Being Right Isn’t Enough

By Fczarnowski (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Fczarnowski (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you like to be right?  Of course you do.  Who doesn’t?  I don’t think there’s a person on this planet who, at least once in a while, doesn’t like to be the one with the right answer to a question or the solution to a problem.  It makes us feel important.  It makes us feel useful.  It makes us feel like our lives have a purpose, like maybe we can make a positive difference in this world.  It’s a good feeling.

But have you ever noticed that there are times when being right can go oh-so-wrong?  Being right might feel good but, like anything that causes good feelings, it can also be addictive.  Have you ever met someone who is chronically addicted to being right?  Have you ever been in an argument with someone who was right, who had a valid argument, but you didn’t want to concede the point because he or she was just being so mean about the whole thing?  I won’t ask for names, although I’m sure we all could list at least a few.  And if we’re really, really honest, I think we can all admit that there have been times (moments, in the very least) when each and every one of us has “chased that feeling” of being right a little too hard and run the risk of sacrificing something or someone that, in the long run, is far, far more important than our need to look good and be right.

Now, I should mention here that there are indeed times in life when conscience calls upon us to make certain sacrifices for the sake of what’s right in the face of great injustice.  Where would we be without those men and women who pledged “[their] lives, [their] fortunes, and [their] sacred honor” to the causes of justice and the common good?  It’s important to acknowledge that call.  But that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about that unhealthy, selfish, and compulsive need to be right (or at least appear to be right) at all times that only serves the cause of one’s own ego.  This is what I’m talking about.  This is the kind of addiction, like any addiction, that can cost people jobs, relationships, family, trust, goodwill, and (perhaps most ironic of all) credibility.

It may require a great deal of self-awareness to be able to do this, but I think we need to ask ourselves in those moments of heated debate, “Am I standing up for what’s right or for my need to be right?”  We need to ask ourselves this question because there is so much more to winning an argument than just being rightHow we argue and why we’re doing it is just as important as what we’re arguing about.

I’d like to turn your attention toward our Epistle lesson this morning, taken from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  Paul was writing to these Roman Christians to give them some pastoral advice about an issue that was very near and dear to his heart.  There was a conflict going on in that church and one party in that conflict was clearly in the right, as far as Paul was concerned.  The issue at hand was the inclusion of Gentiles (i.e. non-Jewish people) in the life and ministry of the Christian church.

This issue was the single greatest hot-button issue for first century Christians, just as the abolition of slavery, racial integration, the ordination of women, and marriage equality would also become hot-button issues for future generations.  There were those in the church who argued, citing the Bible and theological tradition as precedent, that Christianity itself was Jewish and therefore church membership should be limited to Jews alone.  “Jesus was Jewish,” they said, “all of his apostles were Jewish, therefore anyone seeking to follow Jesus should also agree to follow the commandments of the Jewish Torah (e.g. be circumcised, follow certain dietary restrictions, and celebrate certain rituals and holidays).”

Paul, on the other hand, was of a different opinion.  He believed that the Christian church was meant to be an international, multi-cultural community made up of people from “every tribe, language, people, and nation.”  He believed that the whole human race was meant to live as one family where the walls of division, distinction, and discrimination would be torn down and there would be “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.”

This was Paul’s opinion and, as history would have it, he was right.  Most scholars agree that it was this cosmopolitan character of the early church that allowed it to survive, spread so far and wide in the Roman Empire, and ultimately become one of the most important religious movements in the history of the human race.  So yes, Paul was right and he argued for his position in churches across southern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.  Most of the time, he had to speak up for the full-inclusion of Gentiles, disparaging any notion of second-class citizenship for non-Jews in the church, but not in Rome.  In Rome, he had the opposite problem.

You see, the Roman church agreed with Paul.  They took his multi-cultural message of inclusion to heart.  Jews and Gentiles worshiped together in the Roman church until the year 49 CE, when the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city of Rome.  When they were allowed to return five years later, the Jewish Christians discovered that certain prejudicial, anti-Semitic attitudes had begun to spring up among their Gentile brothers and sisters.

In those years of Jewish absence, the Gentile Roman Christians got to thinking that maybe this was a sign that the Jews had been rejected as the chosen people, only to be replaced by Gentiles.  “After all,” they thought, “It was the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem that conspired to have Jesus the Messiah wrongly executed; it was Jewish synagogues that instigated so much rivalry, tension, and conflict in those cities where synagogues and churches co-existed; and it was Jewish Christians who were opposing Paul’s teaching and trying to force their culture on Gentile Christians.”  Maybe their number was up and their day was done?  Who needs those weird old traditions and stories anyway?  The Romans no doubt saw themselves as very enlightened and progressive for taking this stance.

This is where Paul comes in.  He wasn’t used to dealing with this kind of problem.  It was usually the Jewish people who were excluding the non-Jewish people, but in this case it was the other way around.  These Roman Christians were basically right in their theology; they agreed with Paul, but they took it too far by excluding their Jewish brothers and sisters instead.  Paul’s dream was for a church where everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, would be welcome as part of the family.  This kind of reverse-discrimination simply wouldn’t do.

So Paul tries to put the brakes on the situation.  He reminds the Romans that it’s not their place to judge others, just as Jewish Christians had no right to force their culture on Gentiles.  Moreover, Paul contended that the conflict between Jews and Christians was not a sign that Jews had been rejected as chosen people.  Paul highlighted the debt that Christianity owed to Judaism for its very existence.  He urged the Romans not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, especially when it came to the Jewish scriptures.  “Whatever was written in former days,” he said, “was written for our instruction.”  In other words, he’s saying that the writings of the Torah aren’t just a bunch of kooky old superstitions that don’t apply to people today.  Those writings are a chronicle of Israel’s ongoing spiritual development and the Christian church, according to Paul, stands in continuity with that movement.  In fact, Paul goes on to quote a verse of the Torah for them from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with God’s people.”  Paul is saying that there is place for them in this tradition and there is a place for this tradition in them.  He’s not backpedaling on his stance of inclusion, but he’s sticking to his conviction that the church should be “a house of prayer for all nations,” Jews as well as Gentiles.

Paul goes on to tell them, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  And again, in this gloriously climactic verse that sums up his whole argument so beautifully, he says, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I love how, in those two verses, Paul connects the bridging of gap between Jews and Gentiles with the life and ministry of Jesus.  By crossing the divide between you, Paul says, you are living in a way that is consistent with what we believe about Jesus.

As you know, we are now in the season of Advent, when we prepare to celebrate what Christians have called the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ.  What this means to Christians is that, in the birth of Jesus, a gulf was crossed, a gap was bridged between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity.  And if Christ has crossed so great a divide to be near us, then who are we to refuse to cross those comparatively little divides that run between us and our fellow human beings?  That’s why Paul tells the Romans, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

The Roman Christians were in the wrong, even though they were on the right side of the issue.  Christianity isn’t about being right, it’s about being in right relationship with God, with your neighbors, with yourself, and with the earth.  It’s those relationships that matter most.

So, in this coming Christmas season, I want to invite you to work on those relationships.  As you gather together with friends, neighbors, and family whose opinions about politics or religion might irk you for one reason or another; as you sit down to dinner next to someone with whom you have been feuding for years; as you listen to those political pundits and op-ed columnists who make you want to throw the newspaper in the trash or chuck your remote at the TV screen, remember that it’s not about being right; it’s about being in right relationship with one another.  That’s the only thing that really matters and it’s the only present that Jesus wants from us this Christmas.

Befriending the Cross

Michael Servetus (1511-1553)
Michael Servetus (1511-1553)

Hidden in the annals of Christian history are stories we’d rather not tell.

The Church of Christ has not always done well at emulating the life and love of its Lord and Savior.  As a matter of fact, we’ve been downright evil for much of the time.  One need only mention the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials to get an idea of what I’m talking about.  One such example comes from the very roots of our own Presbyterian tradition:

Back in the 1500s, when John Calvin was preaching in the Swiss city of Geneva, a guy named Michael Servetus blew into town.  He was on the run from the Catholic Church after being arrested for heresy and then breaking out of prison.  Servetus was a Unitarian, meaning that he did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity: the belief in one God, consisting of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The fugitive Servetus made a bad choice in putting Geneva on his travel itinerary.  John Calvin, whose opinions had a powerful influence on city politics, had no more love for Servetus than the Catholic authorities had.  Calvin himself had previously written to a friend, “If [Servetus] comes here… I will never permit him to depart alive.”  And Calvin made good on his threat.  As soon as someone recognized Servetus attending worship at Calvin’s church, he was arrested, tried, and burned at the stake for heresy.  Michael Servetus’ last recorded words were, “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.”

This is part of the dark side of Presbyterian history.  John Calvin is still remembered as the founder of the Reformed Tradition, of which the Presbyterian Church is a part.  In 1903, Calvin’s spiritual heirs in the city of Geneva erected a monument to the memory of Michael Servetus on the spot where he was burned.  The inscription on that monument condemns Calvin’s error and acknowledges that the true spirit of the Reformation can only exist where liberty of conscience is allowed to flourish.

It’s too little, too late for Servetus, but the gesture acknowledges that we’ve at least made a little progress in half a millennium.

In so many of these cases of heresy trials and stake burnings, there is an oft-repeated label that has been misappropriated from the New Testament and applied to the opponents of established orthodoxy.  That label is: “Enemies of the cross of Christ”.

You might have noticed that very phrase appearing in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Paul wrote, “[M]any live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”

And just who are these “enemies”?  Paul is not clear on that.  At various points in church history, this term has been applied to Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Unitarians, and basically anyone else who’s theological views differ from the person applying the label at the time.  “Enemies of the cross of Christ” is a derogatory epithet used to identify others as “outsiders” and “heretics”.  Most of the time, it has been applied to emphasize doctrinal differences between religious groups.

I believe that such use of this phrase does violence to its original meaning in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  You see, in that letter, Paul never suggests that one’s religious affiliation or theological orientation are determinant of one’s status as an enemy of the cross of Christ.  For Paul, the truth goes much deeper than that: so deep, I would say, that the essence of this message can be found in the spiritual teachings of every mystic and every sage in every culture, every place, and every period of history.  Paul’s message of the cross is the story of people graduating from their small, self-centered lives to the larger, reality-centered Life.  Some have called it conversion, some salvation, some liberation, and some enlightenment.  For Paul, as for most Christians, the central symbol for this process of transformation is the cross of Christ.

The cross is the single most recognizable Christian symbol in the world.  Historically speaking, it was of course the instrument of torture and execution on which Jesus was killed.  Symbolically speaking, Christians have attached multiple levels of meaning to its significance.  Starting about a thousand years ago, a full millennium after Jesus was born, a British writer named Anselm of Canterbury came up with the idea that theologians now call “substitutionary atonement”.  You might not have heard that phrase before, but you probably have heard some preacher on the radio or television saying, “Jesus died for your sins.”  Substitutionary atonement is currently the most commonly known and accepted interpretation of the significance of the Jesus’ crucifixion, but the idea is only about half as old as Christianity itself.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul presents an entirely different understanding of the cross.  For Paul, the crucifixion event cannot be understood apart from the story of Christ’s resurrection.  According to Paul, these two events form a unified whole.  Neither one makes any sense without the other.

The crucifixion and resurrection, taken together, form the central image of the Christian spiritual journey.  In the process of transitioning from a self-centered to a reality-centered life, every Christian must undergo a kind of death and resurrection.  As Paul himself wrote elsewhere, in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, he writes in a similar vein:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In this early Christian hymn, Paul lays out the path of self-emptying, the path of the cross, which leads to resurrection and exaltation by God.  And this, he says, is not only the journey of Jesus himself, but also of every Christian who claims to bear his name.  Paul begins his hymn with the exhortation: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.

A Christian then, in Paul’s eyes, is one who walks the path of the cross, who dies to the old, self-centered life and rises to the new, reality-centered Life.  One could say that a Christian is a “friend of the cross of Christ”.

By contrast, those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” are those who refuse to walk this path of metaphorical crucifixion and resurrection.  The Buddha might call them “unenlightened”.  Muhammad might call them “infidels”.  Harry Potter would probably call them “muggles”.

What can we learn about these “enemies of the cross of Christ”?  Well, since this status has more to do with one’s way of life than with one’s religious affiliation, I think we can say that they might belong to any tradition or no tradition at all.  We’re just as likely to find them in pews as in bars.

Here’s what Paul has to say about them: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly”.  This is an interesting way of putting it.  When Paul says, “their god is the belly” he obviously doesn’t mean their physical abdomens.  The belly is where one’s food goes after it is consumed.  The belly, in this sense, is the seat of desire.  The people who refuse to let go of their small, self-centered lives are worshiping their own desires and addictions.  What they want/need is most important to them.

For them, the primary concern is “my food, my money, my country, my church.”  Everything is all about I, me, my.  There is no big picture or larger context in which they see their lives.  That which benefits them is universally good.  That which hinders them is universally bad.  In every story, these folks never fail to cast themselves as either the heroes or the victims.  They’re always on the side of right.  They have all the answers.  Anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic who deserves to be burned at the stake.  This is what self-centered worship looks like.  These folks are what Paul refers to as “enemies of the cross of Christ.”  There is no self-sacrifice for them.  There is no denial of desire for the greater good.  There is no responsibility beyond one’s responsibility to one’s own self.  Self-centered existence.

What is the end result of this way of life?  Paul says it quite clearly: “Their end is destruction”.  This self-centered way of thinking and living can only lead to pain and death.  This is not some mysterious, mystical idea.  Think about it: what kind of world would this be if neighbors never went out of their way to help each other?  What if friends and family never forgave each other?  What if no one answered the call of charity or the obligation of justice for those who suffer?  I don’t know about you, but that’s not a world I would want to live in.  That selfish mentality can only lead to destruction, as Paul warns us.

The way of the cross is the way of sacrifice.  Jesus could have called upon his mass of followers to rise up and fight if he so desired.  Instead, he chose to walk the path of nonviolence.  He chose to suffer pain, rather than cause it.  He chose to die, rather than kill to protect what was rightfully his.  In so doing, Jesus set himself apart from every other revolutionary movement leader of his time.  His selfless sacrifice did not go unnoticed or unremembered.  He left his followers with a symbol and an image that would change the way they look at the world.

Christ’s willing submission to crucifixion, according to Paul, is the basis for his sovereignty over all creation.  For his followers, it is the model we follow for living our lives in the world.  The end-result of crucifixion is not death, but resurrection.  “Humiliation”, according to Paul, is transformed into “glory”.  Followers of the way of Christ must befriend the cross because it is the only way into the “abundant life” that Jesus intended for us to have.

Paul’s warning about the “enemies of the cross of Christ” is not a wholesale condemnation of those who hold different theological views from Paul’s, or John Calvin’s, or mine.  Paul’s warning applies to all of us, no matter what religion we espouse.  With tears, Paul is pleading with us to realize that our little lives, ruled by our own selfish desires and preferences, lead only to destruction.

The flip side of Paul’s warning is that those who befriend the cross, who walk the path of self-sacrifice for the greater good, like Jesus did, are sure to receive resurrection, salvation, and enlightenment.  These are the true saints, the blessed ones who discover the meaning of life.  These are the real Christians: the friends of the cross of Christ.

May it be so for you, for me, and for all who seek the greater good, the life abundant, in the name (or the spirit) of Jesus Christ.

It’s a Small World After All…

Image by Michael Derr. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image by Michael Derr. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

I had a funny thing happen to me the other day.  I read a Facebook status update by a friend of mine on a business trip to Delaware.  She said that her hotel was being renovated, so she had to switch rooms.  A little while later, I read another status update by one of our congregants at this church: Melissa Roy.  Melissa, who is also on a business trip to Delaware, likewise mentioned that her hotel was being renovated, so she had to switch rooms.  In a moment of déjà vu, I put two and two together and realized that Melissa and my friend Michelle must be part of the same trip.  I had no idea they worked together!  We all had a good laugh about it and then Melissa threatened to sing It’s a Small World, After All.  For the sake of all that is good and holy in this world, I begged her not to.

We’ve all had experiences like this: little moments when separate points in our lives meet together unexpectedly.  People tend to laugh or smile when this happens.  I think this is because something deep inside of us leaps for joy at the discovery that we are not alone in this universe.  We instinctively rejoice to learn that our lives are connected as parts of a great, unfathomable whole.

Connection is a pretty cool thing.  It happens every day at all levels of existence: in the way we do business, in biological ecosystems, and even in the laws of physics.  There’s a scientific phenomenon I first learned about a few years ago called quantum entanglement.  Quantum entanglement has to do with photons (tiny particles of light).  I’m not a physicist, so I’ll explain it in the words of Theodore Roszak, which I found in another book by Diarmuid O’Murchu called Quantum Theology (p.32):

Entanglement is a relationship that allows physicists to make twins of photons, and then link them in a sort of quantum web that permits instantaneous communication across light years of distance.  At least thus far, entanglement stands as a relational state so strange that it eludes any causal explanation.  The very antithesis of isolation and autonomy, it suggests that scientists who approach nature with a sensitivity for interaction, reciprocity, and rich interrelationship will find endless wonders.

Here again we see the miracle of connection taking place.  Connection is everywhere.  You’ve heard me say this before (and you’ll hear me say it again): the word religion comes from the Latin word for connection.  So, it’s no wonder that the very deepest parts of ourselves jump for joy whenever little momentary connections happen in our lives, like those times when we discover that two friends from different parts of our lives also know each other.  We say, “Hey!  Look at that!  We’re all connected!”  Moments like that are religious moments, on the most basic level.  For an instant, our spiritual eyes are open to the great mystery of the universe and we realize that we are not alone.

In this morning’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians, the author talks at length about this mystery of connectedness.  The author of this passage is writing in the name of the apostle Paul, although most biblical scholars agree that it probably wasn’t Paul himself who wrote this.  It was probably one of his students, writing in his name a generation or so after his death.  This wasn’t at all uncommon in the ancient world.  In that culture, it was considered a great honor for a student to write in the name of a beloved former teacher.  However, it poses a problem for us modern readers because we like to look for concrete facts that we can take at face-value.

This author, writing honorifically in Paul’s name, talks about a mystery that was revealed to Paul during his lifetime.  Most of us have probably heard the story before: Paul (then called Saul) was a devout and educated Jew who made a name for himself by hunting and imprisoning the followers of Jesus.  Then, one day, while Paul was on the road to the city of Damascus in modern-day Syria, he was struck by a blinding light and a voice from heaven that identified itself as Jesus.  From then on, Paul’s life was different.  He became a leader in the very movement he had previously sought to eradicate.  He still considered himself to be a faithful Jew, but his interpretation of Judaism was now being filtered through his newfound faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

This interpretive change had all sorts of consequences for Paul and his faith.  One of the most significant changes for Paul was that he now believed that Gentiles (non-Jewish people) could be included in the fellowship of the chosen people.  For Paul, it was a person’s faith, not his or her ethnicity or religious background, that qualified him or her for membership in the chosen people.  Paul himself wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  The author of Ephesians expresses a similar idea in today’s passage, saying, “the Gentiles (non-Jews) have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

This new idea did not go over very well with the religious leaders of Judaism in Paul’s day.  From their point of view, Paul and these so-called “Christians” were a bunch of liberal hippies, frolicking around and claiming that anybody who wanted to could be part of the chosen people.  These more traditional believers were scared that Paul and his Christian friends were undermining the very beliefs, morals, and values that their ancestors had fought and died for.  Blood had been shed to preserve Jewish tradition, Jewish culture, and Jewish religion, but now this Paul guy and his students were saying that it didn’t matter anymore.  This was a problem for them.  It was disrespectful.  It was offensive.  It put Paul and the Christians at odds with the Jewish community from then on.  Paul never stopped thinking of himself as a Jew, but the rest of the Jewish community saw him as a heretic and a traitor.  They did everything they could to ensure that he and his students were unwelcome in their synagogues.

But Paul and his Christian students never blinked.  They had discovered something so powerful in their lives that rejection from the powers-that-be didn’t even phase them.  Their faith was no private devotion that secured their individual souls for an afterlife in heaven.  Theirs was a faith of connectedness.  Just like my recent encounter with mutual acquaintances, they found that strangers could be family.  Just like entangled photons, they found that connectedness itself is woven into the very fabric of the universe.  Through their faith in Christ, the early Christians discovered that the umbrella of God’s grace is big enough to include all people, all beings.  The author of Ephesians talks about celebrating “the boundless riches of Christ” and “the wisdom of God in its rich variety.”  Within the mystery of grace, there is abundance without boundaries.

The joy they found in this ever-expanding family of faith trumped the persecution they faced from religious and political authorities on every side.  No less than their ancestors who had suffered and died to preserve the traditions of the Jewish people, these early Christians were just as willing to suffer and die for their faith in the God who’s “got the whole world in his hands.”  What they had discovered was news so good that it had to be shared, no matter what the consequences might be.

You and I, as Christians in the 21st century, are the heirs of this subversive legacy.  We live in a culture where people see themselves as isolated and divided.  They fight for the survival and superiority of their own little groups.  Consumerism tells them that “greed is good” and “selfishness is a virtue.”  Economic collapse, political corruption, and religious violence are simply the fruits that grow from the seeds of self-centered hearts, minds, and societies.

The gospel of grace stands in stark contrast to this selfishness.  In Christ, we learn that we are all connected.  As Paul himself wrote: “The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  This connection is no trivial thing, either.  It’s not some feel-good philosophy that warms our hearts once in a while.  No, we depend on each other.  We need each other.  Once again, I refer to Paul’s writing:

…just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

We are connected, interdependent, and members of the same body.  If we understood the truth of this, one would no more be able to demean, degrade, or dehumanize another person than to poke out one’s own eye or cut off a hand.  We need each other.  We belong to one another because we all belong to God.  That’s what it means to be connected and to live as connected beings.

That’s the message the people of this world need to hear.  They’re longing to belong so badly that they’ll jump on the band wagon of any agenda or ideology that comes their way, promising peace and prosperity.  What they don’t realize is that they already do belong.  There is a place for them in this house, this community, this church.  The whole world desperately needs to hear this good news, but they won’t hear it unless we tell them.

The church is meant to be a microcosm of that inter-connected community in the universe.  We are called to love and to care for each other as brothers and sisters of Christ.  We are also called to love and care for outsiders as if they were our own.  That’s how the world will come to see and know that they too are loved and connected to the universe in God.

This good news is no sales pitch for conversions, neither is it a “turn or burn” warning of hellfire and damnation.  It seems to me that we’ve done a good enough job of making hell on earth already.  No, the gospel we preach is food for hungry hearts and medicine for sick souls.  We preach it with our lives more than our words.  If we live lives of compassion and integrity, recognizing and honoring our own sacred connections to the universe, people will naturally be attracted to us, just like they were drawn to Jesus.

Like Jesus, each of us can become agents of healing and enlightenment for the world.  This is our destiny: to remind the world of its destiny and to take this message of faith, hope, and love to very ends of earth.

We are all messengers.  Whether we speak up in words or not, the world will receive some kind of message from our lives.

May the message that your life sends to the world be the same as my message to you at the end of each Sunday sermon:

“I love you.  God loves you.  And there is nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

Children of Light

Here is this week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is I Thessalonians 5:1-11.

I preached from an outline instead of a manuscript this week, but you can click here to listen to the sermon or download the mp3 at

Click here for a copy of my sermon notes in .docx format

In the sermon, I mention the old Civil Defense Drill Films that were shown to kids.  Here is one famous example:

To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before…

USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

Click here to listen to it at

The text is I Thessalonians 4:1-13.

“Space: the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

These words were a mantra to me during my childhood.  For those who might not recognize them, they come from the opening credits of the TV show Star Trek.  And every Saturday night at seven, I could be found in the living room with our family television set tuned to channel 12.  And for the next hour, I would be transported (“beamed up”, if you will) into the 24th century and onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise, where Captain Picard would be my guide as we faced crises of galactic importance (but none so complicated that they couldn’t be resolved by the end of the hour).  This weekly ritual was like a Sabbath to me.  Star Trek gave me comfort and it gave me hope.  It restored my faith in the power of the human spirit.

One of my favorite things about Star Trek is its constant theme of exploration.  The crew of the starship Enterprise spent a lot of time in distant and uncharted regions of the galaxy.  They existed on the growing edge of human experience that led to new discoveries and new insights.  Something about that spoke to me.  At ten years old, I knew that was how I wanted to live my life.

Initially, my hunger to explore was directed outward to the stars.  I wanted to travel into outer space.  To be honest, I still do.  Whenever humans get around to colonizing Mars, I figure they’ll eventually need pastors up there.  And you know what?  I’d put in for that call!  I’m just sayin’…

In the meantime, I’ve turned my attention to exploring the “inner space” of spirituality.  The territory is different, but that drive to explore is the same.  I still want to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”  That’s what motivates me to keep going and keep growing as a human being.  I can’t say that I’ve ever explored completely new ground for humanity, but I’m constantly discovering plenty of territory out there that’s new to me.  It’s exciting and I love it.

Some of us explore because we want to.  Others explore because they have to.  One of my hardest moments as a pastor came last year when my wife and I co-officiated at a funeral for a baby.  In that moment, every bit of conventional wisdom, biblical scholarship, and theological understanding went right out the window.  We were forced to explore completely new territory.  It wasn’t fun or exciting but we had to go there because the parents of that little girl were depending on us.  We had no answers for them.  There is no bumper sticker slogan in the world that will make that kind of pain easier to deal with.  So, we were forced to explore new territory.

As hard as it was for us, it was a million times harder for the parents.  They said it felt like they had been initiated into a club that no one wants to be a member of.  They would have given anything to be anywhere else in that moment.  That kind of exploration is nothing but torture.

That’s the kind of exploration the Thessalonian Christians were forced into in today’s scripture reading.  We’ve been learning a lot about the Thessalonian church during these past few weeks.  They were a dynamic, loving, and spiritually vibrant church.  When the apostle Paul came through town as a missionary, these folks were particularly and remarkably open to what he had to say.  Their reputation as people of faith had spread all over the region.  But they also had some hard questions that they were struggling with.

You see, a big part of Paul’s message had to do with the return of Christ.  When he preached, he made it sound like Jesus might be coming back as soon as next Thursday, certainly within the lifetimes of his audience members!  From what we can tell, it seems like Paul himself truly believed that was the case.  He wasn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.

The problem came as time went by.  Jesus was nowhere to be seen.  What happened?  Did they miss it?  Was Paul wrong?  The point when they got really REALLY nervous is when people in their community started dying.  What would happen to them?  If they weren’t here when Jesus got back, would they be lost forever?  The Christian church never had to ask these kinds of questions before.  They didn’t have any answers to fit the mold.  What were they supposed to do now?

It was a moment of necessary spiritual exploration.  They were asking questions that no one had thought to ask before.  What will happen to our deceased Christian friends?  What will happen to us if Jesus doesn’t return during our lifetime?

It must have been a difficult moment for Paul as a pastor.  He had taught his flock in the best way he knew how.  Had all of that ministry been in vain?  Was there any hope left?  Paul was forced into some pretty heavy-duty spiritual exploration.

He begins with the assumption that there is hope.  He may not know much else, but he believes that God in Christ can be trusted.  That’s number one.  Next, he thought about what he already knew he believed.  In verse 14, he talked about how they already believed that “Jesus died and rose again”.  To him, this meant that the dead are not beyond God’s care.  Inspired by further reflection and a powerful visionary experience, Paul presented the Thessalonian Christians with an image of “meet[ing] the Lord in the air.”  In other words, Paul was saying that there is a place (i.e. “in the air”) where heaven and earth come together.  In this place, we have communion with Christ, each other, and all of those who have died before us.  They are not gone.  We will be together again.

Paul gives the Thessalonians this inspirational exploration as a source of strength and encouragement.  It’s something to hold onto in dark and uncertain times so that they might also hold onto hope.  It’s a mental image that arises out of questions they’ve never had to ask before.  In one sense, it represented a shift away from what they had initially been taught.  Jesus might not physically return within their chronological lifetime.  On the other hand, it points to much deeper truths that do not change.  Hope does not change.  God’s faithfulness does not change.  God’s love, which is stronger than death itself, does not change.

In the same way, we who live in the 21st century are forced into constant exploration.  Society around us is changing on a scale and at a rate that is heretofore unknown in the history of our species.  We are asking questions that have never been asked before.  What are appropriate Christian responses to evolution, human cloning, or same-sex marriage?  There are many people of faith who claim to know the answers already, but the reality is that those are questions that Jesus and Paul never had to ask in the time and place in which they lived.  It is left to us to faithfully explore these questions and try to answer them in a way that affirms those things that don’t change: God is faithful.  There is hope.  God loves you.

We’re probably going to disagree with one another in the answers we come up with.  That’s okay.  It’s all part of the process of exploration.  It’s a lot of trial and error.  In fact, I think we’re more likely to get at the (capital T) Truth if we go ahead and assume that each of us is probably going to get the answers wrong somewhere along the line.  Remembering that will keep us humble.

There is a wonderful hymn that is not in our hymnal.  It was written in the 1850s by a man named George Rawson who based the words off of the last sermon preached to the Plymouth Rock pilgrims before they left Europe for the New World.  It goes like this:

“We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind —
By notions of our day and sect — crude partial and confined
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred
For God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word.”

So, go out from this place today and back into the final frontier.  Remember your continuing mission: to explore this strange new world, to seek out new light and new revelations, to boldly go where no one has gone before!  Remember, above all else, those truths that don’t change: God is faithful.  There is hope.  God loves you.

The Messenger is the Message

Jay Bakker

The text for this week’s sermon is I Thessalonians 2:1-8.

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Back when I was in high school and college, the churches I went to made a particularly big deal about certain little things that weren’t such a big deal to other people.  These churches were really concerned about what Christians were wearing, what they were drinking, the places where they would hang out, the people they were friends with, the TV shows and movies they were watching, and the music they were listening to.  They spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this stuff because they figured that if Christians participated in any of these so-called “forbidden” activities, then people who saw them and weren’t Christians might somehow think less of Jesus (and therefore not want to become Christians themselves, thus condemning their souls to hell for all eternity… or so the argument goes).  They called this process “protecting your witness.”

“Good Christians shouldn’t go out dancing,” they’d say, “because it might ruin your witness!”

Now, to their credit, there’s certain logic to this idea.  Our actions, as Christians, certainly do reflect upon the God we claim to believe in.  However, I think these churches focus on the wrong kinds of actions.  When I talk to people who aren’t Christians and ask them why they’re not interested in Christianity, I’ve never once heard someone say, “Because I once saw a Christian dancing in a nightclub.”  However, I’ve heard lots of people say, “I don’t want to be a Christian because most Christians I know are judgmental hypocrites and I don’t want to be like them.”

Sometimes, these folks will point to the headline-making scandals involving high-profile Christians.  One favorite example that people mention is the infamous PTL scandal from the mid-1980s involving Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker.  For those who might not remember the story, Jim and Tammy-Faye built a huge faith-based media empire that combined evangelism with entertainment.  They loudly proclaimed the power of the so-called “prosperity gospel”: that God would bless people with material wealth so long as they “planted seeds of faith” (which typically meant donating a certain sum of money to the organization in question).

After years of successful growth, the bottom fell out of Jim and Tammy-Faye’s empire when severe allegations of marital infidelity and financial malfeasance began rising to the surface.  Jim Bakker went to prison for a number of years and the PTL organization went bankrupt.  It’s stories like this that tend to put people off of Christianity in the long-term.

The Apostle Paul was aware of this kind of danger in his own day.  In fact, people accused him of doing something very similar to Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker.  Paul’s apostolic ministry kept him on the road a lot, which was a bigger deal in those days than it is now.  He came through the city of Thessalonica at one point and started some very meaningful relationships there.  As we heard in last week’s reading, the Thessalonian Christians became known for their deep and open-hearted spirituality.  But the Spirit moved and needs were pressing in other churches, so Paul eventually had to say goodbye.

After his departure, things continued to go (mostly) well for the new Thessalonian church.  Their faith was strong, but doubts eventually began to arise about Paul himself.  Was he just some fly-by-night preacher?  Did he just blow out of town as soon as he had their money in the collection plate?

Word of these rumors reached Paul himself and he decided it was important enough to respond with this letter.  He wasn’t just concerned about defending his own reputation.  Paul knew that the life he lived would reflect upon the faith he preached.  So he wanted to make darn sure that people were left with the right impression.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians saying, “you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.”  The others he mentioned were Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas) and Timothy, his associates in the mission field.  Paul drew the Thessalonians’ attention, not just to the content of the message, but to the character of the messengers.  He goes into detail, saying “our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery”.  He continues, “As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed”.  We’ll have to forgive Paul for tooting his own horn here, but he seems that he had a pretty clear sense of what he was trying to do in his ministry.  He appeals to the collective conscience of those who knew him personally and saw him in action.  We know from other parts of the New Testament that Paul had a side-job making tents.  He used this trade to support himself while he traveled and preached.  This, by the way, is why some pastors (like me) who support themselves with jobs outside the church are called “tentmakers” to this day.  My “tent” just happens to be my classroom at Utica College.  It’s not always easy, but it helps to know that I’m following in the footsteps of those who have gone before me.  In our case, tentmaking allows this church to have a regular pastor.  In Paul’s case, tentmaking protected his credibility as a minister of the gospel.  In fact, the only time we have any record of Paul taking up a collection anywhere is for the relief of famine victims in Judea.

As we already said, Paul knew that the life he lived would reflect upon the faith he preached.  So, what kind of message about God did Paul’s lifestyle send?  Paul writes, “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”  The message that Paul was trying to send through his life was that God is gentle with us, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”  God gives life, love, care, affection, nourishment, guidance, and protection.  Isn’t that what a nursing mother does?  That’s the message about God that Paul wanted the Thessalonians to absorb.

More than that, Paul said, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves”.  Isn’t that also a statement about God?  God shared God’s own self with us in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Incarnation, which we celebrate each Christmas, is the remembrance of the time when “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  To paraphrase the same idea in Paul’s words, “So deeply does God care for us that God is determined to share with us… God’s own self, because we are very dear to God.”  Paul meant for his actions to be a reflection of God’s love for all people.

There can be no doubt that the lives we live reflect upon the faith we profess.  Regardless of the words we use, we should pay attention to the messages our actions send to others about God.  Churches like the ones I used to go to send the message that God is demanding, uptight, and watching your every move to make sure you don’t have any fun.  People like Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker reinforced the idea that God is judgmental and hypocritical.  Isn’t there a better message for Christians to send about God?  I think there is.

Does anyone remember that Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker had a son named Jamie?  He was still very young when scandal brought the PTL organization down.  Whatever happened to him?  Well, you probably wouldn’t recognize him today.  He goes by “Jay” now.  He looks nothing like the clean-cut little boy in a sweater-vest on his parents’ TV show.  These days, he’s completely covered in tattoos and piercings.  As it turns out, Jay has followed in his father’s footsteps as a minister, but of a very different kind than his dad.  Jay Bakker is the pastor of an unconventional church in New York City called ‘Revolution’.  It meets in a bar and attracts all kinds of misfits who would never feel comfortable in a more conventional church.  The Sundance Channel did a documentary on Jay’s life in 2006 called One Punk, Under God.  It’s worth watching, if you get the chance.

What kind of message do you think people absorb about God from Jay Bakker’s life?  I imagine they see God as unconventional, creative, and inclusive.  I think they see God as someone who will travel outside the bounds of traditional religion in order to bring good news to outcasts and misfits.  Doesn’t that sound like a God worth believing in?

When people look at your life, what kinds of conclusions do they draw about God?  How does the life you live reflect upon the faith you profess?  Through your actions, do people see God as uptight and hypocritical?  Or do they see God as creative and nurturing?  What do you think people see?  What do you want them to see?

May God bless us all and continually guide our lives to be more and more like Jesus, whose life perfectly reflected the love of God in every way.

This Magic Moment

Dolores Umbridge

The text is I Thessalonians 1:1-10.

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Has anyone here read or seen the Harry Potter books or movies?  I imagine that many of you have.  Personally, I’ve seen the movies but not read the books.  If you’ve not experienced them yourself, I’m sure you’re at least aware of their existence.  Just about everybody in our culture has.

Certain groups of Christians have made quite a name for themselves by claiming that the Harry Potter phenomenon is part of a satanic conspiracy to promote the practice of witchcraft among children.  Here’s one juicy tidbit taken from the website (a very serious title):

Many think it is just harmless fantasy. True it is fantasy, but it is laced with witchcraft and demonology as are most books like it…

There are many books out about Witchcraft but none so cleverly packaged like the latest. Satan is up to his old tricks again and the main focus is the children of the world. The latestcraze is a series of books by author J. K. Rowling, known as Harry Potter…

The whole purpose of these books is to desensitize readers and introduce them to the occult. What a better way to introduce tolerance and acceptance of what God calls an abomination, then in children’s books? If you can get them when they are young, then you have them for life. It’s the oldest marketing scheme there is…

Keep these books and their teachings from your child… Some teachers are reading these books to their classes. They are pagans using the school system to spread their agenda. Your tax dollars are being used to promote Witchcraft and no one is coming against it.

Even the current Pope has got in on the fun.  Back when he was still a cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), he said that the Harry Potter books’ “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed … deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.”

Wow.  Pardon the pun, but this sure sounds like a witch-hunt to me!

So, what’s the real story?  Well, as it turns out the author of the Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling), far from being a practitioner of the dark arts, is actually a Christian.  And, while I’m not one to toot our church’s horn too loudly, it also turns out that this famous author is one of our own: she’s a Presbyterian and an active member in the Church of Scotland.  She says of herself, “yes, I believe. And yes, I go to the church.”  But she also says, “I don’t take any responsibility for the lunatic fringes of my own religion.”  Nor should she.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the plot of the Harry Potter novels, it follows the story of the title character and his friends as they pursue their magical education at the prestigious Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Along the way, their lives are continually threatened by the evil Lord Voldemort, who will stop at nothing to cheat death for himself.

Besides Harry and Voldemort, there are several other heroes and villains who come and go throughout the books.  There’s one of these minor characters who everybody just loves to hate.  Her name is Dolores Umbridge.  Ms. Umbridge is a person who thrives on order.  She likes neatness, punctuality, and good manners above all else.  But underneath the surface, she is sadistic and evil.  She takes a wicked delight in doling out cruel and unusual punishments on the students of Hogwart’s.

The thing about Dolores Umbridge that makes her so scary (scarier than Voldemort himself, if you ask me) is how she maintains her perfectly pressed image while being so horrible.  That image of neatness, order, and propriety is nothing more than an empty shell with no substance.  She reminds me of a poem by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu:

When the Way is lost there is virtue

When virtue is lost there is humaneness

When humaneness is lost there is rightness

And when rightness is lost there is propriety.

The “Way” that Lao-Tzu mentions is more than just a path that one follows.  For him, the “Way” is the supreme mystery that exists at the very heart of reality, from which all things are born.  For us in the Christian tradition, we could easily say, “God”.  In this poem, Lao-Tzu is describing the movement from depth to shallowness, from that which is meaningful to that which is meaningless.  In the Harry Potter novels, Dolores Umbridge is a person who has completed that journey in its entirety.

Have you ever felt that way: like you’re going through the motions, being all pleasant and polite, but you wonder if there’s anything deeper than that?  Do you ever wonder if there might be more to life than that?  Do you ever hunger for real relationship and connection with yourself, with other people, or maybe even with something more?  Do you ever wish you could find that “Way” again, as Lao-Tzu was saying, that supreme mystery at the heart of reality?

The apostle Paul, in today’s scripture reading, seems to think there is a way.  If we look at it closely, we can see the drift from deep to shallow working in reverse.  Paul begins with the polite and then takes it deep.  The reading is taken from the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is probably the oldest Christian document that we have on record.  In it, Paul follows the typical format that one would find in a polite letter from the first century.  When writing an important letter in that time, you wouldn’t just start right in with what you have to say.  There were certain proprieties that had to be observed.  First, the authors identify themselves, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”.  Then they address their audience, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.  Then the author offers a greeting.  Paul’s greeting, “Grace to you and peace” draws from Greek tradition, “Grace”, combined with a traditional Jewish greeting, “Peace”.  So the opening of the letter goes like this: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”

Already, Paul is taking polite custom and transcending it in order to make a theological point.  He’s trying to get his readers to look deeper into his words, past the niceties and into the truth.  He identifies his addressees with God and Jesus and then uses his typical greeting to remind them of what God is doing in their lives through Christ.  “Grace” is the unmerited favor (or unconditional love) of God and “peace” (harmony, wholeness, well-being) comes as a result of having grace in your life.  So, on one level, Paul is simply and politely saying, “Hi there!”  But on a deeper level he’s making a statement about who God is and how God works in peoples’ lives.  God is the one who brings harmony and well-being through unconditional love.

The next item you usually find in any nicely written letter from the first century is some kind of thanksgiving.  This isn’t usually offered to the letter’s recipients, but to the gods on behalf of the recipients.  For example, it might be something as simple as, “I give thanks to the gods for your good health.”  Most of the time, it was just that short.  But one unique characteristic of Paul’s letters is that he takes these thanksgivings quite seriously and spends time on them in order to make a point.  Once again, Paul is taking one of those little moments that people hardly notice in life and slowing it down in order to force them to pay attention to it and see the deeper spiritual meaning hidden within it.

Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians themselves and recounts the story of how he brought his message to them “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit”.  In, with, and under his human words, Paul tells them, there was a divine voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit, which was also speaking to them.  In the same way, Paul continues, that same Spirit was also present in them as they listened.  Paul reminds them of how they “received the word with joy in the Holy Spirit”.  So there they were, in the midst of a human conversation, but it wasn’t just a religious sales pitch.  It was also a moment of divine encounter as the Spirit of God was present and working in those who spoke and those who listened.  Once again the ordinary became extraordinary as it was infused with spiritual depth and meaning.

What was the result of this divine encounter?  Paul points to the Thessalonians’ transformed lives.  He talks about their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope”.  He says they “became imitators of us and of the Lord”, they “became an example to all the believers”, and they welcomed traveling strangers as they came through town.  Here too, the Spirit of God was present and speaking through them.  Paul observes how “the word of the Lord has sounded forth” so powerfully in the silent message of their lives that there is “no need to speak about it”.  The Holy Spirit transforming peoples’ lives toward greater harmony and wholeness through the unconditional love of God is a powerful sermon unto itself, without a single word ever being spoken.  This reminds me of that catchphrase which is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.”  Eugene Peterson says it well in his paraphrase of this passage: “The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message!”  Leonard Peltier says the same thing in today’s second reading: “Let who you are ring out & resonate in every word & every deed… You are the message.”

Beneath the surface of our polite, boring, and everyday lives there runs a deep current of spiritual meaning.  In the midst of this ordinary day a mysterious and divine presence is working extraordinary miracles of transformation.  The unconditional love of God is present in your life and guiding you toward greater harmony and wholeness.  It’s there and it’s free for all whether we choose to acknowledge it as such or not.

The question I have for you today is this: Are you content to be someone like Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, who lives life on the surface, breezing by each moment with a polite perfection that is really nothing more than an empty shell?  Or are you open to the kind of deep and meaningful reality that Paul and Lao-Tzu were talking about?  Are you willing to be mindful of the moment that you’re in, no matter how mundane, and recognize it as the dwelling place and workshop of the Holy Spirit?  If any part of you can answer “Yes” to that last question (or even wants to say “Yes”), then you’ve already begun the journey.  All that’s left to do is continually come back to that momentary awareness as often as possible during the rest of your day.  Keep coming back to it, as often as you think of it, every day for the rest of your life.  If you forget, don’t worry, just take that instant in which you remember that you are forgetting and momentarily bring your attention back to the moment itself.  Look deeper.  Pay attention.  The 17th century monk Brother Lawrence called this “Practicing the Presence of God”.  Jean-Pierre de Caussade called it “the Sacrament of the Present Moment”.  Whatever you choose to call this exercise, however you undertake it, it’s the means to reconnecting with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with that deep, mysterious presence at the heart of all existence that we call God.