Last week we we were all here together for worship, we discussed stewardship—t’is THAT season as well as Advent season. Then last week, we had a snowstorm and had to cancel worship. This week, finally, we are setting our sights on Advent in earnest. Our lectionary picks up a new gospel every Advent season. Last year we studied the gospel of Mark. We began that study in December, 2017, and followed Mark all the way through to November, 2018. The lectionary cycle we are not in, runs from Advent 2018 to the beginning Advent, 2019. We will be studying the gospel of Luke.Read More
Last week, Pepper and I made the 4 ½ hour should-have-been 2 ½ hour drive to Bethesda for Thanksgiving! AGH! The radio kept us company. One of the stories we listened to was about ploggers—have you heard of ploggers? According to NPR they are joggers who pick up plastic as they jog—plastic bottles, plastic bags. Plogging is the new thing. I want you to know that I myself , though, am a five-year veteran. That’s how long I have owned Pepper and that’s how long I have been taking her on morning and evening walks. I am not a plogger, but I AM a plog walker. Or maybe it’s a dog plalker? However, I also pick up beer cans, which makes me a beercog walker; and bottles, which makes me a dottle walker. I even pick up the occasional large-size pizza box—which makes me a pizzog walker. Or maybe it’s a pizza bog walker?
I think I do what I do, because I am future-oriented. Long time ago I read a study of pastors. The study indicates that pastors are future oriented. So, I pick up plastic, beer cans and all the rest, because I want to make my community less trashy. I think about how much tidier Jefferson Park Avenue will be when I do my part.Read More
Before I came to you, I was preaching every Sunday at a church in Kenbridge, Virginia—that church, Ebenezer Presbyterian, is just miles from the North Carolina border. Most of the members in that congregation were right-leaning politically speaking. The only member who was not, I think, anyway, was the church pianist.
One Sunday in October, 2012, the national election was in full swing,
The congregation is sitting in the pews, talking politics from their right leaning perspectives. I am in my robe at the pulpit, the hour is at hand. The church pianist, gets up from the piano and strides over to me. No, she is not telling me she can’t find the hymn selection, or anything pertaining to worship. In her delightful, southern drawl, she whispers to me, “Don’t you think Mitt Romney is the DEVIL?”Read More
When I was an associate pastor with primary responsibility for youth, I worked with, taught, planned excursions for jr. Highs, sr. Highs and college youth. I didn’t do that alone. I had help from our wonderful youth advisors. At a youth advisor meeting we were trying to come up with activities that would appeal to youth. One of our advisors—a young man in his 20’s, suggested to us, “I read that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are performing in our area. Wouldn’t it be fun to take some of our kids to their concert?” “Who ARE the Red Hot Chili Peppers?” I didn’t know, but the other youth advisors were game, our senior highs were ecstatic when we floated the idea with them. “Woho! This is going to be great!”
The concert was at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, if you are familiar with the DC area. It was outside. We had to sit on the grass—or as it turned out, stand on the grass—because for most of the concert, people stood. The church youth group kids held high their glow lights, sang along with the music, danced in place. I was underwhelmed. I couldn’t see a thing, short person that I am. I was cold— it was a chilly summer’s night, and, I was in no mood for dancing. The music was ear-drum breaking loud. Most disturbing for me were the lyrics. Couldn’t understand most of them. but those I could understand would not be appropriate in a worship setting. Why were we taking our church youth to THIS?! Note to self—next time, if there was to be a next time, make sure you do a proper vetting of the music group.Read More
This scripture reading makes me uncomfortable. It condemns me, since almost always I wear a robe, sit at the front of the church, and in a seat, that looks more like a throne than a chair. So yes, this scripture reading convicts me. It is for that reason that I feel uncomfortable. And it is for this reason that I’m not wearing a robe today. By the end of this sermon, I hope you will be uncomfortable, too. Misery loves company, or something like that. If you object to my making you feel uncomfortable, let me remind you it’s part of my job description. A preacher’s job is to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted. Now that we have new pew cushions especially, I suspect you are getting a little too comfortable. Time to shake things up!
l want to start by sharing with you an experience I had at a church I served maybe 10 years ago. I have already touched on this before. It concerns a woman I’ll call Suzie. She and her two young children attended our church services irregularly, always without Suzie’s husband.Read More
Today we are going to look at hope. We do that because I needed to study, meditate on it this week. I am guessing you need to hear a word of it. So hope it is.
The poet Emily Dickenson calls hope “The thing with feathers.” Hope flutters above us, when we are in despair. When we hear cynicism from our country’s leaders; when we are privy to their angry insults; when blame is doeled out as glibly as Halloween candy; when we read about pipe bombings, a racist inspired shooting tragedy in Kentucky, and that other horrendous shooting at that synagogue in Pittsburgh, hope is still with us. Pause long enough in our broodings, we can just make out hope’s tail feathers, above us, headed toward the future. Hope is that thing with feathers. It perches on the window sills of hospital waiting rooms. It glides over hospital beds. it dares to enter even solemn operating rooms. It hovers at nurses’ stations.Read More
As you know if you were here last Sunday, or if you keep up with the happenings here in town, Howard Shifflett died two weeks ago. Some of you may have known him well. If so, my condolences, our condolences. I myself though, only met Howard for the first time when he came to our church one Sunday. He interrupted our church service, remember? He had just learned of his granddaughter’s horrifically violent death. He was in a state. He asked the church to pray for her and the family. We did. Of course, we prayed for Howard, too.
After that, I would occasionally see Howard around town. When I passed him on the sidewalk, he was friendly. Every time, he reminded me that his own grandmother had been a pastor. I’m not sure why he said that—maybe he was giving me his Howard Shifflett seal of approval? Maybe he was trying to assure me of his own Christian roots? Maybe, though, he was just trying to make small talk. Our hurried conversations were awkward. I certainly didn’t think it appropriate to bring up his granddaughter’s death. What do you say? As it was, there was this unspoken sadness between us. Because of course, I felt sorry for his loss.Read More
As you may already know, Katie McKown is the pastor at Scottsville Baptist. We were at Baines last year discussing plans for our ecumenical Lenten services. Katie said this: “I think this year we should make time in our services for personal testimonies.” Sound good? Maybe you have no experience with testimonies—I don’t either really, although my guess is, a little more than you do. A woman at one of the previous churches I served, yes, a Presbyterian Church, DID offer one, one Sunday. Ignored the order of worship in the bulletin and everything! Yep! Some of the church members felt it was highly inappropriate. You know, exposing all those personal emotions. Disrupting a well-organized, carefully planned, church service!Read More
Whenever I read this story, I think of my days as an Associate Pastor with primary responsibility for youth. I worked with a delightful group of high school kids. As part of that effort, I created and ran a youth drama group. Lots of fun! Some of the dramas we presented in worship—others we performed in the evening. For those evening events, we sold tickets—the money we raised funded our Habitat for Humanity youth mission trips.
Some of the youth had surprising talent. One family, I’ll call them the Smiths—my goodness! They were a wonder! James was the older of the three in our group. Even in high school I had a lot of respect for that boy and not just for his talents- but more about that later.Read More
I decided it was time to move back into the lectionary after a summer’s vacation away from it. This past summer we studied texts that I have found especially compelling or bothersome. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to do that. It is the reason I entered ministry—not the only reason, but one of them-to really dig down and study a text. Especially the scripture reading, “The kingdom of God is within you or among you,” will continue to have great relevance for me as I move forward in my personal journey of faith.Read More
I work out at a gym. That gym has a bin for discarded books. I stick my nose in that bin every time I’m there. Occasionally I find, and when I do I always retrieve, discarded Bibles. Can you believe people drop their BIBLES into a discarded book bin? Don’t you think there should be a sacred burial ground or something for discarded Bibles? At this point I have given away more retrieved Bibles than I have kept— I have given several to boys at the Discovery School, and one to a woman who came to the church a few times—a hurting soul, needing a space to reflect on her life for a few Sundays. So, just so you know, I myself am doing my part to put Bibles to good use!
One of the Bibles I rescued from that bin, is titled “The Life Recovery Bible.” It is for recovering alcoholics. I kept that one. No, I am not an alcoholic, thank goodness, but I so appreciate the footnotes that accompany that particular Bible’s text. So for instance, this past week, after reading our scripture for today, my eyes dropped down to the footnotes. This is what I read: “…We will persist in prayer and realistic hopes once we fully appreciate the kind of father who hears our prayers. Many of us in recovery have suffered because of …abusive parents who gave us stones and snakes. ….we must …rethink our concept of God as a father who gives good gifts to his children…”Read More
As you know, I have been working on the event coming up on October 14, Seven pm here at the church It features my friend and fellow colleague, David Garth.
In fact, it has been so much on my mind, that I have decided to preach about it today.
If you were here six weeks ago, you know that I preached on racism and David Garth’s talk then, too. Please don’t think I am one of those preachers who gets stuck on a topic and then drones on and on about that one topic week after blessed week. I didn’t become a preacher remember, until my early 40’s. I have been on your side of the pulpit for long enough. I know what I personally like and don’t like. I don’t like single topic preaching. I also don’t like tongue lashings. At the church I grew up in, the pastor gave regular tongue lashings from up here. Nice man, but when he preached he made you feel so small and sinful, that you dropped to your knees, and then to all fours and crawled out of worship.Read More
If you have been here the past month of Sundays, and then some, you might have realized that we have strayed from the lectionary. That is because I decided to give me and you both a break from the lectionary cycle. Lately I have been preaching from scripture readings that either speak to current days’ events, or readings that have been particularly bothersome or compelling to me personally. So for instance, not too long ago, I preached on the scripture passage “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.” Remember that one? What a difficult text to fathom!Read More
True story: A Presbyterian Pastor who had been assigned to a new church development, was supposed to send in quarterly reports to his Presbytery’s New Church Development Oversight Committee. The report was to include information on financial and congregation growth. There was also a section relating to the pastor’s mental health. How was he sleeping? Was he depressed? Was he feeling overworked? One other section related to liturgical practices in his church. Was the church abiding by the guidelines set forth in the Book of Common Worship?
The pastor completed the report, religiously, shall we say, for a couple of years running. He had a suspicion, though that the Oversight Committee was only interested in financial and church growth. So to test his suspicions, our pastor got creative. One quarter, in the mental health section of the report, he complained that he was spending a lot of time in a dark room staring at walls. He couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. He burst into tears for no reason. Yes, he was feeling depressed.Read More
I thought I would start off today talking with you some about my daughter’s wedding in Brunello, Italy, and the church Joy and Claudio were married in—second time around. Just so you know, she and Claudio were married in Baltimore, they live in Bethesda, so they were married in Baltimore on June 30th. Claudio’s folks flew in from Italy to be there, of course, along with Claudio’s brother, Marco, a few cousins, aunts and uncles. But a lot of Claudio’s friends and extended family, just couldn’t make the trip. So, it made sense to have a second wedding—in the small town that Claudio grew up in and where his brother and parents still live. This second wedding was presided over by the only priest Claudio has ever known, Don Giamo.Read More
I’m still mulling over some conversations I have had in the last few weeks. I thought I would share them with you and then maybe together we can try to make some sense out of them. If you are looking for a neatly sewed up end to this sermon, I am warning you up front, you are going to be disappointed.
The first conversation I want to tell you about, was with Matt Lawless. He’s the new town administrator. He’s an alum of the College of William and Mary, my own Alma Mater and my daughter Joy’s Alma Mater, too. Right there we had something in common to talk about. During our conversation, which happened in the town office, you know, situated over Victory Hall, I mentioned Scottsville Presbyterian. In fact, I didn’t just mention our church, I bragged about it. I told him how the exterior is an historic, gleaming jewel, in this town—now that we have the fresh paint job, and the window-pane replacements.
As I said last week, from this pulpit, I have been astounded by the love you have demonstrated for Arlene. I’ll say more than astounded by your love and concern, though. I’ll say proud. This week, as people crossed the threshold to Arlene’s hospital room, a virtual army of well-wishers, I just knew Arlene’s doctors and nurses must have been thinking, “Who IS this woman? Surely she must be a very important person to get so much attention.” And she IS a VIP—to those who know and love her. And of course, so many people extending their love to Arlene with visits and phone calls—they have provided healing in a way that a whole pharmacy of medicines and a whole gaggle of doctors and nurses can not. We may have tired out Arlene with our love, but it has been a good, satisfying tired—like when you return home from a week at the beach with family, or after a dinner out with good friends.Read More
I did my internship at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Enormous sanctuary. My daughters said that on the inside, it looked like a huge brick barn. I can’t deny that. It DID look like the inside of a huge brick barn, in a sleek, contemporary sort of way. The pews weren’t so much that, but benches-with-backs. There was very little else in that space in the way of furniture or Christian symbolism. Really, the only give-aways that it was a church sanctuary, was the smallish baptismal font and a ginormous wooden cross which hung from the ceiling.
One of the really novel things about Bradley Hills, besides it’s architecture and it’s interior design, is that it shares space with Bethesda Jewish Congregation. On Friday afternoons, the Jewish contingency would take over the sanctuary to prepare for its Friday night worship. There was a switch on the sanctuary wall. Someone would flip that switch and behold! A cloth rendition of a Torah would descend from the ceiling, and sheath the cross. Cool, huh? Then, Sunday morning, the church custodian would flip that same switch. The Torah would ascend, and behold the cross!
The two congregations would hold joint services several times a year, too. These were a testament to the close relationship between the two congregations, but also, I think, a recognition of the close relationship between two different faith traditions—Judaism and Christianity.
And now I would like to introduce you to one particular member of Bradley Hills Presbyterian. Her name is Elizabeth. The year I worked there, she was assigned to look after me. She introduced me to church members, gave me some background into that church’s programs—that kind of thing.
Elizabeth was a great help, however Elizabeth was one nervous Nellie. Her introduction said it all: “Hi, my name is Elizabeth. I am a recovering perfectionist.” And she was that, although it didn’t seem to me her recovery was going all that well. In conversations, she would often stop mid-sentence, to correct herself. I can’t know for sure, but I think she did that because she was in constant self-analysis mode. She was wanting to perfect her every spoken word. She was extremely cautious in what she said on any given topic--religion, politics, child rearing, the weather, even. It was as if she walked through life on tentative tiptoe. So for instance, she might say, “It’s such a beautiful sunny day. No, no, well, there are a few clouds in the sky, and forecasters ARE calling for rain, so maybe it’s not THAT beautiful a day….” Our conversations confused and exhausted me.
To be perfect. That is what Elizabeth was trying NOT to be, but Jesus says we are to BE perfect, just like our heavenly father is perfect. How can that be? You know and I know that perfection is an impossible goal to achieve. You might be this close to achieving it, but there is always some itsy-bitsy thing you could do better. And even if it were possible to reach perfection, where would that get you? Wouldn’t you just spend your days trying to hold on to that perfect state? And wouldn’t you still just end up like nervous Nellie Elizabeth? And, think about this, would anyone actually LIKE you if you WERE perfect? Honestly, would YOU ever want to be married to a perfect person? Would YOU really want to be best friends with a perfect person? It’s our imperfections that make us endearing. It’s our imperfections that make our friends and loved ones endearing to us..
Why, then, would Jesus say, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect?” That is exactly what some of you asked each other in a Bible study several months ago—and if you recall, I didn’t say a word. I just listened. I filed that question away up here. I promised myself that I would preach on perfection some Sunday during the summer. And this is that Sunday!
So, here we go. This is what I know. The New Testament including the gospel of Matthew was written in ancient Greek. The Greek word for perfect is teleos. Teleos is the root of our English word, teleological. According to Webster’s dictionary, teleological, is “a doctrine explaining phenomena by final causes,” which is more than any of us will ever need to know. Teleos, though? Well, in Greek, it just means end goal, as in an acorn’s teleos is to become an oak tree. Other English equivalents might be fulfillment and of course, that stumbling block, for us, perfection.
Although WE might not want to pursue perfection, the Ancient Greeks loved, loved, loved the concept. You might even say that they invented it. Think about the great thinkers of that time—Pythagorus, Plato, are two that come immediately to mind. With no concept of perfection, would they have worked so hard to achieve all that they did? And really, aren’t our sciences, as created and promoted by those ancient Greeks--math, astronomy-- aren’t they all about perfection? So definitely there is a place for perfection in our thinking. But maybe perfection is best left to scientists in their laboratories. Maybe it is best not to apply perfection to our relationships, and, in the way we comport ourselves in our day-to-day living.
I said that the ancient Greeks might have invented perfection. I wasn’t kidding. As you may know by now, my favorite theologian, who died, sadly, in 2012, is Walter Wink. What a fine scholar he was! I went to a week-long Walter Wink-lead-conference when I lived in the DC area. We actually talked about this passage in Matthew, “Be Perfect just as your father in heaven is perfect.”
So, I introduced you to Elizabeth earlier in this sermon, now I will introduce you to Walter Wink. He was from Texas, so he had a Texas drawl. For our conference breakouts, we sat in a large circle, and Walter sat among us—his chair on two legs, so that he could rock back in forth. It was like he was sitting on his front porch rocker, “back home” on the ranch, just chewing the fat with his circle of friends. He himself used a Greek translation of the Bible. He read that as easily as we might read English. He had an excellent command of Hebrew, too, and probably other ancient languages, but I don’t know that for sure. Anyway, he would read to us from his Greek Bible and then we would discuss the passage together.
What I liked about Walter Wink is that he was one of us. He struggled with the same stuff we struggle with. Like us, when he was just beginning his career as a religious professor, he was flummoxed by “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.”
Here is what he knew. Aramaic was Jesus’ first language. He could also read Hebrew, a close cousin of Aramaic. Jesus might have known Greek, enough to speak it anyway, but we don’t know that for sure. We DO know that when he spoke with his fellow Judeans, and when we taught, he spoke in Aramaic.
You following me here? Jesus communicated and taught in Aramaic. Now comes the kicker. You ready for this? Jesus could not have said “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect,” for the simple reason that the word perfect did not exist in the Aramaic language. Let me say that again, the word perfect, did not exist in the Aramaic language.
Now think about this—something that is sure to give you a headache: If the word perfect did not exist in Aramaic, did the concept of perfection exist in Jesus’ Jewish world?
It’s like the tree falling in the forest, isn’t it? If no one is around to hear it fall, did it actually make a sound? And, if the concept of perfection did NOT exist in Jewish culture, what would life have been like? You could do well at your studies, but you could never be a perfect, A+ student. Say you were a potter. You could produce a good piece of pottery, say, but never a perfect piece of pottery. Would that matter to you? For me, anyway, a weight is lifted. How freeing that would be!
But here’s another question for you: if Jesus never said, could not have said, “Be perfect just as your father in heaven is perfect,” what did he say that was later mistranslated and written down by those ancient Greeks?”
Glad you asked! The gospel of Luke has a lot of the same passages as in Matthew—almost word for word, in some places. In our scripture passage for today, in Matthew, Jesus talks about loving our enemies. He ends his teaching with “be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect,” In Luke, the sixth chapter, Jesus instructs his listeners to “love your enemies,” just like in Matthew. In Luke, though, Jesus continues with, “Be merciful, just as your father in heaven is merciful.”
Be merciful. That makes more sense than “be perfect,” in the context in which it is used, right? Love your enemies, AND consequently be merciful to them. Should you come face to face with your enemy with your sword drawn, remember, God has told you to love that enemy. Maybe don’t run him through with your sword.
Being merciful—well that is almost as impossible a goal to achieve as being perfect, isn’t it? What am I saying? It is every bit as impossible to achieve as being perfect! We have this side of our nature, an ugly side—We want to get even, take revenge. We want to blame and punish the other--for their life circumstances, being poor, being born in the wrong country, having the wrong religion. Yet, our teleos, says Jesus, is to love the other. The proof of that love will be the mercy we practice. Be merciful just as your father in heaven is merciful.
So, in our time together, we’ve talked about the close connection between Judaism and Christianity—remember the descending and ascending Torah? And we’ve talked some about the ancient Jewish worldview, which perhaps did not include a concept of perfection. In light of what I have shared with you, maybe you’ve decided as I have decided, that the ancient Jews were on to something. Maybe, like me, you’ve decided NOT to strive for perfection in your relationships; in your day-to-day living.
Like Nervous Nellie Elizabeth, let us become recovering perfectionists. Let us strive instead to be merciful, but NOT perfectly merciful. Amen
In just a minute, I am going to read you the story of Jesus performing a healing at the Bethesda pool. Rather than reading along with me, or just listening, I want you to do something else. As I read, with your eyes closed, I want you to imagine that you yourself are at the Bethesda pool in Jerusalem. You are there to be healed by the waters. You’ll want to have a disease or disability of some kind. Let’s say your right side is paralyzed. Let your right arm go limp. Let your right leg go limp. You are not in pain, but you can’t move much. You can’t perform day-to-day chores—like washing clothes or dishes. You drag your leg when you walk. That is why you yourself are at the Bethesda pool. You are lying under a portico. The sun’s rays are blocked, but it’s hot as an oven. You are desperate for healing, though. You watch and wait for the pool’s water to stir. When it does, it means that angels are present and a miracle can happen. Your plan is that when you see the moving water, you will crawl to the water and using your left hand and arm as a lever, you will throw yourself in.Read More
I know a fellow pastor who swears that nothing happens by coincidence. I’m not THAT much of a purist. Although God does work wonders and is very much a part of our lives, I think that there is room for a coincidence now and then. HOWEVER, I will say that this week, what happened to me was more than coincidence.
And to think it happened at a Presbytery meeting! Yes, apparently God even attends Presbytery meetings. I am going to tell you what happened, but everything right now is still kind of a jumble for me, so you will have to bear with me if the pieces of this jigsaw saga do not fit snuggly together. I am still processing.
To begin, I would like us to put ourselves at that Presbytery meeting. We are at Westminster/Cantebury, a retirement community in Richmond. We are sitting in a large meeting room. Two lecterns flank the center stage. There are also several chairs on stage, and a table on which stands a large brass, Celtic cross. After a time of worship, and after hearing reports from various committees, two women, one black the other white, climb the stairs to the stage. They situate two of the chairs next to each other, center stage, and they sit down. So begins their mini-drama, which is really a conversation. Here is the gist of the conversation:Read More