"How'm I Doin'?"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/22/2018



I John 3:16-24
“How’m I Doin’?”
April 22, 2018
            When Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, he was known for riding around town, and at random times rolling down his car window to shout at whoever was on the sidewalk, “How’m I Doin’?”  It was an odd way of getting feedback on how to run a city, and it didn’t allow anybody to think things through or to give any kind of in-depth answer, but at least it went straight to the people with no pollsters or spin involved.
            The answer a mayor would get to a question like that is going to vary with the person she or he asks, though.  A lot of people are going to respond based on whether the potholes are being fixed and the trash is being collected.  There are going to be some, though, who are going to have their property values in mind.  Koch was mayor of New York during the AIDS crisis, and a lot of what I read about him this past week when I looked up this one, little, three-word quotation went into his part in the response to that emergency.
            If you really want to know how you’re doing, you should be more specific.  How are you doing what?  Babe Ruth is best known for his home-run record.  He was also a great pitcher, and that gets overshadowed.  In the 1918 World Series, he pitched 29 1/3 scoreless innings, a record that stood until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.  Off the field, he was known for womanizing and for drinking way too much. 
            How are things going with you?  How are you doing?
            Maybe in one area things are going well, but at the expense of another.  Maybe you have that parenting or grandparenting thing figured out, at least for now.  (After all, it’s different to be the parent of a two-year-old, a twelve-year-old, and a sixteen-year-old.  The job description for “parent” is updated every few months.)  On the other hand, the skills that you gained as a blues saxophonist have totally evaporated from the first moment you realized that the baby needed to sleep.  Maybe your law studies are going well, but you haven’t had time to go to the gym in four months.  You prioritize. 
            How are you doing on those priorities?  If you have to pick between soccer practice and church, which do you go to?  If cheerleading is more important than Sunday School, as it is for a lot of families, how will that play out down the road?  You work hard to provide for your family, but that means that they never see you.  What good is that?
            So much of the Bible is about keeping priorities straight, about not letting the words and the appearances be the end of things, but asking where the real substance is.  It’s about letting our hearts and our deeds tell us how we are really doing, not as the world identifies success, but as God does.  It presupposes that what matters most in life is love, and shows us how to ask how we are doing with that.
“We know love by this that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” [I John 3:16-23] 
            I keep a clipping under the glass that covers my desk.  When I have too many papers and what-not all over the place, and push them aside, I see it right there and, because it’s under the glass, it doesn’t move and I cannot brush it away (or ruin it if I spill a cup of tea or coffee).  I don’t remember where I found it, but it’s written by somebody named Jim Palmer, about whom I know absolutely nothing except that at some point he wrote a list that has been good for me to see.  The heading is “22 Mistakes I Made as a Senior Pastor”.  They are:
“Putting church over community.
Putting orthodoxy over love.
Putting certainty over wonder.
Putting teaching over conversation.
Putting polished over real.
Putting answers over questions.
Putting membership over friendship.
Putting Christianity over Christ.
Putting knowledge over action.
Putting style over substance.
Putting appearance over authenticity.
Putting functionality over beauty.
Putting religion over spirituality.
Putting numbers over faces.
Putting holiness over humanity.
Putting accountability over acceptance.
Putting heaven over earth.
Putting meetings over relationships.
Putting reputation over risk.
Putting charisma over compassion.
Putting the Afterlife over the Herelife.
Putting thinking over feeling.”
Maybe you’ve got a list of your own like that someplace.  You don’t have to tell anyone else about it, unless it helps, but it really would be a good idea to run over something like that in a prayerful and reflective way and then to ask the Lord, “How’m I doing?”
            If you don’t already have that kind of list, let me suggest one that not only lays out areas worth working on, but what you can expect to come out of them.  I cannot take credit for drawing this one up, either.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  [Matthew 5:3-12]
About those “Blessed are” things: How’s it going?  Well, I hope.


"Repentance and Forgiveness"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/15/2018
Luke 24:44-49
“Repentance and Forgiveness”
April 15, 2018
            Someone who was once trying to weasel out of a situation where he had been caught cheating on his wife found himself being questioned intensely and publicly.  Somebody pointed out that he had denied activities that were pretty clearly substantiated, saying, “There’s nothing going on between us.”  He insisted he had been truthful because when he was asked the affair had already been cut off.  It would have been different if he had said that nothing ever had gone on.  In his own words, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
           I’m also about to make – for better reasons – the point that the word “is” is important.  In this case, I’m looking at one verse at the end of Luke where Jesus tells his disciples
“that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” [Luke 24:47]
Shouldn’t that be: “repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed”?  The verb is “to be”.  Conjugate that as the rare grammatical form called a circumstantial participle: “I am to be/ You are to be/ He, she, or it is to be/ We are to be/ You are to be/ They are to be”.  Here that is used as the auxiliary to the main verb, which is “to proclaim”.  
            “To proclaim” is what I won’t get around to doing if I get tangled up in this stuff any longer, so back to the real point:
“that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” [Luke 24:47]
That “is” tells me that what looks to me like two items, “repentance” and “forgiveness”, are one item, not two.  They are a package deal.  I can look at the car and the tires separately, but I am not going to buy one without the other.  When I talk about the car, the tires are understood.
            Repentance and forgiveness are two sides of what we call people to experience, and of what we experience in our own lives.  To turn away from evil opens us up for God’s forgiveness, and God’s forgiveness leads us to turn away from evil.  It works both ways.  The old life has come and gone.  Something new has begun.  If you would experience the new, you have to leave the old behind, and if you are feeling the tug to start over, you should know that the hold of the former ways is broken, and its power is gone.  Sometimes the two parts of that are working simultaneously.  The Holy Spirit can do things however it chooses, and always knows best.
            One of the best preachers – and by “best” I mean most effective in calling people to new life in Jesus – in the United Methodist Church today is a man down in Houston whose name is Rudy Rasmus.  He shares the story of his life pretty freely, and does it best in his own voice, so here is the version that is on YouTube.
            Did you hear in that how the repentance and the forgiveness go together?  Be sure that they always do.  It took him years to extricate himself from the life that he had actually grown up in, but once the process began it rolled on and on.  It took five years of his wife praying simply for God’s love to show itself in him.  When that began to show itself, it happened in fits and starts.  Repentance and forgiveness were both there.  Together they came to lift him out of what he called “some dark places”.
            Jesus told his disciples to let people know about that freedom, that it can be theirs.  If God can (and he did) raise Jesus out of the dark grave, you can be sure that God can (and he will) raise us out of the dark places our sins lead us, and take away the sin that leads us there in the first place.
            That is the power of the cross and the power of the resurrection.  My prayer today is for each of us to know both.  Consider this, if you will, an altar call.  Consider this an opportunity to let the Spirit of Christ find just the right place within your heart to begin the process of renewal that begins and never ends, that lets you say with the apostle Paul,
“by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain” [I Corinthians 15:10]
and to assure others that, wherever they may be on the path,
“the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” [Philippians 1:6]
and to share what you have seen Jesus do in this world that he loves so deeply, because
“You are witnesses of these things.” [Luke 24:48]


Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/8/2018
John 20:19-31
April 8, 2018
Every year, on the Sunday after Easter, the same reading comes around about Thomas saying that the only way he’ll believe that the other disciples have really seen Jesus is if he not only sees him, too, but sees the scars of the crucifixion on his body.  Maybe Thomas wanted physical confirmation that this was not some kind of impostor putting himself forward.  Maybe he wanted to know that the other disciples hadn’t had some kind of mass delusion brought about by wishful thinking or mental exhaustion.  Maybe he wanted to know they hadn’t seen a ghost.  However, I’d like to think that maybe there was more to it than any of those impulses.
I once came across a quotation from Allan Boesak, who was a prominent anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s that has stuck with me.  He said, “When we go before Him, God will ask, ‘Where are your wounds?’  And we will say, ‘I have no wounds.’  And God will ask, ‘Was nothing worth fighting for?’”
The book of Isaiah [53:46] tells us about what could be expected of the Messiah.  He would have wounds to show.  He would have found something worth fighting for.  It says,
“Surely he has borne our infirmities
   and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
   struck down by God, and afflicted. 
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
   crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
   and by his bruises we are healed. 
All we like sheep have gone astray;
   we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
   the iniquity of us all.”
Thomas’s comment, “Let me see his wounds, and I’ll believe it’s him,” carries a kind of plea for assurance.  If those wounds are there, it means he has seen us as worth fighting for, and there is hope even for those that everybody else gives up on.
            A man named Marshall Shelley tells a story about sticking with people because Jesus has stuck with us.  He writes,
“The worship team was making its way off the stage, and Pastor Mike was making his way up, when he noticed movement off to the side of the auditorium.  A woman he had never seen before, with flaming red hair, suddenly stood to her feet, eyes shut, face to the sky, hands in the air.  At the top of her lungs, she started uttering unintelligible syllables …
The whole church was shocked into complete silence.  Pastor Mike was as stunned as everyone else.
‘This was a 135-year-old Baptist church where this sort of thing had never been done,’ Mike said later.  ‘Other than the woman belting it out, you could have heard a pin drop.  The look on most of the faces of the congregation was pure terror.  A few were looking at me as if they thought this was something staged for effect, a creative sermon intro.  But it wasn’t.’ …
When he got to her, Mike gently laid his hand on her shoulder to let her know he was there.
With that, she switched and began to speak in English, but still with a voice that carried to every corner of the room: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the Ancient of Days, the Lion of Judah.  I have created the world, the firmament above and the earth below.  Mighty are the works of my hands, and marvelous is that which is made, great in glory and in majesty.’
…As he watched her speak, he noticed that sitting next to her was a man who seemed very uncomfortable, who was touching her arm trying to coax her down.
At that point the woman said, ‘I love my daughter with a great love, and though she has been in mental hospitals, even now my favor rests upon her. …’
Mike bent down to quietly ask the man, ‘Is she speaking about herself right now?’  The man nodded.  So Mike asked, ‘What is her name?’  He responded, ‘Darlene.’ …
With that, Pastor Mike turned to the rapt faces in the congregation and with the benefit of the microphone said gently, ‘Church, this is Darlene, and she is our guest today.  I think that we should pause right now and pray for her.’”[1]
So that’s what they did, and when he said, “Amen,” she jumped back onto the same track as everyone else, and the service proceeded as previously planned.
            Now, in the book I took this from, there’s a dramatic twist, which is that a couple of weeks later, Mike got a call from Darlene, who was in a hospital getting some help and some rest.  A few months after that, Mike was greeting people after church and a visitor very shyly asked if he recognized her, which he hadn’t until that point.  He gave her a hug, and she eventually became one of the leaders in that church, with only the two of them knowing she was the same person.
            That’s the happy ending, but I wonder about her father, who was sitting there with her the Sunday of her meltdown.  I would be reasonably certain that he had done a lot of praying for her himself, and that she would not have found the help she needed if it hadn’t been for him.  I would be surprised if his faithfulness toward her didn’t both help her to keep faith and also leave him with considerable wounds and scars of his own. 
The people who are not always quite as front-and-center, the people who are the Thomases or the Matthews rather than the Peters and the Pauls, or Salome, who doesn’t get much mention at all, but who was right there when it was time to do the sad, hard, necessary work of cleaning and embalming Jesus’ corpse.  They often end up with scars and wounds of their own, and none of the attention.  They may be parents or friends who have answered the phone in the middle of the night, who have stayed beside someone at an emergency room, who have listened helplessly to painful stories, who have been the shoulder that is cried on.  They’ve paid the bail and they’ve arranged the therapy sessions.  They’ve had to say, “No,” when their hearts wanted to say, “Yes.”  They’ve had to say, “Yes,” when they wanted to say, “No.”  Those are people who will not need to show God their wounds.  He can see them on their hearts.
They also need the reassurance written out in Jesus’ scars and wounds, the ones that Thomas saw, those that come from the deepest cruelties and deepest suffering of all.  They need to see not only that there is something worth fighting for, but that the fight can be won, if not by them (which they usually learn the hard way), but by Jesus, who has been there and back again.
“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe.’”  [John 20:26b-27]
The good news is not Jesus’ death, but his death and resurrection taken together.  He doesn’t come through it unscathed, anymore than anybody else.  But when we see that he has come through it, then we know that by his grace we will, too.
            Jesus said to Thomas,
“Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [John 20:29]

[1] Marshall Shelley, Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to Do with Well-Intentioned Dragons (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2013), 91-93.


"Terror and Amazement"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 4/1/2018 (Easter Sunday)


Mark 16:1-8
“Terror and Amazement”
April 1, 2018
Easter Sunday
            There are ancient copies of the gospel of Mark that finish with an appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene and then to two unnamed disciples and then to the whole group except for, of course, Judas; after which Jesus ascends to heaven and the apostles hit the road to the four corners of the earth with the good news, miracles trailing in their wake.  Some of the earliest copies we have of the gospel of Mark, however, end where we did today:
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  [Mark 16:8]
As we gather to remember that day, we do it with flowers and new clothes and candy and organ music and a choir.  We hold egg hunts and there’s a ham in the oven.  The people who were actually there at the tomb were scared and paralyzed, and the rest of the disciples were hiding in a locked room back in Jerusalem, trying to figure out what to do next and if the coast was even clear to get out of town.
            Yes, there was good news.  There was the best kind of good news.  There was unbelievably good news, and it was delivered by no one less than an angel of God.  But the initial announcement didn’t sink in just like that, because they were terrified.  “Terrified”: there’s a word that we separate far too easily from its sister-words “terror”, “terrorist”, and “terrorized”.
           The land where those people lived was under the control of a government that ruled by terror.  The Romans killed people on a regular basis just to keep the locals under control.  Crucifixion was popular with the Romans not only because it was simple and painful and slow, but also because it let them leave the bodies up as a warning.  The historian Josephus tells how during a rebellion of the Jews against Rome, the general Titus was allowing the crucifixion of about five hundred people a day.  It may have been an exaggeration, but he says that they had trouble making enough crosses to keep up with demand.[1]
           Do you remember a few months back when a picture came out of Syria following one of the bombings, a picture of a little boy who had survived attack after attack that had killed his family?  There was blood running down from his head and he looked more than halfway to starvation, and when someone found him and carried him out of the rubble, all he did was stare straight ahead.  Imagine a nation full of such children.  Imagine a nation where they are supposed to be cared for by adults who have that same look in their eyes: the vacancy, the nothingness, the just-let-me-alone-to-die blankness.  That was Judea not long after Jesus’ own crucifixion. 
           Terror wasn’t just the byproduct of the Empire.  It was its method and its goal.  First you fill people with fear.  Then you can make them do whatever you say.  Just ask any other gangster-state.  Ask the Taliban.  Ask the Bolsheviks.  Ask ISIS or the Nazis.  Pol Pot was especially effective at that in Cambodia.
          That could never happen here, though.  Right?
           How much of our current public life is controlled by fear?  It may or may not be deliberately created, this fear.  Once it is in the air, though, it can be manipulated and used by anybody willing to go down that path.  There is the fear of the other, whoever that might be.  It divides the world into an increasing number of “us”es and “we”s, “they”s and “them”s, “those people” and “the rest of us”.  There’s the fear that if I don’t get my way, you will get your way, and it will be at my expense.  There’s the fear that resources are growing less while need is growing greater, so if I don’t get mine now, you will take it all from me later on.  There’s the sense that whoever is a stranger is by definition dangerous.  Trust is gone.  Security is everything, and security means protection, and protection means weapons.  We cannot even talk to one another when people refer to facts and statistics as “weaponized”.
Good news comes to the disciples and they are so caught up in the terror of their world that they don’t know what to do with it at first. 
“They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16:8]
Eventually, though, it did sink in.  Jesus was alive.  What was that the angel had said?
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.” [Mark 16:6]
The entire Roman system of rule by terror, epitomized by crucifixion, was ineffective and bankrupt.  It didn’t work.  God would not allow that.
“Do not be alarmed.”
Even if you have spent your entire lifetime being alarmed, you don’t have to live that way.  Guess what?  Not everybody is out to get you.  Some folks really are honest.  Kindness isn’t always the bait in a trap.  There really is such a thing as truth. 
           Not every situation has to be win-lose, and if it is, it is still possible to be happy for someone else.  There’s an old story (I’m sure you’ve heard it before) of a man who died and was given a tour of the afterlife.  The first stop was hell, where he saw hungry souls sitting around a big pot of the most delicious soup anyone had every smelled.  Each soul had been given a spoon, but every spoon had a long, long handle and when they tried to spin it around to drink the soup would spill off the spoon and they were facing an eternity of both starvation and frustration.  The next stop was heaven, and there was a similar pot of the same soup and a similar crowd of souls and the same utensils.  But these souls were laughing and smiling, because they would lift the soup up for the person across from them, and someone would lift another spoon to their mouths, and everyone had enough, and more than enough.
           When Jesus rose, the power of sin was broken.  The cycle of fear and death was disrupted for good, forever.  The crazy stuff out there in the world?  Sure, it’s real.  It has to be faced and it has to be dealt with, and it takes both wisdom and guts to do it, and anybody who tries to make a real difference is going to get hurt in some way at some point – physically or emotionally or economically.  But terrorists only win if they make you live in fear.
I mentioned that someone at some point tacked a longer ending onto the gospel of Mark.  It may have had to do with that, and put the message in somewhat poetic terms (so don’t go picking up any copperheads you see on your lawn during an Easter egg hunt).  It says to serve the Lord without fear.  They killed Jesus, but that didn’t keep him down, and they haven’t been able to hold him back since.
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.  So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” [Mark 16:17-20]

[1] Josephus, Wars of the Jews, V. xi. 1.


"Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/30/2018 (Good Friday)
Luke 23:43
“Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise”
March 30, 2018
Good Friday
           “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
            One thing that really gets me about this detail of the crucifixion is that it ever happened at all.  Two thieves are hanging on crosses beside Jesus.  One of them mocks him.  The second thief tells the first to shut up and not bother Jesus.  He makes his own little comment, though.  He says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And with all three of them dying there, I really think he was pouring out some bitterness.  What I hear is incredible regret about his own life.  I hear how hopes and dreams, the sort that anybody would have for himself or herself so often end up cut short, ended, crucified.
            It just amazes me that Jesus answers him, that Jesus says anything at all.  He was already half dead – and that’s not just an expression.  You know all that he had been through in the past hours: whipping and a crown of thorns, beatings and torture.  He didn’t have much time left, and what he had was dripping away like blood from an open wound.  What’s the worst pain you’ve ever felt?  His was more severe.
           And in the middle of that, he heard what was going on around him.  He heard, and he paid attention.  How could anybody do that?  Pain at that level becomes an all-encompassing experience.  It takes over the mind and the heart.  It is all that somebody knows.  There is just no room in the sufferer for anything else, no way to think or speak.  But Jesus heard this man through the difficulty of his breathing, through the tearing of his muscles, through the dislocation of his shoulders, through the screaming, blinding pain.  He blocked out nothing.  And he heard not just the sound or even the words, but all that was behind them.  How could on a cross still care about a stranger?
           But Jesus cared.  To the end he cared.
           Push it one step further still.  He cared, and he offered hope.  The bitterness of the thieves could have been his own.  He could have done what Job’s wife told him to do in his suffering, “curse God and die.”  Jesus did no such thing.  He did not let go of God’s promise to the end, and would not let anyone else let go.  He would be in paradise, not oblivion; heaven, not the grave.  Nor would he let anyone else fall without hope into death.  “You will be with me.  In paradise.”
            Jesus remembers us, too.  He has come into his kingdom.



First Edition

Our Monthly Newsletter

  March 2017  
  February 2017  
  January 2017  
  December 2016  
  November 2016  
  October 2016  
  September 2016  
  July-Aug 2016  
  June 2016  
  May 2016  
  April 2016  
  March 2016  
  February 2016  
  January 2016  


To view earlier versions of our Newsletter, please go to our First Edition Archive page