Saturday, February 27, 2016

“If You Think You’re Standing” - February 28, 2016

I Corinthians 10:1-13

            Paul gets a bad rap many times for being obsessed with sexual immorality, and for passing that obsession along to later Christians.  There’s a musical that never really took off called On the Twentieth Century that had a bunch of people riding a train together – one of those luxury liners from the 1920’s, and a character who found herself looking out the windows at the towns they were passing and singing a song with the refrain “I know there’s dirty doings going on.”  She warns,

“In the fiery pits of Hades,
It’s too late for your laments.
Repent!  Repent!  Repent!
There’s a fiery pit for ladies
And a fiery pit for Gents.
Like you I once was wild.
Men shouted, ‘Oh you kid’
A life of shame I led
And dirty doings did.
Until one night I saw the light
And heard salvation’s call. …
I’m so glad I didn’t hear it
Until I’d done it all.”[1]

That, of course, captures the popular caricature of Christian virtue and has little to do with the real thing.

            There are, however, times and places where particular problems appear and sometimes even thrive, and when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he was writing to believers in a city that had its own reputation.  There’s a great PBS series called In the Footsteps of Paul that explains,

“Because of its great wealth and transitory population, Corinth had a reputation for luxury, and uninhibited pleasures.  This reputation was further bolstered by the city’s association with Aphrodite – her image appeared on the city’s coinage, and Corinth had at least three temples to the goddess of love … In pre-Roman times, one temple of Aphrodite was served by temple prostitutes, and, though modern scholars debate whether ritual prostitution had ceased by the time of Paul’s arrival, there is little doubt that prostitution would have thrived.”[2]

In other words, Paul was writing to people who lived in an ancient version of Las Vegas.  Some of the people in that church were so thoroughly free-and-easy about everything that one man was even living with his father’s wife.  [I Corinthians 5:1]  Not even the Romans were okay with that. 

Given what he was hearing, Paul told the Corinthian church not to spend too much effort worrying about the sins of outsiders when they had enough on their hands to address in-house.  [5:9-11]  Sexual immorality gets the headlines, but he also specifically mentions people who are greedy, who worship idols, who talk down other people, who go off on binges, and who steal.  (What a great bunch of folks to see on a Sunday morning, huh?)

            And yet, that was precisely the thing.  Paul wasn’t writing to people who, for the most part, had been raised to see anything other than that kind of wild world around them.  He reminded them of that flat out.

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” [I Corinthians 1:26]

But what matters isn’t so much where you are coming from as where you are going, and he continues:

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” [I Corinthians 1:26-31]

People had their problems, but they had come a far way.  He just wanted them to keep on going.

            It’s significant that he looked back on another journey that the people of God had made together.  That was the journey out of slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the Promised Land.  It took forty years when it could have been done in one.  As the people of Israel crossed the desert, though, there was incident after incident in which people got caught up in precisely the sorts of practices that plagued the Corinthians.  When Moses was on Mt. Sinai with God too long, they thought he might have died.  This God that he was teaching them to worship was obviously dangerous.  So they convinced Aaron to make them an idol they could worship instead, and when Moses reappeared, it turned out that, yes, God was angry at them about that and no, it did not go well.  In Corinth, people were talking trash about each other, and Paul reminded them that when the Israelites murmured about Moses’ leadership, they soon found that they had only him to bring them safely through a land filled with snakes.  Things hadn’t changed much. 

“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” [I Corinthians 10:12]

We are all on a long, long journey together so we need to stay on our feet.  We’ve all come a long way and we all have a long way to go, and the only way to do that is to keep going.

            In 2013, a man named Ben Saunders and his fellow-adventurer Tarka L’Herpinier skied from Ross Island, Antarctica to the South Pole round-trip.  It was 900 miles each way.  When he reached the South Pole, the half-way point on his trip, there was a research station there and they could take a break for the one and only time.  They didn’t do it.  Saunders told an interviewer:

“We stayed outside. We just literally took some photographs by the Pole, you know, made some phone calls. I phoned my mom, you know, did some filming and then turn around and walked off again. …We had, I guess, an official representative of the National Science Foundation came and welcomed us to the Pole and said would you like to come in and have a tour? We said, no thank you, very kind but we need to get back to the coast 900 miles away. …We hadn't sat in a chair for two months by that point. So to go inside, sit in an armchair, have a hot coffee would have been, you know, just way too distracting.”[3]
I don’t want to push the comparison too far; Jesus does not ask his disciples – at least most of them – to travel a path so strenuous and grueling.  I don’t want to hide the fact, however, that he does ask his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, and that carrying a cross is serious business.  Once you are underway, the thing to do is to stay on your feet and keep going.  Like the explorers, you may need to separate out appealing distractions to stay focused.
            Then, and only then, does anyone fully appreciate how good it will be when the goal comes into sight.

[1] “Repent” from Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On the Twentieth Century (1987) Act 1, Scene 7.


[3] “What Does It Take to Endure the Harshest Climate on Earth?”, TED Radio Hour, February 11, 2016.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

“Demons” - February 21, 2016

Luke 9:37-43a

Two times in my life I have been asked in all seriousness to perform an exorcism.

The first time, somebody told me that she thought there was a poltergeist in their house, because at random times dishes would rattle and lights in their kitchen would flash on and off.  She had prayed for God’s protection and help, but it kept going.  I went over to the house one Sunday after church and sat down with her and her husband in the kitchen and, sure enough, while we were talking the things on the shelves started to move and the lights flickered.  What I noticed, though, that they didn’t, was that the El was going by a block away.  I pointed it out and we waited for the next train and it happened again.  They had lived there for years and were so used to the sound that they never had put the two events together.  No ghosts were involved.  We all laughed.

The other time, there was a man who was deeply troubled.  He was hearing voices, and they were saying terrible things and telling him to hurt himself.  His wife came and got me, and I met with them both together.  He was clearly in the depths of some form of mental illness but would not go to the hospital.  His take on things, though, was that the devil was speaking to him.  That helped, in a way, because his wife pointed out that if it was the devil speaking, then he definitely should not listen.  I had no reservations about praying for his protection and safety, and eventually his wife got him to see a doctor who could help with his medical needs.

In neither case was there anything involved that remotely resembled the script of a horror movie.

The incident that is recounted in Luke that we heard this morning is hard to hear from a twenty-first century viewpoint as an account of something like epilepsy. 

“Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.” [Luke 9:39]

In a lot of ancient cultures, extreme illness (and sometimes any illness at all) was identified with possession by evil spirits.

So when the Bible talks about Jesus casting out demons, is it just a pre-scientific way of explaining things?  I do think there is more to it.  The idea of a demon is that there are evils that   hold of human beings and harm them from the inside, and the gospels insist that Jesus confronts them in order to make people whole again.

The view that comes across in the movies and comic books is that such confrontation comes in the form of some sort of magical ceremony, using a cross as a talisman and speaking the right words as a spell and waving a Bible as a shield.  In fact, the confrontation of Jesus and the demons that really do take hold of people is far less simplistic.

The demons that seize people in our own day are the kind that are deeply embedded in the soul of our society.  We call them “isms” – racism, sexism, classism, and so forth – and we like to pretend that they are never found in ourselves, only other people, or dismiss them as “political correctness”.  Then sometimes something catches you.

            I remember an informal discussion many years ago, around a lunch table in North Carolina.  A bunch of us Northerners were hanging out and with us was one Southerner, an African-American from a rural, pretty much segregated, section of South Carolina.  One of the people at the table said something about a neighbor or a brother-in-law or somebody drinking way too much on a regular basis and then added, “But what do you expect?  He’s Irish.”  The African-American man got a look of shock and surprise on his face, and someone said, “What’s the matter?”  He answered, “I never knew y’all do that to each other.”

Stereotypes and assumptions about people go deep, and even when we know them for what they are, they can seem impossible to escape and the damage that they do can be pervasive.  George Orwell wrote about social inequality in England in the 1930’s:

“Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West – the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal.  It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood.  The words were: The lower classes smell.
That was what we were taught – the lower classes smell.  And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier.”[1]

Orwell, like many who look at such things, came to the conclusion that it was impossible for one group not to look down on another.

So very many people look at the evils that plague human life as inevitable.  Some people are just greedy and always will be.  Some people are self-centered and you’re wasting your time expecting them to look beyond themselves.  Some people are just mean-spirited and ugly.  Desmond Tutu put it this way:
“What about evil, you may ask? Aren’t some people just evil, just monsters, and aren’t such people just unforgivable? I do believe there are monstrous and evil acts, but I do not believe those who commit such acts are monsters or evil. To relegate someone to the level of monster is to deny that person’s ability to change and to take away that person’s accountability for his or her actions and behavior.”[2]

In fact it has been a distinctive belief of the Methodist wing of the Jesus Movement that sin, no matter how deeply rooted in the human heart, can be not just dealt with and handled or contained but actually cast out, because Jesus came to confront and overcome exactly that.  We can control our actions but he can control our motivation and heal our hearts, where it all begins.

“Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” [Luke 9:41-43]

            Again, it’s the greatness of God that works such change.  But it also takes disciples who have faith in God’s ability and eagerness to do it.  I read a story about a communion service held in a South African prison in the days of apartheid.  Traditionally there the most important people drink from the cup last, but the clergyman who was presiding handed the cup first to a white man and last to one of the black prisoners.  Do you see the audacity in that?  It meant expecting the white man to go against all that he had been taught and all that the law told him was right.  It meant expecting that the demon had no place there and would have to leave.  Sure enough, at the end of the service they were all holding hands as they prayed.[3]

            Whether it’s the classism that Orwell saw in himself or the racism that we know every bit as well as the South Africans or any of the thousand-and-one other nasty twists that the human heart can develop and that all too often the culture around us can nurture, the greatness of God is stronger and when Jesus’ disciples rely on that greatness, good triumphs. 

            And, in the long run, it always will.

[1] George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).  Full text can be found as part of Project Gutenberg Australia.  See .

[2] Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving cited at

Saturday, February 13, 2016

“Temptation” - February 14, 2016

Luke 4:1-13

          To prepare this sermon, I went through a whole bunch of books on my shelf – books about prayer life and spirituality – and checked the indices for the word “temptation”.  I struck out time and time again.

          The only place I found any direct reference was in a book that was written as a satire.  Published in 1965, How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious is one of the most cynical books ever published for the faith-based market.  In a chapter on church administration it has a subsection entitled “The pallid sins of nice people” and I’m going to go out on a limb and share the writer’s advice to a young clergyman about his congregation.

“It is true that not many of them are spectacular sinners.  Their transgressions tend to be petty, unimaginative, and thoroughly middle-class.  But they are sinners all the same, and while they pretend that they are not, they know it.

Very few of your good people pursue sin in the form of wine, women, and song.  This is because such pursuit is inconvenient, time-consuming and expensive.  Most of all it reduces one’s effectiveness as a money maker.  And the average middle-class white Protestant much prefers building his bank account and collecting status symbols to indulging himself in the so-called pleasures of the flesh.”[1]

It’s funny, but it’s not funny.  The sins that tempt us are connected to who we are and to what we value most highly.  Let me expand on that.

          Nobody is tempted by something that is beyond their ability.  It doesn’t matter how angry you are with the scam artist on the other end of the phone, you cannot reach through the phone itself and hit them upside the head, and so the temptation to physical violence just isn’t there.  If you do not work with other people’s money, you will not be tempted to embezzle.  If you do not hold political office, you will not be tempted to accept bribes.  When the devil presented Jesus with temptations, the Bible says he prefaced his propositions, “If you are the Son of God…” [Luke 4:3, 4:9].  It’s almost as if he was challenging Jesus to prove his identity. 

          That’s a temptation that comes to everyone: prove what you can do by doing it, even if it’s wrong.  Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s right.  At the start of life, we have the ability to choose the characteristics that an embryo will embody and to implant only those that fit a set list of requirements.  Medical ethics generally reject that practice, and rightly so.  In the middle of life, there are hormones and steroids that can turn a good athlete into an exceptional athlete.  That is not fair to others, and often destroys other aspects of the body in the course of getting a temporary competitive edge.  But it can be done.  At the end of life, there is the possibility to maintain a body artificially well beyond the point when the people who have loved someone sense that the soul is ready to go.  If you want, it can be done.

          Sometimes you can do something less obviously wrong, but to do it still violates who you are in your deepest self.  The devil approached Jesus when Jesus was engaged in a long period of prayer and fasting.  On the surface, he suggested to him that he pay attention to his reasonable, regular human needs, like eating when you are hungry.

“The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ [Luke 4:3]

There was more to it, though.  Jesus knew that his calling to be in communion with his heavenly Father was even more important, and without that it didn’t matter what the rest of his situation was like.

“Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’” [Luke 4:4]

Many people are tempted to address their physical wants at the expense of their spiritual integrity.  Someone traveling far from home for a long time will be tempted to break their marriage vows.  That is a given.  Truck drivers and diplomats and airline workers all face that.  That’s one of the good reasons that people wear wedding rings.  It is an announcement to the world at large, “Hey, this one is taken,” and also a reminder to the person wearing it that they are not just a truck driver or an ambassador or an airline attendant.  They are also a spouse, and possibly a parent.

            Temptation can also take forms where it uses even the best sense of who you are and twist it around.  There’s the temptation that Jesus faced when

“the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.”’”
[Luke 4:5-8]

Jesus is known, after all as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”.  For him to rule over all things and assume authority over nations and peoples would be totally justified in a way that it is not justified for anybody else.  The devil’s offer is to make it all easy to bring that into effect.  All Jesus has to do is to replace God with a lesser (far lesser) being.  Imagine how much better the world would be if Jesus’ rule were in effect everywhere: no more injustice, no more exploitation, no more abusing the system or other people; the good guys always winning and the bad guys always losing; everything ending happily ever after.  Imagine: no Taliban, no ISIS, no legislators monkeying with budgets for their own ends, no falsely inflated prices on medicines.  The only catch?  Leave God out of it. 

Remember God?  That’s the one who makes us more than puppets.  That’s the one who gives us choice so that we can do the right thing freely instead of under compunction. 

            We often want to force God’s hand, in fact, and to make God do what we want instead of freely doing what he asks of us.  That was the third of the temptations that Luke tells us that Jesus faced down in the wilderness. 

“Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”, 
“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’”
  [Luke 4:9-12]

In the end, the real answer to temptation is not to outwit the devil.  The answer is to trust God instead, no matter what.

            I suspect that the reason I could find very little written about temptation is that it is simply part of being human, like having internal organs or growing from childhood into maturity.  Jesus faced down all of this directly, and still it was not over.

“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” [Luke 4:13]

The amazing thing is that Jesus not only passed the test in the desert, he kept on passing the test throughout his life.  The great news is that he knows what we go through, not just theoretically but from the actual experience, and it means that we have someone who is merciful and helpful to us in every way.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  [Hebrews 4:15-16]

So when temptations come, as they will, we are not alone, and we know what to do.

“Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

[1] Charles Merrill Smith, How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1965), 54.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

“What You See” - February 7, 2016

II Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Nobody who gets too close to God comes away from the experience unchanged.  It seems like that should be an obvious statement, but the ways that people are changed vary.  In some it is an experience of awe and fear.  In others it is one of beauty and peace.  For some, it seems unreal and it passes.  Others are changed for a lifetime and beyond.

The passage that we heard read from II Corinthians this morning refers to an event recorded in Exodus.  It is the aftermath of Moses’ meeting with God on top of Mount Sinai.  Listen to what being confronted with God’s glory did to him.

“Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.”  [Exodus 34:29-35]

Does it sound far-fetched?  Maybe.  Let me tell you a story, though.

After 9/11, life felt pretty grim for a lot of people.  There was so much uncertainty in the air, and an awareness that war was on the horizon even though nobody was yet entirely sure who would be fighting whom.  There was a sense that another attack might come, but in what form?  Terrorism is popular in some circles because it creates that kind of fear, and its worst effect is not simply that people die, but that nations change their ways because of that fear.  In a situation like that, you have to find ways to hold onto what is good, and to remind yourself that God is in charge.

I was blessed to have someone who could help me do that.  Her name was Ruth, and she was blind and had clinical dementia.  She hadn’t always been that way, though.  Once upon a time she had been a child in Allentown, and her parents sent her faithfully to church every Sunday, although they stayed home.  What they didn’t realize was that instead of the church where they thought they were sending her, she started going with her friends to what was then the Zion United Brethren in Christ.  They spoke English there, whereas her parents’ church worshiped in German.

There, as she told me, one Sunday while she was enjoying putting one over on her parents as much as anything else, there was an altar call and she simply felt herself moved to go forward and pray, and while she prayed she felt that God was placing a hand on her shoulder.  That was it; no angels were singing, no voice spoke to her or anything like that.  She just felt that God was close to her.  She told me, decades later, that as she walked home everything she looked at seemed to glow a little bit, and the sunshine seemed brighter.  (It’s kind of like the Moses effect in reverse.)

This took place sometime during the Depression, and it wouldn’t be long until World War II, so you know that her life would have had its difficult moments, even apart from the regular traumas of living.  That kind of glow stuck with her, though.  I know that because when all else began to slip away – her eyesight and her mental faculties – there was a sweetness and appreciation of God’s goodness that stuck with her.  Now, you might just say that was her disposition and I cannot disprove it, but it was somehow something more.

There she was, sitting in a chair at a nursing home (and thank the Lord for places that care for people who need them!).  I would walk in and announce that I was there. 


“Yes?  Who is it?”

“Ruthie, it’s Pastor Mark.”

“Oh!  What are you doing here?”  (Now here’s where it get’s interesting, at least to me.)

“I’m a little mixed up, Ruth.  Where are we?”

“Oh, we’re on a train.  I was just looking out the window.”

“It’s hard for me to see from here.  What’s out there?  Where are we going?” 

And for the next half hour or so, she would narrate our trip through the farmlands or into the mountains.  Sometimes we would wave at the people watching the train at railroad crossings.  Maybe the conductor would come along and check our tickets.  Then we’d reach a station and I would say goodbye.

Never once on any of those excursions did she see anything troubling or fail to see something beautiful and exciting.

The Bible tells us,

                    “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And 
                    all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a 
                    mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to 
                    another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” [II Corinthians 3:17-18]

That freedom comes in many forms.  For her it was freedom to see the glory of God’s world even when her eyesight was gone.  For me, at that time, it was the freedom to travel with her and for a short while to be reminded to raise my eyes from the sidewalk and look around me when I left, knowing that the bad news was not all the news.  For all of us, it is the freedom to see the glory of the Lord and to be changed by that and to know that the Lord’s glory is one he shares freely, making Moses’ face shine and making Ruth’s spirit shine, and one way or another transforming all God’s people “from one degree of glory to another”.

Another of God’s saints, one who had the gift of seeing the glory in the people he met even more strongly that Ruth did, St. Frederick Rogers, put it this way:

“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing – that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time.  So in loving God and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”[1]

Yes, people can be disappointing.  Yes, trouble is real.  Yes, the world can be a dark place sometimes.  Our help doesn’t come from people or the world, though, and our hope isn’t grounded in them.  It comes from far, far beyond and is right here, right here inside.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. [II Corinthians 4:1]