On August 29, 2005 I got up, made coffee, and turned on the television. I don’t think I was much different from many folks that day. Hurricane Katrina was making landfall near New Orleans. It was, to that point, the biggest hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast in our lifetimes. The most devastating area hit by Katrina was Gulfport, Mississippi.I was pastoring a church in Orange County at the time, and one of our members, Bob Ullerich, came to me and suggested we send a work team to Gulfport to help out in the recovery. I agreed. We created a team of volunteers, and under the tutelage of Bob (He was a wildcatter, working on oil rigs, and sometimes the geo thermal wells here in Imperial Valley—his nickname was “Big Dog.”) were trained in basic construction practices.We made our way to Gulfport, and connected with the Methodist Church there. Trinity UMC. There we met John Kelly, church member. Retired Army Officer. That day, August 29, 2005, John Kelly showed up at the church to see what damage had taken place. So did a lot of others. People checking on their friends and neighbors, wondering how they had fared. In the midst of the destruction they came together. To help out any way they could. The first thing John Kelly realized was, with power out, there was no way to save any food these people had. So, he got them organized, got out the church barbecues, fired them up, and began to cook.Lines formed. The word went out. The church had food. Two days later a semi rolled up to the church. “I’m supposed to deliver this food to the local market, but the market isn’t there any more. Can you use this food?” And so it went, like this, for several days while the Red Cross and FEMA began responding to the disaster.Our work team worked on half a dozen homes, helping restore them. Helping families get back into their homes. We slept in the church hall, and John Kelly kept us fed along with all the other volunteers, and survivors.All in all we sent four work teams to the Gulf Coast over a period of three years. After the immediate response to the situation FEMA asked UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) to coordinate the long term recovery of the Gulf Coast. Our last team stayed at Camp Hope, set up on another church property in Gulfport by UMCOR. It consisted of a barracks for men and women, a dining hall, and storage area for building materials. On that last trip we restored three homes. That was twelve years ago.On each of these mission trips I heard at least one of the volunteers say, “This is what being the church is all about.” Big Dog and his wife, Nancy, two amazing, dedicated Methodists, moved right after our last trip to Gulfport in 2007. They now live in Columbia, South Carolina. I emailed Nancy to let her know we where thinking about them and keeping them in prayer. Columbia won’t catch the brunt of Hurricane Dorian, but they will get some serious weather. And knowing Bob and Nancy the way I do, they will be out there somewhere, helping in any way they can, making things better for others. Like lots of other people. People who get it. People who understand that alone they might be faster, but together we are stronger. Despite our differences. There are many John Kellys in the world. And Big Dogs. And Nancys. Thank God for them. They are the ones who remind us every day that helping others in times of need is what the church is all about.Indeed.
You might recall a bumper sticker that reads, “No Justice, No peace—Know Justice, Know Peace.” I’ve also seen the Christian version of it that says, “No Jesus, No Peace, Know Jesus, Know Peace.” Jesus is often called the Prince of Peace. But what kind of peace are we talking about? It seems that everywhere one looks there is scant evidence of peace. And despite my belief there are far more good and peacemaking things going on in the world than bad things, there still are violence, disruption, contention, polarization, and injustice.Where is the Prince of Peace when we need him?At least part of the answer lies in this scripture, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)What is this fire Jesus speaks of? And division? Well, if Jesus is the Prince of Peace, then fire and division must be part of the process. In other words, the initial work of peacemaking will be dangerous. You see, if there is to be peace there must be justice, God’s restorative justice. The issue of justice always has been an issue of power. The prophets are clear that those in power don’t always seek God’s justice, but, rather, seek their own consolidation of power.So Jesus comes along and begins his work, not as a “law and order” guy, but as an agitator, a fire starter, a disruptor of the status quo. Jesus was always getting into trouble, not with the poor or the disenfranchised, but with the authorities, the law and order folks. In fact, it is the law and order folks who had Jesus executed. For being an agitator.But being an agitator, a fire starter is what we needed then, and, sadly, what we need now. Given this reality of Jesus’ mission it follows that the work of the church (meaning the work of Christians) is to work for God’s justice, knowing that it will cause disruption of the status quo. In other words, the work of the church is to stand against those who oppress those in need.And I have come to believe the best way to do that is to simply stand with those in need, working for their good will, advocating for their well being. I believe that if we are not doing that, then we need to quit calling ourselves Christians and start calling ourselves something else.Ironically there have always been those who get this. Oscar Romero. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dorothy Day. Cesar Chavez. All of them labeled troublemakers. Or worse.The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, sums things up this way:“Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God's will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff's office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar.”
Paul Tillich is a well known 20th Century Christian theologian. He published his Systematic Theology in 1951. “What is a systematic theology?” you ask. It represents the totality of one’s beliefs, from A to Z. It’s a big book. I read it.Late in life Tillich spent a year living in Japan. When he came back to the States he was asked about the yearlong experience. His reply was, “I have to re-write my systematic theology.”What changed in that one year? He experienced a way of life, a worldview, unlike anything he had experienced to that point. You see, he had lived a pretty homogeneous life focused on his theological work. What his Japan experience revealed to him was the pluralistic nature of the world.And that experience made him a better theologian. Dynamics of Faith and The Courage to Be are two later publications that are widely reviewed as important theological works.I wanted to share that because it seems to me that the heart of the deep divisions within our country, the harmful polarization, the demonization of “others” is a result of homogeneous thinking that cannot acknowledge diversity as a gift from God.For example. I was stopped by a friend while I was taking my morning walk. She had noticed our new church sign and the fact we had removed the word united from our name. We simply said we are the El Centro Methodist Church. I explained that, due to the deep divisions within our denomination over interpretations of scripture regarding human sexuality (there are actually only six references to the topic, and none are conclusive when the original languages are taken into account) we decided that saying we were united was inaccurate. What we do say is we are Methodists, a centuries old Christian Tradition founded on the life and work of John Wesley. She also asked about the other sign, one that says Imperial Valley Vineyard Church. Vineyard is a global church that is more recently founded on core values of historical, Biblical orthodoxy—embracing the authority of Scripture, and the activity of the Spirit. Imperial Valley Vineyard is a growing Hispanic congregation that had run out of space where they had been worshipping. For the past year we have been in dialog with them, honoring the activity of the Spirit, believing that the Spirit was calling our two congregations to bear witness to the gift of God’s diversity.And so, in May, we began a covenant relationship with Vineyard Church. And I believe that as congregations we are both better witnesses of God’s presence in the world. Vineyard has an energy and focus that is different from our energy and focus. But our differences do not keep us apart. In fact, our energies and focus are both derived from the same place—the activity of the Holy Spirit. So, while we respond differently to the Spirit in one sense, we bear witness to God’s love much better together than we can by remaining apart. Think about salsa. How many places in the valley can we get good salsa? Do they taste exactly the same? Same basic ingredients. Different recipes. Still salsa.Doesn’t it make sense that Christianity would be a much better witness to God’s love in the world if Christians actually took seriously Paul’s description of who we are: The Body of Christ? We Methodists are one aspect of the Body. Vineyard is another aspect of the Body. Different approaches. Same Body.And if you can imagine how God is working with us, can you imagine what God is trying to do through everyone? I don’t simply mean all Christians. I mean everyone. Why would anyone think God can’t work with everyone?How narrowminded is that?
Easter Sunday is one of the most joyous days of the year for Christians all over the world. We celebrate the triumph of life over death, love over hate, inclusion over exclusion. But, this year, in the midst of our celebrating, we also felt the shock, pain, and anger, over the bombings of churches in Sri Lanka. Very much like the feelings we felt when Muslims were killed while in prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand not so long ago.The reality of the world we live in is that no one gets away clean when it comes to our actions that divide, and judge, and turn to violence. We are all guilty. I know we don’t want to admit that. We’d rather be the victim all the time, blame the other for all that is wrong in the world, hide behind our self-righteousness. Again, no one gets away clean here.Sometimes I think the worst response we make in response to this reality is to say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” Which is to say, things can’t change, God really has no power in the world, faith is just naive, or simply a way of checking out, giving up, smothering the pain with a false sense of security.And the violence continues.Some ask, perhaps many ask, “Why does God let these things happen? Why does God allow suffering in the world?” It’s a valid question.The scriptures are clear on two things regarding suffering. The first is found in Genesis, when we learn that humanity, represented by Adam and Eve (the Hebrew word Adam literally means humanity), is, in our desire to acquire the knowledge of good and evil we acquired the power to choose between the two. This powerful knowledge was the risky thing God allowed in order to have a relationship with us humans, a relationship based on choice. The risk was, obviously, we could choose evil. But a true relationship with God had to allow that freedom to choose otherwise it was not possible for us to have a true relationship with God.Evil, then, is the turning away from a relationship with God.The whole of the scriptures is the story of how God works to make things right in light of that risky allowance. From Noah, to Abraham and Sara, to the Prophets, God works to make things right. In the end, God makes the decision that the only realistic way of making things right with the world is to enter the world. Emmanuel. God with us. The Word becomes flesh. Jesus of Nazareth.That’s the second thing. Jesus confronts the powers of evil represented in the civil authority and the religious authority, both evil in the systematic oppression and violence they have come to believe are the real powers in the universe. And those powers do exactly what they always do. They violently destroy the one who challenges their authority, their world view.And so God suffers.Just like we do. Just like we have. The depth of love God has for us humans is that God was willing to suffer so that we would never be alone in our suffering. God is right there with us. Walking with us through the difficulties and the pain. God was with those Muslims murdered in New Zealand, was with those Christians who were murdered in Sri Lanka. Wherever there is suffering there we will find God, in the midst of it all, working to bring something lifegiving out of it all. That’s the true meaning of Easter. The cross of Good Friday has been neutered. Death has lost its grip on us all. No matter what else happens, in the end, love wins.
Childlike surrender and trust, I believe, is the defining spirit of authentic discipleship. —Brennan ManningWhen I take a knee, I am facing the flag with my full body, staring straight into the heart of our country’s ultimate symbol of freedom—because I believe it is my responsibility, just as it is yours, to ensure that freedom is afforded to everyone in this country. —Megan RapinoeI believe alien life is quite common in the universe although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.—Stephen HawkingI believe that the greatest form of prayer is praise to God. —Billy GrahamI believe that a man is the strongest soldier for daring to die unarmed.—Mahatma GandhiBelief. Faith. Conviction. There are many words that we use to define the things we hold to be true, to be right, to be important. The above quotes are examples of the variety of ways people declare what they believe.Religion is a word that tries to describe the behaviors, practices, world views, texts, morals, ethics, Holy places and times, and structures that connect humans to things transcendent, supernatural, spiritual.The word religion, from the Latin religare , literally means to connect or bind. It is where we get the word ligament, the connective tissue between bones.So it can be argued that when we say, “I believe,” we are connecting to those things beyond ourselves that guide us, inspire us, and challenge us.Our beliefs guide us. You’ve heard the sayings, “Practice what you preach,” or “Walk the talk.” They imply that we can recognize when someone says they believe something, but their behavior doesn’t affirm their words. Words and actions go hand in hand. “But if we say we love God and don't love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God, if we don't love the people we can see?” (1 John 4:20)Our beliefs guide us. And we cannot hide our beliefs behind our words.Our beliefs inspire us. When I was ordained a friend of mine gave me a print of Picasso’s Don Quixote. It reminds me of the song The Impossible Dream, from the musical Man of La Mancha that says, “To fight for the right without question or pause to be willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause.” My belief in Jesus’ example of self giving love for others inspires me to do the same. Even when it’s hard.Our beliefs challenge us. Did I mention that the things that guide me and inspire me are often really hard to do? Case and point. Jesus said we need to love even our enemies. I’ve never really thought of people that have hurt me as enemies, but they certainly have said and done things to me that have hurt. And it seems to me that the way to loving them is to begin by forgiving them.I believe the ultimate act of love is forgiveness. It’s what God did. God loved us enough to forgive us even when we weren’t asking to be forgiven. That’s something difficult to get my head around sometimes—that God loves you and me, that we didn’t earn that love, and that we cannot lose that love. God’s love is what guides me, inspires me, challenges me.I never thought about this until recently when, reading a book called The Good and Beautiful God, I realized that the uniqueness of Jesus’ message, his good news, is we don’t earn God’s love. We don’t earn our way to eternal life. Not sure about that? Read the story of the Prodigal Son. Anyway, that is what I believe.And you? What do you believe?
The Old Testament reading for last Sunday, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, was about the ascension of Elijah. To those not familiar with the story, Elijah was one of God’s prophets, who didn’t die, but was “taken up to heaven by a whirlwind in a chariot of fire and horses.” (2 Kings 2:6-14) Stories like these were often told about great leaders in ancient times.Taken up in a whirlwind of fire. Sounds a lot like fireworks, doesn’t it?The problem Elijah faced was how to mentor Elisha, his follower and newly anointed prophet concerning the fireworks of Elijah’s ascension. The problem was a common one. All too often people focused on the fireworks, and not the life and message of the one they were remembering.It’s like the story of Jesus ascension where the disciples are standing there, watching Jesus ascend into the clouds. It took two men dressed in white to snap the disciples out of their looking up into the clouds, reminding them that Jesus had given them work to do, the work Jesus had begun and had entrusted to them. (Acts 1:9-14; 2:14-21)The question facing Elijah, and Jesus as well, was how to make sure their followers paid attention to the mission that God had called them to. Prior to Elijah’s ascension he spent time with Elisha teaching him to focus on the prophetic mission to which God had called them and not to be distracted by his fiery ascension. Jesus spent 40 days after his resurrection teaching the disciples all that the scriptures had said about his ministry, death and resurrection.The question for Christians today is whether we are truly focused on the mission Jesus called us to, or are we simply enamored by all the fireworks around us.One of my favorite stories about Jesus captures the essence of his mission, of what he came to teach us about our place within God’s creation, and how we grow in our relationship with God. It’s a pretty familiar story.In a confrontation between Jesus and some of the church leaders Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was. Everyone knew the answer. Jesus responded with his own question. “You know the scriptures,” Jesus said, “what do they say?” The church leader said, “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”“Good answer,” replied Jesus. But in order to show Jesus up the church leader said, “But who is my neighbor?”Jesus told a story. A man was attacked on the road, beaten, robbed, left for dead. A priest came by and ignored the man. Likewise a priest’s assistant. Both leaders in the church. Then an enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan of all people, saw the man and took care of him. He bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn and paid for his stay.Jesus asked, “Who was the neighbor?” The church leader reluctantly replied, “The one who showed compassion.” Jesus said, “Then go and do the same.”The one who showed compassion.Something that often gets missed in the story that, to help the man would have made the two church leaders unclean, that is, they would not have been able to continue with their church duties until they had gone through the process of becoming clean again, which involved ritual washing, and time.So the question they asked about the man was, “What will happen to me if I help him out?” The question the Samaritan asked was, “What will happen to that man if I don’t help him out?”In the midst of all the fireworks this week I hope we are all asking the right question.
“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” —John 14:8-9Last Sunday, Fathers Day, was a time to remember the full meaning of fatherhood, and that no matter what kind of relationship we have had with our fathers, an ever-present God longs to be in relationship with us as witnessed by the life of Jesus. I know I have come to my faith through the love and care of both my mother and my father. In May I wrote about my mom. Today I want to write about my dad. WWII Navy veteran, engineer, quiet, well read, inquisitive. That was my dad. These are some of the memories of my dad, who died in 2004, that I’ve been thinking about recently.I remember when I was a teenager, and beginning to surf, I wanted to get a St. Christopher medal to wear as a necklace. All the guys had them. I told my dad and he asked me why I wanted to do that. More importantly he also asked me whether I knew who St. Christopher was. I confess I had no idea. But I realized I had better find out if I was going to wear a medal bearing his image. So I did. That was dad. Something else he used to say to me was, “Always tell the truth. That way you don’t have to remember what you’ve said.” When he would wrestle with my brother and me he would say, “Someone’s going to get hurt, and it’s not going to be me!” I remember the first time I said that while wrestling with my son I distinctly heard my dad’s voice, and not mine. One time in church I was sitting between mom and dad, and when we got up to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” my dad broke into a bass harmony while my mom began to sing the alto part. I was completely taken by the sound of musical harmony. I think that was the beginning of my interest in music. “Holy, Holy, Holy” remains one of my favorite hymns.Dad was pretty patient with us kids for the most part. I was in high school when the first Super Bowl was played. Being played at the LA Coliseum the game was blacked out locally. My brother and I decided we could take the small black and white TV we had, carry it up the huge pepper tree next to the house, and set it up on the roof, which was flat. Dad kept a watchful eye, but never said we couldn’t do it. We set up an aluminum antennae guaranteed to get the San Diego station, and we sat there for three hours watching nothing but snow. And an occasional ghost of a figure move across the screen. Dad never said we were stupid, or crazy. He just let us figure it out.One of my favorite times was Sunday afternoons making homemade ice cream. We had this wooden bucket and crank. We’d get a 25lb block of ice and break it up, pack the bucket, throw in the rock salt. Mom made the custard and we would put it in the bucket and crank. One time I wanted to crank so dad let me. I made it around about four or five turns and couldn’t go any more. Then I felt dad’s hand on mine. And together we made ice cream. I have the feeling that’s just like God’s love for us.
“Jesus asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’” —Mark 9:33-35I realize this might sound a little weird, but my golf game helps me understand the fullness of this passage in Mark’s Gospel. No, really. Anyone who plays golf knows that the harder they try to hit the ball, the more difficult hitting the ball becomes. That the harder they swing the less success they have in hitting the ball farther.Golf is counter intuitive.I think being a follower of Jesus is also counter intuitive. The desire to be first, to have power, to be independent, and self serving is not what Jesus asks of us. And he models it for us in his life, and death.One of the things I’ve noticed about the Gospels is that, while Jesus is always moving toward Jerusalem, he is mostly dealing with interruptions. Someone is asking him to do something for him or her, or the disciples are in need of another lesson in what it means to be a disciple, someone is sick, or outcast, or has died. Interruptions. But Jesus always takes them into account. He listens, he heals, he brings life, he welcomes and embraces, he forgives. He puts the needs of others ahead of his own. Knowing all the while that those interruptions are actually the heart of his teaching about greatness, about what it means to truly be first. “First where?” you ask. “First in the Kingdom of God” is his answer. And there’s the rub. There are those who claim God, but market in lies, putting themselves at the front of the line, excluding those they don’t like. They thirst for power in order to elevate their own status usually at the expense of others. They talk about greatness as if, well let me give you an example. There used to be a tee shirt that was popular that said, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” The toys, of course, were usually expensive things. God’s reign is never boastful or demeaning. God’s reign does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. You see. Counter intuitive to what we might be led to believe about greatness and power.Counter intuitive. Like golf.So here is the other thing golf has taught me that helps me understand what it means to be first by being last, and a servant of all. Too often we golfers focus on outcomes. Scores. Our handicaps. “What did you shoot today?” is often the first question asked of us. But is that all golf is? Is it just an outcome? Most of the times that I’ve really enjoyed a round of golf were focused less on outcomes, whether I break 90, or 80, but on the friendships with those I am playing.I’ve learned an acronym recently that I think just might help my game. N.A.T.O. Not Attached To Outcome. That’s it. Not attached to outcome. The connection between this and my Christian faith, especially my vocation as an ordained person in the church is one I had never realized until now. When I was first ordained I was ready to go out and save the world. It didn’t take long for me to be reminded that saving the world was already done. And Jesus has invited me to take part in the ongoing work of salvation he started. You’re invited too!The outcome is not my responsibility. N.A.T.O.
I confess, I have not watched one episode of Game of Thrones. Not one. But I have seen most of the Marvel Super Hero movies, including the recent Avengers End Game. What these blockbuster shows have in common is what I think attracts so many fans to them. Both are fantasies. So, why are fantasies so popular in our culture?Stories of fantasy have always had an important place in our lives. Supernatural events, creatures, miracles, magic, they were the stuff that allowed us to make sense of the world and the events that seemed to control our everyday living. This worldview existed until the rise of modernity, which began with the Enlightenment.The Age of Enlightenment, and its resulting secularization of thought offered a worldview where political discourse and reason replaced belief in things like miracles and magic. But the stories remained, raising questions whether this transition was permanent or reversible, that we might be thrown back into the premodern world. And despite our best efforts to have some control in our lives, we live with the uncertainty of changes in our climate, the needless gun violence that pervades every day living, and has now entered into our Sanctuaries, and the general sense of the need to belong. Things have become relative, uncertain. All this to say we live in a pretty anxious time. We didn’t go back to a premodern era, we entered the Post-Modern era. Enter the Superhero. There is a direct correlation between our anxiety about the future, and the rise in popularity of stories about super heroes and fantasy.I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if there really was a Justice League or Avengers that protected us all from evil and harm? Wouldn’t it be great if, after years of betrayal, war, killing, and palace intrigue, people came to the realization that peace is achieved only through democracy? (I haven’t seen a GoT episode, but I have read a lot about the concluding two episodes)And wouldn’t it be great if we could elect someone who would single handedly solve all of our problems?I believe one of the failures of Christianity in the last 80 years or so is the shift from inviting people into communities of compassion, to simply offering a personal escape vehicle in the form of a confession to Jesus that earns a ticket to heaven. In the invitation to community people are challenged to live together, self interest is replaced with a concern for the other, and “I” receives its identity through the “we.” A “ticket to heaven” mentality has led to how the church in general often talks about God as “out there” somewhere, always judging our behavior, rewarding the “good” people and “punishing” the bad people. But, according to scripture, God is not “out there.” And God’s desire is not to punish people. To the contrary, God’s revelation through Jesus is that God’s judgment is a judgment of love. And that the greatest act of love is forgiveness. Entering the world of fantasy through books and movies, and comic books can be a much needed break, but it is the work of community building, building communities of compassion that will give meaning to our lives. In fact, if you have seen the Avengers movie you might have noticed that most of the film was about the relationships of the people that mattered, the sense of family that mattered, the sacrificial love that lent meaning to what it is to be fully human. Within the community Jesus creates we are offered what he calls an abundant life. It is a life centered in having compassion for others. These communities do exist although we don’t hear much about them.But they are no fantasy.
Sunday was Mother’s Day here in the United States. Traditions honoring mothers go back centuries, and virtually every country in the world holds Mother’s Day celebrations. Our modern Mother’s Day holiday began in 1907 when Anna Jarvis held a memorial celebration for her mother at St. Andrews Methodist Church In Grafton, West Virginia. The celebration became official by the Presidential Proclamation of Woodrow Wilson in 1914.My mom grew up in Yakima, Washington, one of five children. Her nickname was “Captain” given to her by her dad because she was the one who kept the other siblings in line. She met my dad in Tacoma in 1945, were married soon after and gave birth to their first child, a son, in 1947.That would be me.Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008. She died in 2012. She was 88. Every one of us has a mom story. Maybe more than one. Some are sad, some hilarious, some poignant. Mothers Day for some is not a big deal. For others it is a major gathering of family. I get that. There is no “One size fits all” for anything we do.I have three very distinct memories of my mom. The first one is her chili. She was a pretty good cook, and her ground beef chili was a favorite of mine. Good chili flavor, a little heat, she would fry tortillas flat, like a tostada, and we would pile on cheese, tomatoes and lettuce and dig in.I still make her chili.The second memory is from the time I was in college. I was involved in theater productions, and got the part of the ingenu in the play The Fantastiks. There is a part in one act where the boy (me) encounters a couple of scoundrels along his journey. One is a Shakespearean actor, and the other is an Indian. They looked and acted like Laurel and Hardy. Anyway, these two made their entrance out of a large trunk, first the actor, and next the Indian. My friend Ernie Hood played the Indian. Tall and thin, he wore a Long John dyed brown, a breechcloth and a one feather headdress. While the Shakespearean actor was bloviating, Ernie would sneak up to the side of him. Now Ernie had a “bit” where he would clean his horned rim glasses using his breechcloth while the actor carried on. It usually got a laugh. One night when Ernie came up out of the trunk, his breechcloth got caught somehow on the trunk, and unknown to him was back in the trunk. When he got to the “bit” with his glasses, he bent to clean them, realized the breechcloth was not there, and stood straight up with eyes wide open, in shock. My mom, who had attended EVERY performance, was the only one who laughed. I’ll never forget her laugh. And lastly, I took Sara to meet my mom right after we were married. By then mom had Alzheimer’s and would spend time with my sister living in Torrance. We got there, and as we visited, my mom started telling Sara about her son, who was a pastor in Laguna Hills, and that she might want to go to church there. She was talking about me.I was sitting right next to her at the time.My mom still remembered me even though she didn’t recognize me. It was quite a moment. It was also the last time I saw my mom. Sunday was Mother’s Day. I’ll be thinking of my mom, and all she has been for me, her love, her laugh, her chili. Happy Mother’s Day mom!
Easter Sunday is one of the most joyous days of the year for Christians all over the world. We celebrate the triumph of life over death, love over hate, inclusion over exclusion. But, this year, in the midst of our celebrating, we also felt the shock, pain, and anger, over the bombings of churches in Sri Lanka. Very much like the feelings we felt when Muslims were killed while in prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand not so long ago.The reality of the world we live in is that no one gets away clean when it comes to our actions that divide, and judge, and turn to violence. We are all guilty. I know we don’t want to admit that. We’d rather be the victim all the time, blame the other for all that is wrong in the world, hide behind our self-righteousness. Again, no one get away clean here.Sometimes I think the worst response we make in response to this reality is to say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” Which is to say, things can’t change, God really has no power in the world, faith is just naive, or simply a way of checking out, giving up, smothering the pain with a false sense of security.And the violence continues.Some ask, perhaps many ask, “Why does God let these things happen? Why does God allow suffering in the world?” It’s a valid question.The scriptures are clear on two things regarding suffering. The first is found in Genesis, when we learn that humanity, represented by Adam and Eve (the Hebrew word Adam literally means humanity), is, in our desire to acquire the knowledge of good and evil we acquired the power to choose between the two. This powerful knowledge was the risky thing God allowed in order to have a relationship with us humans, a relationship based on choice. The risk was, obviously, we could choose evil. But a true relationship with God had to allow that freedom to choose otherwise it was not possible for us to have a true relationship with God.Evil, then, is the turning away from a relationship with God.The whole of the scriptures is the story of how God works to make things right in light of that risky allowance. From Noah, to Abraham and Sara, to the Prophets, God works to make things right. In the end, God makes the decision that the only realistic way of making things right with the world is to enter the world. Emmanuel. God with us. The Word becomes flesh. Jesus of Nazareth.That’s the second thing. Jesus confronts the powers of evil represented in the civil authority and the religious authority, both evil in the systematic oppression and violence they have come to believe are the real powers in the universe. And those powers do exactly what they always do. They violently destroy the one who challenges their authority, their world view.And so God suffers.Just like we do. Just like we have. The depth of love God has for us humans is that God was willing to suffer so that we would never be alone in our suffering. God is right there with us. Walking with us through the difficulties and the pain. God was with those Muslims murdered in New Zealand, was with those Christians who were murdered in Sri Lanka. Wherever there is suffering there we will find God, in the midst of it all, working to bring something lifegiving out of it all. That’s the true meaning of Easter. The cross of Good Friday has been neutered. Death has lost its grip on us all. No matter what else happens, in the end, love wins.
The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.
I remember reading about the life of Albert Schweitzer, a remarkable person of many talents. He was a well known organist, theologian, physician, author. His book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus was on many seminary professors must read list. The interesting thing about the book, which was Schweitzer’s doctoral thesis, is that, in the end, all Schweitzer could say about the historical Jesus is, “He comes to us as one unknown.”Albert Schweitzer had read every book ever written about Jesus, had read Scripture throughly, and concluded that the historical Jesus was difficult to pin down. One of the characteristics of religion, of any religion, is the practitioner’s sense of mystery. The element of mystery is what draws us into relationship with the divine. Another early 20th Century theologian, Rudolph Otto, in his book, The Idea of the Holy, wrote that any encounter with the divine is both terrifying and fascinating. We want to run away, but can’t because we are so drawn to it. The ineffability of God is what draws us to God. The mystery of God is what draws us to God.I mean, if we knew all there was to know about God how exciting would that be? Some of you might be saying, “But we do know all there is to know about God,” or at least our preacher does! If that is the case let me ask you a question. We just read or heard about the first photo of a phenomenon in space called a Black Hole. Einstein predicted they were present but we never had visual proof until now.We know a lot about the universe, but we don’t know all there is to know about the universe. So if that is the case, and God created the universe, how can we claim we know all there is to know about God, but can’t say the same about the thing God created?And what about the fact that God says over and over again, “See, I’m doing a new thing.” How can we know God completely if God is always doing something new, something we didn’t expect.Jesus is a great example of God doing a new thing. No one expected Jesus. Oh there were clues scattered throughout the Scriptures. But no one expected Jesus. That is why this week is so important for Christians all over the world, so important we call it Holy. In fact, early Christians thought it so important they took 40 days to prepare for it, took a week to enter into its mystery, celebrated it for three days, and reflected on it for fifty days beyond that. Almost one out of every three days each calendar year is spent on Easter, whether preparing, or celebrating, or reflecting on.But sadly, in our hyper busy, overly networked lives we Christians might barely spend one day, Easter Sunday, celebrating the most significant event in human history. And that event? God has entered into human history, revealed to us that death is not the ultimate power in the universe, showed us how to be truly human, gave us the opportunity to participate in the work of creating communities of agape love (agape love—a love for, and active work on behalf of the least and lowest).The mystery of this all comes to us in the actions of washing each other’s feet, sharing a meal of bread and wine, standing in the presence of the power of death, a death we enter into ourselves in order to experience the fullness of life as God intended for us.Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!
“Do not fear to hope tho’ the wicked rage and rise,
our God sees not as we see, success is not the prize.
Do not fear to hope for tho’ the night be long,
the race shall not be to the swift, the fight not to the strong.”
I remember hearing this song’s refrain way back in 1985. It’s a really good hymn/song. But, like a lot of things, over time, the words slipped from my memory. Until today. What triggered my memory was an article I was reading in the paper that said, in part, “while hope can be inspiring, rage (caused by fear) is intoxicating.”Hope can be inspiring, but rage/fear is intoxicating.Think about that for a moment. What do you fear? What do people tell you you should fear? The news we read is often fearful, the news we watch is often fearful, the conversations we have are often fearful. Even some Christians preach fearful messages. Which strikes me as odd since God says, “Do not be afraid” or words to that effect quite often in the Bible. In fact there are some who suggest the Bible says “Do not fear” or “Do not be afraid” 366 times, one for each day of the year, and an extra time for leap year. My own search of the Bible came up with only about 145 times the phrase is found in scripture.But here’s the deal. I don’t think it really matters how many times God tells us to not be afraid. Once would be enough for me. But God says it often. Often enough that we Christians ought to take it seriously. Fear is a powerful emotion to be sure. I do believe it is intoxicating. One of the reasons it is powerful is its aggressiveness. And, conversely, God is not aggressive. Some of you will probably disagree with this, but if God is as aggressive as fear, why is fear so dominant in our cultural discourse? What I have come to know, and believe, in my own faith journey is that God prefers to whisper while fear has to shout. The irony is fear has to shout because it knows it is the weaker power. The scriptures tell us that God is love. Not, God is like love, or, is close to love. God is love. That being the case, Love (God) is the greatest power. And love has no need to shout. Another hymn/song, written by Gregory Norbet, is based on words from the Prophet Hosea. “Come back to me with all your heart. Don’t let fear keep us apart.” It is a beautiful, gentle song. Like a whisper. “Long have I waited for your coming home to me, and living deeply our new life” This is God speaking to us through the prophet.We are now in the midst of the Season of Lent, a time of deep reflection on the mystery of God’s love expressed through the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Christians it is the holiest time of year. It can be a homecoming of sorts.We live in a world that shouts at us all the time that we must live in fear. God speaks to us again and again, softly, gently, like a whisper: Come back to me with all your heart. Don’t let fear keep us apart. Live not in fear, but choose to live in hopefulness. It is a choice you can make every day.Do not fear to hope.
Question. Who said, “Love your enemies.”? If you said, “Jesus,” you are correct, but, who said it first? If you said, “Mo Tzu, the Chinese contemporary of Confucius,” you would also be correct. Who knows? There might be several others who have said love your enemies. The prophet Jeremiah comes close when he tells the people to pray for the welfare of the city, when the city in question is actually the city of the Israelite’s enemy. Does the possibility that there might be multiple answers to the question challenge what you thought to be the one true answer?Does it raise doubts about what you know, or think you know?Is doubting such a bad thing? Put another way, is it acceptable for a person of faith to have doubts about his or her faith?I would submit that doubting is an important aspect of one’s faith. That’s because faith demands that we trust in things we cannot explain or prove, or even understand at times. Reverend Eugene Peterson paraphrased Hebrews 11:1-2 this way, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”Faith, this firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living, is what sustains people despite all the evidence to the contrary. Faith allows room for doubt.Yet many who claim to have faith seem to have based that faith on the assumption that facts and proofs are available. In other words, some base their faith in certitude. They are certain about what they believe. They make no room for doubt. And too often this leads to judgmentalism and hypocrisy.Something I have said, and written before, is that I have “bet my life” on the teachings of Jesus. For me that is a statement of faith. My faith tells me that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Emmanuel. God with us. My faith tells me that Jesus was crucified, and died and that three days later he rose from the dead, a sign that humankind’s bondage to the sin of idolatry and death had come to an end. My faith tells me that God continues the work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, building God’s kingdom here on earth, because one day God will make God’s dwelling here on earth, a renewed and transformed earth, and we humans will reclaim our original work of caring for creation.I cannot prove that any of this is true. To be sure, there is evidence that this is true. But what is often evident is not always based in fact or proof. (Maybe that is why Jesus told us we must approach God like little children).On my desk, and it has been on the desks I have sat at for the past twenty years of ministry, is a poem by Robert Frost. It is a constant reminder of the wonder and mystery of God. A God we can only know through faith.
I often see flowers from a passing car
that are gone before I can tell what they are.
I want to get out of the train and go back
to see what they were beside the track.
I name all the flowers I am sure they weren’t;
not fireweed loving where woods have burnt—
not bluebells gracing a tunnel mouth—
not lupine living on sand and drouth.
Was something brushed across my mind
that no one on earth will ever find?
Heaven gives its glimpses only to those
not in position to look too close.
“The trick, it seems, is to be able to hold both things very close—the gratitude and the misery—and then, with a semblance of faith, to let them fly.”
The tendency in our culture is to think everything as binary. Good or bad. Black or White. Up or down. Winners or losers. Which is why the concept of greatness is, de facto, the thing we are told we should strive for. From Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” to Ronald Regan’s “Make America Great Again,” the ideal is greatness. In fact, the notion of greatness as a worthy goal is not debated. What constitutes greatness may be debated, but not the worthiness of greatness itself.But what about that which is ordinary, that which is everyday? Christianity has lived with a liturgical calendar for centuries. It outlines the days and seasons of the church year (which begins, by the way, with the First Sunday in Advent each year, and ends with the Celebration of the Reign of Christ the Sunday before Advent) with different colors and biblical themes. There is the Season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany which lasts about 40 days, give or take. The Season of Lent/Easter/Pentecost lasts about 97 days, give or take. The rest of the church year is called Ordinary Time.And since we Christians spend most of our time in ordinariness, the question might be, “What does it mean to live ordinarily?” It almost seems to fly in the face of our quest for greatness. But, what if living an ordinary life is actually healthier than striving for greatness?Said another way, “Why not strive for the good enough life?” In my Wesleyan Christian tradition I was taught to live by three simple rules. First, Do No Harm. Second, to Do Good. Third, to Stay in Love with God. Each day I try to live by those rules. Through good times and bad, when I’m full of life and when I’m dog tired. At the end of the day it might not be considered great by some, but it is good enough. Sometimes my best is better than other times.You see, ordinary is not really a measure of adequacy or ability, but, rather the effort to take on the difficulties of daily living, extending oneself for the benefit of others. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said the greatest commandment is to love God, Self and Others. As a parent I want to be the kind of father that exemplifies and teaches my children to be resilient, compassionate and loving despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they are able to make their way, and leave the world a better place than they found it.Writer Avram Alpert adds this, “Being good enough is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to smile purely while waiting, exhausted, in a grocery line. Or to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.” (The Good Enough Life. NY Times. February 20, 2019)Eastern faith traditions are centered in this middle way or good-enough lifestyle. It’s goal is to achieve a balance in life. But I also believe Jesus offers the same kind of balance, a way of living in harmonic relationship with the divine, with self and with others. Wouldn’t it be great if we focused each day on living a good-enough life?
Valentine’s Day. February 14th. Many of us celebrated by doing romantic dinners with significant others, buying roses, or champagne, or chocolate. Rich food, especially desserts.All in the name of love.Saint Valentine has come to represent the essence of love and all that love means to us. On the other hand, I’ve been at Vons while men line up with flowers or chocolate or balloons (that say “I love you!”) or maybe all three. On their way home from work. I know I’ve spent last minute time putting together something I hope would be meaningful for Sara, something that let her know I loved her. This year we planned ahead and decided we would have a nice dinner, a nice bottle of wine, and we would get each other a card. That’s it.But, for us, that is enough for now. So the question I have is about love, what it means for you, and how love makes sense in your life. Because if you know anything about Saint Valentine you know that love for him meant his martyrdom. Which is why he is a Saint. Saint Valentine lived in the 3rd Century near Rome according to some accounts. He was arrested for marrying Christians (which was forbidden) primarily so they would not be forced to serve in the Roman Army. He was arrested, and when he would not stop his work (and also because he apparently tried to convert the Caesar to Christianity) he was beheaded. He was canonized late in the 5th Century. February 14 was the day he was martyred, which is why that is the date we celebrate his Sainthood. What kind of love motivates someone to give their lives for another? What does that have to do with romance? As the song says, “What’s love got to do with it?”In the Greco-Roman world Saint Valentine lived in there were three words for love. In English there is only one. While context is very important in English (I can say I love ice cream, and I love my wife, and mean two different things, and most will get that.) the Greek language is more specific. The three words for love in Ancient Greek are Eros, Philios, and Agape.Eros is, generally, thought of as romantic love. You know, the flowers, chocolate kind of love. What we mostly celebrate on Saint Valentine’s Day. And there is nothing wrong with romance. In fact, Sara and I have a mini celebration of our anniversary every 15th of the month, which is the date we got married. It’s always a special evening in some way. We also have “date night” on Fridays as often as we can. Busy lives often distance people from the intimacy they need, so it’s good to build in specific times to step back and simply spend time together without distractions.But Eros love is not for anyone but my wife. Philios might be best understood as a love for one’s brothers and sisters, including those we are not directly related to. The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, is a compound Greek word meaning just that. That kind of love is not romantic, but is a genuine concern for the welfare of those we are connected to.And then there is Agape. Often called God’s love. Jesus used agape in his command to love one another. (John 15:12) It’s a love that is willing to lay down one’s life for another. For Christians it is the active advocacy that we have for the well-being of creation and all that live in it. It’s a love transcends all other loves, allows other loves to exist. It’s how God loves us.Whether we like it or not.
I believe in God!” I was the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo at the time, and heard about a restaurant that made great clam chowder over in Pismo Beach. So I went there one evening to check it out. While waiting for my table I took a seat at the lounge counter and ordered a glass of wine. The man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. You know, the usual chit chat, nothing earth shaking. And then he asked the question I was waiting for. “So, what do you do for a living?”“I’m the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo.”There was a pause of about ten seconds while the man stared at me. “I believe in God!” he said.It seemed to me he said it in a way that had given me some kind of super power. Like I could call down thunder and lightning if the man didn’t believe in God. On another occasion I was playing golf at a local course in SLO, and was paired with a guy I had never met. We didn’t say much to each other during the round, but he swore after every shot, slammed clubs into the ground, and generally seemed really angry about the whole thing. This went on for several holes, until at the 12th tee box he asked, “So what do you do for a living?”“I’m the pastor of the Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo.”The man never said another word.I’ve shared these experiences several time with friends, but I’ve never had the opportunity to follow up with the question that has been in my mind all along. What does it mean to say you believe in God?We live in a country that, according to most pollsters, 80% of respondents claim belief in God. But what do these people mean by “god?” Because even a casual observation of the actions and desires of many (at least according to polls) indicate their belief in God is not the God I am familiar with. You know, the one in the Bible.Mind you, there are at least three ways to interpret and understand the God of the Bible. The first, and obvious version is the Jewish one. After all the Old Testament is a testament to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (And by extension the God of Ishmael and Mohammad.) This is a God who seeks first and foremost economic justice for the people. God calls for the care for the poor and disenfranchised over 2000 times. God’s prophets rail against the rich and powerful when they do not regard the less fortunate as brothers and sisters. God even warns the people that they had better take care of aliens (we call them migrants), lest they forget they were once aliens themselves.The God of the New Testament is the same God, yet raises the bar by revealing his very self. Emmanuel. God with us. Or as the Gospel of John says, The Word of God become flesh. Jesus is the model of how followers of God should live if they really believe in God. One place that sums this up is in Matthew 25, where Jesus says, “Whatever you do to these the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”The Apostle Paul provides insight into living the God-life in First Corinthians when he says the greatest of all things is Love. And how does he describe love? Patient. Kind. Never envious or boastful. Never arrogant or rude. Never insists on its own way. Bears, and hopes, and endures all things. This is the God I believe in. And you. Do you believe in God?
“The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.”Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.This weekend we remember one of the Saints of the church, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Above, and within my commentary, are some of his many quotes. He talked a lot about justice. Justice is talked about a lot in the Bible as well. In fact, the words righteousness and justice mean virtually the same thing.So anytime you hear the word righteousness, you might remember that righteousness is justice. And vice versa. But, is righteousness/justice a fixed condition? Or does it have the capacity to evolve? “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”I raise the question because there seems to be a lot of confusion about what righteousness/justice means in our culture, indeed throughout the world. Build the Wall. Lock her up. Impeach. Me too. Times up.I would argue that even the Bible reveals an evolution in the concept of what constitutes righteousness/justice. Or perhaps a better way of saying this is the Judeo/Christian Scriptures are aware that humans have the power to bend their interpretations of them in order to support their particular applications of righteousness/justice. “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”Similarly we might ask whether the Declaration of Independence claim that “All men are created equal” means only men, or are women included?With apologies to Seth Godin (one of my favorite bloggers), there was a time when righteous men, settled their differences with swordplay, or with pistols. There was a time when women bound their feet, and shamed those who didn’t. There was a time when righteous men owned slaves. Over time those so-called righteous behaviors have become unrighteous, these so-called just behaviors are now considered unjust. But here’s the rub. We live in a culture that, even as most people have come to recognize the human capacity to act with compassion, to embrace diversity and inclusion over singularity and exclusion, to believe we humans are capable of much more than we often realize, there are those who insist that the former ways are the correct ways despite the harm caused by those ways.“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”And so, on this weekend of remembrance and celebration, there are some who will show contempt and disdain. While many want to share their gift of abundance, a gift and not an entitlement, there are those who want to build higher walls to keep others out. When many welcome others, not because they look or act like them, but because there is the belief that all means all, there will be those who firmly believe they are superior, that their way is better, that they are chosen.This is the world we live in. But hasn’t it always been like this?“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”One of my favorite jazz albums is called Land of Make Believe, by Chuck Mangione. The title track has a verse that goes like this:“In your world there was a KingWho once said, “I have a dream,”Now there’s a manWho knew the secret.”That man died, was assassinated, fifty years ago. For what he said he knew. This weekend we remember him. But what he knew is not a secret. Is it?
Happy New Year! 2019. It truly is a time to take stock, look forward, and set goals. Some may question the importance of marking a new year, but, Biblically speaking, we are told that God has given us time in order that we might mark the days, months, seasons and years. (And then there is the comedian who proffered that God gave us time so everything wouldn’t happen at once.) In any event, I’m guessing at least some of you have made resolutions for 2019, set goals of some sort, and thought of 2019 as a new beginning. A kind of reset button for our lives.I think that’s a good thing.But what kind of goals should we set? What kinds of resolutions? Tara Parker-Pope, in an article in the New York Times, offered an answer to these questions. She is the founding editor of Well, The Times’s award-winning consumer health site. She won an Emmy in 2013 for the video series “Life, Interrupted” and is the author of “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage.” @taraparkerpope In her 20 years of writing about health she has come to realize wellness can be summed up in four words. That’s it. Four words.Move. Nourish. Refresh. Connect.I don’t think I need to add much to these four words in order to make sense out of them. I mean, movement (some might say exercise) is acknowledged by health experts as very important for us. And it doesn’t have to be a lot. I walk two miles every day (well, most days anyway). I play golf about once a week, and when I can I walk.Nourishment is not to be equated with anything we can get from a drive thru window. I’ve actually discovered it is less expensive and tastier if I buy fresh food and prepare it at home. I’ve also come to realize that many people don’t know how to cook! So I’m going to be offering a basic cooking class on Saturdays, beginning February 2nd. Refreshment really has to do with self care. Quiet time. Or time doing something you really love to do, like a hobby or activity. When was the last time you read a good book? Or saw a movie? The Bible gives us the proper ratio of work to rest. 6 to 1. Six days we work, one day we rest. But it is intended to be a Sabbath rest. A time for disconnection from all things work related, and time to simply be.And connection does not include Facebook or Twitter. No, connection is more personal. Conversation with someone over a cup of coffee. Eating dinner together with family without distractions like TV, or Smart Phones. Hanging out with friends and loved ones. I just celebrated my 71st birthday and the best part of it was simply spending time with my wife and some friends. Good food, great conversation and lots of laughter. Connection.So that’s it. Actually I would add a couple of other things. They are easy to do. But, they are also easy not to do.Be grateful. Be hopeful. Be compassionate. Be forgiving.If the only prayer you ever say is “Thank you God,” that is enough. If you can move beyond a false kind of optimism that is never satisfying, and live with the hope that, in the end, all will be well, that is life changing. If you can live compassionately, which is to say you grow in the ability to empathize with others and their plight, that is humanizing. And if you can forgive. Yourself. Those who have hurt you. You will know the way of God.It’s called the power of love.
We hear the Christmas stories every year, but have we ever thought how those first Christians might have “heard” them? The Prophetic Promise that God would send a savior had been recounted for 700 years, and still no fulfillment. In fact, the Romans now occupied Judea as well as most of the Ancient Near East (what we call the Middle East today). The Roman Empire had come to be as a result of the military campaign led by Octavian against Mark Antony and Cleopatra. On September 2, 31 B.C., Octavian decisively defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle off the coast of Greece near a city called Actium. The victory led to the reuniting of the Roman Republic, but led to the shift from democracy to dictatorship. Why? Because Octavian was thought to be the savior of the world. His name was changed to Augustus (meaning “one to be worshipped”) and carried the titles of Savior, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords.Into that historical setting Jesus was born, told through the Gospel of Luke. Can you see how subversive Luke’s Nativity Story was in light of the realities of living in the Roman Empire? It was literally a clash of kingdoms, God’s Kingdom against the Roman Empire.Have you ever thought that the Christmas Story might be subversive?And if it is subversive, what does the story subvert? Does a subversive Christmas Story speak to our world today?The other Christmas Story, the one told by Matthew, has the same theme, but a different setting, and by reason, a different audience. The main players in the Matthean drama are Joseph, who receives messages from God through dreams, Herod, King of Judea, and the Magi, Gentile visitors from the East. The Gospel of Matthew offers Jesus as a new Moses, and if you know the story of Moses you will see the parallels.The heart of the comparison is Moses act of liberating the Hebrew people from slavery under the oppression of Pharaoh, and Jesus freeing us all from the slavery to sin, in particular the sin of idolatry. In the one it is a physical liberation, and in the other it is a spiritual liberation.In both it is a clash of Kingdoms, of reigns, once again.The Magi, Gentiles, recognize the reign of God as supreme to any earthly king and come to pay homage. Herod responds in violence. Because his kingdom was being threatened by another, a Kingdom rooted in compassion, love, forgiveness. That’s the part we don’t often focus on as part of the Christmas Story, but it’s there. It is referred to as the Slaughter of the Innocents, and is found in Matthew 2:16-18. Warned in a dream, Joseph flees with Mary and their child Jesus to Egypt. They become refugees, migrants seeking safety from the violence happening in their homeland. Eventually Herod dies, and in another dream Joseph is told he can safely return to Judea. But they cannot go home. Not to Bethlehem, which was their home. No, they are led to the region of Galilee, and settle in a town called Nazareth. What would it be like to have to leave your home, and travel to a foreign land in order to find shelter, and safety? Where would you go in order to escape the earthly reigns of kingdoms and governments that thrive on violence, lies, oppression, injustice? Where could you go to experience the power of love and compassion that is at the heart of the Christmas Stories contained in Luke and Matthew? Where would you go?And know that there is where God has made a home for you.