Separation of Church and Politics

In the final season of the NBC drama West Wing, it is the time for a presidential election.  Senator Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda is running for the Republican nomination.  His faith becomes an issue in the campaign, and he makes an innocent statement about church that lands him in some hot water.  After a meeting in the Oval Office with President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, the two men are sitting in the White House kitchen eating ice cream out of rather large containers.  They are discussing faith and Vinick asks whatever happened to the separation of church and state.  Bartlet replies that it is just fine but the separation of church and politics, well that is a different issue all together.

Much has been made about the faith of the candidates running for President of the United States.  Much has also been made of the faith of the present occupant of the Oval Office, but I shall leave that for the moment.  Faith is a very private thing, but when it becomes an issue in a campaign, I guess the people have a right to know.  My faith teaches me that it is our actions and not our words that determine our faith.  In other words, how do we act and are we acting in a manner that brings shame and disgrace to our faith or are we acting in a way that brings glory to God?

The United States of America is a complicated place; it always has and it always will.  Sure we were a nation founded on the Judeo-Christian principles, but we were not founded as a Christian, or any other religion, nation.  One of the freedoms we hold dear is the right to free exercise of our religion and that the government will not interfere with that.  With that said, I am not sure how anyone could aspire to the high office of president and not be a person of faith, no matter what that faith is.  I also feel it is important to know what influences our leaders.

Kristin Du Mez, of the Religion and Politics Blog, has written a piece about the faith of Hilary Clinton.  She makes the case that Secretary Clinton has held her faith in private and did not wear it on her sleeve.  As a common rule Democrats do not court the Evangelical vote, so the need always to talk about one’s religion does not usually come into play.

Here are few words from that piece:

Although Clinton has confessed a certain reticence when it comes to “advertising” her faith, and a preference for “walking the walk” rather than risk trivializing “what has been an extraordinary sense of support and possibility” throughout her life, she has consistently testified to her Methodist faith over the course of her long career in politics.

Skeptics may be surprised to learn that Clinton taught Sunday school and delivered guest sermons on Methodism as first lady of Arkansas, and that she devoted an entire chapter of her first book, It Takes a Village, to the importance of faith. They may not know that in her memoir Hard Choices, she credits the Wesleyan mantra, “Do all the good you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” with prompting her to enter electoral politics, and later to leave the Senate and accept President-Elect Obama’s invitation to become secretary of state. In short, Clinton depicts her entire career in public service as a means of putting her faith into action.

Read the rest here

Living your faith in public is fine, but it better sync up with what it means to be the faith you profess.

Teach us to Pray

A Sermon on Luke 11:1-13


What we have just heard from the Scriptures is a very early version of what we no call the Lord’s prayer. When I call us to pray this prayer here at the Church, I usually say; “let us pray in the words our Savior taught us.” or words similar to those. Although the prayer has changed, and other Gospel record this event just a bit different, the meaning behind those words has not changed. This is in some ways the perfect prayer and the only prayer we need.

I have spent a significant portion of my ministry involved in teaching people about prayer. Notice I did not say teaching people to pray that is something you have to do all on your own. But there is a certain way that we should pray, and that is what Jesus is teaching his apostles in this Scripture today.

The prayer starts out with an address; Jesus address this prayer to God the Father. This is a classic Christian start to any prayer, just like a letter you might be writing it is important that the prayer is addressed to the right person. But I want to point out that we are addressing not some tyrannical being on some distant shore or sitting on a cloud, but we use the intimate term of father because God is a parent who delights to supply his children with what they need, not what they want, but what they need.

I always remind people that it is okay to pray for people, we do it here in church during the pastoral prayer, and I hope we do it daily in our prayers. But we pray that God’s will be done in each and every situation and in each and every life that we encounter. God knows what we need before we do and so our prayer should be for us to walk in the will of God and that God’s will, and not ours, be done. We do say, “your will be done.”

But I want to point out another thing here, the prayer beings by addressing God because before we ask for anything we have to give God the glory that God so deserves. Only when we give God the glory and put God in his rightful place in our lives will all the other things in our lives start to come together.

I like to think that I am a person of prayer. Sure I run hot and cold like most people and some days I spend time in prayer and other days it’s nothing more that “O God it’s morning again.” But I can tell when I have spent time with God and when I have not spent time with God. Maybe I am short with other people, perhaps I am aggravated all day, it could be anything. But on the days I take the time to spend with God things seems to be just a little bit better. It puts my mind and my thoughts in the right place and sets my feet on the right path.

Our prayer should cover all of life but should also focus on the present reality and our current needs. We pray “give us this day our daily bread.” This harkens back to the time in the wilderness as recorded in Exodus 16:11-21. God had led the Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt, and they spent time wandering in the desert. They asked God to supply their needs, and God sent them manna. Manna was a sort of dough like substance that they would make all kinds of things out of. God warned them to take only what they needed for that day as the rest would spoil. Each morning new manna would appear, and they would gather. This required trust, faith in God that God would supply what they needed. Those who did not trust found out that what was left rotted overnight.

We pray in the present moment for current needs. Only the needs of the day should be gathered in prayer, we are not to worry about the uncertain future, but we are to live in the moment one day at a time. We trust that God will help us each day to live that day the way God wants us to live. When we do not trust God, we are saying that we know better than God, and we can do it ourselves. We pray that “Thy will be done.” And we trust in God and leave it to God.

Prayer covers past sins, and we ask for forgiveness, and we also seek the grace to forgive others and ourselves. You have heard me mention this before, and I am sure you will hear me say this again, but forgiveness is essential to the Christian life. “forgive us our debts, trespasses, sins, as we forgive those who are in debited to us, who sin against us, or who trespass against us.” We forgive because we have been forgiven!

Forgiveness is a struggle but our entire life as Christians is a struggle. Jesus never once said, and I think we tend to forget this, that if we follow the way our life will be easy. It will not be easy nor was it meant to be easy. Following the way of Christ is challenging and forgiveness is part of that journey. Forgiveness is not about the other person, and it does not matter if they accept forgiveness or not or if they apologize to you or not. Forgiveness is about you. The withholding of forgiveness darkens the soul.

Remember years ago there was a TV commercial about lungs and smoking? There would be this beautiful pink lung and then a nasty black one. Our soul can get like that when we withhold forgiveness; it darkens it just a little, and it makes the rest of our life just that much harder to deal with. When we withhold forgiveness, we give power over us to the other person or persons involved.

Shortly after the shooting incident at Virginia Tech, I was asked to travel to the campus to be part of a team of clergy that would be available to students that had been involved that day. We came from all parts of the country to be available on the quad outside of the main administration building and also to hold group sessions in the evening. On the quad was an impromptu memorial to those who had been slain that day. As I walked around the circle, I was struck by the fact that the shooter was also included, and the saying on campus was “32 are gone because one was lost.” They were not letting him off the hook, they did not forget what happened, they were saying that they were not going to allow hate to rule their lives. Holding back forgiveness leads to hate and hate leads to destruction.

Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of this prayer comes with the words, “lead us not into temptation.” Perhaps a better word here would be “trail” rather than “temptation.” Again, we have not been promised that life will be easy. We face trials each and every day and what we are asking here in this prayer is that we will not go through it alone, in fact, we never do. I want to make this point clear; God will never abandon us, EVER! God loves you; God cares for you, and God made a promise that he will never abandon us. Sure we might leave God, but God is always there, standing right beside us all along the journey. Friends will come and go in our lives, but God is the one constant, God is always there, there is nothing we can do to make him leave us or abandon us. EVER!

There is an old saying, “God answers every prayer, sometimes the answer is no.” Prayer is a conversation, a conversation between God and us and yes we have to listen God speaks to us, but we have to hear the voice.

There is a story of man who hears that the flood waters are coming. The TV news tells him to evacuate, but he says that God will protect him. As the flood waters are rising, his neighbor comes and offers to take him to a shelter. He tells the neighbor no, God will protect him. The flood waters continue to rise, and a man in a boat comes and offers to take him to safety, the man replies that he trusts in God, and God will take care of him. He ends up on the roof, and a helicopter comes, and the pilot says he will drop a rope and pull him to safety. The man says no thanks; God will protect me. Well, the man dies and standing at the pearly gates he is mad at God. He yells at God he thought God would protect him. God responds I sent you a TV newsman, a neighbor, a boat, and a helicopter what more do you want?

God speaks to us in all sorts of ways we just need to be listening for his voice. To listen to God is to listen deep within ourselves, to hear to God is to listen with our very souls. Prayer needs to be more than a laundry list of what we want or what we need; prayer is conversation. Take time to have the conversation; it will change your life.

Ted Cruz and the Non-endorsement

 

Cruz-RNC-Cleveland-No-Endorsement-998x665

It is no secret that I do not like much of anything that Ted Cruz stands for.  I think he is a dangerous theocrat that needs to be stopped.  However, I have to applaud his decision not to endorse Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention this past week.

It took great courage to walk out on that stage and do what he did, I believe he ended his political career with the Republican Party, but he showed, maybe for his reasons, that we should put the country before party and not vote for someone just because they are a Republican or a Democrat.

I have always been uneasy with a politician who seamlessly switch from trashing them as opponents to loving them as their party’s nominee.  In my opinion, they sell out their integrity when they do this, and I have to give Ted Cruz credit for not doing that.  After his speech the other night he gave his reasons for not endorsing Mr. Trump; “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father.”

I will admit I did not watch one minute of the convention, and I will not watch one minute of the Democrats this coming week either, but as reported, at the end of Cruz’s speech he told America that they should not stay home on Election Day that they need to vote: “Don’t stay home in November. Stand and speak and vote your conscience.”

I think the party of Lincoln has lost its way; I do not believe they are evil just misguide.  I also do not believe that Ted Cruz is the one to bring it back, but he is right, we all need to vote on Election Day.  Many thousands of people have died to give us this right, and it will disrespect their memory if we simply stay home.

So thank you, Ted Cruz, for being one of the lone voices of sense in an otherwise crazy convention.

God Will Never Leave Us, EVER!

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

One of the biggest lies circulating the political spectrum these days is that God will abandon the United States and us if we vote for Hillary Clinton.  This is a lie because simply put; God will never leave us, and he makes that promise to us in the Book of Deuteronomy:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

On Tuesday night, Dr. Ben Carson took the stage at the Republican National Convention and brought his version of theology into the mix.  He had this to say about the future of America:

“If we continue to allow them to take God out of our lives, God will remove himself from us, we will not be blessed, and our nation will go down the tubes.”

I believe Dr. Caron to be a brilliant surgeon but as a theologian he is horrible.  As the quote from Deuteronomy says, “he will never leave you or forsake you.”  God loves us unconditionally that means God loves us, and will continue to love us, no matter who we vote for!

There seems to be this version of America that we are the new Israel and that we are God’s chosen people.  This is what is known in theological circles as Dominion Theology. Simply put Dominion theology states that Christians need to win back the sinful secular society and replace it with a theocratic version of America that they believe once existed.

George Grant, wrote in his 1987 book The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Principles for Political Action wrote:

“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ — to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness…..But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice…. Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land — of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ.”

I am a theologian and not a historian, but America was not founded as a Christian nation, and my theology teaches me that what is being put forward here is heresy of the first degree as well as very dangerous.

All of humanity has been created in the image and likeness of a God who loves us no matter what.  After the flood came God made this covenant with Noah and through him to all of us: “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” Genesis 9:11. In other words, God will NEVER leave us no matter what.

Telling people that God will leave them or that God does not love them is antithetical to the message of the Gospel.  God so loved the world that he sent his son… (John 3:16) this is the basis of Christianity.  God is an all loving God that embraces each of us no matter what color skin we have or where we come from.  God sent Jesus to show us the way and the way that Jesus taught us was to love God and love our neighbor as well as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.

If we buy into the notion that God cares who we vote for then, we buy into the idea that God has given the United States of America a superior place among the other nations of the world and simply is not true and wrong theology.

Politics and Religion

It has been said that when you mix politics and religion, you get politics.  Well, there has been a lot of mixing of the two in this presidential election cycle on both sides but what we witnessed this past week in Cleveland is not just mixing of religion and politics but just bad theology.  Religion and politics have been mixed since the beginning of time, and that will not change.  However what we see in this presidential race borders on blasphemy.

On the opening night of the convention; the Prosperity Gospel Preacher Mark Burns of South Carolina (this is the same preacher who stated that Senator Bernie Sanders, a Jew, had to be saved) prayed against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.  In his opening lines of the prayer this “man of God” has this to say:

“Hello Republicans! I’m Pastor Mark Burns from the great state of South Carolina! I’m going to pray and I’m going to give the benediction. And you know why? Because we are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ. And Republicans, we got to be united because our enemy is not other Republicans — but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.”

Sure both parties disagree on what will make America great, I feel that America is pretty great right now, but to call another person evil is just bad theology.  Actions are evil but all people are created in the image and likeness of God and therefore are children of God.

In the second paragraph of his, thankfully short “prayer” he mentions that he is thankful that God is giving Mr. Trump words to unite this country.  Well I am not sure where Mr. Trump is getting his words but they surely are not from my God.  My God is the God of love and acceptance of all people.  My God is the one who said we need to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry.

This was nothing more than partisan dribble wrapped in the cloak of religion and Mr. Burns should be ashamed of himself.  These are the sort of things that give all Christians a bad name.

Rabbi Jack Moline, President of the Interfaith Alliance, a group that celebrates religious freedom in America released a sharply worded statement shortly after the “prayer:”

“I have rarely heard a more inappropriate contribution to political proceedings as the benediction by Pastor Mark Burns at the opening session of the Republican National Convention. The idea that a member of the clergy would invoke his God’s name and, in the next breath, declare the candidate from the other party to be the enemy seems to be an attempt to replace ‘nomination’ with ‘ordination.’ However, invoking religion to launch such attacks devalues faith and disrespects the people of the United States who are hoping for a debate on the issues, not an ‘ex cathedra’ pronouncement. Republican delegates should decline to respond ‘amen.'”

I disagree with Republicans on almost everything they stand for but I do not believe they are the enemy.  They have a different view of what America is and should be and that is fine in fact that is great, disagreement is what makes America great!  But when you start to use my God for your personal political gain, and when you wrap your version of Christianity in the flag of our country, A flag I spent most of my adult life defending, then you have crossed the line.

I agree with Rabbi Moline; this was not a prayer by any definition it was hate filled dribble that has nothing to do with the God of Love and the God of compassion.

A Special Word of Thanks

Family 2016

Putting together an event such as a family reunion is never just the work of one person.  Many hands make the event as great as I thought our most recent reunion was.  We started planning shortly after the last reunion in Florida and all of that work culminated in our time together at the Indian Head Resort.

I usually do not thank people by name for fear of leaving someone out, but I am going to try and thank those who had a part in this, and if I forgot anyone, please do not think I do not appreciate the role you played in the success of the event.

Bob & Bobby Preble for putting up with having to harass me to get things done and for working so hard on the flower pots.  And to Bob for the construction of the Championship Cornhole Boards.

Clare Gambino for taking to ride to New Hampshire with us as we looked at countless places to have the reunion and also for your work on the pots.

Larry & Kathy Ryan for your hard work, once again, on the family book.  As our family continues to grow it is helpful to keep track of who belongs to whom.

Bobbi & Billy Ryan for the AWESOME banner that we had and for the good luck that you were able to be with us!

Jim Gambino for setting the boards and making sure they were on the level.

Rob “The Commissioner of Cornhole” Dauphinee for the hard work of keeping the tournament going and refereeing and disputes.  Although I do believe it is fishy that the Commissioner and his partner in crime Kelli Ryan won the tournament!

To all of those who put up the out of towners on floors, blow up mattresses and bed on boats.  And to those who fetched folks from airports and returned them.

To everyone who took pictures!

My family Rusty & Naomi, Scott & Stacey, Mark & Teri, and Kate for all of the work getting the boil and the rest of the food together.  From picking up the pots and pans and the grills to brushing corn, to planning the menu, picking up the food, slaving over the grill and pots while the other enjoyed the Cornhole Game.

Fr. Dave Kneeland for coming out to say the Mass for our departed family members.

To the staff and Indian Head, who made the time very enjoyable and went the extra mile cleaning up after us.

And finally to all of you.  If you did not take the time and come to our reunions every two years well, there would be no reunion.  Although we live many miles apart and see each other every few years, you are what family is all about, and I truly love each and every one of you.

Now the torch has been passed to Jimmy & Christi Ryan, and we look forward to seeing what comes next for our family.

Bearing One Another’s Burdens

A Sermon on Galatians 6:1-16

burdens

Charles Plumb, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a jet fighter pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands. He was captured and spent six years in an enemy prison. He survived that ordeal and now lectures about lessons learned from that experience.

One day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!”

“How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb.

“I packed your parachute,” the man replied. Plumb gasped in surprise and gratitude. The man pumped his hand and said, “I guess it worked!”

Plumb assured him, “It sure did – if your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Plumb couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about that man. Plumb says, “I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform – a Dixie cup hat, a bib in the back, and bell bottom trousers. I wondered how many times I might have passed him on the Kitty Hawk. I wondered how many times I might have seen him, and not even said ‘Good morning, how are you,’ or anything because, you see, I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor.”

Plumb thought of the many hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship carefully weaving the shrouds and folding the silks of each chute, holding in his hands each time the fate of someone he didn’t know.

The Scripture passage we heard this morning is a continuation of the one we heard last week.  Last week the theme of the Scripture was freedom, the freedom that Christ brings to all of us when we make the decision to follow him.  I mentioned that this freedom comes with lots of responsibility and today we hear about that responsibility from the second verse of the 6th Chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Paul knew that even the best of people slip up from time to time.  The word that he uses here for sin or transgression is paratoma.  This does not mean a deliberate sin but rather a slip up like when you come upon and icy road.  The real danger in all of this is not for the person who has slipped up although that can be disastrous, the real danger is to those of us who are trying, as best we can, to live the Christian life.  Paul warns his readers that we are not to judge the transgressions of others too harshly.

The classic theological definition of sin is “missing the mark” or “falling short.”  We try not to dwell so much on what is a sin or a transgression but rather what can we learn and how can we avoid similar behavior in the future.  When someone does slip, and we are all going to slip, Paul says that our job is not to judge the person but to help them back up.

If we are walking down the street and we see a person fall on the sidewalk, do we walk up to that person and tell them that if they were paying attention, they would not have fallen or do we walk up and help them?  I hope we would help them up. This is what Paul is telling us we must do, help people when they slip or fall.

Joni Erickson Tada is the president of JET ministries, a ministry which aims to serve the disabled. She is herself a quadriplegic. A few years ago she was a spectator at the Los Angeles Special Olympics. Her husband Ken was the coordinator for track and field events. Joni was among a large crowd watching the participants prepare for the 50 meters running race.

The starter’s gun fired and off the contestants raced. As they rushed toward the finish line, one boy left the track and started running toward his friends standing in the infield. Ken blew his whistle, trying to get the boy to come back to the track, but all to no avail.

Then one of the other competitors noticed, a down syndrome girl with thick bottle glasses. She stopped just short of the finish line and called out to the boy, “Stop, come back, this is the way.”  Hearing the voice of her friend the boy stopped and looked. “Come back; this is the way” she called. The boy stood there, confused. His friend, realizing he was confused, left the track and ran over to him. She linked arms with him and together they ran back to the track and finished the race. They were the last to cross the line but were greeted by hugs from their fellow competitors and a standing ovation from the crowd.

Our Christian duty is to help those who have gone astray and get them back on their feet again.  The word that Paul uses for correct is for executing a repair, and it is also utilized for a surgeon in removing some growth from a patient.  The whole atmosphere of the word is that the stress is not on punishment but the cure; the correction is thought of not as a penalty but as an amendment.

Too often in our society today we are so quick to look at these types of situations as a time to point out what the person has done.  Perhaps we do not agree with their choices, and so the focus moves away for correction to that of condemnation.  There is not one single incident in Scripture where Jesus condemns a sinner, well except when he speaks to the religious authorities of his day.

One of my favorite stories from Scripture comes from the Gospel of John.   In this story, some men bring a woman caught in adultery, notice they only bring the woman and not the man.  They bring to Jesus and accuse here and mention that by the law she should be stoned, again what happens to the man since adultery takes two!

The story goes on to say that Jesus stoops down and starts to write in the sand and one by one her accusers, all men, walk away and in the end, no one is left.  Some scholars believe that Jesus was making a list of the accusers sins and others think that he was making a list of the names of the men the woman had been with.  But in the end, when all of the men have gone, he asked the woman where those who accused her had gone.  She tells them they left.  He tells he that he does not accuse her, and then he says go and sin no more.

Notice he does not scream at her.  He does not set up a picket pine in front of her house. He does not advocate from the pulpit that people pick up stones and get them all.  He does not even approach the Romans and ask for new legislation outlawing the style of life that she has chosen.  He simply tells her to go and sin no more.

He pointed out to those around him that they were also sinners and that they needed the love of God as much as she did.  Rather than focus on the punishment for the sin he approached it with love and understanding.  We are not sure what happened to the woman, or the men for that matter, but I am sure they all went away changed in some way.

Now I am not sure about you, but I don’t want my sins written in the sand for all to see.  I also don’t want to be the one who writes the sins of others in the sand I would rather reach down and help them up because one day I might need them to reach down and help me up.

All of us, at one point and time in our lives or another, have been where those we wish to judge have been.  We have all missed the mark, and we are all trying to make it right.  This journey is hard enough without people yelling at us from the sidelines.

Charles Plumb needed someone to bear the burden of packing his parachute for him so he could focus his attention on something else.  If it were not for that man doing his job, Plumb would have most certainly died.  The young girl gave up her place in the race to go and help her friend get back on course.  She is a prime example of what Paul is telling the Galatians, and by that us, what we are to do.

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Putting on the Mantle

A Sermon on Galatians 5:13-25

In the last days of the Civil War, the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, fell to the Union army. Abraham Lincoln insisted on visiting the city. Even though no one knew he was coming, slaves recognized him immediately and thronged around him. He had liberated them by the Emancipation Proclamation, and now Lincoln’s army had set them free. According to Admiral David Porter, an eyewitness, Lincoln spoke to the throng around him: “My poor friends, you are free—free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it … . Liberty is your birthright.”

But Lincoln also warned them not to abuse their freedom. “Let the world see that you merit [your freedom],” Lincoln said, “Don’t let your joy carry you into excesses. Learn the laws and obey them.”

Freedom is an interesting concept and one that comes with great responsibility. We have been given spiritual freedom in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we are given political freedom but the laws that govern our nation.  As much as there are differences between these two, there are many similarities.

Freedom, whether spiritual or political has to be exercised with great care and concern for others.  There is an old saying that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose beings.  The political freedom that we have has given us individual rights, but the spiritual freedom that we have been given is not personal, in fact, we are required to die to the self to really have this freedom, spiritual freedom is a collective freedom where we have to be concerned about the other.

I am a firm believer that in any study of the Bible we need to look at the entirety of the message.  The books of the Bible, especially the letters, were written to a very specific group of Christians. Today’s passage comes from a letter Paul had written to not one church but to the churches in Galatia a province of Rome.  The letters are usually written because a problem of some sort has arisen and they have appealed to Paul for a solution to the problem.

The Galatians initially accepted Christ and began to follow the teachings that Paul had left them, but now they have turned to the Jewish legalizers who claim that Christians must also follow the laws of the Old Covenant.  Paul has a great love for the churches he established and wrote to them as a father with corrective love. If we had time this morning we would read the entire letter; it is only six chapters, but I would like to suggest that you spend some time this week reading and contemplating the words of Paul.

Paul begins with a short biography.  Paul was not always a Christian, in fact, he was one of the greatest persecutors of Christians in the early days after the resurrection.  The Book of Acts relates the story that Paul was present when Stephen, the first Christian Martyr was killed.  But he had a conversion experience, and he was able to see Jesus, literally and figuratively and became not only a believer but one of the greatest evangelists of his day.

Paul does not do this because they do not know him, in fact, many of the people who will hear his words know him as they met him.  Paul does this to show the power of conversion and the love that God has for everyone and how everyone can be used in the building up of the kingdom of God.

Paul then moves on to a discussion of the law of the Old Covenant and how Christ came to fulfill that law, and we come to today’s passage:

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out, or you will be destroyed by each other.”

Paul was simply repeating the words of Jesus when he was asked what the greatest commandment was:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40

Last Saturday John Egan and I attended the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ in Amherst.  The theme of the meeting was “Be Bold.”  During the meeting, along with the usual business items like budgets and committee elections, we heard stories of what churches around the Conference are doing.

We heard the story about the Church in West Medford; you may have read about it in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago. Face with declining numbers in attendance; they decided to sell their building and move down the street into a rented storefront.  They continue to struggle, but they have moved from the constant worry about money for the upkeep of the building to concentrating on ministry to those around them and those in need.  The sale of the building as secured their financial freedom and this was a bold step.  We heard other stories as well, but the individual stories that you only hear over coffee are the best.

As Christians, we are called to be bold.  We hear these words from the Book of Revelation:

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” Revelation 3:15-16

When we decide, and it is a decision, to put on the Mantle of Christ we decide that we no longer live for ourselves alone but all of those around us.  We have a great responsibility to care for those around us and not just the ones we agree with and like, but all of the humanity and dare I say all of the creation.

“I was naked, and you gave me clothing, I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:36-40

This was a bold statement when Jesus spoke it, and it is a bold statement today.

We are called to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ in this world.  Yesterday a group of church members gathered here to make sandwiches for the folks at Fr. Bill’s.  They then took those sandwiches and brought them to Fr. Bill’s and served them.  In doing so, they witnessed to people the love of Jesus Christ.  They were in essence, Christ to the people they served just as the passage of Scripture we read today exhorts us, “serve one another humbly in love.”

Freedom in Christ has been given to us by grace a grace that came with no strings attached and grace that moves us towards our potential and that potential is to love God and love our neighbor.  For the Galatians that Paul was writing to they forgot what that freedom meant and had fallen back into a strict following of the law of the Old Covenant and forgot about the freedom that comes from a life in Christ.

We need to be bold.  We need to be bold in our spiritual lives by taking those bold steps of radical transformation of our lives through the freedom that Christ gives to each one of us.  But that transformation requires something of us, and that is a great responsibility.  We have to die to our self and rise again in Christ, and we need to: serve one another humbly in love.”

 

The Image of God and the Present Culture War

image_of_god

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, David Brooks wrote about the culture war that we have heard so much about during this election cycle.  In the piece, he argues that our focus is in the wrong direction.

“The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.”

Brooks argues that we have lost the sense of the value of the individual and that we just use people, that they are utilitarian.

“If public life were truly infused with the sense that people have souls, we would educate young people to have vocations and not just careers. We would comfortably tell them that sex is a fusion of loving souls and not just a physical act. We’d celebrate marriage as a covenantal bond. We’d understand that citizenship is a covenant, too, and we have a duty to feel connected to those who disagree with us.”

As I read this what I hear him saying is that we have lost what I call the image of the Divine Spark that is inside each human being.

Shortly after reading this I read a verse from the Psalms that has stuck with me, and I keep rolling it over and over again in my mind.  For several days I have been meditating on verse eight from the twenty-sixth Psalm: “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” I cannot get this passage out of my mind.

When the Psalmist wrote these words, the place where God was dwelling was the Temple.  The understanding of the time was the God was dwelling in the Temple that this is the place where God lived.  The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of Covenant, which contained the tablets of Moses and God’s Law handed down to him.  The Temple was a magnificent place, and its beauty was not matched anywhere in the world.

The Christian understanding of where God dwells is much different.  God, the one who created all that we see, cannot be contained to a physical place but is present everywhere and in all of the creation.  When we look at creation, we see God, and when we look at another human being, we are looking into the very face of God.  That’s right; each person is created in the image and likeness of the creator.

Much of our twenty-first century political life requires us to put people into categories, homeless, addict, prisoner, criminal, illegal immigrant, gay, straight etc. when we do this we forget that each is a human, created in the image and likeness of God, first and everything else is secondary and used for a purpose.

The world we live in tells us that we find value in objects and that our value can be found in the number of objects that we have.  Our success is based on the fact that we have a lot of money and a lot of stuff, the big car, the big house and all of the trappings that go along with all of that.  There are even Christian ministers that claim that if we follow God’s will, and send them lots of money, we will find riches on earth.  I have searched my Bible and cannot find that sense of worth anywhere.

We are taught that we are to be all we can be, be the best we can be, no matter what the cost.  It does not matter who we have to take advantage of or who we have to step on as long as we make it.  We are a society of individuals and not a collection of human beings.  How often have heard that we spend too much of our tax dollars on the lazy poor, but I do not often hear complaints about the money we spend on war or the war machine.  We want what is best for us, as individuals, rather than what is good for society as a whole.

Human beings have been reduced to things to objects that are bought and sold to the highest bidder and therefore people have become disposable in our society like everything else.  We are treating human beings the same way we treat the rest of creation, what can I get out of it and when I get what I want I will simply throw it away.  We have removed the Divine Spark from humanity for if we have not done that, then we would not be able to treat our fellow human being the way we do.

We look at the illegal immigrant see what they cost us and the law that has been broken.  We do not consider that person as someone who had fled an impossible situation, an individual who has risked their life to come the “land of milk and honey” to make a better life for themselves and their family.  We do not take the time to listen to their story and where they have come from.  We simply look upon them as a criminal and dismiss the fact that they are human.

The Christian story of creation comes from the Book of Genesis.  In that story, we read of God creating humanity from the dust of the ground, “Let us created humanity in our image, according to our likeness.”  We also read that God breathed His breath into the very nostrils of humanity thus we have inside each of us the very breath of God.  How someone professing to be Christian look at another human being and see them as an object is beyond me.

The time I have spent meditating on the verse from Psalm twenty-six has instilled in me that the place where God has chosen to dwell is inside each human that was created in that very image, and that is the place where God’s glory abides.  I can no longer look at another human and see them as an appendage but as a person that is struggling to get through life just as I am.

I see a human with the divine spark in them who happens to be homeless, who happens to be an addict, who happens to be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or no religion at all.  I see human beings with all sorts of flaws, some of the same ones I see in myself.  They are not objects to be used for political purposes, used by all sides of the political spectrum, but as human beings that have been given dignity and we are commanded by the person we claim to follow, Jesus Christ, to love.

There is a lot of noise coming from the Christian right about how America was founded as a Christian nation.  I disagree with sentiment, and I surely have not seen evidence of a Christian nation based on policies and practices of that same Christian right.  Each human being has inherent dignity that needs to be honored and respected.  When we are ready to do that, when we are willing to give all of the humanity the dignity and respect they deserve as the living embodiment of God then we might be able to claim that we are living as Christians.

Common Decency is not so Common

Distrction Free

Last week I posted the picture above on my Facebook wall.  As one can imagine it sent off a lively discussion about that is right and what is wrong.  Most of the comment that was written had to do with how it makes the boys feel seeing a girl walking around dressed in a certain way.  Well, I am not sure about you, but it seems that is the fault of the boy and not the girl.  I used this analogy. If I walk into a store, and no one is around, and I take something off the shelf and walk out with it, have I stolen something or is it the fault of the shop keeper for leaving it out there in the first place?  I hope we would all agree that I am at fault.  Teaching young men to respect a young lady is what we are supposed to do not blame the girl for how she is dressed.

The next common objection had to do with this sense of common decency.  Well, as the title suggests, common decency is not so common.  Each generation has had to deal with changes in fashion, hair length, piercing, tattoos, etc. and this generation is no different.  I am not sure where the common denominator is in the argument.

It was not that long that a woman could not wear pants to an office job, she had to wear a skirt.  There was also a time when it was unheard of for men to be seen in public not wearing a hat on their heads or in church without a tie and jacket.  I do not hear loud cries for that be restored.  Common is just that common and what is accepted by the masses.  Sure I think it would be nice if men continued to wear hats and ties, but that is not the reality of today’s population.

The popular saying “Make America Great Again” needs to come with some caveat.  Each thing that we think made American great, by the way, I think America is pretty great right now, was not so great for someone else.  Should we go back to when women could not vote or how about going back to when they were considered property?  How about the times when black folks could not eat at the same counter or drink from the same water fountain.  Was that the great time of America?  The greatness of America is that she is always changing, each generation envisions what America is, and that is the way it should be.