this Good News of peace [to all of us].”


Worship–old and ne

[This message was delivered at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on January 23, 2022. The texts are Nehemiah 8:1-10 and Luke 4:14-21. The sermon can also be viewed on the CoS Facebook page.]

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe…. That simple prayer comes early in the liturgy of synagogues around the world, setting the tone for gathered worship, much as we pray an opening prayer after our call to worship and gathering hymn. I wonder if Jesus prayed that prayer in the synagogue in Nazareth that day.

I wonder if it was prayed in the vast outdoor throng in Jerusalem reported in Nehemiah 8. We are not the first worshipers to have our regular worship interrupted by events beyond our control. When the pandemic began to hit home for us 22 months ago, we were thrust into unknown territory. Except it wasn’t all that unknown. When our Jewish ancestors were taken into captivity, be it in Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon, their worship customs had to change, but not their worship patterns.

Over the last 14 months, as I have served in a pastoral role at Perinton Presbyterian Church, on Sunday mornings I have driven by one house with a sign on the front lawn that says: “No new normal.” I think the message behind that sign is something like this: “We will not change our ways. We will not be told to get vaccinated and to wear masks. We will not comply with a new normal. We will do as we please.” If I understand the gospel of Jesus Christ at all, it is all about new normal living. It is all about repenting of old ways and turning to new ways. It is all about seeing God do new things. Jesus is ever making new wine from old water.

When it comes to gathered worship, we live in this struggle between old and new. Our worship patterns are based on patterns we find from thousands of years ago. I find the worship in Nehemiah 8 giving us a pattern widely held by Christian worshiping communities around the world and across traditions and denominations over the centuries. 

The Nehemiah 8 gathering happened almost 2,500 years ago. It was right after the exile of God’s ancient people in Babylon, which lasted much longer than two years. The faithful have returned to glorious Jerusalem, only to find it in shambles, looking like a war zone after a Gestapo bombing raid. The Temple has been desecrated and leveled into rubble. The people face a rebuilding challenge like Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria, like Haiti after that earthquake, like Mayfield KY after that tornado last month.

So what do they do? They gather in a makeshift open air synagogue and worship God. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Praise be to our God. Something remarkable is happening. They know what to do. They haven’t forgotten. Their memory muscles are working just fine. No worship guides are handed out and no pews are to be found. We experience the four-fold pattern of gathered worship that we use today: 1, The people gather to worship; 2, the people hear God’s written word read and proclaimed; 3, the people respond to God’s goodness; and, 4, the people are sent out to serve God beyond the synagogue.

Being a preacher and a teacher of preaching, I am particularly moved by Nehemiah 8:8: So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” I teach my students that this is the 8/8 definition of preaching: to give the people understanding of what has been read in their presence. Not to entertain or impress, but to give the sense of the scriptures read. Note how full-bodied and full-orbed this worship is. When the Torah is held up to be read, the people immediately stand without being told to. The people respond with spoken amens and hands raised in praise. The people bow their heads and even prostrate themselves before God. And they weep. It is unclear just why they are weeping, but I don’t think its sadness, but gladness. They are emotionally moved by what they are participating in: the gathering of God’s people in a broken place and needy time to worship their God who is sovereign over it all.

I am reading a book of some of the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a noted 20th century rabbi and theologian, who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., many times in the cause of prophetic justice. Heschel said that his hope for modern synagogue worship was that it would learn from Black Christian worship, in which worship is responsive, bodies and emotions engaged in praising God. To which this Presbyterian with a foot in Free Methodism says, Yes and amen.

Early in his Galilean ministry Jesus does what he does on Saturday mornings; he goes to a local synagogue to worship God. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. And something unexpected happens in the midst of the expected. He reads beautiful words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. That is normal. He hands the scroll back to the synagogue attendant. That is normal. Then he says what no one is expecting from a young peasant who does carpentry in this very town of Nazareth: Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” No one is expecting such words. A new normal is just beginning.

Jesus reads the word of God written and then declares nothing short of this: he is the word of God living. He is the fulfillment of every word of scripture entrusted to us. We do not worship the Bible; we worship the God revealed in the Bible. Perhaps like some of you, I was raised in a tradition that confused these things. We often worshiped the Bible more than we worshiped God. The Bible was often used as a weapon. The Bible was contorted to show us that we were right and everyone in disagreement with us was wrong. The Bible was twisted into a rule book that assured us that God was on our side more than we were on God’s side, that God was beholden to us, and not we to God. The Bible is so much better than that.

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. I expect those words were prayed on Saturday, January 15, in Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX. They began worship as faithful Jews have for centuries, as Jesus did most every Sabbath day in some local synagogue. And we realize that gathering for worship can be dangerous. There are no safe places in this world. From Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, to Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, PA, to AlNoor Mosque in New Zealand, every synagogue, mosque, and church is a potential target for crazed or hate-filled people. There is an alarming rise in acts of violence in places of worship across our land and around the world. That does not mean that we stop gathering, but that we realize how important it is to keep gathering and worshiping the sovereign God.

No matter what the circumstances, we cannot give up gathering for worship, and that includes virtual worship for people for whom in-person worship is not a healthy option today. This is not an either/or, but a both/and situation. I commend CoS and thousands of other congregations for continuing in-person worship with safety guidelines and offering worship in virtual ways, usually in real time. The key question for us about gathered worship is not, what did I get out of it? Rather, the crucial question is, what did I bring to worship and what did I offer to God?

Annie Dillard writes about worship: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions…. The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear … velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

When that massive outdoor synagogue service of worship was concluding, the leader said, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Indeed, for worshipers of God, the joy of the Lord is our strength. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, melech ha-olam…. Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas and Needle Retention

On this twelfth day of Christmas, I took our Christmas tree to our nearby town park, where trees are chipped and made into mulch for the park’s walking trails. The tree was undecorated over the new year’s weekend, but continued standing proudly in our living room until the tenth day of Christmas.

The day after Thanksgiving, my grandson and I went to our favorite local Christmas tree farm with clear instructions: bring home a tree about 7.5 feet tall and not too wide at the base. We took the tractor-pulled wagon ride to the Fraser Fir section, this being our favorite kind of tree, with good color and needle retention. We found the right tree and cut it down. Two hours later it was standing in our living room and drinking fresh water. It took us the weekend to get it trimmed and it served us well for over five weeks.

The first week, I must have given it a gallon of water a day. The next week, a half gallon. The next week a quart. Not a day went by in over five weeks without the tree getting at least a tall glass of fresh water. The needle retention was excellent. Even in its last week, it was hardly dropping any needles. (My wife might quibble with that last sentence, but I have been cutting down, watching, and watering Christmas trees for decades: this one retained its needles as well as any I have ever cut, watched, and watered.)

Tomorrow is Epiphany day, when we are reminded of the long journey of the magi and their curious gifts for the Christ child, no longer a baby in a manger, but a toddler still in Bethlehem. Only Matthew gives is this story. Matthew 2, in just 23 verses, gives us an amazing journey with little Jesus and his parents. There is mystery and political intrigue. There is tragedy and death and suffering. Angels are still active and the light of God in Jesus is shining. Read the entire chapter tomorrow. Maybe even today, to get ready.

And now that Fraser Fir is being re-purposed. I walk the trails of Tinker Park in all seasons. Soon, maybe this winter or early spring, I may well be walking on the mulch of that lovely tree. Still serving a good purpose.