Monday, October 24, 2016


Jeremiah 31:27-34,  Luke 18:1-8


Some of you may know we have a small dog named Jojo.  And, well, like most dogs he loves treats.  But Jojo doesn’t want just any ol’ dog treat.  What gets him excited are weird things like carrots, blueberries, and his all-time favorite: popcorn!    As soon as Jojo hears the sound of popping coming from the microwave and smells the sweet smell of fake butter… he starts to lose it!  He runs around in circles, jumping up and down and barking this extremely high pitched bark until someone gives in.  He is laser focused, persistent and the eternal optimist that he will be given popcorn!  

We don’t give in every time but he is rewarded for this behavior often enough that he believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he begs and pesters enough, someone will give in. 

While this trait is extreemly annoying to me…. Jesus seems to be saying that this is how God wants us to behave.  Be persistent until we get what we want.  Pray without ceasing, never giving up hope that our dreams will come true and our prayers will be answered. 

This sounds good on the surface.  Except, we have all too often misused this verse as a form of justifying the prosperity gospel idea that God wants the same things you want.  We think if we pray hard enough for what we want, God will eventually tire of our prayers and give in to God’s bratty kids on earth- giving them the new car, the new job, the new spouse, more power, more money, more whatever we want. 

But, this leaves out a very important question.  What about the ones whose prayers don’t seem to be answered?  What about the person in an abusive relationship that doesn’t get any better? 

What about the person who prays night and day for a loved one to be healed only to end up planning a funeral?  Are they somehow less persistent? Less faithful? Less righteous?

No, of course not.  God wants us to ask for what we need, yes.  God desires to give us all the good things in life.  God wants us to want what God knows is best and sometimes that means learning to take the long view and learning to understand that often it is not God who is not answering prayers, but we who misunderstand. 

This scripture in Luke, for instance is taken out of context a lot.  We don’t notice who the person is who is asking, nor do we notice what she asks for.  The woman in the story is a widow.  She is representative of the group of people who are notoriously mistreated.  She is mostly without power or influence.

She is overlooked, abused, mistreated and ignored by most everyone.  The only thing she has is her persistence.  But what she is asking for is justice in an unjust world.  In a social system that denies her any power, she doesn’t ask for power or stuff or wealth or family- she asks for justice; to be treated fairly, to be seen, heard, and understood. 

Most of us can probably relate to both of these characters.  We know what it is like to be the one begging to have our prayers heard, for God to see our plight, to fight for some right we think is being infringed on.  In our politically charged world, nearly every political commercial we see is about one side or the other being afraid that what they perceive as a basic right will be infringed upon or lost. 

But we also know what it is like to be the one being pestered.  Our TVs don’t limit the commercials we see to be only the ones we agree with. 

We find ourselves, rolling our eyes, shaking our heads, saying things like; “can’t they just give it a rest?”  Protestors at this rally or that rally, marching in the streets to protest what some perceive to be no big deal while others see it as a life or death situation.  All they want, all anyone wants is to be seen, understood, listened to as they express their fears and uncertainty about the future. 

They want someone to at least try to see it from their perspective.  But this is hard work.  This is challenging and usually when done right, no one comes out feeling like they got everything they wanted.  So we don’t try. 

Instead we shut the doors of our ears and our hearts to the pounding of those on the outside.  We’d rather solve the smaller problems that have easy answers than to do the hard work of conversation, reconciliation and running the risk that we might actually change our minds about something or experience the emotion of empathy. 

This has become a downward spiral. Instead, we surround ourselves with people we think, think like us, news outlets which feed our own opinion instead of offering a neutral or contrary view point.  We are tempted in these times to go down swinging to politicize everything, to insult, disregard, and dehumanize the other but this is not the way of Jesus. 

This is not the way to hope.  There are not many things in this world that I blame on the devil, but this is one of them.  Evil wants us to fight.  Evil wants us to take sides. Evil wants us to hide under a blanket of despair, pessimism and fear. 

God wants us to find hope by trusting in the eternal light and love of Christ.  God wants us to be persistent in acting justly, persistent in our efforts to see the best in others, persistent in crying out to God for guidance as we seek true justice in our world. 

God wants us to be persistent in loving our enemies, persistent in listening to others, especially those we don’t agree with and persistent in helping those who cannot or do not know how to help themselves.  God wants us to be persistent in looking to Jesus for hope- not a political party, not a candidate, not a nation, not even an issue.  When we cry out for justice are praying to the wrong god to save us?   

I am sure it felt hopeless to the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day- living in exile, living in a foreign land, feeling like God had deserted them or was punishing them but God fulfilled the promise of a new covenant, a new beginning and chance to start over and make life better than it was before. 

I am sure it felt hopeless to the disciples as they watched Jesus hang on the cross.  I am sure they felt despair as they tried to figure out where God was leading them, as they experienced persecution, as they moved on without the physical presence of Jesus to guide them. 

I am sure they felt despair as they were kicked out of the synagogues and as the roman and Jewish government seemed to be falling apart.  But because of the death of Christ, they experienced the resurrection of Christ and the birth of a church which would change the world forever and bring new promises to a new generation of God followers. 

God promises, even in our day, to bring true justice.  God will not be slow in helping, God will be persistent in God’s love for us and God will be persistent in God’s call to us. 

The Bible reminds us that even when we are in the midst of despair- God is still present, still at work in this world and still calling us to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  God is inviting us to participate in the new beginning that will come out of the ashes.  We may struggle to see it and we may not see the fruit of our efforts but God is still at work.  The war has already been won- even if it seems like evil is winning in this moment, hold fast to your hope in the promises of God. 

Jesus tells us to stay faithful to God.  Stay faithful to this hope by caring for those in our midst who are not heard, who are oppressed, who don’t have a voice.  Jesus tells us to be persistent in our hope that God is indeed making all things new.  We are living in dark times; we are living in a moment which often feels like our prayers are not being heard.  We are living in a time when it is hard to find hope.  Maybe we are just looking for hope in all the wrong places. 

Earlier this week I was talking with a woman about hope.  To her surprise I expressed that I was optimistic about our world and that I thought, despite the despair and obvious flaws of our current situation I could see how God is at work in the world and how our world, in many ways, is better than it was. 

I see hope in how minorities and women are treated with more respect today than they were 100 years ago.  It still leaves a lot to be desired but in many ways it is better.  I see hope in how churches rally around a community when tragedy strikes whether it is a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. 

I see hope when Heartsong Church outside, Memphis TN, allowed Muslim worshipers to use their church for worship while their worship center was under construction.  I see hope when pastors stand up courageously to prevent the escalation of protests.  I see hope when foster parents care for children that aren’t theirs. 

I see hope when people work together, worship together, pray together and love each other despite difference.   There is still hope in this world.  And it is seen if we look for Christ at work in our world, in our nation, in our state and even in our own communities and our own lives.  And, make no mistake.  God is persistently working, persistently loving and persistently faithful.  Thanks be to God! 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Who is your Lazarus?

Luke 16: 19-31

 I want to begin by sharing a song with you.  This was one of my favorite songs in college.  I Will Remember You by Sarah McLachlan.

Does it sound familiar?   You don’t have to be 30 something to know this song.  We hear it nearly every time we turn on the TV.  It is the theme song for the ASPCA commercials.

No longer do I have memories of hanging out with friends, listening to it for hours… every time I hear that song I now think of poor, sick, starving puppies and kittens.  I see that commercial so often and am so annoyed that, on multiple occasions I have almost suggested we quit giving to the ASPCA just because I am sick of the song. 

The first time I saw the commercial, it tugged at my heart strings.  It nearly brought me to tears but now that I have seen the commercial thousands of times, I seem to have grown immune to the sad eyes of those sweet animals that just want to be loved.  Now when the commercial comes on I am more likely to think:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, poor pitiful animals everywhere…. And move on with my day? 

I have grown apathetic to the plight of these helpless of God’s creation. 

But this doesn’t just happen with ASPCA commercials.  It happens pretty much everywhere we go, every time we turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper.  We are overwhelmed with images of protests and riots, shootings, bombings, terror attacks, politicians spewing hate filled words, drug deals and drug busts gone wrong, and children being abducted.   


It was shocking the first time John Walsh came on TV with America’s Most Wanted.  It was a shock at the beginning of the Gulf War as we watched for hours as bombs exploded over Iraq.  It was a shock the first time Sally Struthers came on TV parading around poor, malnourished African children with distended bellies asking for donations of just $1/ day.  It was a shock the first time an unarmed black man was shot and calls for justice filled the streets.  It was a shock the first time a terrorist bomb exploded on the streets of the US. 

But now, even this week, as it has happened in our own back yard, our state, 2 hours away, I feel the apathy creeping in.  It could have happened 2 hours away, 2 states away or 2,000 miles away but I feel detached.  It is too common, it has become normal and I unfortunately am beginning to feel apathetic.  And, I don’t think I am alone in this struggle to care.  It is hard to keep caring when it feels like every day your heart will be broken and torn apart by what you see and read.  It is too painful.  But apathy spreads, it isn’t just what we see on TV it bleeds into our personal lives as well. 

The gospel story from Luke today tells us the story of a rich man and Lazarus, a poor, leper and beggar.  At first glance it seems that the rich man is simply punished for being rich and Lazarus rewarded for being poor.  Somehow at the cosmic level, God makes everything even and fair.  Except it doesn’t seem like either did anything to deserve their place either in this life or the next. 

As the story progresses we get more clues to the real problem for the rich man.  It isn’t that he is inherently a bad person.  He didn’t steal from Lazarus; abuse Lazarus nor did he ridicule or oppress Lazarus.  It isn’t his fault he is rich and Lazarus is a poor leper.  


But, from Hades, you see what matters; his attitude toward Lazarus.  The rich man, knew who Lazarus was, remembered him from his presence outside his gate, but just never paid him any attention.  He was self-centered.  It wasn’t simply that he dressed in fine clothes, or that the feasted every day, it was that he was self-centered.  Everything was all about him, his family and his friends. 

Even in Hades it’s all about him.  He never asks Lazarus for help, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him.  And when that isn’t possible, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his family to save them.  He never sees Lazarus as his equal, as someone worthy of being addressed, worthy of his time or attention.  Lazarus is always beneath him, even as Lazarus reclines in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man is tormented.  It never crosses his mind that Lazarus was worthy of more than his scraps, hand-me-downs and trash. 

The rich man knew what Moses and the prophets taught about caring for others and sharing with the poor, widowed, and orphan.  He may have even given alms every week at Temple but never so much that it interfered with his own comfort, and never as a way to elevate the lowest to his level of importance.  He continued to look down on, and most of the time ignore, those in his midst who were in need; even as they lay at his own door step.   

Maybe the first time he saw Lazarus, he was shocked.  Maybe he gave him a coin or two, offered him a warm meal or blanket.  But as time passed the sight of Lazarus at the gate became normal. It wasn’t shocking any more, he became apathetic and simply stopped caring. 

That is a sin we are in danger of every day.  We see our neighbors but we don’t always know their names or their needs.  We see people lined up at the soup kitchen but never stop by to see what we can do to help.  We know there is a homeless shelter in town but figure it is someone else’s ministry, some other church’s or person’s responsibility.  We may know there are an estimated 465 homeless children in our county but either we don’t see them or don’t notice them. 

We donate money to church, items for backpacks, take up collections for the Room at the Inn fund at Christmas, but never so much that we sacrifice our comfort and never to the point that we would ever get to know the names, faces or real needs of those who receive them.  We have discovered how to feel good about ourselves without really caring.  Because caring means we are vulnerable, putting ourselves at risk physically and emotionally and that is scary.

In “Breathing Under Water” Richard Rohr- suggests “that your heart needs to be broken and broken open, at least once to have a heart at all, or to have a heart for others.” 

Every week I drive by a blue building in the fence by the junk yard.  I know people live there, I see them on the porch every Sunday, I have seen kids get off the bus there and clothes drying on the fence.  But I also see that it doesn’t have windows and doesn’t appear to have electricity.  I was shocked the first time I saw it, but now sometimes I drive by and never look their way.  And, I have never stopped to talk to them, learn their names, their stories, or what they need or how I might be able to help. 

Last week at a clergy meeting we heard from a woman who is the head of the Congregations for Children initiative.  As she spoke with tears in her eyes, she shared a story of how God called her to this work.  As she worried about her declining church, as she wondered how the church could help people in her community, as she drove to church and saw children playing and toys in the yard, she heard God ask-

What are their names?  What are their names?  How can we help those we don’t know and how can we get to know those we refuse to see?

This is God’s calling and question to us.  Who are the Lazarus in our community?  How can we put ourselves out there in a way that allows us to actually get to know the people in our neighborhood, our community, our town and our county?  What are their names?  What do they need to flourish and know that they are children of God?

Apathy paralyzes because we are overwhelmed by the needs of the world- every week we hear of some new tragedy, some new natural disaster, some new systemic problem that seems too overwhelming and out of our ability to fix, so we cut ourselves off.  Afraid that all our resources will be drained if we helped everyone.  But what if we just helped one.  What if we just stood up for our Lazarus who is afraid to leave home for fear of law enforcement.  What if we just helped our Lazarus who was looking for steady work to support his family.  What if we just helped our one Lazarus who was trying to flee an abusive home life.  What if we just helped our one Lazarus who didn’t have an adult at home after school to help with homework. 

Apathy paralyzes but following Christ calls us to leave our comfort zone, enter into the one relationship that is based on a love that fills our lives and over flows from Christ into the world through us.  It is a love when accepted allows us to love freely because we are freely loved.  Jesus is what heals us of Apathy- being in relationship with Jesus and our neighbors leads us out of apathy and into empathy.  It frees us to allow our hearts to be broken open in love for others. 

Fixing the world’s problems is out of our scope- it is a God size problem, with a God size solution but we can help one- who is your Lazarus?  Who are the Lazarus’s this church is called to reach out an invite to share at our table?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

ripple effect

Amos 8:1-12/  Luke 10:38-42

Mike was born in 1961 in the segregated south.  I didn’t know him personally but I imagine he experienced firsthand what racism felt like.  It was just the way things were.  He lived during the height of the Tuskeegee Syphilis experiment where African American men were given syphilis and never treated.  He lived in the time of Freedom Rides, lynching and the death of Martin Luther King Jr.  He was treated differently because of his race.  Who knows the pain, resentment, anger, fear and distrust that permeated his life?

15 years ago all this came to a boiling point.  His grandmother was admitted to the hospital the same week my friend’s wife, gave birth to their second child.  Mike’s grandmother had diabetes which had gone unmanaged.  As often happens, the doctors decided the way to save her life was to amputate her leg.     

When Mike arrived at the hospital, he was shocked and devastated to see her leg gone.  How dare the doctors remove it!  Surely there was another way.  The more he thought about it the angrier he got.  40 years’ worth of resentment, dealing with people who may not have given him the time of day all came to a head.  Who knows what interactions he had with doctors himself, but whatever he was feeling meant he did not trust the doctors.  Mike left the hospital distraught to say the least. 

My friend and his wife were oblivious to the drama that was unfolding in the hospital.  They were busy with the new baby holding and feeding her and bonding as a family.  It was dinner time so they decided to leave for a few hours and enjoy a nice quiet meal and relax from the day. 

As they left the hospital, they witnessed a man driving erratically in the parking lot.  The man stopped and Don asked him if he was ok.  It was Mike. 

The earth shook and the lights went out as Mike, in all his anger and resentment, pulled out a handgun and shot my friend.  Mike intended to take his anger out on the doctors but instead took it out on the first person he saw.  In his haste, he loaded the gun incorrectly and the gun jammed, preventing him from taking another life.                 

My friend died two days later. 

My friend had never met Mike; never exchanged words, never argued.  He wasn’t to blame for the way Mike’s life had turned out, how he and his family had been treated.  My friend was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  A victim of Mike’s anger, a victim of all those who had mistreated him.  A victim of Mike’s resentment, mistrust, and fear and centuries of degrading, racism.  Mike may have thought taking his grandmother’s leg was earth shaking but it was nothing compared to spending the rest of his life in prison. 

The earth shook, the sun went dark, there was weeping and life as many knew it would never be the same.  You see, the consequences of our decisions in this life, don’t just affect us and only us.  Because we are so intertwined when the earth shakes we all feel its effects. 

We never know the impact of our actions or how we treat people; the power of systemic violence and corruption. 

The Israelites in Amos’ day were doing business as usual.  It had become the norm to alter the weights and charge more money for less product. Much like companies today will market an item as new and improved only to find out that now you get less product for the same price. 

It had become expected to have people work off their debts but constantly lending them more so they would need to work longer.  The way some of our migrant workers are treated- taking so much from their pay for housing that they don’t have enough to buy food.  Or the way our manufacturers charge more for healthy foods then blame the poor for being obese. 

We might not be directly responsible for this but Amos reminds us complacency matters.  We know it happens and do nothing about it.  So the ripple effect continues.  Those who are too poor to buy healthy food are also too poor to pay for healthcare so their unhealthy choices lead to increased healthcare costs for everyone else through premiums and taxes.  We may not cause it but everyone feels the pain. 

We see the effect of this ripple as we watched the news of the events in France this week.  The people killed were caught up in a tidal wave of decades of segregation, oppression, desire for cheap oil, abuse and terror spreading throughout the middle east, into Europe and across the globe.  Decades of war, mistreatment of refugees, hostility towards foreigners and the list goes on and on.  It has become the norm.  We no longer cry when we hear of bombs exploding whether they come from NATO tanks or a suicide bomber.  Most attacks, most murders never even make the news. 

We don’t think there is anything we can do, so we default to apathy, protectionism and isolationism.  We decide that we can’t fix it so we shouldn’t try and we continue to be complacent and complicit.  Making the waves bigger.  We try to ignore it, blame others and pretend we don’t contribute to the problem.   This forces people to yell louder to be heard, cause more chaos to be seen, and the ripple continues. 

We get so distracted by the waves coming towards us that it is easier to be swept up than to stand up. 

Part of this is the same problem in Amos’ day as well as Jesus day as today.  Our foundations aren’t strong enough to withstand the wave.  Our roots in God, our roots of faith are shallow.  Our desire for wealth, our desire to not make waves, our desire to go with the flow, our desire to go along to get along, our desire to keep the peace overwhelms our desire to be with God, to be the peace that smooths the waters. 

When Martha gets angry at Mary- she begins with resentment, ends with blame and tries to start a wave of discord.  Jesus tells her that all this stuff is distracting her from what matters.  Jesus calms the wave by refusing to entertain any idea other than love and compassion.  This is what calms our waves too. 

It is easy to allow the events of our world to distract us, to shift our focus away from what is important; living a life of faith, love of God and love of neighbor.  We forget that this is what made God angry in Amos-  they had allowed their roots to dry up.  Martha in our Gospel lesson had forgotten that the source of life was in her midst. 

Despite the barrage of waves coming towards us- we find safe harbors at the feet of Jesus.  Not in fighting back, not in feeding the wave of mistrust and fear but rooting ourselves in the word of God.  Finding our footing in the one that cannot and will not be moved. 

We shore up our own foundations, strengthen our root system by being in constant prayer, studying the scriptures, worship, and fellowship in Christ.  But we also do this by living our life of faith out loud, creating new waves of our own. 

Ann Lamont suggested in a post this week that we counter terrorism with a “show of force equal to the violence and tragedies”, not of hate but with “Love force, mercy force.

Un-negotiated compassion force. Crazy care-giving to the poor and suffering” kind of force. Creating new waves of peace, kindness, calm and understanding.

By actually listening to people who see the world differently.  Loving our neighbors and our enemies.  Looking for common ground, understanding and learning empathy for those who feel oppressed.   Seeking to better understand how we contribute to a world where oppression is the norm and find ways to do this less and less.  Living a life where love of neighbor is the rule of the day not distrust and fear. 

When we do this, we will make a difference.  It makes a difference when you love, mentor and offer a safe place to a child who lives in a home where fear and violence are the norm.  It makes a difference when you have compassion for someone having a bad day.  It makes a difference when you see someone being bullied, picked on or judged unfairly and you speak up. 

It makes a difference when you offer help to the homeless and the hungry.  It makes a difference when you treat someone with dignity and respect-especially when you aren’t sure they deserve it.  It makes a difference when you refuse to contribute to companies you know are unethical.  It may not feel like it makes a difference but you are starting a wave that with the Holy Spirit will change the world. 

This is the model Jesus gave us.  Jesus never responded to evil with evil.  Instead his default was always love.  Even as people were seeking to take his own life, his response was compassion and mercy greater than the hate and disdain they had for him. 

His final act was not only to exchange our sin for love but to take the sin of the whole world so that we could not be distracted by evil but live into his compassion, mercy and love.

When Jesus lived and died, it may not have seemed all that earth shaking.  But the way he lived; offering healing to the sick, welcome to the lonely, love to the unlovable and forgiveness and mercy to those considered the worst of the worst started a revolution. 

This week I read a story about John Woolman, a white Quaker who in 1746 felt an urging from God that led him to believe in the equality of all people.  He spent the next 20 years going from one Quaker church to another talking, listening and convincing others of this.  He refused to wear clothes made by slaves.  When receiving hospitality, he refused to eat rather than consume a meal prepared by a slave.  And if he found out he had benefited from slave labor he would insist on compensating them for their work.  He started a wave that led many Quakers to participate in the Under Ground Railroad and eventually the end of slavery.  One person, followed Jesus, started a wave and made a difference.

I don’t know what happened after Don died.  If Mike’s grandmother lived a full life or how my friend’s family responded to this tragedy.  I hope they responded with love and forgiveness.  I hope they decided to counter this wave of resentment and anger with one of love and peace.  How they respond is not for me to decide and we each have to make that decision for ourselves.  How are you going to respond? 

Are you going to continue to go with the flow, allow the evils of the world to ripple by and go unchecked, growing with each new action?  Or, are you going to ground your life in a relationship with God?  Are you going to start your own wave of love, compassion and mercy?  Are you going to go along to get along or will you stand up for your neighbor in need, stand up for what is right, firmly planted in the knowledge of the love of God in Christ?  The choice is ours to make. 
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent. 
John Woolman story written by Parker Palmer

Monday, July 11, 2016

crumbling foundations

 Amos 7:7-17

We as Christians don’t normally spend a lot of time hanging out with the prophets like Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah.  Their message always seems so crude and angry.  They say a bunch of stuff no one wants to hear and only in the end do they offer some sliver of hope.  It’s not usually fun, light reading.  It is definitely not the type of book you’d want to take on vacation as you try to relax.  But they are books we should read. 

When we do read them and hear their angry words of judgement, it is easy to brush them off as something written thousands of years ago for someone else.  It is easy to point the finger to Israel and Judah and judge them alongside the prophets.  Shame, shame, shame, you should have known better, God gave you fair warning.  God gave you so many chances and you refused to listen.  You got what you deserved.  It’s like someone refusing to evacuate when they know a category 5 hurricane is coming.

Before we go down this road, lets first define what a prophet is.  In Old Testament times, there were a few different types of prophets.  Some were paid employees of the King.  Their job was to read the tea leaves so to speak and predict the outcome of war, the future of a child, and the success of the king. 

Then there were others who were career prophets.  They studied and worked hard to not necessarily see the future but to see the writing on the wall.  They were perceptive about current circumstances and people often sought them out for advice and guidance. 

Then there were those like Amos and most of our biblical prophets who were called by God through visions and spiritual means to speak truth to power, to help God’s people see the error of their ways and encourage them to get on the right track. 

They weren’t there to punish but to help people see the potential consequences of their actions. And how they as individuals and as a nation were straying from right relationship with God.  They were called by God to express God’s displeasure, the consequences of their choices and to share God’s plans to use those consequences to get them back on track. 

It is no surprise then that these prophets, were not liked very much.  Most of them were jailed, ran out of town or worse.  No one likes the bearer of bad news; even when it’s true. 

When I first read through this scripture, especially the chief priest, Amaziah’s, response to Amos, I flashed back to a girl I knew in college.  She hated bad news and difficult conversations.  One day we were driving down the road and we were trying to talk to her about what all college girls talk about, boys.  A guy she had been dating had begun to be abusive, cheat and was an all-around jerk.  We were trying to help her see the light but instead, she responded like a child, literally putting her fingers in her ears and saying “la,la,la,la, I don’t want to hear it.”  She, like Amaziah, wanted us to go prophecy somewhere else to someone else.    

Amos had come to town in order to help the Israelite people to see the error of their ways.  They had broken their covenant with God to love and worship God only and to love their neighbors and were showing no signs of remorse or attempt to repair it.  They may not have even realized how far from God they had strayed.  This was a time of peace and prosperity from the King’s point of view.  They were between battles.  There was food and water, gold and power.  Low gas prices, low interest rates and low unemployment.  All signs of what they and we often think means God is pleased.  But it was kind of like putting lipstick on a pig.  Just because it looks nice doesn’t mean it is.

Jeraboam, the king of Israel was living the good life but they weren’t worshiping God, they were worshiping success and prosperity and they had gained prosperity by taking advantage of those less fortunate.  Their 1% were thriving while the 99% were being oppressed, paid unfair wages and barely able to care for their families.  But on the surface it felt like progress.  It had gotten so bad that the chief priest referred to the temple at Bethel (the center of the worship of God in Israel) not as the temple of God, but as the temple of the king. 

The one person whose job was to make sure God was being worshiped correctly was actually worshiping Jeraboam, and the power and influence the king gave him. 

Along comes Amos, criticizing and trying to tell them that what they think is a strong foundation is crumbling around them. 

Sometimes it is hard to see the cracks in our own foundation.  The foundation of Israel, our foundation, is in God and when we decide to build our lives on something else, it is doomed to fail.  As anyone who as ever bought a house knows, one of the things you always look for are problems with the foundation.  Are there cracks in the foundation itself, are there cracks in the walls where the house has settled over time?  Is it just a sign of age or is it a symptom of a much bigger problem? 

This is in essence what Amos is telling Israel with his vision of the Plumb line.  A plumb line is used to see if a wall is square.  Is it perpendicular to the ground?  Is it leaning in or leaning out?  Is it showing signs of a shifting foundation? Is there a potential that it might fall?  Is it safe or does it need to be torn down before someone gets hurt?


God is telling Israel that their foundation has shifted.  There are people and institutions that need to either shape up or be torn down.  And Amaziah tells Amos plainly- we aren’t changing anything.  We like things the way they are and we refuse to look for the cracks in our own foundation.  So, Amos tells him, there will be consequences for this choice.  Israel will go into exile, they will be forced to serve other kings, there will be many to die in battle, and their land will be divided up and given to foreigners.  One way or another, life is going to change whether you like it or not. 

This is the message of God to Israel through the prophet Amos.  

Ok, so what are we supposed to do with it?  The question we are always called upon to ask of scripture is how does this apply to us?  This is scripture written thousands of years ago, to people very different than us at a time very different than ours.  How is God speaking through Amos to us today? 

God continues to call us to a time of self-reflection as individuals, as a church and as a nation; especially one which claims to be a nation under God.  A time when we are to look at our own foundation and look for cracks. 

What is it about the way we live our life that brings honor or dishonor to God?  What is it about our lives and the world we live in that causes us to prefer to put our fingers in our ears than address the problems in the world around us? 

Maybe it is the worship of money that is degrading our foundation.  The desire to find the best deal, buy the cheapest clothes or cheapest food; despite the fact that the price of the item reflects the wages of the person who made, produced, harvested or sold it.  The desire for a cheap power bill that leads us to strip mine mountains, pollute streams and send dangerous chemicals into our earth to find more fuel to burn. 

Maybe it is the God of convenience.  It is inconvenient to spend your valuable time volunteering to help others.  It’s easier and faster to run to Wal-Mart than wait until Saturday to purchase something at the farmer’s market or wade through labels to find things responsibly made. 

Maybe it is the god of fear that you worship; fear that you won’t be liked, fear that you won’t be in control if someone else gains a little power.  Fear of being vulnerable, fear of investing yourself in the life of someone who might take advantage of you or let you down. 

Maybe it is the god of nationalism that chips away at your foundation or the god of partisan politics.  The god of being right, the god of choosing freedom at the expense of others, the god of prejudice or maybe even the god of pride.  There are a multitude of gods who distract us from the one true God.  This is only a few of them.

Amos is calling us to hold a plumb line up to our own lives and our own hearts.  Where is God calling us to shore up our foundation?  Are there parts of our lives that need to be torn down before they hurt someone?

The symptoms of a failing foundation are many and broad.  The symptoms are hard to deny if we will take our fingers out of our ears long enough to listen.  The events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Orlando and Charleston are symptoms.  The issue of immigration and migrant workers being treated more like disposable rats than human beings.  The fact that despite African American’s making up only 13% of the population, make up 37% of our jails.  The issue of drug addiction in our nation, the issue of homelessness, unemployment and underemployment.  The issue of poor funding of education. The disappearing of the middle class the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. The fact that we would rather pay high wages to those entertaining us than the doctors, teachers or police who actually impact our day to day lifew.  The issue of healthcare and inadequate mental health care are all symptoms of a nation and a people who have for too long chosen to ignore the fact that the foundation was crumbling because the furniture looked nice. 

Throughout the Old Testament we see this image of God who is angry and judging; always smiting someone, sending the Israelites into exile, sending famine and storm.  But as we read the prophets, we realize this isn’t God punishing people for doing wrong.  God tried to warn them that their decisions were leading them down a dangerous path.   God doesn’t want our world to fall apart.  God doesn’t want our foundations to crumble but we have to accept responsibility for building on a solid foundation of loving God and loving our neighbors.  We have to pay attention to the symptoms, the cracks and the pieces that are being chipped away and we have to be willing to do the work of repairing our relationship with God and all God’s children. 

Ignorance is not bliss; it is simply denial.  How are we being called to open our eyes and our ears to our own hearts and our own deficiencies?  How is God calling us, begging us, to love God the way we are loved?  To not hoard our blessings but share them, to care more about God’s children and God’s creation than we do ourselves.  God’s desire is for us to love and be loved let us live into that solid foundation that can withstand any storm.

The events of this week, this month, this year, this decade, are a wake-up call to each and every one of us and louder than the voice of Amos.  Are we willing to listen?  Are we willing to change?  Are we willing to shore up our foundation in the love of Christ and love of neighbor so that God’s love can be known by all? 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Breaking the law?

Matthew 5: 17-20 and Adam Hamilton’s “half truths”

Exodus 20:8 says “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  It is one of the 10 commandments and we have all heard it before, but what does it mean to you?  Does it mean you go to church or that you get to sleep in?  Does it mean you don’t work on Sunday? What about people who have to work on Sunday?  Is it ok to choose another day as your Sabbath?  What about church meetings on Sunday afternoons?  Is that work? 

When we ask these questions we are beginning to do the work of interpreting scripture.  We ask the question.  What does this mean?  What was God’s intention?  What did it mean to the people whom it was originally given and how do I apply it to my life today?

When I was a child, keeping the Sabbath meant that the grocery store was closed and Dad wasn’t supposed to mow grass on Sunday.  We were to get up and go to church and spend the rest of the day relaxing.  This was all well and good except Mom still had to cook Sunday lunch.  And of course, my sister and I still had to wash all the dishes!  The real interpretation was more like, go to church and don’t let strangers see you work on Sundays!

In early biblical times, Sabbath was intended and created to be a day of worship of God but also a day of rest.  A way for God to help us remember our blessings come from God and not our own efforts.  A time to remember to not be a workaholic, to not wear ourselves out and to remember that those people who work for us need rest too- including the animals.  It was God’s provision for self-care; teaching us to respect God, respect others and respect ourselves. 

Not too long after the 10 commandments were given to the Israelites, people decided that the principle of rest and worship weren’t specific enough and because people are often not willing to respect God

and respect themselves, they needed more instructions.  In order to truly apply it to their communal life and enforce it, they needed to define it.

They defined Sabbath as sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.  Then they set out to define “work”.  Israel’s religious leaders, the Scribes, came up with all kinds of ideas including: doing nothing that caused or needed a flame like building a fire, lighting candles or lamps, no cooking and eventually, no electricity.  They weren’t to drive, lift, write, or even provide medical care.  They continued to interpret the word of God contained in the law of Moses in such a way that it became impossible to fulfill it and it lost its true purpose and meaning.

It became work in and of itself just to try to remember all the things you couldn’t do. 

No wonder Jesus caused such a raucous!  Not only did he purposefully, publically and continually break the Sabbath by allowing the disciples to pick grain and healing on the Sabbath but he broke a slew of other laws as well like, not ceremonially washing his hands, eating with sinners, not fasting and touching people who were considered “unclean”.   Jesus broke the law, or at least rebelled against the way the religious people had always interpreted and understood the law.

And yet, in our scripture today, Jesus tells us that the law will be in effect until heaven and earth pass away.  He even says anyone who breaks the law or teaches someone else to break the law will get into big trouble. 

Ok, so this gets me a little confused.  Jesus says the law is still in effect but yet, he is constantly breaking the law.  Can he get away with it because he’s God?  Is it like a parent telling us to do what I say and not what I do?  No, of course not!  But it is a clue that we are supposed to think about it, ask those questions again and interpret the scripture. 

What does it mean?  What was Jesus trying to tell us?  Why did he say it and to whom was he saying it?  Our clues come from the next set of scripture verses that we didn’t read this morning.  Matthew 5: 21-48 consist of a series of teachable moments for Jesus.  He takes the laws and cultural ideas of the time concerning murder, adultery, divorce, keeping promises, retaliation and who we are to love and reinterprets them in new ways.  Jesus isn’t breaking the law but He is breaking from the traditional interpretation of the law. 

He spends these 27 verses teaching us that it isn’t about just following rules and holding others accountable for following those rules.  It is about being in relationship with one another.  When you are angry- your family bond, your bond of friendship or whatever the relationship, is broken.  When we are angry we often disparage someone’s character and cause enough social and emotional damage that they may be as good as dead in a community or as we have seen in instances of bullying it may lead someone to take their own life. 

The same goes for adultery, divorce and breaking promises.  All these break relationships, break communities and do not show respect for God or for neighbor.  It isn’t just about following the rules, it is about our community and our interconnectedness as children of God and respecting others as people who are created by and loved by God. 

Matthew likes to tell the story of Jesus in a way that shows Jesus as the ultimate Rabbi and teacher.  The one who knows the intended meaning of scripture and is the authority on how to live our lives in a way that holds us most closely in line with what God intended. 

Matthew repeatedly, tells us that Jesus said things like “ you have heard it said…. But I say….”.  Jesus is constantly interpreting scripture differently than what was traditionally understood as true. 

Let’s get back to the topic of Sabbath keeping.  The law says “Keep the Sabbath holy” but in Mark ch. 2, Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath.  The Sabbath isn’t about being able to follow the rules it is about re-centering our lives on God and giving us space to rest our minds and our bodies while also giving us space to build and nurture our relationships with God and each other. 

All the time, I hear people complain about kids having sporting events on Sunday and when I was a waitress I constantly heard people chastise me for working on Sunday- even though they, my customers, were why I was working on a Sunday.  In their eyes I and the kids on the ball field are breaking Sabbath by working on Sunday.

It isn’t that soccer games on Sunday are bad.  It isn’t that restaurant employees and grocery store employees are breaking the rules for working on Sunday; as long as they are taking time off to rest, to spend time with their family and friends, and to worship their creator.  Where the Scribes got it right is that often times we don’t do it on our own.  We push ourselves too hard, we become too focused on accomplishment and quantity over quality.  We need rules to help us live into the principles that God teaches us.  But it isn’t just whether or not we can follow the rules but can we apply the principle behind the rule to our lives. 

What we also have to remember is that it is up to all of us to read and ask these questions of scripture.  What does it mean when the Bible says X?  Why would God tell us to do this or not do that? 

What is it about this scripture that brings me hope, encourages me or challenges me?  How can I apply this to my life? 

It isn’t enough to just say “The bible says it and that settles it”.  Because each one of us uses our experiences, our traditions; what our parents, grandparents, and church have taught us and we use our minds and our ability to reason to understand what scripture says and how we apply it to our lives.  And because understanding and interpreting are based so much on our life perspective, it is difficult to look at scripture and definitively say this is what it means and there is no other right understanding.  This is very challenging for those who need scripture to be black and white/ right and wrong/ clear and unwavering.

But, the Bible is the living word of God.  It is constantly teaching us, guiding us, convicting and encouraging us in new and exciting ways and in the present context of our lives.  It is amazing that when we read scripture in a prayerful way we often feel like it was written for us and our current situation.  We are constantly interpreting scripture and applying that meaning for our lives. 

Usually when we read scripture if we don’t know what it means, we look for foot notes, we look to see what others think it means and we pray about it and ask God, how God wants us to apply it to our own situations.  While it is simple, it is also complex.  When we don’t understand or wonder what it means for our lives, we can look to Jesus and ask not just What would Jesus do but What would Jesus say about this text?  How would Jesus have me apply this text to my life? 

When we look to Jesus; his mercy, compassion, grace and his great desire for us to be in relationship with God and each other, telling us to not just love those who love us, but love our enemies, telling us to not just refrain from murdering but to live with kindness not malice in our hearts. 

When Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself this gives us a lens in which to interpret the rest of scripture. 

Yes, the bible says it- so how can I learn from what the bible says so that I can be in a better relationship with God and with my neighbor?  How does this lesson help me to love God more, love my neighbor and love myself? 

This is the crux of scripture.  Not something to put on a bumper sticker, not something to be used to put others down and judge what is right or wrong for someone else, but how can I dig deeper than just following the rules?  How can I, a broken person, living in a broken world, with others who are broken, find wholeness and holiness in Christ?

Thanks be to God for giving us Jesus to show us the way!  Thanks be to God that Jesus is our way, our truth and our life!  Thanks be to God that we have scriptures, we have the ability to read or listen and to ponder and pray for meaning and guidance to apply them to our life.  Praise be to God that words written thousands of years ago are still alive and breathing meaning and purpose into every corner of our lives.  Praise be to God!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Someone to Lean on

James 1:12-18, 1 Peter 5:7-11, Psalm 23, Half Truths by Adam Hamilton

God won’t give you more than you can handle
Have you ever had one of those days, weeks, years or maybe even decade’s where Murphy’s law seems to be the rule of law?  Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.  Nothing seems to be going as planned. Sickness, job loss, divorce, bankruptcy, natural disaster, cancer, suicide, mass shootings, or something that seems to rock your world happens over and over again.  It seems like you just can’t catch a break, one thing after another and you find yourself struggling to keep your head above water. 

Most people have experienced something like this on some level or another.  Maybe not to this extreme but hardships and difficult times are part of living.  If you have ever found yourself thinking this, you have probably had someone with kind intentions and a sympathetic voice say something to the effect of “Don’t worry honey, things will get better.  God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Maybe you have even whispered these words to yourself as a way to gain courage at a particularly difficult moment.  And, sometimes this works.  Some people do find true comfort in the belief that God knows our limits and will intervene somehow before it gets too difficult. 

But for others; when they hear these words, instead of gaining comfort, it makes them want to haul off and smack someone!  They feel like they have been given more than they can handle!  They just can’t do it any more, they see no light at the end of the tunnel and in fact the tunnel just seems to take them deeper into the abyss instead of out to safety. 

The reason this can get such a harsh response is because it assumes that God is in fact the one placing these burdens on our lives.  Somehow God is using these situations to test our faith, our resolve and our willingness to rely on God.  This is not an idea that draws us closer to God but instead is something that can push us away from faith.  It causes us to ask the question- what kind of God would do that? Maybe that is the question you find yourself asking as the events of this past week have unfolded. And as we remember the events at Emmanuel Church from one year ago where 9 people were killed during bible study.

What kind of God would send a deranged extremist into a place of joy to murder 49 random people? What kind of God would allow an alligator to snatch a child while playing in the water at Disney World the self-proclaimed “happiest place on earth”?  What kind of God would cause depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and other mental illnesses?  What kind of God would cause cancer? 

The problem with the phrase: God won’t give you more than you can handle is that it isn’t God who does this at all.  The scripture which we read from James today tells us; God does not test us.  God is not tested, nor does God test.  It is life that tries, tempts and it is our own sin that often puts us in difficult positions and makes us believe we should be able to do it on our own.  It is part of what it means to live in a broken world.  It is part of what it means to live in community with broken people, fear, uncertainty and stress.    

In Bible Study Tuesday night we talked about how sin has proliferated the world we live in.  We discussed how our desire to be the best, buy the cheapest food or clothing and win no matter the cost, leads to dire, evil and usually unintended consequences. 

It is a side effect of what it means to live in a world where more emphasis is placed on individuality and self-sufficiency than community and interdependence between individuals and even between cultures and nations. 

Even this line of thinking can lead us down a spiral of despair.  O poor pitiful me.  Look how hard my life is.  Look at everything that has gone wrong and there’s nothing that can be done about it! 
If you can’t beat ‘em, Join ’em! Right?

But the word of God is never intended to tear us down and leave us there.  There is always hope when our focus is on Christ.  We are reminded in scripture not only in 1Peter but also in 1 Corinthians, Psalms and even in the life and presence of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us that we are not called to face this world alone or without hope. 

The most beloved Psalm, Psalm 23 brings us comfort by reminding us that even when we face difficulty, we are not alone, God is with us, walking through the valley of darkness with us, facing the trials of life with us.  Not causing them or preventing them but walking with us through them and being our light in those dark moments. 

The letter of 1 Peter as well as Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians 10 both tell us that nothing happens in this world in isolation.  There is never a trail, a temptation or a sin that is new, that someone else hasn’t faced and overcome.  We are to look to them for guidance, learn from others mistakes and successes, reach out and ask for help.  There is no shame asking for help, for a listening ear, for support and comfort as you face the trials of life.  We all need a help from time to time in life and we aren’t called to suffer through it alone.

Although we live in a world that says to buck up, deal with it and just get over it- God tells us to lean on one another, support one another and love one another.  It is why groups like AA have proved to be so effective- the participants know they can’t do it on their own.  They need sponsors and peers who have been through it before and have the tools to help someone else navigate the world of sobriety.  It is why cancer support groups, smoking cessation groups and weight loss groups are more successful than trying to do it on your own.  We need each other. 

It is why we have church.  Sure people can go for a hike and experience God but a tree or a mountain vista won’t help when you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to drive you to your chemotherapy appointment.  We need to be reminded that we have a God who loves us, is there for us, watches over and protects us.  A God, Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that he chose to live among us- to experience the heartbreak, physical and mental illnesses that life brings.  We have a God who loves us enough to walk beside us, give us strength and encouragement when life gets too hard, and a God who sends people to walk with us and be there for us when the weight of the world gets too heavy to bear. 

God sends these people to us, but God also sends us to be these people.  Last week after the shooting in Orlando, the outpouring of love and support was amazing.  We heard stories of people who helped pull the injured to safety and keep them comfortable until help arrived.  We heard stories of people pouring out to donate blood for the victims still being treated at local hospitals.  Stories of the Employees at Chick-fi-A who came in on their Sunday off to donate food to those at the blood banks.  Churches near the club opened their doors all hours of the night for prayer, worship and counseling. Letting people know that it didn’t matter who they were, they were loved by God and were not alone in their suffering. 

This is one of the reasons you give to the church- so that the church can be there for those in need- to buy groceries or pay a power bill, to visit in the hospital, to help someone who lost their home to relocate. To meet not only your spiritual needs but the spiritual and physical needs of those in the community too.

As we encounter people who are facing difficulty, the response God is calling us to give is not: I am praying for you- I know God won’t give you more than you can handle- but instead- I am praying for you and what can I do to help.  It maybe something as simple as filling up a gas tank, picking up a gallon of milk or washing a load of laundry or it could be a hug and a listening ear.  We don’t have to try to offer solutions and fix someone’s problems.  Some times what a person needs is just someone to be present, to hold their hand and cry with them. 

This is the message of Jesus and the true message of scripture.  You are not alone.  God is with you, and we are called to be there for each other. To be the physical presence of the peace of Christ in a troubled world.  As we face this world and all its ups and downs together.  We are not alone and you don’t have to handle it on your own.   God give us the strength to face this day, the courage to ask for help when we need it and the willingness of offer true hope to others in their times of weakness.  Amen