- The Way We Never Were
The Way We Never Were
Families are the most elemental and beautiful of all social units. And yet, families are the most complicated and difficult of all social units! We are biologically designed to live in family, and for most of the course of history, an individual’s identity was of little importance. The most salient piece of information about you was who your father was and from what family or clan you came. Your very name – Jesus bar Joseph or Ben bar Randy – announced who your father was and, thus, revealed which clan you came from. The practice continues in many places in the world today. In India, the family you are born into still determines your caste – which, in turn, dictates every detail of your life to come. Closer to home, vestiges of this thinking continue. What is the first question you ask your teenage daughter when she announces a new boyfriend? Who are his parents? What kind of family does he come from?
Families are wonderful yet imperfect. The truth is “We can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them.” We want them around when there’s trouble, when we need to be known and accepted, when we need a soft place to land, but we’d just as well be left alone most of the time. George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family – that lives in another city.”
- Press On!
I am not a runner. If you ask me to cover a couple miles, I would be happy to walk it, swim it, or bike it, but I can’t run it. My knees, my ankles, and every other part of me says “no.” But that is not to say that I don’t envy those lean, sinewy runners who seem to glide an inch or two above the ground. I’m talking about people like Sarah and Kayleigh, Chris Munique and, I am told, Eddie Boyd in his younger years. Hats off to them! When I watch marathoners on TV, I can see the determination, even pain, on their faces; they battle through heat, sweat, cramps, shin splints, tendonitis, and exhaustion. YET, true long-distance runners cross the finish line with this facial expression that . . . almost. . . looks like . . . pleasure! Go figure!
I wonder if the Apostle Paul was a runner? If he got up each morning – or the few mornings when he wasn’t in jail– and lashed up his Nikes and headed out for a run? His letters were certainly filled with allusions to running: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” “press[ing] on toward the goal, the prize.” ‘Sounds like a page right out of Runner’s World: “Stay focused, don’t look back, don’t let up, keep your eyes on the goal.”
I bet you didn’t know that the word “marathon” comes from the legend of a Greek runner-messenger whom we will call Philip (because I can’t pronounce his name in Greek). Around the year 490 B.C., the gigantic and powerful Persian army landed on the plain of Marathon intent on capturing the city of Athens, just 25 miles away. The Athenians — outnumbered and outpowered—mustered all the soldiers they could and sent them out on the plain. Meanwhile, the people in the city hunkered down, knowing that if the Persians made it to Athens, their beautiful city would be destroyed and they would all die or be taken prisoner.
- The Way We Were
Isaiah 58: 3-8
1 Corinthians 14
The Way We Were
The picture on the cover of your bulletin is the congregation of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Funkstown, Md. The year is 1970. If you have very sharp eyes, you might spot 17-year-old me, standing in the second row on the right with my dad. My little brother, Ed, is also in the picture, but not on the front-row with all the other little kids. Evidently, mom had ducked out early to go home and check the pot roast. My sister, Sally, is also suspiciously absent.
But what is present in the photo are dozens of reminders of the way we were 50 years ago – the way life was, the way church was half a century ago. Funkstown, MD was a little town; its elementary school had a single class of each grade level. Yet, the congregation of St. Paul’s was surprisingly large. And we were not the only church in town! Fifty-eight young children stand on the front row! Girls in patent leather shoes; boys in tiny sports coats. Their mothers are all wearing dresses. Many wear hats. Every man wears a tie. Choir practiced on Wednesday evenings. Youth group met on Sunday night. It was the same with my friends who attended other churches — Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian. Following World War II, church was an American institution, a rite of passage into the Middle Class, a respectable sort of country club that offered men’s and women’s groups, social clubs, dinner parties, youth fellowship, and more. I don’t recall much emphasis on mission.
Handsome young preachers whose wives taught Sunday School and baked cookies were eager to move into the church parsonage. Their duty would be the spiritual tending of the immediate flock. In those days, most stores were closed on Sunday, there were no ball games, and even mowing the grass was frowned upon. The turbulent 60’s – a decade of racial unrest and free love had yet to leave much of a mark on small-town religion. In Funkstown, church was still about the only game in town.
- Depth of Soil
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Depth of Soil
Listen to this little story: A certain WV gardener we all know went out to sow seed in her garden this spring. And as she sowed, some of that pricey seed she ordered from Gurney’s seed catalog fell in the tall grass beside the garden, and some of it blew out of the rows before she could cover it. Overhead, blue jays and cow birds watched silently from their perches, and rabbits– hungry for tender cabbage leaves– popped out of their burrows. Moles crouched quietly in their tunnels. Soon the thistles and crab grass would appear and the pernicious blood root. Japanese beetles would invade the raspberry patch, followed by a brigade of squash bugs. There would be weeks of drought followed by days of flooding rains. It would seem that all of nature conspires to keep that seed from germinating, those plants from growing. Much of the seed never took root and Kellan reseeded – sometimes twice. Yet, the gardener goes out to sow seed in her garden.
Jesus tells a parable much like this: a farmer goes out to sow seed, and as he scatters, some of it falls upon the path, some among rocks, some among the thorns, and even some of that which falls upon the good soil will find its way into the beaks of wily birds. The crowd to which Jesus was speaking knew all about sowing seed –they were farmers! This story was as old as time itself. “Yep,” they would say, elbowing each other, “that’s what happens! A lot of precious seed is lost! Sometimes the harvest is so poor that we lose our shirts!”
Now this parable –usually called the Parable of the Seed and the Sower– is misnamed. A more appropriate name would be the Parable of the Four Soils, because as important and precious as good seed is, it is only part of the equation. Farming is also about the soil. Ancient farmers knew that the best farms were those with good rich soil – loamy soil, not clay or sand. That’s why river deltas, not wind-swept prairies, make for great farming. The area in which all of the Bible is set is called the Fertile Crescent –so named because of the fertile land that lies between Egypt and Syria, bordered to the north by the Mediterranean and to the south by the Red Sea.
- What To Pack?
16The plans of the mind belong to mortals,
but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.
2All one’s ways may be pure in one’s own eyes,
but the Lord weighs the spirit.
3Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established. . .
9The human mind plans the way,
but the Lord directs the steps.
Matthew 10: 5-14
What To Pack?
What to Pack? Hmmm . . . You’re headed out to door for a weekend get-away. Are you carrying a duffle bag containing a bath suit and flip flops? Or dragging a steamer trunk stuffed with clothes, shoes, cosmetics, and electronic devices? People pack in such different ways. My dad was fond of stuffing a few things in a paper grocery sack, cinching it with a piece of rope, and ta-da! Son Ben is a strategic packer. He first determines the length of any trip, computing it underwear – Is it a 3 underwear trip or a five? Then he lays everything out on his bed and packs it neatly in his bag — in reverse order: putting the clothes he plans to wear last on the bottom, and ending with the first night’s pajamas on top! In contrast, I am a terrible packer! Invariably, I pull from the closet some outfit I never wear at home but am suddenly convinced it will be the perfect thing for Paris! My friend Ginger, a veteran world traveler, can pack for two weeks in a suitcase small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of the plane.
While I love the idea of traveling light, it takes nerve! I am reminded of Erma Bombeck’s story about buying a 6-piece madras mix and match outfit for a bus trip. Every day, she wore some exotic combination of those six pieces. Sometimes, she would tie the scarf around her waist, sometimes drape it dramatically over her shoulders, and sometimes wrap it around her head, bohemian-style. She was so proud of having a new and exotic look each day, but her fellow travelers were less enthusiastic. “On day 5,” she wrote in her hilarioius memoire, “they voted the scarf off the bus!”
Well . . . what does this have to do with today’s text. Jesus sends his twelve disciples out to evangelize the lost sheep of the house of Israel. They are going to be traveling on foot for an indefinite period of time — curing the sick, cleansing lepers, casting out demons, and raising the dead. A huge assignment . . .
- Despicable Me
So! We have come to the halfway point in the year – 2017!—and it is time for a reality check! How are you doing on your New Year’s Resolutions? /// No one? You do remember what they were, right? Anyone remember?
At the Princeton Fitness Center, there is always a bulletin board put up after Christmas on which people can post their New Year’s Resolutions. By January 1, it is covered up with sticky notes! Of course, losing weight is the perennial favorite, followed by exercising more, and eating better.
I am always amused by the folks who “resolve” something for someone else: “In 2017, my dog will get thinner!” (seriously) or “This year, my husband will spend more time with me.” I wonder how that one is panning out?
According to the online site Statistic Brain, 21% of people who vow to lose weight and eat better actually do!! But, sadly, of those who resolve to ”do good things for other people” only 5.2 % really do! Humph!
Why do we fail at doing what is right? We know what we want to do, what we need to do, and yet we don’t do it! Exactly what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans:
- This Being We Call God
This Being We Call God
I’m sure by this time, you have come to realize that I am more of a teacher than a preacher. My emphasis on teaching is based on the belief that we come to know God and know about God through our heads/our minds; and then we come to love God through our hearts. Occasionally, it happens the other way around: people have dramatic emotional encounters with the Divine and then turn to Christian study and discipline. But for most of us, we first learn about our amazing creator God (through family, Sunday School, Bible Study and the like — and as our learning increases, so does our faith and love.
It is important to learn to love the right God! What do I mean by that? Isn’t there only one God? I would immediately answer “Yes, there is only one God.” But in reading our Holy Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, there appears to be two Gods. Two distinctly different Gods: A stern and wrathful God, a Wizard of Oz god, who puffs and blows and threatens, who leaves Dorothy and the Israelites wandering around Oz for 40 years before bringing them to safety. An angry God who punishes Abraham’s descendants — again and again– for their disobedience. A jealous god who directs his chosen tribe to wipe out all the native inhabitants of Canaan — whole cities and cultures –killing every man, woman, and child.
- A Still More Excellent Way
A Still More Excellent Way
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
13If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
A Still More Excellent Way
What hasn’t been said about love? It is object of psychologists, therapists, marriage counselors, and match-makers. It is the domain of poets, song-writers, musicians, and artists. Love is the promise held out by advertisers. Love sells flowers, chocolates, and Hallmark cards — but also automobiles, life insurance, and carpet. What hasn’t been said about love?
A number of years ago, Randy and I read a book called The Five Love Languages. The book explained that people give and receive love in five ways: (1) Words of Affirmation — compliments, (2) Quality Time, (3) Receiving Gifts, (4) Acts of Service, and (5) Physical Touch. The key to true married happiness, the book promised, was figuring out how to speak your spouse’s “love language.” If he felt loved by receiving acts of service, then you should quit buying him ties and start washing his car more often. If your wife’s love language is quality time i.e. dinner and conversation, then don’t expect her to feel loved because you’ve just trimmed “her shrubs.” I admit the book was insightful, but it felt kind of calculating and self-serving. Plus, I didn’t sense much intimacy in washing his car; and he didn’t always have anything to talk to me about! So . . . we didn’t find it easy to speak the same love language. Continue reading →
- Looking for Jesus
The Resurrection of Jesus
Looking for Jesus
If someone were to ask me today, “What is this book called The Bible about?” I would say, “It is a long story about looking for Jesus.” Many people, in many times, and for many reasons, are looking for Jesus. — or, to be more precise, are looking for a savior, a Messiah. In the Old and New Testament — from Abraham through John the Baptist, our Israelite ancestors prayed for, hoped for, watched for, a deliverer, a messiah. And when He was born in a Bethlehem cave, only a handful of people knew that the one they had been looking for was born.
Even those who recognized the Messiah spent a lot of time looking for him — because Jesus frequently turned up missing, or appeared in unlikely places. Continue reading →
- Fair-Weather Friends
21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
15Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
Good morning! The sun is shining, the day promises to be warm, it is Palm Sunday, and it’s baseball season!! Major League baseball opened this week. My Maryland brother and sister are diehard Orioles fans. This week the team opened against Toronto and won both games, took on the Yankees and won X games. You know, it is really easy and fun to be the fan of a winning team! Continue reading →
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
1 Corinthians 12:3-13
Trouble in River City
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that there is trouble! Trouble right here in River City. Trouble that starts with a T — which rhymes with P– and that stands for . . . POOL. I knew someone would know! Who can name the musical? In the 1957 musical, con man and traveling salesman Harold Hill, convinces the Iowa town folk to buy musical instruments, A boy’s band would keep their sons out of the pool hall with its cigarettes, ragtime music, and scarlet women. There is “trouble in River City” he says, and a boys’ band is the solution.
Were it only so simple for the city of Corinth, Greece. First century Corinth, a thriving, wealthy commercial city, that sat on a Corinth sat on a narrow little strip of land between the Saronic Gulf and the Corinthian Gulf. So positioned, it was a thriving, wealthy commercial city that had trouble with a capital T.
The trouble was more serious than a pool hall. There was drunkenness and “debauchery.” Filthy traders and sailors with filthy habits. Above the Acropolis stood the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with her 1000 priestesses who were sacred prostitutes. They plied their trade on the streets of Corinth at night.
In the middle of this culture was the new church that Paul had planted. They were having trouble with what was going on around them; but they were also having troubles within. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written to address these internal troubles.
Kellan, are you saying that the Christians in this church were not getting along?
Yes, as hard as that is to believe, sometimes church folk don’t exactly get along! And that is what was going on in Corinth! And Paul –who had planted the church—wrote this letter to encourage them to “make up their differences” – to “mend themselves together.”
Actually, the word Paul chose to use for “mend” was a Greek word normally used as a medical term for the joining together of fractured bones. Do, Paul says, “Heal your fractured relationships. Make up your differences.”
So what was the fight about? Well, the dissension was a couple of layers deep.
On its surface, it was a matter of allegiance. Some of the converts claimed Paul as their leader and spokesman, and others gave their allegiance to other preachers. In other words, there were factions!
Some followed Apollos, for example. Apollos was a well-spoken evangelist. He, himself, was a Jew, and an intellectual. He could draw out elaborate arguments and extended illustrations. His sermons were academic and philosophical and beautiful!
But there were others who followed Cephus (or Peter). Cephus was also a Jew and a legalist, but he preached that Christian converts must practice the Jewish Law regardless of their baptized status. You must be a keeper of the Old Law, said Cephus, as well as the New Law. He attracted a good many followers because of his stern legal approach.
And, finally, another segment of the church –mostly the gentiles– claimed Paul as their leader. In his preaching, they hear acceptance –Paul reached out to Gentiles. But while Paul is away at Ephesus, planting other churches, they are exposed to other teachers and other doctrines. They become confused and disenchanted.
It seems that these early converts had developed a first allegiance on a particular preacher or teacher –while their allegiance to Christ and the gospel message came second. In their absorption with this preacher or that style of message or this detail of theology, they had lost sight of the gospel! Can you imagine being so attached to a particular preacher? Of course we can!
So, when this news reaches Paul in Ephesus, he is ticked!! “You are behaving like children,” he wants to scream. “Didn’t I teach you the simple gospel message? It was about Christ’s forgiving act and resurrection? It isn’t about fancy speech or following every single rule, it is about serving God and others. You were baptized into Christ –you were not baptized into Paul, or Cephus, or Apollos!
But –fortunately– Paul is more diplomatic than that! He writes them a letter, and begins by addressing them as “brothers.” Calling them brothers is a not-so-subtle reminder that they belong to a family – Christ’s family. Like a parent, Paul urges them to make up their differences, to be unified in spirit and purpose.
When I was growing up, I had quite a few fights with my sister. Who had to do more work? who was prettier? who was thinner? who borrowed what? who got to go where? etc. etc. “Girls, girls,” I can still hear my dad saying, “cut this out right now. There are more important things to worry about than who last did the dishes.” For the small arguments, that was usually all it took, but for bigger battles it took something more.
Paul’s letter doesn’t stop by urging the Corinthians to “kiss and make up.” He carefully explains what it takes to live peacefully in community, and his approach is brilliant!
“Listen, all of you! Stop forming cliques, demanding to be right, insisting on this rule or that style of worship. You are all equally important and needed – whether Greek or Jew, eloquent or tongue-tied. God loves you and has a purpose for you. Each of you has gifts and all those gifts are equally needed to accomplish God’s work.” Paul goes on to list the gifts – sharing of wisdom, prophecy or preaching, the gift of faith, the ability to heal and perform miracles. “All of these gifts –whether they are flashy or humble—are of the Spirit when they accomplish the common good.”
While Paul’s list of gifts is pretty extensive, now that I have been your interim pastor for almost two years, I can think of many, many more gifts. Gifts that I so appreciate:
They would include natural talents, acquired abilities, interests and capacity, and just plain willingness to show up! Showing up is a huge gift! And so is diplomacy, gracious speech, careful listening, creative imagination. I appreciate this person’s artistic eye, that child’s teachable spirit, that parishioner’s gift of self-control. I would also add gifts of carpentry, plumbing, wiring, grant-writing and computer skills. Add in cooking ability, love of baking, affinity for cleaning and dishwashing, a talent for nurturing children and ministering to the elderly.
“All these –and more, says Paul– are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. “And lest any of you still think that your gift is better than your sister’s gift, or your gift is all the church really needs to go on functioning, then be reminded of the human body. What if it were missing a leg, or an eye, says Paul. Would it still be complete? Could the body function without a heart or a liver? Belonging to the body is to feel all its pains, share its hungers, know its limits, suffer in its illnesses, tingle with its passions, feed its growth, breathe its spirit, expect its healing, die its death, and hope for its resurrection. All these things the body’s members do together and with each other.
Likewise, what would the church body be without musicians, or without Sunday School teachers, or without elders or committee chairmen? How could the church move forward without the creative thinkers, the organized planners, the money managers, and the artisans who build and wire and decorate? Really?
Do you think God’s kingdom could succeed with just these gifts or those? Really?
I like the picture on the front of your bulletin, but there is something wrong with it. All the sunflowers look alike, but we do not look alike. We are not all the same height, the same color, the same size. We do not all face in the same direction, nod our heads in synchrony. No — churches are composed of sunflowers and asters, zinnias and roses, exotic orchids and hard-working dandelions. God wants it that way. We want it that way. Is it easy to grow up in an unkempt English garden? NO. We sometimes shoulder each other out for the good soil, the sunshine, the rain. But when we realize that we don’t compete– that we complement one another– then we stop squabbling and start respecting. Our gifts are all of God.
Our goal is not to tolerate each other. Tolerance is to ask for too little. Our goal is much more: acceptance, appreciation, respect, even celebration of our differences, our peculiar and motley gifts. That is what Paul asks of his Corinthian family.
Is it easy? Heck, no! It is the hardest thing in the world to live compatibly, and lovingly with others. It takes patience and self-control. It takes willingness to apologize, to forgive, to give folks a second chance, to stand in the wings and let someone else shine. You have to be ever-mindful that it’s not about you. You may be the protagonist in your own life, but for the person sitting beside you, you are only a supporting actor even a walk-on. No, it’s not about you, it’s about all of us. The whole body. We –together, not individually– are the body of Christ. Ultimately, it’s about God.
Abraham LIncoln is mistakenly credited with coining, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” No. Lincoln did know his Bible, particularly Mark 3:35. The whispering, squabbling church in Corinth was a house divided. They stand as a model of what not to do.
We should strive to model what to do! The Gospel isn’t difficult: Love God and love your neighbor. Everything else is just icing on the cake. Loving God and neighbor is our purpose — together. We’re family. AMEN