Good for Nothing 
Sunday, October 8, 2006, 08:00 AM - Sermon
Mark 10:2-16; Job 1:1, 2:1-10

There are no state regulations specifying how much time you spend with your children, unless you are divorced. Then parent and child time can be measured with a stopwatch and be a subject of legal battles that make strike negotiations look like carry-in dinners. One night I went to the county jail to pick up a friend who was arrested for going to pick up his child for visitation. He was on his ex-wife's porch to pick him up...and as the police officer showed me in the restraining order, he was ordered to keep 25 feet away from his ex-wife. She called the police and off to jail he went. The officer was intent on showing me the letter of the law, pointing out the phrase in the order with his finger. He was a good officer doing his job. I told him, “My friend disobeyed the restraining order and he's in trouble. What can I do to help my friend?” He looked at me and told me to go to the county jail and wait to give him a ride home. The officer didn't have to do that, he could have stopped at telling me what the law was. But he did more that he was required and told me how to help my friend. Talking to my friend later, he was fine with his choice. He gladly would do it again: risk jail to see his son. He would do more than he was required, more than he was allowed, to be a Dad.

Jesus faces the question of divorce. He asks what is allowed, what is legal. What is the commandment? They told him that Moses commanded them to give them a certificate of divorce. (Deuteronomy 24) This was actually a protection for the woman, previously a man just had to repeat three times, “I divorce you” to divorce his wife. The problem with this, she had no proof that she was free to marry again, and the life of an adult unmarried woman was difficult. Moses was taking a step toward fairness in an abusive male dominated world. Yet exception soon slides into a rule, then a right, then an expectation. So today we have churches picking up the Wiccan wedding vow: “As long as love shall last,”,which is a way of saying “until divorce do us part.” It seems to me to be giving up at the start of the race.

Jesus points out that “Do we have to stay married until death do us part?” is the wrong question. The answer is obvious: no, divorce is legally possible. It is tragic and heartbreaking, yet sometimes the best solution. But the question focuses on what is legal and allowed instead of what is God's good purpose. It focuses on the minimum legal requirements instead of the maximum of God's gracious will. Jesus wants us to ask what is God's purpose, and strive for blessing instead of living for loopholes.

This is the sad conclusion of Bible worship: the reduction of the living faith of God's people into merely a set of rules and laws. It is as if we were given a wonderful cook book and we used it to argue what braising means exactly and look with suspicion at the people who used the cookbook to have a dinner party. How can they take the cookbook seriously if they are serving those meals all the time? We starve ourselves when we stop at the discussion of what is the rule, not what is the purpose of God that the rule witnesses to.

During the debate at Presbytery last Friday we were informed that the Bible trumps the Book of Order, as if they were competing rule books. How sad. What a misuse of the Bible. I suppose the Bible trumps the Ohio Vehicle Code, but I hope everyone will still follow the traffic laws instead of Deuteronomy when they drive home today. The Bible makes a poor traffic manual even though it is the rule of faith and life.

You see, The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God's Word to me. It is tragic to reduce the Bible to a rule book of loopholes and handcuffs. In our Mark reading today, scripture is used to reduce marriage to a piece of paper. Exactly what the secular society accuses the church of doing…and we help this perspective when we reduce the Bible to a rule book instead of the book of life.

My friend risked jail to visit his son. In the years since, he was been to court in two different states spending $13,000 winning 4 court decisions to see his son. Did he have to do any of this to be his father? No, he will always be his father, but that is the wrong question. Does he love his son and want to spend time with him, to help raise him? How can he do that? What does it take to love? That is the question, and it goes far beyond what is required by law.

Christians are good for nothing. We are good even though we don't have to be. We are good not because we have to, not to earn God's rewards, not for as long as love shall last, not because the law tells us we have to, but because we believe that God's law is blessing not curse, a place for life and love to begin, not a way for freedom to end.

Some have said you cannot regulate morality, we do all the time, murder, stealing, rape, are all moral matters and regulated in all societies. What you cannot regulate is love. Forced love is obligation not love. Love of God and love of neighbor: Jesus tells us that all the law and prophets can be summed up in loving God and neighbor. The laws are to get us to move in the right direction toward love. If you are only doing what you have to do, if you are following the law of God, it is a great start. But for the love of God, don't stop there. Push on into love of God and others.

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Time for Sacrifice 
Wednesday, October 4, 2006, 12:29 PM - Extra Christy
I visited an Extra Christy reader who is a clock repairer recently. Gary's workshop is full of small tools and smaller parts as well as clocks and watches of all types.

I saw two identical mantel clocks, except one was in good shape and one was not: numbers were faded away from its face and ornamental handles were missing. He told me the sad looking one belonged to a customer. He had repaired the inner workings, but now had to decide whether to sell parts off his good clock to restore the customer's clock.

Put yourself in his place, are you in the restoration business, preserving timepieces, or are you in the repair business, fixing clocks? It is hard to take a perfectly good timepiece that you have rescued and restored and then cannibalize it for parts for someone else's clock. Almost vandalism!

Sacrificing perfection for restoration reminded me of the great hymn to Christ in Philippians:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness-Philippians 2:5- 7

I'm glad that Christ gave up perfection in heaven to come to us here on earth to restore broken humanity. Maybe my clock repairer friend is closer to Christ's work than he realizes: sacrifice for salvation can be found in old clocks and rugged crosses.

Hope you make time for others today

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You Me Us Them 
Sunday, October 1, 2006, 08:00 AM - Sermon
Mark 9:30-37

The disciple John tells Jesus that he tried to stop someone casting out demons in Christ's name and tried to stop him because he wasn't us. Note that John couldn't stop him from being part of us. (We can be thankful that today we have copyright laws and patents to stop such things!)

Hudson Presbyterian Church's web site has words about them. “They” don't believe like “Us”. “They” are not biblical like “Us”. Such words do not lead to peace. “They” talk does stir up people in a political not faithful way. Now the session of Hudson Presbyterian Church wants to leave us.

How do we react? It is instructive that this comes this Sunday, World Communion and Peacemaking Sunday when we celebrate in worship our desire unity and peace which every deacon, elder, and pastor affirms in their ordination vows. We could react badly, which is always my first choice, asking for the money Goodyear Heights gave to start a Presbyterian Church back, comes to mind. I hope when we come together as Presbytery on Friday we will react better than my first impulse. Which is kind of the idea of Presbytery: We are better together than alone.

That is the first impulse when we are hit. To hit back. To divide up us against them, for us and against us. Hot or cold. Stand with us or you're the enemy. Back me up or I'll turn my back on you. That kind of talk cannot help but lead to isolation and conflict.

Look at the biblical principle in the words of Jesus, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” One has to try hard to be an enemy of Jesus. You don't get it just by default.

Years ago, the attacks on the Presbyterian Church (USA) came from outside the church. Imagine that. Back in the good old days when I was a young minister and knew everything, a neighboring minister put an ad in the paper stating membership in the Presbyterian Church would not get you into heaven. He listed not only the Presbyterian Church, but every church in town but one. I gave him a call, and pointed out that he left his church name out of the ad. I told him we were not his competition, but Saturday night bars, Sunday morning golf, and everyday apathy were; that the devil was laughing at Christians fighting among themselves leaving him a clear field. I like to think we had a good chat. I do know the negative ads ceased.

I took a proactive approach with the next new independent minister in town. Or you can say I was very annoying about another independent minister; He came to town as an evangelist to start a real church. Month after month, I would show up at his door at 6:40 AM to pick him up for the Ministerial Association meeting. I pretended not to notice he wasn't expecting me nor dressed. He never told me to stop coming. I thought he should know about the other churches in town, to make sure he knew he was a part of a larger Christian community, not all alone. I think we were good for each other. He kept us honest with his impatience with well worn ways of the pastor patriarchs of the community, and we introduced him to faithful folks outside the circle of he and his. He even spoke at the joint community service. Did a fine job. We became colleagues instead of competitors, though we couldn't have been more different.

Whoever is not against us is for us is a way to peace. We should always be working for the widening of us, and the narrowing of them.

Jesus then goes into graphic description of the single mindedness needed to enter the kingdom of God. It is poetic, a metaphor, an illustration, not an instruction. Not to let anything, not even a body part, slow you down in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God. This is another way to peace. What can we do to be at peace with one another as Jesus commands?

Focusing on the destination and not on the distractions is a way to peace. In anything worth doing has many obstacles. Folks like to point out problems because it excuses them from being part of the solution. There is a story about a rich man who called his pastor and said he had been a tither since his youth, but now that 10% was a lot of money and it was hard to give away that much money. The rich man asked his pastor to help him pray to relieve his burden. So the pastor prayed: “Lord, reduce this man's fortune until he is able to tithe again.” The man was focusing on the obstructions: writing a large check instead of the destination: a more spiritual life and freedom from the bondage of the love of money.

Taking my son to University of Cincinnati I was caught in a traffic jam on the interstate. We went 5 miles in an hour. This plus other festivities, such as a power outage at our home put our arrival in Cincinnati at 1:30 AM instead of 11 AM. I had to remind myself I wasn't in a traffic jam, I was being a father to my son, taking him to explore his future, helping him on his way.

Do you know why parking lots are in front of the new stores like Wal-Mart? So you can focus on the destination and the not the distractions. We see the door, we know the end in sight, we can put up with wading through a sea of cars to get there. I believe we Presbyterians like America have lost sight of the promised land. We are looking at the bumps in our path instead of the glory ahead. We used to be the land of opportunity, the beacon of freedom for the world, proud of our diverse ethnic heritage. Now we celebrate fences instead of beacons, and spying instead of freedom.

We need to get our heads up from looking at the ruts in the road and see the promised land before us. Follow our dreams instead of our disappointments. Then we will move forward together into peace.

Our reading ends with the command from Jesus to have salt in yourself. Salt is something that when added to food, changes the food without being changed itself. We are called to change the world, to bring peace by our presence. I was the chaplain for the Ottawa Fire Department in Ottawa, Ohio. I went to the meetings. Firefighters were a little different than the church people I usually hung around with. So, I told some of them, that maybe I shouldn't go to the meetings, I mean I didn't think I was helping as a chaplain; the guys would still yell and curse at each other. They told me, “No Rev, You gotta come! When you're not here, there's fistfights!” Salt. We are the change the world for the better, for peace, without being changed ourselves, even being unaware of our effect. To be salt of the world we have to be involved in the world. We have go to the meetings, because if we don't; there could be fistfights.

Peacemaking is folding You, Me, Him, Her, and Them into Us assuming whoever is not against us is for us.Peacemaking is focusing on the destination and not the distractions towards peace.Peacemaking is being salt, being a taste of peace in a world that is too often spoiling for a fight.
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Two from Two Three 
Wednesday, September 27, 2006, 11:04 AM - Extra Christy
The best known Old Testament passage is probably Psalm 23, "The Lord is my Shepherd..." A funeral director told me that he always prints Psalm 23 on his funeral announcements because of two words out of the 115 that make up the entire Psalm. They are in verse 4:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. - Psalm 23:4

"Walk Through" is what he focuses on in this psalm. He counsels folks that one does not get over a death or around it, or anything but through it. The other word, "walk", tells us that the grieving process takes time to get through, it is a walk, not a sprint.

Maybe that is why Psalm 23 is a favorite psalm of folks. Faced with shallowness and hurriedness of modern life we yearn for depth and tranquility. Sadly, it often takes a death to make us slow down enough for God and loved ones to get through to us.

Try walking through part of your day today, you just might find the comfort of God waiting for you.

Photo by AV4TAr on Flickr used by permission

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Business as Usual 
Saturday, September 23, 2006, 08:08 PM - Other
Although I had planned to be a minister since my high school days, I chose business administration as my undergraduate major. My reasoning was that I would get plenty of religion in seminary, and my business knowledge would help me relate to my congregation and the rest of the "real world".

My first clear example of the value of a business background was when my supervisor handed me a scrap of paper on which was written the following:

One of the members of the congregation had found dozens of scraps of paper with these words and numbers written on them all over the house. They had been written by his recently deceased wife. He was confused why she would have written this message over and over. He asked his pastor, (my supervisor), what these messages meant.

My supervisor confessed that this was one of the hardest questions he had been called on to answer, since he could think of no sane reason why his wife would repeatedly write this phrase and then count the letters.

I looked at the scrap of paper, and remembering some of my Marketing 101, I asked my supervisor if this woman had been involved in retailing. He said she kept the books for a local store for years. I told him that some merchants use a ten-letter phrase that doesn't repeat any letters to code their costs on sales tickets and other documents. Maybe this was her store's code.

A phone call to the store proved that this was the case. The husband was relieved to know his wife wasn't fixated on the numerology of “Fear Thy God”. She had just taken her work home.

This first appeared in Monday Morning magazine in the early eighties when I was in seminary.

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