“Not Giving Away My Shot!”

Last week, as I was in Taos for my pastor’s retreat, I was exposed to something new and powerful. Matthew Miller, the pastor at First Presbyterian ABQ, insisted that we listen to the soundtrack from Hamilton from beginning to end. I was not disappointed. What inspiring and powerful music! Then last Friday, PBS aired it’s documentary on the play and on the person Alexander Hamilton, and needless to say, I have been quite caught up in it ever since. The story is remarkable. The lyrics are mind-blowing. The talent of the performers is off the charts. Of course, it will be 10 years down the road when it finally shows up at Pope Joy, but you can bet that I will be first in line for tickets when that day comes.


I mention all of this thinking about our scripture this week, Hebrews 11-12—the great cloud of witnesses. This is a scripture that reminds us of the great faith and heroics of the saints that have come before us and paved the way for our faith today. Do note, however, that most of those lifted up as heroes of the faith were also people who were quite broken as well! In a very real way, the founding fathers and mothers of this country, like Hamilton, have marked similarities to the heroes of our faith. Perhaps the reason that Hamilton has been such a smash hit this year is that it was released amidst the context of our current political climate. And while many of us are concerned that this is the nastiest political climate in history, I don’t foresee either of our current presidential candidates shooting someone in a duel if they lose—just sayin’.


I suppose this is all to say, that what truly separates the saints and heroes of the past from the sinners of the present is only death. As Oscar Wilde put it, “The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past while every sinner has a future.” Even our great heroes, both of the faith and of politics/history, were just as broken as we are. I love how this passage from Hebrews acknowledges this, “39 All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. 40 God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.” In other words, they may have done well, and may be remembered favorably, but they were human. It is dependent upon us to take the next steps in God’s plan, knowing full well that we can’t perfect it either—that is up to the pioneer of faith, Jesus.


I see this as a call to grace. All of us fall short, but all of us must keep running the race that is laid before us so that we too, might be a part of the great cloud of witnesses. It also reminds us of the grace that we should be extending to our political opponents as well, lest the fate of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton befall us as well. Part of respecting and celebrating the saints and heroes that came before is not repeating their mistakes, and stepping up to play our own part going forward. Whoever is elected this year is flawed—no doubt about it. Which is even more reason that we are needed to step up and do our part in bringing peace and cooperation within our country. As Soren Kierkegaard put it, “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.” I believe this is the case, as those we remember as heroes and saints, weren’t always so. This time we live in now, may very well be remembered in the same light so many years from now, when we are yet again locked in bitter feud. Stop and take a look at the bigger picture, and take a deep breath. The saints who came before have been through worse than we are seeing right now, and indeed, they were worse than we are right now. So let us all rise up and follow in faith, that the generations years from now might look upon us in favor as those who did our part as a portion of the great cloud of witnesses as well—even though we can see that the sinner title probably fits us all better in the present.

Growing in Gratitude

What is it that you are grateful for? What causes you to give thanks? Those are some big important questions that we will be dealing with for about the next 6 weeks. We have come upon Stewardship season in the church, and this year our theme is “Growing in Gratitude.”


You may have noticed that the front entrance display has been repurposed as a gratitude center, and many of you may have even offered up things you are grateful for on the board. Let me first say a thank you to Carol Pierce for her work that made that possible! As we step into stewardship season, you can expect that every Sunday we will have a special prompt in the sermon for you to stop and give thanks, and then add your thanks to the Gratitude wall. Can you imagine the kind of message that sends to new people coming into the church? The first thing you see is what we are grateful for!


I also want to point out that this season of stewardship where we are focusing on gratitude will be built around Colossians 3:12-17. “Be thankful people. The word of Christ must live in your richly…Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.” It is a powerful piece of scripture that reminds us of the center of our faith—thanks and praise to God.


Gratitude is a powerful force. When we live with thankfulness in our hearts, it changes us. The world is a much better place when we are taking the time to take stock of what we have to be grateful for. If you remember last week’s sermon illustration by A.J. Jacobs, he talked about the way that living with gratitude changed him from being an agnostic to being a reverent agnostic! He spoke of the way being grateful for so many little things—I didn’t fall down the stairs, I didn’t get in a car accident on the way here—made him realize just how miraculous life really is. I think we all tend to lose sight of this.


What’s more, I think gratitude changes our relationship with each other, the world, and with God. When I am at my most grateful, I am more willing to care for others, to give to others, to serve others, and in so doing, serve God. With this kind of attitude, the world is a malleable place that is ready to be shaped into the Kingdom of God. God is never closer to us than when we live as grateful people who are ready to go out into the world in service to God.


So you have been forewarned—we will be spending a lot of time thinking about what we are thankful for! Perhaps this is a good time to start taking stock, so that you are prepared for the season of Thanksgiving to come!

Come Together, Right Now…

So when is the last time that you commanded a mulberry tree to get up and be replanted in the sea? Apparently, Jesus tells us in the scripture this week that it is one of the powers that comes with faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed.

What are we to make of this? That we should have some sort of magical power to move trees with speech? Are we all convicted of a lack of faith? Because last I checked, I don’t see anyone with the power to talk to trees.

I suppose the most straight forward way to see this is that with God, all things are possible. Perhaps the point is not so much that we are given mystical abilities to command plants, but that when we put our mind to something and believe in God’s power within our lives, everything is within our grasp.

Given the message of hope that we heard last Sunday through Jeremiah, perhaps this message about faith should help that hope flourish. Even in the worst of situations, by working together as the community of faith, remarkable things can happen—like aquatic mulberry trees.

It may not take the form of a mystical command, but perhaps it takes the form of a community banding together to dig up, move and transplant said tree. Perhaps it takes the form of a community that accomplishes a massive amount of work moving stuff in and out of a church building to have one of the most successful parking lot sales in history. Perhaps it takes the form of a church united working to improve the larger community by taking on challenges no one thought possible.

The point is, faith is not about mystical tree talking powers, it is about communities taking on the impossible to accomplish the incredible—and that is something that happens far more often than you might think.

What is it that you have been facing that seems improbable? Have you tried talking with your community of faith about it lately? Have you tried uniting with others to move mountains or trees? I think that one of the messages that Christ brings to us in this scripture this week, is that there is very little that cannot be accomplished when people of faith unite together and follow God out into the world.

If It Is Not Okay, It Is Not the End

Hope is a tricky thing. On the one hand it is the very heart of what moves us, what makes us tick, what keeps us going. However, hope cannot be present without adversity.


I am reminded of one of my very favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption. As I sat to write this, I had the words of one of the lead characters going through my head. “Remember, Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” To be honest with you, as I began to write this, heard those words bouncing through my head and thought they must have been scripture. Instead, they are the words of Andy Dufresne, a man who was mistakenly sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife (which he didn’t do). Those words of hope are offered by Dufresne to his friend Red, who has been released from prison but no longer knows how to live as a free man.


As I mentioned earlier, the nature of hope is a complex one. I think we need hope as much as we need air, water, food and shelter. It is one of those vital parts of our inner being that keeps us going. The trick is, you cannot have hope without adversity. A prerequisite for hope is having a situation that seems insurmountable, challenging, painful, harmful, dark, scary, or even evil. For it is in facing such realities that the human spirit chooses to find ways to rise above, and it is in this determination to rise above that we find the seeds of hope.


I wonder sometimes about the realities of our American culture. The rates of depression for us are strikingly high when compared to other countries around the world. Could it be that we have so shaded ourselves from reality with entertainment, comfort and distraction that rather than facing adversity and pain in order to find hope, we have opted for living a life under anesthesia? Is, perhaps, part of the problem that we have turned away from our troubles instead of facing them, and by extension, limited the birth real hope in our lives?


This Sunday’s scripture lesson shows us real hope—albeit in a very strange place. In the case of Jeremiah, real hope came in the form of a real estate transaction. As Babylon was razing Jerusalem to the ground, Jeremiah was setting up the purchase of land from his cousin—from Jeremiah’s own prison cell, no less! Talk about adversity, pain, darkness and even evil. Jeremiah is pretty much at his lowest low, and here he is buying property. At first read, this seems like such a strange story, but when you think of the symbolism, it is incredibly powerful. Even at this darkest of all moments for the people of Jerusalem, Jeremiah is investing in the future—on the very land the Babylonians were taking from them. Keep in mind, Jeremiah has been that hopelessly negative guy that kept telling everyone that things were going to fall apart and that the world as they knew it was coming to an end. And for people to see pessimistic Jeremiah buying land, must have been a real symbol that the story isn’t over yet. As Richard DeSimone put it at Bible Study last night (borrowed from a Hindu proverb that was later quoted by John Lennon), “Everything will be okay in the end. If it is not okay, it is not the end.” Powerful words. Words of true hope!


Perhaps this points at the fact that we do need moments where it is not okay. We do need moments of adversity, struggle and perhaps even evil. Without these painful moments, how else could we find that kind of hope? How else could we find the king of hope that moves us to amazing feats? How else would we be moved to take on the things that others would say are crazy, that we might change the world?

Be A Good Little Pharisee

Let’s talk about Pharisees for a minute. We love to demonize them. They are the bad guys who Jesus went up against. We just love it when Jesus pulls a fast one and pulls one over on the Pharisees. But do we really know who we are talking about?


The Pharisees were a religious class in Jesus time (far more prominent after Jesus time, but that is for another reflection). They were not the high priests. They were different from the Scribes in that they didn’t have nearly the power. They were different from the Saducees in their understanding of resurrection and afterlife questions. In a lot of ways, perhaps the best understanding of Pharisees in our modern context would be elders of the church. They were a bit more learned on matters of faith, had a bit of a voice within the religious community, had respect that went with them. All of this is to say, they weren’t really the bad guys at all. They were the good guys. They were the really good guys. But there in lies the problem, and the grounds upon most of the confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees.


The Pharisees were the ones who followed the rules, did as they were told, and looked down upon those who did not. They were self-righteous. They knew that they were better than everyone else, and they acted like it. That is often where we find them in the stories when they confront Jesus. This week, Jesus is dining with a mixed group of sinners, tax collectors, as well as Pharisees and Scribes. The Pharisees and Scribes are turning up their nose at those “other” dinner guests. That brings on three parables from Jesus, the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (better known as the prodigal son).


All this Pharisee talk is important because it tells us that there is a part of this parable that we often miss. Again, Jesus had several different audiences, and the sinners and tax collectors loved hearing of the redemption of the lost son. That is often the part we love to hear too! We love the idea of being welcome with open arms by our God when we have wandered off from home. However, we often don’t realize that for most regular church-goers (most of you reading this email), our part in the story is often a lot closer to that of the older brother, rather than the lost son. Yeah, I know—none of us want to hear that. The older brother is self-righteous, conceited, and merciless. He is really only concerned about what he gets from things. He is a Pharisee. He has done everything he was supposed to be doing. He has done what he was told. He has acted the part. Now he wants his piece of the pie. He doesn’t come off looking so hot.


That is kinda the warning to us—God loves that we have been doing as we have been told. God loves that we have been faithful and loyal. God loves that we are dependable and wear those butt prints into our pews on Sunday. But beware the temptation to self-righteousness. It is easy for those of us who do behave as we are expected, to start looking down on those who don’t. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap as the older brother or as the Pharisees and think that we are somehow better than those who have not lived by all the rules. Thing is—that isn’t how God operates. God loves us all. Period.


One of the beauties in Jesus’ teaching is that these parables do speak to so many audiences. There are times in our life where we are the prodigal and need to be welcomed home. There are also times when we need to realize we are the older brother and need to be better about the welcoming part—which brings us to this Sunday!


I hope you all have been good little Pharisees and done as you were told—inviting someone to church. It is Back To Church Sunday! This is an important time for us to practice the grace that the older brother lacked. It is time for us to welcome with open arms, those who we haven’t had sitting next to us. Frankly, it is always time for us to welcome with such grace, but now is a good time to practice. We’ll talk a bit more about Pharisees and Prodigals on Sunday. See you then!


Many people are uncomfortable with the words of the prophets, as many times those words are filled with wrath and threat. The passage from Jeremiah this week is no different. In Jeremiah 4 we hear the threat of what is to come from the Babylonian armies, if God’s people don’t shape up.


On Sunday, we will certainly spend a great deal of time talking about how we make sense of the wrath and the anger, and what that means for how we live our lives of faith. However, something else about this passage caught my eye this week, and it bears some reflection. Take a read and see if this part of the passage reminds you of another passage of scripture:


23 I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light.

24 I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth.

25 I looked and there was no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight.

26 I looked and the fertile land was a desert; all its towns were in ruins before the Lord, before his fury.

27 The Lord proclaims: The whole earth will become a desolation, but I will not let it be destroyed completely.


I don’t know about you, but I hear a reflection of the creation story from Genesis 1. What God is seeing is the way that we are undoing the good creation that God has made through our actions. Jeremiah wanted us to see that the ways that we have been unfaithful at times have led to the undoing of the world around us.


These are important words, at an important time in history. This past year has been filled with news stories that are tucked back behind the main headlines that tell us some rather disturbing things are happening in the world around us. There have been stories about permanent ice loss in the arctic and Antarctic. There have been stories about the temperature of the whole globe rising by a degree and a half. That same temperature increase is affecting the oceans as well. We are hitting milestones in the condition of the earth that scientists did not believe would happen for many more years.


Now, I know that some of you do not think that these changes in the globe are connected to human activity. The politics of the global climate change crisis often still point to other factors. Perhaps that is the case. At this point though, I think most people accept that there are some disturbing changes afoot. However, let us think about the theological case here, and put politics aside.


There are changes happening. Big ones. Scary ones. What we can learn from the prophets, and Jeremiah 4 in particular, is that there are warnings about changes on the way. If Jeremiah is to be seen as a sample case, we tend to ignore warnings. Jeremiah is the story of how God warns (repeatedly) the Israelites from playing political games with their big bad neighbors, the Babylonians. Yet, the powers that be in Israel continue to ignore God’s warnings. In the end, what comes to pass is much like what Jeremiah has written about in this passage—the undoing of the world as the Israelites knew it. The undoing of God’s good creation as they were hauled away into slavery and exile by the Babylonians.


We will spend some time talking about how we make sense of these anger and wrath passages on Sunday, but in the meantime, let us acknowledge that there are consequences to our actions. The actions of the Israelites led to the undoing of their world. These words from Jeremiah seem to suggest that seeing the world unravel as we are seeing it now, may be a warning to us, that some things need to change. Even if there are other causes to the global climate crisis, it cannot be denied that we could be doing a much better job caring for God’s good creation than we have been doing. At the moment, it seems we are content to ignore the warning signs around us, come what may.


Perhaps one prime example of this is what has not been in the news until this week. For months, there has been a standoff between a major international oil corporation and the Lakota Sioux tribes in North Dakota. There have been some serious underhanded dealings that have led to a pipeline being built in the Lakota Sioux’s backyard and across their main source of water. Much of the situation is the result of dubious deals between the US government and the tribe 50+ years ago. I am willing to grant, that maybe there is another side to this story. However, I am also fairly convinced that the reason we have not heard more about this story is that the corporations who bankrolled this pipeline also happen to be the ones who have a controlling interest in the news media. It wasn’t until last weekend, when dogs were sicked on protestors and pepper spray used, that the internet lit up with this story and major news media had no choice but to start mentioning it.


Again, maybe there is another side, but shouldn’t this come as a reminder that perhaps we have been ignoring warning signs all around us as well? The prophets are a voice that is there to draw our attention to the things that we are content to ignore. The prophets are the ones that are not popular, because they tell us what we do not want to hear. But the prophets are also the ones that are there to wake us up before it is too late. Things didn’t work out so well for the Israelites when their world was undone by ignoring the warning signs all around them. Will we repeat their mistakes?

Meaning Without Answers

This week health has been on my mind. On the one hand, we have a scripture that deals with Jesus healing a woman who was “bent over.” Probably such an extreme form of Arthritis that she could hardly move. On the other hand, my children have started school (Rowan for the first time), and with the start of school comes all sorts of wonderful germs. Both have been down for the count for extended periods this week—not fun! Imagine though, I struggled with sick kids for a week, and we are told this woman suffered for 18 long years and was healed!


This kind of healing raises all sorts of interesting questions for us: How do we make sense of biblical miracles? How come we don’t often experience healing in this way? Why are some healed and some are not when facing debilitating diseases? Why can’t the synagogue leaders celebrate instead of criticize for this healing on the Sabbath?—That’s the one we will tackle on Sunday.


On top of my typhoid Finch problem at home that had me thinking of health, I had a powerful experience on Monday this week. I was in the office, reveling in the quiet (church usually closed on Monday), when a woman that we have helped before came in. She came with the news that she has terminal cancer, and 3 kiddos at home. There is no other family support. If ever there was a woman in need of healing, it was her. She asked me to pray for her. She asked me to heal her. She believes that faith will take the cancer away, and she wanted to know why a friend of hers who had terminal cancer and survived was healed, and yet, things look so bleak for her. I had no answers. I still don’t. There are so many platitudes that we offer for times like these that ring hollow—or worse, bring despair! “Everything happens for a reason.” “We don’t know God’s plans.” The worst of all, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” (By the way, that last one is a butchering of scripture, Don’t use it!)


I don’t know why our friend is dying of terminal cancer. I don’t know why some people experience miraculous healings, and others don’t. I don’t know why such cruelty can happen to someone who is already in such desperation. There are plenty of “answers,” but none of them are truly good ones.


Here is what I do know. My time praying with this woman was powerful. I do believe for her, as well as for me. She overflowed with thanksgiving for Chris’ ministry with her, for the support of the deacons, for my time with her. She showed me what faith can look like in the midst of deep despair. I know how much my own heart was breaking for her, and how deeply I prayed to God for healing. I do know that our calling is to do what we can to help heal each other, and anytime we stand between someone and healing, we are no better than the synagogue leaders. I do know, that as we sat there together with tears in our eyes, I experienced the presence of Christ with us. I do know that I have been haunted this week by our prayer together. As I read a passage from Ecclesiastes 3 to the gathered session and deacons on Wednesday night, I couldn’t help thinking of our friend, “God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in our hearts, without enabling us to discover what God has done from beginning to end.” I do know that this week, I have experienced what it is to pray without ceasing for someone—I hope you will join me in prayer for our friend.


There are not always real answers, but that does not mean that there is not meaning. Although God has placed eternity in our hearts, we will not know in this life, why some things happen. I do know that there are often times where other answers and meaningful questions present themselves, even when our original questions go unanswered. Finally, I do know, that in the face of such big questions, there is but one response from those human hearts chasing after eternity…Prayer. Will you pray with me?