WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR

Thanks for the comments. Please keep them coming.  Here is a sermon from last year. Friday, I will have some comments on celebrities.

 

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

LUKE 10: 25-37 JULY 14, 2019

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT IS THIS STORY ALL ABOUT

Sometimes people state what is painfully obvious; like these Something went wrong in jet crash, experts say. Miners refuse to work after death. War dims hope for peace. If strike isn’t settled quickly, it may last a while. Cold wave linked to temperatures.

And sometimes headlines don’t really mean what they say and are misunderstood; like these. Eye drops off shelf. Red tape holds up new bridge. Hospitals sued by 7 foot doctors. Prostitutes appeal to Pope.

The story of the Good Samaritan could be painfully obvious. We have heard it so many times before. We can assume that we know what the moral of the story is all about. Bu it may also not mean just what it seems to say.

It is always interesting to think about which character we are in the story. An expert on the Bible asks Jesus a question, not to learn but to try to discredit him. Jesus answers him with a story. You know the story. So ask yourself who are you in the story. Are you one of the two religious people who pass by without stopping to help?  Before you condemn them we should remember that they were busy. Many of us are on tight schedules. We know what it’s like to have to be at the Temple by 11:00. We understand their natural self-preoccupation. They were afraid that they would be made ritually unclean if they came near. And they would have put themselves in danger because the same robbers might still be around. Or maybe you are the Samaritan who stopped to help. We all would like to think that we would be kind and help this poor man who was truly helpless.

I’d like to tell you about a time when I thought I was being the Samaritan. It was during a youth group event. We were having a scavenger hunt. We broke up into teams in cars of adult helpers. The first one back to the church would win. My team was doing well. Then we came around the corner and an older lady flagged us down. Her husband was having a heart attack. We stopped and I told one of the boys to go to the house near-by and call 911. This was before cell phones. We waited there with her until the medics arrived. When we got back to church we were the last to finish. The other kids were mocking the slow preacher’s car. That night I changed the lesson to this story of the Good Samaritan. But it is not a parallel to this parable. It was just a game. It cost me nothing to stop.  It posed no danger to me.  It was not the kind of thing Jesus was getting at in the story.

KINDNESS AS IF

Maybe the headline here would be, “Jesus tells a story about being kind.”  There is some that in the story. It may contain a moral teaching about being kind to others. I am coming to the conclusion more and more that kindness is the missing element in the world that causes so much Whether it is in the interaction of nations or the way governments treat people in their own nation or the way neighbors treat their neighbors. Think of how much good would be achieved if kindness ruled all of our behavior.

But this story is about a special form of kindness. It is an extravagant form of kindness. We may all be willing to show costly or even dangerous kindness for the people that we love. But what about the stranger? We don’t have any children at the border. Why should we be concerned about conditions there?  They are not even American citizens. Why should we help them? It’s because when Jesus said to help whoever needs help, he didn’t limit it to citizenship or race. In fact that was his answer to the Bible expert’s question.  There are NO LIMITS to the call to care and to help, even if it is costly or dangerous. Jesus destroys any parochial understanding of our mission.

Fred Rogers was one of the best examples of teaching kindness to children. His message got through to many of us as adults as well. One child said, “Mr. Rogers talks to us like we are Another said, “Mr. Rogers is kind to me even though he doesn’t know me.” And still another child said, “He talks to us like we matter.”  He asked us all to be his neighbor.  The law expert got his answer to his question, “Who is my neighbor?” It is anyone who shows kindness to me. Kindness is love in action. Kindness is love with its work gloves on. Love is not an emotion. It is an action.

But what about our neighbors that we don’t love? Maybe like the Samaritan in the story? Kurt Vonnegut had a character asked that question of an older friend in one of his novels.  “What should I do about the likes of him? He don’t deserve my help?” And the old man said, “For God’s sake, Joe, be kind!” Even the secular world catches on sometimes. I think Mr. Rogers would say, “Behave as if you DO love them and you will make them your neighbor.

The Samaritan would have been one of those people that the lawyer and the crowd of Jews listening to Jesus would have They were descended from Jews who had not gone off in exile. They intermarried with other races in the area. They rejected the Temple in Jerusalem and built their own Temple on Mr. Gerizim. They were rejected and despised by Jews in the days of Jesus. And Jesus shocks them all by making a Samaritan the hero of the story.

Do you know any Samaritans? So who would a modern parallel to the despised and rejected? Who would Jesus make the hero of the story that would shock us and be a scandal to us? Clarence Jordon wrote a version of Luke set in the Jim Crow south. It’s called the Cotton Patch Version. In his version the Samaritan who stops to help is black. Amy Levine said that after 911, Jesus might have made the hero a Muslim or even Al Qaeda.

Will Willimon wrote about a time his car broke down at night in South Carolina. Several cars went by without stopping to help. Then a car stopped and two big old southern boys got out. Neither was wearing a shirt. They were both were heavily tattooed. They flew a Confederate flag from the antennae. They were both drinking beer. They said, “You all having trouble?” And Willimon thought, “I’m having trouble But they got under the hood of his car and had it started in about 15 minutes. Then they rode off; maybe back to Samaria Georgia.

I remember a great example of shattering categories of who is my neighbor from the news. It was during the protests in There was a skin head lying on the sidewalk bleeding badly. Over him was a nurse who was dressing his wound and giving him water and calling 911 on her cell phone; She happened to be black. Who is my neighbor?

EXTRAVAGANT LOVE OF GOD AND NEIGHBOR

If this parable was primarily about being kind to others, we should remember that it calls for extravagant and costly love. It calls for kindness to those who would probably not have done the same for us. The lawyer asks how he can save himself. And sometimes we try to do that by doing some unselfish Maybe we give a little to the poor. Or we volunteer a little time for a good cause.  But that is not the kind of love that Jesus is talking about in his parable.

We thought about which character we would be in the story. But we didn’t mention one of the characters; the VICTIM. The victim is anyone in need who can’t help themselves. Has that ever been you? I am guessing that every one of us has been there at one time or another. Maybe you have even been like Blanche Dubois in Street Car Named Desire who had to depend on the kindness of strangers at some point.

But in another sense we ALL need the help of one who was despised and rejected. You see, I think the central point of the story is to identify JESUS as the SAMARITAN. The lawyer wants to know how to save himself. And in his answer Jesus says, “You can’t save yourself” Salvation is a free gift from the one who was set upon and beaten and left for dead on a cross. This, like most of the New Testament is a story about grace.  Willimon says this about Jesus. “Remember that this whole argument with the lawyer is preceded by the observation that, ‘This one receives sinner and eats with them. This one welcomes back prodigals. This one forgives adulterous women. This one admits thieves into heaven. This one says, Father forgive them. This one’s love is so extravagant and costly that it makes our charity look miserly.’”

This one, despised and rejected is the one who saves us from the ditch where we have been left for dead. So, for God’s sake, Christian, be kind.

 

SAMPLE CHAPTER FROM MY BOOK

My book, And See All the People, is a fictional account of a church with a fictional pastor named Tim. Each chapter is about one of the members of this church. It takes a look at the interactions of church members and pastor. It is pure fiction; I am not Pastor Tim. None of the members are real people from any church that I served. But any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely intentional. Below is a sample chapters from the book, It is available on Amazon Books in print or Kindle form.

BEATRICE

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Pastor Tim often thought of that Beatles song when he looked at Beatrice.  She was not what most would call an attractive person. Her clothes and her hair and her figure were frumpy and matronly.  She wore far too much make-up. And her eyes expressed a feeling somewhere between hopeful and desperate.

Beatrice had never been married. Her father left when she was very young. Her mother was bitter; but not just towards him. It seemed that it was men in general she was disappointed in. She sent clear messages to Beatrice that men were selfish and not to be trusted.

But she grew up believing that somewhere out there she would find a man who would be different. She didn’t really think of him as Prince Charming.  He would be a plain and simple man who would love her and be true to her for life.

There was a boy in high school that paid attention to her. He seemed nice. He had a serious problem with acne and he was a little shy. But Beatrice was shy as well. And she was aware that she was no beauty herself.  She was thrilled when he asked her to go to the Senior Prom with him. She said yes with great enthusiasm. On the way home from school she day dreamed about the dress she would wear and how he would bring her flowers and how they would dance every dance.

But her dreams were dashed by reality, which took the form of her mother.  “You can’t go to the prom. Have not learned anything from my mistakes? This boy will only want one thing from you and after he has you he will never call you again.  You are absolutely forbidden to go.  Beatrice cried most of the night. The next day she told the boy that she could not go to the prom with him.

Beatrice got past her heartbreak and began to concentrate on the future. She was sure that when she got older and was on her own, there would be plenty of chances to go out dancing with young men who were nothing like the ones her mother hated. But it would be a very long time before she was ever really on her own.  She had a job but she continued to live at home. She slept in the same room that had been hers since childhood.  There were men at work. But they all seemed so brutish and crude. She was sure her Mr. Right was not among them.

About the only other place she ever went was to church.  She sat with her mother and scanned the congregation for eligible men. But they were few and far between. Most of them were boys or older men or married men. Once there was a young man about her age who started attending. He was handsome and slim and neatly dressed. She broke away from mother at coffee hour just long enough to speak to him. Shy as she was, she walked right up to him and introduced herself. She welcomed him to church as she noticed the absence of a wedding ring.  He spoke to her in a soft voice that seemed very caring and sensitive. He told her he lived in New York City and was visiting his parents.

Beatrice began to put specifics to her dream even before the conversation ended.  It would be so exciting to live in New York. His friends would become her friends. They would go out dancing on weekends. They would have children. She loved children.  Maybe they would get a small house in the suburbs when the children came.  “Beatrice, it’s time to go home.”  She was startled out of her fantasy by her mother’s irritated voice.

Before she left, she asked the young man if she could write to him.  He said of course and gave her a card with his address on it. She held it like a valuable treasure.  AS soon as she got home she wrote a letter telling him all about hers self.  She was a little disappointed that it sounded so dull but this was honestly her life. She mailed it the next day on the way to work.

He wrote back that same week.  She clutched the letter like it was a ticket to a better, happier life. In the letter he told her what he did for work. He told him he lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village which he with another guy who was a little older.  They were planning a trip to Mexico together in March. He said there was a resort there that catered to men like us.

What did that mean? She decided to seek the counsel of the new pastor at her church. She didn’t know him, but she sensed that he was kind and might be easy to talk to. She showed him the letter and asked what he thought that meant; men like us.  Pastor Time knew the young man and his family. He explained that her desired future husband was gay. As naïve as she was, she knew what that meant. Pastor Tim said there was no reason they could not correspond as friends. “He doesn’t have many friends in this town. I’m sure he would be glad to be friends with you.”

Beatrice tried to stay under control as she got up to leave the office. But her lower lip gave her away her once again broken heart. She was devastated. Why was it that every time she got her hopes up about a guy, they were crushed immediately?   She waited until she got home to break down.  Her mother heard her sobbing in her room.  “What’s this all about?”  Beatrice told her mother about the letter and her bitter disappointment. But she got no sympathy. She only got an “I told you so.”  “You are better off staying away from men altogether.  It will save you a lot of pain.” Beatrice took no comfort in that.  She was not ready to give up.

When her mother died a year later, Pastor Tim was wonderful. He came to the house and prayed with her. Then he helped her with funeral arrangements and the details that go with a loss. He visited regularly at first.  She felt a strange mix of emotions. She had loved her mother and the house felt very empty without her. But she also struggled with some feelings of relief. She was free to do whatever she wanted. If a nice gentleman would call her for a date, she would accept with no one to answer to. But the call never came.

Pastor Tim tried to start a singles group at the church.  There were a fair number of people who attended including Beatrice; at least at first. Most of the women there were either divorced or widowed.  Beatrice never felt like she connected with them. Most of the men there were also divorced or widowers. It wasn’t long before she stopped going. She was not getting any support and none of the men seemed interested in her. It was about that time that she started to wear make-up. She had never used much when mother was alive.  She really didn’t know how to apply it and used too much when she started. She was always afraid that her dream husband would come along and see her looking plain. She wanted to be ready to impress him. So she applied the make every time she left the house.

There were not a lot of places to go. She went to work. She shopped. She went to the movies. She hated to go out to eat. There was just something humiliating and sad about asking for a table for one.  And she went to church.  She always sat in the same pew.  She sat on the left side near the stained glass window donated by someone long since dead. It was a portrait of a multi-colored Jesus kneeling in Gethsemane in desperate prayer. Although it was not consciously intentional, there was something about that window that connected with Beatrice. And sometimes it made her weep softly in her pew for one.

She wondered what Pastor Tim thought of her when he saw her there every Sunday alone. She wondered if he had any idea how deeply painful loneliness felt. He probably cared about her. But how could he identify with her? He was good looking and popular. He had a pretty wife and three beautiful children. She volunteered regularly in the nursery. She loved the children in church. But they were not her children. She would never have a husband to snuggle up to on a cold evening. She would never have children of her own to love and care for.

So church had become a mixture of feelings. She liked the church. She liked Pastor Tim. But she always felt a twinge of sadness and regret being close to the things she would never have.  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong? Pastor Tim looked at Beatrice with pity. Sometimes he almost slipped and called her Eleanor.

A few things to ponder and a sermon

This is a sermon from 2008. A few funny things to ponder follow.

 

NEW WINE  ACTS 2               MAY 11, 2008

THE CHURCH AND POWER

The preacher wanted to use a real attention getting gimmick on Pentecost. So he had the custodian hide up in the rafters above the pulpit. On the cue, “Then the Holy Spirit descended like a dove” the custodian was to release a white dove that would descend. So the time came and the minister said, “Then the Holy Spirit descended like a dove.” Nothing.  He said it again a little louder.  “Then the Holy Spirit descended like a dove.”  Then he heard the custodian up in the rafters say, “Rev. The cat ate the Holy Spirit. Do you want me to throw the cat down?”

I don’t have any gimmicks today. But I understand how difficult it is to explain the power that was present at that first Pentecost.  Luke tries to explain it. He says it sounded like the rush of a mighty wind. He says it was almost like flames were landing on the apostles heads. He doesn’t have words to express what happened in that upper room.  What we know is that it was frightening and challenging and exciting.  All of a sudden, these terrified, cowardly, weak Galilean fishermen were filled with power from above.  Sportscaster Dan Patrick likes to say that a player who is on a hot streak is “en fuego!”

Inflamed with power is not how WE usually think of the church. We think of the church as being polite and nice and calm and predictable. My friend from an Assembly of God church asked me “Why do Presbyterians need a Book of Order?  It would take several sticks of dynamite to disrupt order in your church.  And why would you want to put the Holy Spirit in order anyway?”  Well, he really didn’t understand our heritage and our system.  And I like nice and calm and polite and predictable. But he made me think about what happens when the Holy Spirit shows up.

WHAT IS HAPPENING?

Prudy and I watch a lot of movies. Sometimes you get a bad one.  We watched Cloverfield a week or so ago. It was one of the worst movies ever made. The premise is that a monster comes and destroys New York City.  The story is told from the perspective of a group of Gen Xers who are so annoying in their self-absorption that I was actually anxious for the monster to eat them and shut them up. One of the young women just kept screaming “What is happening? What is happening?”

What was happening in Jerusalem that first Pentecost was not that a monster was destroying the city. Instead a Spirit from God was empowering the followers of Jesus Christ.  What was happening was that they had no more fear of what might happen to them. What was happening was that they were now making sense of the teachings of Jesus. What was happening was that they were able to communicate the great truth of Jesus without barriers. It must have been like the U.N. with no translators needed. What was happening was not an internal good feeling about self.  They were compelled to go into the streets and share the good news which for them had now come alive.

One more movie reference. This one from about 6 years ago. It was called “Chocolat.” The scene I remember is when the young priest is preaching in the stuffy old church. And just as he begins to talk about the fresh Spirit of God being alive, the wind blows the doors of the church open. Wouldn’t it have been great if I had rigged up a way to have the doors blow open just then?  But with my track record with gimmicks the wind probably would have dislodged someone’s wig and scattered by notes. What matters most perhaps is not what was happening at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. But what is happening THIS Pentecost in New Vernon.  Are we ready to let the wind blow the doors of the church open?

 

POSSIBILITIES

The followers of Jesus are left with the task of living out the gospel. The Spirit doesn’t do it for them. It just gives them the power to see their own potential when they are empowered from above. Today is Mother’s Day as well as I love the connection. It is about potential. Moms give birth and see the potential in their children even when they are tiny and helpless. Moms can always see the potential in their young children. One Mom had her two little sons at the park. A woman asked, “How old are the boys?” And she said, “The doctor is 5 and the ambassador is 2.”

The confirmation class is no different. Parents saw in you when you were tiny babies, the potential that you are now fulfilling.  They believe in you. They always have and they always will.  That belief is not based only on what you have accomplished so far. It is based on the potential for what you can accomplish in the years to come. My prayer is that you continue to grow into your spiritual potential.  It is not enough for you to feel some inner connection with God. Like the first disciples you have to take it out into the streets. You have to allow the Spirit to give you courage to live out your faith in the world out there. We, your church family, believe you will.

That infant church in Jerusalem was filled with raw potential. And we know the story as it unfolds over time. The church of Jesus Christ grows into the world changing force that it is.  The church has made plenty of mistakes along the way. But the Spirit filled faith of 11 men changed the world. That same unlimited potential to change the world is now ours. Pentecost must not become the anniversary of something that happened long ago. We must make sure it remains current events.

 

DRUNK ON GOD

How does Luke explain the existence of the church? He uses terms like fire and wind and power. People don’t usually associate the church with power. Some of the people on the streets that day tried to explain away the miracle of speech exhibited by the disciples. “These men are drunk on new wine.”  I don’t know how that would explain anything. When you are drunk, you may think you are more articulate and witty. But the reality is that you are not.  But in a way, in a strange way, in a way they never intended, they were right.

In the gospel of Matthew Jesus says that it would be silly to put new wine into old wineskins. They will not hold the new wine and they will break and the wine will be lost. The new wine is a way of talking about the new spirit that Jesus brings. Wine is then used as the symbol of the saving blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. The apostle’s were drunk on new wine, but they had not been drinking. The new wine that filled them to bursting was the presence of God in Jesus in the form of the Holy Spirit.  Fredrick Beuchner said, “They were drunk on God.” And it was that intoxication with the Spirit that led to proclamation. They went out into the world to make a difference because they were directed and empowered by the Spirit.

Will Willomon said once, “The way to tell if you are worshipping an idol, a god made in your image, or a living God in whose image you are created is that the Living God can still surprise you.” Wow! Imagine the church saying Come Holy Spirit and the Spirit showed up.  It would be frightening and challenging and exciting and unpredictable.  We need to be careful what we ask for. The Spirit might just blow the doors open without a gimmick.  Pass the new wine, and stand back.

 

THINGS TO PONDER

Why are there interstates in Hawaii?

If corn oil is from corn and peanut oil is from peanuts, where does baby oil come from?

Is there another word for Thesaurus?

What was the best thing before sliced bread?

If a cow laughs hard, does milk come out of its nose?

Why isn’t the word phonetic spelled the way it sounds?

If con is the opposite of pro, then is congress the opposite of progress?

If a man says something in the middle of the forest and there is no woman around to hear it, is he still wrong?

Friday a little sample of my book And See All the People.

Some thoughts about women in ministry

I received word today of the death of Beverly James. She was a classmate of mine in Seminary. Beverly was brilliant and personable and instantly likable. She was the best preacher in my class.   She had courage. Once she and I stood up to preach in class and did the Who’s On First Routine instead. Fortunately, the professor had a good sense of humor.

Yet, when it was time to seek a call, the only offer she got was to do children’s ministry at a big church in Pittsburgh. there she might get the chance to preach twice a year. This was just 40 years ago.

Women in ministry have had a difficult struggle. I believe and hope that attitudes are changing. But for too many years, there has been a bias about women in the pulpit. We live in a culture that is clearly patriarchal. And the church has been no exception.

Some have tried to seek Biblical rationalizations for this injustice. All of the disciples that Jesus called as apostles were men. They were also all Jewish. Why would a gender qualification matter if an ethnic one does not?  Were not many of the followers of Jesus female? According to John, the first person to witness to the risen Christ was a woman. Was not Priscilla one of the teachers of the New Testament church? Were not Phillip’s daughters prophets which is another word for preachers?  Trying to use the Bible to keep women from ministry has no validity.

I have heard people say that they are not against a woman pastor. They just don’t want one in their church. That is sad. They are missing out on some wonderfully gifted pastors and preachers.  Many times it is women who express opposition. Sometimes it takes generations to change wrong attitudes. Women should not have had to wait that long.

I have known and worked with many ordained women who have obviously been called and blessed by God in their work. The notion that one must be male to be a preacher is one that should have died long ago. I have admired their tenacity and their determination. They have had to overcome obstacles that men cannot understand.

Beverly James went on to earn a doctorate in Rhetoric. She then did some adjunct work at the seminary helping to prepare men and women to preach. She was an effective interim pastor in several churches. I am sure she was a tough act to follow for the next called pastor; male or female.

Rest in peace, Beverly. You have fought the good fight and finished the race. You have made it easier for women to follow their call by showing the world that a women can preach as well as any man.

A SERMON ENTITLED “STINKING BANDAGES”

Thanks for the comments, both positive and negative to last Fridays post. I am hopeful that as long as we agree that facts matter more than preconceived partisanship and we are able to really listen to one another and respond respectfully real dialogue can still occur.

Today I want to go in a different direction. I am posting a sermon that I preached a few years ago. Reading a sermon is not the same as hearing it. It is a spoken medium after all, But here it is for whatever it’s worth.

 

STINKING BANDAGES

JOHN 11: 17-44

 

  1. BOUND BY DEATH

The local weather reader is a good- looking young guy who should just read the cards and not ad lib. Last week he said, “There were some icy conditions on the roads out there this morning, but there were no serious fatalities.” A matter of life and death would have been a pretty good title for the story of Lazarus.  It works from the standpoint of being alive physically and spiritually.

Death is always a serious matter. Philosopher Ernst Becker said the human race is “bound by death.” He believed that all of human existence is clouded by the reality of our mortality.  “No one gets out of here alive” a poster from the 60’s proclaimed.  Death is the ultimate statistic. It’s one out of every one. But for those of us who know the story, the inevitability of death does not have to bind us up and keep us from living.

Prudy had a lifelong friend named She was terminally ill. But she had no fear of dying. She explained to us that she knew where she was going, because she had been there before.  Years ago, she was clinically dead for a few minutes on the operating table before being revived. She shared the usual story of a bright light and the voices of loved ones already there. But she said, “There are no words to describe the feeling of peace and contentment and joy that I felt.”  Far from being afraid, she was anxious to go back there. Don Piper in his book “90 Minutes in Heaven” expressed the same frustration in not being able to articulate the deep joy of that experience.

I’m guessing that Lazarus had the same problem. Standing there blinking in the sunlight looking at Jesus, I wonder if he wasn’t sure which side of eternity he was on.  I wonder if the thought ever crossed his mind, “Did Jesus do me a favor or not?”

 

STENCH

In Israel they will show you the place where everything biblical happened. Most of the sites are not authentic. But they serve as a good visual for what the original might have looked like. The tomb of Lazarus in Bethany goes straight down about 20 feet. It has a winding stone stairway. The further down they go the less light there is. There is perhaps morbid comedy  I thought about old Lazarus all wrapped head to toe in those burial strips, trying to make his way up that stairway.  Jesus is shouting “Lazarus COME OUT!  And he is thinking, “I’m coming I’m coming. I’ve been dead for 4 days you know. And I’m trying to navigate these stairs with my feet and legs tied up. Hold on to your Halo.”

And then Lazarus got a whiff of himself. (sniff) Is that me? The body decomposing for 4 days without any embalming is not minty fresh.  Death stinks in every way possible.  There is putrefaction that happens in a rotting body that causes an incredible stench.  The bandages that bound him up were filled with the stench of death and decay.  But it is not just physical death that causes that bad odor. It is the little deaths that occur along the way. Our souls begin to rot when we allow ourselves to me bound by a living death that will not allow us to climb the stairs to a renewal of life in the light of the presence of Christ.

Jesus had intentionally delayed his trip to Bethany in spite of his love for Lazarus. The Jews believed that the soul sort of hung around for 3 days and then took off for the after life. Jesus was there to blur the lines between life and death. Jesus had a lesson to teach about the connectedness of the body and the soul. The lesson was that we are given new life now; not just when the undertaker gets us, but here and now. We can strip off the stinking bandages that bind us up in a living death right now.

 

PERMEABLE LINE

This is a key passage in the gospel of John. It is a turning point in which the Pharisees are now bound and determined to kill Jesus. The double entendre on the word bound, is intentional. In this act, Jesus leaves no doubt about who he is and what his life means.  I am the resurrection and the life.  And he means that he is the glory of God present with humanity.  The everlasting life that Jesus gives is basically the same on both sides of the grave. The verb that is used by John for Jesus shouting is It is used only 5 times in John.  Four of those times, it is used by the crowd before Pilate. They shouted, “Crucify Him!”  This was a pivotal moment in his ministry. Jesus shouts life to humanity. Death, you have been beaten. And the crowd shouts death to Jesus.  But he sees his death as glorification; the chance for all human beings to be free from the stench of death’s final victory.  Because we are also shown a foreshadowing of another empty tomb still to come in the story.

But the question that comes to the modern mind is more basic perhaps. “Could this have really happened?” Because we know! We know about what happens if the heart stops beating and the brain is not receiving oxygen. We know that after four days of decomposition there can be no revival.  We know. That’s why Jesus waits. He wants us to understand how much we don’t know. The line between life and death, the line between the natural and the supernatural, these are permeable lines.  Was there symbolic truth in the raising of Lazarus?  Yes of course.  Does that mean that the Spirit of God can’t do the impossible? Does that mean that this never happened?  What do you think?  Life eternal; that is our proclamation, not just at the funeral home but in every aspect of life; whether this one or the next one.

But I think the most significant lesson for us as a faith community is what Jesus says when Lazarus finally makes it up to the opening and steps out into the light. Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.” I think that is the call to the faith community, the church that has to be a part of our mission. It’s not that we don’t care about each other, but we tend to keep things on a superficial level. How are you?  I’m fine, how are you? I’m fine. We say that even when we are not fine; even when we are bound so tightly in the stinking bandages of pain and heartache that we can hardly take one more step.  Why can’t we get real with our church family?  “I’m dying here. I need your help.” And Jesus calls every one of us to be in the business of unbinding each other and freeing each other to really live.

 

FREED BY GLORY

What happened to Lazarus tells us that Jesus has ended the separation between God and humanity once and for all. That means that in this life and the next, we will never have to be separated from the glory of God again. We don’t need to wear the stinking bandages of death around ever again. Did anyone ever say to you, “You don’t look so good?”  It is usually meant as an expression of concern for your well being. Once a deacon named Pat and I were visiting Erma in a nursing home. Erma told us that she was going to the beauty parlor in a few minutes.  Pat said, “Oh Erma, you look so lovely, you don’t look like you need to go to the beauty parlor.” And I joked, “Pat never says that to me. Maybe I should take your beauty appointment.” And Erma looked up at me form her wheelchair and said, “Well, maybe you should.”  The church needs to take off the bandages of death and look like we are alive.

My dad died some ten years ago. He left a special gift to me. A series of cassette tapes of his voice telling his life story. I play them once a year. In one portion he says, “Rick, I want to talk to you now as if I was in the room with you.” And he is!  That line between life and death and life seems so fuzzy and permeable.  It doesn’t mean that we have to pretend that death does not hurt, and that grief is not real. Some of you are dealing with grief that is fresh and still very painful.  There is no magic to make that pain go away. But we need to learn to let the community of faith help to unbind us.

There are two words in Swahili for the dead. Zimani and Sasha. Zimani are the remembered ones. As long as they are remembered, they live on among us. My dad is Zimani. Once the last person who knew the deceased passes on, that person becomes a Sasha and moves on to eternity in another realm where eventually all are reunited in a circle of love

When I was in Sunday school and we had to recite a Bible verse from memory I would always choose John 11: 35. It is the shortest verse in the Bible. KJV says, “Jesus wept.” When Jesus was confronted with death, he cried tears of pain like all of us have done. The people around him said “See how he loved him.” Well, see how Jesus loves you. See how Jesus weeps at your pain. See how Jesus offers the hope of new life starting right now. See how Jesus calls the community to help unbind each other and set each other free; to be to one another Jesus with skin; to help us overcome our fear of death or the uncertainty of God’s power to overcome death, maybe it is time to take off those stinking bandages. Well, maybe you should.

Amen

A DANGEROUS SUBJECT

I feel the need to share my thoughts about the current political environment in the country that I love.

This is as dangerous thing to do. And that is my greatest concern. We have lost the ability to disagree without becoming enemies.

I want to be honest in my assessment. But I have friends who will disagree with me. I don’t want to lost them as friends. I want us to learn how to listen to each other respectfully and not consider a difference of opinion as the death knell of our friendship.

I am not a supporter of Donald Trump. I voted against him in spite of the fact that I had some serious doubts about Hillary. To me, character and integrity are important considerations when it comes to the person who will lead our nation. I agreed with the impeachment of Bill Clinton for that reason.

From my way of looking at things, Donald Trump is a person of poor character. He is a womanizer, a liar, a mean-spirited, immature bully. He makes fun of a handicapped man. He demeans anyone who criticizes him. He distorts the facts. His ego does not even allow him to listen to experts and generals concerning policies and crucial decisions. He breaks the law with no remorse and demonizes those who want to hold him accountable. He foments anger and division with his immature name calling. He sides with dictators while alienating  allies. He is a danger to the well-being of our country. He caters to the Evangelical community while demonstrating very few Christian qualities. (Something that still baffles and concerns me.) His policies have helped big business and the wealthy at the cost of polluting our planet at an increased and alarming rate while denying the warnings of solid science.

Now some will say that I should look at the economy. It is great if you are the kind of person who has a stock portfolio. Unemployment is down. Part of that is the great number of people working at two or even three minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet.

I have friends who will read this and disagree strongly.  That should be OK. But is it still OK? Do we have to be enemies who cannot listen to one another just because we disagree?

My greatest concern is not Donald Trump. It is not the impeachment trial. It is not even the election this November. My greatest concern is about what happens AFTER Donald Trump. How will be ever feel like one nation again? Our country has not been this divided since the Civil War. That division was sectional. This one is ideological. We had to fight a bloody war to resolve the war between the states. What will it take to resolve this divide?

I think there are several things we can do to promote healing.

We can resolve to not hate. My faith forbids me from hating anyone.

We can re-learn the art of listening to those who disagree with us thoughtfully and respectfully. We can engage people with whom we disagree to really try to understand where they are in their thinking.

We can move away from putting party above country, This goes for members of both political parties.

We can move away from the radical elements of both parties, I think it is crucial to elect a president who is moderate with a willingness to compromise and reach across the aisle. As Isaiah says, “Come, let us reason together.” Compromise is not a bad word. Nobody gets everything they want. But the country gets what it needs.

If you are a friend, it is my sincere hope that you will not stop being my friend because we disagree. I hope that you will express your take on these matters. I promise to listen thoughtfully and respectfully. It is my hope that as a nation we will work to overcome our differences and perhaps in doing that, we will do no less than save our great country.

UPDATE ON RICK’S LIFE

It has been and happy and eventful year in my life. Prudy and I were able to make two wonderful trips. One adventure was to Costa Rica  for an eco-tour. The other was to Alaska which was a combination cruise and land tour. Both were great experiences with lots of good pictures taken.

In July, we welcomed our 11th grandchild. James Dillon Bonner was born to daughter Hope. He is a very happy baby. The only problem is, people say he looks like me. I hope he will grow out of that. There is a resemblance. He has thin hair, chubby cheeks and gas!

We spent the summer at the pool. It is such a joy to see the grand kids enjoying it. Back in Western PA we have re-connected with long time friends. Our friend Doug took the grandsons out on his boat for some tubing and a lot of laughter.

In May our son Dalitso was in a terrible car accident. He was badly injured by a driver with no insurance who has since disappeared. Dee crushed his pelvic bone which had to be rebuilt. It took 5 months with us to recover. He is now driving and working and living on his own. Lots of prayers were said for him. They were much appreciated.

I have continued to write. My latest book is entitled “And See All the People” It’s about a fictional church and a fictional pastor. It incorporates many experiences in my ministry. It’s available from Amazon Books. If you read it, let me know what you think.

For most of the last two years I have served as the Interim Pastor at the Elderton Presbyterian Church. I had served as pastor there for about 10 years in the 1990 s. When we moved back to Western PA I offered to serve as an interim as they searched for a full time pastor. It was a wonderful experience for me. I love these people and felt honored to have a chance to help them through this transition time.

On my last Sunday there they blessed me with the title of Pastor Emeritus. No words can express how much that means to me.  It is truly an honor although I still have to take out the garbage at home.

So now we are back in Florida for three months escaping the cold and snow. We fill out days with golfing badly, watching movies, visiting friends and going to the beach. I am currently working on What Do You Know Preacher Two.  I am grateful to God for my many blessings.

On Friday,(I am going to blog on Wednesdays and Fridays) I am going to share some thoughts about the world of 2020. I might even throw in a joke. Stay tuned.

He’s back!

Hey. I quit blogging almost a year ago. I am back and ready to share some thoughts and sermons and a little shameless promotion of my new book.

My plan is to blog on Fridays and  Wednesdays. I welcome any input from you as long as it isn’t nasty.

I thought I might start with a little sample from my new book entitled “And See All the People”. It’s available on Amazon Books. It’s 3.99 for the Kindle version and 7.99 for the print version.

This book is about a fictional church and the relationships the people have with a fictional pastor. It is drawn from 40 years of observations and experiences in pastoral ministry.

SANDRA AND BOBBY

Sandra was born in Scotland. She had come to the U.S. when her husband left her and her son, Bobby. Bobby had multiple handicaps and his dad could not handle his broken toy. Sandra stayed with a cousin at first. She was well educated and had no trouble finding a good job. Bobby was enrolled in a school for children like himself. She said it was a school for people who were specially gifted, like Bobby.

”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””’

She came to trust Pastor Tim enough to talk to him about her feelings. He told her that she should never feel shame about Bobby. He told her how much he admired her devotion to Bobby. He told her that once during the service he had looked at them and Bobby was holding his hand near her face as he often did. Usually she would patiently put his hand down. But this once, she had kissed each of his fingers before putting his hand down,  “That was the holiest moment of grace in the whole service,” Tim said.

Maybe on Wednesday I will catch everybody up on what has been happening in my life in this last year.

MONDAY DEVOTIONS FIVE

“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

Matthew 5: 4

My father died 15 years ago today. For me, every March 4th is a time of reflection on the nature of grief.

The Beatitudes or blessings found in the sermon on the mount, say that those who mourn will be comforted. That promise is easier for some to accept than others. I have dear friends who are people of strong faith. They had to bury a child. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to be comforted in that kind of grief.

My dad was a wonderful man. He worked hard all of his life to take care of his family. He was a devoted husband and father. He was also a devoted Christian.  In  his later years, he became my best friend. Even this many years later, I still miss him. I wish I could confer with him in those times when I need his advice. I wish I had more chances to tell him how much I loved him and appreciated him.

So now, every once in a while, and on March 4 in particular, I talk to him. I share what is going on in my life. I try to discern what his advice would be. I try to remember what a great man he was. As Dan Fogelberg sang, “My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man. I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.”

And in those talks, I DO find comfort.  I am comforted of my memories of the time we had together in this life. And I am comforted in the  wonder  of the faith that he lived and taught me that there will be no limit to the time we will spend together on the other side.

So if you still grieve the loss of someone, let the words of Jesus give you hope. You will never “get over it.” And you will never be the same. But you can find comfort in the promise that God understands your grief. A little boy was at the neighbor’s house visiting a man who had just lost his wife of 60 years. The boy’s mother said, “You shouldn’t be bothered Mr. Smith. What were you doing over there anyway?” The boy said, “I was just helping him cry.”  Sometimes I think that God weeps with us in the sorrow of our loss. But God also reminds us that he is waiting on sorrow’s other side for a reunion of love.

I’ll see you later Dad.

MONDAY MORNING DEVOTIONAL FOUR

For the most part, performing a marriage ceremony is a part of ministry that is enjoyable.  It is full of hope and promise. Though sometimes it is difficult to remind the couple that this is a worship service. Some want it to be just about Hollywood’s shallow sense of romance.

There are two Old Testament passages that I have used in the wedding service. One is from the Book of Ruth. It is not set in a marriage promise. Ruth is the daughter in law of Naomi.  They have both lost their husbands while living in Moab. Naomi wants to return to her home country of Israel. Ruth wants to go with her. Naomi tells her to stay in Moab and look for another husband. But Ruth insists on going to Israel with her. In verses 16 and 17 of chapter one, Ruth says that she will go with Naomi. She tells her “Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. I will live and die with you no matter what.”

Even though that is not a husband and wife relationship, brides and grooms can learn a lot about the kind of commitment they are being asked to make to one another. Most couples make that promise with sincerity and resolve. But they have no idea how difficult it will be to keep that commitment. It’s easy for them to say “as long as we both shall live.” But it is more difficult than they can imagine.

It is hard for human beings to make that kind of commitment to another person. Neither person knows what the future will bring or the changes that will take place or the challenges that will confront them.

In part, that is why they make those promises in church. I know that destination weddings and beach weddings are popular. I do them if I have to. But I think the church is the best place to make those promises. (All right I am old fashioned.)

The other passage I like to use is from the very strange book of Ecclesiastes. In the 4th chapter the writer says that two are better than one when facing the sometimes difficult realities of life. Two can defend and protect and help each other and keep each other warm emotionally. Then at the very end he says that a THREE-fold cord is hard to break. All the time he was talking about two and then there is a third cord binding them together.

I don’t know if the third cord was meant as a reference to God or not. But I see it as a perfect illustration of what is happening when marriage vows are exchanged. God it the one who can make it possible to keep the nearly humanly impossible promises made on that day.

I saw a poster once that said, “Loved wedding.Now invite me to the marriage. God” Brides and grooms need to move over and make room for the third cord.