Monday, August 30, 2010

Digging Dry Wells

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Jeremiah 2:4-13.

“Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine, I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine, and he always had some mighty fine wine. Sing it with me joy to the world, all the boys and girls now, joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea and joy to you and me.”

That gets my singing portion out early, While Jeremiah might not be a bullfrog, he was a prophet and therefore not understanding a single word he says might is probably right on target. In Christian Bibles there are two categories of prophets, there are major prophets and minor prophets. This categorization, which is not done in Judaism, is not based on importance or even message, but instead is based on length. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel are the four major prophets; they are much longer than the twelve minor prophets. But, of all of the prophets, the longest is Jeremiah. In fact, only the book of Psalms is longer than Jeremiah. And if the Book of Lamentations was also written by Jeremiah, which is the tradition, then his writings constitute an even bigger portion. So we have one of the largest amounts of the Bible written by just one person but we do not spend a lot of time hearing from Jeremiah. In fact, I suspect that many of you have probably never heard a sermon preached from Jeremiah’s text.

Imagine if we did the same thing and ignored the writings of Paul. We would not only be missing a large chunk of the scripture we use on a regular basis but we would be missing a large piece of God’s message for us. So why don’t we hear a lot from Jeremiah? I believe there are several reasons for this. The first is that except for Isaiah which has the passages which have been interpreted as predicting the coming of Christ we don’t really deal well with the Prophets. In a quick search through the lectionary this week, most of the prophets are only included a few times in the three year lectionary cycle. Jeremiah only appears twelve times, and lamentations only once. Ezekiel has three readings, and Daniel has only one. Of the minor prophets, with only a few exceptions, they all only appear once.

The prophets are hard to hear. We don’t like to come to church and feel like we are being beaten upside the head with a baseball bat, and so preachers don’t want to preach on these subjects and most congregations don’t want to hear about them.

Last week’s passage from Jeremiah would have been a nice and easy one to preach on. You may or may not remember last week’s passage from Jeremiah, but it is his call story. God tells Jeremiah that he is going to be sent out to give the people God’s message, and Jeremiah tries to beg off by saying that he is only a young boy and he doesn’t have the words to speak. This is a common excuse used by people in the bible in order to try and get away from God. Moses also used this ploy, but just like with Moses it didn’t work for Jeremiah either. Instead God tells Jeremiah that God has known him and had a plan for him since he was in his mother’s womb and God will give him the words he needs to say, so all he has to do is follow God’s lead. That is a nice easy passage with a nice easy message: God knows you and has a plan for your life. That is why this is often the one passage chosen be preachers so that they can say they preached on Jeremiah without actually having to preach on the Jeremiah.

But today’s passage is not as touchy feely or as easy as that one.
This was actually not my first choice when I began thinking about today’s service. I had originally settled on doing something on gospel passage, but on my third reading of today’s passages I foolishly decided that we should hear from Jeremiah. Today’s passage is one of those ones that’s tough to hear and in approaching it we either have to say that it only had something to do to those whom Jeremiah was addressing and nothing to do with us, or we must admit that although we stand hear more than 2500 years later that it still speaks to us. I’m sure that you can probably guess what my position is.

There are a lot of questions about Jeremiah, who he was and when he began his work as a prophet. Everything we know about Jeremiah comes to us out of his writings. We are told that he came from a priestly family, who were also landowners and he grew up in a town just to the north of Jerusalem. He begins his ministry early in his life, and we are told that his first prophecy comes in the thirteenth year of king Josiah, which would be the year 627 BCE. While many scholars accept that dating, others say there are significant problems with that date.

Josiah instituted a significant reform in Judah seeking to purify the faith again after the people had strayed away from God. These are known as the Deuteronomic reforms because the Book of Deuteronomy is reported to be found in the temple in Jerusalem during a renovation and Josiah reinstitutes the law, cleanses the Temple and the people and together they recovenant themselves to God. This was a very significant event in the life of Judea, but Jeremiah’s writings shown no signs of this reform taking place. Instead what we hear from Jeremiah is the very same indictments of the people and their leaders that led Josiah to make his reforms. Interestingly, Jeremiah also references both Israel and Judah in his prophecies.

Now we normally think of Israel being synonymous with the promised land including the Jerusalem. However, Israel in the Hebrew scriptures applies almost exclusively to the northern kingdom which contained ten of the twelve tribes. But, Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Judah is the southern kingdom, which contains Jerusalem, so when you hear Israel that is the Northern Kingdom and when you hear Judah that is the Southern Kingdom. So if the dating of Jeremiah is correct, Israel has been gone for more than 100 years. Some have speculated that Jeremiah may have been working while the northern kingdom was still in existence, few accept that. I think the more likely scenario is that Jeremiah is prophesying after Josiah’s reforms have already been tried and failed and he references Israel in order to emphasize the point, by saying “you know what happened to the northern kingdom, and if you don’t repent then the same thing will happen to you.”

This is a time of enormous stress and strain in Judah. They are being pushed by the Babylonians to the north and the Egyptians to the south, and they sit right in the middle of this power struggle of empires. Under the leadership of king Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonians put on siege on Jerusalem and take the capital city in 597. While the people try and hold out, relying upon their cisterns to provide them with their water supply, are you hearing the connections, they cannot hold and the Babylonians breach the walls and take many of the leaders into exile. After several smaller revolts, the Babylonians get tired of having to deal with the Jews and in 586 they again take Jerusalem, destroy the temple and take a much larger group into exile.

Now it’s hard for us to understand what this meant for Judaism. The temple was the cultural, political, religious and economic center of the society. Now 9/11 obviously has deep resonance for us, and that was what these events where like for Judah, only greatly magnified. Now imagine if instead of just losing the world trade center, instead 9/11 destroyed all of new York city, as the economic center, and all of Washington DC as the political center, and all of Hollywood as the cultural center, along with every church, and you can begin to understand the magnitude of what is taking place. That is the background under which Jeremiah is prophesying.

“Thus says the Lord” begins Jeremiah’s prophecy, and marks the beginning of all prophetic words. In scripture it is what separates God’s words from the words of mere mortals and it is the indication that a prophet is speaking. “Thus says the Lord,” says Jeremiah, God remembers the early days when everything was good, but then you went astray. You began to believe that you were responsible for the good things happening and you began to put your reliance and trust in things other than God, you began to rely on worthless things and as a result became worthless yourselves. You tried to draw your resources from worthless sources, and instead of drawing water from the source of life you have been trying to drink from broken cisterns. Because you are not seeking God, you are digging dry wells, and in the desert without water there is only death. “Therefore I accuse you says the Lord.”

What we are hearing from Jeremiah is a legal charge being made against the people and, most importantly, their leaders including the priests. This is the indictment being read and it follows the pattern of the ancient near east where there has been a violation of a covenant, especially between a sovereign and the people. Remember that I said that under Josiah he had had the people renew their covenant relationship with God. God is saying the covenant I had made with you has been violated, but not by me. Instead it is you who have not held up your end of the agreement. God has fulfilled what God has promised and God has been faithful, but the people have not, and as a result consequences will come. God is making it very clear that no one can say “we didn’t know” or “our pastor didn’t tell us this,” or “our pastor was more concerned with other things God, he had us sing BINGO in worship service, it’s not our fault, blame him.” God is making it clear that everyone should know what was expected and to know about God.

But although we are told in chapter one that Jeremiah is being sent, “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,” he is also being sent “to build and to plant.” God’s indictment does not say “you have done all these things wrong, so to hell with you I’m going to punish you and then go find someone else.” Instead God is saying you have transgressed, but here is the simple remedy, repent, turn around and come back, stop trying to get water out of broken cisterns, stop digging your own wells which will always be dry, instead return to me, come back to the living water, come back to God. While the word of grace is not the first thing they hear from Jeremiah, because they have strayed too far, it is the word of grace that comes, and one of the easy solutions is for them to again start asking one simple question: “Where is the Lord?” That, we are told, is what the people had stopped asking, and as a result they stopped telling the story to their children and they were led astray.

Jeremiah’s message is just as relevant for us today as it was for the people who first heard it. If you remember nothing else from today’s sermon or worship service, I want you to remember this, so you can write this down in your sermon notes, the question to ask is “Where is God?” Individually we should be asking “Where is God in my career?” “Where is God in my family?” “Where is God in my school work?” “Where is God in my needs and wants?” When we lose this question, when we stop seeking and looking for where God is and what God is guiding us towards then we are bound to start looking for other things to replace God, and we are told when we replace God with worthless things then we too become worthless. But we also need to make sure we are asking the same thing in the church. “Where is God in the church?” “Where is God in this program?” and even “Where is God in this worship service and sermon?” When we start digging our own wells instead of relying on the living water then we will invariably come up dry.

The church universal is facing some serious issues in this country, and there are lots of people looking for the magic bullet which will solve all of our problems. In regards to the Methodist church, one recent book said “restoration is the answer because it is unthinkable that God would abandon the institutionalized churches in America as they compromise the vast majority – up to 90% -- of the Christians in this country.” In hearing God’s words as spoken to us through Jeremiah I don’t think it is unthinkable at all, because if we have abandoned God, if we have stopped asking the question “Where is the lord?”

If we have stopped giving our allegiance to God, if we have stopped teaching our children, if we have begun trying to dig our own wells because we think we can do it alone, then God will look for those who will be loyal. As Dietrich Bonheoffer said there is no cheap grace, grace comes with responsibilities and obligations. God will uphold the promises made to us, but in return we must also uphold our promises, promises we take and remember every time we celebrate the sacrament of baptism, and a promise to drink from the living water, not from the dry wells we try and dig with our own hands because we will find no water there, and in the desert without water there is only death.

God sends Jeremiah with a message that is to both pull down and to build up, to destroy and to plant. That is God’s justice and mercy. God does not say “you have violated the covenant, so go to hell,” both literally and figuratively. Instead God says, “You have violated the covenant, so come back. Come back to me. Come back to the living water. Stop trying to dig your own wells, stop trying to drink from empty festering cisterns, and come back to me. I will give you water; I will quench your thirst. Come back to me and be my people and I will be your God. Come back to me, come back to me.” May it be so. Amen.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Family Leave For All

David Cameron, the British prime minister, has just announced that he will be taking paternity leave to spend time with his wife and new daughter. Under British law, new fathers are entitled to two weeks paid time off.

First of all our congratulations to he and his wife. It's their fourth child, and I simply cannot imagine. Two is more than enough. At least with two you can do man-to-man defense. With more than that you're having to run zone and that's just not as effective.

Second, hooray for him taking the time off! This is an enormous step in the right direction. Can you image in the president, speaker of the house or majority/minority leader taking time off to be with their new child? Not likely, and that is the true tragedy. (In fairness, Tony Blair also did not take time off with the birth of one of his children, although he did cut back his schedule.)

While in poll after poll most men say they would like to take extended time off after the birth or adoption of a new child, few actually do it. There is still an at least perceived stigma against this in our society. Many men are concerned that their companies will not look at them as favorably as before and will believe they are not as dedicated to their jobs, and hence to the company, as other employees.

While there have been some women's organizations that have pushed for paid leave for men, the support has not been as strong as I believe it should be. Because not only does this benefit men and their connection with their families, it also benefits women. Until men are just as likely to take time off because of pregnancy, until men as just as likely to stay at home with a sick child, and until men are seen by their employers as just as important to their families as women are, then there will always be employers who are going to prefer hiring males so they can avoid all of these issues. (Let's remember is was only 90 years ago yesterday that women were given the constitutional right to vote.)

I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with both of my daughters after they were born. The first because I was just completing my degree and so was only working part-time which allowed me to be home during the day with her. The second because I was a member of a union and so was provided four weeks of paid leave to be with her and my wife. While I did find that most other men also took some time off, I was the only one who took all four weeks at once. Most others just lightened their work loads, or only took a couple of weeks. That obviously is not an option for new moms, and so it is very important for men to take the time when they can get it. That is why this is an incredibly important move for Cameron to make.

This is an enormous step in the right direction. Cameron has now said to the rest of the males in England that it is okay to take time off. If the PM can do it, certainly they can do it, and everyone will benefit from that move.

Paid time off is an issue that the church should take very seriously and we should be advocates for equal treatment and also for greater flexibility, accountability and for longer periods of time.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Liturgies

There has been some discussion taking place for a while now about the need for the church to create new liturgies and rituals to mark new milestones in people's lives. In the recent past I have had the need to find liturgies for things like the dedication of a church library or the beginning of a sabbatical, but without any luck. I know there are people who are gifted at writing liturgies and prayers, but unfortunately that is not one of my graces.

Recently I have been searching for other liturgies that might be added to our services, like the blessing of new drivers, or the sending off of those going away to college. But, I have not been able to find any Christian sites or books that contain these things. I found a fantastic Jewish website (, and many of their rituals can be adapted, but there has to be a good mainline Christian site out there doesn't there? Does anyone know of a good site that contains liturgies for special occasions, or perhaps multiple sites that contain a few? If not, maybe we need to create one.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I'm Here, Ask Me

I am a young pastor. I have a young family. I am in the target demographic the church is supposedly trying to target, yet I have never been asked by anyone in a higher position of authority what I would like to see the church do/become. Why is that?

I have certainly heard a lot from these people (who are all at least 20 years older than I am) about what I should be doing and what my generation wants, but where are they getting this information?

While I cannot speak for my entire generation, very little of what I hear is actually appealing to me. Most of the "magic bullets" I have heard about from the top will not be effective with me or my friends. So it's little wonder to me that most of these ideas fail at hitting their target.

I routinely hear that we need to have a contemporary service, by which they mean having a praise/rock band. That's certainly not what I want in a service. First of all I have never actually seen a contemporary service that I have thought was done well. I know they are out there, but I haven't seen it yet. Second, if you attend such a service look around at who is there and who seems to be getting the most out of it. In my experience it's 40-year-old white women. While they are just as deserving of receiving the word of God, that is not really the major target audience for most churches. Third, while I do have Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and other rock bands in my cd collection and I do listen to them, that is not what I listen to most of the time. Now if you want to do a country service, that I might be interested in attending.

But the real point is that my life is chaotic and noisy outside of church. When I go to church I need to be able to find some quiet space and time. I don't need more noise. Does that mean we don't sing more "contemporary" songs, no we certainly can, but putting a rock band in the chancel is not attractive to me as a worship option.

I attended a conference in January and during the worship service, they of course had their rock bands playing and the music was so loud that I left not full of the Holy Spirit but with a headache. I actually stopped going to the services because I couldn't take it.

So do you know what it takes to attract people of my generation and those with young children? You don't unless you actually take the time to ask them, to truly hear what they have to say and then be prepared to do something about it. So here I am, ask me...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Congress Taking a Stand

Okay, I tried to stay away from the Roger Clemens issue for a while now, but I just can’t do it. In case you don’t pay attention to these things, last week Roger Clemens was indicted on charges of perjury in his testimony to Congress. And all I can think is, are you kidding me? I’m glad that some members of Congress took time away from their incredibly busy schedules to pursue this.

I know how much work it takes to make sure we pass legislation that makes sure that people who declare bankruptcy cannot have their guns repossessed, because I know that making sure people under enormous stress and experiencing one of the worst situations in their lives can keep their weapons is priority number one. I think we should have added an amendment to give them free ammo for all those declaring bankruptcy so they don’t have to worry about that expense.

I know that making sure that a bill that would provide medical care to all our emergency workers who worked at ground zero wasn’t passed because the Republicans wanted to make sure that no funds would go to illegal immigrants took a lot of time.

And I know that they are so busy that they literally passed a bill entitled “The _____ Act of _____.” (You can’t make this stuff up.)

So even with all of this incredibly important stuff going on, I’m glad they took time out to make sure that Roger Clemens is taken to task. What more pressing issue can there possibly be? After all, Clemens must be taught a lesson for allegedly lying to congress. He certainly must not get away with this.

What Clemens did, after all, is much worse than the heads of big tobacco saying under oath that they don’t spike their cigarettes or that tobacco is not addictive. Clemens alleged untruths must be worse because these people were never brought up on charges of perjury. Clemens must be worse than auto administrators who have lied about the safety of their vehicles, or drug companies doing the same thing, or the last administration lying about intelligence, or heaven forbid all of the members of the financial community who have said things under oath that were patently not true. Obviously all of those things are not as important as the issue of steroids and so we must make an example of Clemens.

As long as Congress is wasting their time, and the time of their federal prosecutors, let me suggest a few laws they might better spend their time passing:

• Recording artists cannot release a greatest hits album until the tenth anniversary of their first song reaching the charts, or after having released a minimum of five albums in seven years. I’m tired of seeing a band releasing a greatest hits album after only their second mediocre album is out. (And yes I know they actually aren’t albums anymore but you can’t really call them CD’s either since I buy almost all my music as MP3s, so I’m sticking with the tried and true).

• All movies released on DVD must come with a director’s commentary. And if the movie scores below 40% approval on the commentary must also include an explanation from the director why they created such a terrible film and an apology for wasting two hours of our life.

• Any person who talks about protecting their Constitutional rights must be forced to read the actual Constitution so they have some idea what they are talking about.

• Any state that has a death penalty must also institute similar laws for white collar criminals and state executions must be done in equal numbers. One state execution of a black man for killing a white person must be equaled by the death of a white banker/corporate exec, etc., who stole money from someone else, often those who can least afford it, like the minority communities.

• Everyone who takes Labor Day off must donate ten dollars to the labor union movement (a list can be stipulated). This does not apply if they are already a union member.

• Every corporation that donates any money to a political candidate, party, or PAC must list each and every donation and amount in at least 14 pt font on the first page of their website, on every public document released, in every commercial they run, on the bottom of their screen if they are a television station, and on their receipts if they are a retail business. For punishment for failure to comply with the law, the CEO could be subject to the penalty discussed above.

• M. Night Shyamalan must be forced to admit that The Sixth Sense was a fluke, movie studios and promotion departments have to stop making a big deal of his films, and everyone else must stop wondering when he is going to put out another good film. He's put out six already, our "sixth sense" should be telling us it is not going to happen.

• Sports announcers must stop saying RBIs. The acronymn is either run batter in or runs batted in. It is already plural, so you don't need to say it again. Yesterday, Robinson Cano had 6 RBI, he did not have 6 RBIs, just as on Saturday, Derek Jeter had 1 RBI.

• Television stations cannot increase the volume of their broadcast when commercials come on. The sound must be consistent for both the television show and the commercials. For possible penalties, see above.

• Airlines must be required to post what they charge for each checked bag on the first page of their websites. Have you ever tried to find this information on their site? It's nearly impossible.

• Daylight savings time must be eliminated.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I’m sure that most of you have probably heard of the recent events on a Jet Blue flight in which a flight attendant got into an altercation with a passenger who had stood up and was trying to get her bags out of the overhead bin before the plane came to a stop. The attendant then said some choice words to her over the intercom and left the plane, also before the plane came to the gate.

Essayist David Sedaris recently wrote a piece about people behaving badly on airlines. "We're forever blaming the airline industry for turning us into monsters," Sedaris wrote. "But what if this is who we truly are, and the airport's just a forum that allows us to be our real selves, not just hateful but gloriously so?"

I certainly hope that’s not the case and this story stands in contrast to a story covered on This American Life. Allen Wigington, a former chief deputy in the Pickens County Sheriff’s Department in Georgia, recounted an incident he had on a flight. After they had landed, but before they got to the gate, the flight attendant came on and said that there was a soldier sitting at the back of the plane who was returning from his tour in Iraq. She told the passengers that the soldier’s wife and newborn daughter, whom he had never met, were waiting for him, and she asked everyone to remain in their seats so that he could be the first one off the plane. Amazingly, everyone complied with the request, and once the soldier was off, then everything returned to the normal rush that we’ve all experienced.

In my opinion, most of the rude and terrible behavior that we see all around us, and even sometimes have directed at us, is the result of individualism gone wrong. Many times it seems we have lost a sense of community; we focus on the pluribus rather than the unum. When we no longer feel connected to others or believe they have nothing to do with us, then we believe we can treat others as if they are not equals or deserving of respect.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said that as Christians we have to think collectively. “Scripture knows nothing of a solitary religion,” he said. In other words, we are all in this together. We should hear this each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, which begins not “My Father,” but instead “Our Father.” In fact, each time a pronoun is used in the prayer it is plural. We are linked together in this prayer, just as we are linked together by our faith.

This does not mean that we sublimate ourselves, but that we recognize that, as Paul tells us, all of us are necessary and important. Even though all of us play different roles in the church, all of us are equals in the eyes of God and so we should also be equal in each others eyes and we are all deserving of respect. As we rapidly move toward a new program year, let’s begin a revolution amongst ourselves, which can spread to the rest of the world, in which we pledge to treat everyone we encounter as a child of God, worthy of value and love.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Realities Of New Freshmen

Each year Beloit College publishes a list of what this year's incoming college freshmen have either always or never known. Here is this year's list, which makes me feel old:

Beloit, Wis. – Born when Ross Perot was warning about a giant sucking sound and Bill Clinton was apologizing for pain in his marriage, members of this fall’s entering college class of 2014 have emerged as a post-email generation for whom the digital world is routine and technology is just too slow.

Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List. It provides a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall. The creation of Beloit’s Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride and former Public Affairs Director Ron Nief, it was originally created as a reminder to faculty to be aware of dated references, and quickly became a catalog of the rapidly changing worldview of each new generation.

The class of 2014 has never found Korean-made cars unusual on the Interstate and five hundred cable channels, of which they will watch a handful, have always been the norm. Since "digital" has always been in the cultural DNA, they've never written in cursive and with cell phones to tell them the time, there is no need for a wrist watch. Dirty Harry (who’s that?) is to them a great Hollywood director. The America they have inherited is one of soaring American trade and budget deficits; Russia has presumably never aimed nukes at the United States and China has always posed an economic threat.

Nonetheless, they plan to enjoy college. The males among them are likely to be a minority. They will be armed with iPhones and BlackBerries, on which making a phone call will be only one of many, many functions they will perform. They will now be awash with a computerized technology that will not distinguish information and knowledge. So it will be up to their professors to help them. A generation accustomed to instant access will need to acquire the patience of scholarship. They will discover how to research information in books and journals and not just on-line. Their professors, who might be tempted to think that they are hip enough and therefore ready and relevant to teach the new generation, might remember that Kurt Cobain is now on the classic oldies station. The college class of 2014 reminds us, once again, that a generation comes and goes in the blink of our eyes, which are, like the rest of us, getting older and older.

The Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014

Most students entering college for the first time this fall—the Class of 2014—were born in 1992. For these students, Benny Hill, Sam Kinison, Sam Walton, Bert Parks and Tony Perkins have always been dead.

1. Few in the class know how to write in cursive.

2. Email is just too slow, and they seldom if ever use snail mail.

3. “Go West, Young College Grad” has always implied “and don’t stop until you get to Asia…and learn Chinese along the way.”

4. Al Gore has always been animated.

5. Los Angelinos have always been trying to get along.

6. Buffy has always been meeting her obligations to hunt down Lothos and the other blood-suckers at Hemery High.

7. “Caramel macchiato” and “venti half-caf vanilla latte” have always been street corner lingo.

8. With increasing numbers of ramps, Braille signs, and handicapped parking spaces, the world has always been trying harder to accommodate people with disabilities.

9. Had it remained operational, the villainous computer HAL could be their college classmate this fall, but they have a better chance of running into Miley Cyrus’s folks on Parents’ Weekend.

10. A quarter of the class has at least one immigrant parent, and the immigration debate is not a big priority…unless it involves “real” aliens from another planet.

11. John McEnroe has never played professional tennis.

12. Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry.

13. Parents and teachers feared that Beavis and Butt-head might be the voice of a lost generation.

14. Doctor Kevorkian has never been licensed to practice medicine.

15. Colorful lapel ribbons have always been worn to indicate support for a cause.

16. Korean cars have always been a staple on American highways.

17. Trading Chocolate the Moose for Patti the Platypus helped build their Beanie Baby collection.

18. Fergie is a pop singer, not a princess.

19. They never twisted the coiled handset wire aimlessly around their wrists while chatting on the phone.

20. DNA fingerprinting and maps of the human genome have always existed.

21. Woody Allen, whose heart has wanted what it wanted, has always been with Soon-Yi Previn.

22. Cross-burning has always been deemed protected speech.

23. Leasing has always allowed the folks to upgrade their tastes in cars.

24. “Cop Killer” by rapper Ice-T has never been available on a recording.

25. Leno and Letterman have always been trading insults on opposing networks.

26. Unless they found one in their grandparents’ closet, they have never seen a carousel of Kodachrome slides.

27. Computers have never lacked a CD-ROM disk drive.

28. They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day.

29. Reggie Jackson has always been enshrined in Cooperstown.

30. “Viewer Discretion” has always been an available warning on TV shows.

31. The first computer they probably touched was an Apple II; it is now in a museum.

32. Czechoslovakia has never existed.

33. Second-hand smoke has always been an official carcinogen.

34. “Assisted Living” has always been replacing nursing homes, while Hospice has always been an alternative to hospitals.

35. Once they got through security, going to the airport has always resembled going to the mall.

36. Adhesive strips have always been available in varying skin tones.

37. Whatever their parents may have thought about the year they were born, Queen Elizabeth declared it an “Annus Horribilis.”

38. Bud Selig has always been the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

39. Pizza jockeys from Domino’s have never killed themselves to get your pizza there in under 30 minutes.

40. There have always been HIV positive athletes in the Olympics.

41. American companies have always done business in Vietnam.

42. Potato has always ended in an “e” in New Jersey per vice presidential edict.

43. Russians and Americans have always been living together in space.

44. The dominance of television news by the three networks passed while they were still in their cribs.

45. They have always had a chance to do community service with local and federal programs to earn money for college.

46. Nirvana is on the classic oldies station.

47. Children have always been trying to divorce their parents.

48. Someone has always gotten married in space.

49. While they were babbling in strollers, there was already a female Poet Laureate of the United States.

50. Toothpaste tubes have always stood up on their caps.

51. Food has always been irradiated.

52. There have always been women priests in the Anglican Church.

53. J.R. Ewing has always been dead and gone. Hasn’t he?

54. The historic bridge at Mostar in Bosnia has always been a copy.

55. Rock bands have always played at presidential inaugural parties.

56. They may have assumed that parents’ complaints about Black Monday had to do with punk rockers from L.A., not Wall Street.

57. A purple dinosaur has always supplanted Barney Google and Barney Fife.

58. Beethoven has always been a dog.

59. By the time their folks might have noticed Coca Cola’s new Tab Clear, it was gone.

60. Walmart has never sold handguns over the counter in the lower 48.

61. Presidential appointees have always been required to be more precise about paying their nannies’ withholding tax, or else.

62. Having hundreds of cable channels but nothing to watch has always been routine.

63. Their parents’ favorite TV sitcoms have always been showing up as movies.

64. The U.S, Canada, and Mexico have always agreed to trade freely.

65. They first met Michelangelo when he was just a computer virus.

66. Galileo is forgiven and welcome back into the Roman Catholic Church.

67. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always sat on the Supreme Court.

68. They have never worried about a Russian missile strike on the U.S.

69. The Post Office has always been going broke.

70. The artist formerly known as Snoop Doggy Dogg has always been rapping.

71. The nation has never approved of the job Congress is doing.

72. One way or another, “It’s the economy, stupid” and always has been.

73. Silicone-gel breast implants have always been regulated.

74. They’ve always been able to blast off with the Sci-Fi Channel.

75. Honda has always been a major competitor on Memorial Day at Indianapolis.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tax Free

Just finished up an all too short vacation, which ended with the Massachusetts tax free weekend. I didn't plan it that way, nor did I really participate in this event. Although I did buy a few things, they were things we needed to get anyways. But I'm a little puzzled about why this is a such a big deal for people.

If a store was to run a promotion in which they were to say "This weekend everything in the store is 6.25% off," would anyone show up? My guess is probably not. But in saying everything is tax free then everyone comes because they think they are getting away with something. Even more puzzling is that the vast majority of people are paying for all these items on their credit cards. So they want to save $62.50 when they buy that $1000 television, but they are going to put it on a credit card at 14% interest (that's the current average, meaning many people are paying a lot more).

If people pay $50 more a month on their credit card to pay this off, they will end up paying $145.38 in fees to the banks rather than to the government. If they pay an extra hundred dollars a month, they end up paying $69.62 in interest fees. Those are both losing propositions. And remember, that would require people to pay more each month on their credit cards. If they kept paying the same amount, or only paying the minimum those rates go through the roof. Making the minimum payment on that $1000 TV at 14% will add an additional $509.57 to the total cost. Good thing they saved the $62.50 in taxes or it would be really expensive.

Now this statement will tell you exactly where I am on the political spectrum, but I would much rather give $62.50 to the government then even the same amount to my credit card company. Do I love paying taxes, no, but I understand their purpose and necessity. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said that "taxes are the price of civilization," and I would agree with him.

Now some have argued that anyone who makes this statement is really just for big government and against the "people." But I reject that argument on its face. There is simply no way we could operate as a society without taxation in some form. In his book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond does a great job in elucidating what makes a move from small hunter-gathering tribal groups to larger societies possible, and one of those things is taxes. In fact the oldest known writing, which comes from Egypt, is about taxes.

I personally like having roads, a police and fire department, a community pool and parks, and I even like the social safety net, although I think it should be greatly improved. While I do not like paying for an empire I also gladly pay for that because government is about compromise and if I have to pay for too much military in order to have a system that protects the most vulnerable then that is a compromise I am willing to make. It might not be a good one, but it's the best we have at the moment.

What I'd really like to know, however, is when some politician is going to make the argument about the benefits of taxes and what we all get out of it, even those who hate them. I don't see them refusing to drive on roads, buying buildings that have not been inspected, or refusing to call the fire or police in an emergency. Those are all social goods that can only be provided by a government. These things simply cannot be paid for without taxes. (I know that there are private fire departments, and I've seen them in action and can tell you some stories.)

We need to move beyond the individual and thinking only for ourselves and remember that we are all in this together. That our situation in life has more to do with flukes of nature than with everything we have done (think John Rawls). I know there is no politician willing to stand up and defend taxes, but I would sure love to see it and they would get my vote.

And one comment for all the tea party members, which includes a member of my own family. I understand the argument. There are certainly changes that need to be made, making the system progressive rather than regressive is one. But let's understand a couple of things, besides for what I've already talked about.

First, removing the tax break given by President Bush will not affect your life unless you are in the top 3% of individual income, which is currently about $250,000 a year. Second, as a historian I have to say that if you want to take on the tea party tax protest as your metaphor then you need to study history.

Why was London raising taxes on the colonists? Because they were having a hard time paying for wars and keeping the military up. Having an empire is extremely expensive, and the British regulars had fought several wars in America to protect the colonies and the debts were raking up. What parliament was doing was charging the colonies the fees they felt were necessary to keep a military presence in America, and to pay for the wars they had already fought in America for the colonists. Does this sound familiar?

I am just as concerned about the national debt as anyone because I know who will be paying for it. And just so we're clear, the current budget deficit does not include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because most of those expenses are extra budgetary items that don't show up in the federal budget. But we cannot continue paying for those expenses, or paying for our empire, without taxes.

The Democrats have been accused of being "tax and spend," but that is better than the last administration which was "don't tax and spend." The money has to come from somewhere and at some point the piper will demand payment. If we want to reduce taxes then we have to face serious realities about military expenditures (which, by the way, includes socialized medicine and housing).

If the tea party wants to make that part of their platform then they will truly began to get support from across the spectrum.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

An A-Bomb by A-Rod

Congratulations go out to Alex Rodriguez who hit his 600th home run yesterday, becoming just the seventh player in Major League history to reach that plateau. Now many sports commentators are playing down the significance of this because it is unknown how many home runs were assisted by means of "performance enhancing drugs." If you've been reading this blog for any period of time you already know my thoughts on this, which is that it is bogus.

First, as my beautiful bride said last night, how come all they ever talk about is hitters, why don't they talk about pitchers? Half of all the people who have tested positive have been pitchers, so does that effect how we look at the debate?

Second, the steroid area extends from at least 1986, which is the year pegged by Peter Gammons, although I think you need to go back to 1983 or 1984, up through maybe 2004 or later if you think everyone just moved to untraceable drugs like HGH. As much as I can't stand Jose Canseco, so far he has been right about almost everything he said, which includes the fact that at least 85% of all players were using during this time period.

This was an issue for at least 20 years, so let's stop talking about who is clean and who isn't, because there is absolutely no way of knowing. Frank Thomas and Ken Griffie, Jr., are routinely said to have no indications that they ever used, and I hope they didn't, but there is simply no way of knowing. I am no longer surprised by any one's name I hear being mentioned. There are certainly some that disappoint me, but none are surprising. Unless you are going to discount all numbers for all players during that decade let's just deal with it and move on.

Finally, as one person said, Babe Ruth never had to face Satchel Page, so wasn't that an advantage? A-Rod has the advantage of having better supplements and work out routines that are legal, as well as the fact that he can go into the locker room immediately after each at bat and watch what just happened so that he can make real-time adjustments to a pitcher, as well as having scouting reports that were just simply unimaginable forty years ago. Imagine what Ted Williams could have done had he had this technology? Do we discount his home runs because of that advantage.

Here is my solution. If we don't want Bonds or A-Rod to be the home run champion then let's put the title where it rightfully belongs, which is with Josh Gibson, who is arguably the greatest home run hitter of all time. It is estimated that he hit 800-1000 home runs in his very short career (he died of a brain tumor at age 35). The "official" records for the negro leagues credit him with 115 home runs in 1855 at bats over 510 games (although these are known not to be fully accurate), and the full total will simply never be known. The "official" numbers do not include all the games he played in when his teams were just barnstorming and not playing other negro league teams.

Based on the "official" numbers, Gibson hit one home run every 16.1 at bats. A-Rod has hit a home run every 14.5 at bats, Hank Aaron hit one every 16.4, Ruth every 11.8, Willie Mays every 16.5, and Ken Griffey, Jr. every 15.6.

Let's put Josh Gibson's name where it belongs since the only reason he was never given a chance to prove how good he was was because he was not white. That certainly seems to me as egregious a crime as someone taking steroids was, if not worse.

So how do we deal with those numbers and the numbers of the white pitchers who never had to face him in a line-up? Baseball is all about numbers, but they've also always been somewhat artificial and not really comparable across decades and generations. We've put an asterisk on a home run record in the past, and we all know now what a terrible mistake that was, so why do we want to do it again? Haven't we learned anything?

So congratulations A-Rod. You might not get the credit you deserve from some, but no one can truly take those numbers away from you.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What is Enough?

Here is my sermon from yesterday. The passage was the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. If you would like to receive one of the contentment keytags that were given out, please let me know.

Now I know that in hearing today’s passage from Luke, which is a story we think we would normally hear later in the fall some of you are probably thinking to yourselves, “man, they are really moving the stewardship campaign earlier and earlier.” But, this is one of the times when as a preacher it’s useful to use the lectionary, because I can blame the lectionary for causing me to cover this topic. It also gives me plenty of ideas for songs to sing after the gauntlet was thrown down for me by Greg Yanchenko last week. But there is no need to worry about the money sermon today, because today’s scripture is not really about money. Instead, it’s about something that may be even worse than hearing about money, it’s about hearing about our stuff. As George Carlin told us, “If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it,” he said. “Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff.”
If you do a search for home many times fool appears in the bible, you will find that it, along with derivates like foolish, fools, etc, appears 173 times. 103 of those are found in the psalms, proverbs or Ecclesiastes, which you might expect since they are part of the wisdom literature. The word appears only 38 times in the New Testament, 10 of those in the gospels, with six in Matthew and 4 in Luke. But of all of the 173 times it is found, only once does God say it. Jesus calls people fools several times, including calling the Pharisees fools just previous to today’s reading, but what seems striking to me, is that when God comes a calling, God is the one who calls the man a fool. I don’t quite know what to make of that yet.
In doing my research on this passage, I find that many of the commentators focus on the story of the fool, but totally skip what sets the story up; a man comes to Jesus and tells Jesus to tell the man’s brother to divide the inheritance with him. If you were here two weeks ago when Elizabeth Windsor preached you might remember that her passage had Martha telling Jesus that he should tell Mary to help her do the work around the house. I think there is a definite connection between these two stories. You might also hear echoes of the story of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the way this parable is set-up in telling us about a certain man and what is required of us.
Jesus obviously knows some background information about the brother’s request for help that we do not have. The man’s request would not have been an unusual as there is certainly a tradition for people to go to religious leaders, including Moses, and have them intervene on these issues. But Jesus’ response seems a little strange in that he automatically changes the request from a man seeking justice to be done, to one of a man driven by greed asking for assistance in getting his desires, which allows Jesus to tell this rather strange story of a certain rich man.
Now although the claim that the man was rich would certainly have raised connotations for the original audience hearing this parable, especially the fact that he was rich in land, we are not told anything about him. In fact there is no judgment raised about the man. We are not told that he is bad or evil, or that he will be eternally damned, as happens in other stories. We are not told that he lied, cheated or stole in order to accumulate his fortune, all we are told is that he is a certain rich man. No judgment is made about his possessions per say, but instead about how he views the possessions and what he does with them.
This parable is also not against saving for a rainy day, in fact scripture supports that, we need look no further than Joseph telling the pharaoh to put away grain for the coming seven year drought. You should be saving for your retirement, and you should also be saving for a rainy day. The current estimate from financial planners is to have seven months income set aside to protect you, that is in addition to your retirement accounts. This is part of what it means to be a good steward, but this is very different than what the man in today’s parable is doing. The man is not stockpiling for a rainy day, or to help out those in need, he is gaining more and more simply for the sake of gaining more and more so that he can enjoy himself.
That is what he says, and this is the key portion of this passage, the man says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.” Of course, he missed out on the final portion of that statement, found most famously in Isaiah, which is that tomorrow you die, and of course that is exactly what happens. That is why God calls him a fool. The man is making assumptions and acting and living as if there is not a God, and as if he controls the length of his life. The word translated here as soul, in Greek is psyche, meaning closer to self.
The man believes that he is in control of everything in his life, so much that he can even sort of refer to himself in this way and tell himself what to do. If you are familiar with Aristotelian philosophy, he is the prime mover in his own life. Notice how much I is used in the story, the man says “I will” do something four times, and it is also “my barn, my grain, my goods.” Everything is entirely about the man. He talks to no one else, and no one else is even mentioned in the story until the one who can actually control things, God, comes in and demands the man’s life.
The real problem with possessions we are told is that they cause us to believe that we are self-sufficient that we don’t need anything or anyone else, we can do it all ourselves. Even those who helped him are never mentioned. Certainly he was not planting, harvesting or putting his crops away himself, nor was he building his own barns, but those who were assisting him are never mentioned because he believes that he is doing everything himself. He doesn’t believe that he owes anything to anyone else, because he foolishly believes he is the one in control, that he is self-sufficient that he has everything he needs, so much so that he can tell himself what he is going to do not only with his property but even with the rest of his life. But what he finds out is that he is not in control of his life, and that the things that he has built up make no difference at the end of his life.
The man believes that he is self-sufficient, that he doesn’t need anyone else, including God, and that is the way he lives his life, but no matter how much stuff he accumulates, no matter how big his barns are, no matter how many years’ savings he has, he is not alone in the world and he does not control his future. You can live as if God does not exist, but that does not change the reality that we can be called to meet God at any time. The man makes his possessions the entirety of who he is.
Now in our culture, keeping up with the joneses is not only a saying it is a reality, and what studies have also found is that this is worse in economically diverse communities. If you routinely have exposure to people who have bigger and more stuff than you do, then we want to move up to what they have so that we can feel good about ourselves. It’s like the old Janis Joplin song: “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porches I must make amends, worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, O lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Why does she need a Mercedes? Because her friends all drive Porches.
We are continually told to accumulate, to gather, to build bigger and get more. We are inundated by stuff, and more stuff than we can keep. Our houses have become so full that we need storage units in order to keep it all. In the US, we currently have 2.3 billion square foot of storage unit space, which is three times the size of Manhattan, and that’s with the square footage of the average home having more than doubled in the last thirty years. Do you know what it would cost to provide clean water to every person in the world? $10 billion. We spend $22 billion dollars annually on storage units, and yes that is a capital B billion, and storage usage has increased 65% in the last 15 years and is still growing. In fact it is one of the fastest growing sectors of the real estate market.
Now just to let you all know, this is not me banging a stick over your heads as if I am not guilty of the same issues, because it’s not true. When we moved into the parsonage, which was the biggest house we’ve ever lived in, and more house than we need, what was the first thing we did? We went out and bought new things to fill up the space. We had extra space and so we had to fill it up. But is there another way to live? Are we as Christians called to walk a different path and to live a different life? After my Thanksgiving sermon last year, someone came up to Pastor Joel and said that he didn’t really need anything else for Christmas, and was wondering what we as a church could do to change our practices, that would allow us to give that money to those truly in need. We didn’t have the time to implement anything at the time, but I did a little research and found a program called Advent Conspiracy which we will be running this year.
The program seeks to take the focus of Christmas off of us and the accumulation of things and put it back onto the birth of Christ. Each year in America we spend $450 billion dollars on Christmas. $10.6 billion alone is spent on the Friday after Thanksgiving, traditionally known as black Friday. The four churches that got together to form the program said that rather than running around like chickens with our heads cut off spending money we don’t have on gifts people don’t need or want, what if instead we created a new tradition in which we focused on things that really matter, like spending time with our families and friends, and what if we took the money we didn’t spend on Christmas and used it for other purposes, like relieving our own personal debt, or setting up an emergency fund, or spending it to further the kingdom of God by providing the world with clean water.
We can live our lives in one of either two realities. We can either live lives of contentment, or we can live lives of discontentment. Those are the two realities. Discontentment leaves us uncertain, questioning and hungering for something, anything to make us content. That is what advertising is all about, making you feel that you cannot be content in your life without this widget in your life, and you know you have to have it because everyone else has it as well, or they have last year’s model and so you want to be better than they are so you need this year’s model. As the saying goes, we end up buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like. But we don’t have to live that life.
We can also choose to be content with what we have, and in order to help us make a move in that direction, the ushers are going to be passing out these little key tags. On one side they say contentment, and on the second side they have a prayer. The prayer says “Lord, help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity.” We have plenty, so take one for each key ring you want it to be on, put it right next to all the keytags you get for discounts at other places like the grocery store, or place it in your wallet, glue it to the credit card you use the most, put it wherever you think you need it the most. If you want to take some to give out to friends, relatives, neighbors, please do, but don’t take them if all they are going to do is be added to your collection of stuff. The purpose is to help us eliminate the stuff and clutter or our lives, not to increase it.
Whenever you are feeling discontentment and thinking that you need to buy something in order make yourself feel better, pull it out and say the prayer. When you are at the grocery store and you pull out your keys to give to the cashier look at it, say the prayer and ask if you really need everything you are buying, or do you just want it. Don’t bury this in the middle of all of your other keytags, make sure it is the first thing you see.
As the ushers pass the tags out, I would like to sing one more song, thank you Mr. Yanchenko. You will recognize the tune because we use it for Lord of the Dance, but it’s originally from a Shaker song called Tis the Gift to be Simple, and it goes like this:
Tis the gift to be simple tis the gift to be free
Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
Twill be in the valley of love and delight
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come round right

Martha was distracted by the many things, but this man and the brother are distracted by one thing. The brother is focused on the things he does not yet have, but wants, and the rich fool is focused on what he has, and wants more of, and they distract them from seeing and focusing on God. They view economics and things as a zero-sum game, in which there are those who have and those who have not, but that is our economic system, that is not God’s economic system. In God’s system the Israelites are fed with manna falling from the sky and with water from a rock, in God’s system 5000 people are fed with five loaves and two fish, in God’s system 4000 are fed with seven loaves and fish, God’s economic system feeds all of us from a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. God’s system is not a zero-sum game, because when we choose it there is enough for everyone because when we are focused on God we realize what is truly important, we push everything else to the side, we focus on the one thing and we are rich towards God and towards each other. This parable is not about being rich or poor, having lots of things or few things, it is about where our allegiance is and where our focus lies, is it on God or on things, is it on what we have or want or is it on God, is it on what we need or on what we desire?
It is not our possessions in and of themselves that are the problem. It is the love of things that is the problem. The things themselves are neutral, it is all in our relation to them. Do we put our trust in them, or in God? Do we put our allegiance in things or in God? Do we worship our stuff, or do we worship God? Do we believe that we are self-sufficient and independent, and live as if there is no God, or do we believe that we are connected to each other and to God? Or, ultimately, does our faith in God have any impact on the practical matters of life? When you look for things to fill your life, then there can never be enough, you will always need more, but when you look instead to God your blessings will overflow and you will never be lacking. Amen.