About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Quiet, God

Psalm 8, Matthew 11:25-26, 28-30
"Quiet, God"

Matthew 11
25 At that time Jesus said, 'I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 'Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'

"T'was the night before Christmas, and all through the church, not a cell phone was ringing, no Google to search."
"The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." 
When there's quiet, we notice what we normally overlook. 
When there's quiet, we feel the air in our lungs. 
We hear our own heartbeat pulsing in our ears. 
"The moon on the crest of the new fallen snow, gives the luster of midday to objects below…" 
Quiet. Makes the unheard louder. 
Quiet. Makes the unnoticed visible. 
Quiet. Makes our heartbeats echo, makes each breath mean more.
In chapter 11 of the Gospel According to Matthew, after he's all grown up, Jesus is having a bad day. 
For a baby who made no crying, the grown-up Jesus gets fussy pretty fast. 
He gets especially irritated at loud religious people who should know better. 
After going off on a brief but divine rant about people and cities who are never quiet, who refuse to listen, he sends up a prayer of exasperation. 
If you listen to his words, you can almost hear him sighing.
"I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the "wise" and the "intelligent." 
How does Jesus know these people are wise and intelligent? 
Because they tell everybody. 
Same as smarty-pants people do now. 
And those people who think they know everything really annoy those of us who do. 
Between the aggressively obnoxious and the silently snarky, we live with a lot of noise. 
Background noise, foreground noise, noise in our ears, noise right up in our faces.
There's not much holy quiet to our days or silent to our nights.
We're too wise and intelligent and opinionated and connected to be quiet.
Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will….
And then he goes on to add:
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls…."

"I am gentle and humble in heart." 
How do you know if your heart is gentle and humble, if you never have enough quiet to hear it?

"I am gentle and humble in heart." 
Jesus is describing himself, but he's also describing God. 
Do you ever think of God - Great and Glorious God of heaven and earth and suns and stars - do you think of this Great God as being gentle and humble, the source of quiet and rest for your soul? 
In thinking of God, Creator of All, we make God so big, so busy, swirling up galaxies, generating power and light, roaring in Big Bangs and interstellar collisions. 
God is so big. 
Big equals loud. 
Loud equals busy. 
Busy equals productive, 
productive equals creative, 
equals useful, equals good.
At least, that's the way people who are "wise" and "intelligent" appear to take it. 
Loud and proud and productive. 
Just like God. 
This annoys Jesus.

Jesus rejoices that God is quiet. 
Jesus rejoices that God is gentle. 
Jesus rejoices that God is humble in heart.
The mother of a newborn watches her baby breathe. 
She holds its cheek next to hers and feels its breath across her face, hears it in her ear. 
She feels its heartbeat against her chest. 
She breathes in, she tastes the holiness of new life in the silence she shares with her child. 
Others might see from a distance, but the noise of living blows them back from the miracle of the quiet.

God is quiet. 
God is humble. 
God does not shout glory. 
God is glory. 
God is life and love revealed to infants, revealed in an infant, alive in the mystery of the silence where a child can hear two hearts.
The choir sings, "Dona Nobis Pacem," 
Grant us peace. 
Grant us rest. 
Grant us calm for our weary, burdened souls in a moment of holy quiet. 
Grant us escape from busy minds that never shut down, lists that never end, phones that won't stop ringing, 
lives that churn in the opposite of quiet: wise and intelligent, but so tired. 
"Dona Nobis Pacem." 
Grant us peace.
In Psalm 8, the writer stares up at the same night sky that held a star that led shepherds and kings with soft-spoken care.
"When I look at your heavens," the writer says, "the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"
In the stillness of a holy night, we stand surrounded by the same lights of infinity, 
the fingerprints of a God so vast and yet so gentle and humble in heart that his only cry is for his children.
"Out of the mouths of babes and infants" - out of the mouth of one child - comes the Word that becomes flesh and dwells among us, 
not as one wise and intelligent, but humble, and holy, and still.

Your breath, your heartbeat, your steps upon the earth… 
your touch, your love… 
are no less than the echoes of a silent creator… 
who gives birth to peace in troubled hearts, 
who brings forth hope in hectic minds, 
who promises rest to all who are weary from heavy burdens.

This is God. 
This is the Creator of the stars of night. 
This God's way. 
Quiet. ------
Listen to your heart. 
Listen for God.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Christmas Without Joseph

Matthew 1:18-25 
A Christmas Without Joseph
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sunday, December 22, 2013

There's a story of a church Christmas Pageant.

A few hours before showtime, the mother of the boy who's supposed to play Joseph calls the church and frantically explains that her son's come down with the flu, and can't leave the house.

The director of the pageant thinks for a moment, and says, "That's OK. We'll just write Joseph out."

They still have Mary. Still have three wise men. Still have sheep, shepherds, angels, and a baby-doll Jesus.

By the time you get all those kids up there in bathrobes and cardboard wings, it's one crowded manger.

So, the pageant goes on sans Joseph. 
And no one even notices.


When you think about it, Joseph didn't really have that much to do with Jesus' birth. Joseph doesn't have a speaking part anywhere in the Gospels and after Jesus turns 12, Joseph is never mentioned again. It's almost like he never existed, or didn't have to.

Was Joseph really necessary? Could he have been written out? Could he have been replaced by a Robert or a Doug?  Could you still have a Christmas without Joseph?


Every Christmas movie ever made shares the same problem. Christmas is in trouble. It's up to one man, one woman, one girl, one dog, one Cat, one toy, one spy, one Care Bear, or Ernest - to save Christmas.

Another thing the movies have in common is it's always the alleged misfit who has to do the saving. The one everybody overlooks, the one you'd least suspect is always the one who overcomes his fear or anger or humbuggery. It's always the one voted Least Likely to Succeed who saves Christmas.

Kevin gets left home alone. Jimmy Stewart has to believe it's a wonderful life. Charlie Brown has to prove what a little love can do. Rudolph has to overcome his nasal issues. Karen has to get Frosty to the North Pole. Buddy has to go searching for his father.

In the movies, Christmas will be lost without the courage of that one weird and wonderful person, animal, or elf. If not for the courage of the fearless One will this Christmas will be lost.

Why is this? Why do all the movies and specials have pretty much the same problem, that is, saving Christmas? Why is that so popular? Is anyone really worried Christmas won't come, even if Walmart checkers are forced to say "Happy Holidays"? Seriously? Is Christmas *that* fragile?


Speaking of Walmart, there are only two and a-half shopping days left 'til Christmas. Did anyone else's blood pressure just go up? Why are you sitting there? There's so much left to do! 

That's what people do at Christmas. We do. We do. Do. Do do. Do the Dew. Dude. Otherwise Christmas might not come. We're Kevin. We're Buddy. We're Karen and Rudolph. We're The Chosen One who saves Christmas. Well, maybe not. But we might be. It's always the one you least expect, isn't it? 

So maybe it IS you. Or you. Or YOU! You're "The Presbyterian Who Saved Christmas." You're THE ONE. Isn't *that* just the nightmare before Christmas? Maybe that's why the movies all share the same problem. Because you think that without you and what you do, Christmas is just tearful orphans with empty bowls. If you mess up, we may just have to cancel. Of course it's irrational. It's fear.


The Bible tells the story of Christmas. It tells the story of the Christmas the world will never forget. It's the first and it's still the best.

The Bible's Christmas Story has its cast of characters, too. There's Mary. There's the Baby Jesus. There's the shepherds, the angels, the star.

And then there's Joseph. About whom we know precious little. And that's another problem. Joseph's just not that interesting.

So people make up backstory about Joseph. They try to make the his story more suspenseful. People embellish Joseph's character and give him all sorts of psychological and social issues to resolve because, you know, if he doesn't take the chance on this one dream, the first Christmas might not happen.

The truth is, pretty much all we know about Joseph is what we read in today's scripture. And that's not much. Joseph's not all that much, truth be told.

The Bible says, "Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." ... When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him...."

Here's what we know: Joseph is a righteous man who doesn't want to expose Mary to public disgrace. He's afraid. He has a dream. He obeys.

Could there have been a Christmas without Joseph? Could it have been somebody else from the house and lineage of David? Would anyone really notice if he got written out or replaced? Because, honestly, he didn't do anything super-heroic. He's just a man. It's not Christmas that's fragile; it's Joseph.

Joseph - obviously - isn't the star of the show. He's not the hero. And yet. And yet while he might not be so essential, Joseph *is* special. I think Joseph is special for us. Because when you think of the Christmas story from *our* point of view, he might be the person we have the most in common with.

Each of us is very special. But essential? None of us can create the magic of Christmas. None of us is the savior. None of us can "save" Christmas. None of us can stop it. We're each unique and special, sure. But our importance is very fragile. Our sense of importance is fragile. It can be taken away by a cruel word or thoughtless action, a case of the flu, or something else. That's the frightening thing. That we could just be written out, that the show would go on, and no one would notice.

And yet, God kept Joseph in the story. Joseph was an average person, a guy trying to do the right thing, to whom Christmas just happened. Nothing that he did or could have done would have stopped Christmas or saved it, because the Director of this pageant is God and God always finds a way. 

Nothing we do, or try to do, or wish we had done, or didn't do - nothing in our power can ruin Christmas. Nothing in our power can save Christmas, either. Joseph is proof that we can let go of the fears that keep us doing, and there will still be Christmas.

Christmas is God's doing for human beings. Christmas is not a human doing for God's being. We don't save Christmas. Christmas saves us. Joseph isn't essential, but he is special. Breakable people like Joseph are the reason we need Christmas. Fragile people like you and me - are the reason the show goes on. Not because of us, but for us. Because we need it.


In the original Christmas story, Joseph didn't say a word. It was a non-speaking role. Which, if you're staging a pageant, makes it a very good assignment for anyone nervous about being in front of large group of people. No lines to memorize. Nothing to do, really. Maybe pull the donkey. Look at the baby. Anyone could do it. And everyone can.

Everyone has a role in God's pageant of salvation. Everyone has a part in the story of Jesus. It's as simple, and as available, as just staring in wonder at the love God has for folks like us... and for someone like you.

So Joseph didn't do anything that special. So Joseph didn't say anything. The ridiculous miracle of Christmas is that God would care so much about fragile little people that God would slip into human form, and that God would involve people in the production as ordinary and as replaceable as Joseph. There will never be a Christmas without Joseph because Christmas is *for* people like Joseph. 

It's such an outrageously loving idea. So hard to believe, that maybe the only right response is the Joseph-like silence of wonder and awe. 

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Naughty? Nice? Fruitcake? Or Casserole?

2013-12-08 Naughty? Nice? Fruitcake? Or Casserole?
Second Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

Last Sunday in Children's Sermon I explained that this tall, green fir over here is a "Chrismon" tree. Each of the "ornaments" is a MON-o-graph for Jesus. And all the children looked at me like I was speaking Swedish. One little guy was brave enough to say out loud what everyone was thinking. "No it's not! It's a Christmas tree!" (implied parentheses: "You big nut!"). He said it twice, louder and slower the second time because that's how you speak to people who are old.

I considered pointing out that only minutes before, he had taken part in a musical Christmas pageant with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and if he had learned anything about ancient Bethlehem, he'd know that a lighted fir tree beside the manger was a logical impossibility.

Instead, I handed him a stuffed-lamb chrismon. And he was gone.

It looks like a Christmas tree. It has ornaments like a Christmas tree. But it's *not* a Christmas tree. Riiiiight. What grown-up came up with that?

Kids are smart. Kids can hold onto to contradictory ideas at the same time, and be perfectly OK with it. Kids don't argue about "remembering the reason for the season." There's church Christmas with Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus. And then there's Santa Christmas, with Christ-MAS trees and presents and… presents. There's one. And there's the other. And that's OK. You can even have a Christmas tree in church. Kids know the difference.

But then we get old and we get confused. We get pushy over having one meaning, the RIGHT meaning for Christmas or religion or politics or the way people are supposed to behave. We say, "Well, when I was a boy…" But we forget that when we *were* boys or *were* girls, we didn't get obsessed with worries about how the young people are going to juggle the contradictions. I can say this as a parent because I do it too. We try really hard to save our kids from the burdens of contradictions. We forget that to the kids, they're not burdens.

Maybe they're not burdens to God, either. God doesn't save us from the burdens of conflicting, contradicting ideas. Maybe to God they're the way out from under our burdens.

Oh, you'd better watch out!
You'd better not cry!
You'd better not pout!
I'm telling you why.

He's making a list.
He's checking it twice.
Gonna find out who's naughty or nice.
(who's coming and where?)

He sees you when you're sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be (what?) for goodness sake!


I forget. Is this song good news? Or a threat? What are we teaching our kids?? There's an overweight bearded man in red pajamas outside the window. (That's not creepy at all.) He's watching you. He's keeping a list. He's double-checking your totals. At the end of the year, you might be nice. But if you've cried, or pouted, or transgressed in any way, well, you know what list you're on.

When I was a boy… actually slightly before that, naughty children got lumps of coal in their boots and switches in their stockings. All you need now's a match. It's the home starter-kit for flames of punishment licking at your feet. Santa might bring you a toy, if you're nice. But he might sit in all-seeing judgment over a misspent year and reward you in kind for all the evil you've done, or said, or thought. You naughty, naughty child. Ah, those were the days.

I'm not sure when Jolly Old Saint Nick got so omnipotent and judgmental.  Maybe grown-ups got confused. Maybe they mixed him up with another image of a bearded old man who watches everything you do, and say, and think, and pronounces judgment.

In the reading from Matthew 3, "In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.""

John said: "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

"…one who is more powerful than I is coming…. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

They say the Bible is good news. But this doesn't sound so good. It makes Jesus sound - and it makes God sound - sound like the vindictive, number-crunching Santa who knows if you've been bad or good. Naughty or nice. Wheat or chaff. Free bird… or cooked goose.

So, if you were Santa. If you were Santa looking down at you, which list would you put you on? You know when you've been sleeping. You know when you've been lying awake. You know when you've been bad. You know when you've been good. For goodness' sake, how do your scores add up?

Are there items on one list that count three or four times as much as those on the other?

That's where the list concept breaks down. Things get blurry because you might have one side of the page filled with checkmarks but there's one on the other side that outweighs all the others. And that's true for bad or good. You did all these good things, but there's that one bad that ruined everything. Or, you did all these bad things, but there's that one good one that proves you can't be all naughty.

We like to pretend that we're all one or the other. Good or bad, naughty or nice. We like to pretend our inner contradictions don't burden us. We'd like to simply and be just this or just that.

There's one Christmas food that always gets made fun of. It's from the Island of Misfit Food. You know: The fruitcake. Does anyone even give fruitcakes anymore? I used to love them when I was a kid. I would not want to be in the fruitcake business. Fruitcakes are the butt of so many seasonal jokes. No one knows exactly what they are. But they seem to last forever. There's bits and pieces of all kinds of stuff held together by sugar and adhesives that don't occur in nature. It's all these different foods glommed into one. It's like a casserole that stands up on its own. I think we make fun of the humble fruitcake precisely because it's not one thing or the other. It's a bit of this, it's bite of that and by some miracle it all holds together.

I'm sure you know some people who appear to be 100% nice. Maybe you know one or two you'd swear are 100% naughty. But I'll bet you know a lot more who are fruitcakes. "He's nutty as a fruitcake." That's what we say about someone when we're telling the truth. "She's kind of naughty, she's kind of nice; it's just a mystery to me how she holds it together." Most of the time. A fruitcake.

Any kid will tell you: Jesus is not Santa. Jesus showed us on the cross that God would rather die than be turned into a scorekeeper by Pharisees and Sadducees and people who insist every contradicting thought be resolved. [Note: With grateful thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber for the language of that previous sentence, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (p. 86)]. Jesus does not make a list and check it twice. He knows you're really not that naughty. He knows you're really not that nice. He knows we're all more like fruitcakes. Mixed up. Laughable. And held together by the grace of God.

The religious grown-ups of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, got it wrong. They thought John and Jesus were coming to divide people up and they wanted to make sure they were on the right list. They missed that people are already pretty well divided up on the inside.

John the Baptist appeared not in some well-manicured temple, but in the wilderness. He dressed in itchy clothes and he ate locusts dipped in honey. And we think Christmas sweaters and fruitcakes are are weird.

When John appeared in the wilderness, he called real people - real, mixed-up people. John called real people to do the true, hard work of honest soul-searching. He called people to look deep into their real hearts.

John's call comes to us. He calls us to see - to see with the eyes of God - to see in ourselves the good and the bad, the true and the false, the broken and the urge to break. He calls us to look for goodness' sake, for the sake of the good of our souls.

A long, long time before John, the Prophet Isaiah was given the gift of a vision from God. In this vision, Isaiah saw the contradictions of life. He saw the innocence and the danger that all of us have within us.

But Isaiah also saw that God did not, and God would not, lift away the conflicting truths. Because to God, the opposites aren't a burden; they're a wonder. Children see that wonder. They remind us that it's OK.

Isaiah says:

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

Do you see that tall green fir over there? Is it a Chrismon tree? Or is it a Christmas tree? Maybe it's both. I know that's kind of nutty. And that's OK.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Future Is A Very Messy Place

2013-12-01 The Future Is A Very Messy Place

Luke 21:25-36

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

What's the future going to be like? We used to make predictions based on which direction the cows were facing. Now, we've got weather radar that can predict up to the minute and down to the square mile. You can watch it on your phone and make a very educated guess as to how long you've got before the green or the orange or the pink makes it to where you're standing.

The future is predicted for us.

Christmas is coming. I think it's safe to say that most of us can predict with a high degree of confidence how it's going to be. We base our forecast on data from the past. We generate models in our heads of how this coming Christmas will play out.

Don't believe me? Ask a 6 year-old what Santa's going to bring. More certain than Jim Cantore in a hurricane. We each have our own vision of the ideal Christmas. Sometimes we set a pretty high bar. And then we work toward that ideal. Which can create some stress. Or we fight with the ideal, mourn the ideal, regret the ideal. Which can create sadness or even lead to clinical depression. We generally make our predictions early, and then live with them for the next four weeks. For some, it's a season of good tidings of great joy. It's the hap-happiest season of all. And that's great. For some, it's a wintry mix, clouds mixed with sun with occasional scattered precipitation from the eyes. For some, it feels pretty dark and gloomy, not too far from the foreboding prophecies in the Bible.

Our degrees of certainty can work for us or against us. When you look at the different ways people predict Christmas in their hearts, the next four weeks are a mixed bag.

The future - even the near future - is a very messy place.


In the Gospel, Luke predicts the future like a TV weather-person. And the forecast is not-good.

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken."

The prophet Joel says the sun shall be extinguished and the moon shall turn to blood on the day of the Lord's coming. (Joel 2)

When the Bible talks about the coming of the Lord, the forecast sounds downright apocalyptic. Some people interpret this as a coming day of destruction sent upon the earth for the sins of Miley Cyrus twerking on television. We've let our morals go, and therefore punishment shall be heaped upon our heads.

There IS plenty of historical data to prove that you do sometimes reap what you sow. Karma's gonna get you, instant or delayed. And as a parent, I want to second that opinion. But I disagree with the doomsday weather-predictors who automatically assume every bad storm is the armed vengeance of an angry God. "I told you so," is NOT the Eleventh Commandment.

What people who like to scare you with the Bible won't tell you is that even its predictions are written in retrospect. Even when the Bible talks about the future, its words are rooted in the past and directed - squarely - at the present. The Bible is a living word. It's not an inanimate crystal ball or a Doppler radar dome. The Bible's a living word. It's directed at people who dare to live in what's sometimes the scariest reality available: the here and now.

So instead of asking ourselves what the coming of Christ is GOING to be like, or holding ourselves to how the advent of Christ USED to be, instead, I think the Bible calls us to ask how the coming of Christ is right now. Right now. In our messy, but present heart.


I follow God on Twitter. I don't think it's The Actual God. If I had to guess, I'd say it's probably some smart-aleck hipster in New Jersey. The Tweet of God is sometimes profane, but sometimes quite profound.

Last week, God tweeted the following, and then removed it, so I consider myself blessed to have seen the word while it was present. God said, "There is no such thing as the foreseeable future." I like that. When I hear myself saying, "in the foreseeable future," I remember what God tweeted, and smile.

So I read Bible passages about the great and terrible day of the coming of the Lord, and I think, "Well, OK. Maybe that's a prediction about the future. But maybe not. Maybe it's not a prediction, but a description. A description of what I - or some people not too far from me - are feeling when they look ahead - and try to make a forecast. Maybe it's description of what what people feel when they try to foresee what the coming of the Lord - what we sometimes call Christmas. Maybe this is messy truth of what people feel when they try to guess how things are going to be.

Of course everyone wants this to be the hap-happiest season of all. But what if it isn't? What if Christmas isn't perfect? What if the future is just as messy - just as messed up - as the present? The present which is always born of the past? Of course there are days that feel apocalyptic. But most of the time, even in the darkest or brightest season, it's a mix. A mix of rain and sun. A mix of anything from hap-happiest at one end to that which can only be endured.

The coming of Christ isn't so much a prediction as a description. And then, not as much a description as a promise. The coming of Christ is the idea - that in every day's mixed bag of weather, Christ is there with us. The coming of Christ is the hope that no matter whether the winds blow warm or cold, in whatever direction they spin us, Christ is here with us. The coming of Christ is the promise that God named him right, that he is "Emmanuel." God-with-us. God present. Here and now. God is with you visibly in the past, predictably in the future, but certainly in the present, messed up as you may be.


Back in the day, before and during Jesus' time on earth, everyone had their ideas of how he was going to be. Some predicted he'd be a warrior to slay the oppressors. Some thought he'd be a King. Hardly anyone figured he'd show up as a baby in a manger. That one wasn't even on the radar.

Bearing in mind the Bible's apocalyptic visions of Christ's coming, you might say what really got blown up were all those preconceived forecasts. The foreseeable future turned out to be no such thing. In hindsight, we can say, it turned out much, much better.

What's your future going to be like?

Well, probably a lot like your present. Unless something unforeseeable happens. Which it will. The game-changing promise is that when the unforeseeable does happen, Christ's presence will be there with you. Born of that which was totally unpredictable. Arising from that which looked so messy.

To our Risen Lord be the glory, now and forever. Amen.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

2013-11-24 Celebrate The End, But Give Thanks for Beginnings

2013-11-24 Celebrate The End, But Give Thanks for Beginnings

Deuteronomy 26:1-3

Colossians 1:11-20

I don't know if any of you like to wake up before sunrise on Black Friday and go extreme shopping. Maybe you do but wouldn't admit it in public. It's very exciting. You against the ravenous masses. Kind of like the start of the Hunger Games. Of course, the crush has eased a little in recent years now that stores have started opening the day before on, what do they call it? Thanksgiving.

I've done the 5AM Black Friday feeding frenzy. And that's why I will always treasure my nine-gallon wet/dry RIGID Shop Vac from Home Depot. I earned it. I fought for it. My Precious.

What have you earned, that you treasure? What have you fought for, in a bold race for the finish line, or for the checkout counter, that holds a special place in your heart?

Maybe it's a shop vac. More likely it's a diploma. Or a house. Maybe that dream car. Maybe you earned a the clean bill of health by exterminating extra pounds and bad habits. It might be an "A" in a class taught by the meanest teacher in the world - or maybe just a passing grade. Maybe that guy or that girl whose heart you won, back when you were still romantic.

Whatever the prize, you fought for it. You earned it. It's yours. Should someone or something threaten the reward, you'd protect it, maybe even wage a counter-attack.

After reaching a goal and collecting the trophy, whatever that is, we switch on the locks. We punch in the code. We go into security mode when the work is done, when we reach the end.


From the Pilgrims to Bible-times, festivals of thanksgiving were celebrations of The End. For farmers, thanksgiving times marked the end of the planting, the end of the growing, the end of the tending, the end of the harvest. They kept the farm productive another season. The farmers lived through another year and deserved a break. They could relax for a few days. Feast a little. They earned their reward. They could look at the fruits of their labor and cook a few of them, too. They could admire what they had produced, what they'd fought for, what they'd done with their own two hands. They could rejoice at the end.

We all do that, don't we? We raise our hands at the finish lines. We dance in the end zones. People prize the accomplished. We celebrate The End.

And THAT might turn out to be one of the most important ways God's NOT like us.


I know you all love reading Deuteronomy. I'm a minister. I'm weirdo and I know it. I love Deuteronomy. It's filled with rules that make you wonder, "Why would anyone ever make THAT law?" Kind of like how UT never had sorority houses because it was illegal for more than eight women to live in the same building. (Because, you know, men are weak.) Finally got that law changed. But if you notice, the sororities are on the other side of the railroad tracks.

So, Deuteronomy says that as the people are finally, finally entering the land that the Lord their God has given them - after forty years in the wilderness - at The End - they are to gather up and dedicate the FIRST fruits of the harvest. The First things.

The people are glad for The End; God wants the first.


The Bible talks about more Firsts in the letter to the church in Colossae. Listen to how many firsts it names.

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created [at first], things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created [first] through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The Israelites of old celebrated The End of their journey with the FIRST fruits of their harvest. In Jesus, God celebrates The First of ALL creation. Jesus is ground of all being, the origin and the glue that keeps everything from spinning away to destruction.

It goes on:

he [Jesus] is the beginning, the firstborn - from the dead - so that he might come to have first place in everything.

The people saw The End; God saw a new first. When people looked at the cross they thought they were seeing The End, but what God saw was a mysterious re-writing of that ending into a new beginning, where the end, the last, became the first: The firstborn Christ of new life.

And what did humanity contribute to this beginning? Some boards and some nails and the spilling of blood in a twisted attempt to create The End.

God took The Worst End and turned it into a New First.


Think of the Ends you've celebrated, the goals you've met, the rewards you've earned. Think of the happy endings.

Now, think of The Ends that you dread. The unhappy endings. Endings of life, or of relationships, or of blissful moments that skip away so fast.

What makes some endings so good, and other endings so bad?

Maybe it's a matter of choice.

We celebrate the endings that WE choose. We celebrate the ends that reflect back our own hard work back. Our work. Our effort. Our sacrifice. This is what we celebrate. The celebrations not only reflect it, they magnify it. Magnify us. I did it. I earned it. It's mine. It's - in a way - it's me.

On the other hand, we mourn the ends that remind us of how little control we have to change anything. Bad endings are failures. Bad endings are thieves that steal our time so precious. Bad endings reflect and magnify all the countless things over which we have no power.

Good endings equal power. Bad endings equal no power. Or put it another way: when we have power, we can create our own good ends. When we are powerless, things are bad and will likely get worse, and probably end badly.

Isn't that how it goes?


Imagine being a farmer who works the ground for months. Finally, that first little shoot produces. That one little bean plant pushes through the soil. Oh, what a good feeling. The investing, hard work and early rising has paid off. There's the reward. Your reward.

Deuteronomy says, hold on. That's the piece that belongs to God.

Wait, that's not fair! God's taking the prize you worked for. God's stealing the happy ending. God is stripping you of the great sign of your power. God wants you to just give it away. We might think God's asking a little too much.

But on the cross, the firstborn of all creation, in whom all things hold together - on the cross God strips himself of his power. God just gives away his power of firstness.

On the cross, God does what God's been asking the people to do all along. God yanks away his own reward. On the cross, God shoves aside the power of a happy ending in order to make room, make room for a first.

And the first grows out of soil so powerless.


George and I were talking about the theme for this year's Stewardship season and he said, "You know it can sound kind of trite to say, 'Count Your Blessings.'" It can sound kind of trite when things are bad and someone tells you, "Count your blessings," because they don't know what else to say and things are going generally better for them at the moment.

To me, blessings are the opposite of rewards. Rewards are what you've earned by your own power. Blessings are what you stumble into. Blessings remind you that no matter how much you work and plan, there's uncountably more that you're totally powerless to control. The best you can do is receive a blessing, with gratitude, and with the knowledge that you neither deserve it now, nor could you ever. Call it luck. Call it grace. Just call it for what it is. A blessing is a beginning. Someone a long time ago might have said a blessing is the "firstborn of all creation."

Before you can count your blessings, though, you have to see them. And you can only see these beginnings when you stop focusing on your own ends.


Thanksgiving is this Thursday. Before you slice into the harvest meal, do take a few moments to reflect back on the year. Reflect back on what you've accomplished. There's nothing at all wrong with that. Reflect on your victories. Reflect on how far you may have come since Thanksgiving 2012.

But then, after you've finished reflecting on yourself, refocus your eyes on what you haven't done, what you're powerless to have done, and yet which came to you out of sheer luck, or God's grace, or whatever you want to call it. Think about the things you have no control over, but which, you know, were kind of nice. Uncountably nice.

Celebrate the end of a year. Celebrate the ends you've achieved. That's OK.

But spend some time giving thanks for the unplanned beginnings that came your way. Thank God for the new life that sprang up, while you were busy doing other things.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Fog of War

2013-11-10 The Fog of War

1 Samuel 17:1-11, 38-50

"...the Lord does not save by sword and spear."

So, I worked long and hard on a sermon for today. It's a real hum-dinger. But then I started reading and thinking a lot about Veteran's Day. So I put the other sermon in Time Out.

I think of you in our congregation who are veterans and I think of all the living veterans of wartime and of peacetime. You deserve so much. You deserve so much more than one day of parades and school assemblies. Those are good; but you deserve more. You deserve more than sentimental attempts at thank-yous from those of us who've barely left the safety of our neighborhoods. You deserve more than what people can give because we've spent three hours watching, "Saving Private Ryan," or all however many versions there are of "Rambo." Or playing "Call of Duty" for days on end. You deserve more.

The Bible is, in many of its pages, a horrible, savage book. It's brutal when speaking of war. It tells what war does to men and to women. It tells of how even children are conscripted into service, sometimes willingly, and sometimes as innocents. Because the Bible is a book written from the perspective of a particular people, it glorifies the victories; it makes war the servant of God and of God's people. That's the luxury of hindsight.

So, thinking of war got me thinking of my favorite war story in the Bible: David and Goliath. That's such a great story. Little shepherd boy David slays giant Goliath with one stone. Yea, David! Yea Israel! Yea, God! That's nice. Church is nice. God is nice. We don't usually read the un-nice parts. We politely censor the ugly bits about sweet shepherd David decapitating Goliath with Goliath's own sword, and then taking the fly-swollen head back for display in Jerusalem. We skip over the slaughter of the retreating Philistines. We don't touch the insanity David's victory brought upon King Saul which eventually led to a military coup. That would take too long. That's not nice.

So we turn the horror, the horror, into a children's story. Like a short a movie with a happy ending. Not that there's anything wrong with children's stories or movies with happy endings. It's just that in these cases they paint less than half the picture. We who want so badly to believe we live in a world of clean lines and Kum By Yah deserve better. Our veterans who understand war's glory and its evil - you all, and we all - deserve better. We deserve truth.


A couple of months ago I watched a movie called, "The Fog of War," on Netflix. That hardly qualifies me as an expert on anything except how to operate Netflix. But it did open my eyes to something other stories and movies had skipped over. "The Fog of War" is a documentary, told mainly through the unscripted words of Robert MacNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam. MacNamara just sits in a room and talks. (I know; But I've seen "The Avengers" about 10 times and I was looking for something different.)

I have to say "The Fog of War" was one of the most fascinating and terrifying things I've ever seen, and I've watched "Breaking Bad." MacNamara is usually portrayed by historians as either a genius or a megalomaniac, depending on your point of view. But the film, I think, allowing his own uncensored arrogance as well as introspection, portrays him as a human being, a brilliant, complex, deeply flawed and deeply dedicated participant in the "fog" of war.

The "fog". It's the thick, chaotic haze where simple right and straightforward wrong blur together into something most of us who've never fought in real combat simply can't get. By the end of the movie, you realize that the enemy isn't so much the human being on the other side of the rifle sights, or the block of color on the drone control screen, but that the true enemy is the fog. The fog that irrevocably changes everyone it touches.


"Voices in Wartime" is an anthology of articles and poetry about war, written by veterans themselves. One of the articles in the book is written by Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent with 15 years of experience in places such as El Salvador, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf.

In his article, titled, "The Collective Madness," Hedges writes, "The reality of combat is nothing like the image I think many of us carry into combat. First of all, there's the factor of fear, which is overpowering in situations where violent death is all around you. Fear is something which you have a constant second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour battle to control. You always have moments in which fear takes control and in which you fail, in which your instincts towards self-preservation make you crumble. And anybody, including soldiers who tell you otherwise and come out of combat, are not telling you the truth.

It's a constant battle against fear. There are always times when fear wins. Courage is not a state. Courage is an act. And I think one of the reasons that those who carry out what we would define as courageous acts are often very reticent to speak about it afterward is because they're not completely sure they could do it again."

Hedges goes on: "I read a psychological study that said that being in sustained combat is the psychological equivalent of being in a car crash in which your best friend is killed. These are very, very heavy things to bear. When we see the distress that is unleashed in those who return, we turn away because the myth is so much more enjoyable than the reality. The myth was peddled to us during the war in Iraq by the cable news networks where the coverage of the war existed in essence as a celebration of our incredibly powerful weapons systems and, by extension, our own power.

"War is not clean," he writes. "War is very messy. War is never as tidy as the images of war make it out to be. In fact, war is just pure chaos. The noise itself is deafening, almost unbearable, overloading your senses, along with everything else. You are assaulted in a way that you are completely knocked off balance emotionally, psychologically, and often physically.

Says Hedges: "We don't want to see and we don't want to hear. We turn our backs on those who come back from war and bear witness to war, and I think this has been true for generations and generations. The reason is because it's so difficult to see, so difficult to look at, so difficult to ingest, and it's so much more enjoyable to ingest the bands playing, the flags waving, and the hero charging up over the hill, which is a lie. It's just not true."


You veterans, please know we are grateful. We can't begin to thank you enough, because we can't understand how war has changed your hearts, your minds, and your souls. On this and every Veteran's Day weekend, we're so, so grateful. But if we're honest, the gratitude that most of us, including myself, feel so strongly, is selfish. In part, it's selfish gratitude. We give you parades and speeches; we say, "Thank you," in large, grandstanding ways, because the bands and grandstands are attempts to compensate for our own guilt over being secretly glad we've never had to see, and feel, and experience battle, and bear the nightmares, and PTSD, and traumatic injuries. You veterans have breathed in the fog; it's in your blood. We've read about it in the safety of our bedrooms, and watched Netflix movies about it.

Which reminds me of a song by Lyle Lovett, which came out during the Iraq War, called, "Natural Forces." Lyle sings,

Now as I sit here safe at home

With a cold Coors Lite an' the TV on

All the sacrifice and the death and war

Lord I pray that I'm worth fighting for

...and then the soldier replies,

An' so thank you ma'am, I must decline

For it's on my RPG I ride.

Till Earth an' hell are satisfied

I'm subject to the natural forces.

Sometimes at night I hear their voices.


The shepherd boy David's shouts to Goliath, that he will win the battle because, "...the Lord does not save by sword and spear." Well, for a moment, that's true. A well-aimed rock to the forehead works just as well, if not better. And while he doesn't save with a sword, David sure picks up one as insurance, as does the whole army of Israel, as they terminate their Philistine foes with extreme prejudice. It's kind of like the saying, "Trust in the Lord, and keep your ammo dry." "The Lord does not save by sword and spear." Maybe not. But David keeps them nearby, just in case. Or maybe David's not talking about himself.

Long years later, a descendant of the house and lineage of David will again arise. This descendant will at last be the one who fulfills the prophecy of David. This new man will truly save his people without lifting sword or spear. Yet Jesus will be pierced by a spear and nailed to a cross in what looks to be epic failure.

The great writer, Frederic Buechner, in his book, The Magnificent Defeat, says,

"...we are free to resist [Christ's love], deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again. This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, in this, the greatest of all powers, God's power, is itself powerless."

Jesus doesn't defeat the armies of war. Jesus defeats the fog. Jesus defeats the fog that confuses the senses of anyone who soldiers for justice and truth and peace. Jesus clarifies. Jesus purifies. Without sword. Without spear.

Jesus saves with relentless, never-surrendering love. This is how God conquers our enemies. This is how God conquers us. This is how God conquers the fog that turns humanity against itself. This is the something better that all soldiers of the war against the fog don't deserve, but receive as a gift of new and everlasting life.


On Veterans Day, we thank you who have tasted the bitterness of war on our behalf. But as well we pray for the day when we will have no more veterans, and no need to thank them, when the words of Scripture will be fulfilled, saying, "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more…." (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

A little boy named Cameron Penny was in the fourth grade in a Michigan school when he wrote this poem. It was originally published in the November/December 2001 issue of North American Review.

If You Are Lucky In This Life

by Cameron Penny

If you are lucky in this life

A window will appear on a battlefield between two armies.

And when the soldiers look into the window

They don't see their enemies

They see themselves as children.

And they stop fighting

And go home and go to sleep.

When they wake up, the land is well again.