Jesus: The Son of Man

Son of Man Pic

I think that we’d all admit that the last few weeks have been unusual.

I’m sure that you’ve been watching the news and that you’ve been trying to figure-out what all of this means. Maybe you’ve been stockpiling supplies? Maybe the fact that some of the shelves in grocery stores are empty is making you nervous? Many churches are trying to live-stream worship services for the first time in order to help people stay connected to each other in these unusual times.

And the big question is: “Why do people in the Church need to stay connected?”

Do you realize that God saw something wrong with the Creation long before Adam and Eve ever took a bite of the forbidden fruit? The book of Genesis tells us that God made the sun and the moon, the trees and vegetation, the stars in the sky, and even animals and human beings. We learn, in the book of Genesis, that God saw that the Creation was “very good” and that God was very happy. And then, God noticed something wrong….

And then, the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)

The worldwide response to the coronavirus has created a deep sense of isolation in our lives. Children are not able to go to school and many people are working at home. We see people very wisely staying at a safe distance any time we leave our homes, and some of our governors have ordered a complete lock-down. And, at least for me, it’s all been very overwhelming. Almost every part of my life has been uprooted, and I can’t do many of the things that I’ve taken for granted all of my life. And I’m sure that you’re feeling the very same way as you continue to weather this storm at home, too.

Many years before St. Paul was even born, the Jewish community was looking forward to the coming of the Son of Man.

The Son of Man was described as God’s ultimate warrior who would come into the world to set everything straight. The Son of Man was supposed to come into the world to drive back the forces of evil and everything that defies God, and the Son of Man was to be the ultimate judge of the living and of the dead. And that’s the background that we need to bring with us when we read: Romans 8:31-39.

St. Paul writes: “I am certain that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of Creation will be able to separate us….

And why is that?

If the Son of Man (Jesus) came into the world as God’s ultimate warrior to drive back the forces of evil and everything that defies God…. If the Son of Man (Jesus) came into the world to set things straight and to restore the Creation…. Wouldn’t it make sense to say that since God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18); and that, since the life and ministry of Jesus – the Son of Man – was meant to destroy what God says isn’t good, Jesus came into the world to conquer the types of isolation we’re feeling right now?

Jesus – the Son of Man – came into the world to destroy isolation.

Churches are continuing to have online worship services and Bible studies because that’s what Jesus-people do. Jesus-people understand that the community of the Church is a place where relationships are important and where life-long connections are made. We travel through good and bad together. We try to remain connected to each other even when it isn’t easy. Jesus-people understand that they can fight against loneliness and isolation by remaining in contact with each other through telephone calls and electronic connections, snail mail and even by having children color pictures and send their own masterpieces to people who are feeling isolated and alone.

It’s sometimes hard to maintain relationships, but that what Jesus-people do.

And this week, I’d like to encourage you to think about that. Jesus – the Son of Man – came into the world to destroy isolation. And one of the best ways that Jesus-people can be a part of the ongoing work of Jesus in the world today is to strive to remain connected and in contact with others – even during a time when the coronavirus has driven us all back into the isolation of our own homes.

And, with that in mind, think about these things:

Do you know someone who is homebound (or who lives alone)? If so, please give that person a telephone call this week to remind that person that he/she is important.

Are your kids looking for something to do? If so, why not have them color some pictures and send them to other people who need some love right now, or have them draw some pictures on a sidewalk where they’ll bring a smile to people’s faces when they’re taking a walk to get some fresh air?

If you’re not connected to the ministry of a specific congregation right now, maybe this is a good time to learn more about what some local churches are doing and about what you can do to be a part of what’s happening.

In times like these, we need to remember that: “neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of Creation – including the coronavirus – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” And perhaps, with that in mind, we can all find ways to move through these challenging times together with strength and courage and faith.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus: The Living Water

Samaritan Woman Pic

The coronavirus has created a world-wide crisis.

The shelves in grocery stores are empty, and schools and businesses are closed. People have stockpiled hand sanitizers and toilet paper. It’s nearly impossible to find sanitizing wipes and isopropyl alcohol. Pastors are communicating with the faithful people they serve using new and previously unexplored technologies. And, of course, we’re all being told to wash our hands both thoroughly and frequently.

People in the United States don’t usually worry about having enough water.

We simply turn a knob when we want water and the water magically appears. Many of us wash laundry whenever we want, and even water lawns and flowers in the summer. I once listened to a group of teenagers complain about the fact that they need to get up early every morning, so that they can beat their siblings to the shower; because, if they don’t win the race to the shower, there’s not going to be any hot water left.

But it isn’t that way everywhere.

I had a well when I lived in a rural community and I needed to carefully space loads of laundry during dry spells. I remember talking with one of my friends from Africa who was simply horrified that Americans wash their cars with water that they can drink. In some places, even today, people have to walk long distances to get fresh water. And that’s what we see in a story about an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob (John 4:5-42) – which, by the way, contains the longest conversation that Jesus has with another person in the entire Bible.

Picture a woman who is parched after a long journey in the hottest part of the day.

Here, we find a woman who was coming to the Well of Jacob because she was looking for something that she needed to survive. When things like water are scarce, there’s a very human part of us that tells us that we need to look out for ourselves first. The Samaritan woman needed water; and yet, she was being asked to give what she thought she needed to survive to someone else (Jesus).  Have you collected so much hand sanitizer that other people can’t get any? Are you one of the people who has been hoarding sterilizing wipes and toilet paper? Do you have boxes of masks to put over your face (that are desperately needed by other people) to protect yourself from the coronavirus?

Our survival instinct tells us that we need to get as much of whatever we think we are going to need quickly – even if it means that other people won’t be able to get any of it.

And yet, when the parched Samaritan woman comes to the Well of Jacob, Jesus offers her something different: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Here, Jesus reminds us that we can find an abundance of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness. Jesus reminds us, in this short passage, that He’s come into the world to offer us an abundance of God’s welcome and goodness and peace and strength. And, if you think about it, isn’t that what we’re all trying to find?

We begin the Season of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, by remembering that we are dust and that, one day, we’re going to be dust again. We admit that we’re mortal. We admit that none of us are going to be around forever. In fact, as hard as it is for us to admit, we are all going to die at some point – and it doesn’t matter if it’s because of the coronavirus or because of something else. That might sound harsh. But it’s true.

And in Jesus – The Living Water – God provides a solution that gives us faith and strength as we journey through scary times. In Jesus – The Living Water – we can find the courage to continue to live well with each other even in a time when our fear is calling forth our worst human instincts. All will be well. In fact, even when we’re tempted to think that all will not be well, all will be well because we’re safe in the hands of God and because God has already shown us – in Jesus – that no matter what we face, in life or even in death, we are already far more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).

And so, as you journey through scary times, live your life with faith and courage.

Even though there’s a deep human instinct that’s telling us to look out for ourselves, we need each other and must learn how to continue to live well with other people. We can’t allow fear to drive us into uncontrollable panic and we can’t afford to allow ourselves to allow our imaginations to just run wild.

We need to somehow continue to find ways to live well in these challenging times, and we need to continue to search for ways to care for each other and to treat each other in kind and loving ways.

Right after Jesus offered the Samaritan woman “living water,” she said, “Sir, give me this water” (John 4:15); and she, immediately, ran to all of her friends and told them about what she had discovered in the midst of her own time of desperate need.

How can your faith carry you through these times of challenge and uncertainty?

How can your faith help you to calm those around you who are allowing fear to bring out the worst in them?

In every crisis, there’s an opportunity. And, perhaps, this crisis provides a chance for all of us to bear witness to our faith and our trust in God in new and exciting ways?

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus: The Lamb of God

The-Lamb-of-God
Many Christians wonder why it’s important to read the Old Testament.

The Old Testament has stories about God sending a man to the top of a mountain to sacrifice his own son, and about God opening up the earth and swallowing people. The Old Testament contains stories about God sending the “Angel of Death” to kill the first-born male in every home in Egypt that didn’t have blood smeared over the top of the doorway, and about God telling people to destroy their enemies without mercy. And for many of us, stories like these aren’t very appealing because we want to think about God as a God who loves people and forgives them. We want to believe that no matter what we do wrong, God is always willing to give us another chance.

But the Old Testament contains many stories and images that can help us to understand the New Testament better.

We’ve all heard the words: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) right? But what about the verses that come right before that one? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the Wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)?

These verses refer to a story in the Old Testament book of Numbers (Numbers 21).

Moses has gone down into Egypt and has stood toe-to-toe with the Pharaoh. Moses has told the Pharaoh to release his slaves. By the time we get to Numbers 21, the Israelites are well on their way and have even been led through the Red Sea. But then, they began to whine and complain. The Israelites became impatient with both God and Moses. And, in response to the whining and complaining, God sent fiery serpents (the seraphim) to bite the Israelites and cause them to die. People were dropping dead all over the place! But, when the Israelites repented, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to lift it high into the air with a pole, so that those who looked at the bronze serpent would live even after having been bitten by the fiery serpents.

God has a long history of finding creative ways to work with people who have failed.

We all have times in our lives when it would be nice to be able to re-wind the hands of time and do things differently. Many churches begin worship services with a time when people are encouraged to confess their sins. We don’t always love God with our whole heart, and we don’t always love our neighbors as ourselves. We all have times when our pride gets in the way. We all have times in our lives when we’re apathetic and indifferent to injustices that surround us. And, of course, we all have times when we think of others in uncharitable ways, and when our biases and prejudices cause us to treat people that we don’t even know very unfairly.

So, why doesn’t God just send more fiery serpents?

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the Wilderness, Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – has been lifted high upon the Cross. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on the end of a long pole, Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – has been hoisted high in the air for us to see. And, in that mighty act of God, a new path forward in life has been provided for us. God has, once again, chosen to do a wonderful thing when there was every reason in the world to just flatten us like a pancake or send more fiery serpents to bite us!

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did NOT send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” – (John 3:16-17)

And that’s the Gospel – The Good News of Jesus Christ – in a nutshell…!

No matter what you’ve been told, God is NOT looking for a reason to pound you as flat as a pancake because you’ve wandered off and made mistakes. No matter what you’ve been told, God is NOT looking for a reason to throw you into the raging fires of an endless and eternal Hell. Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – came into the world because God continues to love us and care about us. Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – came into the world because God wants us to know that, no matter how far astray we’ve gone, health and wholeness and healing are still available because of God’s unending love.

And that’s a word of Good News!

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus: The Cosmic Warrior

Jesus being tempted

People say many different things about Jesus.

We know that Jesus was crucified and was raised from the dead between 26 and 36 CE because that’s when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. St. Paul wrote his letters about 20 years later and the Gospel of Mark was written about 10 years after that. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke appeared about 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Gospel of John first appeared in about 95 CE (almost 70 years after Jesus lived). The New Testament bears witness to Jesus and has transmitted stories about Jesus and letters written by early Christians for nearly 2,000 years. In the next few weeks, we are going to be exploring some of the things that the New Testament tells us about Jesus and about what all of that means for us today.

We begin this 5-week series of messages in the Wilderness where Jesus was tempted by the devil. Jesus has already been washed in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer. We have already been told that Jesus is God’s Son. And now, we see Jesus being led into the wilderness (the land of demons and unclean spirits) by the Holy Spirit and we even see the devil tempt Jesus three different times.

But, before we get to that, let’s back up a little bit….

Did you know that Jesus believed that our world is a place where evil is running amok? Jesus, like John the Baptizer before him, called people to radically change their lives – knowing that the Kingdom of God is near. Jesus believed that he was living in the End Times and that a mighty warrior, called the Son of Man, was going to come into the world to set things straight (maybe even tomorrow!). And, because of that, the ethical teachings of Jesus were both extreme and confrontational (think about plucking-out the eye that causes you to sin) (Matthew 5:29). Jesus believed that the “Son of Man” was coming into the world to judge both the living and the dead.

It is in this context that Jesus came to be seen by his followers as The Cosmic Warrior.

Jesus came into a world where the forces of good and evil are fighting with each other and to defeat the forces of evil (and even the devil). Jesus came into the world to drive-back the enemies of God and to defeat the powers of sin, the devil and death. We’re told in the letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but did not fall victim to those temptations (Hebrews 4:15). St. Paul tells us that, because of the death and the resurrection of Jesus, we can know that we’re already “far more that conquerors through him who loves us (Romans 8:37).

And it’s in that trust and faith that we find courage and strength to live our daily lives.

We are still being tempted to put ourselves first and to push other people aside because we’re afraid that they’ll somehow take what belongs to us – just like Jesus was. We’re still being tempted to test the extent of God’s love and mercy every time we do things that we know aren’t right trusting that God will always forgive us. We still live in a world where people crave power for themselves and where people want to have a sense of power and control over other people. Think about Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – who was offered total and absolute power, and who was offered the chance to control the entire world if he would just sell his soul to the devil – one time!

Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – journeys with us, in that same battle, today.

Please don’t forget that when you’re being tempted to do what you know isn’t right, Jesus is with you. Please don’t forget that when you’re searching for a sense of peace and hope in your life, Jesus is with you to give you strength. Please don’t forget that Jesus continues to point you in the right direction when you read your Bible, and pray, and join others in worship and prayer. And please don’t forget that the same Jesus will sometimes poke you and challenge you to change course when you’re drifting away – just like Jesus did during his life and ministry on the earth.

You are already far more than a conqueror!

And my challenge to you, this week, is to live in that faith and to trust that Jesus is with you. This week’s lesson (Matthew 4:1-11) reminds us that Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – has already faced the devil and has triumphed. Jesus is able to help you to overcome any temptation that you face and will journey with you no matter where life takes you. Trust that Jesus is taking care of you. Trust that Jesus is providing what you need. And, above all, know that ALL of the battles you will face this week are nothing more than the last few skirmishes of a great cosmic war between good and evil that has already been won for us by Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

A Gift that Changes Lives

Candle at Both Ends

Have you ever felt like there’s not enough of you to go around?

I’d venture to say that many us define ourselves by the roles that we play in our lives and by the things that we do with our time. Maybe you’re a doctor or nurse, an administrator or a carpenter. Maybe you’re a mechanic or artist, a pastor or a musician. Maybe you are a Christian who has been baptized and who attends weekly worship. But, no matter who you are and no matter what roles you play, you’re probably going to realize that there is just not enough of you to go around at some point.

Have you ever considered the fact that there are going to be times when you cannot be where you want to be…?

My parents were 250 miles away from where they wanted to be on the night I watched my best friend die in an automobile crash. I’ve held the hands of many good people who were forced to watch children die many years after their parents were dead and buried. Maybe, when we feel like there’s not enough of us to go around, we’re being challenged to think about life on a different level? We can’t be in more than one place at a time. We can’t always do what we want to do because we don’t have an unlimited store of time and energy. People like us (mere mortals) only have a very short amount of time to live; and we, sometimes, need to help people that we love prepare for the times in life when we’re not going to be able to be with them.

This week, we encounter a very unusual story in the Bible.

The Bible tells us that, one day, Jesus was transfigured (Matthew 17:1-9). He had climbed to the top of a mountain (where people tend to encounter God) with Peter, James and his brother John. And, when they all got to the top of the mountain huffing and puffing and sweating and trying to catch their breath, something happened…. Bright lights came on…! Jesus began to glow! Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere and there was a big and booming voice from a cloud! And Peter said, “Wow! It’s good for us to be here!”

But Peter didn’t really understand what was happening. In a very short time, Jesus would be arrested and dragged away. Jesus would be condemned to death and He’d be nailed to a Cross. Peter would be stunned! In fact, Peter would be so stunned that he’d lock himself in a room with Jesus’ remaining disciples to keep the rest of the world at a safe distance.

I’m sure that Peter’s parents and friends never imagined what it was going to be like for him to watch Jesus being dragged away and executed. I’m sure Peter’s family and friends never imagined what it was going to be like for him to watch Roman soldiers prying the dead body of Jesus off the Cross. And, with that in mind, consider this:

I don’t know what kind of challenges or difficulties you and the people that you love are going to face. But I do know that there are going to be times when you’re not going to be able to be where we want to be – no matter how thinly you stretch yourself.

Peter’s family and friends never imagined the great, big hole that was going to open up inside of him when Jesus died. My parents were 250 long miles away on the night when I watched my best friend die in an automobile crash. I’ve stood beside many people after they’ve received horrible news from a doctor or learned about another type of tragedy.

And yet, I’ve also seen that there’s a great source of Living Water that’s never exhausted.

Peter was given a glimpse of something that he could hold onto in the glowing moment that he’d never forget. I will ever forget my father standing beside me during worship services and guiding me through services by moving his index finger down the pages of an old hymnal. Many people shared the story of Jesus with me in different ways as I was growing up. Good and faithful Christians planted seeds in my life that later sprouted and became just what I needed as I’ve journeyed through life! And, I believe, that same story, the story of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, is the most precious gift you can ever give to another person. The gift of a relationship with Jesus is, truly, a gift that has the power to change lives forever!

It was no accident that I ended-up pounding on the doors of a church at 2:30 am on the evening when my best friend was killed. It’s no accident that I still continue to begin my times of daily prayer by taking a deep breath and saying, “Lord, it’s good to be here.”

My parents, who are both dead now, planted seeds that are still growing in my life even though they can no longer be with me. My parents wisely recognized the fact that simple people can only be stretched so thin and that they can only live so long. And so, as I was growing, they invited me to “come and see” what they had seen. They gave me chances to meet Jesus and they just allowed God do whatever God wanted to do with me.

Is there someone that you could invite to “come and see”?

You have a chance to share a gift that has the power to change lives! You have a chance to invite someone that you know to “come and see” Jesus. And yes, you have a chance to plant seeds that will sprout and grow, and that may even become something magnificent that someone you love will need during a time when you can’t be where you want to be.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

It’s All About the Table

Bread and wine

Some things drive me absolutely crazy.

Think about this scenario…. You’re in a hurry, and you either want to print something that you have been working on for several hours or you just want to send a quick email. And then, your computer freezes. CTRL/ALT/DEL sometimes does the trick. Sometimes you need to hit the power button and hope for the best. I have even had to unplug my laptop and remove the battery pack. And why? Because, sometimes, a computer gets so messed-up that the only thing you can do is re-boot the entire system.

In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 30:15-20), God clearly sets a choice before us. We can love God and obey God and keep God’s laws, or we can allow ourselves to be led astray by other gods. We can live our lives following God and be blessed, or we can choose to live our lives in a different way and not be blessed. And, according to Deuteronomy, the choice is ours.

And then, Jesus comes along….

Jesus tells us that, even though we’ve all be told that we should not commit murder, we do the same thing when we get angry. Jesus tells us that when we drift off-course, even a little bit, it’s both horrible and inexcusable. And then, Jesus gets radical! We’re told that, if our eye causes us to sin, we need to pluck it out. We’re told that, if our hand causes us to sin, we need to cut it off. Because, after all, it’s better to live your life without one of your eyes or without one of your hands than it is to spend eternity in Hell, right? (You may want to read: Matthew 5:21-37.)

Sometimes, our lives get as messed-up as a frozen computer. We can’t always fix the damage we’ve done. We can’t always repair relationships that we’ve broken. We can’t always fix things and make them right again after we’ve made choices in life that have caused us to lose a part of our good health.

And then, just when we’re ready to throw in the towel, Jesus provides a solution.

In the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks, broke it and gave it to His disciples saying, “Take and eat. This is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” And again after supper, He took the cup and gave thanks, and He gave it for all to drink saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood which is shed for you – and for all people – for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

In essence, Jesus comes into our lives during a holy moment and shuts down everything that isn’t working right. We come to the Table weighed down with sin and brokenness, and Jesus sends us away forgiven and renewed. We come to the Table burdened by all of the mistakes that we’ve made, and Jesus shines light in the darkest corners of our lives and send us back into the world to live in a new way.

But, even after that holy moment, we still go back into the world and make mistakes, don’t we? We’re called to live our lives in a new way, but we don’t always do it. Even after Jesus forgives us and renews us, we can still go away with hearts that are hard and with attitudes that are unwilling to be changed.

And that’s why Christians live from Meal – to Meal – to Meal – to Meal.

We come to the Table to be forgiven and renewed, and to be sent back into the world. And, when we go back into the world, we mess up again. And so, we come back to the Table of the Lord to be forgiven and renewed, and to be sent back into the world. And this kind of Christian life, lived from Meal to Meal to Meal, is our spiritual journey.

You see, Christian worship isn’t just about flashing lights, music that stirs up emotions and having a chance to listen to the best preacher in town. Christian worship is not about the buildings where Christians gather. It’s not about singing only familiar hymns or using the “right” instruments. It is, certainly, not just about touching base with people that you haven’t seen all week.

Christian worship is always about the Table. Christian worship is always about the Table where we find forgiveness, renewal and strength to meet the week ahead.

And the next time your computer freezes, I want you to remember that. We come to the Table weighed down with sin and brokenness, and Jesus forgives us and re-boots the entire system. We come to the Table as people who are far less than perfect; and Jesus forgives us, renews us, and then sends us back into the world to live our lives and to help our world to become a better place for us all – at least until Jesus calls us to come back to the Table again next week.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Bigger Than Me

Ordinary People

We live in an Age of rugged individualism.

We have been told that we need to go out into the world and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps (whatever that means). We have been told that people who are struggling and who can’t feed their own children just need to work harder. We’re told that there are two things in life that we should never talk about: religion and politics. And, as we’ve heard those confusing messages, our faith and our thoughts about God have been changing.

Many people believe that religion is something deeply personal.

Maybe we believe that because we think that faith is only about “Jesus and me,” and that our spiritual journey is only about finding our way into a paradise that we call Heaven. Maybe we say that our faith is a personal thing because we never learned how to talk about God with other people and don’t feel comfortable praying in front of others. Many of us say that a person’s religion is something deeply personal; and yet, for some reason, we keep talking about the fact that we need to get prayer back into public schools. Maybe we don’t think we should talk about our faith because we know that we live in a diverse country where people believe many different things about God and we don’t want to get into debates (even fights) with other people.

In my Christian faith tradition, God clearly speaks against rugged individualism. In fact, when God was creating the heavens and the earth, the first thing that God saw that was NOT good is pointed-out in Genesis 2:18. God clearly says, “It is NOT good for the person that I have created to be alone.” Wow!

In my last few posts, I’ve been reminding you that you are dearly loved by God and that God has placed you on the earth to do a very special thing. I’ve also lifted up the fact that, as people of faith, it’s important for us to remind each other that the things we’re doing with our lives are important. God created us to encourage each other and to build each other up. God created us pray for each other and to spur each other on. But, we can’t do that as individuals who are not connected to each other in some way. And that’s why, as people who are dearly loved by God, Christ brings us together in the Church.

A lot of people don’t want to have anything to do with the Church these days; and, quite frankly, I can sometimes understand why they remain distant. People are sometimes like porcupines on a cold winter night. We need each other to stay warm. We, perhaps, even need each other to survive in a world where God says that it’s not good for us to be all alone. But, sometimes, when we get close to each other, we prick each other with our quills, don’t we? Sometimes WE prick other people with OUR quills. Sometimes we get pricked by the quills that other people have. And it can hurt. It can make us want to run away. Some of you may have decided that you don’t want to have anything to do with the Church because you are sick and tired of being hurt by people that you think should be nicer, or more friendly, or less belligerent, or even more forgiving. One of the things that I’ve learned about the Church is that the Church is filled with people. And, if I require the people in the Church to be more perfect than I am, I’m bound to be disappointed.

Saint Paul talks about the Church in 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. He clearly reminds us that the Church consists of many different gatherings in many different places. Saint Paul even acknowledges that people in one community of faith can feel separated from folks in other communities of faith. Have you ever been afraid to work with another group of Christians in a different faith community to meet the needs of young people because you think that “other” congregations want to “steal” the young people in your congregation? Have you ever secretly gloated when you heard that another faith community was going through a time of struggle? Have you ever been afraid that the newly-installed and very charismatic preacher down the street is going to draw “your” people away? We’re very good at talking about the fact that we are all Christians together and that we shouldn’t feel that we’re in competition with each other, but….

What would the ministry of the Church look like if we all reached out to each other and tried to form partnerships? Maybe we could do things together that we’re having trouble doing all by ourselves? Maybe, if we set aside some of our feelings of competition, we could re-discover the fact that the Church is one Body – not just a bunch of individually working body parts? Maybe we could all thrive and become more healthy together by remaining connected to each other in times when the Church is going through a lot of scary changes? Maybe we could even begin to see Christ do some incredibly new things with all of us if we could just begin to see ourselves as more than individuals – or as individual communities of faith – and started working together and acting like the one Body that we are?

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God is Near to You

christmas night

Why do we celebrate Christmas?

I suspect Christmas is about far more than surrounding ourselves with uplifting music and familiar tunes during the shortest days of the year. I suspect that Christmas is about something far more than “doing what we do” because it’s “what we did” when we were children. Christmas resonates with something inside of us. There is something about the story of God coming into the world to live with us and to be a part of our lives that helps us to connect with God in a more deep and meaningful way. And that’s why the story of “Immanuel” – “God is near to us” – is a story that we need to hear over and over again as we journey through life.

God is far more than an indescribable Principle, or Being, that exists far beyond what we know and experience in our daily lives. God is more than a distant “Being” who lives up in the sky at a safe distance, but who always seems to know whether we’ve been naughty or nice. God stands at the center of our deepest longings as human beings. And the Good News of Christmas is that the same God that we long for in the very center of our being is a God who comes into our world to be near us.

God is near to us when we welcome a new child, or grandchild, into our lives; and God is with us while we’re trying our best to raise that child in a crazy world. God is near to us when we awaken in the morning and go to work, and God is near to us when we come home at the end of the day exhausted and collapse in our favorite chair. God is near to us during those moments in life when we are living on top of the world, and God is near to us when we don’t know how we can possibly make it even one more day. God is near to us when we are strong and healthy. God is near to us as we age and discover that we are not as much in control of our lives and futures as we imagined. And God even promises to be near to us as we close our eyes for the very last time and quietly slip into Eternity as so many others have before us.

In a little, tiny baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, God comes into the world because God wants to be a part of our lives and a part of every moment that we live. Jesus, the Child in the manger that we celebrate every Christmas, grew up to be a Man who told us that He will be with us “even to the end of the Age.” That’s a word of Good News, isn’t it? At the center of every Christmas, we find a God who walks with us every day. “God is near to us” in every moment filled with joy and celebration, and “God is near to us” in every moment when we need God’s hand to dry our tears.

May God bless you with a renewed awareness of the fact that “God is near to you” as you gather with those that you love and celebrate Christmas this year. And may you enter the New Year with a deeper sense of God’s presence in your life every day.

Merry Christmas!

Click Here for This Year’s Christmas Message

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.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

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