Christmas Eve 2017

December 26, 2017

The Christmas Story

Luke 2:1-20


1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


We all have our favorite shows to watch during the Christmas Season. For a long time my favorite movie was It’s A Wonderful Life, and I still consider it to be one of the best movies ever. But the one movie that I have to see in order to know that Christmas has arrived is: A Christmas Story. And that’s the actual name of the movie – A Christmas Story. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy named Ralphie who is on a quest to get a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. It’s a daunting undertaking because his appeal is discouraged by all adults who tell him that it will put his eye out. TBS runs a 24 hour marathon of the show starting on Christmas Eve evening, and I always watch a few hours of the marathon. I’ve seen it so many times I can start watching it at any point and know what’s happened and what will happen.


It’s a great show. It’s set in post-war mid-America. Life was a little simpler then, but it’s not an overly romanticized version of life. The people in this movie aren’t particularly beautiful or clever or high minded – they are like people we know. They are like us. This is the really clever thing about this movie. It makes you feel like you could be in this movie – and you could just play yourself.


There’s no reference to Christianity in this movie. The story of the birth of Christ never comes up, but in a significant way A Christmas Story reminds me of The Christmas Story – the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds. Because the main characters in The Christmas Story are also pretty average people. I’m not saying Mary and Joseph weren’t beautiful, clever, and high-minded. From what we know about them they were top-notch people, but they were probably pretty indistinguishable in a crowd. Of course there wasn’t anything average about Jesus, but Jesus isn’t the main actor in this story. He arrives, and that’s a glorious thing, but the focus of this story is on the people who surrounded Jesus.


The action of this story was driven by an unfortunate circumstance. This emperor Augustus had decreed that everybody had to go to their ancestral home to get counted. This was not what Mary and Joseph wanted to be doing at the time. They had to leave their home and travel at the very time that Mary was to give birth. This is the story of poor people getting jerked around by an emperor who was trying to figure out how he could extract more taxes. Mary and Joseph travelled because the consequences of being disobedient were worse than being displaced at a critical moment. The authority figure in The Christmas Story is more threatening than the various authority figures in A Christmas Story, but in both cases the drama is sort of driven by bullies and the immediacies of life.


Both of these stories ring true because much of the drama of the world we occupy is generally driven by low-minded edicts and requirements. Jesus wasn’t born in to a world that was organized around high-minded principles and righteous policies – he was born in to a world that was ruled by bullies and filled with trouble. Jesus was born in stable, and his first bed was an animal trough. We’ve sort of romanticized the story, but I don’t think that’s the circumstance any young couple would have chosen to be in.


Things aren’t so bad for the family in A Christmas Story, but they all have their struggles. Between the bullies, the neighbors dogs, household equipment failures, and familiar interpersonal tensions — life isn’t easy for anyone in Ralphie’s family. Unfortunate things happen, but they are overshadowed by unexpected moments of grace, and the movie always leaves my heart warmed by the mysterious power of love.


I don’t want to raise your expectations too high if you haven’t seen A Christmas Story, nor am I saying it’s the greatest movie I’ve ever seen – that would be Wonder Woman. But A Christmas Story is my go-to movie when I want to feel the joy of Christmas. It’s so plain, and it’s so wonderful.


That’s how I think of The Christmas Story – which is the story of the way that God used the plainest people to do the most wonderful thing. I particularly love the role the shepherds play in the story. It’s so interesting to me that the shepherds were the first to be told of the birth of Christ. If you don’t think God has a sense of humor you need to do some research on the standing of shepherds during time of Christ. These were men who weren’t allowed in the Temple because they were ritually unclean. One thing I recently read said that the word of a shepherd wasn’t admissible in court. They had the reputation of being chronic liars.


So think about this. The son of God was born to an unwed mother in a stable in a place where they were unknown. His first bed was an animal trough, and the first people who were told of his birth were men who were more familiar with the stars than they were of holy scripture. These men who weren’t allowed in the Temple were the first to be invited to see the baby Jesus, and they who weren’t trusted in a court of law were the first to proclaim the birth of the savior.


God does have a sense of humor, and God’s wit is designed to undermine those who think they are in charge. The Story of Christmas is the story of the way in which God has chosen to be with us, and it’s not in the way any of us would have expected. This is the way it was when Jesus was born, and this is the way it remains. God comes to us in the most unusual ways. Often the worst things that happen to us put us on the path to our greatest blessings. And the least likely people sometimes turn out to be the ones whom God has chosen to bear witness to the truth.


The Christmas Story didn’t just happen one time. The Christmas Story is what happens in our lives when the good news of God’s presence with us somehow breaks through the ugly ordinariness of life and we feel warmed once again by the mysterious power of God’s love in our lives. We are all participating in a Christmas story of some kind, and we all have a role to play. Hopefully we aren’t being the bullies who establish painful policies that cause the hardships that God has to find new ways to undermine, but God always finds a way to work around or to work with all of us.


Perhaps the most poignant detail of The Christmas Story is the place where Jesus was first laid. There in the manger – the place where the animals were fed. This may very well have been the way that God was telling us that Jesus had come to feed us all. Whether we know it or not, we are all being nourished by the love of Jesus Christ.


It’s best to know it and to truly celebrate the great gift that we were given when God chose to present The Christmas Story.


Thanks be to God.






Advent 1A, November 27, 2016

November 28, 2016

Carried Away By Christ

Matthew 24:36-44


36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.


One of the interesting things about this passage of scripture is that it isn’t as ominous as you might first think. The reference to the days of Noah and the arrival of the flood sounds like a warning of the coming of dire circumstances, but I think it’s more of an appeal to be alert than it’s a warning of looming disaster. It’s a big thing that we need to be watching for, but I’m thinking we’re being instructed to pay attention for an opportunity more than we need to be on guard for a cataclysmic event. I know it’s easier to remain vigilantly watchful if you feel threatened, but it’s not easy to stay on high alert at all times for anything, and I think Jesus is calling for us to be more awake than panicked.


Sharla and I were amazed that our little grand-dog Pickle could stay in a state of high anxiety for the entire journey to Kansas City, but he has developed a phobia of riding in a car, and he shivered for about 6 and a half hours as we drove to KC last week. I couldn’t believe he could maintain that level of panic for so long, and I really don’t think that’s the kind of attention Jesus is calling for us to maintain. We aren’t to be anxious – we are to be alert.


The world may well be ending tomorrow, but that isn’t what we’re to be watching for. There are no signs for us to be watching for because Jesus said nobody knows what God intends to do about that, so we don’t even know what to be watching for. Nobody will see that coming. But Jesus was directing us to be aware of something. I believe we are to be watching for the mysterious presence of Jesus to turn up, and there is a way in which he comes in to our midst and carries us away.


This passage is funny in the way that it both points to the arrival of the end of time and yet it also indicates that Jesus comes to us in powerful ways within the context of ongoing history. As a person who is more oriented around the ongoing nature of time, I’m more inclined to talk about the way we should be attentive to those ways in which Christ becomes present to us as we go about our usual business. I don’t know what to say about the ultimate arrival of Christ at the end of days. I can’t even pretend to know how to prepare for such a day, but I do believe that we can be sensitive to the ways in which Christ appears and touches us as we go about our ordinary lives.


On one hand, I’m thinking the grace of God operates in a way that’s similar to gravity. I don’t think we are always conscious of the force of gravity, but gravity doesn’t let up, and every once in a while there are these moments when the force of gravity becomes really obvious.


My friend Charles Zook knows a lot about the ongoing force of gravity. Charles navigates the world in an electric wheelchair because of spinal chord injury he sustained in a terrible fall. He has enough use of his arms to operate his wheelchair and his specially equipped van, and he maintains a very active life, but it’s not easy. He was working with some medically challenged kids at Camp Aldersgate one summer, and one child asked him what happened to him. Charles has a great sense of humor (in a twisted sort of way), and he responded to that child by saying that gravity got him. I don’t know how that child processed that answer, but I was pretty amused by his response.


Gravity is that force that’s always with us. You might say it’s the primary force that defines how we go about our lives, but it’s so relentlessly present we are largely unconscious of it’s presence. There are those moments when we become painfully aware of the force of gravity. We can get thrown to the ground by it pretty quickly, so it’s important for us to remain alert, and I think there’s a similarity between the force of gravity and the power of God’s presence in our daily lives.


The presence of God in our midst isn’t as obvious as gravity or oxygen or many of the other invisible elements that define our lives as they are, but Jesus didn’t want us to live without awareness of this other life-giving reality. I dare say God’s presence is more powerful and consistent than the force of gravity, but it’s not as easily identified or exposed. As clearly as gravity is on hand to hold us down to the ground, the spirit of God is here to lift us up, but we don’t always make ourselves available to it’s power.


Unlike gravity, we can choose to ignore the force of God, and by doing so we can live really flat lives. We aren’t required to take note of the ways in which the Holy Spirit is prompting us to wake up and pay attention to the way in which Jesus Christ is in our midst. God doesn’t throw us to the ground as predictably and unforgivingly as does the force of gravity, but just because we don’t know what God is doing doesn’t mean that God isn’t present. It primarily means that we aren’t paying attention.


But it’s a beautiful thing when we are paying attention. I think I might have witnessed the power of God at work in our midst the other day. You know we had the pleasure of giving away over 250 turkeys at the food pantry the other day. It was a beautiful day and people were really happy about what we were able to do. We created what we thought was a fair distribution system. We wanted to make sure that we provided turkeys for those who regularly came for food before we gave them out to those who only came for the turkey, so we created this ticket system. If you were a new client you had to come back at near the end of the distribution time, and most everyone understood and cooperated.


But there was one man who felt like a victim of the situation, and he was behaving badly. He was saying things that he shouldn’t have been saying, and it was turning in to an ugly situation. I won’t try to explain the details of his argument, but I came to understand his frustration, and I decided to let him have a turkey. He took the turkey, but it didn’t stop him from being rather belligerent. He kept talking for longer than should, but he eventually left, and we were happy to see him go. It was an ugly scene, and it left everyone feeling pretty bad, but it wasn’t over.


About 10 minutes after he had left he came back. I wasn’t sure what he was coming back to do, but it turns out he was coming back to apologize for his bad behavior. In particular he came back to apologize to Sandra. He needed to apologize, but he didn’t have to do that. He could have left feeling angry and resentful about everything, but he came to realize that everybody, including himself, was just doing the best they could, and he wanted to acknowledge that he appreciated what we were doing.


Now this wasn’t exactly a miracle, but it was pretty close to one. I don’t want to lower the bar on the way in which God’s presence becomes revealed in this world, but on some level I think what we witnessed was the way in which God’s gracious power becomes manifest in our world. That man’s hard heart softened a little bit, and it sort of blew me away.


What we have in this passage of scripture is some assurance that we aren’t living in a world that is separated from the attention of God. We don’t know exactly what God has in mind, and it’s foolish for us to try to anticipate what God intends to do, but it’s important for us to pay attention to what God seems to be doing. The message for us is to go on each day with our perfectly ordinary lives with an extraordinary awareness of how near God is to us all.


There is an element of warning in this passage. The message is that we can live with ignorance of the role God currently plays and will ultimately carry out. And if we choose to live in a spiritually unconscious manner we are missing out on the true richness of life,


If we live without awareness of God’s presence in this world we won’t pay proper attention to the things and the people that God’s spirit would have us see. The imagery is of two people doing the same thing but one is taken away while the other is left behind. What this says to me is that it doesn’t matter so much what we engage in doing in this world, but it makes all the difference what we are most concerned about.


I know we aren’t in total control of the concerns of our hearts. I don’t think any of us are capable of rooting out all of the selfish impulses of our hearts and minds, but occasionally we have the good fortune of having our lives seized by the grace of God. I dare say most of us have had those moments when this ordinary world has been redefined in a powerfully new way by the spirit of the living God.


John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, spoke of having his heart strangely warmed as he was walking down Aldersgate Rd. on an ordinary day in London. Like many of us, Wesley wasn’t having a particularly great day as he was walking down that street. In fact he was sort of struggling with what he was doing with his life, and he wasn’t confident that he was doing the right thing. But he was doing his best to find his way, and in a very quiet but powerful way he felt this sense of assurance come over him. He came to feel that his life was in fact in God’s hands, and that externally invisible but internally dramatic experience set him on a course that we United Methodists continue to this day.


I think we often wish God would seize our hearts and provide us with great revelations of ultimate truth, but those moments are hard to come by. And if we aren’t careful we’ll miss the small moments when God’s truth breaks through to us and calls us to turn around and apologize or to share a word of encouragement to someone who’s having a hard time.


This First Sunday in Advent is an invitation for us all to renew our trust in the invisible but ever-present force of God’s spirit in this world. This is the force that has the power to renew our lives, give us direction, and bring us hope. The Spirit of God isn’t easy to discern, but it’s worthy of our attention. It can seize us in an instant, but God doesn’t act upon demand, and if we aren’t attentive we won’t see the large or the small ways in which God is in our midst.


God’s love is more consistent than gravity, but it’s lighter than air. Not even the angels in heaven know what turns it will take, but we can trust in it, and we can be carried away by it if we will make ourselves available to it. Expect God’s good presence to be on hand, seek to be aware, and celebrate when it emerges.


Thanks be to God for the grace we have already received and for the glory that will be. Amen

The Treacherous Road To Paradise

Luke 23:33-43

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


You may be wondering why in the world we would read such a dreadful passage of scripture on the day of our Harvest Festival Potluck. Here we’re about to go stuff ourselves with a wonderful spread of food, and we’re having to think about Jesus being offered sour wine while he’s hanging on a cross. I know I could have found a less distressing passage of scripture to read today, but this is the suggested gospel lesson for today. Today is what’s known as Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, which may come as a surprise to you, but that’s where we are.


The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new year of examining ourselves and our relationship with Jesus Christ, but today is the culmination of our current year-long examination of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today is the day we are invited to declare that he is in fact our glorious king. But, of course, he’s no ordinary king. And he certainly wasn’t treated the way you would expect a king to be received. Today is a day that’s full of contradictions. This man that perfectly embodied the living presence of God on earth was shown perfect hostility by those who claimed to be the closest to God. Jesus was one with God, but he ended up on a cross between two criminals.


It’s a remarkably ugly story on one level, but so beautiful on another. I’m not unaware of the distasteful nature of our story, and I’m sorry if it ruins your appetite, but in order to truly celebrate the royalty of Jesus we need to be clear about the kind of king he is. We have something to celebrate today, but we need to understand the true nature of our king and what it means for us to join him in paradise.


We don’t talk a lot about paradise, but that’s the word Jesus used to describe the place where he and that repentant criminal would be together on that very day. It’s a hellish picture to contemplate – Jesus hanging on a cross between two criminals, but Jesus said they were near paradise. Jesus seems to have a different understanding of paradise than the way we see it portrayed on television. I think most of us are inclined to think that paradise is somewhere down in the Carribean and you get there on a luxury cruise ship, but that’s not the way Jesus understood what paradise is and how you get there.


It’s not easy for us to see that this man who was being tortured and humiliated by ignorant and brutal men was so close to paradise, but Jesus had a far different understanding of what it meant to be in a glorious place than our natural instincts would lead us to believe. Jesus doesn’t want us to associate paradise with comfort and ease – Jesus wants us to associate paradise with being faithful to God and loving to our neighbors. And unfortunately, practicing faithfulness and love is more likely to put us at odds with the forces that rule this world than to land us on an island resort.


I’m not arguing against taking nice vacations. I’d like to spend a week at an all-inclusive beach resort sometime, but I don’t think we should confuse that with the kind of paradise Jesus was talking about. Jesus wants us to see what paradise really looks like and it’s far more wonderful than a beach vacation. We are called to see beyond the way things appear to be and to understand the reality behind the situation.


I was in Walmart one day last week, and as I was walking down the aisle a woman with a small child in one of those large blue carts that has a big seat for a child was coming toward me. The child was looking at me, and as we passed he pointed at me and said, He’s a cowboy. I didn’t know what to make of his words at first, but I realized I was wearing a relatively wide brimmed hat. I was also wearing a vest and jeans and boots. Of course a real cowboy would never wear the kind of hat I was wearing, and my nylon quilted vest isn’t something you would find in a western store. I’ve never known a cowboy to wear round-toed lace-up boots, but that little boy wasn’t out of his mind. I realized that I did look a little bit like a cowboy. That little boy could see something that I had failed to notice about myself. He hadn’t seen enough cowboys to know what they actually look like, but he had seen enough to recognize the similarity between me and a cowboy.


It’s sort of interesting to think of the difference between what we know ourselves to be, and what we look like to other people. We adults don’t generally feel very free to tell other people what they look like, but every once in a while you’ll encounter a child in Walmart who feels free to identify what you look like. I was actually pretty pleased to hear that boy identify me as a cowboy. I always wanted to be a cowboy when I was a child, and it may be that he could see my inner cowboy. Maybe I really am a cowboy.


What we see and what’s really going on don’t always match up very well, and there’s probably not a better example of this than Jesus Christ hanging on the cross. You wouldn’t think that this man we think of as the Lord of Life, the Son of God, and the King of all Creation would end up on a cross between two common criminals, but that is where Jesus spent the last hours of his earthly existence.


Jesus got what some might call the royal treatment. The religious and political rulers of his day were blind to who he was, and they treated him in the worst way possible. But Jesus knew what it would look like to be the actual embodiment of love, and he didn’t let their lack of understanding guide his actions. He wasn’t afraid of being misunderstood by people who had no interest in the truth, but he wanted his actions to be clear to those who sought the truth and are able to see the pure godliness of his sacrifice.


The kingship of Jesus Christ wasn’t an obvious thing to everyone, but it was perfectly clear to others.


We Americans don’t talk very much about kings. I think it’s probably only in the church that we talk about having a king, and there’s a reason for that. The founders of our nation were pretty intent upon not having a king. Our political ancestors had not had a good experience with the King of England, so this nation was founded upon the principle that we would choose our leaders, but this is a relatively new concept. While most of history is driven by the various ways groups of people have been guided by their rulers, we don’t really think of ourselves as being ruled by anyone. As a democracy we tend to think we are out from under the power of autocratic rulers, which is a good thing, but it’s also pretty deceptive.


The fact that we don’t have a king or an emperor doesn’t mean that we aren’t ruled in powerful ways. We think of ourselves as being free, but I’m more inclined to think that we often just don’t see who is ruling our lives. We don’t have a king, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t being guided by powerful hands. And I’m not talking about who’s in charge of our government. We’ve got a new president-elect who’s got a powerful personality, and no doubt he’s going to have a strong impact on the way our nation operates, but I’m not talking about the way in which our nation is ruled. I’m thinking of the ways in which our lives are ruled in very subtle but powerful forces.


Because if we aren’t clear about who we choose to be the ruler of our lives we will be guided by forces that we don’t understand. Are we guided by the Lord of Life who calls for us to allow love to be our ultimate ruler? Or are we being bounced around by little tyrants who want us to think we’ll be happy if we had more of something or less of something else. I dare say we all have these little voices that seek to take charge of our lives and lead us down roads that promise paradise but deliver emptiness.


If we claim Jesus as our king I think it’s important for us to consider what it means for him to be the ruler of our lives. In what ways do we allow him to define who we are and what we do. I don’t think this is ever an easy thing to do. On one hand, I think it’s just easier to be unaware of what it is that guides our lives. It’s not necessarily satisfying to simply do what seems to be expected of us by whoever or whatever, but it’s hard work to live an authentically spiritual life. God doesn’t speak as loudly as those various commercial voices that we hear that tell us what we need and where we should go.


I guess I’m grateful for the fact that we don’t live in a country that has established itself in clear opposition to the reign of Christ in the world. I’m happy not to be living in a place that is so clearly at odds with the love of Jesus Christ that you can’t help but to know what it means to stand with Christ. That’s the place Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself to be standing as he faced the policies of Nazi Germany. It was very clear to him that he could not be a disciple of Jesus Christ and cooperate with the policies of Adolf Hitler. In regard to that he wrote the following line: When Christ calls a person, he bids them to come and die. And in fact Bonhoeffer did lose his life in resistance to Hitler’s policies.


I’m happy that we aren’t living in such a place with such clearly un-Christian policies, but I don’t believe our path to paradise with Christ is any less challenging. Our physical lives aren’t threatened, but I don’t believe it’s easy for us to live with Jesus Christ as our king. We aren’t threatened, we’re just distracted, and it’s hard for us to see how the false gods of this world lead us here and there and away from the true path that leads to the abundant life that Jesus Christ offers.


I’m not saying that we are hopelessly lost in a spiritual desert. I believe the ring of God’s truth miraculously gets through to us in beautiful ways, but we don’t need to assume that it’s easy to be a follower of our godly king in our spiritually confused society.


Of course the really beautiful thing is that we may well be at our best when we least suspect it. As surely as I was unaware of how much I looked like a cowboy as I was walking through Walmart, we may not be aware of how well we are serving our king when we are going about our daily routines. Certainly we can grow in our ability to serve the Lord of Life, but being a follower of Jesus Christ will always be a grand and mysterious endeavor. None of us will ever be perfect followers of our gracious king, but as that criminal on the cross demonstrated none of us are beyond hope of joining him in paradise. Our primary calling is to trust in the love and grace of our Lord and king, Jesus Christ.


Thanks be to God. Amen

Proper 21c, September 25, 2016

September 26, 2016

Fire Prevention

Luke 16:19-31


19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– 28 for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”


This week’s passage of scripture is sort of the opposite of last week’s text. Of course last week’s text is about the opposite of any passage of scripture because there wasn’t much about it that made sense. It wasn’t easy to see what Jesus was wanting us to understand when he told the parable of the dishonest steward who was commended by his master for his shrewd manipulations. But we don’t have to think about that this week. What we have in this morning’s text isn’t confusing, but it can be a little disconcerting – especially for those of us who enjoy a certain level of worldly comfort. This story doesn’t leave us wondering what Jesus was talking about, but it does leave me feeling a little uneasy, and that’s probably the way Jesus wanted me to feel.


As you may or may not have noticed, I’m not inclined to give much attention to the issue of eternal punishment or reward in my preaching, and I’m not going to deviate from that this morning, but I probably should use this text as an opportunity to address the issue. Being the good United Methodist that I am, I’m happy to own my lack of clarity about what goes on in the next life, but this is not to say that I don’t think there are profound consequences to the way we choose to live.


I don’t accept the way heaven and hell are often portrayed by Christian preachers who seem to have a clear understanding of who is going where upon the moment of death. I just can’t claim to know with any certainty what transpires upon our death. I’m optimistic about it, but I don’t claim to know what happens. I can’t speak from experience or special knowledge about this, but I am confident that our relationship with God extends beyond this life, and I base that upon what I know about Jesus. Jesus had no fear of death, and he wouldn’t have felt that way if his relationship with God was going to end with his crucifixion. Death happens, and so does resurrection. That’s what I believe. I don’t know the details, but I don’t believe that our souls expire with our bodies.


Given the focus that a lot of well-meaning Christians put on hell you would think that this was the primary subject Jesus addressed, but if you read the Gospels you’ll find that Jesus spent very little time talking about hell, and when he did, it wasn’t in the same manner that many hell-fire oriented preachers speak of it. There is this well publicized notion that upon death we will either enter eternal reward or punishment, and where we end up depends on what we profess to believe, but it’s hard to pin that teaching on Jesus.


Obviously, Jesus wasn’t opposed to using the threat of eternal flames to get people’s attention. Today’s passage of scripture portrays a pretty bleak future for a man who was tormented by some eternal flames, but we don’t know anything about what that man professed to believe. He clearly was familiar with his faith tradition, but he had totally failed to connect his faith with his life. He had not connected the story of God hearing the cries of the people of Israel with the need for him to hear the cry of poor Lazarus, and this was a fundamental mistake.


But I don’t think Jesus told this story to generate concern about the design of the afterlife. Jesus didn’t tell this story to provide us with an exact blueprint of what transpires upon death. Jesus told this story in an attempt to wake us up to the realities of this life.


If this is an exact portrayal of what happens when we die, the interesting thing is that our eternal fate has nothing to do with what we confess to believe. If Jesus was primarily concerned with the eternal resting places of our souls, and if he told this story as an actual portrayal of the possibilities, then the fate of our souls has nothing to do with our religious practice or faith. According to this story, our entrance into eternal reward or punishment is based upon nothing but our economic standing and charitable giving. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there are many North American Christians who would like to think that this is an accurate portrayal of our options when we leave this world.


I don’t pretend to know much about the afterlife or the current life for that matter, but I trust that Jesus did, and what I glean from this story is that we often live with distorted notions of reward and punishment, and of righteousness and accomplishment. This story of Lazarus and the rich man portrays those distortions, and this story serves as a form of motivation to pursue a more meaningful form of existence than what religious traditions often lead us to accept.


This story that Jesus told isn’t unlike other stories that have been uncovered in other places and religious traditions. This notion of reversed fortune in the afterlife isn’t unique to Jesus, and this particular story doesn’t significantly differ from a familiar Jewish story of reversed fortune. Jesus wasn’t trying to break new theological ground when he told this story – he was reminding people of a truth that had already been revealed. This even came out in the story as the rich man begged to have someone contact his brothers about the unfortunate consequences of their selfishness. The importance of living with compassion had always been a central theme in the Jewish religious tradition, and it had often been ignored.


While this story portrays a reversal of fortune, this really isn’t a surprising story. It’s not surprising in that it portrays God as having more appreciation for a man who was wounded and ignored than a man who was self-serving and uncompassionate. It isn’t hard to believe that God would react to the individuals in the way that’s described, and one reason that it isn’t hard for us to believe is that this has been confirmed by our own experiences.


The truth is that you don’t have to die before you can experience the value of living with compassion and the torture of selfishness. It’s hard to willingly place ourselves in positions of need, and it’s hard not to dress in purple linen and gorge ourselves as often as the opportunity arises, but the reward of self indulgence is shallow and the grace that comes to us when we are in need is rich.


We know these things, but patterns of self indulgence are hard to break. We’re surrounded by the message that happiness is found in the work of consumption, and we often forget that the greatest reward is experienced when we’re engaged in the work of compassion. The emptiness of self-indulgence is like hell and the joy of compassion is like heaven. Part of the hell we experience when we engage in self indulgence is that it’s very isolating. When we build ourselves up we are often creating barriers between ourselves and others, and that is very much a form of hell.


And one of the manifestations of heaven is to be in the company of other good people. As we see in this story that Jesus told, Lazarus was in the company of Abraham, while Lazarus was very much alone. There was a great chasm between him and other people. This may be true in the afterlife, but I think it’s true in this life as well. Joy happens when we reach out to other people, and when others reach out to us.


I guess we all would describe hell in somewhat different ways, but for me, the notion of being isolated is one of the most torturous possibilities. We’re told that the rich man loved to dress in purple and fine linen. This doesn’t really describe the way in which we are tempted to spend our money, but the way we are inclined to use our resources often has the same impact – which is to create and promote an illusion of ourselves. The act of self-seving adornment is in some way an act of hiding behind a façade, and while a good façade can be very inviting to other people and can result in the illusion of community – such behavior is ultimately very isolating.


We generally do our best to keep our neediness and vulnerability hidden from other people out of fear that we may be avoided, and the truth is that many people will avoid becoming associated with someone who doesn’t exude confidence and success, but compassionate people aren’t offended by such a condition, and where there is neediness and vulnerability there is the possibility of redeeming love. And is there anything more heavenly than that.


Chances are, we can all identify ways in which we live like the rich man who is blinded by his own self indulgence. He thinks he looks wonderful in those purple clothes, but they only bring attention to his foolish ways. Unfortunately, the ways in which we live like the rich man are probably not immediately obvious to us, and Jesus wants us to be concerned about this. There are consequences to self-oriented behavior, and he wants us to have some fear of living like that. He doesn’t want us to ignore the people around us who are living in torment. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for us.


Of course, there are ways in which we all are living like Lazarus. Maybe we aren’t having our wounds liked by dogs, but all of us are powerless in some way. Life isn’t easy for any of us. None of us are perfectly cloaked in purple and fine linen, and that’s a blessing. It’s our powerlessness and need that makes us most open to other people and in search of the redeeming love of God. It’s our helplessness that makes us most available to the gifts of heaven.


It’s hard to aspire to be like Lazarus, but it’s good to recall what came his way when we find ourselves facing illnesses or hardships that we are powerless to overcome.


Jesus told this graphic story to illustrate the different directions that our faith can take us. Will what we believe lead us to become the loving and compassionate people that our faith tradition has always directed us to be? Will our faith make us more open to those experiences that put us in touch with the eternal gifts of God? Or does our understanding of God serve to keep us disconnected from other people and unaware of those redeeming possibilities in which we are all in need?


I don’t think Jesus told this story to generate fear of where we’ll spend eternity, but I do believe he wanted us to feel some urgency to find true life, and to avoid deathly patterns of behavior. Jesus didn’t want us to get burned by a misguided sense of where we will find abundant life. Jesus wanted us to experience the greatest sense of connection to God and to our neighbors and the primary path to that joyful place is through compassion.


It’s God’s love for us that guides our hearts to find that true path to abundant life, but it takes some effort on our part to move along it. Thanks be to God for the opportunity we all have to avoid the tormenting flames of selfish isolation, and to embrace the joy of heavenly communion.


Thanks be to God.


“You Are What You Eat”
John 6:51-58

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Anybody who thinks being Christian is a tame enterprise has not spent enough time reading the Bible. We’ve turned church into a safe place to show up and bring children, but there were a lot of people who didn’t consider Jesus to be properly religious. And what we’ve got this morning is Jesus utilizing some shocking language to separate himself from the most proper authorities of his day.

Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood established a new and lasting association between himself, God and us, but it was appalling to many who first heard it. What he had to say was not just shocking on a graphic level, it was specifically offensive to his religious adversaries who were very particular about the kind of flesh they ate and who would never drink the blood of anything. This wasn’t just some shocking language, this was some in your face language.

Jesus didn’t set out to create a fundamental schism within the Jewish community, but what he did exposed the emptiness of some revered traditions and practices, and that never goes over well with people who love the privilege that religion provides and not the relationship to which it points. Jesus was unwilling to play along with the dominant agenda of the Jewish leaders who had reduced the practice of the faith to following some trivial dietary laws. This religious system turned a blind eye to injustice and it distorted the truth about God. It was in the face of this powerful religious establishment that Jesus shared these shocking words. What Jesus had to say about the eternally good value eating his flesh and drinking his blood was totally offensive to the Jewish authorities of the day. The invitation was to consume who he was as opposed to the trivial diet that was advocated by the Pharisees.

It’s very important to distinguish between the people who were trying to be faithful Jews and the people who were defining what it meant to be faithful. We have in this passage a very critical reference to “the Jews”, but that is more of a reference to the ruling class of Jews than it was a blanket reference to the entire community. I think it’s important to point out that Jesus was Jewish. And we know him to be devout in his practice of the Jewish faith, but he recognized the ways in which Judaism had become an avenue of privilege for some and a set of overly burdensome practices for others. It’s hard for us to know exactly what the flashpoints were between Jesus and this group of people John identifies as “the Jews”, but we all know how hard it is for establishments to change.

And you don’t have to know exactly what the issues were that created the rift between Jesus and the official leaders of the faith in order to know what’s going on here. Jesus was an advocate of practicing the faith of Abraham and Moses in a new way. Jesus didn’t adhere to all of the values that had come to be associated with the religious tradition, and some people hated him for it. There were people who felt like he was out to destroy the faith because he didn’t value everything that had come to be associated with the religious community, and this feels so current.

I read an essay not long ago from a book called Generation Rising that was put together by Rev. Andrew Thompson, who is a member of the Arkansas Conference. He teaches Wesleyan Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary, and he is the official Wesleyan Scholar for our conference. The book is a series of essays written by men and women of Generation X, which are people who came of age in the 80s & 90s. I don’t need to go in to all of what that means, but these are people who were watching a different set of cartoons on Saturday mornings than I was. I’m sure they had some good heroes as well, but they have different sensibilities than those of us who preceded them, as well as those of you who are following them, and of course this has bearing on how it feels for them to be in church.

One of the essays in the book was written by a young man named Arnold Oh, and in his essay he addressed the way in which the entire enterprise of Christianity has been “a history of various attempts, successes, and failures of translation”. I think this is an accurate portrayal of the gospel message, and he focuses in particular on the way in which this has played out in the mission field of the church. In the course of his analysis he also points out the way in which the gospel has often been “over-translated” by Christian missionaries, and by over-translation he means mixing cultural baggage with essential Christian teaching.

Mr. Oh argues that many early missionaries who went to Africa and other continents from the United States weren’t just teaching native people to be Christian, they were trying to teach them to be Americans. I think he makes a good point about that, and I think we always need to be sensitive to the way in which we mingle our belief system with our cultural biases.

I think you can argue that the hostility Jesus and his early followers faced was the way in which Judaism had become “over-translated”, and when Jesus tried to separate the essential nature of the Mosaic tradition from the cultural biases of the day he was considered to be in violation of the faith and an enemy of God.

I don’t draw the same conclusion that Oh does in his essay. He argues that because of the way the church is faltering in the United States we need to be more open to the message of the church in Africa and other continents where the church is growing. I’m not saying that we don’t have something to learn from Christians in other places, but I’m not convinced that there isn’t some over-translation going on in those places as well.

What I believe we need to do is what Christians need to do everywhere, which is to always be very careful about discerning what is essentially true and what is culturally defined – regardless of what impact we may suspect this may have. We always need to be conscious of what we are feeding upon because when we substitute cultural bias for the truth we are siding with those who were not nourished by the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ but were appalled to hear Jesus say such a thing.

I’m so happy to be the pastor of a church where we do not allow historical cultural standards to define what we believe to be true about human sexual relationships. This is a church that has taken a bold step in trying to separate the essential kernel of Christian truth from the chaff of religious tradition, and that’s a big deal. But we don’t need to get too puffed up about this.

Our work isn’t over. We always need to maintain a level of suspicion of what we consider to be righteous and true. We may have one thing right, but there are so many ways to be wrong. There’s never any room for any kind of self-righteousness among true followers of Jesus Christ. People who are self-righteous are feeding on something other than the body and blood of Jesus.

We don’t need to feel too proud of ourselves for being the most progressive United Methodist Church in the State of Arkansas – I think we are, but we aren’t very strong. We have enough people coming to church and giving to our church to keep our utilities and staff paid, but we aren’t paying our share of expenses within the Arkansas Conference.

I won’t bore you with the details. The point is that I think we have a good thing here, I believe we are well nourished by the truth, and it’s time for us to grow up.

I don’t really know how to do this. On one level I believe that all of this is in God’s hands, and the measurable ways in which we expand or contract is irrelevant to the work of God to redeem the world. God’s work is not dependent upon how effective we are at getting people show up here on any given Sunday morning.

But on another level I believe that if we truly are people who are not offended by the words of Jesus Christ and who have an appetite for the sacrificial life that he lived and taught, than we will be so full of life that we can’t keep quiet about it.

I hope you will tell your friends who don’t really like church to come down here. Tell them it’s not a properly religious place. We may not always feed on the right thing, but we aren’t deeply rooted in the wrong things, and I consider that to be a great thing.

I trust that if we will seek to stay nourished by the self-giving love of Jesus Christ and if we will exercise our faith in loving and generous ways we will grow up, we will be strong, and we will be the powerful source of good news that God has called us to be.

Thanks be to God.

Occupy Heaven
Matthew 22:15-22

22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

It appears that the Arab Spring has arrived in the United States and we’ve got our own mass of people taking to the streets in protest of what feels like unfair economic policies. We don’t have an oppressive power-hungry dictator to resist, which makes for a less focused assembly, but it makes for a safer gathering. Bank executives aren’t known for their physical thuggery, so all in all the various gatherings around the country have been very civil, and these assemblies haven’t really targeted individuals. It seems to be the policies that are in place that people are upset about. There is this sense that our economic system works more to the advantage of those who are already advantaged. These policies are so complex it’s hard for the folks who have taken to the street to have a cohesive agenda, but there’s some passion out there. This Occupy Wall St. movement has struck a chord. The creature has come to life.

I’m glad it’s happening. We all know that money speaks, but people speak also. There’s another voice out there. I guess you might say there are many different voices out there saying different things, but that’s ok. I like democracy, and I hope we can keep it going a little longer. I hope the current protests will lead to policies that will work better for more people. This is sort of a naïve view of the situation, but that’s the view I choose to have right now. It’s all just sort of interesting to me right now. I’m not a part of the movement, but I’m cheering them from the sideline.

A good protest is hard to find, but it can feel good to be a part of a crowd that’s expressing some righteous indignation. I had the good fortune to experience a good protest back in ’82. I was in seminary at the time, and as I was walking across campus I noticed a gathering of students in front of the Duke University student union. They were listening to this older white woman talk about what was happening in Warren County which was a few counties to the north of Durham Co. which is where the campus was located. She wasn’t the kind of person you expected to be stirring up trouble so to speak, and I had to stop and listen to what she was saying.

It seems that many industries used to use a lot of a chemical called PCB in electrical transformers and other things until somebody figured out that it was very carcinogenic. It’s use became outlawed and at that point disposing of the chemical became a big business. So this one company had an interesting business plan. They would charge a company an exorbitant rate of money to dispose of the chemical, but instead of properly treating the chemical they would drive their tanker trucks down from the northeast to rural roads in North Carolina and simply open the valve of the tank containing the hazardous chemical and drive along until it was empty.

This situation was discovered after a number of people got sick after changing a tire or simply walking along one of those roads. So after figuring out what had gone on the governing officials generated a plan for how to dispose of the chemical, and the plan they came up with was to dig up a few inches of the soil from along those hundreds of miles of roads and put it in a landfill that happened to be in the poorest and least white county in the state. The decision to place the landfill in Warren County defied any kind of geological rationale, but it had the right demographic for the governor and the legislature.

The population of Warren County was about 70% non-white, and about 20% of the population lived under the poverty level. You might say it was the county with the least voice in the state, but they found their voice, and they let people know what was happening. Part of what this woman had to say was that this proposed landfill had become a uniting experience for all of the citizens of Warren County. She said their county had always been very racially segregated, but that this landfill threatened the water for all of them, and it had brought the community together in a miraculous way. She was inviting us to come to Warren County and join in on their daily march to the site of the landfill, and some of us went.

It was a beautiful experience for me. The daily marches began with people gathering in the sanctuary of this small church that few white people had ever attended until this movement began, but it was a very racially mixed group of people who were in attendance and the music was incredible. There was this spirit of unity and resistance to an evil agenda that was intoxicating. Several people spoke, and then we embarked on a march to the site and they had these wonderful chants that just made you feel like you were a part of something important.

The citizens of Warren County were unable to prevent this landfill from going in, but when I googled Warren County PCB landfill I read an article that attributed that protest movement as the event that gave birth to the environmental justice movement in our country. And the good news was that the state eventually made good on a commitment to find a proper way to decompose the dangerous chemicals, and they engineered a way to process that soil and incinerate the hazardous waste.

I don’t know how the citizens of Warren County are relating to each other these days, but the people I heard speak had experienced a profound sense of connection with other, and I have to believe that it transformed the community in some lasting ways. You might say they had occupied heaven in a profound way, and you don’t forget how that feels.

You may be wondering how this connects with this morning’s text, but what I see is that there has often been this tension between the interests of the people who are in relative control of society and the way that God would have things be in the world. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a state function in a truly godly manner, but we’ve seen some places governed in ways that truly defy the love of God, and it’s a challenge for all of us to navigate the territory between thes conflicting agendas. What we read this morning is the way in which Jesus had to figure out how to avoid being smashed by a political machine in order to serve a larger cause. The people who came to Jesus with their question about paying taxes to Ceasar thought they had found an unanswerable question for him.

They thought they had a question that would either get him arrested by the Romans for advocating the non-payment of taxes or cause him to loose the confidence of the people who hated paying taxes to the pagan government. Jesus understood the politics and he understood that he was out to do something larger than to throw a rock at the Romans, and he answered with this powerfully poignant statement that we should render to Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s and to God that which is God’s.

He answered the question in a way that continues to challenge all of us to understand how we live in our day and age and state in a manner that is also faithful to God. Which is hard!!

We all feel the tug of self-interest. We understand the consequences of standing in different places. We know what happens when you support one group as opposed to another group and if you attend one rally as opposed to another rally. There’s a treacherous political landscape that we all are challenged to navigate, and it’s rarely simple.

There are people who have chosen to occupy Wall St. or Boston or LA or Little Rock because they want a better world. There are others who have shown up at those events because they want to be seen on TV or to somehow impress someone. God knows that there aren’t any automatically good places to stand. There are no positions to take that instantly reveal actual purity in our hearts. But the desire to serve God does play out in real choices about what we do. The exercise of giving to God that which is God’s will move us to stand in one place or another.

I believe this woman who came from Warren County and appealed for help in their resistance to an injustice was motivated by her love of God and her neighbors. This injustice had helped her to see who her neighbors really were and it provided her with an opportunity to occupy heaven. It was a transforming experience for her. It was a transforming experience for me. It nourished my soul to be with that community, and that trip to Warren County made me feel like I had occupied heaven for a short period of time.

I heard a short eulogy on the radio the other day of a man named Frank Kameny. I had never heard of him, but he was a pioneer in the gay rights movement. He engaged in this struggle in 1957 when he was fired from a job with the US Army for being homosexual. He didn’t hide who he knew himself to be and he grappled with the US government for his entire life. He believed our government should provide equal protection for all people and he was a relentless advocate for this position.

There’s some poetic justice in the fact that he lived to see our government eliminate the don’t ask don’t tell policy. He was present when President Obama signed this into law, and he died soon afterward. In my opinion Frank Kameny was someone who made clear decisions about what he would render to Ceasar and what he would render to God. He didn’t have an easy life, but my impression is that he found a way to occupy heaven while he lived here on earth.

This is the challenge and the opportunity for us all – to find ways to abandon godless agendas and to occupy heaven. Sometimes these options present themselves in the subtle way in which we treat a neighbor. Sometimes this challenge requires us to stand up and be counted in very public and costly ways.

The fact that you have chosen to occupy our sanctuary this morning is a good indication that you want to be a part of something Godly, and I hope that it feels like you are in a holy place today. Occupying a pew isn’t an automatic way of occupying heaven, but we’re trying to be a Godly place, and I think there’s a lot of Godly business that goes on around here. It’s a high calling to occupy heaven, and it’s a relentless challenge to find our way into that sacred space, but it can happen for all of us. I’m happy that we’ve chosen to be on this path together, and by the grace of God I trust we’ll find our way.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Good evening and welcome to Voices for Justice!

I read in the paper the other day that I was leading this event, so I hurried out and bought a ticket. I’m glad to be here and I know you feel the same!

You’ll be hearing from the real leaders of this event soon, and let me tell you, we have a wonderful collection of voices for justice here tonight. In addition to the remarkable people you know are going to be here, we’ve got additional performers coming in to share their voices in the chorus for justice. What a good thing it is for us to come together to speak very clearly of our belief that Jessie, Jason, and Damien have been in prison for 17 years for something they didn’t do.

My involvement with this event began when I was approached by Lorri Davis and her friend John Hardin about having an awareness raising event for the West Memphis 3. They wanted the event to happen in a relatively large spiritually oriented space, which is what we’ve got at my church – complete with fresco angels. My church leaders engaged in a process of discernment, and I’m really proud that the governing body of my congregation decided that this event could happen in our sanctuary. It wasn’t an easy decision for us, because as we all know, the innocence of these three men is not a universally held position.

There are people who think you’re being insensitive to the families of the three boys who were murdered if you speak in support of the men who were convicted of this crime, and certainly no one wants to contribute to their pain. Glossing over their pain is not what this is about.

We were not unconscious of these sentiments as we considered hosting this gathering, but I think the issue was settled when the senior member of our governing body – a saintly woman in her 80’s – pointed out that Jesus generally stood with those who weren’t held in high regard by society. She acknowledged that we don’t have the same flawless vision of the truth that Jesus had, but she thought standing in support of these men seemed like something Jesus would do. And with that the debate pretty much came to a close.

We decided to allow this event to happen at our church, and I wish you all could have come down to our place. But you all couldn’t have come to our place, and that’s why we’re here, and it’s good that we’re here. You don’t have to be in a spiritually oriented place to have a spiritually oriented gathering, and that is what this is. Speaking out for justice is a spiritual exercise.

My church was willing to host Voices for Justice because like good-hearted people of all faiths we want to err on the side of justice. I’m proud that the United Methodist Church has a long-standing and clearly stated position against the death penalty, and this case highlights the need for capital punishment to be eliminated. There does not need to be the possibility of executing someone who is innocent.

I’m honored to be invited to lend my voice in support of justice for Jessie, Jason, and Damien. I commend those of you who have worked tirelessly, contributed generously, and spoken loudly in their support over the past many years. They aren’t needing anything more than justice, but nothing short of justice will do.

God bless you for being here. Let’s have a good time, let’s shine some light on this painful situation, and let’s all do what we can to let people know what we think of this situation. If you don’t know as much as you want to know about this case become more informed. Read about the trial, talk to people, find out for yourself what is true about this case. I think you’ll discover that Jessie, Jason, and Damien have nothing to hide.

And here’s something else you can do. Pull out your wallet. It turns out that this event is costing a whole lot more than your $25 dollar ticket will cover, and we’re going to take up an offering. I don’t guess it’s a coincidence that they gave the preacher this task, but we’ve got people with buckets who will be going down the aisles, and we need you to do what you can to help defray the costs and to continue with the defense of these three men.

I’m reminded of a situation that existed in Israel about 750 years before Jesus came along. The situation was that the power of the government and the message of the religious community had become distorted in a manner that was bad news for poor people. Into that situation the prophet Amos stepped forward and said: “Let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing steam!”

And that’s what we’re saying tonight.

Hello world!

April 13, 2010

I feel like I’m doing a swan dive from the balcony of a hotel. I hope I hit the pool!