Blowing in the Wind

 

The police dropped Eric on the doorstep of the church. He immediately set himself to work cleaning Hurricane Irma debris from the yard. He speaks with a slur, thinks out loud in rambling sentences, and suffers lapses in short-term memory. And, of course, he is homeless.

The police officer was matter-of-fact when he dropped Eric off. Eric weathered the storm in a Red Cross shelter and needs to be off the streets before curfew. “These are his knives,” the officer said. “You might want to keep these for him.”

As I type, Eric is using a leaf blower to clear the driveway and sidewalk. He’s a nice guy, very industrious, confused but harmless, courteous and grateful.  If he lived nearby, he’d be a great church member. But homelessness is an overwhelming burden on churches and individuals. Even if I could convince the church to house this one, they would soon be overcome by the cost of all those who follow.

Why did the police so nonchalantly drop him off? We housed 35 people during Hurricane Irma. The police dropped off one homeless person who was being released from the hospital. Of course, we took him in. Another — this one having one leg amputated, another he cannot stand on, and a battered wheelchair that he propels backward with his toeless foot — slept outside the church the next morning, knowing that somebody would eventually find him and help him get back in his wheelchair.

“You have to do something!” Go ahead, scream it. I certainly do. I scream it to hospitals, police officers, church members, homeless assistance agencies and the homeless themselves. It is the height of cruelty that our society would leave the mentally ill and physically helpless on the streets, but guess what, America: That’s what we do!
Here in South Florida, every shelter is full and all affordable housing is taken. Communities pass laws making it illegal to sleep outdoors or to feed the homeless en masse, because doing so attracts more.

I spent hours after the hurricane shuffling these two homeless gentlemen to locations where they perceived they could survive. Then the police dropped off Eric and Bob came begging for money, swearing that his death is imminent and that I am his absolute last hope. And at midnight, the police called me again. I hoped they were taking Eric off my hands, but no such luck: “Are you still housing homeless people?”

What would you do? During the hurricane, We provided housing for a couple of days — though, to be clear, most of my guests were not homeless, just storm-shelter challenged. We accepted two homeless strangers from the local police into that mix. In the past, I have maxed out personal credit cards trying to get people on their feet, only to see the investment frittered away on the complexities of homeless life. I’ve heard a dozen suggestions on what I should do, and I’ve seen a dozen well-meaning volunteers throw up their hands and surrender the assignment. I don’t want suggestions: I want an address of where to drop them off, or the number to call that gets them picked up and taken to the help they need.

I have no idea what Eric is going to do when he finally leaves. I still don’t know what to tell Bob when he comes by. I’m not taking any more suggestions, but I’m completely willing to surrender the assignment. That sounds arrogant, but the point is, I can’t spend more time pursuing another suggestion. Instead, I’m accepting volunteers who will themselves spend that time and pursue that solution.

I know how people can become homeless because I’m usually just a few paychecks away from the streets myself. Most of us are. I have seen church members evicted from substandard housing and spending a fortune on hotels or staying with relatives and friends, spending many months looking for more substandard housing to start the cycle all over again.

Land of the free. Home of the brave. We ignore homeless dignity and crush homeless pride, and they’ll know we are christians by our cross, by our cross! Yes, they’ll know we are christians by our cross!

I can here people saying “Aw, that’s so sad!” “Who is this guy to guilt us like this?” “But doesn’t he know about Lewis Center? The Salvation Army? Children & Family services?” A day on the telephone does not solve the problem, no matter who you call. I dread seeing the homeless. I loathe the prospect of spending the day walking them though basic services or nagging them for being uncooperative. They have used me up — my patience, my money, my good graces with the church. The best I can do is to treat them with dignity, offer such food as I can find in the kitchen, let them use the shower and ignore them when I find them sleeping in the church yard.

What do you think? Greatest nation in the world? You bet! Land of opportunity! Grab those bootstraps, work hard, and pull yourself out of the gutter and off the streets.
Greatest religion in the world? You bet! Love your neighbor, welcome the stranger, lend to those who ask of you, defend the poor.

Is this a Christian Nation? You bet! More churches and Bibles than any nation in the world! Great health care facilities, and no one is turned away — though they are absolutely dumped to the curb when the crisis has ended.

I don’t want this ministry! I don’t want to be the only church in town who gives a tinker’s dam about people on the streets! I don’t want to spend so much on so few for so little return! Feel free to take this cup from me, to take over the homeless ministries at Tropical Sands Christian Church! You can’t use all the rooms, or spend all the money, or neglect other assignments, but if you deal with homelessness, I’ll deal with addiction and spiritual growth. Please, show me how it’s done! Because there are far too many homeless — and they do not want to be homeless! — and far too few resources addressing the problem — even in this Christian Nation.

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Blatantly Christian, Honestly Human

On Friday, the authorities found the body of a friend’s little brother who had been missing for three weeks. His death was caused by Xanax, methadone and fentanyl patches, all acquired by prescription, but for abusive purposes. He was 47 years old, a nice guy, they say.

I just got off the phone with a young mother looking for an NA meeting for her 18-year-old son, who just completed treatment. She’s looking harder for meetings than he is. We could shrug and say, “Well, when he’s ready to quit, he’ll go to meetings on his own.” Meanwhile, his risk of death by fentanyl or carfentanyl overdose is very, very high.

We already host AA and Al Anon meetings, and we address all addictions and compusive behaviors at our Tuesday Recovery service. I’m thinking we need to host more NA meetings.

I’ve recently started wearing a clergy collar. I wear it to court, and I wear it at essentially every service, including our recovery service. I confess to people with messy lives that mine has been messy, too. If I can recover and become a servant of God, so can they. I also want them to know that they are forgiven and accepted by me, by my church and by the church at large. Hopefully, they will see that God accepts them, too. Everyone needs a pastor.

Malcolm Boyd was an Episcopal priest, peace activist and social radical for more than 60 years. In the late 60’s, as I tried to reconcile my rebellious views with my Christian faith, I was held to the church and the faith by two of Boyd’s books, “Malcolm Boyd’s Book of Days” and “Are You Running With Me, Jesus? The Prayers of Malcolm Boyd.” I was shocked that anyone could be so blatantly Christian and honestly human. He did this, in my eyes, by dressing for the pulpit, speaking for the streets, and writing from the heart.

Boyd could talk poverty and addiction in one breath, as if the latter required the former. That isn’t true today. People with potentially ordinary lives of middle class success are tripping over death in their addictions and compulsive behaviors. Addiction has seeped into our ivory towers. No generation, race, class or religion is immune from the opioid epidemic.

It is time for us to become blatantly Christian and honestly human. It is time for us to open church doors and Christian hearts to the life-or-death struggle going on all around us. Peter said of Christians, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Christ has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light, but he also calls us to reach INTO the darkness and bring OTHERS into the light.

Has addiction touched your family? Your very life? First, save yourself and your loved ones. Get help, and a support group. Then, use the darkness of your own life to light a path for others.

If your church is looking for a ministry, you’ll find it on the front page and in the obituary section of the morning newspaper. Do you have what it takes to address the issue? That depends. If you have a circle of chairs, a quiet room, a few parking spaces and anyone who has stepped from darkness into that wonderful light, then yes, you do. Get busy. Lives are at stake.

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Mustard shrub, Mustard tree

He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”

— Matthew 13:31-32

I have always underestimated the mustard tree. A mustard plant is usually little more than a shrub, barely big enough to hold a bird’s nest. But it turns out a mustard tree can grow 6 to 20 feet with a 20 feet spread. It grows well in bad soil, desert heat and drought conditions. Any water will do, even water so salty it kills most plants. It grows so well in such bad conditions that it spreads like a weed in the Middle East.

A mustard plant produces mustard while it’s still small, but it’s potential size and productivity is enormous. It doesn’t have to be babied, fertilized and irrigated like other plants. The kingdom of heaven, then, is rugged, robust, opportunistic, productive for its size and rich with enormous potential.

Tropical Sands Christian Church is small by some measures, but 60 percent of all U.S. Protestant congregations are even smaller. This summer, we’ve faced fundraising challenges that seemed too big, but we trusted in God and met our goals ahead of schedule. We’re a productive little shrub, and potentially, a great tree!

It is good to be frugal, humble and contented with having enough. It is good to count your blessings and be grateful for what you have. I hope we are that thankful congregation. But we do the kingdom a disservice if we think we can’t be productive or won’t grow larger.

I feel like I’m watching a little mustard bush grow into a tree. New people, new activities and new ministries are our branches. Members are discovering people and services they never noticed before. People who came to test our merciful, accepting approach to faith are settling in. It isn’t our church; it’s God’s church, and we rejoice to see how God grows the church into more than we could imagine.

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed. Don’t let the size fool you. This plant grows like a weed and gets productive in a hurry. It’s productive even as a shrub, and with care and attention, it grows into a tree. The birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.

People accuse me of bragging about Tropical Sands Christian Church. Guilty! What better way to encourage your potential as children of God than to remind you of what God has already done in our lives? Yes, it’s an amazing church!

The mustard seed grows in a challenging environment – bad soil, little water, torturous heat – but grow it does, into a productive shrub with big tree potential. It’s like the kingdom of heaven, and isn’t that where we live? Have faith, keep working, and expect great things at Tropical Sands Christian Church!

 

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Because He Lives

Every Easter, we hear the story about how some of Jesus’ women disciples came to that first Easter morning, expecting to prepare Jesus’ body for continued burial. Instead, they found the huge stone moved and the body gone. They encountered heavenly beings who told them that Jesus was risen, and they encountered Jesus himself. All four gospels contain parts of this story. They all agree it was the women disciples who first encountered the empty tomb and the risen Lord.

Our faith is founded on this story, and our Christian year begins anew each Easter as we move from His betrayal and passion to his resurrection. This year, I don’t want to restart the calendar. Because the resurrection of Jesus has blessed us all our lives, and for generations before us. The entire world has been blessed by the resurrection, which reset the calendar and also reestablished the equal standing of all humankind and our potential for communion with God. The world was changed forever that first Easter morning. And if your life isn’t perfect, if you are still struggling with unforgiveness, self-doubt, anger and fear, then I invite you to join me in considering how the power of the resurrection can change our lives as well, if we only believe. It helps to know that in Paul’s day, in that first generation of the church, it wasn’t about accepting it on faith, but about facing the facts. Let’s hear the word of the LORD:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

— 1 Corinthians 15:17-22 NRSV

Some in the Corinthian church were saying the dead would not be raised. Some of them thought that Jesus would come and receive the believers during their lifetimes, and that those among them who died were just not fortunate enough to hold on for the rapture. Others probably thought eternal life was some kind of metaphor, some philosophical, but not real.

As a Pharisee, Paul had always believed in the resurrection to judgment and eternal life. On that point, he agreed with Christians – but as Saul, he tried to destroy the church because Jesus rejected the relative righteous of one group over another, namely, of Pharisees over everyone else. It isn’t that Saul didn’t have the same evidence as everyone else; but he intentionally refused to see the truth. But when Jesus struck him blind on the road to Damascus, Paul finally decided to stop denying the truth.

Look at how our scripture today is structured. “IF CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED” – then the rest of the faith is nonsense. If Christ has not been raised, then why should anyone follow his teachings? There were plenty of good, ethical preachers and rabbis who could improve society with good moral teaching. But there was also the message of Christ, a message that was not complete without the resurrection. “IF CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED, THEN YOUR FAITH IS FUTILE AND YOU ARE STILL IN YOUR SINS.” The forgiveness of sins in Christ had made a huge difference in the lives of Corinthian Christians. Guilt, shame, and fear of condemnation had been rolled away like the stone at the tomb.

Ah, but on the flip side, Paul does NOT say, “BUT IF CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED … “ This is not just the other side of the coin to Paul. It isn’t even about faith versus doubt. It’s about facing the facts versus ignoring the truth. What does it say? “BUT IN FACT CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED FROM THE DEAD … “ That’s important wording. Paul is not trying to convince them that Jesus rose from the dead – they already knew that, as did everyone willing to ask questions. What he’s doing is using THE FACT of Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that the dead will rise, including those who have died in Christ.

The difference is lost on us these days, I think. 2,000 years later, we aren’t sure of anything. Languages change and scrolls crumble, and the best we can come up with is relative certainty. Paul had a lot more to go on than we do. Paul had eye-witness reports. Paul had seen the government cover-ups and the turmoil that surrounded those events. If anyone could be certain that this was all a made-up story, it was Paul. It isn’t that Paul became convinced of the resurrection, or chose to believe. He just decided to stop denying the truth and instead see what God was trying to say through these events.

So let’s move past wondering IF. This isn’t about IF. As Paul said, “IN FACT Christ has been raised from the dead … “ Let’s go where Paul went and try to see and hear the message that God was speaking in this Word become Flesh.

If Christ isn’t raised, then it’s probably okay to hold a grudge, to hold others in unforgiveness. Because if you take Christ out of the picture, we don’t have many examples before that of forgiveness. What you have without Christ is the sense that we are supposed to hold a grudge, that vengeance is honorable and just. But IN FACT Christ has been raised from the dead. Christ prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Christ restored Peter to lead the church, even after Peter had denied him three times. Christ reunited the apostles who had been scattered during the turmoil of crucifixion. IF Christ has not been raised, then we don’t have to worry about that forgiveness stuff. But let’s face facts. Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead, demonstrating the validity of his teachings and demonstrating the kind of forgiveness he would have us practice.

If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins. If forgiveness isn’t important, if vengeance is the norm, then there’s nothing to stop God from holding our sins against us. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then we might as well stop trying, because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The flip side isn’t about believing; it’s about accepting facts. Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead, so we ARE forgiven and CAN live a new life with God. That’s not just another way to believe; that’s facing facts.

If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then all we can do is move forward and hope for the best. The damage done to us and the damage we’ve done to others is irreversible. It would take divine intervention to redeem the mess we’ve made of our lives, our families, our church, our society, our world, and we dare not hope for divine intervention. Unless, unless we are willing to face facts – because the Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead. God not only demonstrated divine intervention, but demonstrated a willingness to exercise it on unworthy, unholy, disloyal and cowardly humans. And in that intervention, God makes us better – better friends, better leaders, better messengers of the truth.

Paul was surrounded by evidence of the recent resurrection of Jesus. Paul didn’t have to accept the resurrection on faith, he just had to stop denying the truth.

Every time we give up on relationships, every time we surrender ourselves to anger, vengeance, guilt, doubt, hatred and prejudice, we are denying the truth. We are saying that the resurrection of Christ doesn’t mean so much, or maybe we’re even doubting that it actually happened. Even though Paul was not an original apostle, even though he was not privy to the many miracles that happened during Jesus’ ministry, he had plenty of evidence pointing to the resurrection – and plenty of reasons to deny it. As Saul, he was struggling to protect a way of life that Jesus rendered obsolete – a life of hatred, revenge, and status. When he finally accepted the truth – that Christ in fact has been raised from the dead – he was able to accept the many other blessings that came with that truth – freedom from doubt, guilt, hatred, and shame … the joy of walking with God and being a child of God … the joy of communing with sisters and brothers joined not by blood, language or nationality, but by the common forgiveness in Christ and acceptance of God’s love.

If Christ has not been raised, then it’s all a joke. But Christ in fact has been risen. It is up to us to face that fact and to let it make a difference in our daily lives.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He Is Risen Indeed!

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Choose This Day


The book of Joshua is the story of how Joshua, heir to Moses’ mantle of leadership, led the children of Israel to finally take possession of the Promised Land. Its concluding chapter contains that fateful verse, “Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15).

But that’s an abbreviation of the verse. There’s more to it than that. Here’s the unaltered verse from the New Revised Standard Version:

Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose lands you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

Ironically, while idols are portable, the gods they represented in those days were not. They were gods of this mountain, gods of this land, gods of the river, etc. People were always trying to appease the local gods. YHVH, the LORD of Israel, could not be a stationary god, because the LORD’s people were on the move. YHVH was the god of a people, not of a place, and YHVH was their God in Canaan, in Egypt and beyond the Euphrates. Those regions had their own gods – or so the people of those regions presumed – but YHVH surrounded the Israelites, going before them to drive out the Amorites, going behind them to block the way of the Egyptian army.

Terah and his sons, Abraham and Nahor, worshipped other gods beyond the Euphrates (Joshua 24:2) until YHVH spoke directly to Abraham (Abram) and told him to leave his father’s home. Now, the Israelites were returning to the land YHVH had promised to Abraham and his descendants. But as Joshua pointed out, they had many gods to pick from for worship, and there choice would come with consequences. They could pick the gods of Terah and young Abram, the gods of the Egyptians, or the gods of the Amorites whose lands they now possessed – or they could serve YHVH, who had called them away from those gods and cleared a path from slavery to prosperity.

Without regard to the historical accuracy of the book of Joshua, the spiritual accuracy of the story is significant. Like the Israelites, we are all called to grow beyond the superstitions of the childhood gods beyond the Euphrates; beyond the gods of fear from our Egyptian enslavement; beyond the gods of the lands and peoples who went before us in this place. And if I am not symbolically denigrating Abraham, then neither am I denigrating the Egyptians, nor the Amorites, nor any of the faith systems they may represent. But as for me and my house, we will serve YHVH, the God who brought us through all the above, who fulfilled the promises, who cleared the land before us and stopped the armies behind us.

We are not self-made people. We all live on land where we did not labor, in towns we did not build, and we eat from vineyards and oliveyards that we did not plant. (Joshua 24:13) We enjoy a town, a church, a society that is not the work of our own hands, but of all those who went before us and, ultimately, of YHVH, who may have blessed those predecessors with long, happy lives – or who may have driven them out with hornets so that we could reap the fruit of their labors. (Joshua 24:12)

Remember, I’m reading symbolically, not historically. The point is that God had a hand in the labors of our ancestors, our slavers, the opposition and those who went before us, without regard to the gods or ideals they served. Abraham probably did honor his father, but not to the point of serving his gods. The Israelites had no sooner escaped the Egyptians than they began to long for the luxuries of their slavery – and they could not do so without rejecting God. Moses took them to the river Jordan, but of the spies sent across to scope out the land, only Joshua and Caleb believed the LORD would give them the land; the rest were afraid of the people and discouraged the Israelites from crossing the Jordan.

God has called us to a better faith. God calls us to a direct encounter. We cannot find God by imitating our father Tahor. Tahor was called to go to Canaan but stopped short. It is a wonderful thing to honor our ancestors, but we must accept that God has probably called us to something greater and different.

God calls us to a faith beyond that of our Egyptian captors. Europeans spread Christianity to the New World even as they decimated the inhabitants and enslaved the captives. Natives and slaves heard the Gospel and believed. But, where the slavers used it idolatrously to justify their lordship, the slaves found there a hope that broke the chains of bondage and set the captives free. They followed YHVH directly instead of merely mimicking the faith of the Egyptians.

Now we’re in the Promised Land, where we did not build and did not plant. It’s the LORD’s doing, and it’s no different from the way God has fulfilled promises to many people and many generations. It is not our doing – not our fault, not to our credit – but here we are. Do we keep doing things they way they’ve always been done here? Nothing wrong with that, but we have to be certain that we are doing them because God leads us there, and not just because that’s how it’s always been done.

We are called to a faith that is new every morning. We are called to worship God, who is beyond understanding. Our parents didn’t plumb the depths of God, nor did our enslavers and detractors, nor did those who went before us here. The truth is, we won’t either. But we’ll stay shallow if we aren’t willing to go beyond the faith of our parents, our founders, our superiors, and even our trailblazers.

In this light, let’s reconsider Matthew 10:34-39 –

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Luke14:26 puts it even more harshly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” So if we know that Jesus never calls us to hate anyone – certainly not our parents, children and siblings – then we have to look for the spiritual meaning of these verses. I find that meaning in the challenge of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you will serve…”

Let’s not be content with the faith of our parents, our children, our siblings, our neighbors. Their faith may be great – Who are we to judge? – but God has no grandchildren. We are each called to live for Christ, in lands we did not till and eating fruit that we did not plant. One person plants, another waters, but God gets the increase. (1 Corinthians 3:6) Direct faith in God calls on us to dare to do something new, more than our ancestors did; more than our founders did; more daring, loving and giving than any who have gone before us, ahead of us, or behind us.

That’s the view from this side of the Jordan. Choose this day whom you will serve.

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The Whats and the Whys

Was Jesus a marginal Jew? There is a book out called “A Marginal Jew” that suggests that Jesus may have been a bit loose with Jewish tradition, that perhaps he was on the outside liberal fringe of the faith.

Our tradition holds that the Law is honorable, that Jesus rightly divided the word of truth, and that even by the standards of his earthly day, Jesus was a perfect example of pious faith.

I think it was his society, and not Jesus himself, that was marginal. No authority held the Jewish faith together, so it had factions, and sects. The Pharisees tried to control the scripture, and the Saducees controlled the Temple. And none of this happened except that as it could be tolerated by a Roman ruling class that was itself officially pagan. Nielssen was right when he said that a point in every direction is the same as no point at all. The chaos of Palestine in Jesus’ day is a lot like what we call a secular society.

I also think that Jesus was a perfectly orthodox, kosher Jew. That is, I believe that Jesus kept himself ritually clean. I believe he was a faithful student of the scripture and a regular attender at synogog. While it may also fulfill prophecy that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, I also have no doubt that Jesus, as a product of ordinary human learning, knew full well that Zecharia said the Messiah would do that..

In that era of Roman occupation, Jesus was actually one of a handful of public figures rumored to be the Messiah. You may recall people asking if John the Baptist were the Messiah, and there were revolutionaries in that role as well.

I can just imagine that poor street vendor. “Hey! Where ya goin with my donkey?” “The Master hath need of it.” “Aye, another Master. The Messiah comes, does he? Oy Vey! Well, take the poor donkey, they’re all humble skinny lots anyway. Here, take her colt, too. The colt will cry without her mother, anyway.”

I can imagine that entering Jerusalem on a donkey might become a rowdy Passover tradition. But Jesus was surrounded by disciples and people who had heard of his miracles. John says they were in a frenzy over the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus mounted the donkey on the Mount of Olives, which is of course where the scripture says the Messiah will come from. And as the road widens closer to the city these mobs were lining the road, casting palm branches and cloaks to carpet the path.

It is on this short journey that Jesus declares that if you silence the crowds, the rocks and stones will cry out. On this short journey, Jesus stops to weep over a mountain view of Jerusalem. Our accounts of Jesus’ life are so few and so brief that we have latched onto this journey, named it Palm Sunday, and use it to prepare for Easter, the holiest day in our faith. It has all the appeal of a fanfare to the first act of a play. We know there is dark tragedy between here and final victory, so we have this interim celebration, this Palm Sunday, to hopefully take us through the dark moments of the final act.

At the end of this road, Jesus enters the Temple and casts out the vendors and moneychangers. And the scripture tells us that he went on to teach every day in the temple for the next several days.

How could anyone without civil or religious authority enter the temple, trash the vendor mall, and still manage to teach in the Temple day after day? We know the authority of a resurrected Christ; the people in that day did not. All the authorities saw was a rowdy band of followers. No one wanted to risk a riot by upsetting that motley crew. On the other hand, Jesus was willing to die, and there is only one way to stop a man who is willing to die.

Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Our scripture from Luke on the last supper tells us how he had longed to celebrate This Passover with his disciples. I like the NIV, not usually, but on this scripture, because it tells us they reclined at the table. I looked it up — I wouldn’t know without looking it up — and I find that where King James says he sat and the Revised Standard says he took his place, the Greek word is AnaPepto, which means to recline.

By Mosaic Law, Jews would have gotten all yeast products out of their houses for a full seven days before Passover. As the eldest son, Jesus probably fasted the second day before Passover, to commemorate God’s grace on the firstborn of Israel as the angel of death took the firstborn of Egypt.

As a child, Jesus may have asked or answered something like the four Seder questions that our children went over this morning. I can almost see children in that Upper Room early in the evening, asking Jesus and his disciples questions: “Why do we eat bitter herbs this night? Why do you recline at the table this night?”

Passover is all about passing the story of deliverance from Egyptian from Generation to Generation. The Seder meal is designed to make children ask, “Why? Why?” I can almost hear someone asking Judas, “Why do we dip our foods in the bowl on this night?” Passover is for children, and since our account of the last supper includes no children, this meal may have included just some of the ancient traditions, those that held meaning for Jesus and his followers.

Four glasses of wine are poured during the Seder. They represent Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption and Release. A fifth cup is poured for Elijah. The door is left open, and some families set a place for Elijah. As I said, I envision Jesus as a Kosher Jew who ministered in a marginally Jewish world. Knowing what he knew, he might have skipped setting a place for Elijah that night.

Our account in Luke recalls two cups. Jesus took the cup — which cup? Freedom? Deliverance? Was this the cup of Redemption? Or, since he would not drink of it until he drank it new in God’s Kingdom, maybe it was the cup of Release. We don’t know.

Then, after the supper, he took the cup — maybe they just had one large cup. It was probably the same cup, and I imagine sharing a large cup to taste a fine wine was not uncommon practice. But this was the cup of the New Covenant, in his Blood, poured out for us.

I think Jesus started that night with a cup in the old tradition. Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption, Release … They all work. Pick your favorite. But he ended with a new cup, the cup of the New Covenant in his blood, poured out for us.

Why? Why is this a New Covenant? Why was his blood poured out for us? Why did he say the bread was his body? How can a person be born again? Why did he quote scripture from the cross?

In scripture, God speaks to all of humankind using broad strokes. He frees a people from Egypt and inspires their priests to record it in writing. He gives a people a set of rules and reminders, and a nation rises and falls not so much on obedience to those rules as on an ability to understand Why those rules exist.

Time and time again, old traditions are reborn into new. Passover was celebrated even while the Jews were in Babylonian Exile, and it was renewed in detail when they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Accounts of the Passover are found in 17 books of the Bible, spanning through time as the nation of Israel returns to tradition for strength in uncertain times. The nation remained a nation while it had no land at all, because each year the faithful raised their glasses to toast, “Next year, in Israel…”

Why do we draw new strength from old traditions? Should we? Are we putting new wine in old bottles?

We have a rich tradition. We have the tradition of the Gospel, and in Christ, we are grafted into the traditions of his People. Our scripture, our scrapbooks, our stories of long ago are so rich with meaning that one lifetime cannot find it all. Each generation finds new meaning in the old stories. That’s how it works with a God who’s ability to speak exceeds our ability to listen.

Tradition can be lifeless. If we stop asking why, it can lose its meaning. The Pharisees had more tradition than everyone else, and they followed tradition to the letter. But Jesus saw their faith as cold and lifeless. They were big on what, and short on why.

Why do we wash our hands so often? Why do we respect the sabbath? Why do we wear tassles on our garments? We say that the devil is in the details. I think the Word of God is in the details of the Torah, and the Talmud — and probably not in some of the other documents the Pharisees might have used. Imagine two ultra-orthodox Jews. One says, “What?” and the other says, “Why?” The one who says “What” surrounds himself with the traditions of his fathers. The one who says Why surrounds himself with reminders of God’s great love and clues to greater mysteries.

In his mercy, God might have brought us to the feet of Buddha, or to the Egyptian Sun God RA, or to the fires of Baal. But he didn’t. Look around you. The grace of God has brought you to the story of Jesus. That’s your tradition. He is the vine, and we are the branches, our God is his God, and that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This God loves to forgive. This God created everything. This God abolished human sacrifice. This God rules in love, not in anger. This God sets the captives free. This God has always been This God.

This God is what Christ has given us. But Christ gives him to us as a Father. As a Father? As Abba Daddy? Why? Is this the God of the Pharisee, the God of the Saducee, the God of Herod? This is Yahweh! The Great I Am! All these people pointed to the same God, and they all had the same tradition of written knowledge about that God. They all celebrated the same flight from Egypt at Passover. They all knew the What. But what is the question of Passover? WHY? Why did God free us from Egypt? Why did Moses give us the Law? Why does this man have to die?

We all know, roughly, what we’re doing. We’re celebrating Palm Sunday. We’re saluting Passover. We know what Easter is, and what we will be doing for Easter. I think we all know the What. You want to really live this Easter, do something different? For every what, ask why?

Seems like long ago I sat for a first talk with our Regional Minister, Bill Morrison, to get started on licensing. He ask me what I planned to do, and I told him. Then, after he understood What I wanted to do, he just asked, “Why?”

I rattled off a bunch of whats — well, my Grampa was a preacher, and I’m a pretty good public speaker, and I can write, and I’m going to school — and Rev. Morrison just nods and smiles. Doesn’t say a word. I don’t get the feeling that he has his answer yet. I’m sitting there thinking that even as cool as I am, there’s an actual possibility that I won’t have this man’s blessing. So my heart blurts out, “I simply must! I know what Jesus has done for me, and I just have to talk about it!” Apparently, that was the “why” he was looking for.

I love the Whats of tradition. I love my Grampa, and all the years he’s been preaching. I love the old King James Bible, and the Good News Bible, and I love old country Gospel music.

But it’s the Whys of tradition that change your life. Why is Grampa still preaching after 53 years? Why do I love the old King James Bible? Why do I love old Gospel music? Because that’s how good God IS! We need the Whats to get us started, to remind us of the story, but it’s the Whys that will change your life right now!

We know the whats, and that’s good. There is a lot of love packed in all the whats. They all have meaning, and the people who gave them to us wanted us to have all that meaning, too. But we won’t find the meaning if we don’t ask, “Why?” If the Why I preach is because I love God, then I’ll learn to love God whether I’m preaching or not.

And you know, a lot of times I don’t know what’s what. If I even thought I could tell Disciples of Christ what to think, they’d toss me out on my ear. So let me just encourage you to ask, Why? Why is Jesus called the Passover Lamb? In First Corinthians 5 Paul said to that church, “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”

Is this new wine in an old bottle? Is Paul trying to squeeze the new wine of Jesus into the old bottle of Passover? No. Rather, there is truth in the Passover story, and Paul is saying that for him Christ is a part of that truth. Passover is about Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption and Release. Passover is about new beginnings.

In Christ, we have our new beginning, our Passover. We have a path to God’s forgiveness that we can understand. We have our own story of Redemption and Release, but it is the same salvation provided by the same loving God.

And so with Paul I say, let us keep the Festival, the Passover. Let us get rid of the old yeast and become a new batch of dough. And let our Festival be something more than a collection of traditional stories. You can make Easter a personal, life-changing event if you will just look at each tradition and ask, “Why?” “Why?”

Pastor says knowing the right questions is as important as knowing the answers. So let me leave you with a question that always works: Why? We are God’s children, and God has filled our worlds with reasons to ask, “Why?” The question is not an expression of doubt, but a seeking after the Kingdom of God. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God. Begin your search by asking, “Why?” The answers may surprise you. I am certain that they will inspire you. Because I am confident that the question will be answered directly by God, and directly to your heart. And that will change everything.

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The Spiritual Food Pyramid

Today, I’d like to talk about food. Actually, I’d rather be eating than talking, but I don’t see anyone bringing in covered dishes. Let me suggest that if you like short sermons, you should organize more covered dish luncheons. The smell of food, and the sight of people setting up casseroles on a banquet table, tends to make me hurry through a sermon.

But I don’t see any casseroles walking in this morning, so just settle back. Let us hear the word of God:

(Isaiah 55:1-2)

Without food, life itself would be impossible. Everything that breathes also eats. But Jesus did not think about food the way we do. He knew it was important, so he used food as an illustration over and over again. Jesus knew how to get our attention.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said we should take no thought for our life, for what we should eat or what we should drink. God knows we need food and drink, he said, and God will provide these things. All of us, from the richest to the poorest, will have enough to eat today.

Instead, Jesus said, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things – food, drink, and clothing – will be given to us.

One day, the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke his disciples, because they were eating grain from a field and had not washed their hands. To the Pharisees, ceremonial washing before meals was a spiritual exercise. But Jesus said it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles us, but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles us. Because what comes out of our mouths – that is, what we say – reveals what is in our hearts.

It’s funny to read this in the gospel of Mark. There, early Christians added in parenthesis that in saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean. I believe every word of the Bible is true. In this case, I think the truth is that those early Christians missed the point. Jesus was not saying that any food was clean, or dirty. He was saying that food is not important, compared to what is in our hearts, and what we say. Jesus was always trying to turn our attention away from the world and toward the Kingdom of God.

The FDA food pyramid, from top to bottom, goes from foods we should eat sparingly – like fats and candy – to foods we should eat more of – like bread and pasta. I think the Atkins Diet would chop off the bottom of the food pyramid.

So let’s consider the spiritual food pyramid. I will start with things we should eat sparingly, and end with things we should enjoy to the fullest.

At the top of my spiritual food pyramid is pride. Pride is a vegetable. I know that because it doesn’t do anything; it just grows bigger and tries to impress us. Pride is also a bitter fruit, so you don’t want to chew it. Pride is best swallowed whole. So if you don’t want to choke on pride, you should swallow it while it is small. It is, after all, easier to swallow a grape than a watermellon.

Pride is a sin that looks like a virtue. We are taught to take pride in ourselves, pride in our appearance, pride in our accomplishments. But pride so often gets in the way. Pride stops us from asking for help when we really need it. Pride is what keeps men from going to the doctor. It makes us hurt our backs, because we are so proud of our strength, and too proud to ask for help.

Pride is one of those evil things that comes out of the mouth, Jesus said. The apostle Paul told Timothy, his preacher in training, not to put new Christians in positions of leadership, because they would get puffed up with pride and misuse their power. John, the beloved disciple, said that the lust of the eyes and the pride of life is not of the Father, but of the world, and the world passes away. And James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

So let us swallow our pride every day, before it grows too big. Let us put God first and put others ahead of ourselves. Let us never be too proud to ask for help, too proud to learn, or too proud to admit our mistakes.

And that takes us to the next level of my spiritual food pyramid. Some people think this is my favorite spiritual food group, because I eat so much of it. It is not my favorite food, but when a food is plentiful, we tend to eat more of it. The next level of my spiritual food pyramid is crow. We should learn not to crow so much – that is, not to boast about ourselves, about our future, or about our accomplishments. Because the more we crow, the more we will have to eat crow.

When we crow, we are putting ourselves ahead of others. We are taking attention away from someone else and putting it on ourselves. A rooster has a mighty crow, but he’s really just a chicken with an attitude.

The rooster crows like he owns the world, but the eagle barely makes a sound. The eagle spends more time listening than screeching. The eagle is listening for the rooster’s crow, so she will know where the chickens are. The rooster crows to make himself look important. But if he were protecting the chickens, he would spend less time crowing and more time listening for hawks and eagles.

So the best we can do is to learn not to crow so much. If we swallow our pride sooner, we won’t have so much to crow about. But if we do crow – if we brag and boast – the best we can do is to admit our mistakes, deliver our apologies, and eat our crow. So, if we can’t stop crowing, we’ll just have to learn to pick feathers out of our teeth. After you’ve swallowed your pride, eat your crow, every day.

Now we’re getting to the fat side of our spiritual food pyramid. At the base of our food pyramid are the spiritual foods that we should eat in abundance. Next on the pyramid is the Word of God.

If we don’t know what the Word of God says, how much impact does it have on the world? Are the pagans reading the Word? They may talk about it, but they don’t really read it. Unfortunately, neither do we.

The prophet Ezekiel was told to eat a scroll, then speak to the people. In the Revelation of John, an angel tells him to eat a little book, then write what he sees. These are symbolic of what we must do. The Old Testament was written on a scroll. The New Testament is a little book. Like Ezekiel, like John, we as Christians are to educate ourselves on what the Word of God says, then share it with the world by making it a part of our lives.

It is a minister’s job to study the Word of God and share it with the people. As Christians, we are ministers to the world of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, you are called to this ministry. We cannot do the will of God until we know what it is. In my longest sermon, I don’t have time to tell you all that God says, and I don’t know enough about you to decide how it applies to your life. If I could accomplish just one thing in my ministry, it would be to convince everyone to read the Word of God for themselves. God says it better than I ever will.

Now, we’re at the bottom of our spiritual food pyramid. Here is the most important spiritual food we have, the very foundation of our Christian lives. John said that Jesus was the Word made flesh. Jesus said that he is the Bread of Life, and the fountain of Living Water.

Those who drink deeply from the fountain of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ will never thirst again. Jesus himself is the foundation of our spiritual food pyramid. His words, his life, his example, his spiritual presence in our lives – these are the bread and butter of our spiritual lives.

God gave us physical signs, then spoken laws, then written scriptures, to help us live in his kingdom. His final revelation was to live among us, to give us an actual, historical life, in the form of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself is the last word. As he said on the cross, it is finished. He is the alpha and omega, the last word. If we would show the world the Father, God the creator, we must show them Jesus Christ, in history, and in our lives.

We swallow our pride, because it keeps us from relying on our king, Jesus Christ. We eat crow, because our crowing puts the attention on us, and takes it away from our king, Jesus Christ. We study the word, because it tells us about God and about our king, Jesus Christ. All these things matter only if they make Jesus the central driving force in our lives. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the fount of living water.

The point is not a set of rules, or a fancy sermon, or even a book of scripture. The point is a person, and that person is Jesus Christ.

You know, we tend to follow what we watch. Some of us watch a lot of television. Some of us watch the Internet. Some of us follow the crowd, or the latest news, or the stock market, or the next big rock star. Some of us follow our favorite preacher. But if we want to live in the Kingdom of God, we have to follow the king. Christ is the good shepherd, and he will not lead us astray.

Our hymn of the day is page 558, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. If Christ is not first in your life, if he is not your primary spiritual food, then let me invite you to step out of the ordinary world and into the glorious Kingdom of God.

Those who drink of this water will never thirst again. If you would receive Christ into your life, come forward as we sing today. If you would like to join our church, if you would like to walk with us in the Kingdom of God, come forward as we sing today. Please stand as we sing page 558, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.”

Tropical Sands Christian Church – August 10, 2003

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