A Letter to Jesus Concerning the Lectionary (Matthew 5:38-48)

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Dear Jesus, God, or the Holy Spirit:

YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!  Have you seen the lectionary passages for this week?  I know you’ve SEEN them because it’s in the Bible and you’ve read the Bible.  Did you know these passages were the passages for this week, the third week of February 2017, in the United States of America?

What were you thinking?  Do you know what will happen if I preach this on Sunday morning?  I’ll be out of a job and my kids will have to change schools midyear.  Leviticus 19 is radioactive right now.  There is no way I can stand up in the pulpit and preach these words from Leviticus 19:10, “Also do not pick you vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there.  Leave these items for the poor and immigrant; I am the Lord your God.”  Some people will hear this as a critique of capitalism, as me telling them God wants them not to make all the money they can make.  Intentionally leave profit behind, in your vineyard, whatever your vineyard may be.  I’m not telling them anything.  I’m reading your words straight off the page.  Of course, there are sections of Leviticus dealing with stoning gay people some people wouldn’t argue with at all.

Apparently God didn’t stutter when it came to stoning gays but when it came to saving so poor and immigrants, their cell phone reception went out entirely.  After the past three weeks, that crazy press conference, ICE raids, I’m now supposed to read from the lectionary that one of God’s priorities is caring for the poor and immigrants.  People will not like this God.  They will accuse him of meddling in politics, not giving our new leader a chance, and even being a so called God weak on security.  I know you’re not weak on security.  I saw what you did to the Egyptian army at the Red Sea.  I am fully briefed on your security capabilities.  It seems, Lord, those facts no longer matter.

Leviticus 19:15 says, “You must not act unjustly in a legal case.”  Honestly?  Have you seen anything coming out of the Senate, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, or the White House lately?  If I say this, both sides will hear what they want to hear.  Like both warring parties in the Civil War, injustice is a hallucination in which God appears to be your best friend.  The verse goes on to say, “you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly” and “you must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart”.  Yes Lord, we need to talk about fairness and the hate in our hearts.  But let me say this, it’s going to make many people uncomfortable, especially if we do it right and use the Bible as a guide.  Many people will become uncomfortable.  Some might even leave the church.  When the Bible talks about fairness, walking away from hate, it looks nothing like what Leviticus 19:18 says, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead you must love your neighbor as yourself.”

I know I’ve got to say this on Sunday morning.  I don’t have a choice.  No one else is going to say it (not here anyway).  They don’t say it on the news, from the White House, on television programs, or even from the religious establishment.  It needs to be done.  But to be honest I’m scared.  I’m afraid.  I know your words never go down easy to people who are caught up in fear and trembling of their man made Gods.

Jesus, what am I going to do with your words?  Matthew tells me, “You have heard that it was said, ‘you must love you neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love you enemies and pray for those who harass you.”  Did you ever have occasion to read the travel ban Jesus?  We’re at war Jesus.  With people who hate us, our way of life, and our freedoms.  You want us to pray for these radical Islamists who are trying to buy plane tickets to this country, at this very moment?  I believe that’s what you’re saying.  I honestly do.  I think you want us to pray for the people who are our real enemies, not only the people we fell out with at a drunken New Year’s Eve party 2 years ago or over a Facebook spat over passenger trams on our island.

Jesus wants us to love our enemies.  But somehow Jesus, I’m afraid people will treat the command to love one’s enemies as fake news.  Like loving your neighbor, it will be viewed as a touchy feely idea, made up by liberal churches designed subvert the fabric of American democracy.

But you don’t stop at our enemies.  Jesus, you go well past enemies.  At the end of Matthew 5, I’m supposed to preach on this impossibility: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”  Hey, all you flawed human beings with problems too numerous to count!  Yes, I’m talking to you!  You need to love everybody.

Most of us are incapable of loving ourselves.  Everybody means everybody.  Yes, that means the guy who cuts you off in traffic.  Big deal, like that’s so hard.  It also means the guy at grocery store who never remembers your name.  That’s one huge emotional leap.  Jesus, are you telling me to love everyone who, if I really try to love, it will cost me something?  It’s nothing, emotionally or physically speaking, to get over road rage or someone forgetting my name.  To love someone, particularly somebody who you’ve deemed an enemy (or who regards you as an enemy) takes a piece of your soul.  Jesus, I would think you know a great deal about the latter.

I am reluctant and a little afraid to preach the words given to me this week.  It freaks me out. I know when people hear neighbor, immigrant, and enemy they’re going to think I’m talking about one thing when really I’m talking about you guys.  I could cop out and do a sermon series or talk about the last TED talk I saw.  I could tell a funny story about borrowing my neighbor’s lawnmower and going to a block party.  That’s not real.  I’d call that a fake sermon.  It wouldn’t be right.  I wouldn’t be doing my job.

Yours truly,

Richard

Watching Good People Cry

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As Sundays go, it was a pretty good day.  Scout Sundays are like that.  Our Boy Scout troop is not that active at the moment so we were blessed with plenty of Cub Scouts.  That was fine.  Having been both a Cub and Boy Scout, I know the Cubs are the less jaded of the two.  The Cubs are happy and proud of their uniforms.  Not that the Boy Scout’s aren’t, but to the Cubs, they are still a novelty.

The two who arrived first came a good 15 minutes before Sunday School began.  They wanted to point out to me that they matched.  Their uniforms were in sync.  This is important.   Boy Scouts will often throw on their uniform shirts with any pair of trousers and go.  These guys had matching dark blue pants and black shoes.  They were in full dress uniform.  Despite the fact both had stayed up all night (until 1:30) playing video games, they were taking this Cub Scout Sunday seriously.

I said to one of the guys, “You like really look nice today.”  And without missing a beat, the Cub said back to me, “you look nice too.”  I need to tell you what I was wearing.  I had on the same khaki pants and plaid shirt I wear on most days.  I wasn’t wearing a collar, robe, or clerical attire.  I didn’t feel all that nice.   It was almost ten and I’d already been at church for four hours.  I was worn out.  Somehow, this compliment, out of the blue changed the course of my morning.  Why?  Because I knew this kid meant what he said.  All the scouts looked sharp and even though I didn’t feel special, nice, or even like I should be leading worship, maybe there was hope for me yet.   A sincere compliment can work wonders on the human soul.

The service proceeded as normal.  On special Sundays, we work observances into our methods.  God’s people called ourselves to worship, we sung, and took a collection.  I preached what my British friends would call an all-age message on 1 Corinthians 13.   Love makes the weirdest camping trips and the strangest churches tolerable places.  The kids stayed with me.  I kept the whole thing to about 12 minutes.  Attention spans, even for well-behaved scouts aren’t something you want to play with, especially on beautiful Sunday morning.

Our congregation is full of saints and sinners.  I love them all.  Perhaps the most precious moment of worship is when I stop speaking and offer the opportunity for those gathered to share their prayer concerns and celebrations.   On Sundays when we are not celebrating Holy Communion, I believe this is the most sacred time in worship.  There are no rich, poor, local, off island, native, tourist, or any other distinction.  Before our God, we talk about where we are and what’s on our minds.

It was in this time of sacred conversation, my day grew darker.  Two of our members, a husband and wife who support of the church shared that a large unidentified mass had been found in the wife’s lungs.   It didn’t look good.  She’s going in for a biopsy later this week.   What’s so strange about that, Richard?  A church member may have cancer, haven’t you dealt with that for years?  Isn’t this the much vaunted pastoral care part of your job?  Sadly, there is nothing strange.  Yes, I’ve dealt with it for years.  Yes, it is the pastoral care facet of my calling.

Life and death never get any easier.  In fact, it gets harder.  Secondly, context is everything.  Just ask Job. This family, these wonderful people believe God’s promises in the wake of tragedy like few people I’ve ever met.  They lost a teenage son in a tragic accident several years ago.  They counsel parents who’ve lost young children.  The wife is caring for a severely ill parent with dementia at this moment.  Now cancer seems to come from nowhere.

I spoke with them after church.  She said to me, “Will God take me because I’m an only child who will look after my mother?”  I hope not.  That would be cruel and wrong. What do you say to that?  Honestly?  Do you talk about plans, purpose, and the virtue of suffering?  Only if you’re a heartless jerk.  People in pain don’t want pep talks.  I do know that.

They were trying to hold on to hope as they held back tears.  I, as their pastor, was trying to hold on with them.  I didn’t know what to say.  I know what I was saying in my head.  “God, you bastard, how could you? These are not the people to strike down.  A good God shouldn’t kill good people.”  Haven’t these people been through enough?

There’s so much going on in the world.  Self righteous Methodists in Mississippi want to save themselves from Hell.  North Korea seems bent on taking us all there.  We need to offer sanctuary to our Hispanic neighbors.  Refugees should be able to find safe homes in safe countries.  The God who gives us clues on how to find peace and treat our neighbors, in the real world I’m living in right now, is undermining my ability to explain why good people are dying.

Yeah, I’m mad.  I’m mad at the idea of a good God.  Why?  Because I hate to see good people cry.

The Messy Truth About Camping (Scout Sunday) 1 Corinthians 13:1-7

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Do you know how to find your way if you’re lost in the woods?  Start playing solitaire.  Someone will always come up behind you and tell you the next card to play.  No need for that fancy digital compass, a GPS, or a mobile phone.  All you need is a deck of cards.  Why do I say this?  Because as scouts (and regular people who love the great outdoors-we leave in a National Park after all) you know that hiking and camping are activities you never do alone.  You always take a friend, a buddy, and you take great care not to get lost.  However, the more people who go along, the more weirdness that’s apt to occur.

What do you pack when you go for a camping trip? According to my scout handbook:  tent, sleeping bag, ground sheet, foam pad, sweater, rain coat, sneakers, rain shoes, a change of clothes, a knife, fork, spoon, bowl, cup, toiletry kit, sewing kit, toilet paper, flashlight, Bible ( or suitable prayer book), canteen, camera, songbook, musical instrument, wallet, money, and mosquito repellent.  That pretty much covers it.  Do you know what’s not on this all inclusive list?  The stuff we don’t realize we’re bringing.  We take our weirdness with us wherever we go.  It’s part of who we are.  We don’t even know we’re carrying it.  We’re so accustomed to living in our own weird bubble, we think we’re normal.

But then, you have to spend the weekend with other people.  You realize other people are really different.  There will be a person with the sniffles.  His cold might make someone else sick or keep his tent mate up all night long.  Another will be a little homesick and sad.  Maybe someone forgot to bring socks.  Somebody else might be angry at having to spend the weekend in the woods and nowhere near electricity or cell phone signals.  Weirdness slips right in between the sewing kit and toilet paper.  And that’s ok, because weirdness is good.

Weirdness comes to the surface on scout camping trips.  Once on a camping trip to our old scout camp ground, Camp Uwharrie, I found myself tied to a lawn chair with duct tape and gagged with pop tarts.  While it sounds awful and it was, until I could start to chew, it was just one of those weird things that happen on camping trips.  I was in the seventh grade.  And to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had quite the same love for Pop Tarts.   It was weird.  But weirdness is good.  We need our God given weirdness to survive.

The Apostle Paul, who was kind of Jesus’ first scout master, knew all about weird.  He saw weird things, dealt with weird, and thrived on bringing weird to the surface.  He wanted the early Christians to embrace their weirdness.  He would say to us scouts, “you’ve got to bring weird back to your pack, troop, church, and world.”  Why?  Because Jesus makes things weird for people too caught up in a world where things are always predictable, planned, normal, and boring.  Jesus keeps it weird.

Paul’s favorite weirdoes were a group of people in a town called Corinth.  The Corinthians didn’t believe anything about their lives was weird.  In fact, they thought their women were strong, the men were good looking, and all the children were above average.  Paul burst their over inflated bubble, they weren’t all they thought they were cracked up to be.  They had problems.  They were a little weird.  But that was ok.  God works with weirdness.

Paul wrote them a letter, explaining how God works with our strangest habits and weirdness.  Here’s what he said:  If I have some really weird sounding gifts, say I speak in the language of angels but am a real jerk to people and have no love in my heart, what kind of person am I?  Think about that question.

Then he asks them something else.  He says, “If I give over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done and don’t have love, what do I have?”  That’s kind of a weird thing, isn’t?  Somebody who just hands over their whole body to feel good about handing over their whole body, I’d call that weird.  If you do that out of your own interest not because you love somebody, why do it?  Think about that question.

If I give you a kidney not because you need the kidney but because I want everybody to think I’m awesome because I gave you the kidney, that’s both weird and wrong.  You can be weird but you need love mixed in with your weirdness.   Most people are not that giving.  We call them “generous to a fault”.  They give until it literally hurts.  It’s a little strange, especially when people give so much for total strangers.  We wonder, “What motivates them?”  Unless it’s love for their friends, their quirky weirdness means nothing at all.

Here’s one more and it may be the best one yet.  Imagine you’ve got more faith than anyone.  You’ve got so much faith, you’re the happiest, optimistic, most joy filled person who has ever lived. You are so positive it’s contagious, like when Mr. Sniffles sneezes and gives everyone a cold.  You’ve give everyone else faith.  You are Mr. Faith.  If you said, I believe we could move a mountain, you could do it and people would believe you because you’re so positive.  You’ve got the faith.   Somebody with that much faith would be a little weird in this day and time.  No, I’ll say that would be super weird.  Why?  Because most people are super negative, depressed, and a little mean.  It’s strange to find people with strong faith.  When you do come across them, it’s a little weird.

Paul tells his Corinthian friends the weirdest thing is this:  to have all that positive faith and lack love.  That’s the same as leaving for your camping trip with nothing at all, no sleeping bag, tent, or pillow.  You may have faith someone else will bring extra stuff but your ideas about who’ll have more than enough to share aren’t all that accurate.  Without love, all that much needed positive faith in our time of negativity is really just a bunch of meaningless words.  It’s not really weird at all.  It’s someone pretending to care about people with words and forgetting that actions matter too.  Paul says, be weirdly positive, and do it in a way that actually matters and touches people’s lives with love.

Love and kindness makes everything better, especially our weirdness.  The church is a place that thrives on this special weirdness.  We wouldn’t be who we are without it.  We need to be weird in order to survive.  Weirdness is part of our DNA.  It’s in our pockets, in the walls, under the paint, and even in the Bible.  We take it with us everywhere we go.  You do the same.  I did it when I went on camping trips.  I had to have my tissues folded just the right way.  I wanted the red plastic folding scout cup and the official scout mess kit.  A plate in a plastic bag wouldn’t do.  That was a little weird.  Our weirdness slips in to the rolls of our sleeping bags, like the candy I took on my Order of the Arrow initiation.  We need to embrace our weirdness and bring our weirdness back.  Because this is what makes us unique!

You know what’s better than bacon?  Bacon dipped in maple sugar.  You know what’s better than church people being their natural weird selves, church people being their natural weird selves in love. Why, because this weirdness, from our fascination with dipping babies in water to drinking grape juice one a month is a special kind of strangeness: one that reminds us to patient, kind, cutback on the jealousy, kick arrogance in the butt, stop being so rude to people, be less grumpy, and quit keeping score with our friends and family.  Do you know about keeping score?  That’s when you remember things like, “you made me mad a week ago so I’m still ticked off at you today?”  You know what I’m talking about.  Our weirdness, the weirdness that makes Church different and unique, makes that wrongness seem so out of line.  In the words of Elsa from Frozen, our loving weirdness helps us to, “let it go”.

Paul says it’s up to us, we modern day Corinthian campers, to keep the church weird!

What Does the Bible Say About Immigrants and Immigration?

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What does the Bible say about immigrants and immigration?  First of all, it says nothing about immigration to the United States.  Whatever we read in the Bible concerning this topic, we’re going to apply it to our lives.  It wasn’t written about us, for us, or to us.  The writer of Deuteronomy didn’t have 2017 America’s immigration battle in mind.

We can, however, learn from the text.  The Bible has much to teach us.  Remember, it’s not the Constitution.  Yet, if we claim to be a nation built on Judeo-Christian values, the Bible might help us sort out the myriad of emotions surrounding this centuries old dilemma.

Here’s what I’m working through:  should our Christianity (and then our lives) be informed by the consensus of what our sacred text teaches?  What if the Bible teaches something totally in conflict with the dominant political ideology of the day?  Who wins, the Bible or the ideology?  I know from my own pulpit experience people hate answering this question.

People, especially the poor, have been crossing international boundaries in search of better opportunities for thousands of years.  The Bible records many such journeys.  In fact, many of the people regarded as the founders of our faith were economic migrants.  Joseph, Abraham, Ruth, Esther, Moses were all economic refugees.  In response to famine, war, or social upheaval, they left one place and crossed a border to start a new life.  Without their stories, the Old Testament would be far shorter.

A second consideration is this: the Old Testament doesn’t use the word immigrant.  The Hebrew word is alien.  In the most basic, original sense of the word an alien is someone who lives in a place and doesn’t have any the rights afforded to the natives of that country.  For example, the Israelites were aliens in the land of Egypt.  Aliens were regarded as a separate class of people residing among the Israelites when they got to the Promised Land.

A third point is:  although they were regarded as a distinct social class, the writers of Torah went to great lengths to ensure that resident aliens were protected.  Between the 15th Chapter of Genesis and 2nd Esdras, there are nearly sixty references to aliens and resident aliens in the Old Testament.  (I’ll also note there’s another Hebrew word for sojourner.  But I argue it has less applicability for our current discussion. A sojourner is more of a nomad.  An alien is trying to make a home in a country on than their own.)  In these verses, you see a clear connection between treating the alien in the same manner one would treat the native Israelite.   The prophet Ezekiel even imagines a time when aliens and sojourners would be granted full citizenship and property rights in Israel.  In Ezekiel 47:22-23 he writes, “You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and have and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you.  They shall be to you as citizens of Israel.”

God is on the side of the dreamers.  God seeks equality. Why?  Then no one can use God’s blessings as a source of political and economic power.  Yes, the resident aliens may not worship the Israelite God.  This doesn’t seem to matter.    They are to be fed, clothed, and cared for despite these differences.  The text is clear.  God is weak on immigration.  Some people would say so.  But as for me, I’m sticking with God.

Now granted, you don’t need the Bible to justify being nice to other people.  But, if you’re looking for some basics, there they are.

What does the Bible say about the countries on the travel ban?

Iran was called Persia at the time.  They were one of the largest regional powers in the area.  It was the Persians who undid a travel ban on the Israelites and let them return home to Israel.

Iraq was part of the old Babylonia/Mesopotamian Empire.  Abraham came from Mesopotamia.  I would hate to have kept Abraham and Sarah out of the Holy Land.

Syria was where the Apostle Paul became a follower of Jesus. I would hate for him to have been stuck in Damascus where they were trying to kill him.  Remember how he had to sneak out in a basket from window?

Yemen has always been part of the southern Arabian Desert wastelands.  Shortly after Paul converted, as he told the Galatians, “I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus”.  Arabia welcomed Paul.

What of Sudan; an African kingdom to Egypt’s south?  Judaism and Christianity thrived in North Africa for centuries.  From about 68 AD until the mid seventh century Libya was home to one of the most vibrant Christian communities in the world.  Libyan Christianity shaped the western Christianity we practice today.

Good Thoughts versus Prayers

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Facebook is once again reminding me that today it is a friend’s birthday.  I’m told by the machine, “Send Him Good Thoughts”.  Recently, a community member went through a difficult brain surgery.  On the day of the operation, people sent “good thoughts” to the family and doctors via social media.  What does it mean to send someone good thoughts?  I’m a spiritual person, called and even paid to lead a religious community.  I have a graduate degree in theology from a well-known university.  I’ve studied religion with people from all over the world.  I’ve prayed on holy mountains and in sacred valleys.  I’m telling you:  I have no idea what it means to send someone good thoughts.  It’s a meaningless phrase of vapid nonsense which accomplishes nothing whatsoever.

Let’s break this down.  The sender sends good thoughts.  Don’t put yourself out, sender of benign greetings!  It’s nice of you to remember my birthday with your thoughts.  I appreciate your thinking.  I didn’t want a card or a phone call.  Thoughts, good ones, sent throughout the vast soulless medium of the internet will suffice.  Yes, good thoughts, that’s what I wanted in this age dripping with hate, negativity, and rage.  My day is infinitely better because you thought toward me.

Do you remember when you were a kid and your mom and dad’s birthday rolled around?  You might ask, “Mom, what do you want for your birthday?”  She might pause for a second and say something like this, “I don’t really want anything at all.  You know the best gift you could give me would be for you to go and clean your room or do the dishes after supper tonight.”  That’s not what you wanted to hear.  Because in your mind, you know best, you know that Mom doesn’t really want what she’s just said.  She wants something spectacular.  So what do you do?  You go outside.  Maybe you learn a new trick on your bike.  You practice all afternoon jumping off the end of the driveway and landing in the grass.  This trick was for her!  Or you go back to the kitchen table with crayons and draw a picture which you believe shows how much you love her.  In the end, you do some really cool things, but they are the things you wanted to give her and they bear no resemblance to what she really wanted.

At the end of the day, you take mom outside to the front yard and say, “Look, mom, let me show you this trick I learned for you.”  Perhaps you rush inside and hand her your drawing in hopes it will go up on the refrigerator.  What does mom say?  Of course she says thank you, she loves it, but is it what she hoped for?  No, it’s not.  Is she a little disappointed because no one listened to her?  Yes, she is. She wanted a clean kitchen or you to clean your room.   You did what you wanted to do.  It was ok, but it didn’t really meet mom’s need.

To me, this is the difference between “good thoughts” and “prayers”.  Sending “good thoughts” enables us to forget the real needs at hand.  If all you’re sending is good thoughts, you give people what you want to give them (which may indeed be nothing) instead of stepping back and allowing God to do God’s thing.  No one ever gave their life over ambiguous good thoughts.  Good thoughts are worthless because they are rarely matched with good actions.

Good thought people are rarely disappointed because they never take the risk of praying and having those prayers not answered.  They live in their well-protected good thought bubbles; where everything seemingly balances out in 140 characters, with the right recycled memes, and an endless supply of others addicted to sharing nothing.

 

Fifty Shades of Wesley-How United Methodists Get Turned On

 

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1. Budget sessions at annual conference

2. Chocolate covered hushpuppies

3. Wearing CROCs with an alb

4. Seeing another Methodist who preaches with sunglasses hanging around their neck

5. A polo shirt with a logo

6. A new Buick

7. The mere mention of Lake Junaluska

8. Somebody tells you Adam Hamilton is speaking at conference

9. Leonard Sweet sees you at a meeting and says, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

10. Three words: Cokesbury gift certificate