Why This Site —

I read Scripture – and particularly the lectionary texts – to discover how God is calling me to be faithful. What I record on this website are my discoveries on this journey and I share with whomever wishes to read them. I offer them as my faithful witness to the grace of God revealed to me in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

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The Revised Common Lectionary

This site is based on the following version of the Revised Common Lectionary

Out of the Water

Texts: Genesis 1:1-5
Mark 1:4-11
Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC
January 14, 2018

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to thee, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.”

On a Saturday evening in June in 1997, I walked across the stage in the Chapel at the University of Redlands in front of a thousand people. And I knelt down and Bishop Roy Sano placed his hands upon my head and he said, “Lord, pour upon Richard the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a deacon in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

And when I arose, he presented me with this stole as a symbol of the ministry for which I was ordained. It was a high moment – a special moment – a moment I treasure.

But in another sense, it did not change too much because, at the time of my ordination, I had been in professional ministry for nearly twenty years.

On a Friday night in June in 1981, I stood on the stage of the Field House of the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. And I knelt before Bishop Marjorie Matthews – who had been elected as the first woman bishop in the UMC the year before – and she placed her hands upon my head and said, “Eternal God, pour upon Richard your Holy Spirit for the office and work of a diaconal minister, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

And when I arose, I was able to wear this stole – a stole which Ellen made – as a symbol of the ministry for which I had been consecrated. Ellen had embroidered the symbol of the diaconal ministry – the towel and basin – a symbol of service.

It was a high moment for me. I was the first person ever to receive the laying on of hands from a woman bishop in Methodist history  – a special moment – a moment I treasure.

But in another sense, it did not change too much because, at the time of my consecration, I had been in professional ministry for nearly five years.

These two services really symbolized my transition from one form of ministry to another – they did not mark my entry into ministry.

For that moment, we must go back to a Sunday morning in March in 1951. On that morning, my parents handed me to Dr. Clyde Boyer in the sanctuary at First Methodist Church in North Hollywood.

Dr. Boyer dipped his hand into water and placed it on my head and said, “Richard Carl, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”

After the service, Dr. Boyer handed my parents a Certificate of Baptism. But I was given no stole – no symbol that I can show you and wear to announce my authority and ministry.

But that ceremony and those words – more than the ceremonies and words of Bishops decades later – are what marked my entry into the ministry of God.

In the section entitled, “The Ministry of All Christians,” the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church includes these words, “All Christians are called through their baptism to this ministry of servanthood in the world to the glory of God and for human fulfillment.”

As I have stated many times, I lead worship from the baptismal font because I believe that all of our ministries – yours and mine – flow from the waters of baptism where the love of God – the grace of God – the acceptance of God – is expressed and made real.

All this happens through the waters of baptism. But why water? The easy answer is that, without water, life is not possible. I have to admit that when I hear that expression – life is not possible without water – I tend to think about the water I drink. And it is true that having water to drink is vital to life. A person can live for weeks without food but a person can only live for days without water.

However, I use a lot more water for washing than for drinking. I use water to wash my body and to wash my clothes and to wash the dishes I eat from. The water I use for drinking is a few cupsful but the water I use for washing is many gallons each week.

So maybe it is not too surprising that we tend to think of baptism as mainly about washing – cleansing me of my sins. But the New Testament speaks much more often about baptism in terms of death and resurrection – in terms of new life.

It is interesting to me that – with all of the perceived conflict between science and religion – both science and the Bible agree on one vital point. Life as we know it began in the sea – in the water.

We live at the edge of the largest body of water in the world – the Pacific Ocean. The Peaceful Ocean.

It is called that because, when Fernando Magellan first saw it, he rejoiced at how peaceful it appeared. And it was peaceful compared to the turbulence and chaos that he and his crew had just experienced as they had rounded the tip of South America.

He and they knew first-hand just how chaotic water can be. He and they knew just how close they had come to death, so viewing the Peaceful Ocean was very much a resurrection experience for them.

New life through the chaos and barrier of water is a recurring theme throughout Scripture.

We read this morning how God brought forth life by taming the chaos of the waters of creation. Noah and those with him were brought to new life through the chaotic waters of the Flood.

The people of Israel were trapped between the certain death of the army of Pharaoh behind them and the certain death of the waters of the sea before them until God brought them to freedom and new life through the sea. And the people of Israel were brought into the Promised Land through the waters of the River Jordan – the same River Jordan in which Jesus was baptized.

When we are engulfed in the chaos of deep waters, our lives are in peril. But when we are brought up out of these same waters, our life is renewed.

I was never in any real danger from the waters of my baptism. The use of that water was completely symbolic. But when I came up out of those waters, I was a new creature – even if I didn’t know it at the time.

But that new life does not come from being cleansed – it comes from dying to my old self and rising again as Jesus did.

As Paul told the Church at Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

According to Mark, the preaching of John the Baptist centered on the one who would come after him – the one greater than he. This one to come – the one we know to be Jesus – will not just baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit.

When Matthew and Luke tell this same story, and repeats these same words, they adds the words “and with fire,” – he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

People today use that phrase lightly. If a person is thrust into a situation with little or no preparation, we say that it was a baptism by fire. The phrase comes to us through the military – a soldier’s first time in battle is called a baptism by fire.

This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. This year the celebration fall on his actual birthday – January 15th.

If he were still alive, he would have been 89 years old tomorrow. He was just 39 years old on his birthday in 1968 – fifty years ago tomorrow and the last birthday of his life.

And he was just 27 years old on his birthday in 1956 – just a month after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the white section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama – the event which sparked the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott that thrust Dr. King into the national limelight.

You could easily say that the Bus Boycott was King’s baptism by fire. What could have possibly have prepared this young man – less than a year from the completion of his Ph. D. – for the role he was to play during that trying and difficult year in Montgomery.

But then you could easily say that the entire decade that followed – from the Bus Boycott through the Sanitation Workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in April of 1968, where a sniper took Dr. King’s life – that entire decade was a baptism by fire. A baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit.

Mark begins his Gospel with that fateful meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist. Within a relatively few pages – the entire Gospel is only 16 chapters long – both John and Jesus have died violent deaths at the hand of the state because of their faithfulness to God – because of their faithfulness to their baptisms.

Dr. King died a violent death as a result of his being faithful to God – as a result of his being faithful to his baptism.

I see no likelihood that I will die as a result of being faithful to my baptism. I see no likelihood that any of us in this room will die as a result of our being faithful to our baptism.

But we must never lose sight of the fact that our baptism is not just a cleansing from sin – our baptism is not just a ritual bath. Our baptism is a dying to who we were and a rising into the new life of who we can become.

The fact that we may not be called to physically die for our faithfulness, does not absolve us of the duty – the calling – to live a new and faithful life – for as long as that life endures.

You have heard me speak before of Fred Pratt Green – a British Methodist minister whose life spanned the last century – he was born in 1903 and died in 2000.

It was later in his life that he became a hymn writer. He was nearly 65 when he wrote his first hymn but by the end of that life he had written more than 300 hymns. Eighteen of his hymns are in our Hymnal. Another three in The Faith We Sing. Numbers second only to Charles Wesley in our hymnals.

He wrote the hymn with which we will close today, “When Jesus Came to Jordan.” I hope that when we sing it you will pay attention to the words – particularly the words of the final verse.

“Come, Holy Spirit, aid us to keep the vows we make.

This very day invade us, and every bondage break,

Come, give our lives direction, the gift we covet most:

To share the resurrection that leads to Pentecost.”

Let our baptism not just be a baptism of water but also a baptism of fire. May the memory of our own baptism not just be a memory of a long ago and long forgotten event of our ancient past.

No, let the memory of our baptism inspire us in the true meaning of filling us with the Spirit of God. Let the memory of our baptism inflame us to burn as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Let the memory of our baptism ignite us – let ours truly be a baptism of fire that we may go forth from this place as the resurrected people of God aflame with the Spirit and filled with the new life of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

No Blackout Curtains

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6
Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC
January 7, 2018

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.”

When I first read the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there were references to a device whose name seemed to me to be the very definition of the word oxymoron.

I am sure you are aware that the term oxymoron means a word or phrase that is an apparent contradiction. Like “jumbo shrimp” or “civil engineer.”

The devise in the Holmes stories was called a “dark lantern.” Now the purpose of a lantern is to give light, so why, on earth, would someone want a dark lantern. What I finally discovered was that a dark lantern was a precursor to a flashlight. It was a lantern with a candle or kerosene lamp inside and a slide that could cover the light so it could be hidden until it was needed.

In a way, a dark lantern is a handheld version of the blackout curtains of World War II. Growing up in the 1950s in the San Fernando Valley, I associated blackouts and blackout curtains with London and the German air-raids early in World War II. It was only much later that I discovered that there were blackouts ordered in my own city of Los Angeles.

In the early months after Pearl Harbor, there was understandable fear on the West Coast that the Japanese would attack the mainland as well. That huge Pacific Ocean, which had so recently seemed like a moat protecting the United States, suddenly did not seem so secure.

And so in February of 1942 – just a couple of months into the U.S. involvement in the war – the air-raid sirens went off and blackouts and radio silence were ordered when it was believed that Los Angeles was under attack.

The reports of the attack turned out to be false but the fear was real as hundreds of thousands of people either sat in the dark or kept their blackout curtains tightly drawn for fear that the light from their windows would make them a target for Japanese bombs.

But on this Epiphany Sunday, the words of Isaiah remind us that we who are followers of Jesus have no need of dark lanterns and blackout curtains. In the words of Jesus, we are to be the City on the hill which cannot be hid. We are to be the light which is not placed under a basket (or inside a dark lantern or behind blackout curtains) but on a stand for all to see.

The people to whom Isaiah was speaking were cowering in fear either in exile in Babylon or amid destruction in the ashes and ruins in the city of Jerusalem. To these fearful people who were literally and figuratively living in darkness, Isaiah says, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Cast off your fear! Stop cowering in darkness! For your God wants you to live in the light and the whole world will be drawn to the light that is revealed in you.

Inspiring words that we have heard often but what do they mean? How do we throw open those blackout curtains?

When the people of Los Angeles – perhaps my own family included – were hiding their lights behind blackout curtains on that February 24th in 1942, it was not their friends and neighbors that they did not want to see the light. It was their enemy – the Japanese – from whom they were hiding their light.

We are always taught to fear our enemy – to hate our enemy – to hide from our enemy.

But Jesus tells us to love our enemy. And, as hard as that is, it also means we have to forgive our enemy.

I don’t imagine that the people of Los Angeles were in a very forgiving mood towards the Japanese in early 1942. I am not sure how forgiving we were even four years later, in 1946 after Japan had surrendered after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. Less fearful perhaps but still not very forgiving.

Forgiveness comes hard – even for Christians. But we cannot begin to say we love our enemies until we have forgiven them.

Forgive. All of us want to do it but most of us find it hard. And so we are touched when we see it in others. Like the forgiveness I learned about some time ago through an episode of Story Corps.

Story Corps is an opportunity for ordinary people to record their experiences and reflections on life. Interview booths are set up at various locations around the country and everyday people are invited to come in in pairs or in threes to talk about their lives together. Children interview parents. Friends interview friends. Just about anyone who knows anyone else is welcome to stop by and chat. The resulting recording are achieved in the Library of Congress.

One of the interviews is broadcast each week on National Public Radio. The interview I have in mind really moved me. Here is the introduction: [It is time for StoryCorps, where people tell their own stories through conversations with loved ones. Six months ago, Raphael Hameed was walking with his five-year-old son Ish when they were hit by a speeding car. Raphael was seriously injured. Ish, his only child, was killed. The driver is awaiting trial for vehicular homicide. But the driver's sister, Megiddeh Goldston, has formed a bond with the Hameed family. They connected after the accident, and now she visits Raphael and his wife Heidi to help with their day-to-day life. They recently sat down for StoryCorps in Colorado Springs.]

Megiddeh Goldston, [a picture was displayed on the screen] is the sister of the driver of that car. She is pictured here with Heidi Hameed and her husband Raphael who is holding a picture of their son Ish, who was killed in the accident.

Megiddeh’s sister was in jail awaiting trial as a result of the accident when this interview took place, but Megiddeh had contacted the family within days of the accident to ask for forgiveness on behalf of her sister.

But she did more than simply ask for forgiveness – she entered into the lives of the Hameeds. She took Raphael to the hospital for treatments. She visited and helped care for the family. And the family responded. They forgave her and her sister yes, but they also entered into her life as well.

Megiddeh is a single mother with a son about the same age as the son who was killed in the accident. The Hameeds started giving the clothes and toys of their son to the nephew of the woman who took his life. [GOLDSTON: I'm a single parent. And the first time that you contacted me, you told, oh, maybe we can give you some of Ish' old clothes. I'm just like oh my goodness. You guys are thinking of my son when you just lost your own. And I was afraid that it'd be painful for you guys to see Zach.
R. HAMEED: It was, because he's just like Ish.
H. HAMEED: They would have been fast friends quick.
R. HAMEED: Quick - but it was a good pain. It was like a tonic - kind of soothed my wounded spirit, so to speak.]

Forgiveness reveals the light of God to others and our tendency is to think of forgiveness as something we do for the other person. But in a very real sense forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. In this interview, Raphael Hameed concludes with these words, ["You're a beautiful woman with a beautiful child," Raphael says. "It's like if you've ever stitched anything together. There was a tear in the fabric, and we've been stitching it. And now my slacks are on. They look good."]

“Now my slacks are on. They look good.” Forgiveness heals the tear in the fabric of life and reveals the light of God in the world.

When we learn to forgive, we learn to love.

When we think of love in a biblical context, we often think of the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.”

We have heard that chapter many times and in many contexts. We see it on posters and on greeting cards. We hear it read at weddings. I even read it as a part of my eulogy for my father at his memorial service. We may even know portions of it by heart.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, is faithful in all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

And Paul concludes with these words, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Sometimes we are in such a hurry to get to those last words – the greatest of these is love – we gloss over these other words, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” In each and every moment, we are already fully known by God. And in being fully known by God, we are fully accepted by God. And in being fully accepted by God we are fully forgiven by God and in being fully forgiven by God we are fully loved by God.

This truly is the Love of God. This truly is the Grace of God. This truly is the Light of God which we are called to let shine through us into a darkened and hurting world.

But if we forgive and love – if we throw back the blackout curtains – if we allow the light of God to rise and shine in and through us – then nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

As we gather at the table this morning – at God’s table – we are gathered not only in this place with these people. We are gathered into the people of God throughout the world and throughout the ages.

Following Communion this morning, we will sing the hymn “Gather Us In.”

We will sing, “Here in this place new light is streaming. Now is the darkness vanished away. See in this space our fears and our dreamings, brought here to you in the light of this day.

“Gather us in the lost and forsaken. Gather us in the blind and the lame. Call to us now, and we will awaken. We shall arise at the sound of our name.”

God is calling us by name. God is calling us to be the forgiving and light loving people of God in the world. We are gathered here to be scattered into the world.

As the final verse of the hymn tells us, “Not in the dark of buildings confining. Not in some heaven light-years away. But here in this place the new light is shining. Now is the Kingdom. Now is the day.

“Gather us in and hold us forever. Gather us in and make us your own. Gather us in – all people together, fire of love in our flesh and our bone.”

God’s table is prepared. Let us gather together and bask in the Light of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Now Is The Time

Texts: Galatians 4: 4-7
Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC
December 31, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

I was a nerdy kid in high school. I took every math class they offered. I took Chemistry. I took Physics. I even owned (and used) a slide rule.

So it is not too surprising that I hung out with other nerdy kids at lunch. The only thing that was surprising (to some) was that we hung out in the classroom of an English teacher.

I’m not sure even how we started hanging out there but I think it had something to do with the fact that she was the faculty sponsor for the knowledge bowl team.

Some of you might remember the TV game show from the Sixties call “The G. E. College Bowl.” Two four-member teams, each representing a college or university would compete for scholarship donations to their school by correctly answering questions over a wide range of topics.

Knowledge Bowl was the non-television high school version of the show. My friends and I would sit around at lunch and Miss Gould would read questions and we would all try and answer them. The math and science questions we did pretty well at. The literature questions? – not so hot (much to Miss Gould’s disappointment.)

I bring this up because of one particular question that I remember. The question was “How many grooves are there on the average 33 rpm phonograph record?” (This was long before MP3s – or even CDs. Cassette tapes were still a novelty.)

This was exactly the type of question we loved – one where the answer was not obvious and took some thought and logic. On questions like this we would often work cooperatively rather than competitively.

We all knew that a record was twelve inches in diameter but there were so many other variables. How big was the label at the center of the record? How long did the average record play (so how many times would it turn.)

We were shouting out our assumptions and guesses for these variables and working calculations feverishly on scratch paper, when a quiet girl who rarely participated in these question sessions said one word that silenced the room.

She simply said, “One.” And we all instantly knew that she was correct. There is only one groove on a record. It begins at the edge and spirals to the center and the phonograph needle follows it and plays the music.

None of the rest matters. Not the size of the record. Not the length of the music. None of it. There is always only one groove on a record.

I thought about this long-ago question as I was watching Ellen crochet the other day. Ellen is a very skilled crotchetier and knitter. She sometimes works in yarn but I think her best work is done with fine crochet thread.

For many years she would make intricate snowflake Christmas tree ornament for our tree and that she would give as gifts. Like real snowflakes, they were all different.

She also makes larger pieces that can be used as doilies and even be framed as art pieces for the wall. She does beautiful and intricate work.

Even after watching her work for the last fifty years, I am still amazed that she can create such beautiful things while she is sitting and talking or watching TV or even listening to a sermon.

But, you are probably asking yourselves, as beautiful as her work is, how did watching her crochet remind me of that knowledge bowl question from my high school days? Because this beautiful, intricate piece of art is all one thread.

From the very center out to the very edge there is just one thread – just as there is one groove on a record.

Ellen starts with a ball of thread and she twists and loops and pulls with her crochet hook and after hours and hours of work, this one piece of thread looks like this.

Sometimes Ellen will make a mistake in her crocheting and will not discover for a round or two. When this happens, she has no choice but to take out all the work back to the mistake and do it again.

To do this it takes her just a minute – seconds really – to undo hours of work. She just pulls on the thread and all the loops and swirls simply disappear. We all know what this is like because we have had the experience of pulling on what seems like a loose thread on a sweater and having a large section of the sweater unravel.

Knitting and crocheting have the advantage of being easily transported. Just put the thread or yarn and the needles or the crochet hook in a bag and you are ready to go anywhere – even to Church.

But in recent years, Ellen has taken an interest in another hobby involving the creation of cloth or fabric. She has taken up weaving.

Unlike crocheting, weaving is not a portable hobby. Weaving requires a large apparatus – a loom – to make the finished product. That is because the finished product in weaving is not a single thread looped endlessly around itself. A woven piece of fabric is made up of two types of thread or yarn that are interspersed or woven together to make the finished product.

And the two threads are not usually of the same kind. And they have different names. The warp and the weft.

The weft is the thread that we usually notice in the fabric. It is the thread with the color and the texture. It is the part you see when you look at the fabric. It is the part you feel when you touch it.

The warp is usually stronger and courser. It is usually neutral in color and does not draw your eye to it. But it gives the fabric its strength and durability. It gives the fabric its structure and form.

As I say, a knitter needs only his or her needles and the thread, but the weaver needs a loom.

The loom holds the warp. It gives the warp a tension. It allows the warp to be separated so that the weft can be easily woven into it.

Before making any fabric, the weaver must set up the loom – must draw out the warp – give it its tension and it length – must set the parameters of the finished piece. Then and only then can the weaver begin to add the weft. Begin to add the colors and the texture that will mark the final product.

The weft adds the color – the pattern – the design. But none of that is possible without the underlying strength and structure of the warp.

So why this long introduction to the world of textile arts on this last Sunday of the year – this Sunday when we are focused on the renewal of our Covenant with God?

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not crocheted. We are not a single piece of thread whose beauty and usefulness are determined by how we – and we alone – have been shaped and twisted.

That single thread may indeed be intricately and carefully shaped but in the end it is simply a single thread.

No, as the followers of Jesus Christ we are woven. The basis for our life – the basis for our strength – the basis for all that we are and all that we do is the underlying structure and strength that comes to us from the warp of our existence, the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

That strength and structure were laid out in the loom long before we came onto the scene. That warp did not depend on the color and the texture of the weft. It was ready for whatever weft might come along.

It is easy to look at the Church – at the People of God – and see only the weft. So see the beauty of the lives – the texture of their works.

And our personal tastes and preferences draw us to one manifestation of the Church over another. We prefer this style of worship over another. We prefer this doctrine over that one. Our eye is drawn by the color of the weft. Our hand is drawn to the texture.

It is easy for us to forget that the core of the fabric of the people of God – the strength and the structure of the Church – comes from the underlying warp of God – from the love and the grace of God that underlies all of the outward appearances of the fabric.

On this Covenant Sunday – on this day when we renew our covenant with God – we must remember that our strength and our purpose come from the love of God that is revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That we are drawn into the fabric of the people of God by the fact that we have been adopted by the love of our Abba – our Papa – our Father.

Our color and our texture are what the world sees. But we know that our strength and our very being come from the warp that underlies it all.

So we will once again pray the prayer that reminds us that we are in a perpetual covenant with God. That that covenant is something that God offers to us. It is not something we demand of God.

Let us shape ourselves into a fabric – into a tapestry – that will be pleasing to the eye and the touch of the world. Let the colors and the patterns that we form on the warp of God’s love be vibrant and bold and strong. But all that pattern and color are possible only because of the underlying strength of the warp.

In our closing hymn this morning, we are reminded that it is in our baptism that we are called into – that we are adopted into – the family of God. We are reminded that it is in sharing the stories and in gathering at God’s table that our life as the family of God is nurtured and nourished.

But it is at the door – as we leave this place and go into the world – that the true color and texture of our fabric is revealed.

Let us resolve to give honor and glory to God – the very warp of our existence – by honoring our covenant with God. Let us renew that covenant today. Let us live that covenant into the year ahead.

Amen.

Anticipating Emmanuel – “God in All”

Texts: Luke 2:8-14

Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC

December 24, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

My sister Gloria is left handed. I didn’t pay much attention to it growing up. The only time it became an issue was when we went out to dinner as a family. She always made sure that she was sitting on the left side of the person next to her. If she didn’t, they would be bumping elbows throughout the meal.

O, I heard stories about how my grandmother, who was a school teacher at the beginning of the last century, tried to change my sister when Gloria was little. She would take the spoon out of her left hand and put it in her right. But it never had much impact apparently.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager and Gloria was studying to become a teacher herself that it really began to sink in that my sister’s life was made more difficult because she is left-handed.

One of her teachers in the Education department at Cal State LA saw Gloria writing. She came over and simply rotated her paper. Suddenly writing became much easier for my sister.

When Gloria was first learning to write, the teacher had instructed the class to turn their paper with the top of the page slightly to the left. That puts the right-handed person’s forearm in line with the paper and makes writing much easier.

But for the left-handed person, the angle is all wrong. The left-handed person has to turn his or her hand nearly upside down to write. All that teacher had to do was instruct left-handed students to turn their paper the other way – with the top of the paper slightly to the right.

For fifteen years, Gloria had struggled to write. In thirty seconds, her university professor had changed the ease of her writing so dramatically, that my sister had to go to the bank and fill out new signature cards because her hand-writing had changed so drastically.

That day also began my education about what it means to be a left-handed person in a predominately right-handed world. Over the years I have learned how many things that we use everyday are much more difficult to use if you are left-handed.

The desks in all my schools growing up had the support for my arm on the right side. If you are left-handed, your arm is left dangling in space.

Scissors are designed for right-handed people. They don’t cut quite right if you are left-handed.

And it carries over into our language. Right also means “correct.” Left gives us both the “sinister” and “gauche.” And no one likes to get a “left-handed” compliment.

And I am still learning some of the privileges of being right-handed. A left-handed friend – by the way, a left-handed friend is not like a left-handed compliment – a left-handed friend pointed out another one not too long ago.

I write with a fountain pen. This one is a gift from Ellen and I really treasure it. When I want to write something, I simply reach my right hand to my shirt pocket and suavely and gracefully take my pen from my pocket and I am ready to write. Because every shirt I have ever owned has the pocket on the left side.

If I were left-handed, I would either have to remove the pen with my right hand and transfer it to my left or I would have to twist my left arm around to use my left hand.

Now I am aware that the privileges I enjoy because I am right-handed do not present huge obstacles to the success of left-handed people in our society. Until this week, I could not have told you who the first left-handed President of the United States was. (It was Herbert Hoover, by the way) I do remember that in 1992 we were sure to elect a left-handed President because both George H. Bush and Bill Clinton are left-handed. It was not an issue in the campaign as I remember it.

In fact, beginning with Ronald Reagan, four out of our last five Presidents (before our current one) were left handed, so clearly being left-handed in not an insurmountable barrier to success in our society.

But not all of the privileges that I enjoy in this society are so innocuous. If I asked you for the name of the first African-American President, there is no one in this room who could not answer.

Barrack Obama is both left-handed and black. Only one of those facts was any impediment to his election as President.

If I asked you who was the first Jewish President you would not have been able to tell me, because we have never had a Jewish President. And I would not be so foolish as to suggest a Muslim President. One of the candidates for the Senate in the recent election in Alabama is on record stating that Muslims should be barred from holding ANY elective office in the United States.

And let’s not even talk about the half of the population that happens to have been born female.

So when I was growing up and I was told that anyone could become President of the United States, it was much more true for me – a right-handed white middle-class Protestant male – than it was for many others in our society.

Just as I grew up taking my right-handed privilege for granted I took my white privilege and my middle-class privilege and my Protestant Christian privilege for granted.

That is the very nature of privilege – we take it for granted. We are like the little girl who was asked to write a story about being poor. And this is what she wrote. “Once upon a time, there was a girl whose family was very poor. The girl was poor and her brother was poor and the Mommy was poor and the Daddy was poor and the butler was poor and the chauffer was poor.”

Our privileges are to us like water is to a fish. We do not see them. We take them for granted.

And our life in the Church is not so different. Martin Luther King, Jr. made the line famous but it was Bishop James Pike who first noted that “11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life.”

I am pleased that, for the past couple of years, North Oxnard United Methodist Church has had a close working relationship with Bethel AME Church. I am pleased about the relationship but I am saddened that I am pleased.

I wish a good working relationship between a predominately white congregation and a predominately black congregation was as normal as a good working relationship between two white United Methodist congregations.

It is Christmas Eve and we hear with joy again the words of the angel to the shepherds of Bethlehem, “Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

And I am guessing that there are very few of you who noticed that I left out a couple of words when I just said that. What the angel is actually quoted as saying is, “Behold, I bring you glad tiding of great joy FOR ALL PEOPLE.”

For all people. For all people.

And we have to figure out what that “all” really means.

Now I am sure that everyone would agree that “all” includes both left-handed and right-handed people.

And I am sure that there are few who would deny that “all” people includes white people and black people and Asian people and Native American people. Isn’t that what the song says, “Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.”

How about gay people? Are they included in the glad tiding to all people?

And does all people include only Christian people? There are those who would say that “yes, the good news in for all people, but you have to become Christian.” Some would even say, “if you become Christian and believe exactly as I believe.”

I have been talking about Emmanuel so much during Advent that I am sure that many of you are relieved that it is finally Christmas and you don’t have to hear about Emmanuel any more for another year. But the Good News is that Emmanuel is coming. Emmanuel has come. God is with us. God is revealed in human form.

The Good News is that God is revealed in me as the Spirit of God moves in and through me. And the Good News is that God is revealed in us as God moves in and through the Body of Christ called the Church.

And today, the Good News is that God is revealed in and through all people.

Last week I mentioned that Gandhi once said that he might have become a Christian if he had never met one. Gandhi remained a Hindu all his life. But he clearly heard the words of Jesus as Good news.

We smile condescendingly when we read in the New Testament how many of the early followers of Jesus thought the Good News was only for Jews. We smile because we know that the Good News is for Gentiles as well. And we know this because we are Gentiles and not Jews and we would laugh at the idea that we need to become Jews in order to be Christian – in order for the words of Jesus to be Good News for us.

The angel said “all” – not “all, but.”

Being right-handed may grant me certain privileges in our society but it does not exclude left-handed people from that society. And being a Christian may or may not grant me certain privileges in our society but it grants me no privileges with God.

God does not love me more because I am a Christian. God does not love me because I am a Christian. I am a Christian because God loves me. But God would not love me less if I were a Hindu like Gandhi, or a Jew or a Muslim. When God says “all” God means “all.”

When Paul says that there are “neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave nor free” he is not offering a complete list. There is nothing that divides us from one another in God’s eyes because for all are one in Christ.

There is not a single shepherd in this room. If we had lived in Bethlehem that night we would not have been on the hillside watching our sheep. We would not have heard the angel’s words – I bring you Good News that will be for all people. But even though we were not there we hear it – because we are part of “all people.”

The Good News of which the angel spoke is not about a baby in a manger. The Good News is about the Love of God which is for ALL people.

That is the Joy of Christmas – the joy for all people.

As Paul tells us so powerfully, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing. Nothing outside us. Nothing inside us. Nothing at all. Because the Good News of God’s love is for ALL people.

This morning I was eating breakfast and saw the Peanuts comic strip in the Los Angeles Times.

I want to share it with you. Lucy is standing under the mistletoe and smiling. ]Change Slide]

Snoopy comes up ready to give her a kiss. Lucy says, “Get away from here, you stupid beagle! I’m waiting for someone more important.

Snoopy scowls. And kicks Lucy Lucy pounces on Snoopy who is ready to fight.

And after the fight – – they are both exhausted on the floor

Linus walks by and says, “Fighting beneath the mistletoe? How unfeminine … How unromantic… How gauche.

And Snoopy leans over and gives Lucy a kiss and says, “We wouldn’t want to be gauche, Would we, sweetie?”

It is Christmas Eve. There is nothing sinister about that. And I indeed do not want to be gauche. So let me say to you all a very Blessed Christmas to you all. May you hear – may you experience the Good News that is for ALL people – that God loves you and I love you all too.

And that is not a left-handed compliment.

Amen.

Anticipating Emmanuel – “God in Them”

Texts: Matthew 5: 43-48

Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC

December 17, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

“Just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you.”  It’s a funny line but it is also true. When you are paranoid, you have this unrealistic idea that everyone else is out to get you. It may be a crazy idea. But just because it’s a crazy idea, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

I can be paranoid AND people may really be out to get me.

When I am afraid, I think that everyone around me is an enemy. They all hate me. And, since I know I am a good person – well, at least a reasonably good person – I am sure that they have no reason to hate me.

If they hate me for no reason, they must be evil. And, if they are evil, they must hate me for no reason.

Growing up in America, I always was taught that the enemies of my country were jealous of my freedom. They want to enslave me like they have enslaved their own people.

I am too young to remember when our enemies were the Germans and the Japanese. By the time I was growing up the only Japanese people I saw were gardeners in the San Fernando Valley and they did not seem either scary or hateful.

But I knew the Soviets were my enemy. They wanted to blow me up with the nuclear weapons that they had stolen from us.

Then they corrupted the Cubans and the weapons were only ninety miles away.

Then the Chinese. Then the Vietnamese. Then that scary Ayatollah in Iran. Then those Muslims from all over the world. Every Muslim in the world wanted to kill me.

And I was told, all of these enemies for more than half a century hated me for no reason, simply because they are evil and they hated me because I was good and I was free and they were jealous and evil. That was the only possible explanation.

Then I read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount – just a few verses before the words we heard this morning.

Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

I am embarrassed to say that for many years – even though I had heard it read many, many times – I thought these words were about forgiveness. I was so self-centered that I heard the words to say that when good and righteous me was on my way to Church and I remembered that I was at odds with someone because of something that happened between us, I should go and forgive him and then go on to Church.

I was well into adulthood when it suddenly struck me that Jesus didn’t say when I have something against someone else I should forgive them – although I should. No, Jesus said when I remember that someone has something against me, I should go and ask forgiveness and be reconciled with that enemy before I go on to worship God.

Jesus is reminding me that sometimes the other is my enemy, not because of what he did to me – but because of what I did to him.

I have to be ready to recognize that maybe – just maybe – I have given my enemy reason to hate me. Maybe it is me who has to go and confess and ask forgiveness and be reconciled with my enemy because I was the one who was wrong.

But what about when I have not given my enemy cause to hate me? What about when my enemy just hates me? Aren’t I justified in hating him back? Doesn’t he bear the obligation to come to me and ask – beg – my forgiveness?

Jesus says, “No.” Jesus says that God loves the one who hates me just as much as the one who loves me. God loves the evil person just as much as God loves the good person.

So, if I want to be a child of God, I have to love the evil person as much as I love the good person – because the evil person is every bit as much my brother or sister as the good person. Because the evil person is also a child of God.

This makes my life so much more complicated. If I must love my enemy – If I must love the one who hates me – how can I speak out against the evil things my enemy does? How can I condemn the evil while loving the evil doer?

The answer – as difficult as it is – is in the final sentence of the reading this morning. It is a sentence that we usually choose to ignore because it is a sentence that we believe to be impossible.

Jesus says that we gain nothing by loving those who love us. Even the most sinful people love those who love them. Loving the people who love us is the easiest thing in the world.

But loving those who hate us – loving our enemies – that is the hard thing. But Jesus says we have to do it anyway.

Then he says what we think is impossible. He says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Now that is just crazy talk. After all, when people are criticized their most common response is, “Nobody’s perfect.” And we believe it. Nobody’s perfect. Nobody can be perfect. Perfect doesn’t exist.

And yet, I once stood in front of a thousand people and promised to do just that – to be perfect.

It happened on June 17, 1997 – the night I was ordained. The bishop stood in front of me (and about twenty other candidates for ordination) and asked us, “Are you going on to perfection?” and every one of us answered, “Yes, with God’s help.”

And then the bishop asked, “Do you expect to be made perfect in this lifetime?” And again we all answered, “Yes.”

Was I lying? Were we all lying? Were we promising to do an impossible thing? After all, we all say, “Nobody’s perfect.”

But those questions have been asked and answered positively by every person who has ever wanted to be a Methodist clergy. The questions go back to John Wesley, himself.

And they were just a controversial and just as seemingly impossible when he asked them as they were when the bishop asked them of me.

But that is exactly what Jesus challenged us to be – “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But then, Jesus also told us that we don’t need to learn a lot of rules and commandments to be his followers. Being a Christian is not about “do this but don’t do that.”

No, Jesus said there were only two commandments – Love God and love your neighbor. That’s it. No “Thou shalt not.” No “don’t do that.”

If you love God and love your neighbor, you are a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and according to John Wesley – according to Jesus – you are perfect.

Now Jesus made it painfully clear – and never clearer than in the Parable of the Good Samaritan – that every one is our neighbor. Even the one whom we call our enemy. Even the ones who hate us. Even the ones who act evilly.

We must love our enemy. It is impossible to be a follower of Jesus and come to any other conclusion. But it does not follow that we must accept the evil that our enemy does.

Mohandas Gandhi loved the Sermon on the Mount – including the words we heard this morning. In fact, Gandhi said that he might have become a Christian, if he had never actually met one. Apparently, Gandhi observed that Christians are no better at living what they profess than are Hindus – or are Muslims, for that matter.

So, even though he could not become a Christian, he could endeavor to follow the words of Jesus faithfully. He could love his enemies.

Early in the movie Gandhi, Gandhi is at a meeting to organize opposition to the apartheid laws of South Africa where he was living at the time. There are those who want to use armed resistance to fight for their freedom.

Gandhi says, “No.” He says, “Freedom is something I will fight for. It is even something I will die for. But it is not something I will kill for.”

A half a century later – as part of that same struggle to end apartheid – Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to the same conclusion. We must love our enemy, but we must actively oppose the evil which the enemy does. Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

If we are to follow Jesus faithfully, we must love our oppressed brother and sister. We must work tirelessly to end the oppression under which they live. To do less would be less than perfect. We cannot be neutral.

But, as tirelessly as we work for the right, we must never forget that the oppressor is also our brother or sister. That God loves them just as much as God loves us. That the oppressor is every bit as much a child of God as I am – as the oppressed are.

Our call is clear. We must feed those who are hungry. We must house who are homeless. We must oppose those who have – whether by action or by acquiescence – conspired to make them hungry and homeless.

If we simply share our food with those who are hungry. If we simply provide shelter for those who are homeless we will be praised – although probably not emulated.

However, when we seek to change the systems that have made people hungry – when we work to change the systems that have oppressed people – people of color – people who are poor – in short, when we work for justice rather than simply for relief, we will be persecuted.

Dom Helder Camara, an archbishop in Brazil, once wisely noted, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

We must never equate love for the oppressor with acquiescence to the oppression. We must work tirelessly for justice.

But our efforts on behalf of justice do not allow us to ever – ever – hate the oppressor. We must always love our enemy because our enemy is our brother – our enemy is our sister – our enemy is a beloved child of God – a beloved child of God in whom God is revealed to us.

Emmanuel – God with us – God in me – God in us –God even in them.

Our loving God is revealed even in our enemy. Perfectly revealed.

Amen.

Anticipating Emmanuel – “God in Us”

Texts: Acts 2:44-48

Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC

December 10, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

As much as most of us complain about politics, there can be no doubt that, as soon as people started to live together, there have been politics. And, as long as there has been politics, there has been political satire.

So it is not too surprising that a TV show like Saturday Night Live has been popular for more than 40 years. Of course, political satire can be very controversial. Political satire is wildly funny when the politician or position being satirized is the one I disagree with. It is not so funny when the politician I support is being lampooned.

But before there was Saturday Night Live – before there was the Daily Show or the Colbert Report – back in the early days of television was the show affectionately known as TW3.

TW3 stood for “That Was – The Week – That Was”

The program was short lived. It ran only two seasons in 1964 and 1965. But each week it poked fun at anything that was going on in the country during the preceding week – President Johnson and Barry Goldwater – the Civil Rights Movement and the Segregationist South – if it happened in America that week you could count on it being mentioned on That Was the Week That Was.

The opening line was something like “What a Week this has been – that was the week that was.” And off they would go.

As I stand before you this morning I can only say, “What a week this has been – that was the week that was.”

When we gathered last in this room – whatever you thought you had planned for the week ahead – I am sure that none of you imagined the week you have had.

O, yes, they were predicting strong Santa Ana winds throughout the week and, as always when the Santa Ana winds blow they were saying that there was high fire danger.

But when our lights flickered and went out on Monday night, none of us knew what we were in for. None of us knew that by the time we ate breakfast on Tuesday morning, a fire that had begun near Thomas Aquinas College above Santa Paula the preceding evening would burn all the way to the Cross in Grant Park by morning – that 150 homes would be destroyed – that tens of thousands of our neighbors and even some of us would be evacuated – that a hundred thousand of us would be told that our water was unsafe to drink unless we boiled it first – that any of us living even a half a mile from the hillside would not even be able to see the hills because of the smoke. If you have told us any of that, we wouldn’t have believed it. Yes, this has definitely been the week that was.

If you lived a normal week this week you simply were not paying attention. Our schools were closed. We got used to seeing people we met wearing masks to help their breathing. That simple act of breathing which just last Sunday I said we take completely for granted, suddenly we did not take for granted.

And Ventura County – that sleepy backwater on the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco – was the lead story on every news broadcast throughout the state – throughout the nation – throughout the world. My sister Jeanne was even able to follow the course of the Thomas fire on the BBC in London.

And every conversation that we had this week was the same. First – “Are you OK?” Then – “Do you know if So-and-so is OK?” and finally – “Did you hear that this family or that family lost their home?”

This definitely was the week that was.

And it is at times like this that we learn again – and sometimes for the first time – the meaning of community – the meaning of being neighbors.

Let’s face it. We live in a largely urban setting. The irony of an urban setting is that the more we live close together, the less we know each other. Ellen and I have lived in our duplex for seventeen years. Three other residences share our driveway and we know the people in these residences fairly well – their names, what they do for a living. Beyond that we know very little about the other hundred or so people who live on our block. O, we wave to them when we see them – we smile and say hello – but we do not really know them

And I don’t think we are that much different from the rest of the people who live here.

But throughout this week I have heard story after story from people who live in the areas nearest the fire of neighbors who pounded on each others doors to awaken them and alert them to the danger. Neighbors who they did not really know helping them flee the flames.

It is at times like this that we see communities at their best. In fact, it is at times like this that we often start to talk about communities at all.

We use that word, “Community” in a number of different ways. Sometimes we just mean a geographic area within a city like the community around a school.

Sometimes a building will be called a “Community Center” and it serves the Community around it.

And sometimes we talk about a community of faith. By that we usually mean the people who share common beliefs and intentions and who come together to form a community.

That certainly describes the situation we heard read about this morning. Last week we talked about Advent being a time to become aware of the Spirit of God that moves through me – the Spirit of God that gives us life. That the reality of Emmanuel – God with us – is manifest first in the awareness that God is in me – giving me life and giving that life purpose.

But in the account of Pentecost – in the Spirit of God manifesting itself in those early disciples in one time and in one place – in that account, we see people becoming aware – not only of the Spirit of God in me – but also the Spirit of God in you.

And if the Spirit of God in visible in each of us it creates a bond that draws us together. That “me” and “you” becomes an “us.” We experience the Spirit in me meeting the Spirit in you. We discover that we are kindred Spirits because we share the same spirit.

We are like the old – old – cartoon where a worm in the garden sees another worm and says, “Hi, You’re cute. Can we go out?” to which the other worm replies “Don’t be stupid. I’m your other end.”

We are indeed the completion of one another because we share the same Spirit. We are one in the same.

Those post-Pentecost Christians were reflections of the same Spirit. And then the writer of Acts describes their life together – their life as a community – “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God.”

What made them a community was not just that they believed the same thing. It was not just that they had experienced the Spirit of God in their lives. They worshipped together. They prayed together. They ate together.

And, in fact, they did more than that together. They shared everything they had.

This scripture tells us that in those early days of the Church, you didn’t have rich Christians and poor Christians – you just had Christians.

It says, they “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” To our twenty-first century ears, that sounds like Communism. But in reality it is simply Christian community.

In Eighteenth Century Britain, everyone was, by definition, a Christian. When you were born you became a member of the Church of England. The religious persecutions of previous centuries were, for the most part over. O, You could choose to become a Roman Catholic. Or a Quaker. Or even a Presbyterian.

But it was very difficult whatever you choose to become, not to be a Christian.

And John Wesley never asked anyone to leave the Church of England. John Wesley encouraged people to respond to the Spirit of God that was moving within them – that movement that he called “prevenient grace” – and if you responded to the Spirit of God in you, you would begin to live a different life.

And, in order to support you and encourage you in this new life, Wesley suggested that you should gather together with other people who were likewise endeavoring to live out this new life in the Spirit as well.

You would still go to the worship service at the local Church of England in your community. You would still be listed on the rolls in your local parish. You were not leaving your existing community – either your existing religious community or your existing neighborhood community – behind.

But you would enter a new community – the community of Methodists. And together you would learn and discover what it meant to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. What is meant to live a new life. What it meant to be one in the Spirit.

There is a hymn I know you know that starts out, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.”

And the refrain is, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love – by our love. Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Yes, God’s Spirit is made known in and through each of us. Each of us is Emmanuel – God with us. And the Spirit of God is known in us and known through us by the love we have for one another and the love we show to the world.

And that Spirit is compounded and expanded when we come together through that same Spirit.

The New Testament calls that collection of Spirit-filled people – that body of love-filled Christians – the body of Christ.

Each month when we gather to celebrate Communion together, we are reminded that Jesus said the bread represented the Body of Christ and we read that prayer from the early Church that reminds us that the bread is broken just like we – the body of Christ – are broken and scattered into the world, but we are also gathered together again from the ends of the earth into one body again – one loaf.

We are gathered today – in this time and in this place. We are renewed by fellowship and bonds of affection.

But then we are scattered into the world to be God’s Spirit filled people in the world, until we are gathered again by the Spirit’s tether again next time – next week.

That is the ebb and flow of the Christian’s life – gathered into one body – scattered in love into the world.

It is the cycle of our life together week in and week out.

And what a week it was. And what a week it can be.

Amen.

Anticipating Emmanuel – “God in Me”

Texts: Genesis 2:4-8

Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC

December 3, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

There were so many changes to the recent tax bill in the Senate right at the last minute that I am not sure whether it was included but it was certainly in the House bill so it might be in the final version of the tax bill.

I am speaking, of course, about the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. Now, just in case there might be one or two of you who are not familiar with the Johnson Amendment, it is an amendment to the tax code that prohibits Churches and other tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for elective office.

It was passed in 1954 and is named for then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, who proposed it. The House version of the tax bill repeals it and President Trump has frequently said he wants it repealed and it doesn’t cost the government any money so there is a good chance that, by the next election, I will be able to tell you exactly who to vote for and who to vote against.

I am sure that that is a great relief to you so that you will no longer have the burden of thinking for yourselves.

While it is often said that, up to now, Churches are prohibited from engaging in politics, that is really not quite true. The tax code in general and the Johnson Amendment specifically, have never prevented me from taking a public position on issues – just from endorsing specific individuals.

I can speak out as forcefully as I want against racism as long as I don’t tell you not to vote for John Jones because he is a racist.

In theological terms, the Johnson Amendment has never prohibited the Church or its clergy from being prophetic – just from endorsing a particular person or party.

Taking a stand on social or moral issues is called “being prophetic” because that is what the prophets did. We often think of prophets making predications about long distant events – like where the Messiah is going to be born five hundred years from now, when, in reality, the prophets were speaking about what was going to happen in the very near future close to where they lived.

Take, for example, the case of King Ahaz of Judah. He had a very real foreign policy concern. He was afraid that his northern neighbor – the nation of Israel – or Samaria – was going to attack Jerusalem. To make matters worse, Ahaz was concerned that the King of Israel was going to form an alliance with the King of Syria and that together they would be too strong for Judah.

What should he do? Should he attack Israel now before the two nations can join forces? Should he attack Syria instead? Or should he make an alliance with Egypt to protect him? But Egypt is much stronger. They will want something from Judah if they are going to offer protection from her enemies – money or Egyptian military bases near Jerusalem or something. What should he do?

And one day King Ahaz takes a walk outside the palace considering all these diplomatic and military considerations, and the prophet Isaiah meets him and asks, “Have you considered what God wants you to do in this matter? Ask God what you should do.”

And that King responds like the politician that he is, “This is a military decision. This is a foreign policy question. This is not a religious question. Why would I worry about what God wants me to do? I will not ask God what to do.”

And Isaiah tells him, “You should always ask what God wants you to do. Every military and diplomatic question is also a religious question. So, since you will not ask God for a sign of what you should do, God is going to give you a sign of his own.”

“You see that young pregnant women over there? By the time her baby is old enough to tell right from wrong – within the next couple of years – God is going to take care of the kings of Israel and Syria without you doing a thing. God is sending the King of Assyria to take care of both of those kings and you will be safe.”

We don’t know who the young woman was. Maybe she was just a random young woman who happened to be passing by. Maybe she was the king’s daughter and therefore much closer to home.

But for Isaiah, the child’s name will be an important part of the sign from God. The child will be called “God with us” – Emmanuel. You need not fear other nations because God is with us. Our nation can and should follow a policy of peace because God is with us. And if God is with us, who can be against us?

Seven hundred years later, the early Christian Church remembered those words of Isaiah to King Ahaz and they understood another baby – another child – another life – to be a sign from God. Another sign to not fear – to not worry – to not be afraid.

And even though this baby – this man – was named Jesus, they understood him to also be a sign that God is with us – Emmanuel. And so, in the Gospel, when Jesus birth is announced, the angel says his name will be Emmanuel – God with us.

These are the only two times that the word – the name – Emmanuel is used in the Bible. But the impact on our thinking – on our understanding of who God is and what God expects of us – could not be greater.

And so, this Advent season, as we approach Christmas – as we anticipate the arrival of God in human form – I am inviting us to consider what it means to have God with us – for God to be in us – for God to be reveal through us.

And on this first Sunday of Advent, we begin with thinking about what it means to have God in me – in you.

We turn to the words of Genesis – to the account of the beginning of human life – to the beginning of all life, because in this account in Genesis 2, no other life yet exists.

And we are told that God takes a lifeless lump of clay and breathes into it and it becomes alive.

Why breathing? If we were writing this story today – if we were making a movie – we would be much more likely to use electricity. Think of the Frankenstein monster and the electrodes on the neck. Think about the heart attack victim and defribulator panel to the chest – clear – zap.

But the image in Genesis is much more gentle and intimate. God breathes into that lump of clay and it becomes alive.

As I have mentioned before, in both Hebrew and Greek, the word for breath and the word for Spirit are the same word. When God breathes into that first human, it is not just about getting air into the lungs – it is not just about getting oxygen into the red blood cells – it is about getting the very Spirit of God into the human being.

Think about that sound that we have all learned to listen for at the birth of a child. It is that baby’s first cry. We listen for it because we know that in order for that baby to make that sound, the child has successful brought air into its lungs in order to breathe out.

That breath is the first of millions – breaths so numerous that we cease to be aware of them. Breaths so automatic and easy that we literally do it in our sleep.

But Genesis chooses this act – this moment – as the moment of creation because every breath – every time we draw air into our lungs – is a reminder that our very life is a gift of the Spirit of God.

We carry this reminder with us into our everyday language. When we have an idea whose origin we cannot explain – that comes from beyond us – we say we are “inspired.” That we are filled with the breath and the Spirit of God.

And when we die, we say that we have “expired” – that the breath and the Spirit of God have left us.

But the time between that ecstatic baby’s first cry and the day that we breathe our last cannot be just a long series of millions and millions of breaths.

No, as we live our lives in anticipation of the coming of Emmanuel – the realization that God is with us – we must first allow the Spirit, not just to enter us but to flow through us. We must allow the Spirit to enliven us. We must allow the Spirit to inspire us.

There are other words from the prophet Isaiah that helped shape and define Jesus life and ministry. When Jesus came back to his hometown and spoke in his home synagogue he spoke other words from Isaiah.

He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor – release to the captive – the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In other words, it is not enough that the Breath of God – the Spirit of God – simply makes us alive. It is not enough that the Spirit of God even simply makes us thank God we are alive.

No, the Spirit of God must move us to do something. To make God’s Spirit visible to others. To make God’s Spirit visible in me.

In the first choir in which I ever sang – the Chancel Choir of the church in North Hollywood where I grew up – every Sunday before worship – after we had warmed up and rehearsed – the choir director would lead us in a brief prayer. And in that prayer he would alwaysvask that God “inspire us that we might inspire others.”

It was a good reminder – our purpose in singing was not to entertain the people in the pews. Our purpose was to God so that the people in the pews might praise God as well. Singing well was not the goal. Inspiring others to praise and follow God was the goal.

And so, as we – as followers of Jesus Christ – begin Advent – as we anticipate the arrival of Emmanuel – God with Us – let us be aware of the Spirit of God that enlivens and empowers us with every breath that we take.

And let that Spirit of God inspire us so that we might inspire others – that the Spirit of God might anoint us to preach good news – to be good news – to live good news – as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, now and forever.

Amen.

“Don’t Forget”

Texts: Deuteronomy 8: 7-18

Preached at North Oxnard UMC and College UMC

November 19, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

We were one of the last in our neighborhood to get a television set. I remember walking a block down the street in my pajamas and bathrobe to the house of some friends of my parents to watch Walt Disney Presents on Sunday night. I had to be in my pajamas because the show was on past my bedtime and I had to promise to go straight to bed as soon as I got home.

But we finally got one and I could watch all those great shows: Rawhide and Wagon Train and Maverick and Bonanza and all those other Westerns. And it does seem that, in those early years, most of what we watched were Westerns.

And I learned a lot from those shows. I learned that you could tell the good guys from the bad guys because the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats.

(I often wondered why the bad guys didn’t just disguise themselves as good guys by buying white hats. Maybe you had to have a note from your minister before they let you buy a white hat.)

I learned that Indians were dangerous and that if you gave them “firewater” and rifles, they loved nothing better than to kill innocent white people.

I learned that if you were a pioneer in a wagon train moving west you were likely to be attacked at any moment by those blood-thirsty Indians and you had better be ready to “circle the wagons” and the Indians would then ride their horses around the wagons in a circle and you could shoot at them like in a shooting gallery.

I learned that those guys in the black hats loved to put their bandanas over their faces and rob banks and race out of town on their horses. I also learned that those same guys in their black hats loved to challenge the guys in the white hats to a gunfight in the middle of the street and that the guys in the white hats always let the guys in the black hats draw first but the guys in the white hats were always faster.

And I especially learned that the only way to succeed in the West was to look out for yourself and not rely on any help for anyone else. I learned that those who did succeed were rugged individualist who made it because of their own hard work and initiative. You had to be a self-made man to survive in the West.

I learned all that from watching Westerns on television, but I have since learned that none of it was true.

I have learned that of the hundreds of thousands of pioneers who moved west, only a few hundred died from encounters with Native Americans.

Yes, the U.S. Cavalry and many different tribes did kill each other in alarming numbers at places like Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn, but settlers, not so much.

And that circle the wagons thing? Yeah, they circled the wagons at night, but that was mainly to keep the livestock from wandering off. During the day, the wagons were pretty spread out so that they didn’t have to eat each other’s dust all day. It would have taken them hours to circle the wagons in an emergency.

Oh, and that bank robbing thing? Research has shown that between the end of the Civil War and 1900, in what became the 15 Western states, there were eight confirmed bank robberies – eight – in more than thirty years. Trains and stage coaches? Yeah. But not banks.

But of all the myths I learned from those Westerns on TV and the movies, the one that was the least true was that you had to make it on your own.

Yes, life in the west was hard work. You had to be strong and you had to work hard. But it was such hard work that you would have a hard time making it on your own.

Barn raisings were not a myth. Working together to get everyone’s crops in was not a myth. What made the West succeed was not being a rugged individual but being part of a helping and supportive community.

Which is what this morning reading from Deuteronomy is all about – correcting the misconceptions of our history.

Deuteronomy was written about 500 years after the people of Israel had ended their nomadic life in the wilderness and settled in Canaan.

And by the time it was written, the people had developed a view of their history that wasn’t much different than our own collective memory of the settling of the American West. The Israelites saw themselves much like the pioneers who came into a land that didn’t seem like it was being used to its full potential. They came in willing to work hard but had to push out what they perceived to be violent people who happened to be living there at the time. When we got here it was a wasteland and we made something of it. If we had to wipeout some people who tried to stop us, well, that was just a necessary thing to do.

And we, through our hard work and initiative made something of this barren land. And if we are wealthy now, it is because of our own efforts.

The writer of Deuteronomy looked back a saw a much different history. He said, “Don’t make up your own history of how things happened. Don’t forget that you were slaves in Egypt. God brought you out of slavery. God sustained you through a wilderness full of danger and death at every turn. God brought you into a land that was already thriving before you got here. If you are wealthy now, it is not because of your own efforts. It is not because you are self-made people who created wealth out of nothing with your bare hands.

Do not forget that you are something because the land in which you settled was fertile and rich. Yes, you worked hard. Yes, you have succeeded. But never think that your success is simply because of your own hard work and your own abilities.

The Deuteronomist says, “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.”

And why has God given us the ability to gain these blessings? So that we will continue to live in the covenant that God has offered. So that we will be faithful to all that God has invited us to do.

Next Sunday we will be invited to make a commitment concerning how much of our wealth we are planning to give to this congregation. This process is often called a “Stewardship Campaign.”

But to be faithful stewards is much more than what percentage of our accumulated and earned resources we share with the Church.

A steward is one who cares for and manages property on behalf of the owner. Our covenant with God is that we will faithfully care for all that is in our possession (which collectively includes all of creation.) That we will faithfully use all of the time and energy that is at our disposal.

It is not just about that percentage that I return to God through the Church. In fact, that is a minimal amount of what we are called to do.

We need to not forget that every moment of our lives up to this moment – every thing we have possessed throughout our lifetime – every person with whom we have come into contact – all of these have come to us as a gift. A gift from a God who loves us more than we can imagine.

A few minutes ago we all sang these words about the God whom we thank, “Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

Every month I stand before you and challenge you with these words, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”

And every month you all respond, “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” And I continue with these words, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth.”

One of the names for the communion ritual that includes those words is, the Eucharist – which is simply a Greek word that means “Thanksgiving.” And the prayer that begins with those words, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks” is called, the Great Thanksgiving.

And in the midst of that Great Thanksgiving we remember Jesus’ challenge to “do this as a way of remembering me,” and we conclude with the words, “and so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice.”

We dare not let these words become simply rote words that we hear each month. They call us to remember – to not forget.

The Deuteronomist told the people, “Do not forget what God has done for you.”

And we respond, “We will remember and we will live our lives as a holy offering to God.” We will live our lives – we will not just give our gifts – we will not just tithe our tithes – we will live our lives as a holy offering to God.

“Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

Don’t forget.

Amen.

Rejoice and be Glad!

Scripture Text: Matthew 5:1-12

Preached at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC

November 5, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

We just sang a hymn that said repeatedly, “Blest are they,” – blest with a “t”. And yet when we read the Scripture that the hymn is based upon we heard the word “blessed” – Blessed with a “d”. Or should it be pronounced “blesséd”?

When I was growing up the word was always pronounced, “blesséd”. Now we often hear it pronounced “blessed.”

Not that it matters anyway because most of us don’t know what the word means anyway. For all too many of us to be blessed means to be rich. Or maybe it means to have a loving family. Or maybe it just means that I sneezed.

Perhaps it is this confusion over the pronunciation and the meaning of the word that has led recent translations to substitute the word “happy” for the word “blessed.”

But that doesn’t really help us too much. When I say I am happy, I usually just mean I am having a good day.

I have trouble thinking that Jesus just meant that the meek and the peacemakers and those who mourn are happy because they are having a good day.

And that certainly breaks down when we get to the part about “happy are those who are persecuted.” It is hard to see how those who are being persecuted are having a good day.

Maybe this confusion is what caused Charles Schulz to write this Peanuts cartoon strip.   Lucy and Linus are talking and Linus says, “Have you ever known anyone who was happy?”

Before Lucy can reply, Snoopy comes dancing by with a huge grin on his face.   And as he is dancing by,   he gives Lucy a big kiss.

Lucy is shocked and Linus says,   “and was still in his right mind, I mean.”

Maybe that’s what it takes to be both happy and persecuted – you have to be out of your mind.

The poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling was one of my father’s favorites. He would quote it often and even had a poster of it on his office wall.

The poem starts with these words, “IF you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

Such a state of mind is so difficult that that line is often parodied like this: “IF you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, you clearly do not understand the situation.”

So maybe that is what it takes to be happy in some of the situations that Jesus describes. Maybe you do have to be crazy – do have to be out of your mind – to be happy when you are being persecuted.

Or maybe we just have to redefine what happiness is.

The cartoon we just saw not withstanding, Charles Schultz did not always have such a cynical view of happiness. More than fifty years ago, he put out a little book that quickly became a classic. I am sure you remember it. It was entitled   “Happiness is . . . a Warm Puppy.”

It was a heart-warming little book. On each page was a single sentence beginning with “happiness is . . .” Happiness is a warm puppy. Happiness is a fuzzy sweater. Happiness is a night light.

And – one of my favorites this week after our wonderful visit with my sister – Happiness is sleeping in your own bed.

When the Peanuts gang became the musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” this happiness theme because one of the song in the production.

The song carries out the theme of the Happiness book. The lines go like this:

Happiness is . . . finding a pencil, pizza with sausage, telling the time.

And happiness is . . . learning to whistle, tying your shoes for the very first time.

Then the song concludes with this thought:

Happiness is morning and evening, daytime and nighttime too. For happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you.

And that’s the bottom line isn’t it. Happiness is not really about things. Happiness is about love. And love at its core is about people.

It is the love of people that makes us truly happy.

How many of you know the story of the Velveteen Rabbit?   If you don’t know the story, your assignment is to find a child and read the story to them sometime between now and Christmas.

The Velveteen Rabbit is a delightful children’s story about love and resurrection. It is subtitled: How Toys Become Real and it is written by Margery Williams.

The rabbit in question is a stuffed rabbit who is in the Christmas stocking of a young boy. He comes to live in a home where there are many other toys.

And this is how Ms. Williams describes the life of the rabbit in the nursery:

For a long time he lived in the toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and no one thought very much about him. He was naturally shy, and being only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon every one else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real. Between them all the poor little Rabbit was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse.

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Of course, as you have no doubt guessed the rabbit does become real – even more real than the skin horse – and I invite you to get a hold of the book and find out how.

But what the skin horse said is true. We become real when we are deeply loved. That is the whole point of this All Saints Sunday – to remember how we have been made real by the love of those who have come before us – by those who have gone before us.

And it is not just their love that makes us real. Their love reflects the love of God that shines through them.

All of those things that Jesus says make us happy – that make us blest – that make us blesséd – all those things – being peacemakers – hungering and thirsting after righteousness – being merciful – being pure in heart – yes, even being persecuted – all of those things make us happy because they make us real.

So Jesus says, “Rejoice – Rejoice and be Glad.” Because you have been made real – you have been made blessed – by the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ and revealed in the great cloud of witnesses who have loved you and love you still.

It doesn’t matter what happens to you once you have been made real by the love of God. As the skin horse said, “These things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Rejoice in the love of God. Rejoice in the communion of the saints. Rejoice in the saints in your life – both those who have gone before and those who surround you still. Rejoice and be glad.

O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine. Yet all are one in thee for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Amen.

The Way of the Disciple: Being a Disciple

Scripture Text: Matthew 28.16-20

Preached at College UMC and North Oxnard UMC

October 15, 2017

Prayer – “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.”

Hurricane Ophelia was a Category 3 hurricane this morning and is moving up the Atlantic. Ophelia had sustained winds of 115 miles per hour as it passed east of the Azores early today. Fortunately it has missed North America and the Caribbean Islands. In fact, it has not made landfall at all.

It is likely to impact Ireland tomorrow. This is newsworthy because a hurricane has never moved this far east in the Atlantic ever before.

It is expected to dissipate over the next few days as it moves past Ireland and Scotland.

I have, of course, been following the track of Hurricane Ophelia because we are scheduled to fly over Ireland on Tuesday morning as we approach London at noon. The impact on London is not expected to be too much – breezy conditions and slightly warmer temperatures as the storm pulls warmer air up from Spain.

I trust the Air New Zealand and the air traffic controllers to make the necessary adjustments to our route and that Ellen and I will only be minimally inconvenienced.

Of course, being only mildly inconvenienced by a hurricane is what the residents of Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean wish they had been in recent weeks.

We all watched as Hurricane Harvey struck Texas – particularly the Houston area. The winds and torrential rains drove thousands of people from their homes and thousands of homes were impacted.

We prayed for them. Our hearts went out to them. We promised whatever aid they needed to get back on their feet.

But within a few days, Hurricane Irma hit the islands of the Caribbean and Florida and even moved as far inland as Tennessee.

We prayed for them. Our hearts went out to them. We promised whatever aid they needed to get back on their feet.

And then Hurricane Maria hit. the island of Puerto Rico was devastated. Electricity was out over the entire island. Three and a half million people – American citizens, we were daily reminded – three and a half million people without power – without safe drinking water and without sanitation services. This morning it was reported that only 14% of the residents have power today – three and a half weeks after the storm.

We prayed for them. Our hearts went out to them. We promised them some aid but you could tell that Compassion Fatigue was setting in.

Compassion fatigue is a real thing. It hurts to care too deeply about people and, when one disaster follows another we begin to be overwhelmed.

And, of course, hurricanes were not the only cause of anguish and grief in our hemisphere in recent days. Portions of Mexico City and other areas of Mexico were leveled by a series of powerful earthquakes.

How many directions can we be expected to be compassionate at the same time.

Then it struck closer to home. Fifty-eight people were killed and 500 were wounded by a single shooter in Las Vegas. At least five of those killed were from our own Ventura County. They were our neighbors. They worked in our schools. They lived in our neighborhood. We know that we have to care because they are, almost literally, the people next door.

So even when we are under the strain of compassion fatigue, it has special meaning when it hits close to home. I learned that twice in the past week.

Early this week there was a fire in Orange County. It wasn’t a huge fire but it was extremely smoky. It was less than five miles from where our son and daughter-in-law and our three grandsons live. We heard from our daughter-in-law that she had been called from the after-school program that our oldest grandson attends that she had to come and pick him up – they were evacuating because of the smoke. The next day she posted that it is no fun when you have three small boys and a dog who can’t go outside because of the smoke and the two adults in the house are trying to work from home.

And then, within the news about that relatively small fire that was impacting my family so strongly, came the news of the catastrophic fires in Northern California. More than fifteen separate fires. Dozens of people killed and thousands of homes lost.

We all saw the pictures of the Coffey Park section of Santa Rosa. The before picture of a lush, quiet suburban neighborhood.

And the picture of the same neighborhood the next day looking like a lunar landscape without a single house or tree.

My cousin, Lois, lives in Santa Rosa. She lives in a house that I have slept in a number of times over the years. Ellen and I drove my father up to Santa Rosa to visit his niece a year or so before he died. We slept in the house where she has lived for more than forty years. She raised her children in that house. That house is just a couple of miles from Coffey Park.

I scoured the internet. I found a map of the evacuation zone for the fire in Santa Rosa. I compared it with Google maps and discovered that Lois’s family was indeed in the evacuation zone.

I was torn. I knew that their lives were in chaos but I wanted to know how they were doing. I knew that they didn’t have time to answer eighty-five emails from family members but I wanted to know how they were doing. I knew that there was nothing I could do from so far away but I wanted to know how they were doing.

I contacted my other cousin – Lois’s sister – hoping she would know something. It took a couple of days just to reach her.

I first got a report that they were indeed evacuated but they were all safe. However, in that initial response, they did not know whether their house was still standing or not.

I finally got the news yesterday that the house is fine but that they have not yet been allowed to return home. I was greatly relieved but as soon as I felt that relief I was also overcome by the feeling that my joy that Lois and her family and her home were safe does not lessen the tragedy of the dozens of lives that were lost and the thousands of families who have lost everything they own.

Compassion fatigue is real. As much as we want to feel compassion and empathy with everyone who suffers lost – as much as we want to make them whole – our compassion and our empathy is not limitless.

And even if our compassion and our empathy were limitless, our ability to respond is not limitless.

And when we realize that – as tragic as a situation may be – we do not have the ability and the resources to personally respond.

But when compassion fatigue sets in, we must remember the words of a Jewish sage who said, “The fact that I cannot do everything, does not absolve me of the responsibility to do something.”

Anne Frank, while hiding in the secret annex in Amsterdam, surrounded by hatred and violence and every moment in danger for her life, even in such a situation – Anne Frank could write in her diary, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

There has been no devastating fire in Ventura this week. There has been no devastating earthquake. There has been no one shooting at thousands of innocent people. But there are needs within walking distance of this place. Those needs might not be as obvious as toppled or burned buildings. They may not be as obvious as people dead in the streets. But the needs are real and people are hurting.

For the past month we have been talking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We have said repeatedly that our mission is to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. We cannot let compassion fatigue dissuade us from our call to be faithful disciples. We cannot shy away from transforming the world because the world is too big and too far away.

My compassion fatigue faded to nothing when the lives and the homes that were threatened belonged to my grandchildren – to my cousin. Our compassion fatigue fades to nothing when the threat is to our friends or our immediate neighbors.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to transform the world – and the world begins at our doorstep.

The ushers are going to give you a map. At the center of the map is the very spot that we are gathered this morning. The circles on the map represent a mile and a half and two and a half miles from this campus. Within those circles thousands of people live. Within those circles there are schools, hospitals, nursing homes and preschools.

Within those circles are our neighbors and we are called to love our neighbors. Within those circles is the world and we are called to transform the world.

I invite you to take this map home with you. I want you to put it in a place where you will see it daily – on your refrigerator or on your computer monitor. I want you to pray for the lives of the people who live within those circles. I want you to reflect on the needs of the people who live within those circles. If you don’t know the needs of the people who live within those circles, think of ways that we might go about discovering the needs of those who live within those circles.

On November 4th, we will gather as a congregation for a congregational meeting. We will begin to reflect very specifically on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in this time and in this place.

We cannot say, “I am too old. . .” or “too weak. . .” or “too tired. . .” to do anything. I cannot be too old or too weak or too tired to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Together we can find a way to transform the world that is within walking distance of this place. And “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Amen.