Dianna Butler Bass, Grounded: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I opined on the question of where is God as raised in the book Grounded by Diana Butler Bass.  In this part, I will explore dirt, yes dirt, since it is so central to the human condition and creation itself.  I continued to be amazed at the depth with which Bass writes and how she not only makes one think but makes one think differently about everything including the very nature of creation.

The chapter about dirt makes up a trilogy of chapters in the first part of the book that centers on our understanding or lack of understanding as I found out, about our natural world.  Water and sky will be dealt with in subsequent chapters of the book, but for now, we turn our attention to dirt.

Before moving back to the city I maintained, poorly might I add, a small garden behind the house where I was living.  Each spring I would make my way out to the garden plots and work the dirt.  I was once corrected that dirt is what you get under your fingernails, soil is what we plant things in.  I quickly learned that that dirt I was using was not great.  Sure things would grow, but the plants would not reach their full potential, and when you are growing for food this becomes necessary.  The dirt needs to be worked, it need have the sun’s warmth beating on it, and it needs some amenities added to it.  So the dirt needs to be studied to find out just what it needs, but once the secret is unlocked, boom, stuff starts to take off.

Bass reminds us that there are two creation stories in the Book of Genesis that look very different.  In the first story, humanity is created last, but in the second story, humanity is created right after the waters rise, and clay can be formed.  In both stories humanity is created out of the soil, or dirt, that is right there.  All that is needed for our creation is present, and God fashions humanity from those essential elements.  We are primarily dirt!

Dirt is essential to life!  Sure technology now exists to grow plants in soilless environments, but that is the exception to the rule rather than the norm.  I grew things in the dirt, the dirt nourished the plants and provided stability, for the most part, for the plants that were growing.  Dirt provided me with nourishment for my body and dirt provided the elements necessary for God to create humanity.

In the time of Jesus, the people were farmers, shepherds, and fisherman, for the most part, they made their living off the land.  Jesus stepfather, Joseph, was a carpenter and the wood he used for the building came from trees that grew in the dirt, dirt was essential to their everyday life.  There are several examples of Jesus using dirt to illustrate a point.

In one story, Jesus encounters a blind man.  To heal this man, Jesus stoops down, spits in the dirt, and makes clay that he puts on the man’s eyes.  He then tells him to wash in the ceremonial pool.  The dirt was used as the vehicle for the healing, perhaps it was a poultice or something along those lines, but using the basic elements of creation, as related in the second chapter of Genesis, water, and dirt, Jesus restored the man’s sight.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus reminds those listening that the condition of the soil was essential if the seed was going to grow.  Too hard and the seed will bounce off, to soft, and the seed will drown.  All the necessary elements must be present for the seed to take root and grow to its full potential.  Now this story is not about gardening tips, the dirt is us, and the seed is the word, as Jesus explains, but just as the soil conditions need to be right for plants to grow so does the soil of our humanity.  If our soil is too hard the seed, the word of God will just bounce off.  The soil needs to be worked by a skilled gardener, and we have to allow that gardener to work the soil that is inside each one of us.

Returning to this idea of the creation of humanity Bass quotes theologian Norman Wirzba from his book Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation.

“God fashions the first human being by taking the dust of the ground into his hands, holding it so close that it can share in the divine breath, and inspiring it with the freshness of life. It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life – along with the life of trees and animals and birds – is possible at all. God draws near to the earth and then animates it from within.”

What the image is drawn from this quote is a loving creator that cares for creation. This is an intimate scene of creator and creation sharing in life, built from the very elements of that creation.  The creator fashioned humanity out of creation itself and then placed that humanity as the caretaker of the very creation humanity was part of.  Caring for each other means caring for the creation we were created from!

Humanity has a cosmic relationship with the dirt and an intimate relationship that makes us human.  This chapter has taught me many things, but the most basic of them is that I need to get my hands back in the dirt and work that dirt, so it becomes fertile.  Not only the dirt in my backyard but the dirt of my mind.

Sharing in Christ’s Baptism

A Sermon on John 1:29-42

I have called this sermon “Sharing in Christ’s Baptism” as a sort of a way to illustrate what is happening in the Scripture passage we heard read this morning.  Let’s set the stage here a bit.  In the previous passages, we have Jesus coming to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, who also happens to be Jesus’ cousin.  John was a few months older than John and no doubt they knew each other and perhaps even hung out together.  Although they were on different paths and even from different classes, John’s father was a priest while Jesus’ father was a carpenter.

In today’s passage, the story picks up as Jesus is walking and he is spotted by John.  Now John was standing with several of his disciples, and he tells then that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah they have long been waiting for.  This is an interesting bit here, John says, in verse 31 “I myself did not know him.”  How can this be?  Jesus is John’s cousin, after all, how could he not know him?  Well, he knew him of course, but he did not know what he was. Until John saw the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descend upon him, it had not been revealed to John what his cousin was, the Messiah, and the Son of God.

So what is baptism?  In the Statement of Faith, we read each Communion Sunday we read that “He (God) calls us into His Church… to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table.”  So baptism is a way of calling us into the church.  Our church recognizes two Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  These actions are outward and visible signs of the Grace of God in our lives.  Through baptism, the person is joined with the universal Church, the Body of Christ.  Through Baptism God works in us the power of forgiveness and the renewal of the Spirit.  So we become a new creation, not in the physical sense but the spiritual sense.  This new life is the life of discipleship with Christ.

So Baptism then marks us as members of the Body of Christ, it is the first step in discipleship in the Church.  At the service of baptism, our parents promised to instruct us in the word of God and by their example to teach us the principles of the Christian religion, to pray with us, and to rear us up in the fellowship of the Church.  But the community present also makes some promises. “Do you, the members of this church as of the whole Church of Christ, receive this child into your love and care, and do you promise that so far as in you lies you will uphold and encourage the parents in the fulfillment of their covenant?”  To which we all answer “We Do.”  We agree to assist them and support them.

Baptism calls us to discipleship; we become new people, set aside for the work of God in our lives.  When Jesus was baptized by John, it was the beginning of his public ministry.  In a sense, it was the public acknowledgment of what Jesus had come to do, and it was the public acknowledgment that he was ready to begin his ministry.  In baptism, we die to our former selves, and we rise to be new creations willing to do the work of God in the world.  But there is a cost to being a disciple.

In 1937 Germany had become a very secular state.  People had stopped going to church, and there was a growing amount of anger amongst the populace and between the classes.  There was an increasing feeling that Germany had been treated poorly at the end of the First World War and she was coming of age again.  Hitler and his party were on the rise, and things were about to change, drastically in Germany.  Into this period came a Lutheran Pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote this little book called the Cost of Discipleship.  Bonhoeffer was hoping to spark a revolution, not a political revolution but a spiritual revolution.  Bonhoeffer could see the direction his beloved Germany was heading, and he was hoping to change the course.  Bonhoeffer was calling people back to the spiritual life, not necessarily Church life, but the spiritual life.

Bonhoeffer believed, as did I, that there is a cost to being a follower or a disciple of Christ.  I don’t just mean that we have to give up an hour or so on Sunday and come to Church; there is a cost to our very lives if we are going to be authentic followers of Jesus Christ. Again I turn to our Statement of Faith, turn to the back page of the hymnal with me; it is the sixth statement:

“He (meaning God) call us into his Church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be his servants in the service of men (this means love your neighbor), to proclaim the gospel to all the world (this is done by how we live our lives outside of the Church, and how we live it inside the Church) and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.”

It is right there is the second line, “to accept the COST and joy of discipleship.”

For Bonhoeffer, this being called to true discipleship would cost him his life, not so much for what he was preaching, but his preaching led him to action to resist what he saw as evil, Adolph Hitler, and was part of a group that was plotting to assassinate Hitler.  Bonhoeffer felt so strong that the only way to resist evil was to chop off the head of evil after all other options had failed them, and that would render evil harmless.  For this, he gave his life.  That was the cost of grace for Bonhoeffer, but that may not be the cost of grace for us.

But the other side of this was what Bonhoeffer called Cheap Grace.  He defined Cheap Grace this way:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cheap Grace requires nothing!  No confession, no cross, no discipleship.  Cheap Grace means we can say we belong to the Church, we come to Church, we pay it lip service, but it costs us nothing.  We take no chances, we stand for nothing, we support nothing, and we do not live out the Great Commission to preach the Gospel and to make disciples.  Cheap Grace is just that Cheap.

Costly Grace means we have to confront evil wherever that may be. Costly Grace means we have to take a stand, even when that means we stand alone. Costly Grace means we care more about what is outside the Church building than what is inside. Costly Grace means we see Church not just as a building but as the People of God. Costly Grace means we have to love those who are unlovable. Costly Grace means we have to die to our will and take on the will of God; this is what Jesus did that day in the Jordan River he died to his human will and he be said yes to God’s call.  He received the grace of God, and that grace cost him his life spiritually but also physically.

In his book “Confessing our Faith, Roger Shinn writes about the Statement of Faith.  Shinn was one of the authors of the original Statement of Faith adopted in 1959.  In the chapter that deals with this section of the Statement he writes the following:

“It was a costly mission. Jesus lured nobody with promises of prestige or affluent living. At least once he rebuffed an enthusiast who thought he wanted to follow Jesus but did not realize what a radical venture he was about to walk into. Discipleship meant discipline, commitment, and danger. According to tradition, the first twelve disciples (excepting Judas Iscariot) became martyrs for Christ.”

There is a cost to becoming authentic followers of Jesus Christ.  If our faith costs us nothing, then it is not genuine, and we are just paying it lip service.  As followers of Jesus Christ, we have to be willing to die to our will.  We have to admit that maybe the way we have been doing things is the wrong way. We have to be willing to trust that God knows what is best for our lives. We have to be willing to stop judging others and start loving them. We have to be willing to speak for those on the margins and maybe sacrifice all that we have for them, not only a church community but personally. We have to be willing as a church community but also as individuals to speak the truth to power and stand up for what is right not just for what is popular. We have to be willing to lay it all on the line and expect nothing in return.

I recently watch the movie “Entertaining Angels.” The movie is a depiction of the life of Dorothy Day who found, along with many others, the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City during the time of the Great Depression.  Her ministry fed, clothed, and housed people at a time in our history when all hope had been lost, and she did this in the face of adversity.  Her life was threatened, she faced massive fines by the government, and her own Church told her she had to shut down operations or take the word “Catholic” out of their name because she was helping those who needed help.  She refused and kept on going.  She landed in jail a few times, but she kept on serving those who needed to be served to sacrifice her will to that of God.  She lived the Gospel every day.

Tomorrow our nation will pause to remember another servant who gave his life for what he believed in. Dr. Martin Luther King.  King gave us an example of speaking truth to power and his constant message of love and equality would eventually cause a change in the very fabric of our nation.  It was not easy, and it still is not easy, but Dr. King sacrificed his life, as did many others, to make life better for someone else.

We are not all called to be Dorothy Day, and we are not all called to be Dr. King, but we are all called to sacrifice our lives for something greater than ourselves.  Being followers of Jesus is costly, but it is also joyous.  He is calling each of today as he called those first followers.  He is calling us to follow him, and he will show us the way.

Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Part 1

I have a bit of a confession.  I have just started to read Grounded by Dianna Butler Bass.  I know it came out last year, and yes it has been sitting on my shelf since my advanced ordered copy arrived, but I have just begun to read the book and I have to say, and I am only 26 pages in, I am blown away.  As a way for me to wrap my head around what she is saying, I hope to write a series of reflections on each chapter.  I cannot guarantee that these will come with any regularity since I cannot get past the introduction, but I am going to try.

In the introduction, Bass asks the question where is God?  As one who works in fire chaplaincy as well as disaster ministry, I have heard this question asked on many occasions.  In fact, I have asked this question on many occasions.  However, what Bass is asking us to do is to think about the question of where God is in a horizontal rather than a vertical way.  Let me try to explain.

In my Roman Catholic theology, which I call theology 1.0, and my Eastern Orthodox theology, which I call theology 2.0 I was taught that God was in heaven, which was above the clouds, and the evil one resided below the earth in the lake of fire.  Humanity existed in-between here on earth, and the church was the mediator between humanity and either up into the clouds or down into the lake of fire.  So this is vertical theology, it is a straight line if you will.  We even have the image of the cross to illustrate this.  The cross is pounded into the ground and stretches upward to heaven with Jesus in the middle.  Even the way we think of the realms of good and evil there is the illustration.  Heaven is up in the fluffy clouds and hell is below the dirt.

So in my now Reformed theology, which I will call theology 3.0, I am being asked to look at this relationship in a different way, horizontally.  Bass is suggesting that God is not in some far off place but rather God is right here with us in our everyday lives of ups and downs.  God is not some tyrant that gets his jollies over tormenting his creation but God is with us as we experience the ups and down of our lives and God shares these with us.  Yes God was present in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  God was present in Connecticut after Sandy Hook; God was present in Charleston at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church.  God was present with creation.

So this begs the question if God was there why didn’t God stop it?  Well for the same reason God did not start it.  This idea of why God did not stop it is where I still need some head wrapping and why for the past three days I have not been able to get past page 26.  I have to divorce my thoughts from the vertical sense of things, this idea that God required the death of his Son exact payment for some eons old blood feud.  So, for now, I am sticking with God is here, right here, with all of the creation.  Not controlling things, but walking alongside and feeling what we feel.  Yes, I said it, God has feelings!

I know the argument, and I understand that the more we try and explain God using our human terms the more we box God in and that is something we simply cannot do.  But I like to think that God has the same experience that I do and that way can comfort me in those times.

There have been many times in my life that I have felt the presence of God in such a powerful way.  This presence came in thought, or a song, perhaps even another person, but no matter what the medium I sensed the very powerful presence of God.  There were also times when I felt the absence of God, the cold, sometimes scary feeling that I was alone.  Perhaps the way Jesus felt hanging on the cross when asked why God had abandoned him.  Well God did not abandon Jesus on the Cross nor did he abandon me in my dark times, I just could not feel God’s presence, not because of something God did or did not do, but because I was so mired down in my stuff I had shut God out.  God was still very present I just refused to acknowledge God’s presence in my life.

I have often said that as much as the Reformation was necessary it throughout the baby with the bath water and there are some of the past that needs to be reclaimed; Mysticism is one of them.  Bass quotes from John 10:30 here, “the father and I are one.”  Sure we have used this passage to describe the Trinity, and it rightly does, but it also describes the mystical relationship of Jesus with God this “connection and intimacy” as Bass describes it of us, humanity, and our God.  Again this is only possible if we understand that God is not located on some far off cloud but right here, sitting next to me as I write these words, as well as with me in the dark places of my life.  What Bass is speaking of here is “Divine Nearness.”

“When the Bible is read from the perspective of divine nearness, it becomes clear that most prophets, poets, and preachers are particularly worried about religious institutions and practices that perpetuate the gap between God and humanity, making the divine unapproachable or cordoned off behind cadres of priestly mediators, whose interest is in exercising their power as brokers of salvation.” Grounded, Page 13

It is my belief that this is what the reformers had in mind.  God does not just exist in the Holy of Holies, in fact, I think Jesus showed us that when he was born!  God does not just exist in the walls of the church, and the priest or minister is not the only one to guide us towards salvation. However, we define that.  We need to regain this sense of a divine closeness.

In my book, Listening to the Heartbeat of God, I use the image of the Apostle John, the one Jesus loved, leaning against the chest of Jesus at the last supper listening to his heartbeat.  As John reclined against Jesus, ear pressed to his chest; he could hear the heartbeat of Jesus, the very heartbeat of God.  There is an intimacy here, a closeness with the divine that we need to recapture is our world.

God is all around us and desires that we know him as much as well as he knows us.

The Nature of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit

Editors Note: This reflection is taken from a theological paper that was written as partial fulfillment of the requirements to gain standing in the United Church of Christ.  Over the next few weeks I will be posting highlights from that paper.

  1. God

a. God: Creation, Providence, Judgement, and Grace

God is the creator of all and as such everything that is created is inherently good and it reveals the very image and nature of God.  I used to think that things had a definite order to them and that there was absolute right and there was absolute wrong.  The Orthodox theology I learned did not leave any gray area and was a theology of absolutes.  Spiritually I have a different view of things, and as much as I like to put things into little boxes and categories, this is not the case in reality.  Our God does not wish to condemn us but seeks to love us and asks that we love him back.  God desires that we all know the way, and we find that way through his Son.

God is absolute perfection and absolute love and has promised us that we will have eternal life.

I often think that our particular theological position gets in the way of seeing the great mystery of God; we have to have everything figured out.  But I am coming to love the mystery and not needing to know all the answers.  It has been said that “God moves in mysterious ways” and I have been witness to that mystery first hand.  God’s judgment is grace-filled and hopefilled; God offers us forgiveness and redemption, peace and justice, reconciliation and deliverance.

I had this vision of God as this old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne smiting people, but now I know that God’s love is redemptive, and God works to heal us and our relationships through love.  I have often said that the entire message of the Gospel is love, well the whole work of redemption is love, and it is sacrificial and unconditional.

b. Person of Christ: Incarnation, Atonement, Salvation, and Resurrection

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” John 1:14. God sent Jesus Christ to take on humanity: sometimes I have a difficult time wrapping my head around this thought.  The one who created all things became a creation!  This is the supreme act of love, the love of God for creation.  God did this to heal the world’s wounds caused by our selfishness our hatred, violence, injustice, and divisiveness.  There is no promise that the world would be freed from suffering or evil but that a new way would be shown to us as a new way of living with God in and through

2. Jesus Christ.

“Christ did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.” Romans 8:1. Jesus came to offer life and to fulfill the promise of God to humanity; this was not a plan to allow evil but a way for an intimate relationship between the creator and creation.  There is a commitment to care and love that comes through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and a willingness of the creator to enter into our vulnerability and suffering as a way of redemption.

God’s atonement is a way or reordering the chaos as well as suffering and evil. God’s love overpowered evil, death did not win; the stone was rolled away, and after the long dark night morning came and we saw the brilliant light of the resurrection. The death of Jesus gave us a way, a new way for humanity to be reconciled to God and gave us hope of our salvation and redemption.  The atonement provides the path and the example for forgiveness and love through grace.

3. Holy Spirit: Revelation and Scripture

The Scriptures offer us a way to learn about the nature of God and how we follow God and the desires that God has for us in our lives.  Scriptures connect us with our ancestors in faith so we understand their story and how they lived their lives also as examples of God’s grace and love in the world.  I am of the opinion that the Scriptures were written by individuals to promote their own limited understanding of the world around them and their evolving spiritual belief.

However, many of the authors were severely limited by their tribal culture and by their lack of scientific knowledge.  The Holy Spirit helps us to discern in our lives how God speaks to us and works in and through us.  The Scriptures invite us to be part of the story of God’s redemptive love and seen through the lives of the people of history.  But we have to constantly remind ourselves that the Bible was written some 2,000 years ago and has a place in history and we need to understand that history to fully grasp what was going on at the time.  We see God mystery in the Scriptures, and we need to allow room for grace to work in our lives and for revelation to come, through the Holy Spirit, to guide us.

One of the things that drew me to the United Church of Christ was this sense that “God is still speaking.”  My previous theological understanding was that God has said all that he is going to say.  The Scriptures are the final scene in the movie of creation, and that is all.  I do not believe that to be the case; God is still speaking and moving, and we need to be open to the unfolding nature of God and what God has to say to all of us.

I was once asked if the Apostles knew the entire story of what was going to happen.  Did Mary, the Mother of Jesus know what was going to happen?  My answer was it was revealed to them as they grew in their faith and we need to be open to the challenge of Scripture and God’s revelation and we need to accept the invitation to serve God and help to change the world.

Predictions of the Future Church

As a follow-up to my last post, I am reaching back to a post from February of 2015 written by pastor and blogger Carey Nieuwhof. I mentioned in previous posts that one of the jobs of pastors in the 21st century is to be able to read the trends and try to stay ahead of the curve of shifts in the social fabric of the community in which we serve.

In this essay, Carey states that the gathered church is here to stay and I believe that.  Recently I was asked about the future of the church and my role in it.  I stated, quite emphatically, that I think the brick and mortar church will always be with us, but it is going to look much different in the next decade than it does now.  The church of the next decade is going to be smaller, leaner, and ready to take on the world.  However, we will also need to come up with alternatives to the Sunday morning worship serve that many of us grew up with.

The other point being made is that consumer church, this is the church where we ask the question about “what can we get out of church?” and “what’s in it for me?” will change.  Carey rightly points out that the entire idea behind the Christian message is that we die to ourselves, but we cannot do that of we try and make it all about us.  If you are in search for a church that meets your needs you are doing it wrong.  The church and church members need to focus more on what is outside the walls of the church rather than what is inside.

Points eight and nine of the essay were remarkable considering when the article was written.  These points deal with the online church and community.  I agree that the online community will not replace the face to face community we endeavor to create, but it will supplement what we are presently doing.  As church leaders, we need to get past this idea that meaningful ministry can only take place face to face.  The next generation is online, and we need to be online.

Read the Article Here

Thom Rainer’s Major Trends for 2017

Thom Rainer

The church of the 21st century is going to require pastors to acquire a new set of tools.  The church, and by that I mean all churches, has never been very good at reading the trends in society.  Sure we can yell and stop our feet that the church should influence society but that ship has sailed.  Pastors need to be equipped to look at such things as demographics shifts and sociological studies of their neighborhoods.  Nothing beats boots on the ground work but they days of opening the church doors and watching the people flood in are gone, for good.  I do not think the brick and mortar church will ever completely go away, but the church of the next five to ten years is going to be radically different than it is today.

Church leadership blogger Thom Rainer has listed his major trends that the church needs to be aware of and focused on and we start to move through 2017.  How the church responds, not reacts but responds, to these trends will determine the future of the church and the effectiveness of the church.  The time to start watching these trends was yesterday, so we are already behind the curve a little.

One of the interesting points is this idea of multi-site churches.  Multi-site could be a way for multiple churches to come together to share resources such as pastoral staff.  Rather than merge churches, where ultimately one church loses its identity, why not cluster for lack of a better term.  Multi-site is a trend that bears watching.

Read the rest here

Live Long and Prosper: The Spirituality of Star Trek

On Christmas night I was looking for something to watch.  I had my fill of Christmas movies, which seem to start earlier and earlier each year, so I needed something different.  I was cruising through Netflix, and I came across the documentary, “For the Love of Spock.”  Now I fancy myself a Trekkie but I admit I had not heard about this documentary made by Leonard Nimoy’s Son.  The film is a beautiful tribute to a father from a son, but it is also a glimpse into the mind of the man that took us to the stars and back.

I do not always look for links between spirituality and movies, but I always felt that the Star Trek universe was very spiritual.  The Prime Directive always seemed like the Love Your Neighbor bit, and there always appeared to be this general way of dealing with the spirituality of others.  But very often, especially in the Star Trek movies and later series, Mr. Spock was often depicted at prayer.  As more was revealed about the people of Vulcan the more of the Vulcan spirituality was revealed.

But I was the most fascinated with Leonard Nimoy’s discussion of how the Vulcan greeting was created for the program.  Nimoy felt that there needed to be some greeting that would be exchanged between Vulcans that was more than a wave or simply saying “hi” as one passed by.  Nimoy, who speaks Yiddish, harkened back to a time and place of his childhood for the creation of the now famous “Vulcan Salute.”

The now famous “V” of the salute comes from the shape of the Hebrew letter shin.  Shin is the first letter of such Hebrew words as Shaddai, the name of God.  For Shalom and for Shekhinah which is the feminine aspect of God who was created to live among humans.  Not unlike Spock who was an “alien” but lived among humans.

But the Shekhinah is also the name of a prayer that Nimoy witnessed as a young boy.  In a 2013 interview, he describes experiencing this prayer for the first time.

“They get their tallits over their heads, and they start this chanting. And my father said to me, ‘don’t look.'” At first, he obliged, but what he could hear intrigued him. “I thought, ‘something major is happening here.’ So I peeked.  And I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit like this,” Nimoy said, showing the “V” with both his hands. “I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.”

The men holding their hands in the “V” shape were, in fact, blessing the assembled people while they were praying.  Below is a video clip from the interview.  Listen to Nimoy describe the creation of the Vulcan Salute in his words.

God’s Standard of Judgement

A Meditation on Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The Scripture passage presented to us today is the most vivid of the parables that Jesus will use with his followers.  Although the parable, in real parable form, uses images of sheep and goats the implication is clear.  God will judge us based on how we treat others.  I find it hard to believe that the meaning of this parable would have been lost on those that would have heard from the lips of Jesus. However, I see examples of the present day followers of Jesus ignoring these words.

The simple answer to the question of by what standard we will be judged by God is evident from this passage.  God will judge us by our reaction to others in need.  He places before them a scenario of people needing food, water, clothing, welcoming, etc. and presents it as if it was Jesus himself that was in need.  The response to the presentation is where the judgment comes in.  However, with that said I believe we judge ourselves God only passes sentence based on our behavior.

We will not be judged on the number of Scripture passages that we have been able to memorize.  We will not be judged based on the level of fame that we have achieved in our lives. We will not be judged based on the size of our bank account.  But we will be judged based upon the way we help those who are in need.

Sometimes I think that the only way we can help someone, or humanity in general, is by doing something extraordinary, but it is the simple things that God wants us to do.  The parable presents a few ideas for us.  We can provide food for the hungry.  Maybe we bring a can of something to church or donate to food pantry not just around the holidays, but all year.  We can welcome the stranger.  The stranger does not have to be a refugee but maybe the new neighbor down the street or the new person at church.  Maybe it is as simple as the warm smile to the stranger on the street.  The idea is to give help to those that we meet every day in our family and the world.  It does not have to be any more complicated than that.

This help needs to be uncalculated.  We need to do this not expecting anything in return.  We do not do this for the publicity or the tax write off; we do it because in our hearts we love the other that we encounter. God’s standard of judgment is the uncalculated mercy toward others.  This kindness comes from a natural, instinctive reaction to a heart that loves.  We hear the response in the parable from those Jesus is questioning, and they tell him that is they had known it was him they surely would have helped.  It should not matter who needs help; all that matters is that we support them, without conditions. Help wins the approval of God when that support is given for nothing but the sake of helping.

In the parable, Jesus tells those listening that “inasmuch as you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  If we help those in need, we are in essence giving help to Jesus, not that he needs our help of course, but the converse is also true.  If we withhold help from those in need, we are withholding help from Jesus.  In other words, if we help our neighbor we are showing that we love God through our actions, but if we do not help our neighbor, or if we seek some condition on that help, then we are withholding our love for God.  It costs us nothing to help, but its costs us everything not to help.

In the end, when we learn generosity of our time, talent, and treasure, which without calculation helps people in the simplest things, we too will know the joy of helping Jesus Christ.

Christ is Born! But Why?

A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

These past four weeks, these past four weeks of Advent we have been on a journey of discovery, discovery about what Advent is truly about, and a discovery about ourselves and our relationship with God.  We have been asking many questions, and we have been finding some answers, but as with all things religious, we have more questions than answers.  And the biggest question I have on this morning of Christmas is why was Jesus born?

I have a hard time wrapping my human mind around the fact that God, the creator, became his creation.  Let that think in for a moment, God became flesh, breathed air, walked on earth, and dwelt among us.  He took on our human form, even though God remained God, he still lowered himself to become one of us.  But why?

There have even been books written about it.  There is one with the title 50 Reasons Jesus Came to Die.  It was, of course, followed up with 10 Reasons Jesus Came to Die.  I guess the author forgot a few reasons.

We hear that God sent his son to earth because he was angry with us.  He sent Jesus here to fix it all because we have gone off the rails if you will.  If you are like me, you have heard many stories and sermons about sin and judgment.  Make no mistake we are all sinners, but we are forgiven.  So we get this idea that God is an angry, vengeful God that is out for blood.

But the story we hear from Scripture at Christmas is much different the God sent his angel to visit a young woman and the first this he says to her is “be not afraid.”  He tells her that she will give birth to a boy and he will do great things.  He does not force this on her, in fact, he waits for her decision.  Of course, we know she said yes because God asked her.  When the angel appeared to the shepherds, he had the same message, be not afraid, behold I bring you tidings of great joy.  No mention of God’s anger or wrath here.  In fact, the angel goes on to speak of the glory of God and that this child has come to humanity, in whom he is well pleased.  Well pleased?  This message does not sound angry to me.

We are also under the illusion that Jesus was born so he could die.  Again, this comes from this idea that God is a vengeful God and he is out for blood.  If this is the case, why did God wait so many years?  Jesus was, by all accounts 33 years old when he died, why did God wait so long?  Why did he have to inflict so much pain?  Jesus did not come to die, in fact, the opposite is true, Jesus came to show us how to live.

The Gospel of John tells us that God became flesh and dwelt among us.  He was born a baby, in humble surroundings, to a persecuted people.  He took on our humanity, with all that this means in every way possible.  He was born the same way we were born; he grew up the same way we grew up.  He suffered the loss of his stepfather Joseph, he learned a trade, probably fell when he was learning how to walk.  He was just like us, except for the sin part.

Jesus left us a legacy of how we are to live our lives; we are to walk with those less fortunate than us; we are to provide food, spiritual and physical, to those in need.  We are to welcome the stranger among us and treat them as if they are part of the family.  We are to provide clothing to those who do not have any. And we are to make disciples, just like Jesus did.  He did not force people to agree with his message.  He did not go to Rome, ever, and lobby in the halls of power for things to be done a certain way, no he showed us how we are to live our lives as best we can.

In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” So that we may have eternal life.

Why was Jesus born?  Out of love.  It’s really is just that simple.  The creator loved his creation so much, saw how off the rails we had become that he lowered himself to become one of us to show us the way.  Jesus was not a king in the earthy sense of what that means, Jesus was not a military leader, he was a humble carpenter for a backwater town in a forgotten part of the Roman Empire.  He was born with nothing, and he died with nothing, simply because he loves all of us.

There may be some of you here today; there may be some of you listening to these words or watching on cable TV.  Perhaps you are reading this sermon as part of an email, and maybe you don’t believe that God loves you.  Maybe you are thinking how could God love you I am the worst of all sinners, I have not talked to God in a long a time, well let me set the record straight, God does love you, loves you so much in fact that he gave his all for you, not because God was angry, but because God was so filled with love for you, and for me.

I want you to know this; there is no version of Jesus that does not love you.  If someone is telling you that God is angry with you because of your lifestyle, if someone is telling you that God is angry with you because you have not been to church in a long time, you need to run away from those people as fast as possible, because I am here to tell you that Christ was born 2,000 years ago because he loves you just as you are, warts and all.

The message of the Gospel, the message of this Christmas is that Christ was born out of love, no other reasons than God loves us and wanted to give us an example to follow in our lives.

We have a saying here. “no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  We have made room in the Inn of our hearts and the Inn of our lives for you, warts and all.  We desire to confirm that God loves you and that you are forgiven, not through some sacrificial offering of blood, but through the love and example of Jesus Christ.

The gift that God has for you this morning, and every morning, is that he loves you and you are forgiven!

That is why Christ was born!

Merry Christmas