Thursday, October 25, 2007

Touch Points

Most people think that preachers only work one day a week. That would be Sunday. For most of you, that’s the day that you get all dressed up to see us do our job. And, hope we get it done before Kick Off time. If we do our job correctly you’ll remember something more than just the handshake after the service. It is something we hope for, but do not expect.

Since Sunday morning is the only time I have to spend with you, I like to be prepared. So, I spend the other days of the week working on that one product of my work that you see. I try to fit it in between visitations, committee meetings, and potlucks. You don’t know how lucky you are to be sheltered from these various commitments. I do spend and have spent many an hour in reflective thought for each sermon I write. You may not think so after hearing me every week, but it’s true. Every Sunday I prepare a sermon based on readings, thought and experience and then attempt to distill it into concrete building blocks with some universal, common basis that will touch everyone in some way. It is not an exact science. Some Sundays I am better at it than others. Some Sundays I reach people and some Sundays I teach myself more than I can hope to impart to others. Some Sundays the message is entirely for me.

It occurred to me to that each of my sermons represents moments of my life that come together as cornerstones of my own faith. The stories and teachings I share with you have been built upon a foundation of life and living that has shaped the person I have become and ever strive to be. Given that thought, I tried to think about the precipitating moments, touch points, in my past that gave rise to these sermons. So, each of these is special to me and I have endeavored to give you the background that made them so, to help you understand their deeper significance.

But, the odd thing about putting my finger on the origin of thought for these sermons went right past the liturgy that provided context for the sermon, right past the immediate reflections on the topic, right past my seminary studies, and fell right into seemingly unrelated bits of my past. Following these threads was so interesting and such a cathartic experience for me that I have tried to give you context for the precipitating moments, not so you can re-live my life with me, but so you can see that the origins of faith are just as varied as there are people and just as valid for you as for me. There is no right path.

The Radishes

I was a small child growing up in the mid west in the thirties. The wind blew hard and the snow was cold and drifted deep at times. The wind whistled through the tiny three room cabin we called home. It wasn’t much of a cabin, more of a shack really. My brothers and I slept crosswise on the same bed and let our feet hang over because there wasn’t any room to curl them up under us. Dad didn’t complain about the cold, he just worked the fields, and ran errands for Mr. Fred, who ran the local feed store. I never remember seeing my dad without his jacket on when the days got short.

We had enough money to get by. I never thought about it. Mom worked hard making our home comfortable and keeping the place filled with the smell of stew cooking in the hearth pot. She made bread a couple of times a week. Sometimes she would make special little finger loaves that she drizzled butter on and sprinkled with a little cinnamon. Not much of a treat by today’s standards, but my closest brother and I would race home from the school yard on baking days to see if Mom had made any. I never remember being hungry.

I don’t know what we would have done if I had had a sister. There didn’t seem to be any place to keep her. My brothers and I shared the bed that was in the main room. My parents had the bedroom. The third room was a kind of a tiny storage/work room, almost a closet. It was hardly big enough for a bed -- ours wouldn’t have fit in there. It contained the quilting stuff my mom was always working on, and Dad’s projects. I don’t know what all he worked on, but it was always mechanical. He would drag these contraptions out of the closet room to work on them. I never knew what they did, or what they were for, but I guess they were the key to Dad’s elusive fortune. It, the fortune, was real good at eluding us because we never had much in the way of luxuries, or spare time. And, we didn’t have anyplace to put a sister.

It must have been hard for Mom and Dad. I remember other kids having things that were new sometimes, but I never thought twice about wearing a hand-me-down coat or shirt. It was always a great day when I got handed something new to wear. There was always some sort of work or chores that had to be done. There wasn’t much time to think about it. When we got time to play, there was always fun to have chasing bugs, or throwing rocks. If it was hard, Mom and Dad didn’t say anything about it. It was hard for everybody around us. That was just normal. Looking back on how we lived and what we had, I never thought about what I didn’t have.

The church was across the road from the one building that was the post office/gas station/general store. Mr. Fred’s feed store was next to a big open field that lay between the post office and the feed store. The church was all by itself on a little corner of Mr. Willard’s property. I always thought he owned the church, but he didn’t ever have much to do with it. I thought that was odd.

The church building itself was small. Its clapboard siding was painted white, and it was pretty dark when you got inside. There was a small pump organ in the front corner of the one room and probably 10 rows of short pews on both sides of a center isle. It was kind of a loud building inside. Mr. Willard’s winter wheat surrounded it on the outside. I can’t remember what else he grew. The church building was used for Sundays, of course, but I also remember it being used for town meetings and such. Those other meetings always seemed like a big deal to everybody, but I could never figure out why. They didn’t mean much to me.

This story is really about this church and my connection to it. I can’t remember what the preacher looked like. He never made much of an impression on me. I remember one time when the plate was passed down our pew. I don’t remember any sermons, but I remember that plate being passed. I don’t know who it was in front of us who did it -- it didn’t matter much to me at the time, but it sure seems funny to me now. When the plate came down our pew I saw Daddy put some coins in and heard them tinkle on the plate, but the sound was stifled a little by something else in there. The sound was different and that’s what I remember. I remember the sound. As he passed the plate across me, I was looking about nose high at a little bag of radishes.

I spent almost the whole time sitting there that Sunday wondering how Jesus was going to use those radishes for some miracle. I sure didn’t remember any bible stories with radishes in them. It was sometime later that I asked Mom about it and she said she hadn’t noticed anything special, but she did say that we each give what we can to do the lord’s work. It was one of those answers that wasn’t very satisfying, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to ask so I let it go.

Over the years I have told this little radish story about a thousand times. It never ceases to provide me with smile. It has also never let me go. I never did like my mother’s answer, but I sure haven’t been able to come up with a better one.

In the many years since, I have learned that God can and does use anything we have to give Him.

What do you put in the plate?

Sermon: “On Stewardship”

When we hear talk about stewardship from the pulpit, we usually think of money. Heavy sighs fill the room, arms and legs get crossed, and the charitable mood that you started the day with disappears uncomfortably, and you hope it will end soon. I usually think about radishes, but that’s my own story.

Well, this is about stewardship, but I don’t want to talk about money. I want to pretend that we did a good job on the budget for this year. It is balanced with your pledges. We have designed the spending to fall within the estimates of giving and other predictable income. It is a very comfortable position to be in…for a change. It means that our programs are set for the year and we can focus on other aspects of Christian living. I want to talk about what that can mean.

It was Winston Churchill who said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. “ He wasn’t just talking about money. The church is a place, a charitable community of faith, which provides for us and fulfills our needs, whatever they may be. The church is a place that will continue to provide for us as long as we do our part. That is: we give cheerfully merely what we can. If you have wealth, give wealth; if you have time, give time; if you have talent, give the church your talent. If you have only need, take from us what you need – it’s yours.

God gives us what we have. What we give is who we are.

Most of us know what it is like to need. Most of us have had to rely on others to help us through some crisis in our lives. A lot of us have been very fortunate to have had those crises limited to not knowing answer on an exam, or having a flat tire, or a dead battery. Maybe you’ve forgotten to bring lunch money one day. If you have ever been stuck on the side of the road, you understand need. Maybe the word “crisis” is a little melodramatic, but you will likely never know the impact a small gift might have on someone in need. But, understanding need and doing something about it are two vastly different problems.

We have all had the shoe on the other foot. We have all driven by that poor schmuck on the side of the road. How quickly we forget what that feels like. These are trying times, of course. It is dangerous to stop for any reason, to help anybody. I don’t want you to start feeling guilty about that. It’s another preacher’s job to try and preach a twenty first century sermon on the Good Samaritan and have us all feel warm, fuzzy, and responsible about that kind of obligation. I can’t do that so I’m not even going to try. But, I can talk about us, here in the comfort and relative safety of the church. The process of stewardship begins here. Giving begins here. If we cannot even recognize the gift of abundance we have in our own lives, why would we be inclined to give back? The fact is all of us know what it’s like to need, or be needy, that’s why we give.

If you aren’t poor enough to take charity, you are rich enough to give it. Appreciate your circumstance. What can you offer? How can you participate? I know and you know that we all have a need to give back. That’s why we buy Girl Scout cookies and we give to the Salvation Army. That’s why we donate blood. That’s why we fill out estimate of giving cards. That’s why we give to the food bank and save newspapers for the Boy Scout paper drives. That’s why we volunteer to be a little league coach, or a team mom. That’s why we teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, or drive our kids all over town for soccer. That’s why we raise our children with the love and grace that we do. We give unconditionally in some way, shape, or form almost everyday. Sometimes we do it because we have to. Sometimes we do it because we want to. But, all the while we do it because we feel a sense of need to do it.

And you know that when your needs change and this carefully planned life you’re living takes an unexpected turn, the church is there to give back. That is stewardship. Be a part of it. Take part in it. Think about stewardship as an active part of your life and all the ways that you can contribute. You can’t begin to know all the ways it will help. You just might get so wrapped up in being a good steward of your faith that your own needs fall away. It is often said that God gives us no burden that we cannot bear, but perhaps it is that with every burden we accept, the load feels lighter. With every community of faith the shared burdens of us all are carried on the whisper of God’s voice. There is always someone that seems worse off than we are, someone that we can help.

The other day I found myself pondering on and thinking about how very delicate this balance between life and misfortune is. It is how we handle it that makes a difference, not only in our own lives, but those lives we intersect along the way. I had just heard from an old friend whose wife had died a year earlier after a sudden, but somewhat lingering illness. I had written him just to touch base and to enquire as to his own health and how his own healing process was coming along. His emailed response to me was the source of all my ponderings. As I read his note, I was left empty without appetite. I cannot help but appreciate my own circumstance, but clearly I don’t appreciate it enough.

He told me this story: He had known this friend of his their whole lives. This friend’s wife had been cheating on him with a neighbor and now the two households were in shambles. My friend had been consoling his near suicidal buddy through this trauma as his own life began to destruct when his own wife was diagnosed. He and his friend had been stalwart through the years, supporting each other in low times and regaling each other in times of plenty. Now they were in similar circumstances for entirely different reasons. There were also other friends in his circle who were in poor and failing health who would not recover, some with young children. It seemed to him that his whole world was collapsing around him. He was overwhelmed by his own empathy for this coincidental and tragic point in his community of friends and acquaintances.

I responded immediately with a phone call. Yes, it was a shame for your friend and his wife to have invested that much time together and have it end in such profound disappointment. But for you to have held him up (as I’m sure he has done for you since) through your own trials with Betty cannot have been easy. There are explainable, definable, albeit undesirable reasons for your own circumstance, but none that can make any sense for his. We are not to even try and make sense of it.

At times, it is easy to think that the whole world is against us. As for the other tragedies occurring in the lives of those around him, I told him that there is no grand conspiracy. All of life is like the ocean at its shore; there are ebbs and flows. That’s just the way things are. Death of a gull means life to the sand fleas.

As we talked, my friend stepped back from his brink and breathed again. He mentioned that old poem of the footprints in the sand (about as theological as most people get) and remarked that in retrospect, he couldn’t tell who was carrying who. I told him that God makes it that way on purpose. He is there to see that we carry our own weight, but that our burdens don’t crush us.

Age targets us. I just spent an hour on the phone last night sparing with a life insurance salesman who has been doggedly persistent. That, and this serendipitous contact with my friend, has brought into focus this “other side of life” that I would just as soon ignore. I know that as a preacher I have to deal with death and dying as a regular part of the life of my congregation, but, I have never, until now, associated aging with the emotional content that is so much a part of what my friend was experiencing. His perspective brought it home to me.

For me there is little, nor has there ever been much in the last 25 years, emotional pain in our family. There have been no storms of consequence to weather, no empty places at the table, no cold side of the bed, no words like “profound” and “hollow” that ring as easy descriptions or explanations for the places we have been. I know that I have been blessed and I am very, very grateful for my own circumstance, but make no mistake; I realize that both good fortune and bad are separated only by a single heartbeat. There, but for the grace of God…. How fragile these lives we lead!

It is important to realize that in the course of daily living, concern for our own welfare is almost always misplaced. We can choose to be anxious for ourselves, but it is not something that God is going to do anything about. He doesn’t work that way. What he does say is that he will carry our burdens and we should focus our concern on those around us. Look around you, see where there is need, involve yourself in addressing the needs of others, and you might find that you notice your own needs don’t seem so important.

Luke 12: 22-34

Do Not Worry
22Then Jesus said to his disciples: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[b]? 26Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
27"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
32"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus often talked of giving of yourself, turning the other cheek to insult, loving your neighbor as yourself. All of these things are about stewardship. It is not always about money. A tithe is a wonderful thing, and God will bless those who are able, but for those who don’t feel they are, there is nothing to feel guilty about. God will not bless you less. Not recognizing need in others is a reason to feel guilty. Not giving your time and talent to those who can clearly benefit from them is a reason to feel guilty. Not reaching out to touch others with the word and work of Jesus Christ is a reason to feel guilty. Hiding your faith in the presence of others is a reason to feel guilty. You can have lots of things to feel guilty about; don’t let money be one of them.

Stewardship is not about guilt. It is not about money. It is not about recognition for all your good deeds. It is about relief from your own trials and burdens. It is about giving, caring, sharing, loving. In even the darkest recesses of our lives and in our most dour circumstances are we carried by the grace of God. If our burdens are never so big we can’t handle them, perhaps we can help someone else with theirs. Recognize your need to give. Give what you feel, take what you must, and this community of faith will be a better place for us all.

Now, here is some unfortunate news for those of you who can and do tithe, God will not make your load less burdensome. He will not make your road less rocky, nor your life longer, nor your health better, nor your vision more clear. He will not give you fame. He will not fill your bank account. If you end up financially better off than when you started, more power to you. There are plenty of people who tithe for whom life is not easy. There are plenty of people who tithe and never win the lottery. That old bumper sticker is more prophetic than any of us religious types would like to believe, “Life is hard, then you die.” It is the trick of living a satisfying life that makes it all worthwhile; that and God’s promise of eternal life.

What God will do is bless you and your stewardship with a sense of peace in your life that you cannot get any other way. The ability to recognize your own need to give turns the focus of your life away from the hardship of living to the joy of helping others live. From this perspective, money is secondary, and the recommendation to tithe is merely a caution to you to not give it all away just because you feel so good when you do it.

Luke would tell you that even giving all your possessions away is Okay too. God will provide. We should not be so attached to what we manage to accumulate in our lives. After all, we can’t take it with us, and in our society we rely on the kindly disposition of those around us to recognize our ownership and not take it from us. Unlike biblical times, we do not rely on our sons to provide for us in the future; or our kings to conquer our neighbors, or to protect us from them when they try to conquer us. We must depend less on our progeny and more on our ingenuity, and propensity to save. But, God says that we needn’t worry about even these things.

32"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We live and die with our hearts. What makes you feel good about how you spend your life? Is it business, philanthropy, toys, music, teaching, nurturing your children, travel? I don’t know what it is for you, but I remember a conversation with my dad, who was worried about spending my inheritance because he was living so long. I told him that I hoped when he died, his last nickel should roll out from his clenched fist, and his expression would be a big, broad smile. Because, he could be secure in knowing that he had done it exactly right. We might never die happy, but we can be satisfied when we go.

It is time for a reality check on where your treasure is. We survive by our wallets, but they’ll be on the nightstand when we die.

The Christian Need

A single relationship with God is very different. Through Him we understand commitment and we use that understanding to enrich the other relationships in our lives. Through Him we understand forgiveness and we use that understanding to know how far we must come in our walk to be more forgiving of ourselves. Through Him we understand grace and we use that understanding to realize the depth of our humbleness. Through Him we understand that all things are possible and few things are sure, that time is not our own, nor will life be easy. But, we need not walk it alone.

Mr. Willard’s whole name was Willard Frederick. He was a farmer from a family of farmers, who settled our little part of the world long before we got there to occupy our little cabin. He didn’t have much use for people that didn’t hold the land in high esteem. He didn’t like people who weren’t farmers and he didn’t have much time for people who were. They didn’t have much time for him either, so it worked out well.

Mr. Willard has stayed in my mind for these many years I think because of his solitary dedication to making his life bearable for himself. He was gruff and quiet and didn’t have much to do with anybody that I ever saw. But there was softness there when it came to my brothers and me. He started out being scary, but ended up being kind of an Uncle.

He was gruff, but he was all right to us kids. He either didn’t have any, or they had long since grown up and gone. He would let us play in the fields as long as we minded the rows and were careful of the crop. We knew better than to mess with his or anybody’s livelihood and Mr. Willard thought that we showed enough of the proper respect for farming. Occasionally, when he was working on one of his plows he would stop the tractor so we could see it up close. He would climb back up on his seat, fire it up and grin as we ran from the rattling and rumbling of that engine bellowing back to life.

My daddy worked for him sometimes, but mostly for the other farmers in the area. We had come here in the middle of the harvesting season and Dad had started on with the first farmer he met. It wasn’t Mr. Willard. Dad always talked about loyalty and practiced it religiously. He was a hard worker and was respected for it. That’s probably why he never lacked for work. We never had too much money, but Dad was always working. He wouldn’t play the farmers for wages. He was loyal and honored his own pecking order of employers. I guess they all knew what it was too.

Mr. Willard’s wife had died long before I knew him. Behind the Church was a small yard surrounded by a ring of stones. She was buried there. I know because that’s what daddy said. There wasn’t any marker there, but it was always kept up nicely and sometimes there were picked flowers lying right on the ground. We kids all knew to be respectful of the space. I am surprised when I think back on it now that we didn’t think of ghoulish and ghostly thoughts about Mr. Willard’s wife lying there. I guess it just wasn’t that kind of grave.

She was buried there so she could hear that pump organ grinding away. The town built that church where Mrs. Frederick told them they could. Mr. Willard must have thought it was okay because it was his farm. She had brought that organ out with her years ago. Mr. Willard made sure it ended up in the church and that she ended up where she could spend her eternity listening to it. I never saw Mr. Willard at church on Sundays. Sometimes you could see him slipping in or out of the building at the end of a day. I think he planned to finish up a row at this end of his property or adjust his plow every so often, just so he could find some excuse to go in the church.

It was really Mr. Willard who built that church, though nobody ever came right out and said so. It was Mr. Willard who buried his wife in the shadow of that building. It was Mr. Willard who kept to himself and let this little town grow up around him. He helped it when he could, but stayed quiet about it. He wasn’t rich, but he was better off than most. Sometimes when we came to church on Sundays, I would find money on the pew; already there. It hadn’t been misplaced or fallen from someone’s pocket. My mom would scoop it up and put it in the plate. I saw times when other parents would sit down on it and let the plate pass. The Lord let them have it without a fight. It was a good lesson for me, to let people judge their own need. I think it was Mr. Willard who would leave the money. Maybe that was what he needed to do.

Although Willard Frederick kept himself hidden, he was a quiet helper, a steward of the faith. The Gospels tell us to be disciples of the Word, to trumpet the Lord and his coming, to be public witnesses of our faith. But, God uses us all regardless of our gifts. Mr. Willard was a rock in the foundation of my faith. He has been as much a part in my Christian walk as anyone I’ve met in these intervening years. His memory has been the source of many lessons to me; the quiet and hard nature of his life was the backdrop for the simple, unassuming graciousness of his living. It was certainly Mr. Willard who inspired the thought behind this sermon.

Sermon: Hide in Plain Sight

The first reading is from Mathew 26:31- 35, subtitled Jesus Predicts Peter's Denial. This was Jesus’ conversation with Peter at the last supper.

31Then Jesus told them, "This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:
" 'I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'[3] 32But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee."
33Peter replied, "Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will."
34"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times."
35But Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the other disciples said the same.

John 5: 1-9 The Healing at the Pool

1Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 2Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[1] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3Here a great number of disabled people used to lie--the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.[2] 5One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"
7"Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me."
8Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." 9At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

May God bless the reading of His Word.

You know, there are probably a few people still left who think the world is flat; that we’ve never been to the moon; that no Jews died at the hand of Hitler; that Stalin was a nice guy; that the moon is made of cheese; that the world conspires against them; that Chevy’s are inherently better than Fords (and vice versa), and, that the Dodgers are God’s team. We can only imagine that the truth these people are hiding from is more painful than the comfortable weave of the fabrications they’ve wrapped themselves in.

These, of course, are extreme examples, but everyone seems to be hiding from something -- even if it’s only the truth.

I even think most of us come here hiding. Oh, we know we need something, or someone, but we are stuck in the quandary of how much of ourselves do we have to expose to get it -- whatever “it” is. It is less about hiding something as it is about hiding from something. We want to minimize exposure and maximize gain. This is simply risk management. It is the natural law of supply and demand. It is capitalism at its finest. Ah, this is our church.

Hiding. We are all good at it in our own respective fashion. We all have different ways of doing it, too. Most people, particularly died in the wool Presbyterians, think that to hide effectively one must sit in the back pews or, in the same comfortable pew week after week. “This is my spot.” “Your expectations are for me to be here.” “My obligation is to be here.” “I recognize the heads in front of me.” “They’re comfortable heads – safe heads.” “I can hear better from here.” At the Riverside Presbyterian Church in New York City, they have even institutionalized this to some degree by having brass nametags on the pews so people who have a little money and enjoy their own emotional comfort can buy a little discomfort for those who sit in the “wrong” place.

You can hide by looking down and crossing your arms and legs, resting your chin on your chest; pretending to sleep through the sermon; by having that look of innocent denial spread across your face, by laughing in all the right places, by not laughing in all the right places; coming in late; coming in early; not coming to church at all; having lots of money and spending it lavishly; or by having lots of money and not spending it. Not having any money and living on the street. Losing yourself to drugs and addictions; staying out late; going to bed early; sleeping too long; dressing like everyone else; or staying with paisley bow ties; singing louder than everyone else, or by not singing. All of these devices work. There are a million ways, places and reasons to hide in the naked city.

Just for the record and to share the wisdom of my years, I am going to let you in on some hiding secrets. These are ones that I have perfected over the years and can guarantee to you that they work.

My qualifications: I am an introvert, a professional social hider, and I’m good at it. Although I’ve been at this church for almost 20 years, for good or bad, I don’t know very many of you very well. That is a sad legacy I must say. I tend your needs and cares, but I don’t really know you like I should. But, the flip side of that coin is that very few of you know me either. Oh, you all know my wife. She is very outgoing and friendly. Some of you might think that we’re a lot alike just because she is the way she is. The ones of you giggling obviously know otherwise.

I stand away from people most of the time. Crowds make me anxious. Kids make me nervous. Oh, I can tolerate my own kids; it’s yours I have the problem with. I often make people feel uncomfortable because I don’t have much to say. That is to say, I don’t know how exactly to say what I would want to say, if I wanted to say anything. I often hesitate to shake hands, but not for any particular reason. I mean no offence. I have often said to those who have taken the time and risk to get to know me that I like people, it just meeting them I can’t stand. Odd for a preacher, eh?

So here is the first secret to hiding successfully.

Don’t sit in the back of the class.

As I stand up here, where do you think it is easiest for me to look? I’m not looking in the front pews. In public speaking, they teach you to look over the heads of your audience and speak to the back of the room. Just where you’ve gone to hide! When I was teaching at University, the inattentive students always sat in the back row. It is almost universal that students do this, and a universally incorrect notion that the teachers’ attention is not focused directly on them. On you.

Peter must have been sitting on the back pew at the Last Supper. As much as he loved Jesus, he just wanted to hide. As much as he wanted to sacrifice for Jesus, he was not ready. He knew that. His doubt ate at him. He pretended not to hide by protesting louder than anyone else. But just as surely that Jesus knew he was going to lie, Peter knew it too. He needed to hide.

In those days before the last supper, he lived with the guilt of his doubt again and again. I’m sure that his stomach knotted, his throat tightened, and his face flushed when Jesus told him the truth. Of course, the seed of this doubt had been planted much earlier. It was Peter whom Jesus called to come to him on the water. Bold Peter stepped from the boat with confidence and realized after a step or two just how small, and how human he was next to the man he so loved and admired. And, he wanted to hide. He began doubt himself, and sink, and he cried out for Jesus to save him.

At the last supper, he knew. He knew that he was hiding. And, as much as Jesus wanted Peter to shine His light, he knew that before the cock crowed, Peter would be hiding behind denial. Peter knew it too, and it made him feel small.

But why do we hide?

There are only a few reasons to hide, but they are very good ones. You either hide from fear of others, from fear of loss, or from fear of yourself. Peter hit two out of three.

Adam and Eve hid after the apple because they knew right from wrong was now a reality. It hadn’t been an issue before the forbidden fruit. “Wrong” had had no meaning, no context before. Now it was real. The consequences were real. I know the bible says it was because they knew they were naked. I think that was poetic license. I think it was because they knew they screwed up. They were afraid and wanted to hide.

There were lots of reasons for people to be afraid in the Bible. In the Bible’s compressed history, when people weren’t “begetting” other people, they were usually fighting somebody, especially in the Old Testament. If they weren’t fighting others, they were waiting for their Lord, God to smite them in some way, shape, or form. To be tested again. As if life wasn’t hard enough, fear is almost a constant theme in the Old Testament.

Psalm 121 hints at life’s constant danger for this wayfarer: “I lift up my eyes to the hills- from where does my help come?” This verse almost despairs in its painful recognition that there is danger on the road the Psalmist travels. He looks around and knows that there are thieves and killers lurking in the hills through which he must walk. He is afraid and wants to hide.

Got your pencils ready? The second Secret to successful hiding:

Hold a baby.

I have never felt as invisible as I did when I was holding our first baby. All the attention, all the focus, all the energy in meeting anybody was absorbed by this tiny person. I was merely transportation. I kept her at about 5 feet above ground level and I became transparent. All the concern, all the conversation, all the hubbub centered on her. I don’t know if the Stacy’s experienced this phenomenon at all, but those triplets are like the calm eye of a storm. Their existence is the center of attention wherever they go. They are followed by a veritable hurricane of activity. They’ll probably have hearing problems later in life because they have been deafened by the continual chorus of cooing and coochie-coos that follows in their wake. We don’t remember the trail of would be grandmothers, but we do remember those girls.

Remember our lame man at the spring? He wasn’t holding any babies, but think about it. He carried his infirmity like a badge, and he’s a lot more like us that he is different. He had something for others to focus on besides himself. He hid behind his lameness and the pity it evoked. By the way, this “lameness” is a metaphor for any addiction, any affliction, any circumstance inflicted on you by the happenstance of life. “Poor me”. I have always been taken by the concept of life’s “risk”. When people get cancer, have heart problems, become mortally stricken for whatever reason, the tendency is to ask why. To plead for some understanding that will make sense of it all. To hide from fear of reality just a little bit.

I’ve got news for you: Bad things happen to good people. Hardship is the risk of Life. It is the risk we all assumed with our first breath. Our earthly presence is always on the clock, but that shouldn’t stop us from living. It is our responsibility to live life as fully as we can despite the fact that there are things to be fearful of.

The lame man had his friends bring him to the spring everyday so that he could be the first to take advantage of the stirring waters, but he never made it into the pool. He always had an excuse. According to the Gospel of John, 38 years of excuses. How much life had this man watched go by from his hiding place? How pitiful for him to have his whole universe be defined by healing waters he could never get to in time. What part of life was he hiding from? Can you imagine? What a price to pay for fear of living.

In the words of Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man”, “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you'll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.” It could have been Jesus who said the next line, “I don't know about you, but I'd like to make today worth remembering.” Instead, Jesus said, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk."

Do you suppose that Jesus commanded this with joy in his voice? Or was his voice tinged with great disappointment at the knowledge of a life wasted? Jesus just as easily could have said, “Stop hiding! Live!”

The third Secret to successful hiding:

Hide Boldly. You don’t have to know what you are doing as long as you act like you know what you’re doing. Heck, sometimes I wonder if I even know how to preach a sermon!

Push comes to shove; you know that you can’t hide, even when you want to. But that doesn’t keep us from trying. Know that it is simply impossible to do, so be bold when you try. It is enough that you act like you know what you’re doing. This is not a recommendation to lie boldly. Peter was full of bluster and blow, but he was not a good liar. When he learned to face his fear and be bold in the face of any situation he became truly effective. We can become effective too. Act without fear because while the outcome of any particular situation may not be different, your attitude and perception certainly will be.

Hallmark Cards probably say it best, “Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” How many moments of life did our lame man at the spring measure out in his 38 years of hiding? How many have you measured out?

You know that I play the saxophone. In some respects I hide behind it. I don’t have to talk when I play. I am far from being numbered among the great sax players. And I am pretty far down the list of good sax players. This may come as a surprise to you, but I don’t always play all the right notes. I just have to play with equal confidence the good and the bad notes I do play. When I play well, it is pretty rewarding…for me anyway. But you know, I would never get the chance to play any of those “right” notes if I was too afraid of the wrong ones. I have to appreciate the moment. Because right, wrong, or indifferent, they are my notes. And, there ain’t no place to hide once I’ve begun to blow.

Accept the fact that you can’t hide, or spend your days in fear. Hide and you will ride out your life missing the joy of involvement, the satisfaction of participation and the acceptance of the love of those around you.

God yearns for us to be revealed, to commit ourselves to discovering and knowing the truth about ourselves and the truth about Jesus and the gospel of his coming. Our very being has its beginnings and its roots in Christ; and our end, the goal and purpose of our lives, is Christ. And the disguises that we wear only hide us from this truth that makes us whole and sometimes even holy.

Hiding. What good can it do? I implore you to think about this: You cannot hide. There is not a place you can go to keep from being seen, not a thought that you can disguise, not a half-truth you can tell, not a baby you can carry that can change whatever it is that you fear. You will be used anyway God sees fit. You have the choice to do whatever you chose, but God also has the choice to make you a tool in His work regardless of your choice to participate. The lame man could no longer hide from life when Jesus forced him to walk. Peter stopped hiding behind his doubt and became the rock upon which this church is built.

From Psalm 139

… Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me; your right hand will hold me fast. …the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

I leave you not with scripture, but with Shakespeare. The book of Hamlet, verse of Iambic Pentameter:

“This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow as night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”


Growing up, I suppose I was as curious as the next guy. I grew up at the feet of my dad and under the feet of my mother. Being the second youngest kid in the house, I could rarely stump my parents with a question they hadn’t heard before. My older brothers were quick to jump on me for questions I asked in public forums like the dinner table. They jumped quick and hard and pretty soon I didn’t ask many questions when anyone else was around. Mom was willing to explain some things and Dad was quick with a short answer to everything.

My brothers were willing to “school” me in lots of subjects and it took me several years before I could discern between the legitimate answer and the leg pull. I am now the Chiropractor’s perfect patient with one leg clearly longer than the other and I am convinced that this was a result of all the education I received at the hands of my siblings. But, despite the consequences, I explored my universe and asked my questions.

The ‘hard Times” of the thirties finally gave way to a new decade. The world was busy trying to please a mad man in Adolph Hitler and not doing very well, but he was half a world away and Europe was of little concern to the country. But, the turmoil pulled me in. It made no sense to me. How could an entire country be held in the palm a madman? In November of 1938, 40,000 Polish and German Jews were displaced, brutalized and incarcerated. The German people did nothing to stop it. How could this happen? These were modern times. As it turns out, this was only the beginning. We found out only later how deep the madness ran in this river of blood.

God lets these things happen. God lets us be us…as ugly as we can be to each other. God let’s us flounder with our lack of moral rectitude, and lack of sensitivity to the pain of others. I joined the Army as soon as my age would allow trying to do what I could. The world was going to hell in a hand basket and I was not going to let it.

The innocence of my youth disappeared quickly.

I often thought of that old church and Mrs. Frederick’s resting place. While I hadn’t given her a second thought when I brushed her dirt from my short pants, I could not stop thinking of her now. I was living in the dirt of foreign lands, and every clod and spec of it reminded me of her. My silent prayer for my fallen comrades was to Mrs. Frederick to take care of them. I saw much Godlessness. I witnessed hell, and all I will tell you of my experience was that God was not in the cause, nor was God in the solution. God lets us be us. He also lets us be his children again whenever we have lost our way.

Not since the great flood has there been such human destruction. In Germany alone the death toll did not stop until over 7 million men, women, and children died. In Japan the dead numbered 2 million, the largest percentage of whom died in Man’s best approximation of hell yet invented, the atomic bomb. In Russia the number exceeded twenty million. Thirteen million died in China. Millions more from a variety of other countries died. These were all people just like me. How is it that God cares so little for us that he allows such things? How can we know from what perspective God thinks that this is okay?

Anyone who thinks they can understand just how God works, or thinks that we are a match for His wisdom has never seriously contemplated man at war.

The world made so little sense that I quickly moved beyond the small questions of my existence and into the greater puzzlement of life itself. I asked myself silly questions to see if I could ferret out the answers. I avoided thinking about pain, death and other unpleasantries. I avoided thinking about anything for a very long time. When I did start thinking again, it was to ponder God’s plan, if he had a plan at all.

Sermon: “Why is the Sky Blue?" (And other questions of great theological consequence)

Genesis 1: 1 - 19

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. 7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. 10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. 12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.

14And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: 15 and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. 16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. 17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, 18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. 19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

And from John 3: 16-18

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[c] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

May God Bless this reading of his word.

Questions. Everybody has questions. In fact, there are a lot more questions than there are answers. We all ask questions; we all get answers and we give them. Sometimes the questioner walks away satisfied and more informed, sometimes they cock their head and just walk away. I thought I would pose a few more questions today. I must admit these aren’t your run of the mill questions you normally hear from the pulpit, but I feel some responsibility to talk about what truths the Bible holds for us…and, I think it’s OK to ask questions. After all, if I’ve got questions, you’ve must have questions too.

First; what was Jesus’ favorite color?

This is a question that gets asked all the time of the rest of us, but I don’t think that during his entire ministry anyone ever asked Jesus what his favorite color was. I guess we’ll never know.

Why is the sky blue?

Now, oddly enough, this is a question of great theological significance. Not for the simple nature of the inquiry, but for the difficult nature of the answers you get when you ask it. From the scientist we get a treatise on the nature of atmosphere and the suspended particles reflecting light at certain wavelengths which seems an arduous explanation at best. From the theologian we get a simplistic, “Because God made it that way.” There doesn’t seem to be anything in between. Most of us don’t understand either answer. We don’t have the patience for the scientist and the theological answer isn’t very satisfying. The scientist ignores the why and focuses on the how. The theologian ignores the how and the why and moves right on to the implication that belief in God can save your soul.

Ultimately though, it is a question of “why?” This is a question so fundamental to God and our beginnings it is surprising that nobody seems to have a good answer to it. This whole business of creation is so unnerving to both factions that neither can debate it well. Again the scientist frames his answer in primordial goo and coincidence, and the theologian refers to Genesis or to “Intelligent Design”. Neither talks about the “why”. It’s the “Why” That’s important! You find an answer to the “why” question and the other answers will fall into place.

You will all be happy and relieved – perhaps disappointed – to know that I am not up here to give you an answer to the “why” question either. All you fundamentalists can sit back and relax. I don’t intend to blow the doors off their hinges with the profundities of age old questions and pretend the naïve simplicity of their answers. But it is well worth noting that there is a “why” for our being saved. There is a “why” for Jesus…John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” But there is doesn’t seem to be a “why” for the world itself. Think about it. Of all the things God could be doing with his time, he decided to first create us and then knowing exactly what he’d done, deal with us? Why is that? If you are a parent you may have some sort of idea, but when it is put in this kind of context, it is a very troubling question indeed.

If you think you’ve got yourself an answer for that one, hold on to it for a minute because I’ve got other questions that are troubling me.

So Why was the World Created?

To be perfectly honest, there have been a number of far more thoughtful and charismatic people trying to address this question of beginnings than me. They have names like Buddha, Mohammed, and Confucius... I supposed you could throw the Dali Lama, Joseph Smith and Mahesh Yogi into this group too. I am not of their ilk. I am not scholarly enough to be able to describe their differences beyond the basic North, South, East, West polarity, nor do I much care. While most of them may have side stepped the basic question of why, what all of these significant historical figures have done is posed answers to the question of how to live this gift of life. They have all provided enough charisma and appeal to enlist legions of followers to their ideas. They spent a lot of their time teaching us how to live life virtuously, and not very much of their time addressing life’s why’s or origins. They let a “Creator” suffice for that, if they address it at all. Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he made Juliet say, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We just didn’t know she was talking about God.

From the beginning of recorded time, people have tried to explain the origin of life. Most of these efforts were recorded verbally in the “storytelling” tradition. Verbal history was the most important means of preserving heritage and in some cases, preserving the corporate knowledge of the tribe was the only way to insure its survival. (Don’t eat the poison ivy!) There were many cultures that held this “storytelling” in such high regard that arbitrary change to these stories resulted in death to the one who forgot. Storytellers often became the shamans and the wisdom givers of the tribe. It was this drive to remember that ultimately created the need for written language. But, by the time any of these stories got written down, there is no telling what state the original story was in. And, in ancient Hebrew, that pesky “no vowels” rule has given those of us down the line more than just a little leeway in interpretation.

So back to my original question; Jesus favorite color. He may well have been asked the question and the answer recorded in ancient Hebrew. The answer might have been rd, or grn, or bl. Hard telling. What if his favorite color had been chartreuse? Ctrs?

Where did we come from?

In every culture, there is the folklore of origins. There is a huge body of literature devoted to the mythology of the ancient Greeks, the Romans, and the Nordic peoples. We all know Thor, Zeus, and Jupiter. These have survived in literary circles, but there is a whole host of other writings that refer to mythological origins. Our American Indians have theirs, South African Tribes have theirs, the Egyptians had theirs. You have probably heard of the Egyptian sun god, Ra. Remember too, it was Pharaoh who invoked his gods to defeat Moses. He’s the only one who learned first hand that his gods were just stories. Our God, the God of Moses carried a big stick (well, actually had Moses carry it).

There is nothing inherently wrong, or incorrect, with these tales, stories and recordings of great events. They make for great literature and they are an attempt to explain things we can’t or don’t understand and put them into a context that we can. That doesn’t make them wrong. It makes them contemporary and metaphorical, rather than mystical. Frankly, the telling of the creation in the book of Genesis is not complete. Too many questions unanswered: What makes a day a day if the sun wasn’t created until the forth day? What caused the light that God said, “let there be” if the sun wasn’t here yet? Where did Cain and Abel’s kids come from? We can all suppose the answers, and I would guess that there have been thousands of scholarly hours devoted to study of these questions, from people who know much more than I.

But I stand here today to tell you that all of our suppositions don’t matter. Despite the fact that there is a hoard of fundamentalists waiting outside to challenge me on this point, it just doesn’t matter. There is not one person, including neither philosophers; nor scientists; nor biblical scholars; nor atheists; who today can demonstrate that life does not exist because of, and at direction of, God. No one. And, even if someone brilliant does manage to generate life in a test tube somewhere down the road, it is absolutely reasonable to think that that “discovery” will be guided by the hand of God. Why do we think that God needs to think like we do?

More Questions:

The Old Testament talks a lot about God’s people. If the Jews were God’s chosen people, then what are we doing here and why? Even though Jesus was Jewish, Christians by definition and birth are not Jewish. Why is it that if Jesus was God’s son, we are not God’s chosen people? I think I know the answer to this one, but I’m going to let you think about it for a minute. It’s kind of like the “Chicken or the egg” question. (I’ll give you a hint; it was the egg. If you want to know why, you can see me afterwards.)

In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people, the Jews, had it hard when you think about it: because, to have been chosen by God, they now had to worry about pleasing Him all the time. They had to live to the letter of the law, the Torah, and life was hard, constrained and bound by all the things that you mustn’t do or eat if you are Jewish. (Read Leviticus.) They were persecuted and enslaved. We Christians only have to believe that Jesus is our savior and to love others as we love ourselves. It may seem like a simple request, but believe me; it’s hard enough for anyone to have to do. And, we do so resist!

Why did Jesus come when he did?

There was a fundamental shift in our relationship with God when He sent his only son to save us. We cannot know the mind of God. We can’t know why Jesus came when he did, only that it happened. The world was not “on the brink” of anything that any historian bothered to record. Maybe God was just tired of us. Maybe He decided that it just wasn’t working. The height of Greek intellectualism and philosophy had long since come and gone. Socrates and Plato preceded Jesus by 350 years. The Roman Empire was past the days of Julius, but Caesar Augustus had restored Rome to a greater glory than the republic that Julius presided over had ever known. It would be another fifty years before Nero watched Rome burn. Another 350 years before the Romans build the aqueducts in Britain. The Roman Empire would continue in one form or another for almost another thousand years! It didn’t appear as though the world needed saving at this point. But we know these things: Jesus was a real historical figure. He was not a myth. And the world was changed forever because of his coming.

So what was this fundamental shift? What are we doing here this morning and why? I do have an answer for this one. God stopped choosing people and decided to let people choose Him. It had to have been one of those great forehead slapping moments. Duh! It is a far more elegant plan, and one that, in my humble opinion, works a lot better. It sure takes the headache out of Saint Peter’s job of standing at the gates with his giant clipboard. Who chooses who gets into heaven and who doesn’t? We do! Saint Peter, open the gates! Nothing can hold us back except ourselves.

Now, I happen to subscribe to the concept that the Bible holds the Word for anyone who reads it. That it is as contemporary today as it was 2000 years ago. That we are a church that is lay led. And, I also believe that that is the case for a reason.

God made us in his own image. While we might lack His omniscience, God did not make us stupid. Yet we constantly presume that we know what God thinks and knows and how he acts. We make these assumptions all the time. That is stupid. We let people interpret the Bible for us and sometimes they just don’t make any sense. Sometimes we let our minds lead our hearts and sometimes vice versa. We do this only with convenience, not with consistency. That God made us perfectly does not mean that he made us perfect.

I believe that God wants us to use our gifts. I don’t think that anyone can look at a sunset, or a raindrop, or a snowflake, or the jagged mountains, the vastness of the ocean, or listen to the quietness of a winter’s night, or look into the innocence of a baby’s eyes and question the existence of God. Nor can one gaze on the Great Wall of China, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, Westminster Abby, or tour the Louvre, without seeing just how perfect his creation is in us.

When all is said and done, God made us smart for a reason. I believe that God made us smart so that we could pose the great moral questions of our existence to ourselves and determine what is right, and true, and just, and what is not.

God gave us some help, the Mosaic Laws -- the Ten Commandments. Those were pretty good rules for surviving in community with one another. If you want a good mental exercise that is sure to bring the family closer together over the lunch table today, pretend you are among a boatload of survivors shipwrecked on an Island. With no hope of ever getting off the island, you have been given the task of creating some rules that you can all live by. What would those rules be? Do you need all of the Ten Commandments? Perhaps, another 23 amendments? How many laws do you need? How would they be enforced? What happens when there is not enough food to go around? You can pose other questions to test the hypothesis of the rules you create. Try it, if you dare. It is not easy. Be glad it is only around the lunch table.

Those Ten Commandments had been a moral compass for hundreds of years before Christ and continue to provide basic guidance for identifying right and wrong. It is what we do with those rules that seem cause us problems. I could tell you that this is why Jesus was sent to us, to clarify the rules, but I would be presuming things I cannot know.

I have posed for you a number of questions and I have also skillfully avoided giving you answers. I think questions are good. The answers are there for you to discover. The book is the Bible, and God does provide the answers. You just have to look for them. So while you are pondering the “whys?” of your life, you can also ponder these great questions of our time. Why the ’69 Mets? Why is there war? How does Teflon manage to stick itself to the pan when nothing will stick to it? What was Jesus favorite color?

Proof of God’s Grace

I am one of the many who survived World War II who had seen enough of this madness to not want to see it ever again. After the war, I was numb to the politics. I didn’t care about oppressive dictators, or Fascism, or communism, or madmen with guns. I knew they existed, but I had not the will to oppose them anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love my freedom, and I know that it does not come without cost, but I felt that I had paid my bill. That there are things that are necessary to do to insure it was not at issue. Although I could tell you why there might be reasons to go to war, I could not bring myself to support it anymore. I had retreated behind a circle drawn in chalk on the sidewalk and pretended it was a shield against all bad things. War was just too hard to live with.

Irrational terror mixed with a real fear of communism filled the presence of newspapers and the nightly news. Our children were not only taught to “Stop, Drop and Roll” if they were ever to catch on fire, but to “Duck and Cover” in case the Atom Bomb was ever dropped. They were drilled on these techniques regularly. Perhaps they could use them both in the perfectly horrid circumstance of war. It would be their last actionable thought and a horrible proof of the naive and collective misplaced trust our children have in us to keep their world safe.

After I had performed my civic duty, I blindly trusted that the world had grown up. That war would never again stop young boys from becoming young men. That we could all play together on this planet. I thoughtlessly hoped that my country would keep me safe; that our policemen would keep the peace. I dreamed that my children would all grow up prosperous and happy, untouched by the deep sadness and utter horror of war and rampant, undisguised, unsanitized death. And, I existed with an underlying fear that none of this was true.

When I got back from the war, I worked for a small appliance store in Wichita, Kansas. I sold refrigerators when I was lucky. Blenders when I wasn’t. The girl I was sweet on when I left for the war was still available when I returned. I did not ask why and I didn’t want to know. But I was very glad for me. She was my perfect match, I suppose just because she tolerated me. She saw something in me that I was unable to see myself. She was my Michelangelo; chipping away at the stone to eventually reveal what was locked inside. Looking back, I don’t think I contributed much of myself in those early days. I was scraping by and lost to routine. Everyday was the same. It was hot during the day, sticky with the humidity, and the fireflies danced at night.

I learned to know that joy comes and goes in moments; moments where time stops and all other cares and thoughts are lost. These moments last as long as they last and then the world returns to the way it was before. These moments last longer for our children who live their lives insulated from the never ending pulse of the world we purposefully keep from them and to the tune and rhythm of their own discoveries.

These moments are also directly proportionate to our innocence. They were very intermittent for me. I would come home to a loving family and two children who were just learning to be children. We would eat around the table and the kids would make a mess because that’s what kids do. They would scramble to finish their meals and head outside for the last ten minutes of twilight before bath time. Every time I marveled at their innocence it was counterbalanced by my own lacking. We wouldn’t let them bring their fireflies in the house.

It was a very restless contentment, if that is even possible.

My nights were fitful. I could not shake the war. I had gotten over my irrational guilt for surviving it while my buddies did not, but I was still locked in a circle argument for why these things happen. Why can’t we all just live our lives without worrying about changing how others live theirs? That argument seemed to work pretty well for wars, but not very well for God’s work.

I would wake from my occasional war dreams crying silently for my kids, pleading for someone to help take care of them, to guide them, to keep them safe, knowing that it would just be me. Janice would wrap me up in her arms and leave the silence to itself. The weight of that responsibility was so heavy. These were nightmares of the worst kind. I kept this numbness from her and children and provided for them a life, seemingly full of purpose and motion, but I was empty. I was empty until I realized that only in God do we have a choice.

One day I ran across my father’s pocket knife. He had died while I was away. Years of living close to the land and breathing alfalfa hay and winter wheat chaff had filled his lungs with bacillus and he drowned in his own emphysemic sputum. To me, that was just another insult of the war. He had few belongings that were worth keeping, but my family had saved this pocket knife for me and my care. I don’t know why they thought it might be special to me, but I am thankful now for their consideration. I mourned over it and then put it away.

It was in my sock drawer and I had seen it everyday for the last five years, but thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until that one morning, when I finally connected the dots of its importance and realized that my father too was born into a war torn world and survived. He had spent his childhood in the sunset of the 19th century, and grew up as the world had grown more fond of appeasement and more bellicose in spite of it. He had also survived the “war to end all wars” and fashioned a life made hard by necessity and the times. He had never grabbed the brass ring that was the Roaring Twenties, but the great depression was not selective in who it laid low. We were never rich, but we were never lacking. We probably lacked a lot, but my parents never let us kids feel as though it had somehow disadvantaged us.

I thought that if my dad had chosen to make it work, I could too.

I began to think about how. Emptiness doesn’t go away just because you want it too, and the days were filled with purposeful thought about what I was missing. A guarded optimism that I had not felt for years returned to me, and even though I had not come to any conclusions about my life, I knew there was something for me. I was just waiting for an “ah ha!” experience that would unexpectedly reveal my own special purpose. I knew it was there, but I was clueless as to what it might be. I was open to “connecting the dots.”

Janice had just called the kids in for their bath, and I met them at the door to console them for the loss of their playtime and the end of another day. As was their style, they both hugged me, each grabbing their own special leg. It was a brief hug, but firm and just enough to deposit the dirt of the day on my pants. As I brushed it away, it was clear that Mrs. Frederick had put it there on purpose. I needed to be a minister of Word. I needed to help people just like me understand what was missing and get it back. That’s what she was telling me.

We all come to these crossroads in our lives. We all make our choices. We all face or ignore our consequences. That is just the way life is. I made my choice. I don’t know how we are going to do it. I include my entire family in this endeavor because I sure can’t do it by myself. I realized just how much my wife had been carrying the burden of purposeful living. I certainly had not been a good example. I will have to learn to trust one more time, or perhaps really for the first time, that God will provide. I don’t know that I can live up to the promise, but I am prepared to face the consequence.

Sermon: Extending God’s Grace

Robert Frost
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I think most of us understand that we have a choice. God gives us this choice freely, without cost, without remorse, without strings. We can choose to be forgiven – accept the path of Christ, or we can choose to ignore what we cannot live with and follow our whimsy. These two choices seem pretty cut and dried, but for us, like Robert Frost’s traveler, they make all the difference.

In Christ we feel comforted. Under His umbrella of Grace we are sheltered from the consequences of our hardest choices. We are buoyed by His caring arms and freed by His never ending promise.

For most of us, that’s as far as it goes. As we are beset with the difficulties of life we find comfort in Christ’s grace.

It is God’s unfailing grace that shelters us when we feel the weight of our burdens crushing down. It is His comfort in times of trouble that gives us peace. It is with His words of assurance that God lets us hide from the world. This is God’s grace --offered to all. Free for the taking. These examples from Psalms 23 and 121 are perfect examples of the peace that is the result of accepting God’s grace.

You can feel it by merely listening. I invite you to close your eyes and be close to God. Feel His peace.

From Psalms 121 and Psalm 23 (spoken by female and male, recorded, or chosen from the congregation.)

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?

1 The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want.

2 My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;

4indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death, [a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5 The LORD watches over you—
the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

7 The LORD will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;

6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

8 the LORD will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

We could probably stop here and sit in a Quaker silence for the rest of the hour and be satisfied that God’s word has touched us this morning.

But…It is important to realize that in spite of these two Psalms; in God, concern for our own welfare is misplaced. The Bible tells us that though the weight of our sins may be lifted, we still must live our lives. God makes no promise that those lives will be easy, or long, or that we won’t lose our loved ones along the way. There is no promise that our choices will all be good choices. There is no promise that our futures will be clearly seen, nor that we will achieve our earthly goals despite our best efforts to live a spiritual life. There is no promise that we won’t have to compromise, that we will be immune from failure, that bad people won’t do bad things to us. There is no promise that we will live without pain; that we won’t die from disease, or starvation, or errant busses…or even from stress and worry regardless of how devout we are, even if Psalm 23 is our nightly prayer.

God’s promise is that we are forgiven if we accept His grace. God gives us the strength to bear whatever burdens we have. When they get too heavy He is there to bear them with us. The crushing weight of whatever it is we carry we can simply give to God to deal with. That is God’s grace, and God’s gift to us.

From Mathew 11:28: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

God is there for us.

If, at times, we feel blessed or slighted, we can appreciate, or decry our situation relative to others, but that is not something that God is going to do anything about. He doesn’t work that way. What he does say is that we should focus our concern on those around us. Treat others as you would have them treat you. Look around you, see where there is need, involve yourself in addressing the needs of others, and you might find that you notice your own worries don’t seem so burdensome.

But, if you insist that you need God’s special attention, be careful what you ask for, because as soon as you think that who you are or what you are doing deserves some intercessory notice from God, He may just give you that attention.

Be careful what you wish for.

Remember, God will ask of you only what is possible. He will never ask of you to do something that He wouldn’t do Himself. But, is that a price you are willing to pay?

Remember Jesus said, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

That is where most of us are brought up short. We are willing to accept God’s grace, but we are not willing to pay his price.

Mathew 20: 20-23
A Mother's Request
20Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21"What is it you want?" he asked.
She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom."
22"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"
"We can," they answered.
23Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."
24When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

At this point, Jesus disciples were willing to accept his teaching, his forgiveness and his comfort, but they were not yet willing to pay his price.

We are willing to accept God’s grace (after all, it is offered without strings), but most of us are simply not willing to pay His price…NOR, Do we Have to! God will not renege on His promise to us even if we only choose to accept His forgiveness. We are willing to be forgiven, willing to love others (begrudgingly), willing to be his children because it is easy. It is easy to want to release our cares and to be accepted by God. And really, that is all that He is asking.

Mark 10:14-16 Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me... for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these... anyone who refuses to come to God as a little child will never be allowed into his kingdom.” Then he took the children up in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and he blessed them.

This is easy for us to do. We can all remember our childhoods and imagine ourselves unconditionally accepted by our parents and by our teachers. It was easy; we just had to be ourselves. We just had to want to be accepted. This is all God asks of us. But, if there is to be more, if you are to be Christ-like, if you are to sit at God’s right hand, the price can be dear.

So what is the “road less traveled”? I may have led you astray earlier. Your choice is not as easy as you think it might be. You cannot reject God’s grace because He will not withdraw it. He will not hide His grace from you. I’m sure you were thinking that the choice was to choose God or not; to choose to be forgiven, or not; to choose everlasting life, or not. No, the choice is not that simple. You can choose to accept God’s grace, or you can choose to extend God’s grace by order of the Great Commission:

Matthew 28:19 (New International Version)
19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

But, extending God’s grace is a road that few of us take and none of us can take lightly. Of the original 12 Disciples, only a few of their fates are known, but it would be safe to assume that the world was an inhospitable place to the early Christians. James was stoned to Death. Andrew, founder of the church in Constantinople, was crucified. Bartholomew was flayed alive and crucified upside down. Phillip was martyred. Thomas martyred. Judas, of course, hung himself after his betrayal. Mathias, elected by the remaining eleven to replace Judas was thought to have been stoned to death, although there is some rumor for crucifixion in Ethiopia -- neither one, a good choice. As for the others, we don’t know.

What we do know is that it is much easier to hide our faith than it is to broadcast it. We seek the church on Sundays and ignore it the rest of the week. We could seek out non-believers and try to convert them. We could stand at the street corner and preach. We could hand out tracts in front of the grocery store, or knock on doors wearing white shirts and ties. Since we’re Presbyterian, I assume most of us would rather live lives of quiet example.

What we do know is that we humans have a limitless capacity to harbor our prejudices, resist change, and fear what we do not know or understand. Jesus’ message was really pretty simple: love others as you love yourself, be willing accept the forgiveness of your sins, and be wiling to forgive others. You wouldn’t think that this message would cause such consternation, and yet, the institutional reaction in ancient times and even today is one of fear and incomprehensible violence.

You wouldn’t think that this was a particularly politically laden message. You wouldn’t think that there was much threat to an existing government, after all Jesus told us to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. You wouldn’t think that there was even a suggestion to the encroachment of boundaries, either political or geographical. But there certainly is. By following Christ we think anew about the laws and traditions that other men impose on us versus the commands of God. Even though the message is of peace, when we act with religious independence even within the law, we threaten the status quo. We threaten our neighbors, and they become frightened. Even when the threat is free choice!

When considering your choices in life, it is reasonable to be fearful. It is reasonable to make considered decisions taking in all the facts and the seriousness of their consequences. As you stand before the road less travelled, know that it is acceptable to be who you are. But, faith is not always “reasonable.” As Peter stepped from the boat awash in the stormy sea, for an instant he knew faith...and in an instant he understood the price. And he was afraid.

Make no mistake; extending God’s grace can be a dangerous business.

God promises that our sins will be forgiven. We only have to accept that knowledge. We can choose to do more, but…God makes no promise that our lives will be easy, or long, or that we won’t lose our loved ones along the way. There is no promise that our choices will all be good choices. There is no promise that our futures will be clearly seen, nor that we will achieve our earthly goals despite our best efforts to live a spiritual life. There is no promise that we won’t have to compromise, that we will be immune from failure, that bad people won’t do bad things to us. There is no promise that we will live without pain; that we won’t die from disease, or starvation, or of extending God’s Grace.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Making Sense

In all my struggles to find a place in society and make sense of it all, if such a thing is even possible, I have discovered two kinds of people. There are people who live through their ideals and people who live in search of them. These two perspectives are not extremes and are not mutually exclusive. Some people, the minority, are so self-possessed from birth it seems, that they are unwavering in what life means to them. That can range from complete Nihilism to the robust, grab the bull by the horns, go for the gold, pure joie de vivre that you see in a glow around them most of the time. They cannot help but impact those around them, for good or ill, people are changed because of them.

The people in the second category far outnumber their brethren. There are very few of us who are so keenly aware of who we are until very late in life. Some of us finally latch onto our own essence and pursue it doggedly then. For others of us, life is always an uncomfortable fit. Oh, there are occasional glimpses into our fuzzy concepts of “the way life should be,” but they are fleeting and unsatisfying.

Until I made my decision to pursue this meaningful life, this is how it was for me. I was just going through the motions. I was unsettled in my soul and was continually looking for the meaning of life. Until it occurred to me that we write our own definition for how we should define it. There is no right answer. I wish more English teachers would teach to that standard.

One night after dinner, my wife and I lingered at the table while the kids had gone out to say goodbye to the last of the daylight. We were startled by the sound of screeching tires and a car horn blaring. Fearing the worst, we both raced outside to view our youngest daughter at the street in tears, scared to death. The older one was standing back from the street about 5 yards obviously paralyzed with fear as she observed the near accident. The driver had stepped out of the car and was yelling at her little sister.

Once the scene had settled down, we thanked the driver for not hitting our little girl and sent him on his way. Then it was our turn to alternately hug and scold her, and talk to them both until we all finally got it out of our systems. At the end of it all, we all shed our tears of relief and put the girls through their typical bedtime rituals – only this time with extra prayers, and extra hugs. The finer points of vehicle safety are always better learned at the brink of a tragedy. You can talk about it all you want, but until it becomes real to the kids they just don’t grasp the danger.

You try to impart your wisdom and the collective judgment that life gives you just for surviving another year. We do this freely, but, sadly, there are some that will only learn when the lessons are loud or the consequences harsh. We were fortunate our youngest learned this lesson with only the echo of screeching tires in her ears. For her, it was a lesson deeply ingrained; for she stayed clear of all things mobile for while.

Jesus taught his lessons in a variety of surroundings and circumstances with equally various techniques. Sometimes he was direct. Sometimes he told stories. Sometimes he was demonstrative with rather spectacular miracles, other times his miracles were almost plebian and quiet statements, if a miracle could be considered such. As the son of God, Jesus was not even half the man anyone who anticipated his coming expected him to be. I don’t think anyone expected “humble.”

Sermon: The Letter of the Law, and the Square Pegs

Mathew 21 12:17
Jesus at the Temple
12Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13“It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[e] but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’[f]”

Forgive my unscholarly opinion, but God is a tinkerer.

For all His omniscience, God seems to tinker a lot. Take Adam and Eve for instance. You’ve got to believe that He knew what the outcome was going to be, but Adam and Eve needed to figure it out for themselves, and He let them. God tinkered with Abraham and Sarah. These were (well at least Abraham) weak human beings with an intermittent faith and he tested them to the extreme. He tinkered with Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh. He tinkered with Job. Despite the fact that we are His creation, He just can’t help but tinker. This does not mean that God doesn’t know what He’s doing or that his creation is imperfect, it is just that this free will thing allows us to explore and sometimes we loose sight of the mark and need to be righted again as a people. We have a tendency to drift toward the “literal” when “spiritual” is what God was going for. Perhaps He tinkers just to provide us with examples of just how power can be brought to bear.

God didn’t keep his tinkering to the Old Testament. In the New Testament he was at it again. Only this time got very serious about it and sent his son. This time, the tinkering was different. This time, God’s purpose was not to preserve a kingdom, or build a nation, or win battles. In fact, this was the common preconception of the next manifestation of God’s intervention – that God would come as a warlord to overthrow the oppressors. When he came in the form of Jesus this was not particularly well received, or believable, nor was Jesus given immediate and widespread credence as the Son of God. He was flesh and blood; an ordinary man. His ministry built slowly and was punctuated with miracles that established only credibility, not invincibility. How utterly disappointing it was for some to see God in the flesh. There was no burning bush, no columns of dust, no pillars of fire, and no cacophonous trumpets knocking down the walls. Only a very few would ever get to see fire in His eyes.

This was God’s great deceit. Jesus was an affable and compelling man. He was patient and kind. He liked kids. He engaged the Pharisees with snappy repartee. He spoke well and people came from miles around to hear what he had to say. He resisted Satan in the desert. He told us to turn the other cheek. He seldom lost his temper, but his temper flared at those money changers and he reacted violently. Here’s a tip from Jesus: if you really want a little attention, throw a table or two around.

It wasn’t that they, the moneychangers, were bad, exactly. They were just trying to make a living, and Jesus was just trying to make a point. Unfortunately, not everyone witness to this event realized that the letter and the spirit of the God’s law were not entirely the same. Time and time again Jesus, through parable and deed, tried to demonstrate that the letter of the law was secondary to God’s intended spirit of the law.

Jesus says of the Pharisees in Mark 7: 7 - 8
“They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'[b] 8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."

We just didn’t seem to be getting it.

Moses was called upon by God to extract His “chosen” people from enslavement and guide them on their way to the Promised Land. It was Moses whom God directed to write down the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. Heretofore these teachings had just been told in the oral tradition. It was Moses who set them down in words. When we Christians talk about Moses, we talk about the parting of the waters, those forty years of wandering in the desert, the Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston, yada yada yada. Moses, widely considered the greatest Jewish prophet, was actually kept very busy those 40 years quite literally setting down The Law, formalizing Jewish society.

In Jesus day, 1400 years after Moses, those Laws had become the staple of Jewish culture and were strictly interpreted by the Pharisees. 1400 years is plenty of time for the commands of God to become the traditions of men.


Back to the moneychangers: So, why did Jesus get so mad and what did it mean? Did all the folderol, the pushing and shoving, the commotion of Palm Sunday disturb him that much? Was he really crazy? How difficult was this behavior to understand for the Jews of the day? This wasn’t the first time Jesus encountered the moneychangers. He wasn’t surprised by them. Well, here is a little context to try and give you some perspective.

It was the letter of the law that ruled Jewish society. It was the letter of the law that told the Jews how to worship God. It was the letter of the Law that told the Jews how to prepare their food. It was the letter of the law that told the Jews how to live their lives. It was their law that kept their indomitable spirit alive through 400 years of Egyptian enslavement and another 40 years in the desert. It was their law that set Jews apart from other factions that were later absorbed by the Roman Empire. By the time Jesus came around, the Jews had a fine line to walk between allegiance to Rome and allegiance to The Law.

The Romans were first rate empire builders. Their system of governance was both ruthless and workable within the framework of the day. Roman city-states allowed the Jewish leaders to participate in governing to some extent, and the Pharisees were skillful at guiding their people through the tangle of Roman government. Of course, they were indignant at the Roman presence, but used to oppression, and resentful of taxes. It was the letter of the Law (as interpreted by the Pharisees) that helped the people cope. For Jesus to come crashing through the temple telling people that they haven’t got it quite right, flew in the face of hundreds of years of Jewish history and order.

So, when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, it was not a message that was well received, nor clearly understood. If someone who was able to work miracles, and debate the priests, and save prostitutes from stoning – somebody with a lot of intellectual horsepower who broke the letter of the Law, but always had a deeply compelling reason that explained it’s spirit, got right up in your face and told you that you needed to reexamine how you were living, you too might find it hard to accept. You might reject it out of hand, but if you had a chance to think about it, you might find it all but impossible to dismiss. We are never quick to accept that fact that there might be another way to look at how we live our lives. There are always some who accept the possibility of change, some who are born again. This was Jesus’ ministry.

And, God’s tinkering.

How did we get to this point and why was it so significant? What I find interesting is the remarkable difference in how God works in the Old Testament versus the new. In the Old Testament, God is busy keeping His people on the path with minor corrections here and there. Helping out when and where intervention was necessary. Destroying what he would not fix. Noah saved what and who he could. God saved Lot, but turned his wife into salt and destroyed Sodom and Gomorra. It is doubtful that Joshua would have overcome Jericho by himself. Minor in the historical context, I imagine pretty major if you yourself had been there. The Old Testament message was simple: If God didn’t like the things you did, you were in big trouble. Follow the rules!

Tinker. Tinker.

In the New Testament God’s presence is remarkably different. He is trying to be more encompassing, changing the rules, lowering the bar for admittance to society, re-creating the rules for admittance to everlasting life. Jesus’ ministry is focused on the common man, appealing most to those who found the current interpretation of Jewish law too restrictive and Roman law too oppressive…the square pegs of contemporary society.

The best illustration of this is from Mathew 22: 15 – 22:
Paying Taxes to Caesar
15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
21“Caesar's,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.”
22When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

For most of us life is a struggle to find a fit. We start out being square pegs, looking for the right shaped hole to squeeze into, constantly trying to figure out the rules. Some of us never do fit very well…and that’s OK. Jesus’ ministry tells us that it’s OK. There is room for everyone.

Despite the fact that this was intended by the Pharisees to trick Jesus, he turns it into an extraordinary teaching experience. With this simple illustration using Caesar’s coin, Jesus makes living under Jewish law and Roman law both acceptable by creating this awareness of the “spirit” versus the “letter” of the law – rounding off the edges of those pegs. (In the New Testament, God wields a gentle touch.) Though his ministry skirted the fringes of propriety and current society, the salvation Jesus offered was to all people. In the Old Testament, God’s dealing with people in a sense was very limiting, in the New Testament he is limitless. He is now focused on changing all people, not just the “chosen ones” and giving us the tools to change.

Why does God do all this tinkering? The answer is pretty simple: For us actually; to convince us that we are all his “chosen” people.

There were square pegs in the Old Testament too. These people we read of in the Old Testament are very human. They do very human things, at times filled with faithless doubt. Once, on a trip to Egypt, Abraham denied his own wife, called her his sister, and gave her up to Pharaoh ostensibly to save his own skin. (I personally view this as a great testament to the ever thoughtful Abraham who knew his aged, but beautiful wife to be absolutely irresistible to most Pharaohs.) David was constantly in turmoil. Solomon had his consistent doubts. Most of their issues were resolved by the actualization by God of their faith. The Bible tells us these stories and somehow we identify with their trials and rejoice in their tribulations. We suffer their indiscretions and know that there is forgiveness and an important future for them. We identify with their frailties and weakness. We revel in their triumphs. Who of you voted for Goliath to win?

In both the Old and New Testaments, God generally works through ordinary people to accomplish His work. Abraham and Sarah were old and through with hope when God tapped Abraham on the shoulder and said that he would have a nation of descendants. Abraham knew his wife was barren.

“Oy! What was God thinking?”

The disciples, ordinary fishermen became fishers of men. Often in the New Testament Jesus usually picked somebody out of the crowd on which to perform his miracle – the lame man at the spring, the mad man, the woman who just needed to touch his garment to be healed. Jesus used his miracles sparingly and the ones that were written about were performed to make a point. At a wedding, water into wine marked the beginning of Jesus ministry. He wasn’t ready, but it had to start sometime. Was Mary a pushy mother?

When Jesus healed the infirmed, we don’t know if any of these miraculous recoveries happened to devout, temple going Jews or to people just on the fringe of society. But among all the things these miracles demonstrate, they show that ordinary people are worthy of miracles. It is a little like winning the lottery though. It can happen to any of us, it just isn’t very likely. Right place, right time – that sort of thing. Not all of us can be there. But, it’s not the individual miracles themselves that were important. Miracles establish credence for Jesus as the son of God and validate the promise of eternal life.

When he needed to upset the status quo Jesus was generally much more subtle than he was in the temple and often used as teaching examples those square pegs who were handy. Zaccheus, the tax collector, for instance helped Jesus bridge the gap between God and the outcast and disenfranchised -- between those who followed the rules and those who could not. Life couldn’t have been very enjoyable if you were still a Jew and yet, somehow not acceptable to Jewish society as Zaccheus was. The deeper meaning of their supper together was not lost on the crowd. It wasn’t popular, but that wasn’t exactly the point, was it? Jesus healed lepers and mad men, spent time with prostitutes, and generally hung out with the otherwise ordinary and/or unclean. All were forgiven of their sins and acceptable in God’s sight. If all of them could be healed and forgiven of their sins, then why not the common man? Why not me? Why not you?

Tinker. Tinker.

I have talked a lot about the people God has used in the Bible. Most of the time, he chooses people with glaring personal flaws to perform His work. (It is true that perfect people are few and far between.) But before you believe in this “ordinary” label I’ve given these characters you’ve read about, think about them for a moment. They didn’t get written up in the most significant book ever written because they were ordinary. Moses, though not described as King, was certainly this by de facto. David was a King; as was Solomon. Abraham fathered a nation. They had tremendous leadership skills and were responsible for leading nations into battle and sending young men to their death. They had enormously weighty responsibilities that fall to very few. They were the rule makers for their people.

It is the Bible’s great trick to make us feel as though these were ordinary men…a lot like us. They were tortured by their decisions and lived both with their own outcomes and sometimes God’s. Just like us, they were all fallible. They made mistakes. They were sometimes petty. Just like us. They were sometimes filled with self doubt, or when doubt wasn’t there they filled the same space with ego. When we look inside ourselves, we feel the same sense of being both sometimes empowered and sometimes powerless against forces larger than ourselves and we look to God for help. One of the reasons why we believe that the bible’s message is for us is that these characters are just like us.

The miracles he performed and the parables that Jesus told all point in the same direction: that there is room in our lives for salvation -- even if everything else stays the same. In both the Old Testament and new, God changes lives. Sometimes they are changed willingly, sometimes through miraculous intervention, sometimes through the force of God’s hand. Throughout all this change, there is room for civil order and room for God. There is room for us to be who we are and to be forgiven for the vile things we are capable of. While it is not ok to disregard our rules, it is ok to look at them from a different perspective and to try and understand their intent. We are, all of us, at once prodigal sons and forgiving fathers. Dorothy may not have been in Kansas anymore, but she was never very far from home. Redemption is not only possible; it is already at our feet. God has given us the means to look beyond the rigidity of the rules to understand what they mean. There is, for us, room for both the letter of the law and it‘s Spirit. Sometimes, we look at the peg and at the hole and can’t see how it’s going to work. But, when we try it, God’s fit is perfect.


So in a time when it wasn’t cool and it wasn’t easy, my wife took a job outside the home and became a secretary at the local plant. She was very bright, capable and soon became accomplished in the working world. She moved up the ladder of corporate success. She was opinionated and passionate and trusted with responsibilities beyond her station. She was also incredibly skillful at covering bases at home while I was busy getting educated, growing in my own way. I can never repay her for the life she has allowed us to have. I could expound on the profound affect she has had on me and the children, but I would be reduced to a blubbering fool, even in print.

So with Janice as my anchor, I gave up the aimless drifting that appliance sales had afforded us and settled into a purposeful direction for my life; for all our lives really. The girls stayed out of the street and out of the way of moving vehicles for the next several years. I became convinced that the more learned I became, the less I knew.

We survived all this somehow. The girls grew up. I worked my way through seminary and through a couple of starter churches. That is, not starter churches per se, but churches that would employ a preacher with training wheels still attached. My wife and kids followed me in my many endeavors. We became the archetypical church family, and I am loath to admit it, but my girls became “preacher’s kids,” otherwise defined as church rats that lurked in every corner there was to find or hide in. They were ubiquitous around the church, much like I was.

The church we settled in for the longest time was a small and simple church. It had a long and varied history that our congregants were more than happy to mention in polite conversations. These conversations were mostly told from the perspective of the relevant and recent history of my predecessors as opposed to the rich history of the church itself. Whenever I found myself in one of these little chats I realized that I could just nod and smile at appropriate intervals and that seemed to be all that was needed. Some people just needed to work out their little issues in the presence of a sympathetic ear. They expected little or no response, and they always seemed satisfied when they finally stop talking. I was always happy to accommodate. This was the easiest of my preacherly duties.

As with many of the first and older churches in any community, this one was equipped with its own cemetery. The gravestones were modest, yet stately. They stood in mute testimony to the lives they represented. I used to enjoy a quiet, thoughtful stroll through this small patch of history. I would often take my lunch and eat under the shady trees that cooled their resting places. On rare occasion one or both of my daughters would join me, and we would sit and ponder the fates and fortunes of the names and dates on the Headstones.

There were a few older headstones placed in the mid 1860’s whose birthdates were listed in the late 1840’s. We speculated that these young patriots died for their causes. My younger daughter one time asked, “Why did they call it a ‘Civil War’? War doesn’t seem very civil to me.” People die. Such is the nature of war, Civil or otherwise. The winner is not always right, but they always get a chance to write their own history. Sometimes they succeed in painting themselves in glory. Sometimes the stain simply won’t cover the truth.

We were saddened by the story suggested by the plot that oddly held 5 headstones. Clearly, a mother had died in the calamity of the birth of her twin boys. One had died with the mother. The other had held on for a day or two, but had finally let go. The father had died many years later. The final headstone carried the same last name and had died a few weeks before her husband. Apparently, the man had remarried. What was their circumstance? Why would she agree to be buried with his past? Whose name did he call for when the “roll was called up yonder?” We probably spent hours inventing stories for this odd reunion.

As I wandered this resting place of so many stories, I was always struck with the notion that as these people ascended to their heavenly rest we tried to hold them here with us as long as we could. We wanted to remember them and not let them go, yet as a Christian, I find this just a bit troubling, when the promise is of eternal life we should be happy for them. It is just hard for us not to think of ourselves and our own loss.

This is one of the significant differences between the Creator and those He created in His image. We are tied to our possessions, even if they are only memories. We are selfish in that regard. After all, Mrs. Frederick probably saved my life. Will my legacy be as great as the lady I never knew?

The Wedding

One of the most distinct pleasures a preacher with girls can have is to officiate at their wedding. I did this when our first one was ready. I could not wipe the smile off my face. I beamed with pride as we recited the vows that launched them onto their matrimonial path. I could barely look beyond my daughter to the many people who had gathered together to witness this occasion. There were many friends and parishioners who had known us, particularly me, through the many changes in our lives.

It was a wonderful union -- and reunion of sorts. These are the celebrations that make lives worth living. When my daughter became his wife and took her first step as someone else, I could not have been more profoundly impressed with her ease of transition. Such poise and the stately realization of the changing seasons of life played across her face in addition to the boundless expectation of many more happy moments in their shared life. I was touched more by what I thought I saw in her expressions than what I had to say as the presiding minister and father. We were, at that moment, equals at the gate. The right of passage accomplished. My job was truly finished, and hers, just beginning.

When our second daughter was ready, she had been living away at college and found a life and a mate in that community several states away, much to her mother’s chagrin. Her independence, and I suppose a growing sense of separation, had motivated her to allow her soon-to-be husband’s father to officiate. (With another man of the cloth in her life, my daughter simply has no chance at normalcy.)

I got to help of course, and I took the liberty to deliver a message to the assemblage. It made the wedding drag on a little bit, but I was thankful both for the opportunity to speak and for the opportunity to observe the ceremony without the pressure of knowing that I had all the responsibility for it. (After so many years of doing weddings for people one tends to take them for granted, but I felt an impulsive nervousness along with that bursting pride in the previous wedding. It came as an unsettling surprise to me. I wanted so much for their success. I was perhaps too invested in wanting so much for them. Can one ever be too invested in wanting so much for someone else? So, I must admit with no little relief, and no bruising to my pride, that I was pleased to play a diminished role in this wedding.)

I must say that the lesser role afforded me the time to be thoughtful about what I was going to say. I knew that the audience was going to be filled with more faces I didn’t know than those I did. I knew also that my brother in Christ was given a privilege that only he alone could fully appreciate. He had the full abiding faith and trust of my daughter, and of his own son. His was the heavier responsibility. My daughter knew that I could appreciate her choices too, and not be offended by them, even as this “interloper” had assumed what many must have thought to be my rightful place. As I prepared this talk, I smiled to myself, knowing I could just be happy for them, and not feel responsible for their happiness.

The Wedding Talk

When we gather ourselves together to publicly witness the union of two of our own, we are all invested. We are all hopeful, glad, excited, and thoughtful; perhaps even relieved. This room is filled with the expectation of unfulfilled promises both stated and left unsaid. It is no mistake that weddings are public declarations of not only love, but of a meaningful commitment to each other. It is a public statement of promise, of dreams, of a willingness to sacrifice a portion of your individuality to create a new relationship, through which both you and your spouse will grow and nurture each other in ways that you have not yet even considered. And we, as invested observers of this noble beginning, are ready to help by our example (hopefully a good one) and advice (freely given and worth every penny) and collective prayers (which never hurt anyone to have). It is public because it is an important pronouncement; you make your commitment not only to each other, but to us.

Now, it is another new beginning. We helped you into this world. We taught you to walk. We bandaged your hurts, soothed your pains, and quieted your cries. We tied your shoes and sent you off to kindergarten. We cried. We made sure you got to your soccer games and baseball games and football games and basketball games. We cheered. We endured your experiments with clarinets and violins. (We cried again.) We suffered through our pangs of anxiety with your first week at summer camp. We launched you into high school. (Junior high is horrible for everybody so we didn’t worry too much about that.) And saw you off to college. With each of these steps we anxiously and with some timidity watched those seeds we had sown, and nurtured so carefully, bloom into early adulthood.

On the sixth day, God saw all that he had made and it was very good. On the seventh day, he rested. I guess your Mom and I fall into the “wicked” category, because there has been paltry little rest for us to this point, but now we can start. This is our seventh day. For you two, your work week is just beginning.

The struggles that we all endure when we’re first starting out, whether it be issues with money, or time, or getting to know each other on a more intimate level than you can imagine even through courtship -- those struggles are the best part of partnership. Your mettle is tested, and the metal of your relationship is forged into the strongest alloy by the fire of joint decisions, compromise, and disagreements, and, oh yes, by the unflagging love you have for one another. But, I use the term “struggles” advisedly. There is no easy path to a long and happy marriage. It is work.

I know that you are standing here with your expectations and your optimism, your smiles and your bursting happiness, your anticipation and unbridled eagerness to take this next step in your life. As your parents, we have done all we can do to dissuade you from the eternal optimism of your youth, but that is no reason not to set the bar just as high as you can.

It is a sad comment on today’s society that as a culture we can’t manage to make marriage stick even half the time. Those people don’t know what they’re missing. I think I can speak for all of the parents here that when two people put their minds, hearts, and wills to making a marriage work, there is nothing better. I can tell you that at the other end of this life, there is nothing better than sharing those special moments that are unique to committed couples. And, it is moments like this one here and now that make that commitment worth the work. We cannot relive our past. We cannot recapture our youth, so we must strive to do it right the first time. This is your time to do it right. Be happy, but earn it.

One might think that I would be an old hand at this marriage stuff, having officiated for probably hundreds of couples over the years and participated in my own for almost thirty years -- and, this is the second of my daughters to be joined in marriage. Even with all that experience, nothing has prepared me for the finality of grasping my daughter’s hand and placing it into the care of someone else. I know that she thinks that this line of thought is old fashion. I know that she has enjoyed and nurtured her own independence for years now, and I know that this man is as steadfast and eager to both care for her and respect her as I have ever been. But, the hand that just moments ago I held in my own palm was the same hand that I held on the first day of school. It was the same hand that I held when we took strolls around the block after dinner. It was the same hand that I held as we walked from car to store and back again. It was the same hand that endured the fevers and hurts and pains of childhood that I had to release to brush the hair from her crying eyes. You can’t know my longing to hold that hand now and squeeze tight the memories it contains.

I made reference earlier to a new beginning. I am not fool enough to think that my daughter has not thought this through. As reluctant as we are to let our little girl go, she is just as anxious to break from the starting gates and start living her own life. Together, they take this step. Marriage is not the first step toward independence, but it is far and away the biggest. It is one of the greatest pleasures of parenthood to watch as our children mature from youngster to peer – to real people in their own right. We give them the tools, but it is up to them to figure out how to use them. I am in awe of the potential I see before me. The world lies at their feet.

So, to you two I say, “Hold fast.” Hold fast to the dreams that you conjured from the depths of your life’s experience. Compromise only when your wisdom requires mitigation to the reality of hard choices. Hold fast to each of the puzzle pieces as life hands them out and let’s you reveal the picture of what your future looks like. Hold fast to each other as you each cycle through the good times and the bad. Enjoy the wealth of each other’s emotional support, and recognize the poverty of aloneness in your marriage. Hold fast to the celebrations of significant milestones. Hold fast to friends and family. Hold fast to your faith, it will carry you when life’s burdens make it impossible to smile. Mark the changing of each season. Watch and remember the colors of the leaves, the bursting buds, and the fragrance of a rose…and, suddenly one day, why the wrinkles show up around your eyes. Hold fast to each other. Never let go. Never let go.

Perhaps you think that these are the best of times, but I think not. Because as good as today has been, I think that tomorrow will be better. As I look back on your mother’s and my history, I cannot remember a time when I thought that yesterday was better than today. I look back and think that as you were growing up, you kids just got better and better each day. I look at us all now and continue to see possibilities where once there was a void. Tomorrow stretches out before us and the race begins to explore, to do, to live, to be. Grab each other’s hand and never let go. Never let go.