Saturday, October 14, 2017

"The Stubbornness of Idol Worship” (Exodus 32:1-14)

“I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people.  Now leave me along so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them,” said the Lord to Moses upon catching the people in the act of idol worshipping.  Apparently, it does not pay to make God angry.

According to the dictionary, “idolatry literally means the worship of an idol, also known as a cult image, in the form of a physical image, such as a statue or icon.  In Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism, idolatry connotes the worship of something or someone other than God as if it were God.”  In more simplistic terms, idolatry “is putting something above God in our affections.”  The people in our reading this morning were caught red-handedly worshipping idols . . . and, this did not make God a happy camper.

You all know the story . . . Moses is up on Mount Sinai talking with God.  He is gone a little too long and the people become anxious in his absence . . . they fear the worse.  They ask for some new leadership . . . some new gods . . . anything that will relieve their anxiety.  Aaron bows down to their demands and builds an altar, creates an idol—a calf made out of gold—offers sacrifices to it and holds a celebration to install this “new god” as their “god”.  Moreover, the people buy it and throw quite a shindig.  God gets wind of it and it does not make God happy . . . no, it makes God quite angry.  Angry enough to want to wipe out each and every one of the people for their corruption . . . their fickleness . . . their stubbornness . . . and, the fact that they were turncoats. 

In the strictest and literal sense of the definition of idolatry, the people were worshipping an idol; in the most simplistic terms, they had put something else before God in their affections.  God’s reaction?  Wipe them out.

I guess we should be thankful that probably none of us is idol worshippers . . . that none of us have constructed idols and strewn them about our yards and homes to worship . . . or at least I hope we are not.  I think that the issue of idolatry and the worshipping of idols is not as “black and white” as it once was.  I think that there has been a gradual expansion of idolatry that radiates outwards into many shades of gray making it difficult to call it what it is . . . it is more subtle . . . and, I think that many of us walk a fine line when it comes to idolatry . . . especially as a society and as the human race.

How is this possible?  Well, as I said, the idolatry we are witnessing is not in the strictest sense of the word, but in the more subtle.  We might not have golden calves, but we have our idols.  Jesus extolled his followers to do two things . . . to love the Lord completely and to love others.  It was all about the relationship between the individual and God, the individual and others.  Upon this, Jesus stated, that all the laws and teachings of the prophets were laid.  Whenever something replaces these relationships . . . whenever something becomes more important than these relationships . . . then we are slipping into the realm of idolatry.  This is idolatry in its simplest form . . .

. . . and, it is all around us.

Popularity, wealth, influence, success, power, sex . . . these are some of the subtle idols we worship in our society today.  We see it in the advertisements . . . we see it in the media. A sociologist once remarked that where the most resources, time, and energies are invested is where you find the heart.  And, where the lies one finds where one’s worship and affection lie.  Remember, where the affection is that is where the loyalty is when it comes to idolatry . . . what comes first.  Whatever it is, it is not God nor others.

Whenever something supplants the relationship with God and others . . . well, God is not happy. 
God was not happy with the people in our scripture reading this morning.  God was quite angry.  Angry enough to want to destroy them all for their stubbornness to worship idols . . . anger is a mask that hides the true feelings of the one who is angry.  I imagine that God was frustrated and hurt by the actions of the people to quickly abandon God and create their own gods to be relationship with.  But, whatever the case, thanks to Moses’ quick thinking and actions, he reasoned with God to spare the people . . . to let them live.  Disappointed, God did not give up on the people . . . and, apparently still hasn’t.

You would think that after all of these thousands of years . . . the human race . . . God’s children, would have gotten it by now.  That they would have figured it out by now, especially after Jesus even told them . . . that it comes down to relationships . . . relationships between the individual and God, the individual and others.  We hear it a lot, but in practice it is seems to be quite the opposite . . . there is a lot of lip service going on.  So, why are we so stubborn?  Why are we such a stiff-necked people?  Why are we so persistent in buying into the worship of idols?

I wonder . . . I wonder in the fact that when it comes to the pursuit of all those other idols--popularity, wealth, influence, success, power, and sex—they have all come up empty in their promises; yet, we stubbornly believe.  We believe that if only we can emulate our idols . . . be like our idols . . . we will have attained all that makes sense and brings purpose to life.  Yet, we know better.
In the meantime, our relationship with God falters . . . our relationship with others falters.  Our affections have shifted away from that which gives life to the hollowness of that which is nothing more than an illusion.  In doing this we fail God, others, and ourselves.

From our reading this morning we should beware . . . we should beware the idols, golden or elusive, that pull us out of our relationships with God and others.  Beware that movement away from loving God and others.  Though the idols of our day are not made of precious metal and seem more elusive, we still have a means of evaluating ourselves when it comes to idol worshipping.  We only have to ask ourselves, where are all the resources of our time, energy, and wealth going?  Are they going to strengthen our relationships with God and others, or are they going to things and people that pull us away from them?  Where we put our investments is where we put our hearts.  This is the question we must constantly be asking ourselves when it comes to idolatry.

From the very beginning, for God it has been about relationships . . . the relationship that God has with each of us as individuals . . . the relationship that we have with others.  This is what matters to God.  This is what Jesus taught.  As we look around our individual lives . . . our corporate lives . . . our lives as a nation . . . and, our lives as the children of God; are our relationships with God and others our number one priority?  If not, what then is the problem?  Have we replaced God with the pursuit of idle idols?

We are not the first to be caught up in this issue, nor will we be the last.  I think that there has not been a generation since the time when our scripture reading took place that God did not have the opportunity to speak those words: “I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people.  Now leave me along so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”  Thank goodness, God is a God of grace and love, and not wrath.  Amen.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

“Follow Through” (Matthew 21:23-32)

If you have played sports or watched sports . . . you have heard the phrase, “follow through.”  Even if you have not played or watched sports, you have probably heard that phrase in association with getting a job or task done.  In sports--especially in throwing and hitting, “follow through” is important because that is where all the power comes from.  In everything else, “follow through” means getting the job or task finished to completion.  In any case, “follow through” is important . . . especially in the context of our scripture reading this morning.

Consider the case of the two brothers who are asked by their father to go and work in the family vineyard.  The first son, refuses . . . but, he later changes his mind and goes to work in the vineyard.  The second son agrees to go and work in the vineyard, but then he sloughs it off and does nothing.  Then Jesus poses the question to his audience, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

Jesus’ audience at this point probably includes his disciples . . . and, it includes the chief priests and elders who had challenged Jesus prior to this parable.  Remember the challenge?  The chief priests and elders wanted to know “By what authority are you doing these things.  And who gave you this authority?”  Remember that challenge?  Remember how Jesus responded by asking them his own question about where the authority of John the Baptist came . . . was it from heaven or from men?  In responding to their challenge, Jesus tells them that if they can answer his question, he will tell them by whose authority he has to do his ministry, preaching, and teaching.

Of course they can’t . . . they can’t answer the question because it is a “no win” situation for the chief priests and elders.  If they say John’s authority was from heaven . . . well, then, why didn’t they believe him?  If they say it is from men . . . well, that would upset the people because they believed that he was a prophet.  Either way that the chief priests and elders answered Jesus’ question would put them between a rock and a hard place.  Thus it is that they claim ignorance . . . “We don’t know.”

Because they don’t answer the question, neither does Jesus answer theirs . . . but, instead he tells them a parable . . . the parable of the two brothers asked to work by their father.

At the end or the parable, Jesus poses another question to the chief priests and elders . . . remember the question?  “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

This time the chief priests and elders do not hold a confab to determine how they will respond.  No, this time they respond quickly and with great confidence in their answer.  They tell Jesus that it was the first son who did the will of his father.

It always amazes me how Jesus’ foes always seem to step right into a public rebuke.  The chief priests and elders would have fared better if they had claimed ignorance one more time . . . but, no, they were pretty sure that they knew the answer to this question, and that Jesus would give them a gold star for their answer.  Needless to say, they did not get a gold star.  Instead they received a pretty scathing rebuke.

Jesus wants to know . . . why, then, didn’t you follow through?

Therein is the problem with the second son.  Though he answered his father in a way that his father wanted him to answer, he did not do the work.  It was all lip service.  There was no “follow through”.  On the other hand, the son who had refused to work, but then went to the vineyards to work . . . well, his actions spoke volumes to his father.  He “followed through.”

Apparently “follow through” is pretty important in the eyes of Jesus.  In the estimation of Jesus, those in control . . . the chief priests and elders . . . did not “follow through”.  They were all lip service . . . all words, no action.

Jesus doesn’t like lip service when it comes to those who claim to be his followers.  Jesus wants the words that his followers speak to match up to the actions that they take.  Jesus expects “follow through”.  

If a follower of Jesus proclaims that he or she loves all people . . . well, they better love all people . . . and, not just on Sunday morning between ten and eleven o’clock.

If a follower believes that all are welcomed into God’s family . . . well, they better be ready to set up more chairs at the table . . . and, they better be ready to receive people that they never imagined they would ever associate with.

If a follower believes in peace and justice . . . then they better live their lives in such a way that peace and justice is the end product.

If a follower believes that outreach is an important part of one’s faith . . . then he or she better be ready to move beyond mere contributions to the offering plate and to actually put one’s self in the presence of those who need help.

Jesus does not want right answers when it comes to faith . . . Jesus wants right action.  Jesus wants the words of the followers to be congruent with the actions that they take.  Jesus does not want his followers to only say it . . . Jesus wants his followers to do it.  Anything less is not to “follow through”.  

One of the spiritual exercises that helps people understand their own faith comes from a simple question: Who in this reading do you identify with?  The choice we make, when we use this practice, reveals a lot of about our own faith.  In this parable of the two brothers . . . which brother do you identify with?  Now, remember, be honest with your answer.  Are you the one who refuses to work, but ends up working anyways . . . or, are you the brother who says he will work but never does?

No matter what you anwer . . . may you discover the power of “following through”.  In the “follow through” comes the blessing . . . and, the power.  Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

“A Matter of Timing” (Matthew 20:1-16)

One of the places my father was stationed while I was growing up was the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colorado.  It was probably my favorite base that he was ever stationed at as it set tuck up in the foothills at the base of the Rocky Mountains.  It was a wonderful playground for any kid who loved the outdoors.  Not far from the house we lived in were what we kids referred to as “the woods”.  It was a forest filled with trails, a stream, and a few ponds . . . it was here that the neighborhood kids found their escape.

One winter, when I was around ten or eleven years old, several of us neighborhood kids decided to go exploring in “the woods” after a snowstorm.  Everything was covered in a blanket of snow . . . everything, including a beaver pond that we frequented on the stream.  It was getting late and everyone was in hurry to get home before we got into trouble for being late.  So, the quickest way home was to go across the pond . . . the frozen pond.

First across the pond was the oldest and biggest kid--Butchy.  Softly and tenderly he tip-toed across the pond . . . no, problem.  Next up was his brother, Mikey, who figured that since his older and bigger brother got across with no issues he would have none either.  He walked and slid across with no problems.  Next up was me.  Two had made it across with no problems, so I thought I would have no problems . . .

. . . well, so much for that!

I was halfway across the pond when we all started hearing a cracking sound.  As I looked down I could see cracks radiating out from under my feet . . . and, a loud boom and swoosh.  If fell right through the ice.  Icy cold water up to my chest . . . it took my breath away.  Of course Butchy and Mikey took off running . . . not so much to get help, but because they knew that if their parents found out that they had cross a frozen pond they would kill them.  

Luckily I was able to find enough leverage to pull myself out of the hole in the ice and crawl across the rest of the pond.  Then I slowly took my frozen self home. After the shock wore off my parents, and they saw that I was okay, I then got lambasted for doing something as stupid as walking across a frozen pond . . . I could have drowned . . . I could have gotten hypothermia . . . and, the one that hurt the most, I could have died.  Embarrassed, but not quite humiliated to the utmost, the final blow came when I had to strip down, get naked, and discover that I had several leeches on by body.  

The lesson learned?  That it was a matter of timing.  If I hadn’t been such a nice guy . . . well, I would have been the first one across the pond.  Then Mikey would have been the one to fall through the ice and get the leeches!

But, that was my life growing up as a kid . . . poor timing.  My creed as a kid growing up was that song from Hee Haw: “Gloom, despair, excessive misery . . . if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”

Timing seems to be everything.  Alanis Morissette speaks to this in her song, Ironic:
An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice you just didn’t take
Who would’ve thought, it figures

It all comes down to timing.  

Ask the guys who are complaining in the parable Jesus is telling.  It seems early one morning they are given the opportunity to do some work for a local landowner in his vineyard.  The guy told him he would pay them a denarius for a day’s worth of work.  So, they took the job and went to work.  Throughout the day the landowner goes out and makes the same offer to others to go work in his vineyards.  Then, at the end of the day, he gathers all the workers to be paid.

The landowner first pays those who were hired last and worked the least . . . he gave to them a denarius.  Then with the next group and the next, he did the same thing . . . paid them all a denarius.  Then he got to the original group . . . the ones who had worked the whole day . . . and, he paid them a denarius.  

Needless to say, this group was not happy . . . they had a bone to pick with the landowner.  They complained that it was not fair that they--those who had worked longer and harder than all the others, got paid the same as those who had hardly worked.  As far as they were concerned, they should have been paid more . . . or at least those who came later should have gotten less.  Wah, wah, wah.

The landowner responded: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have a right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

As I read this, I thought to myself, “Welcome to my club buddy!”

The problem in this parable is one of timing . . . and, a misunderstanding about fairness, especially when it comes in the form of grace.  All the workers, no matter what time they started to work, got paid the same amount.  Now, in our day and age, if this happened today, those who worked the longest got paid a smaller wage per hour than those who barely worked.  This does not seem fair. Therein lies the rub . . . especially when we deal with the parable in the light of modern economics.  

But, we are not interpreting this parable through modern economics.  No, we are interpreting this parable through the lenses of God’s grace . . . grace that is the same for any of the faithful no matter when they claimed it.  In that regard, it seems like a pretty good deal no matter when you jump into the game.  At least that is how we, the followers of Jesus, should understand it.

Or so it would seem.  The truth is, whether we are willing to admit it or not, is that it just does not seem fair that those who stumble into grace later in the game get the same reward as those who have been playing or working since the very beginning.  I know a lot of good Christians who have a hard time with this . . . for them this does not seem fair.  The rewards of being faithful should be dallied out according to the longevity of one’s journey with God . . . the longer, the greater the reward.  This mindset explains why lots of the faithful have a hard time in accepting what is called a “foxhole confession or conversion”.

It is upsetting that some downright, dastardly, scumbag who has spent all of his or her life wallowing in the throes of the sinful life can get on his or her knees, ask for forgiveness, and seek a relationship with God through Jesus . . . and, then be rewarded with the same set of dishes the life-long faithful received years ago.  It just does not seem fair!

In this day and age . . . in the cultural and societal norms that we are living in . . . it is not fair.  Fortunately, God’s ways are not our ways . . . and, God’s grace goes beyond our human perception.  Besides that, I don’t think God really cares what our opinion about the fairness of grace is when it come to how God doles it out.  After all, as Jesus quoted the landowner in the parable: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”   If you replace the word “money” with the word “grace” then you have God perspective on it all.  Imagine what a wonderful world this could be if we were all as graceful as God is.

God does not ask us who is worthy of grace and who is not.  That is a decision that God is going to make by God’s own self . . . and, God doesn’t need our help.  Grace is God’s gift to give.  There is no good or bad timing when it comes to God’s grace . . . there is only grace.  In the end, that is what is important . . . God’s grace.  God does not care when it happens . . . God only cares that it happens.  In the end, it is only God’s understanding of grace that matters.  We should thank God for that.

May we all live the grace of God in our lives so that others too receive the gift we know.  Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

“My Way or the Highway” (Romans 14:1-12)

One of my favorite theologians is Theodor Geisel . . . better known by his literary moniker as Dr. Suess.  Dr. Suess, especially in his later years, wrote a lot of really cool theological books disguised as children’s books.  On of my favorite is  The Butter Battle Book . . . a cautionary Cold War tale that he wrote back in 1984.

The book is about the Zooks and the Yooks who live on opposite sides of a long curving wall.  They keep on their side of the walls because they do not like each other.  They are different.  The Yooks wear blue clothes, the Zooks wear orange. The primary dispute between the two cultures has to do with bread . . . and, how you butter the bread.  The Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down.  This difference, over the years, leads to an escalating arms race to keep each culture on their side of the wall.

The book begins with a Yook grandfather explaining the very serious differences to his grandchild: “It’s high time that you knew of the terribly horrible thing that Zooks do.  In every Zook house and every Zook town every Zook eats his bread with the butter side down!”  He then recalls the escalating weapons race between the two . . . up to the point where the Yooks stand on one side of the wall with their Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, and the Zooks stand on the other side with their Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo . . . facing each other in a nuclear game of chicken.  Each standing there . . . waiting to drop their Bitsy Big Boomeroo to completely wipe out the other’s whole race.  

And, that is how the book ends . . . there is no conclusion . . . only a stalemate.

Does the tale sound familiar?

In our reading this morning the Apostle Paul poses a question to those in Rome reading his letter: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? . . . You, then, why do you judge your brother?  Or why do you look down on your brother?”

The apostle is addressing a serious problem facing the young church . . . by “church” he is referring to the totality, not a particular congregation . . . that of the differences between the two cultures that are coming together to be one body . . . the Jews and the Gentiles. There were definite differences between the two cultures, including dietary restrictions.  Each side in the argument holds that their understanding and practice is better than the other . . . especially on moral grounds.  Those on the other side will rot in hell.  Needless to say, such conflict does not make for good community or chemistry as the body of Christ.  Thus the apostle attempts to deal with the issue head on.

As far as Paul is concerned, that in the end, it does not matter what one side or the other practices when it comes to faith, but rather the relationship that one has with God and other believers . . . whether or not there is love for God and others.  To this end, the apostle proclaims: “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”  In other words, Jesus welcomes all into the family . . . sinners and saints, or whatever a person might view him or herself as being.  

With that, the apostle declares that everybody needs to focus upon him or herself when it comes to faith to make sure that he or she is living up to what Jesus called them to do.  Take care of your own business and let others take care of theirs.  Why?  Because in the end, says Paul: “. . . each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

The Yooks did not like the way that the Zooks ate their buttered bread.  The Zooks did not like the way that the Yooks ate their buttered bread.  Sounds pretty silly doesn’t it?  Does it really matter how we eat buttered bread?  Isn’t the result in the end the same?  The bread gets eaten.

No two people are created identical.  God creates each and everyone of us as unique and special creations that are in God’s image.  Because we are all created differently, why in the world would we expect everyone to think and do things the same way?  The reality is, we all think and do things differently . . . in ways that make sense to us.  This includes how we view faith . . . our faith.  Whether we want to admit it or not, deep down . . . we want people to be like us . . . to think, act, and believe like us.  And, when they do not . . . well, don’t we get a little judgmental?

When we get judgmental things become a competition and conflict . . . gets a little nasty; and, if we are not careful, it can escalate until we are in a stalemate clutching our own version of the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo just waiting to annihilate the other.  In our minds it is our way or the highway.

In Paul’s mind, this is a waste of time . . . time that could be better spent in doing God’s will . . . of building stronger one’s relationship with God and with others.  It is time that could be spent on kingdom-building.  God will take care of God’s business . . . in the meantime, Paul urges his readers to work on being the body of Jesus.  Put aside the differences and focus on the example of Jesus in which all are welcomed just as they are as pieces of a holy puzzle needing to be pieced together as the Kingdom of God.

In Paul’s argument he says it does not matter what one eats or does not eat, but that the end result brings the same thing . . . that Christ is reflected in that person’s life so that the world can see it.  He states that it does not matter if one person thinks one day is better than the other as long as the result is towards the same goal . . . that Jesus is reflected in that person’s life so that the world can see it.  None of us are the same, so why then do we think that everyone will be like us?

There is one God, but there are many roads that lead to God.

One of my favorite places to visit is Yellowstone National Park.  There are five entrances into the park.  I imagine, that if we took a poll right now, there would be five different opinions as to which is the best way to go into the park.  My favorite way is to go up Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, go through Cooke City and Silver Gate, and enter through the northeast entrance . . . and then to come home via the Beartooth Highway.  In my opinion, this is the best way.  But, do you know what . . . there are people who would not agree with me!  No, they rather go in through Cody and the southeast entrance . . . or zip up to Livingston and come in the north entrance through Gardiner.  Some will argue that the best entrance is the south entrance through Jackson.  Five different entrances with the same goal in mind . . . to get into the park!  Is one way better than the other?  Not really when one realizes that the whole goal is to get into the park.

In the end, it all depends on how one wants to experience it.

How each of us comes to understand God and our relationship with God and others depends on the choices we make in our individual lives . . . and, the odds are no two of us are going to make exactly the same choices.  Our goal is the same . . . one God, many roads.  Each of us is responsible for ourselves.  As Paul states: “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

It is not “my way or the highway” when it comes to faith.  Each of our ways is valid.  It may seems silly to most of you that I find understanding about God through children’s books by Dr. Suess . . . but, I do.  We all experience God in different ways.  I stand in awe of Marilyn who shares her experience of God through her battle of depression . . . in awe of Bob, who through mathematical calculations experiences the God and the holy in ways that I cannot even comprehend . . . or how Rick in climbing down in deep, dark, damp caves has a sense of God and the Holy in a hole in the ground . . . or Nellie who sees the holy in the world around her and paints it onto a canvas.

With each and every story you and others have shared about your journeys of faith . . . much different than mine . . . I stand in awe even though they are not like mine.  Each and every one of them is as true and valid as mine . . . none is better than the other.  So . . . why judge whether one is better than the other?  All are equal in the eyes and heart of God . . . Jesus showed us that time and time again in his life and ministry.

In the end, it is between us and God as individuals.

In the end, will we have lived up to the potential that God created us to be? Will we have loved God and others as Jesus has loved us?
    When it is all said and done, may each of us have been true to God in who we have been created to be . . . may we each have lived up to Jesus’ understanding of love in our lives . . . and, may we have found the Kingdom of God where we are.  In the end, that is all God wants to know.  May you eat your bread buttered however you want.  Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

“To Understand” (Matthew 18:15-20)

Conflict . . . nobody enjoys conflict.  Unfortunately the world is filled with conflict.

At one of the churches I previously served in my ministry, during the winter months, the women’s fellowship served a monthly soup supper for the whole community.  It was a big deal.  The women took it seriously and had developed a routine in how things were to be done.  Everything was to be done exactly by the letter of the law . . . including how the soup was made and what the ingredients were.  There was no room for deviation . . . none whatsoever.

For many years this was not a problem.  Then one year the church experienced the big “vegetable soup controversy”.  It was an innocent mistake.  One of the new ladies in the church volunteered to “soup sit”--you know, sit in the kitchen all day long and watch the soup cook.  As she sat there, watching all those pans of soup cook, she got an idea.  She decided she would add all the fresh frozen corn she had at home to the vegetable soup . . . and, that is what she did.  She didn’t ask anyone, she just did it.  She dumped all of her corn into the vegetable soup.

Things were fine until one gentleman from the community came up to a group of the women to compliment them on the wonderful vegetable soup . . . he especially liked the corn that made it so tasty.  The women were flabbergasted . . . there was no corn in the vegetable soup!  Jumping up from their seats they ran to the kitchen, looked in the vegetable soup pot and saw yellow kernels of corn intermingled all with all the other vegetables.  Blasphemy had been committed . . . a heresy discovered.

Needless to say, what followed was not pleasant.  The new lady--the corn offender--was called to the carpet and read the riot act.  Not knowing the rules and traditions of the soup supper, she was nearly in tears when she confessed adding the corn.  She didn’t think that she was hurting anything . . . besides corn is a vegetable and deserves its place in vegetable soup.  Which, of course, did not satisfy the women’s fellowship.  In the end it cost the women’s fellowship a member, and nearly cost the church a family.  It was several months before the offender showed her face at the church again.

I guess that is one way to handle conflict.

Though Jesus uses the word “sin” in our reading this morning, I think that he was actually attempting to deal with the issue of conflict and what one is to do when he or she comes into conflict with another.  And, then again, I might be making a broad assumption . . . but, I don’t think so.

Whenever two people do not agree on something, they enter into conflict with one another.  Each thinks that he or she is right, and that the other is wrong.  They let each other know it . . . arguments ensue . . . it is life or death.  The other is committing a “sin” in not believing the correct way.  For example: Was it a “sin” to put corn in the vegetable soup?  Of course not, but you would have thought that someone had spit on Jesus the way the other women reacted.  The offender had committed a sin!  They were more than willing to point that out.

When it comes to what we believe and think is right, we are ready to fight for it . . . especially with those who do not believe or think as we do.  This creates conflict.  In encountering conflict we typically do one of three things . . . we fight, we flight or run away, or we freeze.  To freeze is to be caught off guard and not know how to respond.  None are really helpful when it comes to conflict resolution because nothing gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.  In these means the relationship is broken . . . shattered . . . ruined.  Where there is no mutual agreement or understanding, there is no relationship.  Which is wrong, especially for those of us who proclaim to be the followers of Jesus.  With Jesus relationship is everything.

It is all about relationships . . . about creating unity . . . about being one in God’s love.  Jesus affirms the power of relationships when he states: “. . . I tell you that if two of you on earth agree on anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name,there I am with them.”

Relationships begin with understanding.  To resolve conflict there must be understanding.  Understanding is the foundation from which intimacy and growth take place . . . from which new possibilities abound . . . and, from which community--common unity is discovered.  To this we are called as the followers of Jesus.

In our reading this morning, in each of the situations Jesus shares, he suggests that conversation take place . . . where ideas, thoughts, beliefs are shared . . . where listening is vital.  If you are in conflict with another, go and have a conversation with that person.  Conversation is a back and forth sort of thing where one person speaks while the other listens.  Questions are asked.  Clarification is sought.  And, there is also silence . . . silence to consider what is heard, to discern, to clarify, and to discuss some more until there is understanding on the part of both.  This is where you begin when it comes to conflict . . . you begin with conversation.

You begin with conversation and you continue in conversation until there is understanding and agreement.  This is reconciling . . . there are no winners or losers, there is a common agreement and understanding that is acceptable to all involved.  This is what Jesus is referring to in our reading this morning.  This is why he states that if two can agree on anything, it can be . . . God will grant it.  Why?  Because this is the way God wants it . . . it is God’s way.  This is what Jesus would do.

As the followers of Jesus we are called to be the presence of Jesus in the world . . . to walk in his footsteps . . . and, to love and minister as he did.  We are to have conversation . . . we are to seek understanding . . . and, we are to arrive at reconciliation.  We are to do all of that with those who we are in conflict with.

Putting corn in vegetable soup seems logical to me . . . and, like the gentleman who started the whole fracas, I agree that the corn did make the soup even better.  There were a lot of angry women in that kitchen, and one poor lady who was scared to death.  Her reasoning for the corn in the soup was well intentioned, but skirted the tradition and rules of the women’s fellowship soup supper protocol.  Kind of got nasty there for a few tense moments.  Both sides had their reasons, but the women were not going to hear the reasoning behind it.  Was the conflict resolved to everyone’s satisfaction?  

Not hardly.  The women chose to fight and in fighting nothing was resolved.  The fellowship lost their newest member . . . the church nearly lost the woman and her family . . . she ran.  So what would have happened if they had been willing to sit down and talk . . . to have conversation . . . to seek an understanding of what could be done?  I believe that resolution would have come about . . . reconciliation would have occurred . . . that the women’s fellowship would have grown stronger.

But, we don’t know because it never happened that way.  For my last couple of years there, there was no corn in the soup.  Rumor has it that the matriarchs of that church hung on tight to their traditions and rules concerning the soup fellowship . . . and, that they still don’t allow corn in the vegetable soup.  If only they understood . . . if they understood Jesus and his call to come to relationship . . . to be one through him and his example.  Then maybe they would have discovered God’s unity and oneness as the children of God . . . they would have been in the presence of Christ.  But, no . . . they rather have their vegetable soup without the corn.

If we all only understand one another, imagine what a wonderful world this would be.  Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Duplicity . . . the Emptiness of Faith” (Romans 12:9-21)

In order to keep things simple . . . Jesus commanded his followers to do two things: to love God and neighbor.  In the Gospel of Mark, he stated it this way: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.”

Over in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and all your mind.’  And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In answering a question about which is the greatest commandment in the Law, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus answers: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In the words of Jesus, himself, we have our task set before us . . . to love God and others.  That’s it.  I doubt if there is anyone who follows Jesus who would disagree that this is what the followers of Jesus have been tasked to do.  It is written in black and white . . . or maybe red if you have a Bible that puts the words of Jesus in red . . . for all of us to see.  There is no denying it as Jesus said it.

Also, Jesus never promised following in his footsteps and doing this task would be easy.  Again, I doubt if there is anyone who follows Jesus who would argue with that statement.  Faith is hard . . . or at least parts of it is hard.

The task of loving God and others is an inward and outward sort of thing.  In the first step we enter into an intimate relationship with God . . . we love God and God loves us.  And, that it great, but that is not enough for either Jesus nor God.  No, there has to be an outward expression of that intimacy and love; which brings us to the second part of that expression of faith.  We are to take that love and enter into relationship with others . . . we are to seek that intimacy with others.  Inwardly we love God, outwardly we love others.  To have one and not the other is not to fully realize faith in its fullness.

Again, I do not think there is much argument in this idea . . . love God, love others.  Having observed the “church” and “faithful” as a pastor for well over thirty years now, it is my estimation that for most it is easier to love God than to love others.  I think that for the most part we are good at loving God, but we have a more difficult time loving others.  We are good at the inward part, but not so good at the outward part.  Therein lies the problem.


Duplicity is in the dictionary as  “deceitfulness in speech or conduct, as by speaking or acting in two different ways to different people concerning the same matter.”  To help understand its meaning a little better, the dictionary also shares these synonyms: deceit, deception, dissimulation, fraud, guile, hypocrisy, and trickery.  I think that we all have run into situations in which we have experienced duplicity . . . especially if any of us even have an inkling of politics in the last five to ten years.  Politics seems to be an area where duplicity is widely practiced and accepted with no consequences.  

Whether or not duplicity is an acceptable practice . . . of which I say it is not, as the followers of Jesus duplicity is wrong.  For the followers caught up in the act of duplicity . . . knowingly or unknowingly, I contend that it is nothing more than an expression of the emptiness of faith for those individuals.

I think that the Apostle Paul was attempting to address this issue in the reading we heard this morning.  I think Paul was admonishing the followers of Jesus to be consistent in their faith . . . that what was a part of them on the inside was expressed in the same manner on the outside.  He wanted a congruence between word and action.
In the first five verses we hear Paul speak about love, and that that “love must be sincere.”  Love is the key . . . love God and love others as you love God and yourself.  In this understanding of love there is no room for “ifs, ands, or buts” . . . no reservations, restrictions, or excuses.  Everyone is to be loved . . . everyone . . . including those who treat us poorly.  Instead of reacting in the same manner as those who treat us poorly, says the apostle, we are to treat them with love.  In doing this, says the apostle, “. . . you will heap burning coals on his head.”

The Apostle Paul does not believe in solving differences with attitudes and actions that go against the goodness of love.  He states at the end of our reading this morning: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

As the followers of Jesus we should heed the words of the apostle . . . we should live a life of consistency when it comes to our faith . . . our words and actions had better mean the same thing to whomever we speak.  We should not be saying one thing to one person, while saying something else to another.  We should not be qualifying our statements about loving God and others with “ifs, ands, or buts.”  If we are going to proclaim that all are welcome into the fellowship and family of God . . . into the sanctuary of this church . . . to a place at this table; then we are going to have to do it with no reservations, restrictions, or excuses.  

We cannot allow the practice of duplicity to infect our faith as it is practiced, because it is not faith . . . it is an expression of the emptiness of our faith.  And, I realize that this is easier said than done, after all, we are human.  As humans we want to loved, received, and accepted by others . . . and, sometimes that means we place ourselves into situations in which we are not alway congruent in our faith.  Situations in which our words and actions do not always jive.  We are trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt.

To which the Apostle Paul tells us to love . . . just love, love, love . . . even those who would hate you, hurt you, even kill you . . . love.  If you are going to say it as your belief, then live it as your belief.

In this day and age of duplicity we must make our faith consistent with the call to love God and others . . . all.  Anything less would be to join the ranks of the duplicitous.  In an adaption of the words of the psalmist in Psalm 19:14: “May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts and the actions of our lives be pleasing in your sight, Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.”  Amen.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

“Pieces of the Puzzle” (Romans 12:1-8)

I imagine the story has been told and shaped for a long time to fit the needs of the audience that is hearing it.  The story is about a child who wants some playing time with her father, but the father has other interests occupying his attention.  In order to give himself some time to focus on his interests he grabs a magazine with a picture on the cover . . . rips it off . . . tears it up into lots and lots of pieces . . . and, then tells the child that the two of them will play once she gets the picture of the world put back together.  The father figured this would give himself a couple of hours of peace and quiet.

Quite satisfied with himself, the father set out to attend to his business.  After a while though, he was surprised to see his daughter standing before him with the picture of the world put back together in one piece.  Shocked that the child had done this so quickly, he asked, “How did you do this so fast?”

“Well,” replied the little girl, “it was hard at first because there were so many pieces and I wasn’t sure how it all fit together; but then, I remembered seeing a picture of Jesus on the back side when you ripped it off the magazine.  I turned all the pieces over and put the picture of Jesus back together.  When I put the picture of Jesus back together I was able to put the world back together.”

Whether this story is true in this form or any form, I do not know.  What I do know as a follower of Jesus is that there is a whole lot of truth in the statement of that little girl.  A truth that the Apostle Paul knew and understood.  We see that understanding being expressed in our scripture reading this morning as Paul addresses the congregation in Rome.  In Paul’s letter to the Romans he lays out his understanding of the good news or gospel of Jesus.  Paul also uses this understanding in other letters that he writes to congregations, in particular the church in Corinth.

The apostle sees the “church” or fellowship of followers as being the “body of Christ”.  Each is a separate piece . . . each has a separate function, but when these pieces are put together they form the presence of Jesus and serve only one function.  That function is to do God’s will of bringing about the Kingdom . . . of restoring that intimate relationship with God.  It is a relationship that is expressed in the way that the followers relate to one another because of their relationship with God.  The picture is put together when all the pieces come together to form that picture of Jesus.

Now Paul acknowledges that this is easier said than done.  Paul understands that each and every piece of the puzzle has been created uniquely and individually by God . . . that each piece serves a particular role as given by God.  And, he acknowledges, looking at the pieces strewn across the landscape of faith, that it sure looks like a mess that might not ever be solved and pieced back together.  Yet, at the same time he knows that if the pieces are never put together to form that picture of Jesus . . . he knows that the world can never be put back together.  Thus it is that he pushes for the followers to pull together as one to be that presence of Jesus in the world.

Well, if Paul thought the situation looked difficult back in his time, he would probably be flabbergasted at what  he would see today.  What he would see today is a world that is terribly fractured and divided . . . a world in which there is very little that points to a wholeness or holiness in its present state of being . . . a world that is marked by separation, ignorance, violence, hatred, and an unwillingness to come together as one family created by God.  I do not think that I need to give to any of you examples . . . read the newspapers, listen to the radio, or watch your televisions.  On a daily basis we are reminded of the brokenness of the world in which we live . . . we are reminded of the divisions that separate us . . . reminded that we are far from the purpose of Jesus in restoring God’s creation as God intended it to be.

Right now, it looks like we are a long, long ways from being that”one body” that the Apostle Paul calls us to be.

Long ago, Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  

The idea of individuality is at the root of how many of us see ourselves . . . we are individuals who are unique, special, and have our own talents, gifts, and quirks.  We have our own way of being, and with that being said, we also have a desire to be accepted for who we are . . . we want to be seen as individuals.  We see that manifested in our society and the world in which we belong . . . individual this, individual that . . . that is my individual right.  There is no denying that individuality is well grounded in us as people, as a nation, as a world.

And, that is great.  All of us should come to know who we are as God created us . . . after all, we are all created in the image of God.  We should know who we are, what we are good at, what we are weak at, and how it is that we function in the world in which we live.  Yet, we need not to stop at this point and go no further.  We are individuals, but each of us is a part of the puzzle . . . a part of the bigger picture.  Remember Aristotle’s words: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  As we claim our individuality, we must also claim the greater responsibility of seeing how each of us fits together to form the “whole”.

The apostle writes: “Just as each one of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to the others.”

In forming “one body” we become more than we ever could as individuals or small groups . . . we become the body of Christ . . . we become the Kingdom restored.  But, to do this, we have to move beyond claiming our individuality as the end result and begin contemplating how we fit together to make the whole.  This is the prelude warning that Paul places before he pushes for the people to consider being the “one body”: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”

It is in our coming together as one body that we fulfil God’s desire to be the presence of the Kingdom . . . to be the presence of Jesus . . . where we are.  Jesus came not to destroy, but to build . . . not to get rid of what was, but to enable what was meant to be.  Nowhere did he ever mean for it to be an individual thing . . . it was always meant to be one.  The key is putting all the pieces together to create the picture as it is meant to be.

I think that we as individual followers of Jesus, and we--as the body of Christ, the “church”, have entered into a challenging time.  A challenging time that confronts us in light of what we are witnessing in the world around us . . . what we see in the world, our nation, our state, our communities.  We are not the only community of the faithful in which the concern for how we see one another and treat one another has been raised . . . or have questioned how we got to this point.  No, we are not the only ones struggling with this dilemma of faith.  All the followers of Jesus are in the same boat, and this constant concern and question only points to this challenge we are facing.

How do we put this puzzle with its millions and millions, even billions, of pieces together?

I am not certain how we do that, but I am certain that this table that we gather around each week probably shows us the way.  This table represents a place where all of God’s children . . . all of God’s creation . . . can gather.  At this table we set aside our individuality . . . set aside our differences . . . and, we begin to listen, understand, and accept one another--not so much as individuals (even though that is part of it), but as a “whole” . . . understand how we fit together for the common good and benefit of all.  At this table we become one . . . one body in Christ Jesus.

I think that is where begin . . . at the table.  We begin to examine our lives as individuals and see who we have left out from taking their place at the table . . . and, then, we invite them to join us at the table.  Together the conversation begins in exploring how to become one.

I believe that the only picture of Jesus is the one that comes together in our unity as God’s children.  It comes together piece by piece . . . may we all discover our place in the wholeness and holiness that is Jesus and his desire for the Kingdom of God.  Amen.