Sermon: Into Jerusalem

Palm Sunday Sermon on Mark 11:1-11

As a child, I grew up watching news footage of vast military parades put on by the Communist government in Red Square in Moscow.  The regiments of soldiers, goose-stepping by along with large anti-ballistic missiles carried on large trucks always made me a little scared of the power of the Communists and, I believe, that was their intent.  The leaders of the government would be standing up on balconies, as if placed on pedestals, watching with joy in their eyes as their troops marched past.

In the early 1990’s, after the fall of the Communist dictatorship in Romania, I traveled to that country to assist with starting up social service programs there.  Invited in by the Evangelical Alliance of Romania, we worked with local seminaries to provide the much-needed skills to teach pastors and others, to best serve the people of their country.  I heard countless stories about how, as children in school, they would be bussed to Bucharest and given signs to wave while standing in the square cheering for the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elana. Ceaușescu would give hours-long speeches and all those assembled in the square would be required to salute at the appropriate times or face severe punishment and perhaps death.  Just as the vast military parades in Red Square came to an end so did the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae & Elana Ceaușescu.

Today we heard the story of another parade. This parade was not one of grandeur and excess; it was not a parade where people were forced to participate nor to acknowledge the vast power and might of the person leading the parade. But, this parade was as political as the parades in Red Square or the speeches from the balcony of party headquarters in Jerusalem. And, they were as carefully orchestrated.

This story relates one of the wildest and most politically explosive acts of Jesus’ ministry. This entrance into the holy city was a direct challenge not only to the religious establishment but the very heart of the Roman Empire. In the passages we read this morning from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus lampoons the political powers through a carefully planned, carnivalesque “military procession” into Jerusalem. And we also see that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing.

The parade forms up at the Mount of Olives, the traditional location from which tradition held the final battle for the liberation of Jerusalem would take place. He sends his disciples out for provisions, but not provisions of war, but a simple colt, not even a full grown donkey. Jesus is going to take possession of Jerusalem unarmed and riding on a colt.

When he enters the city, the people assembled react as if a great military leader has entered. The actions that they take were considered treasonous by the empire. They threw down their coats and waved palm branches. The praised Jesus and shouted “Hosanna” and “long live the king!” And Jesus rides through the crowd smiling and waving.

But Jesus is not entering this city to occupy it, nope, in fact, he turns imperial notions of domination right on their heads in what can only be described as a masterfully planned piece of political satire. In his “triumphal entry” Jesus lampoons those in power, the establishment, the empire and their pretensions of glory and domination and acts in the opposite way.

“Riding on the colt, his feet possibly dragging on the ground, Jesus comes not as one who lords his authority over others, but as one who humbly rejects domination. He comes not with pomp and wealth, but as one identified with the poor. He comes not as a mighty warrior, but as one who is vulnerable and refuses to rely on violence.” Charles L Campbell, Commentary on Mark, Feasting on the Word.

Jesus takes on the role of court jester, makes fun of those in power and the trappings of their office, and invites those assembled, and you and me, to live in an entirely different way. This carnivalesque atmosphere becomes a challenge to the social order of the day. Riding into the city this way was a subversive act on the part of Jesus that would set up the actions of the days that would follow.

By riding into the capital city on a colt, Jesus took a shot at the establishment and switched the focus from those in power to the least of these. Jesus taught us, by his humble action, that we are not to sit at the tables of the great hoping to eat the scraps that fall from it, we are to sit with the poor, the marginalized, the lowest of the low and we are to raise them up on high through the power of the love of God.

Those in power plotted against Jesus not because he was a blasphemer or had the wrong theology, those in power came after him, and eventually killed him because he was a direct threat to their power, position, and influence. Jesus pulled off their masks and revealed to the world how hypocritical it is to force people to believe a certain way when all that is required is to love God with all we have and to love and serve those around us.

This story is a reminder to us that we must continue to rip off the masks of hypocrisy and to serve the less fortunate, very often the ones used by both sides to get what they want. But it is also a reminder that we have to rip off our masks and take a stand and not just follow the crowd or what is popular at the moment but to follow Jesus and his way.

On that day, in the City of Jerusalem, Jesus ushered in a New World Order for us to follow.  No more is it an order of domination and subjugation it is an order of love and service to all.

Reclaiming Jesus: Taking Christianity Back

At some point in history, the Christian church decided that it was going to surrender its theology to the fringe, and by fringe, I do not just mean those on the right but also those on the left. Those on the right hold to a particular biblical worldview that includes white supremacy and nationalism. They feel it is okay to start wars and turn their backs on those in need. And those on the left have reduced scripture down to just another book of literature that is nothing more than a good book.

On Ash Wednesday 2018, 23 elders of the Christian church gathered in retreat to write a statement on reclaiming Jesus and Christianity from these fringe elements. This statement, more a manifesto if you will, begins:

We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.

It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The 23 elders then go on to focus on 6 areas of importance:

  1. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God in some of the children of God.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. We reject white supremacy and commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate white preference and advantage. Any doctrines or political strategies that use racist resentments, fears, or language must be named as public sin.

  1. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women being further revealed in our culture and politics, including in our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God.

  1. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees; we won’t accept the neglect of the well-being of low-income families and children.

  1. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society.

  1. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule. We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger threatening democracy and the common good—and we will resist it.

  1. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples. Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to seek first narrow nationalistic prerogatives.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal.

I believe it is time that we reclaim Jesus and in so doing we will reclaim not only the soul of the nation but our souls.

Read the Entire Statement Here

Sermon: Deep in our Hearts

After the Israelites had been freed from their bondage, Moses led them out into the wilderness in search of the land of milk and honey.  Along the way, God called Moses up the mountain, and there God wrote his law on stone tablets. This law was their guiding principle that would set their feet on the right path and lead them into that land of milk and honey.

So precious were these stone tablets that they enshrined them in a gold ark that was carried with them wherever they went.  The ark was placed in a special tent where watchmen would keep constant vigil so no harm would come to them. When they finally were able to enter Jerusalem and built the temple, the ark was the centerpiece of the temple and set in the holy of holies. The law was in the temple, and that was where God would dwell, in the temple.

Then along comes the Babylonians who destroyed the temple, killed their king, and stole the tablets of the law, these tablets would never be seen again. Understandably they people were quite upset and in despair. These tablets represented the covenant relationship between God and the people, and now that the tablets were gone they felt that the covenant had been broken. What were they to do?

Today’s passage from the mouth of the Prophet Jeremiah comes after this period when the people are in their darkest moments.  Jeremiah, like all of the prophets, comes to preach the Good News, to bring God’s word to those who will listen. Not all of the prophets were met with enthusiastic praise, but they kept at it because God called them.

Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant between God and his people, but some were confused about this. If there is a new covenant that assumes that the old one has passed away, and that is precisely what Jeremiah is telling the people.

The people needed the visual evidence of the covenant, and that evidence was gone. The best modern example of this would be the Declaration of Independence. Many of you might have gone to Washington, DC and visited the Declaration housed in a beautiful building. So precious is this document that it is enshrined in a gold case, behind bulletproof glass, with climate control. So precious is this document that at night, or others times of trouble or natural disaster, the document is lowered by elevator from its display case to a vault well below ground.

In a very real sense, the Declaration of Independence is a covenant between the people of the United States and their government. It spells out for us our responsibility and that of the government we put into power. However, if that document was to disappear one day the United States of America would not cease to exists because the idea and the ideals of America are not just a piece of paper or a piece of cloth, the ideals are enshrined in us, the people, and that is precisely what Jeremiah is telling the Israelites.

Jeremiah is telling them that they no longer need the symbol, the tablets, the golden ark, or even the temple because God is making a new covenant with them that will be in their hearts. No longer will they find God in the law but they will have a much more intimate relationship with God a more personal relationship with God not just a relationship in a building, but in their hearts the very center of their being. God desires to put his law within them and to write it on their hearts.

But the story does not end there.

God sends his son Jesus into the world to remind us, not of the legal ramifications of that law but he comes to remind us that God dwells in every heart. That God’s promise also involves repentance and forgiveness for everyone and Jesus boldly proclaims this when he says he has come to fulfill the law and the covenant. You see the original promise that Jeremiah spoke about becomes fulfilled in Jesus Christ with his very life.

Jesus is the last of the prophets and comes to complete the work that had begun. God wrote the law on stone tablets, then God wrote the law in their hearts, then God sent his son to fulfill the law with his blood and that law reminds us that we are to love God with our entire being and we are also to love our neighbor and Jesus tells us that on these two, what he calls the greatest commandments, hang all the law and prophets.

No longer do we need temple sacrifice as mediation between us and God we have the perfect mediator, God’s son who mediates for us. No longer do we have the strict code of stone tablets for we have a covenant, the very love and essence of God, written in our hearts love God and love neighbor.

But it does not end there, and it does not merely end with Jesus because now that we have the covenant written on our hearts we have become prophets, and we must take this message of love and hope out into the world. We must extend the love of God not by some strict adherence to a law of stone, but by the love shown from a heart of flesh a heart that cares about others and helps and guides them along the path that God has shown us in the life of his son. Strict adherence to the law means, just as Jesus taught us, we love all and forgive all.

Let us pray:

Holy God, by the cross and resurrection of Jesus, you lift the suffering world toward hope and transformation and open the way to eternal salvation. As we move ever closer to the passion of Christ, may your law of love be written on our hearts as he draws all people to himself revealing your love for the world. Amen.

Sermon: No Matter What

This past week I had the opportunity to work with the American Red Cross at a recovery assistance center. The center was a place for people, suffering from the effects of Winter Storm Riley, to come to one place and get information, and perhaps some assistance, from Red Cross and other agencies. I have worked in centers like this before, but this was the first time I worked in one in my town.

Helping people is in my nature and is part of what I am called to do not only as a minister but as a Christian. I have mixed emotions when I say that I have gotten good at ministering to people in times of distress in their lives and seemed to be at the end of their rope. In some ways it is easy when you do not know their backstory, you meet them for the first time, sit with them for a few moments, and then the next person comes in, but when they are your friends and neighbors, people you grew up with, went to school with, hung out with, it takes a whole different turn.

People would come to the center, many of them lost everything and just do not know what to do next. I sat with one man who had been just standing in this living room, look at the devastation and just feeling paralyzed and not knowing what to do next. I listened to the mother of two, with one on the way, that had to be rescued by the police and fire department in a front end loader as the water washed away everything they owned. People were in shock and disbelief, and some of them were angry.

But my job in this situation, as it is in any situation when dealing with people in need, is not to judge them but to minister to them no matter what. And I get the inevitable question, “where was God?” And as much as it pains me to say, my response to this question is, God was with you in the midst of the storm and is with you now in the middle of your recovery. God is always with us, no matter what.

But saying that God is always with people in times of distress is not easy so as I sat with folks I would merely point around the room at all of the folks there to help them. Sure, somewhere there because it was their job, but their job is to help. Each person was greeted with a smile and concern first for their well-being and then for that of their home. Each person helped lift a little bit of the load and make it easy to carry. Each person showed the love of God to the person sitting across the table from them.

The opening verse of the Psalm we read today says it all, “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

But what do we say to people who will inevitably claim, because they always do, that this is some punishment from God?  I am surprised I have not heard it said yet, but usually, after some natural disaster, school shooting or another such thing, some well-meaning preacher says that this is all a punishment from God. Perhaps there are some sitting here today or listen to or reading these words, nodding the head and agreeing that this is God’s wrath. Well I say, God’s steadfast love endures forever!

After the flood waters recede, God tells Noah and his children that he will never again destroy life and that this covenant will be marked by the rainbow in the sky. God continues to say that even if the clouds come, the rainbow will follow as a reminder of this covenant that God has with Noah and all generations. God’s steadfast love endures forever.

The writer of the Gospel of John tells us why God sent his only Son, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” And how does he do this? Not with wrath and fire and judgment, no, he leaves that to his followers, Jesus came to save the world through him with love. God’s steadfast love endures forever.

I caught up with the man who had come into the center in shock as he was leaving and he had a big smile on his face and an arm full or papers. He was so happy because someone listened to his story and was willing to help him out. Because he came, volunteers would be coming to help him clean out his house so the next phase could begin. Because people cared and showed him concern he was physically, mentally, and spiritually on the road to recovery.

This is a wonderful Psalm to meditate on during these last weeks of Lent. The psalmist reminds us that no matter what we do, no matter how far we stray from God, God’s steadfast love endures forever and that God is always there to welcome us back. We need to be that agent that helps reconcile people to God, and we need to be the ones that show the world how much God does love them, no matter what.

Sermon: The Words of my Mouth

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. NIV

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength, and my Redeemer. NKJ

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer. NRSV

Before the sermon on most Sundays, we recite the last verse of Psalm 19 and ask God that the words that we speak and those that we hold in our hearts will be acceptable in His sight. This prayer is a burdensome request and one that we should always be asking.  I checked three different versions of this passage and found that some have the phrase, “may these words…” while others have the version we use, “may the words…”

“May these words…” would seem to imply that the words we are about to speak, say the sermon, should or would be acceptable in the sight of God while the other version, the one we use here, “may the words…” implies that all of our words should be acceptable in the sight of God.

So are the words we speak acceptable in the sight of God?

It is a privilege and an honor to stand in this spot each week and bring you a message that not only uplifts but also convicts. It is always my prayer that the words that I hope God gives me move us to action of some kind in our personal lives or the world at large. A preaching mentor told me that the sermon should make people uncomfortable and squirm a little. We are supposed to preach what we need to hear and just what we want to hear.

But standing here each week is also a great responsibility, and I try not to take that lightly. All through history preachers have used their words for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. Our prayer that the words we speak not only here at this moment, but later today and continuing, will be words that are acceptable to God.

Words have immense power that can build someone up, offer them hope and comfort or can shatter their world and cause irreparable harm. Because of the damage that can be done by our words, it is essential for us to have custody of our words. There are very few examples in Scripture of Jesus making fun of someone or otherwise putting them down. Even when Jesus was “dressing someone down” his words were from a pure heart with the intent of making corrections to build up and not to break down. Although he had stern words for people they were always spoken in love, I am not sure I can say that about my words.

The words that the writer of this verse uses come from deep within himself, from his heart, the place where thoughts form and fester if you will.  The Psalmist is asking the God purify his heart so that his words will also be pure.

From a psychological perspective, we do not say things by mistake or say things we do not mean. For us to speak we have to have thoughts, so if we say a cruel or hurtful thing to someone that thought was born and took root in our hearts and our minds. We have control, or at least we should, over the things we say, and that is Psalmist prayer today, that just because the thought has formed does not mean we have to speak it. He is asking for God’s protection from himself!

There is an old saying, “engage brain before opening mouth.” I know I am guilty of saying something that should not have been said or perhaps said something that needed to be said but said it wrong like the Psalmist my prayer is that God will protect me from myself and purify my heart, so my words build up and not break down.

In a few moments, we will symbolically gather around that table and reenact of you will, a very intimate time that Jesus had with his followers. Among them was the person that would turn him in as well as the one who would deny him and they all abandoned him when he needed them the most. But knowing this he still gave himself to them in the bread and wine.

My faith teaches me that it is not so much about what happens if anything, with the bread and the wine but what happens with us at that moment. Theologians have argued for generations whether the bread and wine are transformed, but the question we should be asking is, are we changed?

As we continue this service and the meeting that follows let us keep in mind the prayer we say and the prayer of the Psalmist that the words of our mouths and the what we hold deep in our hearts may be acceptable in the sight of God. We invite him into our lives to change us not to change him.

Let our closing prayer be the same as the one we used to open:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer.

I am compelled to speak

At least once a week I get a comment on a Facebook or Twitter post saying that as clergy I should not comment on political things as there is a separation of church and state. I have also been told by church members that I should remain neutral when it comes to hot-button topics like poverty, white supremacy, gun control, etc. so as not to upset people. My usual response is thank you for your comment, but no, I will not remain silent. My faith compels me to speak and my question is why doesn’t it also compel you?

To the first type of comment about separation of church and state, these comments usually come from people who a. disagree with my comments and b. do not understand what separation of church and state mean. I also remind them that I did not surrender my citizenship when I was ordained.

To the church member, I remind them that Jesus was not neutral on much of anything and as a follower of Jesus Christ I am imitating what he did.

Historically, the pulpit has been the place where revolutions have begun. The American Revolution was preached from pulpits all over New England, and I would argue, was the catalyst. Abolitionism and the end of slavery were preached from many New England pulpits including the one I preach from now! At most high and low points of American history, the pulpit was used to rally the troops if you will.

Now with all of that said, when preaching, I stick to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I never have, as far as I can remember, ever mentioned the name of a politician from the pulpit and I do not have too. Jesus preached love of everyone but also did not hesitate in calling out people who were not living up to what they were preaching, and that is what I do. Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ political, it sure is.

I have often said that my job as a preacher is to make you uncomfortable. I am not here to preach what you want to hear, some milk toast sermon about how wonderful we all are, nope, my job is to move you, compel you to take action in your own lives as well as in the world. We are the hands and feet and voice of those who have no voice, the marginalized in our society that is our job and we need to get better at it.

Sermon: God’s Loving Paths

Psalm 25:1-22

 

It was not long ago that we were wishing each other a Merry Christmas and celebrating the birth of the Christ Child and now we have begun the season of Lent. We start this season with the reminder that we are mortals and that all of this is going to end. On Ash Wednesday we hear the words “remember thou are dust and to dust thou shall return.” This is not to put us under some cloud but to make us understand that the time we have here on this earth is finite.

Lent calls us to a time of deep spirituality, or a more profound sense of spirituality, as we prepare for that awesome day of the Resurrection. In some ways, Lent forces to focus on the events of Good Friday but I like to push through those events to the Resurrection keeping in mind that to get to Sunday we have to go through Friday.  We need to acknowledge those events, but we do not have to dwell there.

Over the next few weeks, I will be preaching from the Psalms. The Psalms are an exciting part of the Scripture. Unlike most of the book of the Bible, the Psalms are not written to any one person and are intensely personal. Most of them are prayers, and the early church used them as such in the daily prayers. The Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions still use them for the clergy and others in daily prayer. Some of the Psalms are laments while others are joyful but, they are a stream of consciousness by the writer who is wrestling with something and often takes his anger to God.

Psalm 25 underlines that the season of Lent is a sustained process in relationship with God. It also speaks to the reality of the struggle against enemies and is bound up with hearing and appropriating the teaching of the Lord over time.

But what are these enemies that the Psalmist writes about?

There are two types of enemies being confronted here, the obvious are the external enemies those who are out to get us or have declared war against us, but the other is more subtle, the enemies from within.

This past week we have, once again, come face to face with evil in the murder of 17 innocent children and teachers just going about their day. Evil picked up a weapon that has no other purpose but to kill and did just that. Evil was trained by other who hate those who are different and instructed him well. It did not take long for excuses to begin and fingers to be pointed and cry that it is “too soon” to discuss gun violence or who we might prevent it but the problem is there is no time in between these acts of evil to have that discussion as they have become all too familiar.

The enemy that is within is the enemy that says my rights are more important than others, or the voice that refuses to compromise, on any side of an issue, and therefore paralyzes us to working something out. When we entrench ourselves in our corners, we are unable to hear what the other person is saying. When we are so rigid in our beliefs, we think we are the only ones that are right, and that is a lie of the greatest magnitude.

In the days of the early church, there was a controversy between Peter and Paul about how Jewish this new way would have to be, and the issue was around circumcision, did the gentiles have to be circumcised like the Jews? A council was called in Jerusalem, and both sides of the issue were heard, and a decision was made. The entirety of the body of theology that we have today was decided by compromise and the best information available at that moment. The ability to listen to others and change the way we believe about an issue or issues is rooted in the tradition of the church.

With all of that said the biggest internal enemy is anger and there is a lot of that.

It has been said that emotions are irrational, all emotions and that we should not make decisions when we are emotional. Emotions blind us to reality and even the truth. Anger can be useful as it moves us to exact change, but only after the emotion has worn off. I do not doubt that the evil that was unleashed in the hallways of that school in Florida was caused by anger. What caused that anger is a matter of debate, was it a mental illness, probably as a sane person does not do such a thing, or was the anger caused by an external force, the white supremacist group he belongs too, perhaps it is both.

The Palmist is pleading with God to protect him from his enemies, and that should be our prayer as well. He does not wish them to harm only that they are exposed for what they are. But he ends this particular passage with the prayer:

Make me know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you, I wait all day long. (v 4-5)

This should always be our prayer not only during this season of Lent but always.

Prayer is a Verb

So here we are again, another mass shooting and more thoughts and prayers being sent all around. Now don’t get me wrong, thoughts and prayers are good I mean I wrote a book about prayer and its effectiveness, but prayer requires action and action are what is needed right now.

There are many examples in scripture of Jesus, going off on his own, and praying. Many times this happens after a stressful situation or right before he is about to do something big, but his prayer was always followed by action.  When Jesus heard of the death of his friend Lazarus he did not send Mary and Martha his thoughts and prayers. He prayed and then he got up and went and raised him from the dead. When Jesus heard about Peter’s mother-in-law he did not send her his thoughts and prayers, he prayed, got up, and went and healed her. He prayed and then he acted.

I am a firm believer in the power of prayer, but I am also aware of the fact that God gave us brains and hands and feet and a voice to make things happen. We are called to Go, to do, to speak, to love, to act, to feed, to comfort all of these are actions, and we need to start working.

Being a Christian is more than sending thoughts and prayers and going to church on Sunday. Being a Christian means to be a disruption to a society that has gone off the rails. Being a Christian means to speak truth to power. Being a Christian means putting yourself on the line for others and not worry about the consequences.

Now that we have all sent our thoughts and prayers it is time to act!

Tribute for My Mother

My mother died on Thursday, February 8th and today, February 13th was her funeral. This is the sermon I preached on that occasion. 

I would like to begin this morning’s reflection with a word of thanks. On behalf of my father, my brothers and sister-in-law, the grandchildren and I thank you all for not only being here today but for being with us these last days as we begin the process of healing. It is so lovely to see all of you here and to have read all of the amazing messages in the cards you sent and the messages posted on the Facebook.

But I need to add a very personal note of thanks to my darling wife, Nicky. I would not have been able to get through these last few days without you, and I am so glad you are a part of my life and a part of this amazing family. Thanks for saying yes!

I hope you will grant me a few moments of reflection here this morning, it might be a little longer than usual, but it is always dangerous when you give a preacher the microphone. I cannot count the number of funerals I have presided over, but this one has to be the hardest. Someone asked me how I could do it and my response is it is what I do, and it is what she wanted me to do. Where does my strength come from? I turn to Psalm 121, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Rituals are important. We all have them, and we have all participated in them. Think about our lives, they all revolve around one ritual or another; even our morning routine can be considered a ritual. We have rituals for beginnings, and we have rituals for endings. We have rituals for the start of life and, what beings us here today, rituals for the end of life.

The other day as the family gathered at home we grew up in, we had the ritual of going through the pictures to prepare the video that was being played at the wake last night. Going through boxes of photos and photo albums was an amazing thing and were able to tell stories and have good memories. Rituals are important.

When I was in the Orthodox Church, at the end of every funeral or memorial service, we would sing Memory Eternal. I will spare you my singing voice today, but the reason this was sung and the reason we would say may their memory be eternal, is to remind us that it is up to us to not forget those who have gone before us. Sure there will be pain we when have memories and moments of intense grief, but I believe all of those who have gone before us are always with us in our minds and our hearts. We keep them alive if you will, with the stories and the memories that we share and the private ones.

But, this ritual today is not for my mother. I know it sounds like a cliché but she is in a “better place.” My faith teaches me, and this is my faith, and it works for me, my faith teaches me that she is now truly in a better place because she is not here and having to deal with the pain. For her, that part of her life has ended. But my faith also teaches me that she is with all of those who have gone before us. She is playing scrabble with her sister Jackie or sitting around a table working on another piece of ceramics. By the way, Jacob and Julia, you are going to have to replace her at Eileen’s ceramic shop. Today this ritual is for us, a time to grieve and a time to celebrate.

But my faith also teaches me that she has been welcomed into that place and is in the arms of her savior and that she heard those words we all long to hear “well done good and faithful servant.” I know this has to be true, she raised four boys and had to deal with all of us, not me, of course, I was an angel. But if that is not a ticket in I do not know what is!

But let’s talk about faith for a moment. Any of you who know me or have heard me preach you know that most of what I preach, teach, believe, and act follows two simple rules; love God and love your neighbor. My mother lived this in her life, and that is where I learned it. Sure, I went to seminary, and all of that but my belief comes from watching her in her life she loved her God, and she loved and cared for her neighbor. And she did unconditionally. My mother respected everyone; my mother respected the choices everyone made. She may not have always agreed with them, but she respected them.

Faith was important to my mother, and she taught all of her sons to respect faith, but she also told us that we had to make our own decisions. Her faith was her faith, and it worked for her that did not mean it would work for us and we have become, well, a somewhat eclectic faith family. But I remember the day I told her I had been accepted to seminary. She had a big smile on her face, and she said that could not wait to see me standing in the pulpit at Most Blessed Sacrament Church, well, here I am! Maybe not the way she wanted me to but…

And let’s talk about this place a little. This building that formed our young lives. Most of my family were baptized here, received our d first spoke to me and called me to serve Him in ministry. This is a unique place, and it is good that we are here today in this place that she loved.

So how does one sum up 84 years of life? I have been thinking about this for several days, and it came to me last night as I was standing in line at the wake. I can sum up my mother’s life just by looking out at all of you and the hundreds that came to the wake last night. When I preach, I often use the image of the pebble being dropped into the lake and the ripples going out. We saw ripples last night and have been hearing from people all over about how my mother touched their lives in big ways and in small. I shook so many hands last night I thought I was running for office! But what an amazing tribute and I thank all of you again.

Family was important to my mother. She came from a rather large family, there were 10 of them all together, and the family has gotten a little larger since then. As each of her sisters and their families moved away, she stayed in contact with them. Every now and again when one of the cousins was getting married, she would load us all in the car, and we would head off on some journey. Many times it was like National Lampoons Vacation, but we always arrived, and we always returned.

But the last few years she was able to connect with the vast extended family via Facebook, and she loved sitting at the table in the morning looking at all of the pictures and reading about what was going on in their lives. She did not make many comments, but she read everything and was genuinely interested in everyone’s lives. Many of the “out of town” relatives, as we call them, have come today, from both sides of the family and I am sure she has a big smile on her face knowing that we are all here. She was so looking forward to the reunion in Tennessee this summer.

So now we begin the task of life without. It has been said that we never get over it, but we just get used to them not being there and eventually the smile and the laughs will return. My mother had a good run, and she lived her life to the fullest. If there is one lesson that we should learn is that life is short, yes 84 years is short, hug those that need hugs, love those who need love, forgive those that need forgiving and live life today for we have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Let us pray:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Core Issues and Casting a Vision

For any organization to grow, they need to cast a vision. The process of determining that vision can be tedious but the result, hopefully, will set that group up for success and the church is no different.

Churches that have a vision, and that the membership has bought into, are churches that grow. The vision takes times to create and has to be more than just a vision or mission statement. Statements without action are just empty words and lead to nothing in the end. Correct vision takes time, and honesty to create.

The church is no different than other organizations when it comes to conflict and other problems, but we are not always interested in facing them head on and working to correct what is not working. Not everything we try is going to work, and we have to face the truth when it does not, and yes, sometimes they are sacred cows.

One of the many blogs I read is The Unstuck Group. This group helps churches that are stuck get unstuck. Tony Morgan has written a blog post, “The 5 Most Common Core Issues Churches Face Today.” (link) In this post, Morgan writes about the things that hold a church back from being the church that God wants them to be. These core issues are not easy to admit, but unless we do we will never become what God wants us to be, I would say the same is true in our personal lives.

Morgan lists five of the most common, and I would add a sixth, leadership. Not all leaders are equipped to lead and sell the vision. The people of the church create the vision but it is up to the leadership, both clergy and lay, to cast that vision and not all leaders are created equal.

“The 5 Most Common Core Issues Churches Face Today” is a great short piece that is well worth the read.