Monday, November 28, 2011

A community of possibility . . .

     Too often in this modern world we see ourselves lacking possibilities. Like the world in which Isaiah prophesied, we seem to be more and more accepting of the idea that who we are, what we are to become, how we are to interact with others, and the like are determined. These things are determined by our genetics (good breeding tells, as does bad), by our family systems (families with addictive tendencies will tend to produce more addicts, families with histories of abuse will tend to produce more abusers and more victims), by our socio-economic station (money buys happiness, does it not?), and by anything but ourselves. Much of what seems to be going on in the world around us reflects this belief that the possibilities are not really there. Most of us here in this room remember the creation of the Euro. Within a few weeks, we might all see the collapse of that same Euro and the anarchy that may well follow, unless some economic white knight comes riding to the rescue to keep taxes and retirement ages lower in certain member countries. Occupy Wall Street is, among other things for some people, a demonstration that many people believe the American Dream to be dead to nearly all of us. Those in the 1% might be truly free to pursue their dreams, but it is at the expense of us other 99%, or so the argument goes, unless someone or something, like a government, breaks in and changes the playing field for us.

     This idea that we have no possibilities before us has even invaded our faith. We like to pretend that we are helpless victims. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we wish we weren’t. But there’s not much we can do about it. God made me an addict. God made me an abuser. God made me slothful. I wish I weren’t, but this is who I am. If He would give me the grace necessary to act differently, I would. But He has not seen fit to, no matter how many times I sincerely ask Him. As pastors, we even encourage this attitude by reminding people and ourselves that it is ok, that we are all loved by God and accepted for who we are. All we do is claim the cross, and everything is fine. In many ways we do not even realize that we have bought into the world’s victimization and baptized it, if you will, to absolve us of our sins and of our failing to live into the glorious inheritance to which He has called us.

     In many ways, we find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described by Isaiah this morning. In this morning’s passage, the prophet declares that Israel sinned, so God had looked away. Because He was looking away from them and remembering His wrath, they could not hope to do anything good. It is a hopeless cycle described by the prophet. God has turned away because His people have sinned. His people cannot do anything worth anything to God because He is no longer with them. All our righteous acts are like filthy rags. What hope is there?

     Isaiah reminds us that when God acts, He is capable of doing amazing acts for the benefit of His people. Unlike the other gods of the ANE, Yahweh acts for the welfare of His people. Mountains tremble at His presence. Watercourses are changed by His command. Events such as the Exodus event, the various victorious battles of King David against military superiority, the covenant with Abraham--all testify that God acts, and acts in amazing fashion, for His people! And, as we look back on the work and person of Christ, we know that He acts amazingly for us even still. But is that it? Is that the end of the story? Are we, like the world and so many religious like to claim, finished? Or is there more to claiming our inheritance?

     Whom does God truly help? Isaiah reminds us that He helps those who wait for Him, who gladly do right, and who remember His ways. Our faith, brothers and sisters, is not a passive response and acceptance of the way things are. Yes we are sinners. Yes we have terrible faults. Yes, God must act to save us. Yes, God must act to circumcise our hearts. But part of living into our faith, part of keeping our covenant with God, is living into the possibilities He has made possible through Christ. Will we, in other words, do our part to see His intervention alive in our lives and in the world? In other places, Paul describes this holy living as a struggle. The Greek word for this struggling includes the root word for agony in the effort put forth. Does accepting our sins and shrugging our shoulders at God’s seeming unwillingness to zap us seem like a struggle? Of course not. Our walk in faith begins at our baptism, brothers and sisters, but it does not end until He calls us home or returns in victory and begins the separation described last week. From the moment of that adoption until our dying breath, you and I are called to struggle, in agony, to do what He calls us to do, to live righteously, to become sons and daughters worthy of our Father. Yes, Jesus did the worst of the suffering, but you and I each have a part to play both in our own spiritual growth and in salvation history. In a way the world cannot understand, you and I are freed to become the men and women and boys and girls He has called us to be, but like all freedom, it includes a terrible struggle.

     Why the talk of possibilities? The world, brothers and sisters, is taking the easy way out and forgetting the call of God and the glorious inheritance made available to all who claim His Son as Lord. It is a far, far easier thing to blame our addictions, blame our behaviors, blame our faults on our circumstances, our genes, on our upbringing or on the world around us.  Like a warm, soft blanket, such an attitude gives us an excuse to fall short of the glory to which He calls us. Yet it is that same God who speaks and causes mountains to tremble, who appears and causes the dried twigs to burn and the water to boil, who calls us to become men and women worthy of Him, Kings and Queens in His eternal kingdom. Why the talk of possibilities? Because you and I and all who accept Him as Lord have been redeemed and set free from failure and from "good enough."  Our struggle is a struggle for living into our Father's image, our potter's artistry.

     And redeemed, for you and for me, brothers and sisters, means a world of possibilities has been opened to us. Unlike the world around us which accepts the idea that “this is the way that it is” or “that this is as good as it gets,” you and I know better. We are freed to become the people He has called us to be. How do we know? Because we have experienced that redemption in our own lives already. Some of us gathered here have already experienced what it means to be redeemed in our own lives or witnessed it in the life of another. Ever known a hot-tempered person? To be sure, his or her image is distorted. But when God breaks in and they live a life in the manner God has set before us, what often happens? That hot temper is crucified on the cross in Christ’s death, and what was negative becomes an asset for the glory of God. Hot-tempered people become passionate people, people passionate for God and His glory when they engage in the struggle of their faith. Ever known or been an addict? Ever felt the need to fill that emptiness inside through the use of a bottle, a syringe, or some other self-destructive behavior? When that emptiness, through the engagement of our faith, becomes filled with His life giving water, addicts can become lights in a dark world, people grateful for the love which filled their emptiness, people who can speak from experience of the emptiness and the discovered joy at finding what can truly fill it. Ever known or been someone who could not love another? Perhaps you or they felt unworthy. Perhaps you or they were afraid to experience the pain that comes when others whom we love hurt us. Yet, what happens when such people discover the love, the hesed, of God? They become God-lovers, people who realize that their Father will never forsake them, not even in death. And such people can open themselves up to anyone and anything because they know the love with which they are held. And, even better, they can become people who speak lovingly of God’s work in salvation history to those whom the encounter in life.

     The past eight or ten weeks we have been looking at what a redeemed life looks like, brothers and sisters. We spent a great deal of time in Matthew’s Gospel recalling Jesus’ teachings from those last days of His life. It seems only fitting then, as we begin a new church year and enter Advent, that we remind ourselves why it is that we are called to do what we are called to do and just how unlimited our possibilities are. By virtue of our baptism, brothers and sisters, we have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. What is left for us to do is to live lives which allow Him to remake us like Him. It is right that during this quick season of penitence and expectation that we take a spiritual inventory of our lives. What are those triggers which tempt we to act in ways which we know are offensive to Him, and unworthy of a child of His? Where is the struggle in our life from which we have shied away? Can I avoid those triggers or places? Can I avoid that temptation with His grace, and so live into the life He would have me live? What in each of us should we nail to the cross with our Savior, that He can redeem and restore in us to His glory? Better still! How can you and I live a life open to the possibilities of one born not of flesh but of His redeeming Spirit and so draw others into that same life with us?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Divine Appointments, smurfs, and other weird happenings while trotting . . .

     Why on earth would you run a 5k race on Thanksgiving?---It was a question frequently asked of me this year.  To be sure, I asked it a lot of myself.  For those not on the inside of the decision making process, my brother-in-law Jon, whom I used to think loved me dearly as I did him, called up my wife and asked who all was going to run in the Dan Gibbons Turkey Trot with them.  As we are working on the local YMCA’s Lazy Man’s Triathalon, it seemed an easy way to knock out 3.1 miles, at least to some.  But, I had gone off my diet the past week, I did need the miles, and hey, how bad could it be?

     Truthfully, my intention as I ran was to thank God for all the blessings of this past year.  I often pray as I ride my bike, and so it made sense to use the same tactic while running.  I figured my prayer list would be good for at least a quarter mile while running.  I thought that the unasked for prayers that I pray for parishioners might total close to a half mile.  I could pray for help in the Human Trafficking ministry, in the Community Meal ministry, Winnie’s Place, and a bunch of others that needed His grace.  I even knew that at some point, prayers for deliverance would kick in.  (Please, Lord, don’t let me die like this!)  If they were early enough, this might be a truly prayer-covered event.  Plus, the run was for a great cause.  More than a quarter century ago, the race was started in Elmhurst, Illinois with the proceeds going to benefit the homeless in DuPage County, a suburb of Chicago.  They estimate today that there are 160,000 homeless in the county.  They could certainly use the help and the awareness so that all those people can be helped.

     Unfortunately for me, bicycling does not come close to the problems one faces while running.  First of all, there were lots of people to serve as distractions.  Did I just get passed by a family of smurfs, including Papasmurf with a cane?  It is 40 degrees and a wind chill of “it’s too cold to be out here running” and these nuts are running in speedos!  I haven’t had so many little kids pass me since I was last on a ski-slope. At least Superior Ambulance is the best in the business, locally, and the hospital is a straight shot from here.– Things like that were running through my head, and while distracting, they were not productive or helpful.  Plus, there are obstacles that are in one’s way.  “Walkers in the back of the starting area” apparently means “walkers, bring strollers and dogs and line up across the street with your friends near the front” to some.  All the bars in Elmhurst opened early Thanksgiving Day to help some runners get fortified for the run.  Hey, I'm a big boy.  I embrace the Episcopal gospel that when three or four are gathered there is always a fifth, but c'mon!  Think drunk drivers are bad?  You should try and navigate drunk joggers or sprinters or men on their knees offering the pavement gods their pretzels and peanuts offerings.  I wonder how far ahead Jon and Nathan are?  What happened to Karen and Sarah?  At least I am not like those poor dads whose kids, when asked by runners, "are you lost, little boy/girl?" respond simply "nah, I'm just waiting on dad to catch up!"  And there is always the panicked thought “Will I come in dead last out of 8-10,000 trotters?”

     But, after a while, things sort themselves out. The crowds thin as people settle into their running rhythms. The joggers and runners make it through the vise grip of walkers. All that’s left is the runner, the pavement, the internal cadences and thoughts, and the pain. Running in the cold causes its own problems. It hurts to breathe in the cold while getting so hot. There’s a reason God gave us noses with vessels to warm the air that we breathe. Unfortunately, the body’s demands for oxygen trumps His design. And each step causes the lungs to hurt a bit more, to say nothing of the ankles, knees and hips.
It is at this time that it is good to start one’s prayers. Though I was mightily tempted to begin with the prayers for survival, I spent time on the others. Unfortunately for me, I was not even halfway done by the time I finished my prayers and began praying to God for the run to be over. At about the point where I did not care whether the race for me ended at the finish line or the back of an ambulance, I encountered a young boy and his father. Nearly ran over is more like it. The little boy was upset and in pain and wanted it to be over. He was my hero. Then he asked the question.

     Why are we doing this? Why can’t we stop and go home and eat? I give the dad a lot of credit, if he ever finds and reads this. He was sucking wind and trying to reason with an exhausted child. Dad was teaching the son a lesson about finishing the things that we start, a true family value here in the Midwest. But why? was the only answer he received from his son. When he noticed me, he apologized for doing this in the middle of the road. No worries, I assure him. It was a great excuse for me stop for a minute. I asked the little boy why he wanted to quit so badly. He told me because it did not really mattered. We got no money for running. We had no chance of winning. Nobody but us was really paying attention.
I asked him if he knew why we were running. Because dad had told him it would be fun. I asked if he knew why dad wanted to run this day. He didn’t. I then asked if knew about all the people around his town that had no home, were sleeping in the cold and the rain, and who would not be feasting on turkey later. He asked if they were very many. And I told him there were more than could fit in two Soldiers' Fields. He asked what good our running was for them. I told him that we had paid money to run, money that would be used to fix them food and give them a place to sleep and to take a shower. Ya. But who really cares if I finish the race or not? I asked him his age. He said he was 8. I asked him what he thought would happen if someone serving a meal to a homeless person or giving a towel or blanket to someone in a shelter happened to mention to that needy person that an 8 year old boy like himself had run, on Thanksgiving Day no less, to help raise money or help raise awareness of that needy person’s condition. You think someone might notice and tell them? I know I noticed. Would you tell people? Of course, but then I’m weird like that. How so? It is my calling to tell people where God is at work in the world today. Wow! Will you really tell people? I will. But you know what will make a great, happy ending? What? If I can tell people how you ran so fast your dad couldn’t keep up with you all the way to the finish.

     Just like that, he was off. Dad took just enough time to glare at me and sarcastically thank me for inspiring his son. What do you do for a living, that you tell people where God is at work in the world around them? Oh, sorry, would you tell him I am a priest. A priest! Yep. Why are you running this, isn't this a special day for you? Apparently it was so I could visit with your son and remind myself that His power is made perfect in weakness? What? Never mind. You better catch your son. I don’t know what the finish line will be like, but if it anything like the start . . . But tell him I will share the story, if I am lucky, for many years to come. I will even tell people that God used an 8 year-old like him to feed people who had every reason to believe that no one cares, let alone 8 year-old boys. He waved me off as he scanned the crowd ahead and took off in pursuit.

     As I climbed the little hill on the way to the finish line and began to suffer in new ways, I also gave thanks. I gave thanks that so many people took the time and gave of themselves that people most will never meet would be fed and clothed. I gave thanks to God that I was apparently going to live through this race. And I gave thanks for little 8 year-old boys who aren’t afraid to ask questions, questions which most of us asked that day, but had to trust that God would one day answer, especially those who would benefit directly from our sweaty efforts that Thanksgiving morning.  Most especially, I gave thanks to God for giving me ears to hear, eyes to see, and the perfect pace so as to come upon an unnamed dad and his boy.  But so help me if Papasmurf brags again about running faster than me with a cane, he will be walking with that cane somewhere else for many days hence. Such is the life of those He has redeemed! We are a work in progress, progress that is sometimes slow and often painful.  Happy Thanksgiving to all, and a blessed Advent Season.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Loving them because He first loved us . . .

     This day we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. In terms of feast days within the church, this is a very new feast. It was not instituted until 1925. Pius XI, the pope who added the feast, realized that the members of the Church were engaged in a terrible spiritual and intellectual battle. Chiefly, the Church saw its members becoming supporters of dictators in Europe and questioning both the Church’s authority as well as that of Christ’s. To the leadership of the faith, secularism seemed to be winning. Pius published a work called Quas Primas, in which he detailed the reasons for the new feast and the effects he hoped the feast would have in this battle. I mention it not just because we celebrate Christ the King Sunday this day, and not because it is an interesting read for those wishing to examine the world in the light of their faith, but because we seem to be involved in the same difficult struggle which gave rise to the feast in the first place.

     I noticed this need last week at the Churches United Thanksgiving services last week. Most of you know of my work with Ron Quay, their director, of Bev’s work on the Board of directors, and our own parish efforts to stay involved in the many ministries of Church’s United. When Ron called me last week, he asked me to speak about the ministries of Church United in an inspirational way and to inform the members present of our work in Human Trafficking in 5-7 ½ minutes. Off hand, he had forgotten the text, but he promised to get back to me. Knowing that time was an issue, I began crafting a sermon. For three or four days I worked on doing my best, within the time allotted, to educate Churches United about Human Trafficking and to inspire those that would be present to continue the good fight. I succeed in keeping it to 8 minutes.  No small feat on my part.

     Unfortunately, when I arrived, I was able to engage in and overhear a number of conversations. Chiefly disturbing to me was the spirit of oppression that seemed to be hanging over so many faithful workers in the field like a pall. I had gone to the celebration expecting to meet with a group of Great Commission Christians like ourselves and prayerfully hoping to gain a couple necessary volunteers in our efforts to combat human slavery. What I found was a terrible sadness. People working at food pantries commented how the need was up and they could give only half the food they had before. Some were disappointed that, of 165 member churches or so, fewer than 75 people were showing up. A few were griping about monetary resources. A few were grousing about how overworked they were and how little a difference they were making. Now, as you know, I may have the discernment skills of a slug. But this was so obvious that a blind man would have said “would you look at that!”

     Thankfully, before I strode to the pulpit, Bev preceded me with these words from Matthew, the words that we read, study, and inwardly digest on Christ the King Sunday. I promised them only two stories, as I was constrained by time and wanted to honor Ron’s request. I sneaked in a third story, by way of telling the first two. You know them well. I told them of “horseradish man” and his Ash Wednesday lesson for us, and I told them of Sarah and her white flower which led, eventually, to her escape from human trafficking. By way of introduction, I also managed to work in the death of Stevie’s sister here on Garfield and our neighborhood’s response to the circumstances of her death. And then I led them back to the passage which we read.

     Notice the response of both groups to Jesus’ judgment. Neither group thinks they have had the opportunity to serve Jesus. In the case of the sheep, they claim never to have helped Jesus by giving Him food or drink or clothes or simply visiting with Him. They would have remembered that. He must have them confused with someone else. Similarly, the goats claim that had they seen Him, they would have certainly helped Him. Obviously they did not see Him, and that is why they gave no help. Jesus, however, in answering them takes us back to Genesis. As you did this to the least of these . . . you did it to Me. Jesus reminds us that everyone we encounter has been created in His image. He ties our service of others to our service of Him.

     When we are like the sheep, we serve Him through the gifts and service that we give to the least in our midst. That is why we reach out in love to the homeless and provide them with feasts when a meal will do. That is why we work hard to meet the needs – spiritual, emotional, and physical – of women and children in our community who are victims of spousal abuse. That is why we gathered for almost 5 full years unloading trucks and loading baskets for 5100 families who, in the end, had little or no interest in joining us in our walk with God. That is why those in the choir meet week after week and work hard when, in reality, they’ll be a new song to learn tomorrow. That is why we try hard to meet the discretionary of as many as possible while trying to discern whether the need is real or the “victim” a con artist. And what difference do we really make? The hungry are still here. Battered women still come in. AFM collapsed because of who knows what reason. And we, like fools, have decided to take on a $300 Billion business and are actively recruiting others to come and join us in our efforts. Were the tragedies not so terrible, it would be laughable. But we are called to continue the work, not because of the successes, but because such work glorifies Him.

     Similarly, when we are like the goats, we ignore Him when we ignore the needs of others. When we cross the street to avoid a beggar, when we feel that tug to offer a ride to someone without reliable transportation, when we decide to keep that article of clothing we haven’t worn in years because “you know, I might get back down to that weight this year,” we are choosing not to serve Christ. We are choosing to ignore the fact that those in need were created in His image every bit the same way as you and I. And for our willful resistance to serve Him, we are judged as goats.

     Notice this is not a singular success or failure. The sheep respond to the Master’s call with no thought that they are serving Him. Their service simply flows from their hearts, hearts that have been circumcised by the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the goats ignore Him at all opportunities. Just as the sheep’s service flows from their hearts, the hearts of the goats cause them not to serve others. Had they seen Him, they admit, they would have served Him. Their lack of faith blinds them to His presence in the least.  Their hearts are still stubborn and fat because they have not yet been circumcised.

     Such service, though, becomes second only to acceptance of His offer of salvation. For the past several weeks, we have been reading about Jesus’ last teachings during Holy Week. During these final days of His earthly ministry, Jesus spent a great deal of time reminding us of our need to bear crosses and to serve Him. He has explained that the greatest of His disciples will be the servant of all. On and on, He has taught the distinctions that exist between His people and others in the world. Now, near the end, He takes up His scepter and reminds us of the judgment that we all face. That judgment will be without fail. And that judgment will remind us how we served or how we failed to serve Him. It seems a strange way, perhaps, to end a church year by talking about judgment. Yet we are beginning a season of expectant waiting next week, a season in which we will ask Him to come again and usher in His rule, a rule He tells us that begins with a separation. Until then, though, we are called to labor in His fields, honoring and glorifying Him through our service of others. It is through such service that we see His face, a face that first put aside the crown and scepter for a cross, and it is through such service that others may see His royal face in our own, loving them because He first loved us.

Christ’s Peace,


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How we use our gifts . . . .

     Why is the poor guy who only got 1 talent condemned? Our Gospel lesson from Matthew this week centered on the Parable of the Talents. It is a parable which probably shocked Jesus’ hearers as much as it does us. For starters, the wealth of the landowner was prodigious, to say the least. Jesus describes a landowner who had 8 talents of gold accessible! In modern money, that probably approaches $2 million, but that sum does nothing to teach us about the shock value which would have been imparted to Jesus’ hearers of the parable. We are a far wealthier society and are coming off a dot-com bubble. We can imagine a couple million dollars with no problem. Heck, many of us around here do not even bother playing the lottery until it gets over a certain amount because, you know, we want to make sure it is worth it if we win--as if a couple million dollars would not really significantly alter our lifestyle.  The amount described by Jesus would simply have been almost unimaginable. A silver talent was worth about 6000 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage. And Jesus is speaking about gold.  You do the math.

     So, this master places two million dollars into the hands of his slaves, each according to his ability. That is an important phrase. We are told in a very few words that the master understands the gifts and talents of his slaves. The one with more ability is given greater wealth; the one with the least ability is given the least wealth. There are no false expectations in this story on the part of the landowner.

     The first two slaves, the ones entrusted with more wealth, double the master’s money and receive his blessing. We are not told what they did specifically nor how long the master was away, but both did well with what they had been entrusted. In fact, each receives identical praise even though one clearly made a lot more money for the master than the other. The third slave is where the spiritual wedgies begin to be formed by those of us listening to the parable. The slave, we are told, buries the talent in a hole in the ground. He tells the master that he was afraid of him. You are a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. Rather than demonstrating love and respect of the master, the slave confesses to fear. That fear causes him to misapprehend the master. Rather than working for his master, as he would have been expected so to do, the slave is alienated from the master and eventually becomes lazy.

     In fact, the master describes the third slave as being so lazy that he does not even protect the money by giving the entrusted talent of gold to the bankers. Remember, the master recognized that this slave, in comparison to the other two, was the least talented (no pun intended). Perhaps, had the slave given the money to the bankers, that might have been all that the master could rightly have expected of him. Perhaps he had no real skill or talent to make money. Instead, the third slave stands condemned because he did nothing with that talent entrusted to him.

     Perhaps shocking to us, Jesus tells us that the master ordered the talent to be taken away and given to the one who made 5 talents of gold. More shockingly, he orders the third slave to be cast into the outer darkness. Why the judgment?

     Jesus is teaching His audience and us about responsiveness. How we use our own gifts and talents will testify as to our own relationship with God. If we respond properly, we will be like the first two slaves, using the wealth and gifts of our Father to glorify Him. If we are like the third slave, however, we will respond to His love of us by using those same gifts poorly. Perhaps we will use them to benefit ourselves, rather than those for whom He has entrusted the gifts. Perhaps we will try to hide them, rather than displaying them for His glory and the advancement of His kingdom. How we use His gifts demonstrates our relationship with Him. In this parable, Jesus is teaching us for the need for a productive response. We are not called to sit back and rest on His laurels. Instead, we are commanded to take what He gives us and use them for His glory and His honor. Any other use dishonors Him, devalues the gift, and testifies to the world that we do not honor nor love our Master, our Lord.



Friday, November 11, 2011

A change of perspective . . .

What are we to make of the Penn State scandal?

     As we live in the middle of Big Ten country, it is a question that is asked by those who drop in and by parishioners. Listening to people here during the last week, people seem divided on JoePa, presumably giving him some credit for the decades of running a program with nary a hint of scandal. Some have questioned whether the firing makes sense, but most realize the position of the Board. Quite a few people have been quick to condemn the 28 year old Graduate Assistant who fled rather than rescue the young boy named as victim #2 in the Grand Jury’s proceedings. All have been universal in the condemnation of the assistant coach who allegedly victimized at least 8 youths considered “at risk” by the commonwealth and common sense. And everyone wonders whether the AD and other school officials were part of a cover-up to protect the pristine image of PSU (prior to last week’s revelations, Penn State was one of only four members of the NCAA never to have been the subject of an investigation for its athletic department) or whether they were browbeaten by JoePa into leaving the former assistant coach alone.

     What are we to make of it? It is a tragedy of epic proportions. The innocence of anywhere from 8 to maybe as many as two dozen young boys was stolen by a trusted figure. Worse, many adults, when alerted to the problems over the years by the victims, chose “not to hear” what the boys were saying. Those that needed to be safeguarded the most were ignored by those charged with the responsibility of watching out for them, even after the accusations had grown in number and credibility. Imagine, this predator was known this year to have brought youths to campus, and nobody said anything. The reputation of an amazing leader has been tarnished by a series of bad decisions. That JoePa had an amazingly positive impact on thousands of (mostly) men during his career cannot be overstated. That his blindness, whatever its root, allowed the victimization to occur far longer than it should also cannot be overstated. I know, he reported the suspected activities to his immediate supervisors. Make no mistake, JoePa was the face of Penn State. Once he became aware of the details of the rape of victim #2, he had an obligation to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again! He, better than anyone else on that campus, could have preserved the innocence of other victims, the reputation of the school, and his own legacy.

     To a point, I have some sympathy for the Graduate Assistant. People have been quick to condemn him for not rescuing the young boy from the middle of the actions he described to the Grand Jury. While I understand the criticism, I do not believe that such criticism is fair. None of know how we will respond in the face of events. We like to think we know, but until we come face to face with the events, we can never be sure. I am not as quick to condemn him over a failure to act when he walked into the locker room and encountered the events described in the proceeding. However, this same assistant coach encountered the former assistant coach in the presence of other youths and admits he said and did nothing. Really?! Absolutely nothing?! Those events all occurred after he had had time to reflect upon the events he witnessed initially. Yes, I understand the former assistant was a beloved friend of JoePa, but he was also running an organization that helped troubled youths! But the assistant knew, absolutely knew, that his former coach was a predator--he had seen it with his own eyes and heard it with his own ears. He chose poorly in choosing to keep his mouth shut.

     What should we think about the mess? I came across some words from Tim Henderson, who works as a pastor in State College. Mr. Henderson did a fabulous job of refocusing Christians on the real problem at Penn State. He reminded us, in the context of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, that there is a deficiency of love in State College. Godly love, he asserts, would have insisted upon far too many people acting far sooner to protect these youths. They failed to act, he asserts, because there was a lack of godly love, a lack of love for one’s neighbor. The scandal, he thinks, will shake many to their core before it finishes working itself out, because as a community they failed to love their neighbors as themselves. Powerful words, to be sure. And I commend his entire sermon to your reading. They are words which we can take to heart when confronting any evil. How do such terrible things happen? More often than not people, and even His disciples fail Him. The whole mess, as with much in life, points us all to our need for a Savior.  PSU was a "clean" program, JoePa was one of the "good guys," and this occurred. . . . Perhaps, with that change in perspective, you and I can begin to change the discussions of blame and loss into discussions of discipleship and of true, godly love. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can begin to get people to see their own need of mercy and God’s grace, just as all those impacted by this scandal at Penn State are also in need of that same grace, that same mercy, that same hope.



Wednesday, November 9, 2011

For all the saints . . .

     Intercessors, Choir, Altar Guild, Community Meal, Winnie’s Place – The ministries card began to fill up pretty quickly last Saturday. As we enter the next phase of our diocesan strategic plan, the diocese is looking at specific ministries which are being done by parishes. They had passed out note cards at convention and asked each parish to fill out four, each color tied to a specific question. Vern and Judy handed me the ministries card, figuring I knew more of what was going on than they. So, it was my task to list all the ministries we had undertaken the past twelve months. Ministry of Presence, Food Pantry, Winnie’s Wishes, healing, World of Warcraft – My card was quickly running out of space, and still I was not done. Ice Cream Social, Picnic, Nerf Wars, Trivia, Canterbury House, Christmas families – I even resorted to changing the orientation of the card in an effort to get more ministries listed. Gas cards, meals, and budgeting for the needy, AFM, offering space to AA, Girl Scouts, the residents of our Ward, and a couple families in our area – That filled the other side, and still I was not done. Jeff and Christine offered the care for the yard, which we in turn make available to the children and preschools in our area. Scott offers plowing. Bev and Linda and Wanda, in particular, take care of the garden – a place appreciated by those struggling and looking to hear God’s voice. How many pastoral visits? How many calls?

     Our collect this day begins with the words “Almighty God, You have knit together Your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Your Son Christ our Lord . . .”. Sometimes, they are merely words that are said aloud in gatherings. But here, thanks to the intentional effort of so many of you, the words begin to describe a mystical, almost sacramental, reality, a reality made possible only through God’s grace and our willingness to risk failure and humiliation as we try and serve Him faithfully. Think for just a second. I did not run out of ministries to name. I ran out of space upon which to write all your ministries! Mission Trip to Tanzania, Befrienders, our Carillon system, ECW, HospiceCare, Churches United – And just how do we name the faithful witness of you in your daily lives? How many co-workers came in to speak with me because of your efforts? How many in your families? In your neighborhoods? How many called? How many e-mailed?

     That same grace, which causes us to be knit together in one body is the same grace which allows us to follow prior saints and become saints to those who follow us in virtuous and godly living. Better still, it is that same grace which causes us to repent when we go astray, and leads us into His loving arms once again. Brothers and sisters, this day we celebrate not just on behalf of all those saints who have come before us but also on behalf of all of you who have struggled, strived, and occasionally succeeded in loving God and in loving our neighbor as ourselves. You might be uncomfortable with the idea that you are a saint, but are you not washed in His blood and clothed in His righteousness? That, brothers and sisters, is one of the joyful rewards of a repentant heart! We can face life, and all its darkness and evils, with the certainty, and the peace that comes with it, that He is preparing that place and reward for each one of us. More amazing still, we can offer to share that joy, that heartfelt thanksgiving, with all those whom He places in our path in ways limited only by our imagination and willingness to serve.

     In a bit, I will end this gathering ith one of the blessings which I love to pronounce:  "May God, who has given us, in the lives of His saints patterns of holy living and victorious dying, strengthen your faith and devotion, and enable you to bear witness to the truth against all adversity."  Remember, as you hear those words and reflect on your life's toil that for many in the world around us, you are the one living a holy life and you are the one willing to face death triumphantly in the lives of others.  This day we celebrate your obedience and your faithfulness, even as we celebrate all those who led each one of us to Him!

Thanks be to God!


Another Senator joins the fight!

Thank you, Saxby Chambliss, for lending your support to the passage of the TVPRA!  We are now up to 31 Senators!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Week 8 Rankings . . .

Yes, I know.  The season is more than half over.  It takes time for some of the wins and losses to allow teams to separate.  I only did the top 20 this week, because so many teams were clustered between an 8.5 and 8.75.  Similarly, the difference between the 6 unbeatens at the top is a matter of the opponents' wins, with OSU's opponents having more wins at this point in the season than the others.  So without further ado:

1.  Oklahoma State        13.625
2.  Boise State                 13.571
3.  Alabama                    13.375
4.  LSU                           13.125
5.  Stanford                    13.000
6.  Houston                     12.375
6.  Oklahoma                 12.375
8.  Clemson                    11.444
9.  Michigan                   11.375
9.  South Carolina         11.375
11. Virginia Tech          11.111
12. Nebraska                 11.000
13. Penn State               10.555
14. Arkansas                 10.375
14. Oregon                     10.375
14. Southern Miss.        10.375
17. Kansas State            10.125
18. USC                          9.75
19. Georgia Tech           9.444
20. Michigan State        9.375

As far as this week's game of the century, Alabama will edge LSU (barely).  LSU's victory over Northwestern State means they trail the Tide by 2 bonus points.  As they say, there is lots of football yet to be played, but this gives us an idea of what we would be looking at, were the NCAA to adopt a 16 team playoff.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We just hit 30 co-sponsors in the Senate!

Thank you, Jon Tester, for joining us in the fight to eliminate Human Trafficking by co-sponsoring the Senate’s version of the TVPRA.  Sen. Tester’s action brings the total number of Senators as co-sponsors to 30!  You Representatives in the House better get to work.  We would not want the Senators to beat you in terms of total numbers of sponsors.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A little more support . . .

Thank you, Michael Bennet, for joining us in the fight to eliminate Human Trafficking by co-sponsoring the Senate’s version of the TVPRA.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What do bad leaders look like?

     Back when I was in seminary, I was placed in a small group of people I barely knew and asked to share in a discussion about our respective calls. Each member of the group was asked to share a brief story of his or her call and his or her perception of how that call would be expressed in future ministry. During the course of that effort, one of the seminarians joyfully expressed her call in terms of a wedding. She was so looking forward to that day in the future when the choir would vest and line up, the acolytes would get themselves lined up, the music would start, and every head would turn to see her resplendent in her chasuble and simply be touched by her presence among them. She had obviously given a lot of time to the consideration of this image because the detail was amazing. Believe it or not, my pastoral sensibilities were even worse back then (truth be told, I was probably trying my hardest to get drummed out of the ordination process so I could go back to work and make money, all with the sense of “OK, God, we tried it your way and it failed), so I asked the question on the minds of several in the group (I know this because I was thanked for asking it afterwards). “How is God honored in your vision of your call?” Clearly, at least to those who listened to her vision, she had never once considered how God figured into her call. That is not to say that some of us were not na├»ve at this point in our journey and in our discernment. Some of us were going to build, with God’s obvious blessing, a mega Anglican worship church to rival Willow Creek. Others were simply hoping to draw incredible numbers of unbelievers or unchurched to the love of Christ. A few just wanted to speak the language just so they could blog intelligently about growing the Church of God and laboring in His fields. Most were centered upon doing great things to honor God, and most had a need to stand before Him hoping to hear the “well done, good and faithful servant,” but not her. She wanted to be the focus of her perceived call.
     At first, stories like this might initially surprise and disappoint us. We have high expectations for our clergy (rightfully so), and the thought of them being concerned about such perceptions ought to offend us. Heck, my seminary’s name included the words “for ministry” in its name. You would think that every student that went to school there would have a love or a call “for ministry.” But no. Each of us gathered here probably has horror stories about bad clergy. Many of us can probably name clergy who really liked to be served rather than to serve; who liked to spend time on the golf course, not in an effort to reach the other three members with whom they were playing, just so they could say they had played and tell us what they shot; or who expected always to be treated as special wherever they went, rather than be bothered to be a servant of all. Knowing some of your stories, I know a few of you were told cruel things, simply because the clergy in your lives did not want to put in the work or did not want to empathize. For a time, at least, terrible burdens were given you to bear with no thought to the consideration that He had already born those burdens. Yes the Church of God is full of such “leaders.” But it comes as no surprise to God, and it really should not surprise us.
     In our lesson from Matthew this week, Jesus points out this tendency to His disciples and crowds. He points out how the religious elite wear big phylacteries, have long tassels, love to sit at the head of the table and in the important seat at synagogue. These are the same leaders who go about moping while fasting, who make sure that everyone knows how holy they are, and are warned by Jesus that they have already received their transitory reward. You and I, however, are cautioned not to be like them. We are to remember that we all live on a level playing field. I am loved no more or no less by God than any of you or any of those men and women we serve each month or any slave or slaver we encounter in our life. He walked that path of Holy Week which ends within a couple days of today’s story fully aware of the cost to Him and of our need. He also teaches us that leadership among His disciples is radically different from anything God’s people have ever expected. Those exalted by Him among us, He says, will be those who serve Him by loving God and their neighbor, who truly die to self and allow Him to call them to a new, Risen life which glorifies Him.

     To be sure, it is a temptation for each of us. How many of us really want to serve others? How many of us cannot relate to the Pharisees and the Sadducees and want what we think are the spoils of a righteous life? How many of us really want to believe we are special, and unique, knowing all the while that He thought everyone was special and unique? It is not an easy walk with our Lord -- that much is certain. But then again, nothing worth while is ever easy. Egos are hard to crucify, particularly among those of us who have been set aside to lead us. What we must remind ourselves each day is the fact that our Teacher wants to be everyone’s Teacher, that our Father, wants to be everyone’s Father, and that our Savior wants to be everyone’s Savior. Anyone who models or professes anything else, might ought to be heard, but they ought not to be followed. Armed with that knowledge and certain of His power to redeem, you and I are sent out to assist in the building a of a kingdom not transitory, but eternal. It is a kingdom built, not of our doing or effort or design, but of His grace poured out and through our lives. It truly is only by His gift that we offer Him true and laudable service. So, in which part of the story do you find yourself? The crowds and the disciples? Or the “leaders”? Do you wish to be served and find yourself apart from Him and His teaching, or do you seek to serve?  They are simple questions, truly.  But the answers speak profoundly to whom or what we serve and hold dear.