Archive for February, 2010

A Prayer for Those with Aspergers and Autism – God’s Own Children

Nathan

I watched him once

Through the windshield of my truck,

As if peering into one of those

Glass orbs that we shake full of snow.

He pranced from the step of his school bus

Shaking off the cruelty of his day

Like a jacket tossed thoughtlessly on the floor,

And became one

With his neighborhood.

It struck me that

Nathan is

Not a spectator

Passing through, but

Permeating, penetrating

As watercolor

Spreads across a linen canvas

That most of us can merely gaze upon.

As if excitedly chatting up his very best friend,

He greeted wren with mimicked flutter,

A secret handshake from

A club I cannot join

And in which I am not welcome.

They both know I could not last the hazing.

He returns

Gray squirrel’s nod of head and wide wave of hand.

A downy wisp soaring on an

Unseen zephyr.

Or is he like the zephyr on which we all float,

Unrecognized grace – a mighty fragility

Roaring by, to which we all seem deaf.

There is Goodness in his gait.

Stooping in wonder

To examine a tiny marvel among the pea gravel,

He turned

Aside to see that great sight,

Barefoot in shoes upon the Holiest ground.

How long has it been since

I have had time for such things?

There is Truth in his bones,

A devastating beauty…

Far beyond my reach.


– by Max Ramsey, August 21, 2007

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The Safest Place to be is the Center of God’s Will?

The Safest Place to be is the Center of God’s Will?


Our first reading is from the fourteenth chapter of Matthew.

Matthew 14:1-12

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “The is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. They they went and told Jesus.

Matthew 11:2-19

When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see; The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“’I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“’We played the flute for you,

and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they way, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.’”

[Pastor Max Ramsey] May God’s Word be a seed in the soil that is your life. May it grow there and blossom and bear good fruit, and will you pray with me, a sinner.

Lord these passages that we have read today are about the costs. They are about the blessing, but they are also about the costs of discipleship. So this morning Lord, when we enter the dangerous place of talking about the costs of discipleship, let it be Your Word that is heard today.May the words of my mouth and my mind and my heart be pleasing in Your sight.

We pray these things in Your Son’s name,

Amen.

So often we revel in the blessings of this faith, and we should revel in the blessings of this faith but we should also take time to deeply understand the blessings of this faith. We love all the “good” stuff that makes us feel great.  We take our youth groups to great concerts and they leave ecstatic. We sing wonderful music in worship and we feel ecstatic.  If we’re not careful we begin to think that we can live every moment as though we’re on a mountaintop.  If we’re not watchful we wonder where the joy is, and where the happiness is in those moments between mountaintops.   We love the “idea” of discipleship, but we ought to stop and consider the reality of it.  There is a cost to discipleship.  There is a cost.

When I was a boy someone who loved me very much taught me these words: “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will.”   I’d like you to think about that little phrase for a moment. “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will.” Martin Luther King used to use those words and I’d like you to think about that for a minute – “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will.”

Some other words that were also used by Martin Luther King and taught to me by someone who loved me very much, were these: “God’s Will will never take you where God’s Grace cannot keep you.”

Has anyone ever heard these words before, particularly the first one, “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will”? The person who loved me very much would tell me that at night before I went to bed. So I grew up believing that Christianity was a “safe faith”; not a dangerous faith, but a soft and safe faith. I grew up subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) believing that if you follow God you will become comfortable, rich, and successful. Has anybody else ever heard a person in a pulpit or a Christian classroom tell you that? Listen quietly to your heart. Have we ever danced with that superstition? The superstition tell us that if we just do the things that please God then our lives will become easier, and we will be blessed with prosperity. Has your mind ever visited that thought – Follow God, do God’s will and you will become comfortable, rich, and successful?

So brothers and sisters, I ask you this. Why is the Greek word for witness, martyr? Why then is the Greek word for witness martyrion—martyr?

What is a martyr? We get all sorts of distorted ideas about it these days in the media, some from our faith, some from other faiths. What is it to be a martyr?

[Congregation: To give your life for a cause.] Yes. Now why do you suppose it is that witness and martyr are the same word when we have all came up in a religion or faith that has taught us that the safest place to be is the center of God’s will?

[Congregation: Because being a Christian isn’t necessarily being safe. Maybe the person who told you that had a different understanding of “safe” than we usually think of.] Yes. Maybe we deeply misunderstand that language about being safe, particularly if we take it on worldly terms.   Maybe we badly misunderstand what it is to be “safe”.

I think that Satan’s greatest ploy over the past 100 years is not to assault Christianity… Satan’s greatest ploy has been to put Christianity to sleep.  For all intents and purposes, the mission of God has gone to sleep.   Satan’s ploy is to trick us into thinking that the waters of baptism lead us to Sunday School, when the truth that Scripture gives us is that the waters of baptism lead us to the cross, and to a new life in a Kingdom that this world cannot see and that is dangerous to the values of this world. The Christian project is not to take people out of the waters of baptism and into the safety of the Christian community, as though that’s where the story ends. Scripture tells us that the Christian project is to take disciples out of the water and into the living mission of Jesus Christ.  And that is dangerous stuff.

Now here’s the Biblical side of that—the historic side of the Christian journey. The bible gives us this: You are an exile in the world outside these doors. You are an alien in this earthly world. You are a citizen of a Kingdom that this world has not yet seen. The Kingdom from which you come and the Kingdom in which you hold your citizenship is alien to the people that you are surrounded by almost every day. And so brothers and sisters because of your faith, because of that which you proclaim in the waters of baptism, you are an exile in your offices, in your places of work, as you walk down the street, here in Brookfield, Milwaukee, and West Allis. Because of your faith, you are not only an exile, but you are a dangerous exile because what you believe is dangerous to the culture that surrounds you. The radical love that you bring to the world is a threat to power and that is dangerous. The radical love and grace that you live with your life is a threat to those who can only understand their relationship with God in legalistic terms.  Your radical freedom in Christ is a threat to those who cannot relate to anyone in any way that they cannot personally control.  Living in love is a threat to those who operate from fear.  And so this faith is not safe in any worldly sense.  Ours is a dangerous faith.

What makes it so dangerous?  First, the Christian memory is a dangerous memory.  When I use the term the Christian memory what am I talking about?  Who do we remember? We remember Jesus.  What do we remember about Jesus? Did he have an easy life? Did he retire with a golden umbrella? Did he land somewhere in Key West?…flippin’ burgers down there with Elvis? What happened to Jesus?  [Congregation: He was crucified.] He was crucified for what? For teaching and living God’s Word in contradiction to what… [Congregation: to that culture.] …to the culture, the world’s view at that time. Do you think that that time and this time are really all that different? Do you think that you live in a Christian culture? No, you do not. You live in a Roman culture wearing the cloak of Christendom. Do you think that the principalities and powers that Paul speaks of are not threatened by your message of radical love and radical equality?  Do you think that your belief in a Kingdom not ruled by human beings doesn’t threaten the people that surround you? It does!

Second, your faith involves dangerous promises. Think about the promises. What are the promises the Bible gives us? [Congregation: Eternal life.] Eternal life, and not just on the other side of the river but on this side of the river, so that the values of the other side of the river cross over. That’s a dangerous promise. The kingdom of God is not later after you die. The kingdom of God is now! That’s a dangerous promise given that many people think that they already occupy that throne in your life.  What are some of the other promises? [Congregation: He will never forsake us.] He will never forsake us, yes.  Absolutely. In a world of flakes whose word means nothing, our God is a stand-up God.   Other promises?

John’s message was “make straight the highway of the Lord, flatten the high places, raise up the low places”. What’s he talking about? Is he talking about a society that’s coming that has one percent that owns everything and 99 percent that owns nothing? No.  What’s he talking about? He’s talking about a Kingdom that levels the playing field on some level. That’s dangerous.  This is not an economic conversation—you can have that conversation with Gene and Klaus later. It’s a values conversation, but be careful because the two are not unrelated. And one other very dangerous promise is that there is power in the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit can change you—and that’s dangerous. When we bring the promise of the Kingdom to people with the promise that the Holy Spirit will change you, our faith becomes dangerous.  Our faith is dangerous because some folks don’t want to change, they don’t want to grow, they don’t want to be different. They like the philandering, drunken lifestyle that they have been living, thinking that that lifestyle is feeding their souls and not understanding why their life is falling totally apart. The Holy Spirit threatens the status quo. And so we have a dangerous memory and we have dangerous promises.  So brothers and sisters, you do not live a safe faith. You live a dangerous faith.

Our faith spoken and lived can mean social suicide. How many of you have lost a friend because of your faith? I lost all of my friends because of my faith. As soon as I said, “I’m going into the ministry,” they all looked at me and said, “What?” And one by one they are all gone. This faith will not make you friends in the world—not if you live it in truth. If you go to a friend and you say, “You know that I love you—you know that I love you—and I want the very best for you.” And you say, “But when you live your life that way, sticking your money up your nose, chasing after women who are not your wife, God can’t bless you.” When you talk that way with people, that’s a dangerous faith that can cost you your social circle.

Your faith can also can mean career suicide. This is not a faith you can count on to bring you business (despite what the Christian Business Directory tells you).   If you stand up for justice in an unjust workplace, what will happen to you? What will happen? [Congregation: They’ll fire you.] You will get fired! Is this a safe faith? No.  If you stand up for a little guy in one arena because it is God’s will to do so, you may pay for it in the arena of your business life because the life you live shines a light on the lives of people who seek only their own profit and don’t care how they get it.  This is not a safe faith.  It is a dangerous faith.  Consider the cost.

When we say these words, “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will,” let’s think for a moment about whose faith story we can apply the words to.  How about Paul?   What happened to Paul? [Congregation: He was imprisoned.] He was thrown in prison—is that safe—and then what? [Congregation: He was killed.] He was eventually executed there. What about Stephen? What did they do with him? [Congregation: He was stoned to death.] They stoned him—let’s just think graphically about that for a moment. Is that a good way to go? How about Andrew? There is a cross that is called Andrew’s Cross because he was crucified on it. How about Peter? Phillip? Do I need to keep going?   How about in modern times?  How about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He stood up to the dominant culture of his time in 1930s Germany. First the Nazified church persecuted him.  Then the Nazi Party persecuted him and sent him to a concentration camp where he died with those who had no voice, and whose voice he sought to lift up in the name of the Christ he claimed to believe in. How about Martin Luther King who used to use this same terminology: “The safest place to be is the center of God’s will”?  He would say those words to his people as they marched into the fire hoses and into the face of the snarling police dogs—“the center of God’s will is the safest place to be.”  What did those words mean to them?

Bear with me just a few more minutes. In our passage today we learn about the demise of John the Baptist. If anyone ever lived life in the center of God’s will, surely it was John. What became of John the Baptist? He was beheaded for telling the truth. The story goes something roughly like this: He was thrown in prison because Herod said, “How am I doing John?”  And John said, “Well, not real well. You’re…uh…committing adultery.”  That wasn’t the good news Herod was looking for, so Herod put him in prison.  And then, at the whim of a harlot, he had John – God’s own messenger – beheaded.  Now, look closely at our second passage, which actually comes chronologically before our first reading.  Jesus’ ministry begins to take off.  There are rumors, whispers, that he might be the one.   And from prison, John sends a messenger to Jesus saying essentially, “Are you the one?”  I think John’s messenger is also trying to find out the answer to another undocumented, by perhaps implied, question, “ And if you are the one, do you think you could swing by and get me out of jail because I’ve been doing your will? I have been in the center of your will and someone told me that that is the safest place to be. So…uh…you know… when you get done with the healing and the preaching, could you come by and just spring me out of jail?  Could you hook a brother up?”

And Jesus’ response is what I would like you to embrace today, which is the truth about our faith—this is a dangerous faith that you have chosen. Jesus doesn’t tell John that he is going to come to his rescue.  Jesus’ response is, “Blessed is the one who does not lose his faith on account of me.”  Jesus, in these words, has answered John.  Jesus will not be getting him out. How must that have been heard by John in the context of this faith?

John becomes a casualty of the cause with these words, “Blessed is the one who does not lose his faith on account of me.”  Wow.  Really?  Oh, man. Ouch! What does that mean for you and me?  What does that mean when we put our kids into the water of baptism?  What if it was your kid whom you encouraged into this faith that is behind bars, persecuted for standing firm in their faith – the one that you encouraged?  What if it was your child that Jesus was talking to when he said, “Blessed is the one who does not lose his faith on account of me.”?  This is not a faith for the faint of heart.  It is not a faith for the half-committed.  There will be casualties.  If John’s life was less important than Jesus’ mission, how much less important are our lives compared to the mission?  And yet you and I are called into the mission of Jesus Christ by Jesus Christ himself.

The courage of this faith cannot come from the knowledge that you or I will be spared. John the Baptist wasn’t spared. This faith offers us no such promises.  The courage of this faith must, in some part, come from the knowledge that there is something that you and I are connected to that is more important than even our own lives.  There is something at stake in what we are called to do that is more important than even our own lives.

Amen.

(Preached by Max Ramsey 1-4-08)

A Broken, And Yet Resurrected, Heart

From the sixth chapter of Genesis, beginning at verse 5.

Now the Lord observed the extent of the people’s wickedness, and he saw that all their thoughts were consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry that he ever made them. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will completely wipe out this human race that I have created. Yes, and I will destroy all the animals and birds, too. I am sorry I ever made them.

So God said to Noah, “I have decided to destroy all living creatures, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Yes, I will wipe them all from the face of the earth!

“Look! I am about to cover the earth with a flood that will destroy every living thing. Everything on earth will die!

Luke, chapter 23, verses 44 to 46, and this takes us back to the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and his last moments.

By this time it was noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the thick veil hanging in the Temple was torn apart. Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words he breathed his last.

When the captain of the Roman soldiers handling the executions saw what had happened, he praised God and said, “Surely this man was innocent.” And when the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw all that had happened, they went home in deep sorrow. But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching.

As we consider these words from scripture, let’s remember that God’s Word can be found in these words. And God’s Word is life.  It’s not ink on paper, it’s bigger than that. It touches us, it sears us and it changes us, makes us new every day. We, as Christians, are in the season of Easter, and, as such, God has put it on my heart to visit aspects of Easter today in a different way.

And so I would just ask that you pray with me, a sinner…

Father, I was reading the Bible again today. I always see something new when I read it.  You speak to me through it.  Today you told me something I wasn’t expecting to hear.  You told me that your heart is broken.  You told me your child died some years ago.  I knew because I saw the part in the passage where the temple curtain was torn in half.  Am I right that that was you tearing your clothes in grief?  I remember being at a crime scene once where a young man had been murdered.  The street was chaotic.  It was dark except for the headlights and flashing red lights – police lights were red back then.  I saw the boy’s mother.  She was on the adjacent corner being told that it was her son under the blanket in the intersection.  I don’t know if anyone else even noticed her.  From across the intersection, I could see the breath catch in her throat as her soul tore in half, and people rushed by as if nothing at all was going on.  Her life was coming to an end, and the world did not even notice as she fell to her knees in a ball.  Family members helped her away.  I don’t know what became of her.  Today, I can almost see you like that.  I can almost see you ripping your clothes and crying out at the death of your son, as the whole world went on as though it was just any other day.   I can hear the rough fabric of the shroud rip, and I can hear the unmistakable wail.  I know the sound.  I have heard it.  I tremble at the thought of what it must have sounded like coming up out of your soul that day.  It must have swallowed up the whole world.  When I hurt… when I am devastated… I cry out to you.  But…who do you cry out to?

What’s wrong with me that I never saw your pain the way that I see it now.  I keep skipping over your son’s murder and jumping right to Easter because Easter brings me hope as if it’s all about me.  Even you must wonder sometimes at how awkward everyone is with you; not wanting to bring it up; not wanting to talk about it.  I have people in my congregation who have lost a child…and they know that their child is with you in heaven.  And how silly and wrong it would be for me to tell them that their child is in heaven and expect that that will heal their shattered hearts.  Their hearts broke the day they lost their children.  Why would your heart be any different?  I am sorry that it took me this long to come and sit in the ashes with you.  What’s breaking your heart today?

Even as I ask the question, I am catching myself thinking that in the loss of your son, at least you have lots of children.  I almost told you that.  I am sorry for even thinking it.  Can you imagine the pain the agony that statement would cause in one of these mothers here who have lost a child?  There will never be another human being like the one that they loved and lost.  And yet I almost said that to you.  I am so sorry.  Am I breaking your heart today?

What is breaking your heart today?  Is it the people who come by the food pantry on Saturday looking for a little hope in a small bag of groceries?  Is it that some of these, your children, are so lost and alone that they would even think for an instant that they could find life at the end of a dirty needle?  Maybe it’s the girl I met last month.  Is she breaking your heart?  Is it that this, your child, who has lived so long misunderstood and overlooked and used by everyone in here life that she has begun to cut herself just so she can feel something meaningful?   Until today, I haven’t even stopped to listen to what is breaking your heart.  Another boy was shot last night on the North Side, and I don’t even know his name.  He was your son, too.  I can’t help but wonder if the fact that I never made an effort to know the people on the North Side hurts you more than the death itself.  Is it like salt in the wound?

What is breaking your heart?  Am I breaking your heart today?  You spent countless thousands of years preparing this sunrise for me, preparing this day for me.  And not only did I forget to thank you, I didn’t even notice.  I was so absorbed with getting this service together and getting everybody up and dressed and here on time, that I didn’t even notice the day that you shaped and sculpted for me to walk in today.  Your tore your clothing that day so long ago.  Do you do that every day?  Your son laid down his life so that I could know you personally and come to you personally, and I have taken that gift for granted over and over again.  Am I breaking your heart today?  I got mad at my wife the other day.  When my wife didn’t meet my every expectation, I got mad because I forgot that you bent the universe from its beginning to prepare me to be a blessing to this woman, the woman that you prepared to be a blessing to me.  And I didn’t even notice.  I didn’t even say, “thank you”.  I had no sense of grace.  How awful that must feel.  I never meant to hurt you.   Am I breaking your heart today?

“It grieved him to his heart” relates the writer of the Noah cycle of Genesis.  A sentiment repeated three times in Hebrew means “Very Great”.  And so very great was your woe that the earth was flooded.  Did anyone notice that it was your tears that flooded the earth?  Where did they think that much water came from?  Divine tears.  Does anyone even notice now?  I always bring my wants and wounds to you.  And I never even thought about asking you what you want.  I never thought to ask you what wounds you and how I can help you to heal.  Maybe heal isn’t the right word.  Maybe that’s an arrogant sentiment.  Maybe what I mean is just asking how I can validate your woundedness and walk with you in it.  You didn’t have to open your heart to us to wound.  But you did.  You placed your beautiful heart in our hands.  And we broke it.  Not once, but over and over again.  Who do you cry out to when your heart is broken?  When you scream out your pain into the vastness of the universe, what do you hear back?  Who touches your shoulder and tells you it is going to be okay?

I can’t carry what you carry.  But I can listen.  I am listening now.  What is breaking your heart today and how can I walk closer with you?

Amen.

(Preached on 4/06/08)

Vision:

Growing into Christ

Purpose (DNA):

We are engaged in a personal and shared life journey driven by life-changing encounters with Jesus that lead us to accept people where they are and encourage them to find their gifts from God and go deeper into the vision of “Growing into Christ.” We have come to understand that our calling is to bring others with us into developing God’s mission here on Earth.

3 Seeds:

We give ourselves away.

We connect the disconnected.

We live life together.

Woe Bent Beneath Oaks

Woe Bent Beneath Oaks

Woe bent beneath oaks.

Bald-hot day.  Dear friends with quivering hearts,

Milling,

Unsure of who or what or how

To do this awful thing.

There is a wrong-ness

Here

That this ebon robe

Can’t correct.

And yet, a rightness,

Too. A coal dark sky,

Black cotton shrouds its terror,

Looms, distant thunder…but doesn’t

Strike.

It’s as if its battering is waiting its turn.

Another kind of battering occupies this patch

right now.

How odd to put you in the ground.

Ashes to ashes…we all fall down,

Something

Like that.

O, the wail that has brought us all to this day,

So long and short in coming.

Jessie with the smile so bright,

Gone now from our sight.

Pony rides etched in marble face,

Washed away among God’s tears.

Le petit blanc ange – he cannot hold you.

Neither can the earth, though it is your inheritance.

Your heart now carved deep into mine.

I’ll remember you.

Will you remember me?

Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines in Pieces on the Ground…

Joe Stack, it seems, has been collecting wounds and grudges for a long time.  In his manifesto, he cites at least 21 different agencies (Including the U.S. Government, the IRS, and the Catholic Church) that have done him wrong.  And in that long list of agencies and entities there is not one mention of his own responsibility in the troubles that have plagued his life.  And so, having “had enough”, he got into an airplane and flew it into an office building in Austin, TX yesterday because he felt that “violence was the only answer”.  Joe Stack was Dillon Kleibold with a pilot’s license. Mr. Stack’s manifesto makes the implied claim that his act of murder was actually a sacrifice of love on his part for the good of all of us little people out here in need of redemption from forces that we are powerless to control.   Life gets really, really dangerous when we forget that the real meaning of love is being responsible for our choices and our actions.

I have heard a few people say that Joe Stack’s reasons for his homicidal act would resonate with people.  I have heard them say that something must have “lit his fuse”, as though what lit his fuse and caused him to commit murder would in some way mitigate the horror that he has now visited upon multiple people and multiple families, none of which he has ever met or even seen a photo of.  My fear is that people, good people, are susceptible to half-truths more so than they are to outright lies.  The truth in the half-truth is that we are all a little bit un-trusting of the IRS.  It is almost the right of every citizen to bad-mouth the tax collectors.  Everyone is a little bit afraid of being audited and having the audit not go well.  And we are all more than a little bit afraid of going to jail over a simple mistake that we might have made navigating our way through an overly complex tax code system.  But the person whose life Mr. Stack took is not “THE IRS”. They were a human being with hopes and dreams and family.  The victim of this murder was probably more like you and me, than they were different from you and me.  What shall we tell the person’s child?  That their mommy or daddy was justifiably killed for the sins of the institution of taxation in a righteous act of indignation?  Anyone who has ever had to deliver news of the death of a loved one to a terrified family across the threshold of a front door and has seen their reaction might have more than a little trouble swallowing that explanation.

When did it become acceptable in this great country to sentence an office worker to death for holding a job in an office of the IRS in Austin, TX because they might be, in some long drawn-out way, loosely connected to someone or some agency that at some point in our lives did us wrong and cost us time and money?  When exactly did that become the law of the land?  What shall we tell the child of that office-worker to explain the unbearable loss of a parent? I sit in stunned silence as I listen to well-meaning people who I love dearly venting their frustration with economic forces bigger than they are by saying that what Mr. Stack did was in some way justified.  Murder is never justified.  This was not a depression-induced suicide – a tragedy beyond compare.  This was premeditated murder of an innocent (if any of us are innocent) that involved the collateral death of the perpetrator.  This was a narcissistic act devoid of any responsibility, a horror over which Satan is having a wonderful laugh at the expense of those who have lost someone they love and can never replace.  We all should think twice before we say that anything about this murder is okay or justified.  We should be careful about saying “amen” over these graves because every business, every church, every governmental organization, and every living person on this planet has done something that a selfish person with an hugely inflated sense of self-importance might see as a crime worthy of capitol punishment.  We are all guilty.  And we are all innocent.  If we buy into the half-truths and irresponsibility of Mr. Stack’s manifesto, the flying machine that we find in pieces on the ground might well be everything that we in this great country hold to be good, and worthy, and true.  How sweet will our dreams be when we consider that there might be some lunatic out there that considers it justifiable to knife down our loved ones because they think something they did justifies snuffing out their life?  Chaos has visited Austin, TX, and we should all fear that more than we fear the IRS boogeyman.

The Present Kingdom (8-13-06)

(Transcript of a sermon given on 8-13-06)

John 6:35-51

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

[Pastor Max Ramsey] May God’s Word be a seed in the soil that is your life. May it grow there and blossom and bear good fruit, and will you pray with me, a sinner.

God of  All,  you have prepared us to hear your Word today. If that is not true, then we will not hear your Word today. We pray that you open our hearts, that you open our ears, not to my words but to Your Word. We have come here as we are, broken, tired, in need of living water. Only you are the source of that. May a blessing fall on all who come here and may that blessing be by Your hand.

In Jesus’ name we pray,

Amen.

Good morning! I love this passage even though it’s kind of hard to follow. You know those maze games you find in kids’ menus and elsewhere, where you sort of find your way around the maze?  Well, the language of this text kind of works like that. But one of the things that I really like about it, is that in a troubled world where we’re killing each other over religion, this emphasizes a counterpoint in our faith that sometimes we miss. Everyone picks up on, “No one comes unto the Father but by me.” But often we miss the other part that’s found in this passage, where it says that God prepares us to understand and receive his Christ. God prepares you and me to meet Jesus and to understand that Jesus is no ordinary carpenter’s son, but is, in fact, the Messiah. And we cannot meet the Christ until God has prepared us to meet Christ. And if we have met Christ, then it is because God has prepared us to do so. Christ is the pathway to God’s heart because Christ is God’s own heart come here to live among us. Only Jesus Christ has come from God and so only Christ can take us home to God.

So many of the people we encounter in our mission field are like the Pharisees in our story. They will say that they believe in God, and when they say that, what they will mean in their heart is that they believe God exists. And they will be in pain and they will be hungry, not because they don’t believe God exists, but because they don’t know God personally. It is that personal relationship that fills us up and makes us whole. That is what makes Christianity so different and so powerful. As our passage suggests, God is not fully knowable. Take a minute and think about that. The immensity of the divinity is beyond our scope but Jesus gives us access to God’s own heart because Jesus is God’s own heart come to life in our midst.

In our passage Jesus has been rejected by those who claim to have known him his whole life. Jesus has made some audacious claims. He has claimed to be the Christ, and the people of his town think he’s lost his marbles. How can he be the Christ, this same squirrelly kid who grew up among us, the son of the carpenter down the street? But Jesus doesn’t stomp his feet and demand belief. He says that those whom God has prepared to know him, will recognize him. He says to his disciples that he has not come down from heaven to do his will, but to do the will of the one who sent him. Who sent him? GOD…creator God. So he has come to do God’s will. An aspect of the Christ that we sometimes miss in our culture, or intentionally underplay, is that Christ’s perfection includes obedience to the will and the voice of God.

Jesus goes on to say that the will that he is obedient to has called his people to eternal life. We have to be careful because for too long, “eternal life” has been interpreted as life on the other side of the river—life after death. But the actual wording here is life in the age to come, and he’s speaking about it in the present tense, not the future tense. So what Jesus is telling us is that to believe in him is to see the Kingdom of God in this world, and to intentionally live in it in this life. It is that Holy vision that dispels our hunger because it frames our hunger in a new and very different light. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” And it is that Holy vision that eases our suffering because we see pain and suffering as a passage instead of a destination.

When we see Jesus and know that he is the Christ, then we see the Kingdom of God that is all around us. It may be in the midst of things that are not of God’s Kingdom, but it is a present Kingdom nonetheless. This has been a tough week. I have shared tears with you and I have seen tears come from you. I know of two young fathers who died suddenly this week—one hit by a car and the other from a sudden heart attack. And I was personally touched by the murder in Pewaukee that took the life of a mother at the hand of her son.

There are several people in our congregation who are facing very hard choices. There are difficult relationship issues going on in our lives this week. When the rain comes, and it will come, and when the tears come, and they will come, God’s Kingdom is very present. Even in the midst of this kind of excruciating journey, the Kingdom is very present.

That brings me to my first story for today. On our mission trip, we were working in a little town in Louisiana just across the border from Mississippi called Bogalusa. Can anyone tell me why Bogalusa was in the news a lot in the late 1960’s? That’s right, a lynching of a young black man. The KKK was very active in Bogalusa, and a young black man was lynched there. At the same time that they were arming themselves, the black community was arming itself as well. And so this town was on the verge of an explosion and the President had to order the Governor to send in the National Guard. So that National Guard had to put down what would have been an armed civil war in this little town of 8 or 9 thousand that most of us had never heard of. Does that sound like the Kingdom of God? NO.

Our small multicultural team was called to go into Bogalusa to labor in the home of a woman who had lost her husband just a few months before, probably due to extended exposure to mold in their flood drenched home. He had refused to leave the home because it was his family home. There was a level of poverty in that home and in that section of town that we do not see here in Milwaukee very often. The house had lost its center beam in the storm surge and was inundated to three feet with foul floodwater. A year after the storm, it had not yet been mucked out. We went in to build a structure within the structure so that when the old house fell away, which was an “any day now” kind of possibility, the new structure would be in place to build around. We went in without judgment, and you would have been so proud of Immanuel’s kids, the way they pitched in to help this women who had seen so much, and had so little. And there was genuine communion and fellowship in that home as we ministered to each other. We broke bread together and we talked to God and about God together. And we prayed together. And God was as present in that rat-infested home as God is present anywhere else in the world. Does that sound like the Kingdom of God? YES. And we went because we were called to go. We went because we believed.

It is important to understand that when the rain comes, and it will come, and when the tears come, and they will come, that it doesn’t mean that the Kingdom has slipped away. Behold. It is simply a reminder that we are not in charge here. God has prepared us to see Christ at work in the midst of all things—good and bad. When the call comes that a friend has died, you go to their family because God has called you there and because you believe. And in the midst of that horrible grief you search out Christ because God has prepared you to find him. The deepest of connections are made, and prayers are offered up to God, and love is shared. Does that sound like the Kingdom of God? YES.

What I haven’t told you is that in Bogalusa we went out of the waters of Baptism right into the war for souls that I’ve been telling you about over the past few years. Three of our team members were just baptized last spring—two here and one in Missouri. They have drawn their line in the sand and have sided with Christ and his Kingdom in the most tangible of ways. In that devastated home in Bogalusa, Louisiana was the presence of God, and with that presence, the Kingdom of God. But less than fifty feet away was a fully functioning open-air drug market complete with 10-year-old lookouts on every corner, and buyers driving through making purchases. And the war shook the very ground. The gates of Hades were being stormed. The choice was never so clear. Choose the Kingdom and the Christ, or choose the crackpipe and pistol. When we were packing our gear—no more than 30 feet from the open air drug market—one of the drug kingpins, a very large man of about 25 years old came up to one of our kids from Immanuel Community church and said, “You came all the way down here from Wisconsin? What for?” And the young man replied calmly, “We came down to help.” The drug dealer replied with a mocking laugh, “You’re a fool.” But as I stand here today, I tell you that a seed was planted—maybe not in him, but in someone who was watching. And I tell you that the soil was good. And something of the Kingdom will grow in the hearts of those in that crack house who witnessed God’s presence that day. They never bothered us. They never harassed us or stole from us. They never threatened us, because, I believe they know God exists and that we had come in the way that his Son would have come, as his Son taught us to. They kept selling drugs, but there was an eerie something in the air that day. And I think that it was this. To say that I believe in God as to mean that I believe that God exists is to say nothing at all. I saw the mocking face of Satan that day in the face of that young drug dealer. You see, even Satan believes that God exists and even Satan knows that God has power over every living thing. But what makes Christ and his followers different is that when we say that we believe in God, we mean that we know God’s heart so well, through our personal relationship with Jesus, that the will of God is becoming our will in ever growing ways. Christ gave up his autonomy to be God’s servant in the world and to call us—each personally—to do that same thing. Satan believes that God exists, but serves only his own interests and uses others to further those interests.

And so the Christ that God has prepared you and me to know is perfect in all ways, including and importantly in his understanding of and obedience to the will of God. And the Christ that you and I now know is calling us to grow in him in that way as well.

And that leads me to my second story from our mission trip: The woman at the gas pumps.

Hattiesburg, Mississippi is about an hour and a half South of Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson, Mississippi is where they murdered Medgar Evers—shot him in his driveway. Hattiesburg, Mississippi had three lynchings between 1965 and 1968. And we stopped for gas in Hattiesburg, Mississippi because we had to have gas.  Well, there was that whole bathroom thing, too, but that’s a story for another time (Laughs).  Now we all know that getting institutional Christians to let go of their money is like pulling teeth. They just can’t let it go…and for a thousand different reasons. Anyway…so here I am pumping gas into my pick-up truck loaded down with tools and supplies while my wife is pumping gas into the church van down in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We’re minding our own business (which is a very good idea when you have Wisconsin plates in Hattiesburg) when this well- dressed, well-kept, well-heeled Caucasian woman appears from around the front of my truck. She asks me is we’re on a mission trip down into the Gulf region. I reply that we are. She says that she’s been behind us on the highway all the way down from Jackson, MS. I’m thinking she’s about to read me the riot act for driving too fast or something. She reaches out and hands me an envelope and says that she can’t go down there, but God put it on her heart to give me that envelope. It turned out to be a hundred dollars. I said, “You don’t know me from Adam and you just put a small fortune in my hands. Why?” She said that God had been speaking to her a lot lately about being obedient, and that she heard God tell her to do this, so she did it. She said it didn’t make sense to her, but she really felt like she needed to be obedient. I thanked her. I asked her name (Amy) and I said that I would pray for her. She thanked me for that and said that she needed it. She disappeared as quickly as she came in a shiny new SUV with Mississippi plates. I used the hundred dollars to buy lumber for a building project in the home of that woman of color from my earlier story. Bogalusa is in Washington Parish, Louisiana, a parish where three lynchings of young black men occurred in the 1960’s. This Christian journey sometimes is a weird journey, but it’s a beautiful journey. A hundred bucks to a stranger builds little bridges to the Kingdom that God has prepared you to see.

Amen.

Youth Hockey

Youth Hockey

The silver metal stands have an ice culture, too.

Some dark and prickly thing,

Having screwed itself into my psyche,

The flesh of my childhood,

Climbs up out of me, elbows first

Summoned by the cutting glance,

The condescending eye

Of a vapid “esse” disconnected from

The nature of grace.

What has unhinged them from anything higher,

These pedicured creatures wrapped in fur high up

In the stands behind me?

Will they really kill to see their child enter a spotlight

No one else can see, but so many here seek nonetheless?

Success, earned or not, how does it trump goodness?

Is it that they really conspire, the Narcissus dripping off them

As runoff from a ruptured gutter seam; pushing

People off the ladder as they claw their son’s way

To their own unrealized glory?  Their own demons chew their way

Out.  Is my prickly thing any more righteous?

Probably not.

A shrill shout – “Go Joe!” and then that “look” pistol- shot right at me,

A cheerleader clique hit job, a monkey-beating of “I’ll show you” go-Joes,

Firing down at the shmuck parents, gauging our reaction, my reaction,

As if to say, “Top that.”

Is it that they conspire behind those eyes, a need to make us things?

Or do they peg me as less significant than that?

Is real love soluble in youth hockey?

O, how much I

I doubt it.

Halo(s)

Master Sergeant: Halo(s)

When I was

Young I dreamed of slaying

Dragons and rescuing princesses

In distress.

Flashing swords…high

Valor.

Sacrifice for a greater cause.

Struck down in battle, a noble end.

I see princesses

Now and then, still.

Their Siren

Doesn’t seduce me the same way

Anymore.

Dragons

Come and go

Unnoticed for what

They are.

I imagined they flew…raged and snorted fire.

Seems they simply sign papers.

They laid

Dave in the ground yesterday.

I wasn’t there.

He cast the same half-smile half-smirk

When he stepped off

A curb as when he stepped off the ramp.  Same chances either way, I guess.

I wonder if he had that

Same look when he left.

Struck.  Stroke. One of those.

Princesses or dragons?

I’ll never know which

One it was.

When I was young

I dreamed.

–        To A/2/11 SFG(A)

in memory of MSG David McCaughan,

one of the good ones  6-18-08

Why this smear of ash?

Ashes to ashes.  From the dust do we come and to the dust shall we all return.  No matter how far along the road we get, Ash Wednesday reminds us that we all have a common starting point on this earth, and a common ending point.  These bodies are made from the dust of the earth, and one day these bodies will be returned to their lender.  It still freaks me out a little bit to be reminded that house dust is mostly dried skin, our flesh carried off by the wind only to find a new home in the television vents and strewn across the coffee tables and dresser tops.  It is a healthy reminder of just how insignificant we are…and how fleeting and fragile this life is.  The paradox of insignificance…the crazy incongruity of being nothing and yet being treasure.  In and of ourselves, we are dust and ash.  Yet, connected to something inexplicably bigger, we are also breath and all that goes with it.

It is likely that today you will see a dark smear of ash on the foreheads of some of our neighbors, a reminder of what we are without that something that gives us breath…that something that gives us hope in the reality of the dust from which we are made and to which we shall return.  Why has the God of Love chosen to form us from the earth and to number our days? Why must what begins here also end here among broken hearts and broken things?

Today, I do not have an answer.  But as I look at the black smear of ashes on the foreheads of so many people seeking answers to so many unanswerable questions and solace for so many still-open wounds, I am compelled to think on these things.  What are we really if we are truly more than the sum total of our carbon matter and firing synapses?  Do we really belong merely to the earth from whence we come, or is there more that we come from than dust and water? And what about the breath?  What about the love? How do we explain the love and the hurt and the joy?  Where do those come from, and what do we owe their author for visiting them upon us? I have never seen a tree weep at the loss of another tree.  Outside of poetry, I have never heard a wheat field roar with laughter.  And I have never seen a mountain lay down its life for another mountain. Of what are these?  Surely these will not return to the earth because it is not from the earth that they have clawed their way into us.  What ends must end.  There is no changing that.  But sometimes I think that end must be real in order for all that has led up to that end to have real meaning.  Without claiming our beginning AND our end, can we really claim that anything that we choose or experience between those two banal commonalities really matters at all?  Ashes to ashes.  From the dust do we come…or do we? I will dwell on that…today.

Hello world!

Better is one day in Your Courts than thousands elsewhere.