Sermon: November 2, 2014

Sermon: Practicing What Gets Preached                      November 2, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                     21st Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture : Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one a parent here on earth, for you have only one –the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Your steadfast love endures from age to age, O living God, for in Christ you tenderly care for your people. Instruct us in your way of humble service, that we may imitate his saving deeds humbling himself for our salvation and who is now exalted with you in splendor forever and ever. Amen.

Our Experience

Most of you know that in addition to serving as the Transitional Pastor here at St. Paul’s 20 hours a week, I also write grants and engage in fund development for other nonprofits.  The October 9, 2014, edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy to which I subscribe contained a special report detailing charitable giving in every county in the US. (See the map on their website!) The results are fascinating, at least to me, but I admit that fully digesting what the implications of this study are for the church was more difficult than I thought it might be.
What is clear is that the most generous people in the United States are not the most educated, most affluent, or the most liberal. They are decidedly the least educated, least affluent, and most conservative. I found this to be a bit troubling. For instance, we often hear that California sets the tone for what the rest of the U.S. is going to do.  Have we not heard it said: “California is ahead of everyone else?” Yet, the study shows that not one county in California gives in the upper ranges, and the state itself ranks as the 10th LEAST generous state in the union. Is this where America is going?
The most educated and wealthiest two states in our country are Massachusetts and Connecticut. Both have more Ph.D.s per capita than any other state in the union. The average household incomes are nearly double most of the rest of the country, but these two states rank as the fifth and sixth LEAST generous states in America.
Progressive folks are generally the ones calling for social change and more spending for poor, homeless, minorities, immigrants, etc. They are most often found in the blue states. Yet, the top 17 most generous states in the union voted for Mitt Romney in the last election and the bottom seven least generous states voted for Barack Obama. Go figure!
Another clear fact in the study is that the MOST generous people are living in the states that have the most religious practitioners. The MOST generous state in the US is Utah followed by the Bible belt states of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. In each of those states you will find that in at least half their counties, giving to church or charity per capita averages over 5.2% of their income. In states like New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, California, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, there is not one county giving over 3.9%. These states are categorized as the least religious states in the union.
So here we are at St. Paul’s — religious folks, faithful church members living in a not-so-religious state; we have  above average education levels, but we are not giving to charity at a particularly impressive rate, and we are solid supporters for the most part of Obama, but our charitable financial contributions fall quite short of the national average. 1                                   Our Experience Expanded                                                                                                  “Why don’t you practice what you preach?” Have you ever said those words to someone else? Maybe someone has said them to you. I still rue the day that Dayja learned the word “hypocrite!” Hypocrites, as you well know, are people who pretend to be something they are not and on that day I became one. Jesus was quite candid when he told his disciples to follow the words of the scribes and Pharisees, but then warned that these spiritual leaders may act one way in a certain setting and then act another way in a different setting.                                                                                                         It is very important that as Christians, we follow the example of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter where we are or who we are with. The words we speak and the things we do should always reflect our faith. Sometimes we are good at telling other people, particularly our children, what they should do and how they should live, but then we fail to follow our own instructions. We need to, as the saying goes, “walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

Some time ago, I saw a Peanuts comic strip that had Snoopy on top of his doghouse with a flock of baby birds. The time had come for the baby birds to learn how to fly, (it isn’t clear how they got to the top of the dog house) and Snoopy somehow ends up as their teacher. Snoopy flaps his ears and walks to the end of the roof of the doghouse. He leaps into the air and continues to flap his ears. Of course he lands flat on his face. He gets back up onto the roof and shares this lesson: “Do as I say to do and not what I do.” 2

Our Traditions

In Matthew 23, Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples to do what the Pharisees and the scribes teach them to do, “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3). In other words, the leaders talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Why is it important to practice what we preach? The most basic reason is the integrity of our faith; we are the body of Christ for the world. Living into the promises we make, remembering who we are and what we represent says a lot about us and how seriously we take our faith.  Somewhere (front cover of the bulletin) it says we are the only Jesus most people will ever meet.

Re-mything Our Tradition

How do we practice what gets preached? One way is to be careful about the words we speak. You can tell a lot about a person by the words they use, can’t you? You can tell even more by the words they use when they are distressed, angry, or threatened. People are listening to the words we speak. Especially children!  Do our words build people up or cut them down? Do our words bring peace and calm to a situation or do they add fuel to the fire? The words we speak should match the person we claim to be. If we profess that we are followers of Christ, then our words should be a reflection of that relationship. This is a form of good stewardship. My mother always said, “What you see is what you get,” and so we try to act the same wherever we are. When people see us, they should see a reflection of Christ. And you know I have to ask: Do we live our lives in ways that reflect him?          In a few moments we will dedicate our pledge cards for 2015.  This is such an important part of “walking the walk”.  It is through stewardship that we give back to God what has been so generously bestowed on us. The way we thank God for blessing us with special gifts, whether we live in a red state or a blue state is to make a commitment to support financially the work of the church.  Although we did hear from Delores Henry, the chair of a Stewardship and Finance Ministry Team, last week that the payments of our pledges for 2014, the actual dollars receive against the amounts promised, are behind at this time, we give based on our need to give something back to God, we do not give based on the church’s need for money.  Now, having said that, if you are someone who is behind in paying your pledge any effort to catch up with it would be greatly appreciated!                                                 When we become members of a faith community, we make a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus regardless of the cost.  That commitment cannot be expressed in any single action.  What we give doesn’t matter about what our politics are, where we live or how well educated we are – not any of it singularly.  What does matter is that we respect the teachings of scripture in our stewardship practices:  Don’t hoard your resources (Luke 12:13-21), use your resources wisely (Matthew 25: 14-30) and be content with enough (1 Timothy 6:6-10). If we “walk the walk” the result is a rewarding way of life in which our personal relationship with Jesus is enriched and deepened every day.  If we keep the promises we make we have found the key to peace – it makes the world we live in such a better place for everyone.                                                                               I want to close with a wonderful story about “walking the walk”. A man arrived in 1953 at the Chicago railroad station.  He was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that year. He stepped off the train, a tall man with bushy hair and a big mustache. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely. Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. It is reported that one member of the reception committee told a reporter, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.” 3 Amen!


Ever loving God, who has called us together as servants in your church, grant us wisdom, self-mastery and pure devotion as we order our life together, that we may live as Christ’s body on earth, remembering others’ needs before our own, and always seeking your will. Teach us, O God, to love what is good, to resist what is evil, and to fear only the loss of you, so that we might enter your sovereignty where love and mercy reign; through Jesus Christ. Amen.





Sermon: October 12, 2014

Sermon:      Crime and Punishment                                  October 12, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                   19th Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture (Matthew 22:1-14 (MSG))


22 1-3 Jesus responded by telling still more stories. “God’s kingdom,” he said, “is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. He sent out servants to call in all the invited guests. And they wouldn’t come!

“He sent out another round of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, ‘Look, everything is on the table, the prime rib is ready for carving. Come to the feast!’

5-7 “They only shrugged their shoulders and went off, one to weed his garden, another to work in his shop. The rest, with nothing better to do, beat up on the messengers and then killed them. The king was outraged and sent his soldiers to destroy those thugs and level their city.

8-10 “Then he told his servants, ‘We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’ The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet was on—every place filled.

11-13 “When the king entered and looked over the scene, he spotted a man who wasn’t properly dressed. He said to him, ‘Friend, how dare you come in here looking like that!’ The man was speechless. Then the king told his servants, ‘Get him out of here—fast. Tie him up and ship him to hell. And make sure he doesn’t get back in.’

14 “That’s what I mean when I say, ‘Many get invited; only a few make it.’”



Great God, whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and worthy of praise— let us think about these things. May we be strengthened to do what is pleasing and acceptable in your sight by the hearing and exposition of your Word. Amen.

Our Experience

There are seventeen parables in the gospel of Matthew. If I had to choose one that was the hardest to interpret, this week’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet would be a good candidate. And so, whose banquet is it, anyway?

The story is full of violence and I think the illustrations help lift that up. One interpreter calls some of the details “beyond comprehension.” The narrative switches gears in the middle and then the parable ends with a cryptic “saying.”  Jesus said that he sometimes told parables to obscure the truth rather than to reveal it. I do believe that we can take Jesus at his word with this particular story.                                                                  Rome did not execute Jesus for telling feel good stories. So why would we be shocked by a parable that shocks?  ”The parables of Christ,” said Daniel Berrigan, “even the innocent, pastoral, tender, innocuous-seeming ones, conceal just below the surface a whiplash, a shock, a charge of dynamite. The stories set conventional expectations, whether concerning God, religion, politics, vocation, status and class, utterly off kilter.” 1                        Now, this isn’t just any banquet. It’s not a back yard barbecue; it’s the royal wedding of a monarch’s son. Do we all remember the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981? By one count, 750 million people watched it live on television. My friends and I hosted a wedding brunch for other friends while we watched! And as if that wasn’t enough, I also watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Kate Middleton.  Such splendor and opulence is hard to say “no” to. Such an invitation is entirely too good to pass up!

Our Experience Expanded

Melinda Stevens* totally understands this parable.  When Robert Matthews* asked her to marry him after a whirlwind romance of less than six weeks she was enthralled, “over the moon” were her words.  He was everything she was looking for in a partner:  tall, handsome, owned his own business, he was a Christian and he wanted a family.  Her family was thrilled, too, and they adored Robert; at least for the first few months.  One morning Melinda showed up for coffee with her mother sporting a black eye.  She told her mother that she had tripped over the corner of a rug and hit a table.  For some reason, call it a mother’s intuition, Melinda’s mother didn’t believe her but she didn’t say anything.                                                           Robert and Melinda had been married for about a year when she got pregnant.  She later told a counselor that by then he had changed into a monster.  He had hit her before she got pregnant, but he started beating her on a regular basis, often hitting her in the stomach after, she told him she was going to have a baby.  She miscarried the pregnancy during the fifth month.                                                                                        Melinda’s idyllic life had become very complicated.  She was always trying to stay one step ahead of her husband. She spent hours planning and cooking meals she hoped he would like only to have him fly into a rage because she fixed corn and not beans.  She tried to wear clothes that she thought he would like.  Sometimes if she wore something Robert thought was “too revealing” (it could have been a loosely knit sweater) he’d rip it off her and with scissors cut it to shreds.  Melinda lived in terror.  Her magical life had turned into a living hell.  She sought the counsel of her pastor who told her that marriage was a sacred honor and she just needed to try harder to make Robert happy.                                                                           One morning she got up, fixed breakfast and got Robert off to work.  As soon as Robert left she grabbed the bag she had been packing for weeks and left. She went to her mother’s house, but she was afraid that he would find her there and harm her family if she stayed with them, so the police got her into a shelter.                                                                                         Robert knew that sooner or later Melinda’s mother would lead him to her, so he closed his business and parked out of sight near Melinda’s mother’s house.  Sure enough, he followed her one morning to a mall on the outskirts of town where she met Melinda at a baby store.  Robert waited in his car for them to leave the store.  Once Melinda and her mother were in the parking lot Robert put his truck into gear and drove straight into them killing instantly Melinda and the baby she was caring and leaving her mother a paraplegic.                                                                                   What had promised to be the wedding and marriage of a lifetime, picture perfect in every way, turned into a jihad of assaults, insults, violence and ultimately death.  Melinda’s crime?  Only Robert knows for sure.  Her punishment?  Death. Like our parable from Matthew this morning this wasn’t a cute story that ended well. These are both shocking stories that end badly, not once but twice.  Robert was convicted of aggravated assault and given a seven year prison sentence.

Our Traditions

Back to our parable for a minute: There once was a king who prepared a royal banquet for his son’s wedding. After the elaborate preparations were made, he sent out the invitations, however, the people on the king’s A-list refused his extravagant generosity. They spurned an invitation to the most prestigious party in town.                                                                        There is historical precedent for such erratic behavior. On October 30, 1918, King George V and Queen Mary summoned Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence to Buckingham Palace. Lawrence was only thirty years old. He thought the meeting was to map out the new boundaries for the Arabs whom he had helped to liberate from the Ottoman Empire. When he entered the palace ballroom, Lawrence saw the royal dignitaries, the costumed courtiers of medieval tradition, a small stool at the foot of the king’s throne, and a velvet pillow on which there rested numerous medals. This was a rite of investiture and Lawrence was expected to kneel on the stool while the king draped him with a sash, decorated him with medals, tapped him on the shoulder with a sword, and recited an ancient oath. This was all designed to make Lawrence a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.      But instead of kneeling, Lawrence refused the honor. In almost 1,000 years of knighthood, nothing like this had ever happened. A stunned King George and a furious Queen Mary watched as “Lawrence of Arabia” turned and walked out of Buckingham Palace. You could have pushed them over with a feather. 2

Re-mything our Traditions

Back to our parable: After a second round of messengers and invitations, a B-list of guests accepts the king’s invitation. If the privileged people refused his generosity, then he would extend it to “all the people his servants could find.” So at long last the party began.                                        But one guest stood out like a sore thumb. He was a party crasher who dressed in some kind of outrageous outfit, at least for the wedding party of the king’s son! In the royal palace! What was he thinking?! How could anyone be so cavalier? According to B.W. Johnson, a biblical scholar from a century ago, “It was the custom among the ancients for the guests to be twice invited; or rather first invited, that they might prepare themselves, and then summoned a short time before the banquet, that they might be there at the proper time (in the right attire).” 3 The actions of the king (whom I remind you Jesus makes an allegory for God) were as senseless as Roberts killing of his wife. We don’t want to be married to men like Robert and I dare say, the king is a far cry from what we expect from a loving, peaceful, gracious God.

So what are we left with?  What can we take home this week from this message?  We can think that whatever is true is what we want to believe. But one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.  An estimated 1.3 million women in the US are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. We can think that whatever is honorable is what we want to believe, but witnessing violence in the home is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior from generation to generation. What is love without honor?

          We want to think that there is justice.  Almost one third of all female homicide victims reported in the US, like Melinda, are killed by an intimate partner.  When we talk about justice it is important that a punishment be suitable to the crime? We want to believe in a certain quality of purity in our lives of faith. Globally, between 35% and 50% of all women have experienced intimate partner violence or non partner sexual violence in their lifetime.  This includes women of faith.

Whatever is commendable is alright by us, right?  And yet boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise in our lives then if we understand that globally there are risk factors for being a victim of violence including a lack of education, witnessing violence between parents, exposure to abuse during childhood and attitudes that accept violence and gender inequality and not have solved this social crisis by now.

Scripture tells us to think about these things.  It also tells us to keep doing the things we have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus and we are promised that the God of peace will be with us. And that is what we take home.

Yes, we will think about these things and Jesus knew this.  Jesus preached to a crowd that probably anticipated that the punishment seldom fits the crime.  He was talking to people who anticipated that the master would eventually be irrational. This is a story for every woman who ever pledged her love to the heart of a rogue.  This is a story for the 18.5 million people every year who seek mental health counseling to cope with their experience of intimate partner violence.

We are to keep doing the things we know are right, the things that are good, the things we have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus and  then we are assured that the God of peace, will be with us.                                 As with the parable of the Wedding Banquet there are things going on in our own culture, under our own roofs, in our schools and at our jobs that are staggering and unbelievable and unacceptable and against every law of human decency ever imagined. And yet, just acknowledging that isn’t enough.  We must pray and we must act.  When we are invited to a wedding we must hope and pray and watch to ensure that the marriage is violence free.  When something we see just does not feel “right”, does not make sense, we are duty bound to act, to report it to authorities who are trained to handle these violent situations. And yes, we must pray that God will teach us anew to be guided by Jesus Christ, to be a witness of hope to all victims and survivors of violence.  We pray this in the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.


In times of difference and division, save us from rancor and meanness, O God. Help us focus ourselves on things that are excellent and worthy. Make us witnesses to your way of justice and righteousness. Transform us and transform the world, we pray. Amen.


1  Daniel Berrigan,  Love at the End: Parables, Prayers and Meditations, 1968

2 Note: The story about Lawrence is told in many places. I have followed the account in the excellent book by Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia; War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Middle East (New York: Doubleday, 2013), 577pp.


3 From The People’s New Testament, B.W. Johnson, 1891.

* These names were changed.


Sermon: October 5, 2014

Sermon                                                                                                       October 5, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                           World Communion Sunday

Scripture: EXODUS 20:1-20 MSG

Introduction:  Even if you didn’t grow up in the church, I am willing to bet that you were familiar with the Ten Commandments, right?  And I have preached at least two other sermons on them during my sojourn with you, so there is no escaping a test this morning!  I am going to recite the first part of each commandment in order and I want you to fill in the blank:

I am God, your God.

1: You shall have no. . . other gods before me.

2: You shall make no. . . graven images.
3: You shall not take …the name of your God in vain.
4: You shall remember … the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
5: Honor your … father and mother.
6: You shall not  … kill.
7: You shall not commit… adultery.
8: You shall not …steal.
9: You shall not … lie, bare false witness.
10: You shall not covet your neighbor’s … house.
11:  You shall not covet your neighbor’s … wife/spouse.

12:  You shall not covet your neighbor’s . . . servants, animals, or anything else.


Left side: Exodus 20

Right side: Leviticus 19

Choir: Deuteronomy 5


Gracious God – may the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our strength and our guide.  Amen.

Our Experience

>      You shall have no other gods before me. This seems to be fairly straight forward, doesn’t it?  In Hebrew times, gods were small statues, about ten or twelve inches high, often made out of wood. I can’t imagine that any of us have small pieces of wood in our homes that we worship. But before we start feeling too smug, we do have material possessions in our lives and in our homes that we do venerate and cling to in some situations more than we revere God.  I am pleased to report that I have closed out my storage unit and my piano is now safely residing in St. Paul’s library.  I do need to get Howlett to show it a little love to make up for all the years it sat shrouded in the dark, but it looks good and sounds fine. Why would anyone in their right mind store a piano for six years?  I mean, really!                        >       And as is spelled out in the next commandment that means no carved gods or goddesses, or plastic trinkets or metal bling or sports equipment of any ilk (not even that set of Big Bertha gold clubs)! I suspect this also means chocolate and coffee, too. . . .                                                     >       So let’s just move on to ”You shall not take the name of God in vain.” Whoa!  Some of us are in deep trouble already – preacher included. This couldn’t be any clearer: you shall not curse or swear. Lucky people that we are we live in a time when folks actually keep track of the outrageous number of swear words in the movies we see and the music we listen to. Even TV is allowing more obscenities to be spoken in its regular programming. The volume of filthy language that assaults us on a daily basis has grown enormously. I am not aware of any kind of movement to change this.  Are you?  It is all about the freedom of expression according to one 19 year old authority (Dayja) with whom I have had this conversation.             >       Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Choir, what does Deuteronomy 5 say about observing the Sabbath? There is to be no work on the Sabbath, including no work for one’s donkey, oxen, manservant, or maidservant. What day of the week is the Sabbath in this text? (Saturday) And as we know our Jewish friends still celebrate Saturday as their Sabbath as do Seventh Day Adventists. Do any of you happen to own a donkey or an ox? Do any of you have servants? Someone who comes and cleans your house, perhaps? How many of us have jobs that demand that we work on Sunday? Ralph George, the Bucks, Olabisi, Goldie, Jonathon – several of us! So this commandment at least as it is spelled out in Deuteronomy clearly refers to another culture and generation, but what does it mean for us today when we have to work on Sundays?                                                     This Commandment teaches us about the importance of rest and being with community particularly in worship. There needs to be a period of time for our bodies, minds and spirits to truly rest. We need a time to focus on this book, the Bible. We need to come together as a community to listen to the word together, pray together, sing together, worship together, and be together in the Spirit of Christ.  It is up to us to make that happen, preferably on Sunday morning at 11, but if not, then sometime during our week.                                                                                                >        Out of all the commandments perhaps the next one has taken the biggest hit.  Honor your father and your mother so that it will go well with you. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and denizens of LA have just vicariously witnessed the shooting of Daniel Crespo, Mayor of Bell Gardens, by his wife following an argument and the alleged beating of their son by his father.  As more details are leaked to the press and law enforcement, it appears that this was a highly dysfunctional family.                  One of three mission goals established by the PC(USA) concerns reconciliation and peacemaking where there has been violence.  Knowing how important it is to reconcile our differences with our parents, I found myself pondering this week what that would look like for the Crespo family? Our Presbytery sponsored an event last weekend to address this very concern. This is the event that Mary, Lois and I attended last Saturday and it was very good, but we are still left to explore for ourselves what honoring our parents means in today’s world in which families are so badly fractured. >  You shall not murder. Just four simple words, but they hold so much complexity. There were two mothers on a panel last Saturday at the Presbytery event both of whom had lost their sons to senseless, wanton drive-by gun violence. We have been engaged in wars which went nuclear and hundreds of thousands were killed. 54,000 men were killed in one battle during the Civil War in essence brother killing brother. And the United States has far more people murdered than any other developed nation in the world and we have imprisoned more people for murder than any other modern industrial state. What is it about this commandment that we don’t get? And no one that I am aware of is addressing adequately the specter of black on black violence.

Our Experience Expanded

>      And we could ask the same questions about the next commandment: You shall not commit adultery. I can’t tell you the last time I performed a wedding for a couple that was not already living together.  I remember finding my mother crying in the bathroom one morning.  This was years ago.  I asked her what was wrong.  She sobbed that my brother was living in sin.  I ask her, “Which one?” meaning which brother.  She sobbed back “Adultery”. I sat her down and asked what was going on.  It seems that my brother Phil had moved in with his girlfriend Karen.  Before it was over all of my brothers lived with their girlfriends without benefit of marriage.  My mother was never truly OK with this but bless her heart, she claims to have eventually gotten used to the idea.        It helped when she liked the particular girlfriend!                                                                                          >       Is the next commandment just about shop lifting? Or does it have anything to do with 10% of the world’s population owning 90% of the earth’s resources? Do the rich steal from the poor when they keep the poor down and poor?  It is really clear to me that Jesus had very high expectations of those of us who have means and live well.  Do we always recognize that everything we have comes from God? How good are we at sharing what we have?  Our Stewardship and Finance Ministry Team has been asking us that question in various forms for the past five weeks as we commit to our annual St. Paul’s pledge campaign.                                                              >       When I was a small child we had a saying:  Liar, Liar pants on fire hanging on a telephone wire.  It was a way of calling someone out when we either thought they were lying or hoped that they were; decidedly an era before Wi-Fi and cyberspace!  I am not going to stand before you this morning and preach about bearing false witness against your neighbor. There isn’t anyone sitting in this sanctuary this morning who doesn’t know how wrong it is to lie to anyone about anything.                                       >       And the same thing could be said about another injunction: You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse. Lusting after or getting involved with someone who is already in a committed relationship has never made sense to me. Even having counseled with a number of my single, female friends who have gotten involved with married men, who then dumped them for someone else, I still don’t get it. Particularly when my friends act surprised! I have been told on a number of these occasions that the heart wants what the heart wants, to which I reply, God gave us heads to temper our hearts and some really good rules that it is terribly wise to follow.                  >      And last but by no means the least we are told not to covet that which belongs to our neighbors. I can remember as a twelve year old wanting a Barbie doll because several of my friends had them.  They had just come out in toy stores everywhere and they were very popular.  I was told that I was too old for a Barbie doll, any dolls for that matter. I learned years later that my mother also didn’t like the image that Barbie projected.  We didn’t have this conversation until well into my adulthood, but my mother knew Barbie would become a less than desirable icon for women and she was right. Possessions like cars, homes, clothing, boats, jewelry, vacations, cabins, and an opulent life style all become objects of our desire and, I fear, we are taught to be envious at any early age.

Our Traditions

Does anyone care to guess how old the Ten Commandments are?  (3400 years). How many times have these commandments changed or been edited during the past 3400 years? (They have been tweaked, but there were no significant changes.) Why? (Because, it seems, human nature has not changed noticeably over the course of history.) Now, there have been all kinds of changes in the lives of human beings. Civilizations have changed. Knowledge has changed. Medicine has changed. Science and technology have changed. Politics and political systems have changed. Nations and borders have changed. Government has changed. Indeed, perpetual change is the mark of the human experience whether we like it or not.                              Meanwhile, even though all these social changes have been going on for 3400 years, human nature has not changed. Today, 3400 years later, as we have just been discussing, people still worship various gods, still swear and cuss, still don’t find time to worship, and we still have problems honoring our parents. Today, people still murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, and we still covet other peoples’ spouses and property. Change is all around us, but human nature seems to stay pretty much the same. People still need the Ten Commandments; the Ten Principles for human community, as much today are people did 3400 years ago.                                                       Every century, generation, denomination and society applies these Ten Moral Laws differently to their particular time in history. We find such differences of application within the scriptures themselves:

  • How many basic commandments are there? (Ten?) It depends on how you count. We have three recitations of the basic commandments in scripture: In Exodus 20, Leviticus 19, and Deuteronomy 5. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, we do not have Ten Commandments but twelve. In the Lutheran Church list of the Ten Commandments there is no mention of the commandment about not making graven images.  How do you suppose they pulled that off?  Someone read us the fourth commandment from Exodus (20:8-11).  Now Deuteronomy (5:12-15). Now what happens to no graven images in Leviticus 19?  (It is one sentence [verse 4] and is elevated to the third commandment.)
  • The commandment not to kill can be either the 5th, 6th or 7th commandment, depending on how you number them. You shall not murder or kill, took merely four words in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, but what does Leviticus have to say about murder? (nothing)  In Leviticus commandments 1, 6, 7 and 10 are omitted but the commandment related to the Sabbath is mentioned twice (verses 3 and 30). Leviticus 19 starts with an admonition to “be holy because God is holy.” Now what do you suppose happened between Exodus and Deuteronomy and Leviticus that could account for the differences? (The emphasis shifted, new editors came on board with new or different problems to be solved.)

Re-mything Our Traditions

What I am suggesting to you today is that every generation and every culture needs to freshly apply the Ten Commandments to their own situation and wrestle with what the meaning of the commandments are for our daily lives. And I will be the first to admit that it is not always easy doing this.              In the first five books of the Bible, which are called the Law, (Torah) there are 613 laws, rules and regulations (mitzvoth) for human society. Would somebody from the Leviticus reader’s group like to take a guess at how many rules are mentioned just in this one chapter? (There are 34 very different and extremely varied rules including the rules for breeding animals, instructions about not cutting the hair on the side of men’s heads and no tattoos, rules not found in either of the lists from Exodus or Deuteronomy.)               Who can tell us how Jesus interpreted the Ten (or the Twelve) Commandments? Jesus said that there were only two commandments and the whole Old Testament rested squarely on these two commandments. “You shall love God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” For Jesus, “This was the first and greatest commandment.” Now, which text was Jesus sighting when he made this declaration?  Exodus, Deuteronomy or Leviticus?  For Jesus, this is the first and greatest commandment. But what is its source?  (Deuteronomy 6:5) And the second was like it for Jesus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now where did Jesus find that commandment?  (Leviticus 19:18) This is a classic quid-pro-quo:  We cannot do for others what we cannot do for ourselves, so if we don’t like and take good care of ourselves we cannot possibly take care of others, but we also cannot take better care of ourselves then we are willing to take of others.  How radical and different do you think that sounded to those following Jesus?                                                                                  When God handed Moses the Ten Commandments all equally displayed on two tablets, Moses was really clueless about the impact that they would have on him, on the wandering Israelites, on their oppressors or on the rest of the world.  The fact that the Ten Commandments have endured seems to me to speak volumes both about their validity and their value to us.  God was in essence saying to us:  Take these two tablets and then call me in the morning.                                                                                                        The tablets that God gave to Moses and lots of consistent, daily prayer can indeed be used to cure the ills of the world; we just have to learn how to be faithful to them.  On this World Communion Sunday 2014, the world is a mess.  There is fighting everywhere and gun violence surrounds us.  3400 years later we still struggle with knowing what is right and acting on it.  Perhaps for just a moment as we participate in the Lord’s Supper with faithful people around the world we can be at peace both within ourselves and with others.  May that be our hope and our prayer.  Amen.


We are good at rules: making them and then breaking them. Paul reminded us that, when we gain Christ Jesus as our Savior, we receive exactly what we need – forgiveness, grace, hope. Help us to be more faithful to God, that we might know God’s healing love for us! In God’s good grace we pray. Amen.


Sermon: September 28, 2014

Sermon                                                                                           September 28, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                   16th Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Matthew 21: 28-32

28 “Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, ‘Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.’

29 “The son answered, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later on he thought better of it and went.

30 “The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, ‘Sure, glad to.’ But he never went.

31-32 “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John the Baptizer came to you showing you the right road. You priests turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.


Prayer                                                                                                                                 Speak to us, great God, through these scriptures. Remind us again of    your everlasting power. May we know your story and our place within      it. May we remember your mighty works and deeds, that we might   know that you are the God of all ages. May we claim your promise and   share your love. We are listening, God; speak to us today. Amen.

Our Experience

How many of us have made promises we didn’t keep?  Our intentions were good.  It made sense at the time and then something happened, things changed (our mind, the context, the situation) and we didn’t do what we had intended to do.

        What was the last promise you made to someone? ”Yes, honey, I’ll take out the trash after dinner.” Or “I promise we’ll give you a promotion in six months.”  Or “I’ll be there. I promise.” Or the promises we make to ourselves: I will start that diet next week.  And years of unmet New Year’s resolutions certainly spring to mind!
Most people make commitments to others all the time. The question is how often do we keep our promises? Is it really possible to follow through on every single commitment we make in life? How many pledges do we break and when faced with failure or at least falling short of our own expectations, how well do we handle it?
Just so we are clear, a promise, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is: “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified; or a legally binding declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act.”  This second definition sounds like an Old Testament covenant between God and a well-intentioned Israelite to me.
Unfortunately when we don’t keep a promise to someone, it communicates to that person that we don’t value him or her. We have chosen to put something else ahead of our commitment to them. Even when we break small promises, others learn that they cannot count on us. Tiny fissures develop in relationships marked by broken promises.
We are not only communicating all of this to others, we are telling ourselves that we don’t value our own word. We think it is okay to let someone down, to say something we don’t mean, or to fail to follow through on something we said we would do. Not keeping a promise is the same as disrespecting ourselves. Ultimately it can harm our self-image, our self-esteem, and the quality of our life.
Our Experience Expanded                                                                   Now, some of us have the ability to make more commitments than we can keep.  I wrote this sermon last week while pondering a request from the Stated Clerk of our Synod to serve as the moderator of an Administrative Commission for one of our Korean churches.  This is a lot of work and it is a volunteer kind of thing so I found myself in serious prayer and discernment mode for almost 24 hours before deciding.                                                    I kept asking myself, why me? What do I bring to this request? These cross –cultural experiences with Korean Presbyterians have a steep learning curve for me! I always have to be very careful because God has imbued me with an abundance of altruism and good intentions. I have a birthday card from a dear friend pinned to the bulletin board in my office that states:  “I feel certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world.”                       And, of course, haven’t we all taken on something for what we think we might receive. And are we or are we not above saying “yes” in the hope that someone will like us just a bit more.  Has anyone here ever told someone what you believed they wanted to hear so that they’d be happy?             Above all else I do believe that it is always important that we be honest with ourselves about why we are committing to something. I have even upon occasion asked myself, “What am I getting out this?” Just responding to that question can clue us in as to whether or not we should make the promise or take on the additional responsibility in the first place.                I am not always the best judge of this, particularly if I really want to do something, but I do ask myself, “Am I being realistic?” My life moves some days at the speed of light and I often have to pick and choose how I spend my time. Dayja has just moved back home and although she perceives herself to be totally independent, that isn’t necessarily my experience of living with her.  I do have a schedule to consider.  Ultimately it always seems to boil down to, “Is this a promise I can keep?”  Certainly it is always better to under-commit and over-deliver than over-promise and fall short.

And there is always the question:  What would Jesus do?  As cliché as it sounds, it is a spot on question.  What would Jesus do?

Our Tradition

Just before our parable passage this morning Jesus had entered Jerusalem and turned the tables in the temple of the moneychangers. The chief priests don’t like Jesus and constantly question his authority. Jesus flips this question of authority back onto the priests by asking a rhetorical question about the authority of his cousin John to baptize. It seems that John the Baptist was much loved by people and he was seen as a martyr at the hands of Herod’s rule. Now, the priests were far more concerned about their public image than they were about being consistent – a problem not unfamiliar to fundamentalist folks of any faith even to this day! Not wanting to make the crowds angry with them over not believing in John, they couldn’t answer the question Jesus had asked of them, and so Jesus refused to answer their question.                                                                   So, what does Jesus do?  He tells a parable!  Imagine! This is the parable of the two sons: We have a child whose change of mind results in following a parent’s request for help on the farm with faithfulness, while the other child who claims he wants to follow the instructions of his parents  doesn’t.

Jesus, whom we like to think likes everyone, appears not to like the priests any more than they like him. It is clear to most students of scripture that the hypocrisy of the priests is their ruin. These are the good guys, the keepers of the faith and the holders of tradition; but were they the good guys? It seems that Jesus had a very low tolerance for religious hypocrisy.  Jesus’ heart went out to the poor, the widows, the orphaned, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, people who had been left out on the margins of society. The priests were supposed to be serving God by serving the poor and oppressed, but they really served only themselves.

Re-mything Our Tradition                                                                                                                                    The parable of the two sons, is a metaphorical tale with a moral. The priests that Jesus is in dialogue with are put in the place of providing an answer that undermines their own authority and implicitly recognizes the establishment of a new one. Jesus has trapped the Good Guys.  If they answer his riddle, his questions, one way then x will happen, if they answer another way then y will happen.  Neither answer is to their liking.  The two groups are not so much representative of the “haves” and “have not’s” as they are of the fact that the chief priest and elders have lost touch with both God and the people while those whom they have identified as outsiders are the very ones who are speaking and living the truth. 1
What has this to do with us? We are in a time when within our churches and across much of the Christian world we are being challenged with the question of authority: ours and that of the church. We see “holy wars” fought diabolically because of someone’s interpretation of the Koran. There are still Christian churches that will not ordain woman based on their understanding of scripture and slavery was the order of the day for centuries in this country based primarily on a half dozen scripture passages from the Bible.                                                                                                  As people of faith somewhere, sometime we made a promise.  We said, “God, I promise to follow you, to serve you, to share your love your grace and you word with the world.”  We became part of a community of faith to help facilitate our promise where we could best hear of, be embraced by, be liberated with, and be responsible to the God who created, redeemed and sanctified us.
Shane Hipps in his excellent book, Selling Water by the River, has a wonderful quote that captures some of what is going on in our passage from Matthew: “Some, in an effort to protect and preserve the gospel message, have become like the guards in a museum, fueled by fear that its treasures could be damaged or stolen if they are not vigilant in their watch. They have mistaken the good news for an ancient artifact that needs to be protected. But that is not its nature. This dominion is a lot more like a tree. God is looking for gardeners, not guards. A guard is trained in a defensive stance of fear and suspicion. A gardener is motivated by love and creativity” (Selling Water by the River).
Perhaps this passage is challenging us to consider the ways we act as the second son. After all these years we are still the ones who are confronted daily by fresh and sometimes strange voices who are calling for a kind of faithfulness that seems foreign to us. All around us we, inheritors of a rich history, can hear the voice of Jesus in a strange cadence that perks up our ears while at the same time causes us discomfort. We desire a faithful response to God’s call but wind up as guards in a museum protecting a treasure.
There is also the possibility that we, as followers in the way of Jesus and as members of the church, may wind up like the first son; resisting the voice of God, fearing change and refusing to follow, but eventually working as master gardeners in an ever-growing garden.
Are we in need of fresh eyes and changed hearts in order to be faithful to the God revealed to us in Jesus? Should it be a constant challenge for us to follow a person who regularly confronted calcified authorities in order to bring about new life? Given the age of Christianity and its identification with so much of society in the western world, are we now in the position of the chief priests and elders? Have we become guards of an ancient treasure or are we gardeners growing both heirloom plants and sturdy hybrids, and adapting as the garden grows? 2

What are we?  We are people who have promised to love and serve God.  Promises are important! They speak to who we are, they express our intentions, our good intentions, and the good assurances that come from our hearts, making us the good guys. It is up to us to make good promises and it is up to us to make our promises good. May it be so!  Amen.


Great God, help us to go bravely and boldly into this world of confusion and pain, bringing your healing words of love and forgiveness. Help us to keep the promises we make and to be mindful of the power of mercy and grace in our lives because of your amazing love of us.  Amen.

                1                                                                 2

Sermon: September 7, 2014


Sermon:  “Where two or three________.”                      September 7, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                13th Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Matthew 18:15-20 MSG

15-17 “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell her—work it out between the two of you. If she listens, you’ve made a friend. If she won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If she still won’t listen, tell the church. If she won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront her with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.

18-20 “Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, our Creator in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”



Creator of all worlds, we lift up our souls to you. All the earth is yours; all who dwell here are your children. We seek once more to experience your truth, to receive your blessing, to ascend above the limitations we have known. You are strong and mighty beyond our imagining. We aspire to become more than we have believed ourselves to be, individually and together. Amen.

Our Experience

I begin with a statement that will shock and amaze some of you: The church is full of troublesome people.  I once offered to teach a seminar for our presbytery on “Dealing with Difficult People.”  My work with the Mary Magdalene Project had convinced me that seminary did not prepare us for this particular fact of church life.  David Meekhof who was our General Presbyter at the time looked at me rather startled and then said something to the effect that it would be futile because no pastor would ever be willing to concede that some of his or her parishioners were troublemakers.  In other words I was wading into dangerous territory and the workshop never happened.

Speaking of dangerous words, Ann Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, talks about drive-by shootings of the mouth, words by which, in the course of an ordinary day, we take one another down.  Friends, strangers, family members, we are all survivors of these, and we are, when we least expect it, shooters. 1

Relating, reacting, refuting, reporting, rehearsing, redefining:  these are the uses of words; and these are the spiritual exercises we daily practice. Jesus trusts us to be honest and tender in the words we use perhaps for no other reason than we may at some point have to eat them.               Is it any wonder that Jesus admonishes us, saying it is not what we put into our mouths that pollutes us, but what comes out of our mouths, for he says, what comes out of the mouth comes out of the heart, and reveals to all the condition of the heart?  The very idea of this should make us stop and ponder every word we speak.

Our Experience Expanded

I want you to complete the following sentence:  Where two or three are gathered. . . . (a) Jesus will be in the midst of them, (b) there will be a church, (3) there will be conflict, (d) all of the above.                                     It seems that Jesus did not have high expectations of us:  Where two or three are gathered. . .  there he will be, for sure!  Where two or three are gathered. . .  there will be a church!  Where two or three are gathered. . . there will be conflict.  As I survey the world we live in I have to surmise that Jesus wasn’t too far off the mark. Just last week there was an article in the LA Times about a Methodist pastor now serving here in Southern California who last year was defrocked for officiating at the marriage of his gay son. This century began with a holy war and we have watched in horror as an angry Brit who has taken on the cause of the infidels we have so easily learned to loath beheaded two American journalists over the past two weeks.  During our Pastoral Prayers we will be praying for the people of Queragosh in Northern Iraq.  This oldest Christian sect has been the target of extermination by ISIS.  And rather than coming together for a common good our politicians can only come up with more rancor and malice, heaping coals of contempt on our President as if there was one simple answer or response to the myriad crisis in the world that would make it all better. . . not that the naysayers have workable solutions to any of these situations, either. Have you noticed? No one is saying to us that everything is going to be alright.

Our Traditions

According to Matthew Jesus gave pretty specific instructions about resolving arguments.  You sit down and talk about it.  And if there is no listening, no hearing, no change of heart or behavior you bring in someone else to sit down with you. And if that doesn’t work, you go back to the beginning and start the conversation all over again.                                    Agreed, this is not as easy as it sounds.  Ask the Market Basket cousins, Arthur T. and Arthur S.   Endless boardroom meetings seem only to make it worse and their boycotting employees certainly know whom they like the best. They have brought this company to its knees. Ask Congress.  Ask any couple getting a divorce if they tried talking, and many will say talking was what ended the marriage in the first place. Now, there can be no talking without listening. As for listening, well, it depends on how our hearts hear the other person:  as an enemy, as a wrong-doer, as someone we need to instruct, as a betrayer . . . or as a friend.                                               And we can take this to the next level.  How does a parent forgive the drunk driver who kills their daughter?  Frederick Buechner says of forgiveness,

To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something      wrong that needs to be forgiven . . . When somebody you’ve wronged        forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. . .When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded    pride. For both parties forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence. 2

How long we might ask, O God, before this forgiveness will bring peace to the hearts of the rejected and the forbidding?  How long before this forgiveness will arrive in the hearts of the pious in their prayers?  How long before this forgiveness will allow love to enter the hearts of Christians who are appalled by so many bedrooms, never their own?  How long before this forgiveness will arrive to allay the fears that drive Americans to purchase so many guns?  How long before we will be at peace inside our white and black and brown and yellow skins, and be glad in each other’s presence?  How long before the promise of every Lord’s Supper will become a lived reality?

Re-mything Our Traditions

On my birthday I sometimes splurge and buy a copy of the New York Times, find a quiet corner, get a cup of coffee and devour the paper from beginning to end.  This year was no exception.  It seems that Jo Nesbo had written an Op Ed piece earlier in the week which I had missed, but I did not miss the import of this response:

To the Editor:

In “Revenge, My Lovely” (Sunday Review, May 4), Jo Nesbo argues that insistence on revenge helps move civilization along. He implies but does not convince that forgiveness does the same thing.

I keep learning about forgiveness from a group of lifers at the huge Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. They have learned that while terrible crimes cannot be forgotten, they can in some mystical way be forgiven. That forgiveness strengthens them to move toward productive lives inside the prison.

Many help younger inmates who will be released learn a marketable trade. Recently, I asked a small group of the lifers how I should respond to an acquaintance who believes that “we should lock ’em all up and throw away the key.”

“He was talking about you,” I said, expecting the men to join me in my anger. But to a man, they said I should forgive my acquaintance:

“We’ve done much worse, and God’s forgiven us.”

“When he knows that he’s forgiven, he’ll want the best for us, too.”

These men were given life sentences partly to satisfy society’s need for revenge. But it is their acceptance of forgiveness and their desire to pass it on that gives them — and us —hope; a civilizing kind of hope.

New Orleans, May 5, 2014 3

We all know of churches that have been totally undone by backbiting and whisper campaigns. It can be devastating and not just to attendance and finances, but it’s devastating to the Christian witness emanating from a body of Christ. When that happens, the church ceases to be a place of forgiveness, grace, mercy and above all else safety. One might say that it ceases to be a church in any discernible fashion.                                                St. Paul’s understands that forgiveness is meant to be at the core of who we are, and we know that if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our church can be a holy place in an unholy world where holy relationships can flourish. And, it’s something that we must keep practicing like it is in our DNA and we can’t imagine living any other way. For Jesus, there isn’t another way. Amen.


God of constant mercy, who sent your son to save us: remind us of your goodness, increase your grace within us, that our thankfulness may grow, through Jesus Christ the one who forgives and saves.  Amen.




3 New York Times, May 5, 2014 Letters to the Editor