Should Worship Challenge You?

Luther Pic

This week, the clashing symbols at our worship services couldn’t go unnoticed.

We celebrated Reformation Sunday, as Lutherans, and the great hymns of Martin Luther were vibrating in the air. But, in the midst of the celebration, there was also a flickering candle in front of our altar that had been lit in memory of the eleven innocent people who were senselessly killed in the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill exactly one year earlier.

We celebrated the life, ministry and teachings of Martin Luther – a man who boldly and with great courage nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. And yet, we remembered that Martin Luther vehemently attacked the Jews with words like these: “We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather, we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to overcome us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property as they daily pray and hope.”

We remembered that modern-day Lutherans have openly denounced these horrible words of Martin Luther. But, we also remembered that Adolph Hitler used the words of Martin Luther to convince the German people that Germans have always felt that the Jews should be “removed from society with no less mercy than a doctor cuts a cancerous tumor from someone’s body” – ultimately firing suspicions and fears that led to the Jewish Holocaust.

Even our altar was covered with red paraments that remind us of the Holy Spirit that continues to reform the Church even today; but, paraments that also remind us of the blood of those who have been killed because of their religious convictions.

Should worship challenge you?

I guess that I would respond by saying that if you’re attending a church where you are not feeling challenged and confronted from time to time, you need to find a new church.

The Bible continues to remind us that we are sinners, and that we want to continue to believe what we believe and act in the ways that we act because there is no fear of God before our eyes (Romans 3:18). But, the words of St. Paul remind us that God is at work in our lives to transform us and to restore a sense of peace in our relationship with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Set free by the love of Jesus, we can “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) and find peace with God (and with each other) in a world that God created with wonderful diversity.  Set free by the love of Jesus, we can join hands with others and be “good moral neighbors” in a world where hatred, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression need to be confronted by the Word of God and by the Church that’s called to proclaim that Word.

Abraham Lincoln once said, as he gazed across a muddy field that had been transformed into a cemetery after the battle at Gettysburg: “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

If the death of those who were slain in the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill has called us to reflect upon the ways that we think about others and about new ways that we can work together to make our world a better place, those who were senselessly slaughtered (as they were worshipping) did not die it vain.

But, before we can begin to move in that direction, we need to allow the words of pastors and those who teach in the Church to challenge us and to even confront the ways that we think and behave. And, as long as that continues to happen, we will be challenged during worship services and we will continue to be called to be a part of the solution – not a part of the problem.

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The Tree of Life Massacre – One Year Later

Yard Sign

It’s hard to believe that it’s been one year since the unconscionable slaughter of eleven innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill (a part of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). I’m reminded of my first feeble attempt to “do something” and to “take a stand” after a senseless tragedy that left me both numb and speechless each time I see the sign in the front yard of my home.

We have been challenged to think and to reflect in the last year. Many of us have grown and have been changed as we took a more honest look at ourselves in the mirror and as we’ve wrestled with what we believe about other people. Faith leaders in the Pittsburgh area have traveled for many miles – coming from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples – to join in both open and honest conversations that have helped us to better understand each other and the faith traditions that we represent. God has been at work in our communities to challenge us, to soften our hearts, to open our ears and hearts to the voices of others, and to stretch both our patterns of thinking and faith.

The last year has, also, been a time when leaders and members of spiritual communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania have worked hand-in-hand to create a Statement that we, as leaders of different faith traditions, believe expresses the principles and beliefs that we can embrace together. I am providing a copy of this newly released Statement to you, and am hoping that you will take some time to read it, to reflect upon it and even to pray about it. We, as faith leaders in Southwestern Pennsylvania, believe that our faith traditions challenge us: to recognize the dignity and worth of those around us; to speak boldly and clearly against racial supremacy, demonization of those from other cultures and religions, and the violent acts that grow from those bitter roots; to stand in solidarity with minority and marginalized communities; and to repent from our own complicity in words and deeds that have expressed individual and systemic bigotry, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression.

We have committed ourselves to building more loving communities and neighborhoods that uplift the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual, and that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times even as we continue to both recognize and accept the fact that we believe many different things about both God and our world because of our different faith traditions.

I am now presenting this Statement to you hoping that you will take some time to read it, to ponder it, to pray about it, and to allow it to both challenge you and lead you toward the new kind of life that God calls us to embrace in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Living Faithfully with One Another

As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to interpret and draw guidance from sacred texts and traditions.

The sacred texts of the world religions all affirm the created dignity and worth of each individual and our sacred responsibility toward those in need. As we interpret our own sacred traditions in preaching, teaching, meditation or prayer, we will lift up these values.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in support of the dignity and worth of each person.

With sacred texts and traditions as our guides, we reject the theories and rhetoric of racial supremacy, the demonization of those of other cultures and religions, and the violent acts which grow from these bitter roots. We embrace the right of all people to worship (or not to worship) according to the dictates of their own consciences, and we expect the government to respect this freedom.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in solidarity with those in need.

We turn with compassion toward those in our midst who have the greatest cause for fear and insecurity. We stand in solidarity with all marginalized and minority communities, especially those who have been targets of injustice, discrimination, prejudice, and hate. When any of us are attacked in word or deed, we promise our support, help, and protection.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak truth to those in positions of power.

Our voices must be spoken and heard in public discourse. We seek to bring the perspectives of sacred traditions to bear in our shared public life. We call upon and remind elected, appointed, and professional leaders throughout our community to uphold and enforce the values of justice, fairness, nondiscrimination, and dignity.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to high standards of self-reflection.

We call upon ourselves, our faith communities, and our institutions to acknowledge and repent for complicity in words and deeds that express individual or systemic bigotry, racial or religious supremacy, and oppression. We are committed to growing in wisdom and inclusivity as we learn from one another.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to live abundantly, joyously and harmoniously with one another.

We will work resolutely to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times. When and where we disagree in our understandings, we commit to acknowledge, listen to, and value the perspectives of others even as we respectfully present our differing opinions.

We covenant to create, expand and nurture a community of mutual support throughout Southwest Pennsylvania. Seeking Divine help and guidance, we commit to building the beloved community, a neighborhood of neighborhoods that lovingly uplifts the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual.

October 3, 2019
Pittsburgh, PA

When Your Prayers Seem to be Unheard

Provision

We’ve all asked God to intervene in our lives, haven’t we?

Some people ask for God’s help when they’re looking for a new job. Other people have asked God to help them win the lottery. I’m sure that we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve asked God for the gift of healing – either for ourselves, or for someone that we love. A woman told me that she once asked God to provide a parking place for her at a local shopping mall, so that she didn’t have to walk through the snow when she went there to finish her Christmas shopping.

Jesus once told a story about a widow who had been treated unfairly. She asked a judge to help her, but he didn’t. And so, she started going to the Courthouse to plead her case every time the judge came to work and every time he left the building at the end of the day. But, the widow didn’t stop there! She started following the judge home and beat on his door in the middle of the night. And the same thing happened night after night after night, until the judge (who really didn’t care about God or even about people) caved-in and granted her the justice that she sought.

Have you ever felt like you were beating on the doors of Heaven, but that God wasn’t listening to you?

Maybe you didn’t get the job that you asked God to provide? Maybe you didn’t win the lottery and couldn’t pay your mortgage? I remember a time in my life when I prayed and prayed and prayed for young man who had brain cancer – and he died. What if God does not provide a parking place for you at the shopping mall during the busy Holiday Season and you have to walk through the snow – just like everyone else?

Many of us think that prayer is about asking God to give us the things that we want; and, when we don’t get what we want, we get mad at God. “Where was God?” we sometimes say when bad things happen. “If I’ve prayed every day for a young man who had cancer and he died,” we might ask, “then what’s the use in praying at all?”

As I’ve journeyed through life and as I have matured as a Christian, I’ve come to see that prayer is about far more than asking God to give me something and, then, expecting it to miraculously happen. God builds our faith as we pray; and, sometimes, God gives us the strength we need to face things in life that we can’t change. God helps us to see things in different ways when we pray and God promises to journey with us even when things are going dreadfully wrong.

St. Paul once wrote (Romans 8:35-37): “What shall separate us from the love of God?” “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” And St. Paul answers that question by writing: “No! In all these things we are far more than conquerors!”

That’s living faith!

Faith is not about learning how to make our God jump through hoops. Faith is not about “doing something” to catch God’s attention; and, then, expecting God to bless you beyond your wildest dreams – even though that’s what the Prosperity Gospel proclaims.

God promises to journey with us through thick and thin. God promises to bless us with the gift of faith when we need it the most. God promises us that we will never be left all alone, and that God will never let go of our hand in the midst of a raging storm.

That’s the God that I meet and that I spend time with every day when I pray.

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Do You Want to be Healed?

question mark

I suspect that we all have questions about healing.

We can all see the difference between those who appear to be healthy and those who are struggling with disease. Even little children can sense the distinction between justice and oppression. Almost all major religions try to speak a helpful word to those who struggle with human mortality and to point them to the hope of eternity. Today, we experience many gaps between where we live and experience life today and where God’s promised to take us in the future.

This week’s story is one of my favorite stories from the Bible.

Picture mighty Naaman, an “important” man who lived his life commanding others to do what he wanted them to do. Picture this same man carrying 750 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold across nearly 80 miles of untamed wilderness. And when Naaman gets to Elisha’s house, he expects something big to happen.

But we read that the prophet Elisha didn’t even come out of his house to meet Naaman.

And then, we hear this very human response from a man who expected the prophet to heal him. “I thought that FOR ME the prophet would surely come out!” Naaman says to those who were traveling with him. And, in those very human words, we can hear our own voices can’t we? Have you ever expected God to do something big and spectacular in your life? Have you ever asked God to ride onto the scene and heal a terminal disease, or give you something that you really wanted? Have you ever been disappointed because God didn’t do what you expected? That’s the beauty of this story.

We’re reminded, in the story of Naaman, that God doesn’t always bring healing into our lives in big and spectacular ways. God brings healing through the touch of doctors and nurses, and through the medications that we take. God sometimes brings healing into our live while we’re talking with a trusted friend, a professional counselor, or even a pastor. God fills us with strength and faith as we come to the Table to be forgiven and renewed by Bread and Wine – the Body and Blood of Jesus. God, sometimes, even helps us to bring healing into the lives of other people through the kindness, forgiveness and compassion that we extend to other people when they need it most.

At this end of this wonderful story, there’s a hidden gem!

Picture mighty Naaman, a commander of soldiers, walking down to the Jordan River to wash himself in the water. Naaman, undoubtedly, wore heavy armor. He wanted to look strong and ferocious in battle. He, also, wore his armor everywhere he went because a thick layer of armor also hides leprosy, doesn’t it? Can you imagine what would have happened if Naaman had just walked to the water – wearing armor? Can you imagine Naaman sinking like a rock as his armor dragged him to the bottom of the river?

As Naaman approached the Jordan, he needed to remove his armor didn’t he? Before Naaman could be healed, he needed to remove the armor that protected him from other soldiers in battle and from the eyes of those who would have been shocked when they saw his leprosy. And healing often begins in our lives when we do the same thing.

Sometimes, we need to remove the “masks” that we all wear before God can work in our lives to bring healing. How many times have you told people that you’re “fine” when you really weren’t? How many times have you carried burdens that you carefully concealed because you didn’t want other people to know what was happening in your life, or even in your family? Healing often begins when we become both honest and authentic with ourselves and other people. The “masks” that we wear aren’t always helpful.

Jesus once called us to come to Him when we’re heavy laden and nearly overcome. Jesus calls us gather with other Christians in a community of faith where we can be forgiven and strengthened, renewed and even healed.

What are you going to be doing this weekend? Perhaps, it’s time for you to push all of the busyness of life aside, for just a moment, and to find a precious place to rest with those who love you and who want what’s best for you? God’s calling you, right now, to set aside some time in the next few days; and to spend time with people who will strengthen, heal, renew, and help to make you whole again.

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