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December 3, 2023

During these Sundays of Advent, I thought I’d take a look with you at some of our favorite old Christmas Carols.  In the words we sing year after year, in the lives of those who wrote them, and in the stories of their creation, might there be some fresh word, some resurrected hope for those of us who once again drag the dusty decorations from the attic in search of Christmas?  There are indeed.  And I am confident that, in these weeks, we will find inspiration enough to light our way to Bethlehem.

We begin with Phillips Brooks, one of the greatest preachers of the nineteenth century.  Phillips Brooks was noted for his spirited defense of the doctrine of the trinity at a time when Unitarianism was gaining strength in his home town of Boston.  Now, I must confess that, although I rarely acknowledge it, there is a certain strain running through my own old Baptist soul that is, if not Unitarian, certainly Universalist).  So it’s a bit out of character to be lifting up as an exemplar a man who took on the Unitarians with the zeal of a prize fighter.

But Brooks was no Johnny One-note.  He was a complex mixture of passionate single-mindedness, and broadly appealing open-mindedness.  He was not one to avoid conflict, but he was always ready to understand and relate to people of all perspectives and origins.

A case in point: At the age of 20, after graduating from Harvard University in 1855, during the growing division between the North and South, he headed right into the heart of the conflict.  He went off to Virginia Theological School.  Here was a fine young Brahmin Bostonian who was outspoken in opposition to slavery going to a sharply divided state where the slave trade was an economic main-stay, and to a city, Alexandria, that would (only 6 years later) vote by a margin of 20 to 1 in favor of secession from the Union and be immediately occupied by federal troops.

Now it may be that his courage was born of the fact that he stood six feet four inches tall and weighed in at nearly 300 pounds, but I think it also had to do with his basic nature.  Although he despised slavery, he never despised Southerners.  He was always glowing with optimism and ready to give anyone a fair hearing.

Among all the things he came to love about ministry, perhaps the greatest love was of the children.  That affection is reflected in a letter he sent back to his parish in 1865.   He had become pastor of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia and, after only three years there, was off on a year long trip, primarily to the Holy Land.  On December 24th of that year, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and on Christmas Eve night found himself in a field where, legend has it, the angels appeared to the shepherds.  He went from there to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  He was so moved by the experience that he sent a letter home to the Sunday School children in his church, telling them that listening to the hymns on that night in the Church of the Nativity it seemed as if he were hearing them sung by all those Sunday School kids back home.  It made him realize how much he missed them.

He traveled to England, Asia, India, and Japan.  And through it all he seemed to develop a deep appreciation for people of other lands, other faiths, and other backgrounds.  His sensitivity and compassion became renowned.

Well, what has all this got to do with our Christmas Carol?  Here’s the story: Two years after that Christmas Eve night in Bethlehem, Brooks wanted a song for the Sunday School children to sing in their Christmas program.  He reflected on that magical night with the stars in the field and the hymns in his ears, and wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  His church organist, Lewis Redner came up with the tune, and the kids all sang it at the service.

But, here’s a part of the story that you may not know: the original song had five verses, not the four that we’re used to.  There was an original third verse that was never published.  It goes like this:

Where children pure and happy

Pray to the blessed Child

Where misery cries out to Thee

Son of the Mother mild

Where Charity stands watching

And Faith holds wide the door

The dark night wakes, the glory breaks

And Christmas comes once more.


I’m not sure why that verse was lost to us, but I think it’s too bad.  Because it reflects perhaps better than any of the other verses the thing that most strikes me about Phillips Brooks.  It’s that last part that gets to me.  The dark night doesn’t break and Christmas doesn’t come until faith holds wide the door where charity stands watching.

Having just lived through one of the bloodiest wars of all time, when the nation was aching from the assassination of its President, exhausted from its hatreds, and unable to find much light anywhere in that darkness, Brooks could tell his Sunday School children that the secret to finding Christmas was in the vigilance of charity and the courage to open doors to others.

This dark world we live in today could use a few hands holding doors open.  And maybe those doors don’t get opened unless charity is vigilant at the doorposts.

The Little Town of Bethlehem lies, today, in the heart of this earth’s darkness.  Israelis and Palestinians rage and war against one another in a swirling frenzy all around the little town.  The streets of Bethlehem are dark indeed.  When Hamas makes a bloodthirsty raid and calls for the destruction of Israel to the cheers of some Palestinians, the streets of Bethlehem grow darker.  When Israeli rockets and raids kill innocent Palestinian men, women, and children, the streets of Bethlehem grow darker.  When Russia undergoes a fool-hardy and blundering war in Ukraine, the streets of Bethlehem grow darker.  Yet, as long as there are those who will follow the example of the Babe of Bethlehem and find the courage to open doors and stand guard at them with compassion, then in those dark streets will still shine an everlasting light, and in those same dark streets the hopes and fears of all the years are met.

Phillips Brooks ended his career back in Boston.  He was rector of Trinity Church (his statue stands today outside that church).  But for all of his accomplishments, his honors, and his great preaching – preaching once even to the Queen of England at the Royal Chapel at Windsor – perhaps his greatest legacy is to the children – those children in his Sunday School, and children of every generation to follow.  After all, you and I learned at an early age that no matter how dark the night gets, there is an everlasting light that shines even in darkened streets, and we know that there is a place where charity guards the door, and it is held open to all by faith.

The greatest epitaph left to Phillips Brooks are the words of one of those children.  Brooks died on January 23, 1893, and, so the story goes, a five year old girl was upset because she hadn’t seen her preacher friend for several days. Her mother told her that Mr. Brooks had gone to heaven, and the child was reported to have said, “Oh, Mama, how happy the angels will be.”

And now, in the hope that singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” you will breathe a silent prayer for open doors and vigilant compassion, I leave you with the words of Phillips Brooks, “Charity should begin at home, but should not stay there.”

Instead of the words in the hymnal, let’s sing together all five verses as you find them on your bulletin insert.

November 26, 2023

If the scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew sounded familiar, let me explain. Last week I shunned the Gospel reading from Matthew to focus on the Psalm. So today I’m going to “break the rules” and backtrack to take up this reading from Matthew. It’s very familiar. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve preached on it, let alone read it.
As our stewardship appeal arrives, we all know that it’s really about more than money. And, indeed, this parable that Jesus told is about more than money also. Money is the metaphor. Interestingly, that metaphor has been recognized for generations, and is embodied in the very word talent, which came into our language directly out of this passage of scripture. The word originally meant a unit of weight in Old Testament times, and then a unit of currency in the days of Jesus. But it has been recognized from the beginning that Jesus was not just talking about money, he was referring to the gifts of ability, personality, and character that each person receives. Consequently, the word talent was taken up from this very parable and came in our language to mean those gifts of spirit and ability. In many ways it’s too bad that Jesus used money as the metaphor here. Particularly in our capitalistic society amidst the growing awareness of the widening gulf between the very, very wealthy and the limited many, this story of “those who have” getting more and “those who have nothing” losing even what they have does not set very well with us. So, let’s take the time to flesh out the metaphor a bit.
A talent, as a unit of currency, was not a piece of small change. It was worth six thousand denarii, and a denarius was an average day’s wage for a laborer. Translated into our modern world (which admittedly is somewhat problematic) a first century talent would be the equivalent of between three quarters of a million and one million dollars in today’s market. So when the slaves in this story were given, respectively, five talents, two talents, and even one talent this was a very large sum of money. So here’s the point: by analogy, you and I receive as our birthright some very large “gifts of the spirit” in this life.
But as many times as I’ve read this story, this time I ran into something in it that I’d never caught before – by the way, that’s one of the things I love about the Bible: no matter how many years you read it and study it, you can always stumble on something that’s been lying in the tall grass all along that suddenly jumps up and bites you on the behind. Anyway, here’s the question I’ve been ruminating on: In the parable, whose money is this? It’s a bigger question than you might think. The man goes on a journey and entrusts these huge sums to his slaves. Our natural assumption is that the money belongs to the master; the slaves are simply taking care of it for him while he’s away. That’s how I’ve always read it. But let’s read a little more closely. The first two slaves report to the man on his return that they have invested the funds and each made a one hundred percent profit. The master is very pleased and tells them they will be rewarded by being given even greater responsibilities and that they will enter into joy – the joy of their master (remember that phrase). But nowhere does it say they gave the money back to the man. The third slave, however, makes it clear that the money he has received is not his own; it belongs to the master. He has dug a hole in the ground and hidden it, and returned it to the man saying, “Here you have what is yours.” The master, in kind, refers to the money as his own telling the slave he should have put it in the bank and then, “. . . on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” And here’s the part I never noticed: as partial punishment for not having grown the funds, the one talent is taken from the slave and, as Matthew relates, given “. . . to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The clear implication is that the slave who received the five talents and turned them into ten, still had his ten talents; he did not return them to the master. Furthermore, he is about to have eleven talents, because the master is giving him the one he took from the third slave. This may sound to you like “much ado about nothing,” but, trust me, it is about something deeply and powerfully important.
I never realized in all the times I’ve read this story that the difference between the first two slaves and the third one is not that they were industrious and he was not, that they were wise and he was foolish, it is that they claimed their gifts, and he did not. He used very different language from the first two. They simply reported what they had accomplished with their sums, and were rewarded. The third one said to the master, “Here, you have what is yours.” He buried his talent out of fear, and refused to claim his gifts.
Do you claim your gifts, or do you live in fear? On the balance of that question, my friends, hangs your very life. The punishment for the unproductive slave may seem overly severe (after all, he gets the outer darkness, and weeping and gnashing of teeth routine). But it only seems so harsh because we assume the master in the story is supposed to be “God” who metes out this harsh punishment. This is a parable of the kingdom. And, as such, the man who hands out these talents may simply be a vehicle for telling us about the way things work in the created order. In other words, claiming one’s gifts can lead to joy and abundance in living, and devoting one’s life to fear and so denying and “burying” those gifts can lead to self-destruction (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”, if you will).
Dadgie and I once knew a young woman (no one in the congregation, by the way) who was amazingly gifted. She is extremely bright, always got high marks in school; a gifted musician and athlete; charming and extraordinarily beautiful. But she has been exposed to so much television, so many magazine ads, so much commercial hype, that she was haunted by a need to measure up to some idealized image of perfection that she was convinced she could not achieve. Consequently, she was frozen by her fear of failure. She began dropping out of activities – no more music, no more sports, drifting away from friends, becoming physically worn and weakened. We were terribly worried about where her path would lead if she could not find a way to claim the goodness and grace that is hers. Fortunately, I believe she has, at least to some degree.
This is the story of the kingdom. In other words, this is how the world works. Fear freezes people and leads them to bury their gifts. And that path is a ruinous one. Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith is an awareness of the existential connection one has to the very Heart of Being. And that awareness overcomes fear and allows a person to risk claiming those gifts and finding abundant life.
Now, the truth we all know is that sometimes you and I live by faith and sometimes we live by fear. And a person can live for many years as a prisoner of that self-destructive fear, and still emerge from it into the daylight of claiming and growing his or her gifts. As one person I know once said in relation to this parable, “I’ve been all three of those slaves at different times in my life.” But the message of the parable is sound. There is a foundational truth that dwells in its heart and it is the truth that tells the tale of our lives.
I remember many years ago I was struck by some words of wisdom from an elder. I was told, “The world is not here to protect you, and it’s not out to get you.” That may seem to be a prima facie case, but it carries with it a wisdom reflected in our parable. It is the acknowledgment that the “master” is, as the third slave said, “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” The way the world works, in other words, is not fair. It does not reward people for being good, or punish them for being evil. But in the midst of this harsh reality there is truth you can hang onto. If you are driven by fear to bury your gifts, you may end up weeping and even grinding your teeth. If you live by faith, the faith that you were born with, the faith that the hard knocks of life teach you to abandon, the faith that grants the freedom to risk, you can claim your gifts, use them and multiply them, and therefore find abundance of spirit, and even in harsh and unforgiving circumstances, joy.
So this is our appeal today, that you may claim your gifts. As it is put in our reading from Ephesians this morning, that “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” And claiming your gifts, may you be inspired to share them, and to join in a spirit of joy with your sisters and brothers here at Memorial Congregational Church to spread the good news of hope and peace and healing in this tattered world.

November 19, 2023

I want to focus on the psalm from today’s lectionary readings largely because it happens to be one my favorite passages of scripture in the whole Bible.  It is so, in part because of the depth of wisdom and meaning it embodies, but also, frankly, because it is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the English language – at least as it’s rendered in the King James version.  Now, I have to say that I don’t recommend the King James Bible to anyone.  It is really a terrible translation.  But nothing can beat the majesty of the psalms in the King James.  The council of scholars appointed by the king in 1604 to draft this version may not have understood Hebrew as well as those of today, but there were some in their midst who certainly knew how to write poetry.

If you want to know what poetry is, you can ask a teacher of English literature.  Or, if you want know what poetry is, you could read this Psalm.  You heard it this morning in the New Revised Standard version.  Let me share it with you in the King James:

“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.  Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return ye children of men.  For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.  Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as asleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.  In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down and withereth.  For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.  Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.  For all our days are passed away in thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told.  The days of our years are three score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow, for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? Even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.  So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

That’s poetry.  I almost feel that I could stop the sermon right here, and simply let us all dwell on the beauty of that piece of literature.  It might be enough for one day – but there is so much more.

I looked into the mirror the other evening and my reflection in the glass seemed to jump out at me.  I almost gasped: “Who is that?”  I’m not sure why, but it struck me in that moment that this face of an old man with thinning hair and a white beard was the same person as the little boy I used to see in the mirror.  And then I looked again, and realized that no, it’s not the same person.  Most of the cells that made up the body of that little boy no longer exist.  In fact, none of the cells that made up my skin two months ago still exist.  I have been almost completely remade over and over, one cell at a time.  And, yet, I am in some mysterious way, still the same person – just more worn down and closer to the end than I was.  I don’t advise getting into such a line of thinking just before going to bed, it can keep you awake staring at the ceiling for a long time.

Shakespeare did justice to the thought in As You Like It:

“‘tis but an hour ago since it was nine,

And after one hour more ‘twill be eleven,

And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe,

And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot;

And thereby hangs a tale.”

We expend a lot of energy from day to day denying the truth that “hour to hour we rot and rot.”  It’s a subject that we rarely bring to consciousness, let alone talk about.  My wife Dadgie once told a marvelous story of an after-church, adult education session she attended back in the late sixties.  It was during the time in this country when cancer was the disease that nobody discussed in public.  It was as though there were some sort of shame associated with the disease.  Well, on this particular Sunday, a group of older women were seated at one end of the table absorbed in a whispered discussion of the sad situation of a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer.  Gloria glanced around and whispered to the others, “It’s true; they say she’s terminal.”  And Lucy, a small, mild-mannered, elderly woman, blurted out for all the room to hear, “Hell, Gloria, we’re all terminal!”

One of the wonderful things about the Bible is that it’s like dear old Lucy.  It won’t let us tiptoe around and avoid the hard truths of life.  The Psalmist says that we are like the grass that grows up in the morning and is cut down in the evening; “we spend our years as a tale that is told.”

So, what are we supposed to do about this deeply troubling existential truth?  I suppose one approach is to make light of it.  A sense of humor is a great resource, especially in the midst of the weightier matters of life.  Rabbi Sam Skinner of the Holocaust Center tells of the Jewish tradition of referring to the span of 120 years for anything desired to last a long time (such as in the expression, “may it last 120 years”).  This is the length of Moses’ life.  One man said, “I’d like to live 120 years and 3 months.”  He was asked, “Why the 3 months?”  He replied, “Because I don’t want to die suddenly.”

Or, the story told by Sam Proctor of a little girl alone with grandpa.  She looks around and realizes they are all alone, so she flies across the room and lands in his lap with eyes full of anticipation.  She says, “I’m going to give you a ‘grandpa inspection.’”  She grabs his ears and pulls down hard, takes hold of his nose and wiggles it, pulls his chin down and looks in his mouth, then says “now croak!”  He says, “I can’t croak.”  She says, “Sure you can, grandpa.”  “No, I can’t,” he insists.  “I’m not a frog.” “Yes, you can, grandpa. Now, croak!”  “Where did you get all this croaking business?  I don’t know how to croak!”  “I know you can croak,” she said, “Mommy said ‘as soon as grandpa croaks we’re all going to Disney World!’”

It’s great to laugh in face of the grim reaper.  It does indeed help.  But when the laughter dies down, we’re still left with the troubling image of ourselves in the bathroom mirror.  So for those nights of lying awake staring at the ceiling, this magnificent psalm with the soaring poetry gives us ancient and wise counsel.  After eleven verses of laying out in soul-stirring poignancy the human predicament, the psalmist comes to this phrase: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

Avoiding the issue or laughing it off may help us get through, but a heart of wisdom comes from looking at our mortality squarely in the face.  The psalmist says we get a wise heart by “numbering our days.”  In other words, by living in each moment with the awareness of how brief our life is, how few are the days that we have on this earth.  I decided to try “numbering” my days.  I figure that, using generally accepted insurance actuarial tables, I have a total of something like 30,660 days in my life span (I’d like to think I have more than that, but who knows?).  I have already spent 26,645 of those days.  That leaves me with a balance of 4,015 days in my account.  Now, about four thousand days sounds like a lot, until you consider how quickly that odometer clicks them off.  Our 2013 Toyota Camry still seems like a relatively new car to us.  But one mile at a time, day by day, we have piled up enough miles on that car to drive well over half the way to the moon – true, about 158,000 miles.  They click by so quickly.

So, the implied question the psalmist poses to me is: you’ve got about 4,015 days.  What are you going to do with them?  Or, perhaps, even more significantly, what are you going to do with this one?  Because, in truth, for all I know I might only have one day left.  If I could somehow live each moment of my life with that question starkly before me, I suspect in time I might gain a “heart of wisdom.”

Have you ever thought of “numbering” your own days?  How do you think it would affect you to look at that number and ponder it for a moment?  It could lead you to more questions, like: how are you using the days that remain in your account?  How much does it matter if you have 10,000 days remaining, or only 10?  What about the one you have before you in this moment?  What will you do with it?  Do you allow your moments to be filled up, one after another, with “the merely urgent,” while pushing “the truly important” off to another time?

As we each reflect on these ground-shaking questions, what is there to hold onto?  What is there to guide us in our discernment?  The Psalm offers something for us here as well.  It’s right there in the first line: “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.”

In my finest and best moments I have an experience of being connected to the eternal, to everyone and everything, to the Lord of Hosts who is the Divine Power of Love itself.  I call that finest and best experience the pinnacle of “Joy.”  Joy is, in the words of the Psalmist, finding our dwelling place in the Lord.  Joy is not happiness.  Happiness is transient and fickle.  Joy abides and sustains even in the midst of pain and sorrow.  The experience of connection to the Divine can live in your heart and soul and fill you and lift you through the desert places.

Commenting on this psalm, Walter Brueggemann notes that God being our “dwelling place” (or “home”) is a powerful notion.  It means that none of us is or can be homeless.  He says that we can’t make such a home for ourselves, but that “real home is always a gift.”  Brueggemann says that gaining a “wise heart does not refer to knowledge, skill, technique, or the capacity to control.  Instead, it seems to mean the capacity to submit, relinquish, and acknowledge the decisive impingement of Yahweh [God] on one’s life.1

If we are honest with ourselves, alive and present to the experience of Joy – of connection to the Eternal, we can see more clearly what we might give each one of our precious days to, and what are the truly important matters in our lives.

I hope I have been able to convey to you some of the ways this magnificent psalm has taken hold of my heart.  If nothing else, I hope you will come to appreciate its soaring poetry.  But, mostly, I hope that each of us can move closer with each of our days to gaining a heart of wisdom.

1 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg, p.111.

November 12, 2023

Dadgie and I used to watch Colombo. Those episodes were great. You always knew “whodunit” from the very beginning. The thrill was in seeing how the rumpled detective managed to figure it out, and seeing the perpetrator get his due at the end of the story. With a wrinkled forehead and the hint of a wry smile, Colombo rendered his judgment. It always came at the end. Our forebears in the faith told us that judgment is what happens at the end – after you die. It’s the final verdict on your life.
But in the New Testament the Greek word for judgment is krisis. This word krisis does not necessarily mean the end, or what happens when the “Great Detective in the Sky” finally figures it out and nails you; it’s about separation. A krisis is a point of division between good and evil, between carelessness and justice, between “back then” and “from now on”. It’s obviously the etymological source of our English word crisis. And our word carries the same sense of a division. A crisis as what happens when a life takes a major turn in the road.
Our gospel story this morning is about ten bridesmaids who were getting ready for a wedding. I’ve done a lot of weddings, but I don’t think I’ve ever done one with ten bridesmaids – must have been a pretty big deal wedding. But for such a grand affair, they don’t seem to have planned very well. All these girls are sent out to wait for the bridegroom who must have gotten so caught up in his bachelor’s party that he lost track of the time, or had to sleep off the booze, or something. So the girls are sitting up all night waiting for this guy to show – already you can tell this affair is off to a clumsy start. Well, you know the story. When the groom finally appears (about midnight) five of the girls’ lamps had gone out and they were off trying to buy more oil. But the bridegroom is a hard man. When the girls finally show up he renders his judgment and doesn’t let them into the wedding feast. Jesus calls those five “foolish” because they weren’t prepared.
This is a story about judgment – the judgment that proceeds from a moment of crisis. And, ironically enough in our twenty-first century, it’s a story about oil. The foolish five brought on the crisis of judgment because they hadn’t considered the possibility of running out of oil.

We may be very close to midnight – to that critical point where humanity starts running out of oil, but maybe not. It could be twenty five or thirty years off. So, many of our industrialists tells us to relax. There’s plenty of time. As soon as the bridegroom shows up we’ll all have a party. What could possibly go wrong? That opinion notwithstanding, you and I know that an awful lot is going wrong, and there’s more to come. We don’t have twenty-five years to stop burning fossil fuels and avert global chaos. We are already seeing climate change impacts on our weather, on coastal communities, on food and water resources, and global conflicts. And the changes in our climate are absolutely connected to the hundreds of billions of metric tons of carbon we have been spewing into the atmosphere. There is no longer any serious debate about this. Ninety seven percent of the world’s geophysicists, meteorologists, geologist, and other climatologists agree that global warming is happening and that human activity is the major cause. “But why should we worry? The party is going to start any minute now and we’ve got plenty of oil for our lamps.” That attitude is holding more sway in the marketplace and the halls of Congress than is sustainable. Humanity in our time will face the bridesmaids’ judgment: whether we planned ahead and were prepared to deal with the looming oil crisis or were more interested in having a party.
Judgment is not the scorecard tally that confronts us at the pearly gates, judgment is the natural result of the decisions we make. This is the kind of Judgment that Jesus spoke of so often in the Gospels. He consistently set before his disciples, his listeners, and us the importance of any moment of krisis – any turning point in our lives that hinges on a decision to give one’s self to greed, narrow self-interest, and carelessness, or to live for love, and grace, and abundant life.But you and I are frequently unprepared for that krisis. Speaking about Jesus’s imagery in these closing pages of Matthew’s Gospel, Richard Lischer, the Duke University scholar and writer, says that “the crisis comes like a thief in the night, when you are sleeping. The thief pries open a window and climbs in. Like that. Judgment comes when you least expect it.” The Prophet Amos said, “[It’s] as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.” This is not only true for warring peoples caught in the grip of bloodlust, and legislatures dealing with a fossil fuels crisis, it is true in your life and in mine.
Most of us can recall moments in our lives when the check came for all that we had put on our plate, so to speak. Sometimes those moments come in dramatic shocks. That was the case for a young seminarian named Wes Seegler. He had been assigned to write a personal statement of faith, drawing on all he had learned in three years of theological education. He had completed a lengthy section of the paper displaying his knowledge of standard theological categories and theses. Pleased with himself and his excellent work, he took a stroll across campus before diving into the second section of his treatise. He writes about his trip back to the room where he had been writing: “Humming the ‘Triumphal March’ from Aida, I strode confidently over the sidewalk leading to the class building. Near the sidewalk was a small tree. Suddenly, a mother mockingbird flew off her nest to challenge me. It was the biggest damn mockingbird I’d ever seen, and she dived at my head like a Kamikaze. Zoom. I ducked. Zoom, another pass. Zoom. Zoom.
“I backed away from the tree. She perched in the top and glared at me. I glared back. I decided to try again. She took to the air and thrashed around over my head. Again I backed off. The situation called for strategy. What would Kierkegaard do?
“The solution was simple. I would walk all the way around the chapel. This way, I would avoid the enraged bag of feathers. No, that would be defeat. I became angry. How dare a bird defy a man soon to be an ordained priest in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church!

“I prepared for war. Texas state bird or no, my adversary was going to get clobbered with Tillich’s Systematic Theology, Vol. II. I advanced. Vol. II was cocked like a baseball bat. She flew way up in the air. “Ah, she’s retreating,” I thought. Then she plummeted. My God! She’s going to dive on me from two hundred yards! I ducked behind a hedge. So much for open warfare.
“Alas, there was only one thing to do – capitulate and walk around the chapel. Grudgingly I began my journey. A seminarian who had just written a brilliant summary of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” had been backed down by a damn mockingbird. I was a broken man.”
Seegler goes on to acknowledge how the judgment of the mockingbird softened and humbled him, and actually made his paper a bit more genuine and heartfelt. He added, “Christian symbolism depicts the Holy Spirit as a bird coming down out of heaven. The gospels say it was a dove. I wonder.”
Seegler’s story is fun, but it’s also telling. If, as John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” then judgment is what happens to you while you’re busy getting carried away with yourself.
Here’s the good news: falling under the judgment of the Almighty does not mean some final score on a pass/fail test. Judgment happens all the time. It erupts out of the crisis that flies down on us seemingly out of nowhere. But it is not out of nowhere; it is intimately connected to our histories. It is the logical result of the choices and decisions we make. Jesus says, “Watch, therefore. For you know neither the day nor the hour.” It’s another way of saying: Think, therefore. Consider, therefore. You may not know what you think you know. You may not really know what you are doing. Sound advice for peoples and nations. . . for you, and for me.
Every decision we make marks a turning point, an opportunity to take another path, sing a different tune. And whether that path is lobbying, voting, and networking to press for the care of all creation and sensible energy policies, or simply a decision to soften up a little and find a gentler, more humble self, none of us is alone in the task. That’s the beautiful thing. When we seize the opportunity that rides on the heels of judgment we can seize also one another’s hands. The very strength of the Spirit is alive in our combined efforts, and grace, as the hymn says, will lead us home. Let’s sing it together.

November 5,2023

I have chosen to depart from the lectionary today because I wanted to say something particular to this communion Sunday, as well as a day on which we remember those who have gone before us, and coming just a few days after the three days on the Christian calendar that speak of “saints” (All Saints, or Hallows, Eve – or Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day).

So today I will speak of “communion” and “saints.”  The title of my sermon comes from an ancient creed with which at least some of you are familiar.  It’s from the Apostles’ Creed, drafted many centuries ago, and repeated by believers over the generations as a concise statement of their faith.  The last portion of that ancient creed goes like this: “I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church (meaning the Church in all its forms around the world); the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”  In this creed, “the communion of saints” is right up there with the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins as central expressions of what defined those followers of Christ.

Even though we, as members of the United Church of Christ, don’t rely on such creeds as litmus tests for inclusion in the church, we do still recognize their role in helping us to sort out the great questions of faith.  But for many of us, the language has become an almost insurmountable barrier.  It’s about as hard to comprehend what “the communion of saints” means in 2023, as it is for me to understand “tweeting” on “X.”

I believe in the communion of saints.

The word communion we most often use to refer to the Lord’s Supper, this memorial meal that we partake of here once a month.  And saints – well, we all know what saints are.  They’re folks who were so nearly perfect that they became martyrs and worked miracles and got holidays named after them and have statues and stained glass windows.  Thinking of the communion of saints, we might have a vision of Saint Augustus, Saint Francis, Saint Nicholas, and all the others sitting around a heavenly table sharing the bread and cup.  Truth is, at least in the language of this ancient creed, neither of these words means what we think it does.

Communion refers to something far broader than what we do with bread and grape juice.  It’s the coming together of all of us in the spirit of Love that involves fellowship, struggle, growth, inclusion.  It’s what people have done for generations, for millennia, when they have rubbed elbows and stepped on toes while trying to pursue that which is of the deepest and most profound meaning in life.  To be in communion with one another is to be living together in the household of faith.  Sometimes that’s not easy.

I know of a family for whom living together was mostly a burden.  The mother was anxious, nervous, always worried that things were going to go terribly wrong.  The father was domineering and controlling, always imposing his authority on everyone.  The children learned to compete for their parent’s attention and became combative.  In order to hold things together the whole family took on a facade of closeness and caring, while hostility and fear boiled beneath the surface.  Many would describe that family as dysfunctional, and in many respects it was, but in the end, there was something about just being “family” – being in communion with one another – that pulled them through.  It simply took time.  In time they found ways to compensate for their difficulties with one another, and to give each other the space to be different. The earlier issues of competition and anxiety eventually crumbled in the face of nothing more extraordinary than the calendar.  That’s the power of communion.

Being in a committed relationship – one that transcends the issues and differences of the day – is an incredible force.  It can, given enough time, refashion human beings, institutions, nations, even history itself.  That’s communion.

I believe in the communion of saints.

Saints – now there’s a loaded word.  We all think of saints as being those people who were, at some time in history, something grand, something we’re not.  In truth, the way the word is used in the Bible, it doesn’t mean that at all. Did you ever notice that the word is almost always plural in the Bible?  You rarely hear about “a saint,” but you often hear about “the saints.”  Apparently, sainthood is only something you can do in communion.      “Saint,” in other words, is simply another name for a sinner.  A saint is a person who is a member of a communion.  And the people who make up a communion like a church, are just folks like you and me.  “Saints” drop the ball, they step on each other’s toes, they behave inappropriately, they fail each other.

Many of you know the burden of trying to live under extraordinary expectations.  In our society, school teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, not to mention factory workers, supervisors and administrators, and even spouses and parents, are expected to meet impossible standards.  Any failure can be a terrible mistake, and sometimes even grounds for a law-suit.

This church stands as a refuge – a sanctuary – for all who are bruised and battered by the outrageous demands of a society caught in the myth of perfection and bent on blame and punishment.  It is a place for sinners: for all who fall short of the mark but keep trying, for all whose faith is shaky and spotty but still discernable somewhere deep inside, for all who sometimes forget how to communicate but remain in communion.  In other words, a place for saints.

I believe in the communion of saints.

I suppose the term, communion of saints is outdated.  It’s hard in 2023 to know just what that is.  Maybe it’d be more clear if we called it a fellowship of sinners.  It would mean the same thing.  But there’s something I like about the phrase.  Maybe it’s that the common meanings we have for those words aren’t really so far off.

Communion, after all, has everything to do with this monthly meal, this bread and cup.  It’s here, perhaps more than anywhere else, that we attempt to see and touch the one tie that truly does bind us together: the presence of Christ.  And especially on this communion Sunday – this time that is hallowed by remembering in love those who have blazed the trail before us, perhaps today we discover more than at any other time the power of communion.

And saints?  Well, there is, in fact, something extraordinary that happens to each of us as we partake of this communion.  As part of each other, and part of Christ, we become far more than we are.  That’s what I believe the author of this letter to the Hebrews was trying to get across.  He didn’t seem to have a very firm grasp of scripture, but he made some good points, nonetheless.  He says, “someone has testified somewhere, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?  You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,  subjecting all things under their feet.’” Well, the one who said that somewhere is the Psalmist who authored Psalm 8 (our other scripture reading this morning).  Then, a little later, he ties that reading to what he calls the words of Jesus: “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’” Actually, those words aren’t from Jesus, they’re from Psalm 22.  But the point is a good one anyway.

I think he’s telling the Hebrews (and us) that because we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, part of the divine family, if you will, embraced in the mind of the Eternal, we can claim that bold title of being “a little lower than the angels,” and “crowned with glory and honor.”  Now, I know most of us don’t usually feel like angels, or like we’re wearing crowns of any kind (let alone of glory and honor).  But when we enter into communion with one another, and communion with Christ, the power of our union remakes us.

I knew a man who was on the verge of throwing his life away.  He was an alcoholic, not much involved in the life of the church – his wife was a member.  He showed up drunk at a church function and created an awful scene.  In time, he developed cirrhosis of the liver and barely survived.  But through it all, the church never gave up on him.  That blessed communion of saints just surrounded him with love and understanding.  And he never forgot that.  When he finally got into AA, started recovery, and began to put his life back together, he decided to join the church.  He went on to become chair of the board of deacons.  Through his leadership, energy, and dedication he contributed mightily to that church’s ministry.

I believe in the communion of saints.

Our communion of love transforms us, even with all our warts and blemishes, into more than we are, perhaps even “lights” for the world, “salt” for the earth, “saints” even (without the halos).

October 29, 2023

Most of you “old-timers” like me remember the old television game show, Truth or Consequences.  With host, Bob Barker, the show was a combination trivia game and stunt show. Contestants were asked silly questions and had to answer correctly before “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded. If they failed to give the “Truth,” they had to face the “Consequences” – usually some embarrassing stunt.  The show was so popular, they named a town after it.  No foolin’.  It’s called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

If only truth were as popular.  The man who wrote this morning’s opening hymn about 500 years ago was something of a crusader for truth.  Martin Luther was supposed to be a quiet, well-mannered monk, keeping his head in the books and his mouth shut.  But he heard the Pope, who was supposed to be infallible, issuing decrees for the collection of money from peasants who thought they were buying souls out of purgatory, and it rang in his ears as a giant lie.  He couldn’t be a good boy and stay silent.  He asked for an airing of grievances, for his sincere questions to be answered, for an open debate on matters of faith within the church.  For his commitment to truth, he was hauled before the inquisition, punished, and excommunicated.

On this “Reformation Sunday” when we recall and celebrate those who launched this great Protestant adventure, I would like to, in the spirit of Martin Luther, open with you this Bible that, thanks to those reformers, is now available to each of us in our own language, and unearth a treasure – a pearl of Biblical wisdom to carry with us on the journey.

We find it first here in this story from Matthew.  It’s one of the most interesting encounters that Jesus has.  A lawyer asks him to say which commandment in the law is the greatest, and Jesus, after answering his question, fires one right back at him.  He asks whose son the Messiah is.  The guy, along with the Pharisees, falls into his trap by giving the traditional answer: “the son of David.”  Then Jesus makes a rather obscure reference to the first verse of Psalm 110:  “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’”  His point being that since David was regarded as the author of the Psalms, and this psalm was interpreted to be addressed to the Messiah, how can David call the Messiah Lord, if the Messiah is his son?  We’re told that after that, “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

I’d like to raise with you the question of why Jesus did that.  Personally, I don’t think it had anything to do with whose son the Messiah was.  I think the point was the trap Jesus set for this lawyer and the Pharisees.  Jesus was being extraordinarily clever.  He played this guy and his friends like a pawn gambit in a chess game: set them up, and artfully lowered the boom.  And why did he do it?  I think because he knew that this learned man’s question about the law was a kind of a trap too.  It was a test.  He was going to see just what sort of intellectual fiber this Jesus guy was really made of.  So he asked him a difficult question and stood back, scratching his chin waiting for the answer.

I’ve found myself in that situation before.  You know what I mean: when a question is not really a question; it’s more of a game – a game of “one-upmanship” like, “So, what are you reading these days?” or a game of “catch-me-kiss-me” like, “I bet you don’t even know why I didn’t call you,” or not so much a question as a disguised zinger like, “That was your expert opinion?”  You’ve heard them; they’re little question games that really get under your skin.  I think the reason they get to us so readily is that they’re basically dishonest.  We can always sense the lie hiding just under the surface.  It’s a lie about how the questioner is feeling, or about what they really want of you. Those are the kinds of questions that I always wish I had a great comeback for.

Well, Jesus had a great comeback.  This lawyer, no doubt, had a wry smile on his face as he put Jesus to the test.  By coming back with his little piece of entrapment, I think Jesus is saying, in essence, “If you want to play question games with me, you’re going to lose.”  By extension, I think he’s saying, “Don’t play games with lies.”

Here’s a compass that can keep you on course through the stormiest seas.  If you deal in truth, love truth, pursue truth – truth with intention, truth with passion, unwavering truth – you will never lose your bearings.

The Apostle Paul carried that compass, and it served him well over a lot of miles.  He writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “. . . we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.

“For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery . . . As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others . . .”  Maybe he’s bragging just a little, but he’s also making a point.  He’s saying that truth has been his compass, and it has caused him to live a life to take pride in.

The lie comes so easily.  When you’re caught doing or saying something you shouldn’t, it’s practically instinctive to try to cover your tracks, to bend the facts, to put a better light on things.  It’s so difficult to simply say, “You’re right.  I really blew it.  I’m sorry.”  When there’s a gain to be made, or a loss to avoid, it’s so easy to rationalize a little lie on a tax form, or in a business deal.  It’s so much more difficult to stand on principle against those who would pressure you to tinker with the numbers.  When you’re hurting inside, it’s so easy to play little word games with other people, and hide your feelings behind questions that conceal darts, or challenges, or tricks.  It’s harder to simply be honest about your pain, or your anger, and speak the truth in love.

We watch TV commercials about drugs that are supposed to make us live totally happy lives romping through fields of daisies, or listen to politicians bending the truth or speaking outright lies and knowing how many people are soaking it up uncritically.  There have to be many people asking in these unsettling days if there are any islands of decency left in this sea of self-interest and deception in which we live.

Anyone who walks through these doors and takes a seat here with us, anyone who contemplates becoming part of this congregation is, at one level, asking a similar question: “Is this ‘church thing’ another scam in a world of sinister motives, or is this a place of integrity, a place I can encounter the Holy and find support as I struggle with faith?”

Let me say without reservation that if this church should stand for one thing it is the quest for truth.  Not truth stamped from a cookie cutter and neatly packaged for mass consumption, but a deeper kind of truth.  The truth that speaks to you from these pages of scripture, the Truth that encounters you in a time of prayer and helps you to feel a connection with the eternal, a truth and encourages you to raise questions, challenge authority, and never, ever settle – never, ever settle for easy answers, warmed over platitudes, or someone else’s beliefs.

To live for such truth takes courage.  But the courage that is mustered in the process builds character, and enriches life.  In 1845, James Russell Lowell wrote a poem.  It was a time when war seemed to be brewing on the horizon.  There was a large movement for engaging in a war with Mexico.  Lowell, in the face of stern opposition, made a courageous call for the nation to enter into reasoned deliberation before rushing into war, and consider carefully the choices that lay before us.  His opposition was grounded in the fact that the American plan was to annex Texas as a state and allow slavery there.  Lowell was an ardent abolitionist.  His poem was titled “The Present Crisis.”  It is eighteen stanzas long.  One of which goes like this:

Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops,

fellest of the giant brood,

Sons of brutish Force and Darkness,

who have drenched the earth with blood,

Famished in his self-made desert,

blinded by our purer day,

Gropes in yet unblasted regions

for his miserable prey;—

Shall we guide his gory fingers

where our helpless children play?


He wrote, with the courage of his convictions these words:

Once to every man and nation

comes the moment to decide,

in the strife of Truth with Falsehood,

for the good or evil side.


Though the cause of Evil prosper,

yet ’tis Truth alone is strong,


Truth forever on the scaffold,

Wrong forever on the throne,—

Yet that scaffold sways the future,

and, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow,

keeping watch above his own.


And, indeed, on the scaffold that held a rope around the neck of the truth – the truth that slavery must be abolished did indeed sway the future.  And his poem, “The Present Crisis” later became the inspiration for the title of The Crisis, the magazine published by the NAACP.

So, “Truth or Consequences” was a fun TV show, but it’s title was profound.  And what are the “consequences” of failing to live for and by the “truth?”  I think Lowell had it right.  It may seem that truth always has its head in the noose.  But, in fact, that hangman’s rope holds the future, and the consequence of refusing the courage to live for truth may well be the demise our participation in that future.  And all the while, as Lowell said, in the shadows, the Lord of Life is standing, keeping watch above his own.

Almost a half century after Lowell wrote that courageous poem, Thomas Williams set portions of it to music.  It’s on our insert.  Let’s sing it together.

October 22, 2023

I hope no one has already bolted out the door after seeing my sermon title.  I realize that, with the disarray in the House of Representatives and another potential government shut-down looming, we are all about eyeball deep in politics right now, and the last thing you want to hear from the pulpit is more of what you are already sick of (or sick from, perhaps).  But I assure this is not a “political” sermon.  In fact, it’s perhaps an explanation of why “political” sermons should not be heard from this pulpit.  Allow me to elaborate.

Let’s begin with the jolting question: Would Jesus be a Democrat or a Republican?  Well, here’s some evidence to consider: Jesus clearly chose not to affiliate himself with any of the political parties of his day.  He had a member of the Zealots among his disciples (the one referred to as Simon the Zealot) but Jesus did not join the party.  He seemed to have equal contempt for both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and couldn’t be placed in either camp.  He was clearly not among the Essenes.  He was not a Herodian and he showed allegiance to neither the Roman authorities nor the rulers of the Sanhedrin.

In our reading from Matthew this morning, Jesus famously responds to the trap set for him by the Pharisees and the Herodians by asking for a coin and, noting that Caesar’s image appeared on it, he said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  I don’t think this necessarily meant that he was siding with them and advocating that Jews in Judea should pay the Roman poll tax rather than revolt against foreign rule.  He wasn’t aligning himself with either the Herodians or the Zealots.  He was offering a bit of perspective, and, as I read it, minimizing the value of the currency (and therefore, perhaps, belittling the intensity of the argument to begin with).  In essence, he was saying: “This is a trinket with Caesar’s picture on it; let him have it; the Lord of Life reigns over all that truly matters in this world.”

But to say that Jesus was not a member of the Zealot party does not mean that he was without zeal.  He was clearly a man of passion who pursued the causes of his life and his world with a fiery spirit.  He demonstrated his zeal for justice in many ways.  The first thing Jesus did after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was to turn over the tables of the profiteering money-changers who were taking advantage of those of meager means.  Then he drove them out of the temple with a whip.  And he revealed that passion for justice by the shocking company he kept: he moved among the outcasts, healed the lepers, spoke with women, lifted up the racial minorities of his day as examples of virtue; and yet he dined with Pharisees, and conversed compassionately with the despised tax collector.  He was a man who enjoyed having a good time with friends, as is evidenced by his grand showing at the wedding feast at Cana and by the charges made by some that he was a “glutton and a drunkard.”  But when it came to calling a spade a spade, he did not mince words.  Accusing the scribes and Pharisees of murdering innocents and laying heavy burdens on the backs of those too weak to bear them, he called them a “brood of vipers” because, in his words, “you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  Jesus may not have been a card-carrying member of the party of the Zealots, but he was most certainly a man of great zeal for justice and mercy.

What does this have to say to us in the year 2023?  Well, if Caesar’s image was stamped on the Roman coin and thus it belonged to him, whose image is stamped on the coinage of our lives?  In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King the monk Ambrosius is speaking to Percivale about the knights of the Round Table and says:

“For good ye are and bad, and like to coins, Some true, some light, but every one of you Stamp’d with the image of the King . . .”

It is our place – the place of the church – to be the coinage stamped with the image of Christ.  And if the church is to model itself on the ministry of Jesus – if we are to be the coins stamped with his image – the church would be well advised to pay attention to both his shunning of political allegiance and his passion for issues of faithfulness and justice.  So there is a far greater reason for the church to avoid supporting political parties or candidates than wishing to maintain our 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.  Our reason for doing so is based on the example of Jesus who pointed to the supremacy of allegiance to the Great Author of Truth that he figuratively referred to as his Father.  And that makes all other human institutions, systems, and mediums pale in significance.  And that is why you should never hear a “political” sermon from this pulpit; never a political party favored, a political candidate endorsed, or a political platform advocated.

Does that mean that we should avoid all issues that become part of our national political discussion?  Absolutely not.  Because to do so would also be to flee from the example set for us by Jesus.

Would Jesus endorse either Joe Biden or Donald Trump?  I think not.  But I think he would have something to say about the treatment of women.  Even in his day, when women were clearly regarded by the culture in which he lived as subservient to men, advised to not speak to men in public arenas, and cordoned off in the back of the Temple, Jesus healed women, including a foreigner; he lifted up a poor woman of the street as an example for the Pharisees, and he spoke to and offered the blessing of new life to a woman who was one of the despised Samaritans.  He also had some rather strict notions of fidelity and propriety for men dealing with women.  He said, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  That’s a bit higher standard of conduct than most of us can profess to adhere to. I’m reminded of Jimmy Carter famously saying in a interview, “I have committed adultery many times in my heart.” (I recall the joke that went around at the time that My Heart was the name of  a hotel outside Plains, Georgia). But even though Jesus’ standards are beyond most of us, they do call us to a higher level of respect for gender equality.  No, I don’t think Jesus would tell us for whom to vote, but I think he would have quite a bit to say about the treatment of women.

I don’t think Jesus would endorse either of the Democratic or the Republican parties, but I think he would have quite a bit to say about economic justice.  In fact, he did have quite a bit to say: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he described his ministry in these terms: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.  He said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”

I don’t think Jesus would tell us for whom to vote, but I think he would have something to say about honesty and truthfulness.  I think he would have something to say about militarism.  I think he would have something to say about the use and abuse of power.  I think he would have something to say about racial justice and ethnic or even religious discrimination.

I think people frequently conflate politics and issues.  They are not the same.  I can’t tell you how many times in the course of my ministry someone has made some remark to me about there being “too much politics in church”, by which they mean they are hearing about issues of social justice from the pulpit.  I have never apologized for addressing economic disparity, racial justice, gender equality, justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered folks, or a host of other issues, and I never will.  The Church needs to be apolitical; it needs to refuse to endorse or promote specific political parties and candidates.  But it must stand for issues and values that are central to the themes and currents of the gospel.  And for preaching to be relevant, it must address those issues and values that are alive and under debate in the broader culture.

I confess that this all means that there is, on occasion, a difficult line to be drawn.  I am very aware that justice issues can often rub up against party platform planks.  That leaves every preacher with the preparatory task that my mentor, Gene Bartlett, set for all of us when he advised that when writing a sermon every pastor must ask him or her self: “Am I being prophetic, or do I have an axe to grind?”  I assure you that I ask myself that question every time I sit down at the computer to prepare a sermon.  I make no claim to perfection in my response to that question, but you can be confident that I grapple with it honestly.

But the principle applies to our entire experience as a congregation.  I know there are times when, in coffee hour or other groups, folks inevitably veer off into political discussions.  I think it behooves us all to think carefully about the tenor, the direction, and the intent of such conversations, and to keep asking ourselves the preacher’s question.  I think it is on the agenda for all of us to focus as clearly as possible on the themes of the gospel and to reflect on the words and witness of Jesus.  And it is important for us to act upon our convictions, in the footsteps of the passionate Christ, to support initiatives that are promoting the causes and issues that we believe are most grounded in gospel values.  I’m not suggesting that everyone should register as an independent, but we should be supporting those causes and individuals who speak and act for those things we value as followers of Christ.  The church doesn’t have a vote, but you do.

This has been a long way around of responding to the question, “Would Jesus be a Democrat or a Republican?”  I suggest that he would be neither.  But I bet he would have a lot to say about what’s going on in America and in the world right now, and how it touches our lives and calls us to respond.

October 15, 2023

There are days full of sunshine and hopefulness, and there are those times when everything seems clouded or even covered with a dark blanket.  And if we are truly honest, both are present to a degree in every moment.  We are never totally without hope, and we are never entirely free of the veil of uncertainty.  Life, even in its finest moments, remains a deep mystery.   And we are like those theater goers who sit in the dark, unsure of what is to come, waiting for the curtain to go up.  I suppose that’s why these words from Isaiah jumped out at me: “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations . . . .”  I’m in a rather reflective mood these days, so, if you don’t mind, I’d like to just play with Isaiah’s “shroud” image for a while.

The first thing that strikes me about these wonderful and cryptic words from the prophet is that they don’t fit.  They spring up in the midst of this passage and stand out like a big, yellow hat at a funeral.  The first words we hear from Isaiah are the familiar strains of gloating and self-congratulation that we have grown accustomed to hearing from warrior nations: “O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for . . . you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.  Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. . . .  When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.”  This is nothing more than an ancient cry of victory in battle.  There’s no telling who the enemy was – the “ruthless nation” that was overthrown, the “fortified city” that was laid to ruin – it may have been Babylon or Nineveh.  But clearly this is an exultation by those who saw themselves as divinely chosen to be victorious over others – always a dangerous notion.

It is right on top of this hymn to the glory of military victory that Isaiah drops in these astounding words: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth. . . .”

God will make a feast “for all peoples,” and he will lift the shroud that is cast over “all peoples,” and “all nations.”  And instead of lauding Israel as a leader of nations, Isaiah looks forward to a time when “the disgrace of his people . . . from all the earth” will be taken away. That’s a remarkable statement of humility – the kind of gaff that might cost any presidential candidate an election.  And here’s the stunner: all of these great things for all the people of the earth will happen, in the prophet’s words, “on this mountain,” by which he means Mount Zion, by which he means Jerusalem.  Jerusalem will be the site for reconciliation among all the peoples and all the nations, and the place where in Isaiah’s words “ the disgrace of his people” will be removed.  I could not help being struck by the irony of that.

We all know what’s happening in that city and in that nation today.  Jerusalem today is covered in a shroud of war, of violence, pride, and animosity.  Jurisdiction over the ancient holy sites there is at the center of much of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  This mountain, this Zion, this Jerusalem is today the volcano from which an enormous cloud of misunderstanding, animosity, and violence among Arabs and Israelis has spread.  And this is the very place, Isaiah says, where the shroud of global hate and violence will be lifted.  Is it possible that millennia of bloodshed and venom will be put away, that generations of conflict and dispute will be resolved, that one of the hottest hot-spots on the globe will be the birthplace of world peace?  It’s hard to believe.

Hundreds of years after Isaiah delivered these words, Jesus stood up in the very cross-hairs of the epicenter of that mountain of contention, the Jerusalem Temple, and offered a rather cloudy parable, cloaked, as far as I can see, in mystery.  He spoke of a “a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet,” but they wouldn’t come, and they killed the messengers.  The king sent troops to ruthlessly wipe them out and burn their city.  Then he sent his slaves out again into the streets to bring in whomever they could find to his wedding feast.  One poor slob walked in off the street at the king’s invitation and presently found himself bound hand and foot, to be thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” all because he had the audacity to walk in off the street without the proper clothes.  Now, I generally wear a white shirt and jacket to church, and I guess I’m glad I do, because, frankly, I don’t think I’d want any part of that “outer darkness,” or the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” thing.  Does this parable make any sense to you at all?  I must confess, it confounds me.  It seems to be saying that the Lord of Hosts is fickle, and prone to entrapping people so they can be punished.  I can’t imagine that’s really what Jesus was getting at, but I’ll be darned if I can be sure what he was saying.  So, there’s another veil that cloaks our lives.  It is the shroud of unknowing.  Who can discern what the great Mind of Being at the heart of existence is up to in this universe?  Every time I think I get a bit closer to comprehension of the divine mystery, it seems to slap me in the face and remind me that it’s all too huge for my predilections, presumptions and prejudices.  Is it possible that one day this shroud will be removed as well?  Will we one day understand the arbitrariness of loss, the unfairness of life, the fickle nature of the one who holds the wedding feast?  Will the veil be lifted to reveal that it all does make some kind of wondrous sense after all?  I find it hard to believe.

And then there’s the shroud of all shrouds – the cerement of our mortality.  At the loss of a dear friend, gone too soon, I have found myself staggered by the reality of death.  I kept seeing his face; kept expecting to encounter him walking through the door, finding it hard to believe that he is truly gone.  The curtain that stands between life and death is impenetrable.  It is the ultimate loss that faces each of us, the ultimate end to all our beginnings and endings.  It looms over our plans and presumptions like an uninvited guest who refuses to leave, and almost seems to mock us as we go about our busy lives flitting from one supposedly “urgent” task to another.  And yet, Isaiah says, “. . . he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  Is it possible that death is not the last word?  Can it be that even that cold, dark sheet will be lifted, that life will prevail, that tears will be dried?  It’s hard to believe.


Well, thinking about those shrouds strangely led me to toss around in my head the image of some other coverings.  I was covered with a kind of shroud this past Tuesday.  I went to the hospital to have a cardiac monitor placed under the skin in my chest.  They put what they call “drapes” around the insertion area (which are simply those big blue sheets of paper with tape along one side to stick to your body).  The top drape went clear over my head so I was kind of buried beneath it and couldn’t see anything that was going on.  Then the cardiologist who I knew but could not see started doing things to my chest with a scalpel.  The experience under that drape could have been very frightening.  But when that shroud was removed, I went home to a miracle.  I now have a tiny device in my chest that conducts a non-stop EKG on my heart, stores all the information from each day, which is then automatically downloaded to a device by my bedside that automatically transmits the information to my doctor’s office.  I have no idea how all of that works.  The technology is staggering, but it is wondrous.

Then, I thought of the shrouds that are the sheets and blankets of my bed.  Every night I enter into a different world.  I climb between those sheets and drift off into another state of consciousness, a kind of deep soul awareness in which my mind speaks to itself and transports me to diverse places.  And in each new setting, I am instructed, in some ways; I see the events of my life reflected in a sort-of fun-house mirror, and the issues that have been left dangling through the jumble of my waking days are often worked through and sometimes resolved.  I don’t know how this happens.  I don’t know who the self is who is instructing me – or who the “me” is that is being taught, for that matter.  It’s all cloaked in a kind of darkness that lies just beyond the range of conscious perception.  And in the morning I awake and stumble through my usual routines.  Eventually, I see the sunlight streaming through the windows.  The places I have been in my dreams and the things I have learned vanish, and I am left wondering in awe at the realm of existence I just tasted but cannot comprehend in the dark beneath those bed sheets.  Then I remove the shroud of the night and  sit down to breakfast.  The dog comes to the table looking for handouts which Dadgie happily provides.  I pick up my cell phone and read that the universe, which is infinite in scope, embracing distances that are staggering beyond all comprehension, is nonetheless expanding in every place, in every minute, and nobody really knows why.  The dog, Charlie, pokes his head up on my lap from beneath the table, and I swear I could see him smile.  Moments like these are simple and routine, but their cumulative effect is profound.  And in the end I’m left with a sense that life is more than it seems to be, and beyond that, something, some profound reality, some pervasive awareness residing in the central core of being is, in a way that’s beyond my comprehension, aware of me.  And it’s as though a curtain is removed that has covered all my hopes, and I realize that even on the mount of Zion, peace is worth working for and believing in, that even with a tiny mind incapable of grasping the reality of divinity, knowledge and faith are worth pursuing, and that even in the presence of heartbreaking loss, death may not, indeed, have the last word.  And all of that I can see just in the eyes of our dog.

So who am I to argue with the prophet Isaiah?

October 8, 2023

True to form, this morning I plan to take personal exception to over a dozen centuries of biblical interpretation.  I may sound a little flip about it, but in truth, I don’t go about this lightly.  It’s simply that every so often, when I read scripture, something jumps out at  me and takes hold of my imagination.

Anyway, what grabbed me in this morning’s passage from Matthew is this old phrase you’ve heard a dozen times about “the stone that the builders rejected,” and how it “has become the cornerstone.”  I’m not convinced Jesus was talking about what everyone seems to think he was.

It has been assumed for generations that he was referring to himself.  Jesus was the “cornerstone” rejected by the “builders” (i.e. the scribes and the Pharisees), and that same stone (Jesus) is the “stone of stumbling” over which the non-believers would fall.  And, according to scripture, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  According to this interpretation, we’re all supposed to believe in Jesus in order to avoid tripping over the rejected cornerstone.  Well, I believe in Jesus.  I believe that the Jesus we encounter in scripture is normative for our lives.  But if that is so, it’s not enough to say “I believe in Jesus;” the Jesus we encounter should transform us and cause us to live and act according to divine principles and purposes.

When I read this story from Matthew, I get the very clear impression that Jesus was not talking about words or beliefs at all!  I get the idea that Jesus didn’t give a hoot what we say about what we believe in our heads!  The story he told was not about what people thought, or what they said.  It was about what some people did, and what they didn’t do!  The story is about some tenants who were working in a vineyard they had leased.  What they didn’t do was to pay their dues at harvest time!  What they did was to kill the messengers who told them it was time to pay up!  At the end of the story, the owner pointedly does not come on the scene and require of the laborers that they sign a pledge of allegiance, or that they offer words of regret, or promises, or affirmations.  The owner is, instead, inclined to throw their sorry rear-ends out of the vineyard and give it over to (please note) “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

So, the “cornerstone” that Jesus speaks of is, I believe, that critical piece of personal architecture that is a life truly committed to the way of Jesus.  I don’t think we’re in danger of stumbling over the “cornerstone” by failing to profess our belief in Jesus, I think we’re more likely to fall on our faces when we stop producing the “fruits of the kingdom.”  So, in the face of all those centuries of Biblical interpretation in which Jesus is said to be that “cornerstone” and our task is to believe in him, I raise an objection.  I think Jesus was trying to point us to the message more than to the messenger.  And the message is: “What have you done for me lately?”

How much of our energy is put into creating rumors?  At its worst, the church can be likened to a giant rumor mill, where we are all sharing rumors of the Divine realm.  We show pictures to our children and tell them stories about things we want them to believe.  I get up here in front of all of you and tell you things that I glean from scripture about Divine intentions.  From time to time, we have interesting discussions about life and death and after-life, and morality, and social ethics, and things about our belief system that interest us.  It’s like we’re all running around here gossiping about Divinity, but how much of our lives are spent producing those fruits, and turning the harvest over to the Landlord?  Do we just talk about it, or do we live it, do it, share it?

We speak here of social justice.  We look forward to a day when all people will be free from the ugliness of racial and religious hatred and prejudice.  Our denomination issues proclamations against violence, and we read newspaper articles extolling the virtues of tolerance.  We talk about justice and equality.  But, my friends, unless we are participating with or supporting those who are engaged in the dismantling of racial, cultural, religious barriers in our nation and world, or putting forth the effort to learn about the history and the lives of brothers and sisters with different backgrounds, or supporting those who fight the political battles for affordable housing, equal opportunity, or quality public education, then all of our words are just “rumors” about the realm of Divine Love.

We use the word “love” quite freely around here.  We speak of the value of forgiveness, and the beauty of the church’s close fellowship.  We tell people in our church brochure and on our website that we are an open and affirming community.  But unless we go out of our way to meet new people, learn about their lives, and befriend them, unless we pick up the phone to make contact with the person we know is suffering in silence, unless we offer an olive branch of good-will to the one we have been alienated from, then all of our words are just “rumors” of that holy realm.  Paul said it bluntly to the Church in Corinth: “the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power.”

I have to confess, just like last week (in fact every week), this sermon is preached to myself as much as to anyone.  I live from day to day in a virtual sea of words.  I write words for the church website and weekly email, I write words to put in the bulletin, I write words to speak in a sermon.  In fact, I love words.  I actually learned to say all the days of the week in thirteen different languages. (Why would I do that? you ask. . . parties).  So, I’m not down on words per se.  Communication is terribly important.  But we could put ourselves to sleep with all of our words.

I’m reminded of the story of two American students in a German university who were listening to a famous German philosopher speak.  Finally, one turned to the other and said, “Let’s leave.  This is too dull.”  The friend replied, “Well, I admit it’s dull, but let’s at least wait until he gets to the verb.”  The Divine realm is about verbs!  It’s about actions, not simply the piling up of words.  A Christian isn’t just someone who believes the right things, it’s someone who’s life is transformed.  A church isn’t just a place where the right words are spoken,  it’s a place that’s supposed to turn the world upside down.

Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” said it best: “Words! Words!  I’m so sick of words!  I get words all day through. . . . Sing me no song!  Read me no rhyme!  Don’t waste my time, Show me!  Don’t talk of June, Don’t talk of fall!  Don’t talk at all!  Show me!”

That’s exactly what I think Jesus was saying.  When he spoke of the tenants in the vineyard, he was making a point that we ignore at our peril.  If we get so caught up in our words that we fail to produce results with our lives and with our world, we might find ourselves left behind as others are busy remaking the world.

I was reminded of that when I came across the story of a young man named Sam Vaghar who never waited around to hear the right words.  Vaghar, whose father is from Iran, and whose mother is British, grew up in Newton, Massachusetts and graduated from Brandeis.  When he was fifteen years old, he was on a trip to Cuba with his parents and was mugged by a group of kids who took his wallet.  Rather than making him enraged, it made him reflective.  He wondered about the level of poverty there, and about all the inequities in the world.  He resolved to try to make a difference.  Vaghar, in his mid-twenties, founded an organization called the Millennium Campus Network or MCN.  It motivates students to get involved in making a difference in global poverty.  They are using social media to organize, enlist students, engage in projects, and raise money which goes to hunger, poverty, and disease alleviation projects (like buying anti-malaria bed nets for African villagers).   “Since MCN’s inception in a university dorm room about a decade ago, over 10,000 undergraduates from 450 universities worldwide have participated in one or more MCN programs.  MCN alumni have gone on to work at the United Nations, USAID, and launched their own social enterprises.”  Vaghar appealed to a group of 1200 students at a Millennium Campus Conference, saying, “Don’t just think about why you care, but how do we actually have an impact?”  What Vaghar cares about is results.

You and I aren’t necessarily going to start some global organization for social justice, but we can write the check, pull the voting lever, make the phone call.  We can volunteer some time.  We can reach out to a family member, a friend, a neighbor, or even a total stranger with compassion, understanding, assistance and support. And we are doing some good things through our church.  Our mission and ministry are of real value.  But we should always make sure we are keeping our “eyes on the prize,” as they say.  And we might be asking, “Is the church of Jesus Christ, in all its expressions and forms, being all it can be and doing all it can do to be the hands and feet of Divine intention in this world?”  There are some blessed people who are taking to heart the challenge to feed the hungry, heal the broken, and bring good news to the poor.  Maybe they are the ones to whom the landlord will turn over the vineyard Instead of those who fail to bring forth “the produce at the harvest time.”

That’s enough words.

October 1, 2023

What if I asked if you were afraid of God?  Any of you might laugh.  But I should tell you that, to begin with, I’m a little afraid of even using the word “God.”  That’s because it’s been so abused over the centuries and so burdened down with mental images of an old man who sits up on top of the clouds, and it’s very hard for any of us to shake those images of our childhood — images that circumscribe and make somehow manageable the unfathomable power and breadth of divinity.  You might recall images from Bible-thumping preachers of generations gone by who spoke of God’s wrath meted out upon the evil-doers and who tried to frighten people into declaring their faith.  You might say, “Hey preacher, those notions of a scary, frightening God went out with horse-drawn carriages.”  What if I said to you that you’d better be afraid of God?  Would the smile retreat from your face?  Would you consider turning me off and deciding I wasn’t worth listening to anymore?  In fear and trembling (to pick up today’s theme) I hope to convince you this morning that there is very good reason to be afraid of God.

Let’s begin with the Apostle Paul and his admonition in this letter to the church at Philippi that people of faith should indeed be afraid.  He wrote, “. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  And then he said why this task should be so scary.  He concluded, “ . . . for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  I want to tell you this morning that I find the notion of Divinity at work within me shaping my will and my work for the Almighty’s own pleasure extremely frightening.  My will and my work are shaped by my own inclinations, prejudices, beliefs, and desires.  I find that very comfortable.  And I find a god who fits neatly into my hip pocket while I’m engaged I my own will and work to be very satisfying.  There’s absolutely nothing scary about the bumper sticker: “Jesus is my copilot” – nice to know he’s hanging around to back me up, isn’t it?  But a Transformational Power who gets inside me and redirects my will and my work according to Divine priorities instead of my own – that’s way too scary to imagine really happening.  Heaven knows what might become of me if I allowed such a thing to happen.  In fact, that’s exactly the problem: heaven may know what would become of me, but I sure don’t.

Let me begin to unpack all of this by first letting you in on some of my own theology.  Specifically, I want to share a bit of my Christology (which simply means what I believe about Jesus as the Christ).  In doing this I am picking up on a very old tradition inspired by some of the verses you heard read this morning from Philippians.  When Paul writes that Jesus was, “in the form of God [but] . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . . And being found in human form . . .” those words practically leapt off the page at the early church fathers.  They wanted to know what was this “form of God” that described Jesus, and how did it relate to his “form of a slave” and his “human form”?  The debates that grew out of these few words of scripture ended up branding certain notions about Christ as heresy, and establishing an orthodox Christology for the church.  So, my own notions about Christ also relate to these verses, but I suspect those learned early church fathers would have declared me a heretic along with the Arianists and Docetists.  At any rate, when Paul writes that “it is God who is at work within you,” in my mind this echoes his magnificent words about Christ being “in the form of God” and in “human form”.  I happen to think that the difference between Jesus and you and me is simply one of degree.  I think we are all divine, to a point, that we are all sons and daughters of The Most High, that Schiller’s Götterfunken – the “God-spark” of joy – is the imago dei – the image of God – that Genesis says resides in all of us from the moment of creation.  The difference, in my belief, between Jesus and us is that Jesus just happened to be much more deeply in touch with, or got a larger dose of, or gave himself over more fully to that divinity within.

This is a paradox.  To say that we are both human and divine is nonsense.  It is as nonsensical to say it about us as to say it about Jesus.  And yet our entire religion is built on paradox, the paradox of the trinity (the one God in three persons), the paradox of the virgin birth, the paradox of God’s all-powerful and all-loving nature that seems to make no room for the existence of evil and suffering.  If our religion made sense, it would be boring – worse than that, it would inconsequential.

In asserting all this, at least I’m in good company.  Soren Kierkegaard picked up on Paul’s phrase and wrote an entire one hundred and twenty page treatise titled Fear and Trembling.  In that magnificent work of theology he referred to faith itself as a paradox, the same paradox that Abraham faced when confronted with the horrific choice between killing his son and being disobedient to God.  And in another place, he saw this paradox in the human experience of what he refers to as “unutterable joy.”  He supposed that “. . . the unutterable joy is based upon the contradiction that an existing human being is composed of the infinite and the finite, is situated in time, so that the joy of the eternal in him becomes unutterable . . . .”

So, what, you might ask, has all this got to do with being afraid of God?  It all comes down to this great paradox of our religion, the notion that the infinite power of Love, the force that pervades and sustains the universe, can reside in a single human heart.  In other words, in the language of earlier religious formulations, Jesus is constantly knocking on the door of our hearts, and it’s up to us to open that door and, as Paul McCartney suggested, let ’m in.  But that door opens on a frightening prospect.  Jesus himself opened the door and allowed the Divine Spark within to flare up into a raging flame, and it consumed him, and ultimately destroyed him.  In the Garden of Gethsemane he sweated great drops of blood wishing that there were some way to close that door again and douse that fire, but he was too far gone, he was totally committed.

Carl Jung is quoted as saying, “Religion is a defense against the experience of God.”  Those words are often taken as an indictment of religion for swamping people in a haze of orthodoxies and theological constructs.  I think there may be a deeper truth.  I read somewhere – I can’t remember now where – that it was the role of the ancient shaman (and subsequently, the priest) to stand in that place between the people and God not merely as a translator, but as a buffer.  This is because the Divine Power of the Universe is all-consuming, and to move too close is to risk be drawn into an overwhelming force that so transforms one’s life that, in essence, the self is finally lost.  It is comparable to the Black Hole that resides at the center of a galaxy holding it together and powering its artful motion.  Any matter that wanders too close to that source of energy is inescapably drawn into its oblivion.  Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Divine Power is a Black Hole or simply a destructive force.  But I have read the words of Jesus and absorbed the themes of the Bible, and it is abundantly clear that we are not compelled to regard our faith as a convenient add-on, like an app for our cell phones.  Faith is meant to be totally transforming and to require complete commitment from us.

I love the words of Annie Dillard in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk:  “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?” She asks. “… Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?  Or,” she continues, “as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

I feel a little hypocritical preaching this sermon.  I may sound as if I have made this total commitment and am fully in touch with the TNT we are mixing up here on Sunday mornings.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I haven’t been able to give myself completely to that spark of Divinity within.  I haven’t mustered the courage to allow that Spark to grow into a consuming fire, to permit it to, as Paul said, be at work in me, enabling me “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Frankly, it’s just too scary.  The problem is, the meaninglessness of a failure to live for love is even scarier.

So this sermon is being preached to me as well as to you, and it comes with a caution to all of us: that a comfortable god who fits into my life-style and is content with an hour of platitudes every Sunday morning is no God at all.  But it comes also with a word of comfort that is another of the bizarre paradoxes of our religion.  The power of Love is absolutely transforming, the gospel is demanding of total devotion and the way of Christ is one of complete sacrifice of the self.  At the same time, we are accepted, just as we are, and saved – saved from ourselves, from our complacency, from meaninglessness by that same pervasive, all-powerful Love that rules the universe.  Go figure.

So, we are left with this: “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  It’s good advice, because if you or I think instead that it just doesn’t matter how we respond to the gospel, or if we are satisfied with a pleasant, undemanding, comfortable god, we may be well advised to approach the Almighty with some “fear and trembling.”

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