Monday, April 25, 2016

Sin Not

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 5:38-48:

In the 8th chapter of the gospel of John, we find the story with which most of us are familiar.  Jesus is teaching in the Temple when the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman who has been caught in adultery, the punishment for which is to be stoned to death. Of course the first question to ask might be, how did they exactly catch her, and the second is where is the man, because he is just as guilty and just as subject to the law and penalty. But neither of those two questions are asked, or answered, instead they ask Jesus what they should do with her.  It’s Jesus’ response that is the most famous, and one we might remember for next week’s message when we look at judgment, which is “let anyone who is among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Now it’s important to remember the setting of this scene, which is that it takes place at the Temple, and one of the things that happened at the Temple is that people would go there to make offerings to help atone for their sins. It was the place that you could hear doves cry. And so it’s not just a mental reminder that they have sinned, but there is also the visual reminder there of all the sacrifices that are being made at that time, and all the times the scribes and Pharisees have come to that same place to make their offerings for sin, and so with that statement, that reminder, they all walk away, leaving the woman behind.  Jesus then tells her that, just as those who have left have not condemned her, neither will he condemn her, and then says “Go your way, and, from now on, do not sin again.”

Today we continue in our series on the nots of Jesus, looking at Jesus’ injunction not to sin. You might have thought that would have been the passage I would have chosen for this, except I want to do something a little differently with this message then the way we have looked at Jesus’ injunctions not to fear or doubt, and it will also be very different from how other preachers would like at it, most especially non-Methodists, and that is because I’m not just going to talk about not sinning but to give you what is a uniquely Methodist take on this injunction, which is why we heard from Matthew this morning from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ statement to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect.

When looking at fear and doubt, I said that it I did not think Jesus was saying we should have no fear or doubt, but instead it was about facing them and working through those things so that we can use them to deepen our faith.  Now a fundamentalist might argue that I am totally wrong, that we are to truly seek to live a life without doubt or fear, that we should read these injunctions from Jesus literally.  But, they would then argue that we are not to seek to live without sin because such a thing is possible, largely because of their conception of human nature and original sin.  Mainly that we are, in theological language, totally depraved and that there is nothing redeeming within us. This is a Calvinist perspective of the world.  But I, as a Methodist, and an Arminian in theology, am going to argue the opposite and take the Methodist position that we are indeed to move onto perfection, or what’s sometimes called Christian Perfection, or the full technical term is entire sanctification.  When you have heard me say that we are moving onto perfection, this is what I am referring to.  It is a uniquely Wesleyan, or Methodist idea, and in fact, 6 months before his death in 1792, John Wesley said this idea was “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised them up.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

Doubt Not

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was John 20:19-31:

Sports stars often end up with some great nicknames, especially those who are the best of their craft. There is Walter Payton, known as Sweetness, and Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, and Jack Nicholas, the Golden Bear.  But of course the best nicknames come from the sport of baseball.  There is Stan the Man Musial, and Cool Papa Bell, and Double Duty Radcliff. Some nicknames become so famous, like Babe Ruth, Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean that we forget their real first names.  But for every great nickname like Mr. October or Hammerin’ Hank there are also those nicknames that are a little less glorious, a little more likely that people probably wish they would have gone away, like Luke Old Aches and Pains Appling, or Ernie the Schnozz Lombardi, but perhaps the worst belongs to Hugh Mulcahy who was known as Losing Pitcher Mulcahy.  I am sure that if you were to have met Mr. Mulcahy he would not have appreciated you calling him by his nickname and just wished it would all go away.  But just like those nicknames are a little unfair, so too is the nickname that has been forever appended to Thomas, who, for some reason, for 2000 years has been the poster boy for doubt, an idea that is not really fair either to Thomas or to the concept of doubt.

Today we are continuing in our series on the nots of Jesus, the things that Jesus told us we should not be doing.  Last week we looked at Jesus’ statement to fear not, and that Jesus was not really saying that we shouldn’t fear, but that instead we need to overcome our fear, to work through it so that it doesn’t limit us. Today we look at doubt, which has some ties to the idea of fear, and we tackle the idea of doubt by trying to understand the story of Doubting. But I’d like to start with a defense of Thomas, and to do that we need to go back just one verse from where we started today.

Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb on the first day of the week, the first Easter Sunday, and found the tomb empty, and so she tells Peter and the beloved disciple that the body is missing, and they go, but they don’t understand what is taking place. Then Jesus appears to Mary and tells her to go tell the disciples that he’s back, that’s a paraphrase, and that he is going to ascend to his father, and so she goes to see the disciples to tell them what she has seen. But do they believe Mary? In the synoptic gospels, which are Matthew, Mark and Luke, the answer is clearly no. Now in John she says to the disciples “I have seen the Lord,” and while it doesn’t say they don’t believe her, there is certainly every indication that they don’t believe her because where do we find them on the first night of Easter? They are not hunting eggs or hung over on chocolate, instead they are locked up in a room. Why? Because they are afraid. That, to me, is the key indicator that they did not believe what Mary had told them, because if they had believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, that what Jesus had said and promised would happen would happen, why would they be afraid? Why would they be locked up in some room?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fear Not

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 14:22-33:

In the third chapter, all the way back at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis, after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which was not actually an apple nor where they deceived by Satan, but after they eat, they hear God walking in the garden calling for them, and they run and hide from God. After God finds them he asks what they are hiding and for the first time in scripture we hear about fear. “We were afraid and so we hid from you,” they tell God, and the relationship between God and humanity is forever changed.  Something else important happens when fear gets introduced, and that is that blame and scapegoating also get introduced as a direct result. When God asks why they are afraid, Adam says don’t blame me, the woman made me do it, and Eve says don’t blame me, the snake made me do it, and the snake just shrugs his shoulders, which is probably the real reason that God removes its appendages and makes it crawl on its belly. Fear and blame and refusal to do something all come together at exactly the same time.

Today we embark on a new sermon series looking at what I am calling the nots of Jesus, fear not, doubt not, sin not, judge not, worry not.  These are the nots not only because Jesus says don’t do them, but also because they are issues that might cause us to tie ourselves in knots.  Andy Stanley has called these instructions the N Commandments because he said that Jesus considered them so important.  While I am not going to argue their importance, which is the reason I am talking about them, I am going to argue his use of the term commandments, because when Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” and that the second in just like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  And then on his last night, according to the gospel of John, he said “I give you a new commandment that you are to love one another as I have loved you.” So unlike the commandments, which are lists of things you shouldn’t do, Jesus normally talks about what you should do, how you should be living your life, like the golden rule, which says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s a positive statement of behavior, rather than a similar statement given by Rabbi Hillel who said “Do not do to others what is hateful to do.” So rather than being about what we should do, instead it’s about what we shouldn’t do.  And that certainly seems to be much more what we hear about from the church, or from Christians today, is a series of thou shalt not, or I cannot, so I thought it might be appropriate to look at some of the do nots that Jesus taught, which seem very different from what we might normally hear, and how they lead us to fulfilling what Jesus says are the greatest commandments.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Third Day Always Comes

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 24:1-12:

Charlie was a standout football player in the state of Missouri when he was growing up.  But not only did he stand out on the athletic field, he also excelled in the classroom and was accepted to the United States Naval Academy, where he also flourished, graduating near the top of his class.  After graduation he became an officer in the Marine Corp and served on the front lines of the first gulf war, we need to stop having wars that have sequels.  While he was in Iraq, Charlie was awarded several decorations and he came home to his small town as a hero.  Everyone was proud of their boy and couldn’t say enough things about him.

But as happens with many soldiers, Charlie came home with some issues that were not properly dealt with and he began spiraling downward into mental illness and he started committing violent crimes, which ended him up in jail, where his mental issues left untreated only proceeded to get worse.  He lost an extraordinary amount of weight; he chewed off the tips of some of his fingers, and then gouged out one of his eyes with his own hands, and ended up in the psychiatric unit at the prison.  Every week Charlie’s parents, Bill and Barb, would visit him, and would sometimes bring the pastor of their Methodist church, Scott Chrostek.  But Charlie was no longer known as the great athlete or war hero, he was now known for the crimes he had committed and what he had become in prison.  He was not talked about as much and certainly was not heralded as the person that others should emulate or people they wanted their sons to be like.

After being released after serving several years in prison, Charlie was placed into a half-way house near his parents’ home and he began coming to church with them, and then he asked the pastor if he could begin serving as an usher.  Rev. Chrostek said he was got scared, and wondered how people would respond.  How would they feel about seeing Charlie serving in this position? And what would they see, after all he didn’t look great, he was missing some of his fingertips, and one eye was gone, what would people do?  But Scott said yes, and the next week Charlie was handing out bulletins.  Scott still said he was so afraid of what might happen.  The first few people through the door, kind of smiled and took their bulletins from Charlie, and then as more people saw him they sort began to brighten up and say “hey Charlie, good to see you, how you doing,” and Charlie thrived in the role.  He began to put on weight, he began wearing nicer clothes, he got his hair cut and eventually began taking some courses at a local college.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Here is my sermon from Sunday. Part four in our series on the people of the passion. The text was Luke 22:1-6, 14-16, 21-27, 47-53:

In one of the most dramatic scenes in theater, Julius Caesar is attacked by those conspiring against him, including his beloved friend Brutus, and Caesar utters the words that have echoed down to us since the day that Shakespeare first wrote them, “et tu, Brute?”  Then Caesar says words that are just as important, but not as well known, “then fall, Caesar.”  That might be one of the most famous scenes of betrayal in history, except, of course, for the one we just heard between Jesus and Judas, but I have to be honest and say that I think that Judas might be one of the most tragic and misunderstood characters of history, maybe especially in Judas’ understanding of himself.

Often in the New Testament, people’s names will tell us something about who they are.  While there are several Judases in the gospels, including another disciple, the Judas we are focusing on today is referred to as Judas Iscariot, or Judas of Iscariot, Judas the one called Iscariot, among several others, not only so we can tell him apart from the other Judases, but also to give us some information, but the problem is we don’t really know what that means.  The answer you are most likely to find is that Iscariot may mean “man of Kerioth”, a town recorded in the book of Joshua as being in southern Israel, but there are some problems with this identification.  The first is that there is no indication that the town of Kerioth still existed 1200 years after Joshua mentions it, as there is no record of it during the time of Jesus. The other problem is that all of the other disciples’ were from Galilee, where Jesus is from, so what would someone from southern Judea be doing up in Galilee?  Does that mean it’s impossible, of course not, and if it that is true, it would mean that Judas was different and separate from the other disciples from the very beginning.

Some scholars have speculated that Iscariot may mean that Judas was a member of a group of zealots called the sicarrii.  We know that at least one other disciple, Simon, but not Simon Peter, was called a zealot, but the sicarrii were a special group who assassinated other Jews whom they saw as collaborators with the Romans, including the high priest Jonathan, using hidden knives, from where they get their name.  Another option is that Iscariot comes from an Aramaic word meaning “red color,” so maybe Judas was a red head, and we all know about red heads.  In the end, where most scholars who have worked on this issue end up, is that while they may have their personal preference, the truth is that we simply don’t know what the term Iscariot means and it may even be that 40 plus years after the facts that even the writers of the gospels no longer knew what it meant either.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Peter the Denier

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 22:31-34, 54-62:

Just about every time we see an interaction between Jesus and Simon Peter, or when we see Peter by himself doing something, I imagine Jesus’ putting his head in his hands and shaking it and saying “Peter, Peter, Peter,” because Peter just never seems to get it.  He wants to get it.  He wants it so badly you can feel for him.  But Peter is the impetuous one.  We could say that he is the extravert’s extravert, but I’m not sure it has anything necessarily to do with extraversion; instead it appears that Peter has no filters in his life.  Whatever he thinks to say immediately comes out of his mouth, and whatever he thinks to do he immediately does.  Most of us know someone like this, and while there is something endearing about it, there is also something totally exasperating, and that is what we see with Peter.

During the Sundays of lent we are looking at the people we find in the passion story.  So far in looking at the people we find at the cross and at the trial, we really know very little about the characters involved.  They have little back-story or little other involvement in the gospel narratives.  Even with people like Mary, Jesus’ mother, we just don’t know very much.  We have her at the beginning, we have her at the cross, but there are few stories of her in between, and where she does have interactions they are very limited.  Peter, on the other hand, is someone who is crucial to the story that is told not only when Jesus is alive, but also post resurrection and in the beginning of the church.  Peter is maybe the most important disciple, and while it has been said that besides for Jesus himself that Paul is the most important person in the history of Christianity, it could be argued that Peter comes in third in importance.

Monday, February 22, 2016

At the Trial

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 22:66-23:25:

In his excellent book, Jesus on Death Row, law professor, and United Methodist, Mark Osler, says that the trial of Jesus that we find in scripture is remarkably similar to what we see in capital cases today. At least at the 30,000 foot level this is a story in which we can find some similarities and understanding, and yet at the same time, if we try and apply our understanding of modern day trials, and the right to an attorney, and the right not to testify against yourself, and the presumption of innocence by the courts, then we will also miss much of what is taking place. That the story of Jesus’ trial is very different from what we know, and perhaps from what we also think we know about the trial.

In addition, the people of the passion we encounter at Jesus' trial are, for the most part, very different from those we looked at last week that we found at the cross. At the cross were the ordinary and the common, even the soldiers who are there are not what we would know as commissioned officers, but instead privates and non-comms. Those at the trial are the elites of Jewish and Roman society. While maybe not the 1%, there are certainly in the top 5-10%, and have the power, wealth, trappings and everything else that goes along with that, and that even includes those who are the Jewish religious leaders present, starting with what in Luke is called the council, but which in other gospels is referred to as the Sanhedrin. They not only have religious authority, but there is also a level of political authority they wield as well.

This is not like Congress where people have gotten there because they have been popularly elected, but instead they are more like the British House of Lords, where the positions are obtained through heredity and also through money. This even includes the High Priest, who, although not named by Luke here, is Caiaphas. The High Priest is a position given not to the most religious person, but is a position appointed by the Roman governor of the area, after much wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Caiaphas' father-in-law is Ananias, who was a high priest himself at one point, and was responsible for getting the last five high priests appointed. Caiaphas also has a fairly long reign as high priest, under several different Roman rulers, so he obviously knows how to play the political game not only in keeping the Romans happy, but also keeping the other Jewish elite happy.

Monday, February 15, 2016

At the Cross

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 23:26, 32-34,39-56:

Today we begin a new sermon series for the season of Lent, which is the 40 days, plus Sundays, that lead us to Easter, and we are going to be looking at the people we find in the passion story.  Rather than starting at the beginning and making our way to the cross, we are instead going to start today at the foot of the cross and make our way backwards next week to the trial, then to look separately at Peter and then Judas and conclude with the preparations for the last week of Jesus’ life. Then on Palm Sunday we reverse the story through Holy Week making our way again to the cross and then to the celebration of Easter.

There were many people who were there when Jesus was executed, some we know something about, some we know nothing about, some we can speculate about, and I think we can learn something from them, or at least I hope I do or this is a wasted time for us.  But I think it’s also important to pay attention to who is not there, and what we can learn from that as well.  Today’s passage begins after Jesus has been flogged and is being forced to carry the cross to the site of the execution, known in Greek as Golgotha, or the place of the skulls, but which when translates into Latin became Calvary. Even though popular imagery has Jesus carrying the entire cross, the likelihood here is that Jesus is not carrying the whole cross, but instead was only carrying the top cross bar, known as the patibulum.  Evidence indicates that the center poles, known as the simplex, were permanently in place just outside the city gates, especially in major cities like Jerusalem, and so the victim would carry the cross bar out which would then be placed on the center bar already there.

Now would probably be a good time to give some background on crucifixion.  Crucifixion was a punishment that was reserved for people the Romans wanted to make a special example of, and this will be important next week when we look at Jesus’ trial, only Romans could order crucifixion, and they were the only ones who used crucifixion at the time.  Although Luke refers to the two men crucified with Jesus as thieves, these were not just people who were caught stealing something. They would have been punished in another way.  In Mark, they are referred to as bandits, and that’s probably more likely because, the Romans reserved crucifixion for special cases, like runaway slaves, those who were subverting public order, and most especially those who threatened or challenged Roman imperial authority. Crucifixion was slow, painful, gruesome and very, very public in order to try and dissuade others from trying the same thing.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

The Given Day: A Novel
by Dennis Lehane (c) 2008 by Dennis Lehane. Harper Collins, 736 pgs

5 out of 5

I love Dennis Lehane's novels. This is a sweeping history of Boston, although it only takes place over a couple of years, more inline with his other historical fiction like Live by Night, then his detective works like Gone Baby Gone.

Having lived in Boston, and therefore knowing some of the territory, as well as loving history, and being a baseball fan and, spoiler alert, having the novel end with Babe Ruth being traded to the Yankees, it was easy to get into and hooked on the book. Since I was listening to it, even my youngest daughter got upset when we got home one day because, as she said, "it just got really interesting and intense."

The story intertwines the lives of Danny Coughlin, a cop in Boston, along with his family, Luther Laurence, an African-American on the run and seeking safety, and the great Babe Ruth. It covers, among other things, the great flu epidemic of 1918, the Boston Mollases flood, and most importantly the rise of trade unions, and the men who would like to break them, and use their power to do so, culminating in the Boston police strike, and the issue of race relations that goes alongside everything that happens in America.

But this is more than just a story about these events that happen in the past, because Lehane is writing about the problems that continue to haunt us today, capitalism and its desire to make money for some through the work of others, at as little pay as possible and wanting to keep it that way, against the cries of others who think it could be/should be different and are shouted down as communists. Of police violence, and in particular that violence being taken out on those society doesn't care about, and only getting upset when the violence begins to come their way. And the race issues that continue to plague the nation.

It's a long book, and one that can get you hooked and intimately involved, even rooting for someone to be killed, but I would recommend it, especially if you are already a fan of Lehane's work and his deft handling not only of storytelling, and character development, but of the English language.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremmer

My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story
by Krista Bremmer
(c) 2014 by Krista Bremmer. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 237 pgs.

3 1/2 out of 5 Stars

I came across this book because I normally go to one of the local libraries to write my sermons, and typically tend to sit right next to the biography section because it has a plug for my laptop. As I am contemplating what to say next, I will look at the titles of books and this one caught my eye and so I decided to check it out.

Krista tells the story of her relationship with her husband who is an immigrant from Libya, fleeing from Gaddafi's rule, and also a Muslim, contrasted against her Americanism, and sort of secular religion.  I say sort of secular religion because while she talks a lot about Ismail's religious practices, her religious devotion seems to consist solely in Easter and Christmas, but without any really theological meaning behind them.  It's not clear what her background is, nor is it really clear what her Jihad is if it is defined, as they have on the cover as, "an individual's striving for spiritual and intellectual growth."

Krista meets Ismail out running in the woods and it might be seen as a story of opposites attracting, except that we never really learn much about who Ismail is other than surface observations. I'm guessing this is done first because this is more about Krista's journey rather than his, and also, perhaps, to provide him with some level on anonymity even in his own story. But when I reached the end I never got the sense that I truly knew him or his level of growth in their relationship because surely Krista could not have been the only person who was changed by this relationship bringing together different cultures and religions.

A large portion of the book is spent recounting a visit they made to see Ismail's family in Libya. It was this experience that began to change her mind and opened her up to the reality of how she sees the world, with the assumption that she sees it the correct way, and therefore others are wrong.  She comes to see this for what it is, a sort of paternalism, that she can look down on others, even extend charity and compassion to them, without ever really seeing them for who and what they are, other than the other, someone, in my words, below her.

It is this insight that provides the greatest strength to this work. Her recounting of hearing of Gaddafi's arrest and death on a television in a restaurant, an event that was noticed by the other patrons but quickly dismissed so they could go back to their normal lives as something that happened "over there." Whereas this had real import for their family, and although Ismail "hated" Gaddafi, with all the important that that word entails, he could not stand to see the inhumanity taken out on him, even though he had done inhuman actions. (and can they really be inhuman if they are in fact done by a human?)

It is also her daughter's decision as she enters into the awkward tween years to begin wearing a head scarf that causes her to be uncomfortable, to face her own prejudices, and also to see the world in a new way and the liberation that her daughter finds in the scarf.  Seeing a young girl in a bikini at the pool, and seeing herself as a teen in that moment, she says "Now I imagined Aliya in a bikini in only a few years. Then I imagined her draped in Muslim attire. It was hard to say which image was more unsettling."

She comes to see that the world is not black and white, that America is not always good in it's treatment of women, and that Islamic culture is not always bad because of it's treatment of women, that there are positives and negatives to both. That there was a sense of freedom, enjoyment and relaxation found in her female in-laws in Libya, in spite of how she might have originally seen them, that she did not have in America, nor did she know other women to have either.

If there is enlightenment to be found in the pages it is clearly in her exploration of all the assumptions she had held so dear, as so many of us do.  My only hesitation in rating it higher was the fact that I wish that I could have gotten to know her husband and her daughter (her son is almost entirely absent from the book) as more than just characters, perhaps even stock characters, that help her come to a new sense of enlightenment.