Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.            

A Church Worthy of Our Children

September 26, 2020

Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey

Micah 6:6-8
Galatians 5:13-15
Mark 2:1-12

“With what shall I come before the Lord,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

The prophet Micah knows that everybody has a price that they will accept for turning a blind eye.Some people believe that God can be bought off just like any human. If you say that the Lord will be pleased with thousands of rams, I’ll write the check if it will get God off my back. Or will it take ten thousands of rivers of oil for God to let me keep on doing what I am doing? No problem, I’ll make the arrangements. Tell you what…I’m even prepared to sacrifice the future of my child; I’ll even sacrifice the future of the next generation of children, so I don’t have to change.

Am I being facetious? Hardly. Every one of us knows of individuals or communities or nations who have sacrificed the cream of their progeny, who have sent their sons and daughters off to be slaughtered, in order not to have to change their way of life which keeps them in a domineering position. One thinks of the loss of one out of every three men in the South for the sake of maintaining slavery and white supremacy. To walk through the killing fields in Cambodia is to be crushed by the enormous loss of an entire generation in order to prop up a communist ideology. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Sure, why not?

As you look at your children or your grandchildren, as your hearts swell in pride over the children of St. Stephen leading us in worship today, can you think of anything precious enough to you to make you jeopardize their futures, their lives, so that you would not have to give it up? Are we willing to subject their futures to the long-term consequences of climate change which we see playing out before our very eyes on Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts? Are we willing to make them beggar themselves in order to pay for the national debt so that our taxes aren’t raised? Are we willing to accept the half-measures and deliberate deception shown in the national response to COVID-19 with the full knowledge of how that is retarding our children’s education? Even literally costing them their lives? “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 

I hope that the fact you are listening today to this worship service on Children’s Sabbath is a strong indication that you are not willing to make this devil’s trade-off, and that your being with us in spirit is for you an act of resistance to the diabolical calculation of sacrificing the weak in order to prop up the strong. We love our children at St. Stephen. We love the children at the Center for Transforming Lives. We love the children whose only stable home is the Presbyterian Night Shelter. We love the children of the world. We love our children. What are we to do?

I cannot remember a time when it has been this hard to be a parent or to grow up as a child.Millions of children suffer when millions of moms and dads are thrown out of work. Family relationships break under the strain of living in a country so badly divided over the November elections. Children are quick to pick up on our grieving about lifestyles that we have lost by being isolated, having to work at home while taking care of our kids and remote learning, and pining for things to be “like they used to be”.

So, I stand amazed at the tremendous courage, spunk, grit, and creativity that so many, many moms and dads and kids dish out daily to keep body and soul intact, to keep a family circle tight, to create a bubble of serenity, security, and curiosity during these hard times. You are not willing to consign your children to a diminished future. You are genuinely amazing!

The amazing work you are doing puts the church on notice that we have to up our game; we have to be there for you with the best we can offer in spiritual strength.  I want to talk about being a church that is up to the task of growing up children who are prepared to grapple with stark existential challenges and triumph over them. Someone recently shared a poem written by Adrienne Rich that gets to the point I am making. 

My heart is moved by all I cannot save; So much has been destroyed.

I have to cast my lot with those who age after age,perversely with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

So much of what that poem says rings true for me. However, the message I want to bring today is that the church can bring extraordinary power to the situation. And if the church fails you at this moment, it is not worthy of our children, and they and you will go elsewhere. 

Let us cut to the nub of this message. A church worthy of our children will offer Jesus, pure and simple. He is the only source of extraordinary power which will never fail us in the project of reconstituting the world. God made Jesus carry within himself the fate of the entire world. When Jesus died on the cross, one world collapsed. When God raised him from the dead, God injected into a collapsed old world a new world of extraordinary power in his image. Because God has unleashed the Spirit of the risen Christ on the church, the church is the foothold of God’s new world and the fount of extraordinary power. When the Church baptizes you into Christ, we are able to engage this old world with the extraordinary power of the new world.

A church worthy of our children will help families draw deeply upon this new world of extraordinary power. The children of this church will be able to explain to you why in our Gospel lesson for today the meaning of the forgiveness of sins is totally displayed in the extraordinary power of a paralyzed man taking up his bed and walking out of that house.  We will not let them make the mistake of thinking that extraordinary power is only for spiritual matters. The Jesus we present to your children is there for them in body as well as in soul, in their everyday relationships as well as their prayer life. The sustainability of the planet, the dignity of each human being, the commonwealth of the community matters every bit as much as whether you are going to heaven. And the Jesus we present gives to his baptized children extraordinary power to address in bold and saving ways the hurts and scars and sores that everywhere meet the eye. True enough, it is God’s job to save our souls, but God puts into the hands of the baptized extraordinary power to heal a nation’s soul, to make right a dispossessed race, to defend a planet gasping for breath and thirsting for water and to build up wrecked cities and boarded up and hollowed out hamlets. This is what we send our children to do for Jesus’ sake. 

A church worthy of our children will burst with pride as its children go out into the world in peace, with good courage, holding fast to what is good, rendering to no one evil for evil, strengthening the faint-hearted, supporting the weak, honoring all persons, serving the Lord and rejoicing in the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit.

We take the dollars you give us and infuse them with extraordinary power to shape our children, to make them wise, tough, resilient, resourceful, hopeful persons. The amount of money this church spends on children’s ministry is hard to pin down, but a reasonable estimate, counting professional staff, supplies, and building costs, is one hundred thousand dollars. But that is just a foundation.We infuse the extraordinary power of countless volunteer hours, material gifts, personal interest, prayer and affirmation. This is labor intensive, personalized shaping.

Parents, we want to be your best ally in your vocation of nurturing your child. We applaud the tremendous courage, spunk, grit, and creativity which you display daily to keep body and soul intact, to keep a family circle tight, to create a bubble of serenity, security, and curiosity during these hard times. We thank God for you. You are genuinely amazing! We offer you Jesus and urge you to take him as your source for the extraordinary power you will need to protect a future for your child.

How You Can Help With Disaster Relief


Donate Online

Sept. 28 Update:

Despite the short notice there was a tremendous response to the recent call for Hurricane Laura disaster relief assistance. Considering the number of hygiene kits and monetary donations received, Mission Committee funds of $1,000 will match this effort – thanks so much for your generous support! 


 

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is providing relief to many areas devastated by natural disasters recently through Presbyterian Disaster Relief (PDA). Hurricane Laura and the recent storms in Iowa are just two examples. Below is information about how to designate gifts to each situation. An immediate way you can be of help is to contribute $75 to pay for a “Gift of the Heart” kit, which provides essential needs for those recovering from or experiencing homelessness because of these and other crises.

The link to pay for a Gift of the Heart kit and other items through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is (or see link at top of page):

https://pda.pcusa.org/page/kits/#hygiene .

To learn more about how you can help, visit https://pda.pcusa.org/

Hurricane Laura, the strong category 4 storm, made landfall in the early hours of August 27th on the coast of Louisiana, about 30 miles from the Texas border, bringing lashing rain and sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. While the storm was downgraded to a category 2 as it moved further inland, hurricane-force winds and widespread damage continued.

PDA is working with our international partners where Hurricane Laura impacted Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in addition to the affected U.S. presbyteries.

To support our response to Hurricane Laura, designate gifts to DR000194

On August 10, severe thunderstorms with long track damaging winds (derecho) devastated Iowa, causing widespread power outages for more than 150,000 people for several days. As many as 14 million acres of farmland were also damaged by the storm.

PDA is working with the Presbyteries of North Central Iowa, Des Moines, Prospect Hill and East Iowa to respond to this storm. National Response Team members are virtually deployed to assist with the initial response. To be notified of opportunities for volunteers within driving distance who do not need overnight accommodations, email pda.callcenter@pcusa.org

To support this response, designate gifts to DR000015.

 

 

 

The Present God

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
August 31, 2020


Click Here to View This Service

Exodus 3: 1-15

Our story from Exodus today is one of the most famous stories in history. It begins on a quiet mountaintop with a non-descript name: Horeb. One day soon that mountain will have a different name: Sinai. On that mountaintop, a shepherd is keeping watch over his father-in-law’s flocks. That shepherd’s name is Moses.

Shepherds watching sheep have a lot of time to think. What is Moses thinking as he watches his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep on that mountain nearly 3300 years ago? Did he miss the days when he had been raised from childhood as a member of the household of Pharaoh, the King of Egypt? Throughout his childhood and early adulthood, Moses straddled two worlds. He was a Hebrew who had been rescued from Pharaoh’s decision to drown all the male offspring of the Hebrews. His rescuer had been Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him right under her father’s nose. His wetnurse was a Hebrew slave who was in actuality his real birth mother, so presumably, he’d always known his heritage. So he lived in both worlds.

But then a time came when he was forced to choose. Once he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses killed the overseer. At that moment, what may have been simply a gut reaction determined the path of his life forever. He chose to align with the slave rather than the master, the

oppressed rather than the oppressor, the Hebrew rather than the Egyptian. Forced to flee Egypt, he came to Midian, where he married Zipporah and they had a son. He worked for his father-in-law Jethro.

So perhaps watching Jethro’s sheep that day, Moses was regretting his decision to kill that overseer, to trade in a life as a prince of Egypt to be a shepherd in Midian. Lo, how the mighty have fallen!

Or maybe he was grateful to have escaped into a life of peace, filled with minor difficulties but mainly the pleasures that come from living without stress and having a family that loves you.

Or maybe he was still stewing about the predicament of his people, the Hebrews, still living in slavery under the oppressive heel of his step-grandfather, the Pharaoh, and how now he was in no position to help them, and might never be.

Or maybe he was just zoned out, staring into space, not really thinking about anything at all.

Whatever he was thinking about, apparently he wasn’t thinking about God. But as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Suddenly a bush bursts into flames, and from the bush comes the voice of God, and the voice of God says, “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’”

One reason we know that Moses wasn’t thinking about God is that Moses actually doesn’t know who it is that’s speaking. “If I come to the Israelites and say, ‘The god of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they say, ‘What is his name?’, what shall I tell them?” It’s a perfectly good question at a number of levels. In the first place, though the Hebrews had become one people over the course of hundreds of years in Egypt, they had not arrived in Egypt as one people. They were a mix of Semitic peoples from all over the Middle East who had first come to Egypt during the time of the Great Famine. Their numbers had represented many different religions, and no doubt many Hebrew slave households would have had the symbols of many different gods. Add to that that there were also many different Egyptian gods, all of whom would have been familiar to Moses and he probably would have worshiped them in the normal routine of his former life as a royal Egyptian courtier.

In answer to the question, God gives Moses something God has never given anyone before: The Holy Name. No one has ever heard it before this dramatic moment. God’s name, we are told, is Yahweh—a weird word that is a non-word. It is derived from a verb, in fact, the most basic verb form in any language, “to be.” We translate it as “I am that I am,” but it could also be “I will be what I will be” or even “I was what I was.” It straddles all forms of the verb “To be.” I am. God defines God’s self further by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” At one level that just makes which God this is more specific. “Of all the peoples and

tribes that came to Egypt during the time of the Great Famine, and who now labor together as slaves under Pharaoh, I am the god of this particular tribe—the tribe of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

What’s striking about this is that God doesn’t say, “I WAS the god of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” After all, that’s the way the question was framed: which God of which ancestors am I to say you are? It was framed as a question about the past. But God’s answer is not about the past, it is about the present: I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That answer, and the name I am that I am, tell us a vital thing we must know about God: God is not the God of the past, nor even the God of the future. God is the God of the present. God is the God of the here and now, not the where and when or the then and therefore. God is the God of the present.

Moses hedges and squirms and tries to push back against this idea. I’m not the right guy, God, he says. But that’s the wrong answer, because one thing God is not is the God of Never. Martin Luther King, Jr., put this point nicely in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it he pushes back against white pastors who keep telling the Civil Rights movement to wait, to be patient, to cool their jets. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” he writes. “It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

God is the God of now, not the God of Never.

Nor is God the God of wait. Moses tries this path too. “I need to develop new skill sets so that I can do this thing you’ve tasked me to do. It’ll take time. I’ll get back to you when I’m ready.” No, this is the God of the present. When God calls us, God calls us NOW.

We Presbyterians, for instance, say that those who serve as elders or deacons in the church are called by God to their task, like prophets or pastors. I often tell potential officers that it isn’t helpful for us to ask ourselves whether we have the skill set to do the job. We should take it for granted that we don’t. But to be called means that God expects and enables you to grow into the job. God doesn’t call who we are, but who we are becoming. But we won’t become that if we don’t say yes to the call.

Moses the shepherd of Midian, wanted for murder in Egypt, should take it for granted that he is not qualified to tell Pharaoh to let his people go or to lead Israel out of Egypt or to receive the Ten Commandments or to lead the people in the desert for forty years or to get them, finally, to the Promised Land. Moses the murderous shepherd isn’t qualified for any of that. But the Moses who says “yes” to God can and will become all of that, and more.

When I was involved in community organizing one of the things that was constantly emphasized is that visionary living doesn’t mean living for the future, it means living fully right now. We talked about how change happens best when we live in an eternal now, when we’re asking not, “What do we need for the future?” but rather “What do we need right now?”

I was talking to my daughter Sara the other day about an organization she’s deeply involved in that provides free food for the hungry in New Orleans. We were talking about a vision statement for her organization. A vision statement should describe the kind of world that the organization envisions. So a good vision statement for her organization might be “To eliminate food insecurity in New Orleans.” Yes, that’s a statement about the future—but the problem is here NOW. They don’t need the elimination of food insecurity ten years or a hundred years into the future—they need it now, this moment. It just may take ten years or a hundred years to get there.

I think most of us see this in our lives as well. At various points in our lives, things have happened that made us realize that we needed to improve in some way. For many of us as teenagers, for instance, our extreme sensitivity to how other people saw us may have caused us to work on our self-confidence or our social skills or our athleticism or our appearance or our prayer life or our relationship to God. As adults we can probably say that the person I see in the mirror today is a much-improved version of the person I was when I was fifteen or eighteen. But it all started because those qualities I have now were qualities I needed then. And to complicate matters more, that person I see in the mirror now has a whole new set of shortcomings that need to be

addressed now so that in the future I’ll be a bit more the person I actually need to be right now. And so it goes.

To say that God is God of the Present puts a new and challenging spin on one of Jesus’ teachings that I think we trivialize. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow brings worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6: 34). I think many of us read this as the “Don’t worry, be happy” approach to life. In fact, it is a more Buddhist teaching than that—that we must live fully and completely in the now, because that is where God is—now, in this moment. We must look at the present moment with eyes wide open, rather than looking on the past with nostalgia or on the future with foreboding or false expectations that things will just magically get better.

Growing up during the Cold War, every so often our elementary school teachers would gather us up and take us down to the Pine Street Elementary School basement where we were told to hide under desks until we were told to come out. This was because my hometown of Spartanburg, SC, was within the blast radius should there be a nuclear strike on the Aiken Nuclear Power Plant, which was considered a strategic nuclear target. The truth is that all that ‘duck and cover’ wouldn’t have made a bit of difference had we really gone to war with the USSR. If our response to our nuclear fear of the future had been simply duck and cover drills, we’d all be toast now.

And then there were the handful of vocal leaders who believed that our fear of the future warranted making pre-emptive strikes on the Soviet Union—a path that most believed would lead to MAD, mutually assured destruction, which seems like a bad thing. Many strategists believed in the Domino Theory, the idea that if one country falls to communism then another and another and another would; and so we engaged in questionable actions to stave off that communistic future and ironically probably made things worse. All sorts of plans were made, and should have been, but very few believed that a plan for the future would in any way get us out of the quagmire we were in—there were just too many variables, too many unpredictable factors.

Ultimately, it was neither fear of the future nor planning for the future that got us out of the Cold War. What got us out of it was leaders who lived in the present moment—who saw opportunities when they arose and rose to the challenge. It was the day to day work of CIA Operations officers and State Department diplomats and smart politicians who had good instincts and made smart decisions whenever each unexpected and unanticipated variable popped up. When Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and said “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” it was a spontaneous response to the mood of the moment he was in right then and there—a man with the right instincts hitting upon the right thing to say at exactly the right moment. Planning and preparation played their role, but the end of the Cold War came in a way no one could have planned or predicted. It came because people living in the now saw clearly in the present moment and responded to it in exactly the right way.

My friend Greg is white and Christian and he decided about a year ago, even before the renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement recently, that he was deeply troubled about his own confusion around race. But he didn’t know what to do about it. The more he learned the less adequate he felt to the task. So one day he just decided to go to Stop Six and meet people. Then he started to get involved in the community by just saying, “Just tell me what to do.” He ended up being in charge of social media for the annual Juneteenth celebration this year. He didn’t have a plan then and he still doesn’t. He just goes where the moment takes him. But he knows he’s doing what God calls him to do.

The God of the Present calls us in the present and our challenge is to respond to that call—to discern what that calling is and then take on the challenge of doing it. Pastor and writer Frederick Beuchner once defined calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is a moment full of challenges and I can’t tell you what God is calling you to do. But if you have strong feelings about something going on in the world, but you feel unqualified or inadequate unwilling or perhaps even fearful to do what you feel is right, pray about that. Look carefully at how God might be calling you. Don’t wait until some future time when you’re better qualified or not so busy or a little more motivated. The God of the Present calls us now. If we say yes now, then we can trust the God of the present to use our presence the way its most needed.

Stewardship Update

Dear St. Stephen Members and Friends:

It’s gotten to the point that “2020” is the punch line to any joke about “What’s the worst that can happen?” Laughing is a great way to cope in this time of worldwide pandemic, racial tension and protest, natural disaster, and social distancing.

For a lot of us, the inability to attend church in the usual way only makes this time harder. It can be easy to forget that despite the fact that we stopped having worship in the sanctuary, St. Stephen has never stopped doing ministry. In fact, the opposite is true. It is in times like these that St. Stephen is most needed.

A World War II Navy veteran once compared the church to his job when he was a battleship’s engineer. He said it was a whole lot of doing everyday maintenance punctuated by moments of chaos and sheer terror. That was when all the everyday maintenance proved its mettle. That has been true of St. Stephen. Our normal routines have always included community outreach, compassionate service, well-thought-out worship, improved communications and strong human relationships. During the coronavirus pandemic, all this everyday work has proved its worth in thousands of homeless individuals served meals and dozens receiving welcome packets; in an easy transition from live to online worship and activities; and in a 75% increase in non-member “attendance” via our website that indicates that St. Stephen’s message of God’s inclusive grace and love through Jesus Christ is meeting the needs of a new audience hungry for hope and connection.

Every year at this time St. Stephen launches its annual stewardship campaign. In October, we will ask that you make a pledge to support our 2021 operating budget. This is the “maintenance” that makes St. Stephen seaworthy in “normal” times and crisis-worthy in times like these.

In addition to that, in early 2021 St. Stephen will embark on a three-year capital campaign to improve our readiness for the future. The campaign will make our buildings accessible for folks with special needs (including adding an elevator to the Education building and accessible bathrooms to the Sanctuary); perform long-needed overhaul and improvement of our amazing Garland Organ (under the supervision of Dan Garland himself); provide for our outreach to our youth and our homeless friends by purchasing a new church van; install security doors for St. Stephen Presbyterian Day School; and make various improvements to our building that empower us to minister in new ways.

These are facility fixes, but each of them underlines our long-term commitment to the things that make St. Stephen strong: intentional inclusion of ALL people, excellence in worship, compassionate ministry to our members and outreach to those most in need in Tarrant County.

We know that in these challenging times, your own finances may be stressed and that your mailbox and inbox are filled with charitable requests from the many nonprofits straining under the burden of increased demand. We believe it’s important that you know your church’s twin financial requests lie ahead so that you can make the charitable and financial decisions that make the most sense for you and your family.

We hope that we have proven, and will continue to prove, that when it has most been needed, St. Stephen has risen to the needs of its congregation and community, to the glory of God and our savior Jesus Christ.

We also want to thank you for your amazing generosity to St. Stephen since the COVID-19 lockdown began. Your giving has made our ability to minister in this crisis possible. It is because of you that one day very soon we’ll be back in our magnificent facility. It will once again be filled with children in its day school and Sunday school, the homeless seeking food and friendship, and people from diverse backgrounds worshiping and sharing communion together. We will continue to draw new friends who are attracted to our message of the all-embracing love of God. St. Stephen will remain the beacon of grace, hope and welcome that we value so dearly for decades to come, because of your faithful support right now.

Grace and peace,

Fritz

Faith, Truth and Service

July 19, 2020

On July 19, Mitch Overton gave the senior sermon for our virtual Youth Sunday service. He spoke about his at-times painful journey of reconciling his faith in God with the truth he knew about his fathers, enduring faith, the power of truth, and the lessons learned in serving others. Below is a video of his sermon and the full text below that. 

Watch Mitch’s Full Sermon Below

https://youtu.be/vhp0m88iPBg

Faith, Truth and Service

When I sat down to start writing this sermon, I struggled with what to talk about. I have so many impactful moments I wanted to share, and so many fun memories I wanted to reminisce on. 

However, I decided that, before I left for college, I needed to tell you the three most life-changing things that this church has taught me: have faith, seek the truth, and serve others. 

Growing up with gay dads, I learned early on that my family wasn’t like everyone else’s. I was told by friends at school, other kids at church, and even some of my cousins that being gay was a sin and that my parents were going to hell. 

They told me that two men couldn’t raise a child and that I was surely gonna turn out badly. As a child, I obviously hated hearing this, because I knew my parents better than any of those people, and I knew how much love they had for me and for each other, and I wondered why they or God could possibly be opposed to something as good and pure as love? 

When I talked with my parents about it, they would reassure me that God really did love us and that those other people were wrong, and that satisfied me for a while. However, eventually, during a particularly heated exchange with a friend at school, my friend started naming Bible verses about homosexuality. Later that night, I asked my parents about it, and they told me all stuff the Bible says, I remember the word ‘abomination’ got thrown around a lot, and they tried explaining about historical context and the culture of the time when the Bible was written, and even though I felt a little better, I still cried a lot that night. 

It felt like everything I had been taught was a lie. After all, the Bible was the Word of God, and it really seemed, based on the actual text and on what so many other people told me, that God really didn’t love gay people, and my parents’ explanations didn’t really satisfy me. 

And since I was a little kid, the next morning I woke up and life went on without really a thought, but the seed of doubt was planted. Over the next few years, my doubt and skepticism of Christianity grew, and going to church became more of a hassle and habit and less of a fun or calming event. 

Eventually, years later, the seed of doubt had grown large in my heart, and I was a bit resentful that my parents insisted on us worshipping a God that I didn’t think wanted us.

I remember Mark Thielman was my Sunday school teacher, and somehow we got onto the topic of homosexuality in the Bible. Now, Mark tried giving me the same explanations and rationalizations that my parents had given me, but I remained unconvinced, and after the class, I didn’t really think anything of it. 

The next week, Sunday School rolls around, and Mark has printed out packets full of information, earmarked eight places in the Bible, and prepared a VERY LONG PowerPoint presentation. That day, we went through every single verse that dealt with homosexuality, and Mark had prepared detailed notes about the historical context and author of each verse, the larger biblical context, and lots of specific verses from the Bible to cite, and, basically, my faith was reborn in an hour-long Sunday School class. 

Looking back on it, I see that what Mark did for me was he allowed me to reconcile my faith in God with the truth I knew about my parents. 

Friedrich Nietzsche, who described himself as both “anti-religious” and “anti-Christian,” claimed that “those who strive for peace and happiness believe, while those who wish to be disciples of truth inquire.” 

This statement implies the mutual exclusivity of faith in God and a rational life based on the truth, and that is not an unreasonable implication based on the history of all religions, including Christianity.

You look at the Crusades, the Church’s countless stubborn rejections of science throughout history, from labeling doctors as witches and rejecting heliocentrism, to today’s fundamentalists who deny evolution and the Big Bang, and it’s not hard to see Nietzsche’s point about Christianity’s rejection of the truth. The same conflict between faith and truth played out in my life, even though I didn’t fully realize it at the time. 

But this church proves how wrong Nietzsche was. Here, at St. Stephen, faith, and truth are not fundamentally opposed but are interdependent and self-reinforcing. Mark Thielman showed me that when he helped me reconcile my faith in a loving God with my unconditional love for my parents, and I’ve seen it countless times since then. 

Here, unlike so many other churches that I’ve visited with friends and family, we can read the book of Genesis without rejecting evolution and the Big Bang. We can preach about God’s all-powerful love to people and families like mine, who feel rejected, unwanted, and unloved at other churches. 

Here, my parents and I have found not only a church, but a community and a family. In addition to my search for a balance between faith and truth, service has been a big part of my life with the church for as long as I can remember. 

Every summer as a child and on many weekends, I’d spend countless hours at church with my dad, Eduardo, helping him with everything from mopping the basement and replacing burnt-out lights with LED to big projects like the youth basement renovation. 

From an early age, I loved this type of service because I enjoyed learning how things worked, and because I got to spend so much quality time with my dad. However, I never really understood the benefit my time and effort could have on others until I joined the youth group. 

I’d like to specifically talk about my second mission trip when we went to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and Utah. I remember when we were told we were going there, I complained that spending a week in July in the desert would be too hot. When we got there, I saw much more than scorching desert heat: I saw widespread, systemic poverty that I had never imagined could exist in the United States. 

The church we stayed at was tiny and deteriorating, with a small congregation and shrinking donations caused by the lack of disposable income in the region. In fact, the pastor at the church we stayed at, Pastor Norma, told us that for several years she had been using an ever-growing part of her tiny income as a pastor just to keep the church afloat and perform basic mission and maintenance, even at the expense of her already impoverished personal life. I remember that she told us one night during dinner that before Beth contacted her about the possibility of a mission trip, she had begun to lose faith in her ability to keep her church afloat, and that we were like a sign from God to keep the faith and continue the fight. 

Now to go on the mission trip each year, each youth has to raise at least a couple of hundred dollars to help us afford the supplies and food to make the trip. That year, my parents basically forced me to not just ask family members and people at church for donations, but to go door-to-door in our neighborhood to ask for donations, which, for a shy kid like me was mortifying and really out of my comfort zone. 

Now, at the end of the mission trip, as we were preparing to start the long drive home, we had a few hundred dollars left over, and I remember that Beth, my parents, Tommy, Joe, and the other sponsors took the money we had left as well as some of their own money and left it as a donation to the church.

I’ll remember Norma’s reaction until the day I die. She started crying. Sobbing actually. She called us angels and told us that the money we gave her was enough to help her keep the church open and that she had been praying for years for God to save her church, and she told us that we were the instruments of God’s salvation. 

Now, when Beth contacted her, Beth didn’t know that we were the instrument that God was using to answer Norma’s prayers. When the youth were awkwardly asking church members, friends, family, and neighbors for donations, we didn’t know the impact that the little bit of extra money over the minimum would have. Now after spending a week with her I was convinced, and still am, that Norma is a modern-day saint, and it still amazes me that what WE did on that trip restored HER faith. 

One of the lessons I took from this is summed up nicely by a quote that was in the Silent Reflection in the bulletin a while back: 

 

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”

I’ve learned, from seeing it in others and experiencing it firsthand, that when our doubt is greatest, God sends a sign, often people, as unknowing instruments of salvation. That’s what God did for Pastor Norma through our Youth Group, and it’s what God did for me through all of you. When Norma doubted if she could carry on, God delivered her, offered her a brief, seemingly impossible respite that convinced her and allowed her to carry on her fight and keep faith with God, her congregation, and herself. God renewed her faith.

Similarly, from the moment my family moved to Fort Worth 16 years ago, God sent me all of you. When I was young, God sent me Beth and my early Sunday School teachers, to teach me about God and the Bible in a way that I could understand. At my moment of greatest doubt, when I wondered how I could love a God that I thought rejected my parents, God sent me Mark Thielman in Sunday School, taking hours out of his busy work week to research and prepare a brand new Sunday School lesson to directly deal with what was troubling me and restore my faith. 

God sent Fritz with his wonderful sermons and kind wisdom, preaching so honestly about the issues in our church, our city, and our country, and always leaving me with a reassurance of God’s love and the knowledge that, no matter what was going on in the world, everything was going to be ok. 

Then, when I was old enough, God sent me the Youth Group, who are the closest people I have to siblings. He sent them not just to laugh with me, but to know me, to love me, and to help make me the person I’m meant to be. 

And, of course, he sent me all of you who have been part of my church life in countless moments big and small, reassuring me that I am loved and that my parents are loved and accepted at this Church, by all of you and by God.

Now, as I’m about to go off to San Antonio for college, I have the seemingly impossible task of finding a church home away from home, that can be everything to me that St. Stephen is: a place for me to be curious, a place for me to question, a place for me to think and learn, and a place where I can find a church family as loving, and thoughtful, and nurturing, and as impossibly perfect for me as all of you have been. 

And now, as I prepare to start this exciting new phase of my life, I’ll leave you with some of the wisdom that you’ve taught me over all these years: keep faith, seek the truth, serve others, and in everything you do, serve God. 

Thank you

Dirty Hands or Dirty Thoughts?

Dr. Rev. Warner Bailey
August 16, 2020


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Proverbs 26:18-28 Colossians 3:1-17 Matthew 15:1-20

I would really be disappointed if you concluded from this gospel story that Jesus was a sloppy eater, and didn’t think washing hands was important. Particularly in our time when handwashing is imperative, do not conclude from this story that Jesus gives you permission to let down your guard. Let’s not trivialize this fuss over hand washing between Jesus and a group of Jewish leaders called the Pharisees.

Just as in our day some people have turned wearing masks into a polarizing issue, Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees gets escalated to some pretty purple rhetoric. Jesus calls Pharisees “hypocrites! blind guides to be shunned and avoided because they are fatal to spiritual health.” This kind of speech puts us on notice that his dispute about handwashing is not a spat about public hygiene or dinner table manners. This argument, whether or not to wash hands before putting food in your mouth, indicates a much deeper clash between Jesus and his message on the one hand, and the Pharisees with their expectations, on the other.

If we are ultimately going to criticize the Pharisees, at least we owe them the respect and honor of understanding where they are coming from. We need to acknowledge, first of all, that the Pharisees have the Law on their side. The Law the Pharisees have on their side refers to regulations that don’t appear in the Bible which the Pharisees claimed took their inspiration from the Bible. Because they had been inspired by the Bible, these extra-biblical laws got the same authority, the Pharisees argued, as a law in the Bible itself. Handwashing was one of those extra-biblical laws.

By the time of Jesus, this body of extra-biblical law had grown way beyond control. It had gotten so large that people actually forgot about the God of Israel and thought only about the Law of Israel. Obeying the Law became the all-important religious obligation. Each person’s worth was measured by how he or she obeyed the Law, meaning these extra-biblical rules.

Now let’s take up the specific case of the law of handwashing. Over and over in the Bible we hear God saying, “You shall be holy as I am holy.” And since with God there is life and outside of God there is death, to be unholy and therefore outside God is to die or to be destined to die. The holy God expects holy people. Holy people live.

So the burning question of the day is: so that I will live, how will I become holy and stay that way? What are the things that can make me unholy, impure, and how do I stay away from them? Or if I do become unholy, how do I wash that off and get holy again? It was in answer to these genuine questions that a great body of laws grew up outside the Bible which the Pharisees thought would help you stay holy.

Handwashing was one of the laws, you see, one of the procedures to get yourself holy before God when you sat down to eat. Eating was a sacred time. A time when God came to your table. In our extended family it is our tradition to say this blessing around our table. It begins like this: Come, Lord Jesus, and be our guest. You may have something like that, too.

 

You could not be impure when you ate with the holy God. If you were, God would stay away from your table. No telling what you had bumped into in the time before you ate that was unclean. No telling what impure person you had rubbed up against. It might have been a Gentile, a menstruating woman, someone who had recently had sexual intercourse, a leper, a tax-collector, someone who had touched a dead body or who had returned from the graveyard, someone who was a prostitute, someone who was sick, someone who was a shepherd, and on and on. Wash your hands to make yourself holy again before you sit down to eat with God.

The Pharisees were the folk who thought a lot about staying holy with God. Consequently, they became the purity police, applying their efforts to get everyone to stay pure. “So, Jesus,” they demanded, “why don’t you insist that your disciples wash their hands before they eat?”

What I want to know is this: What had Jesus told the disciples that prompted them to give up this hallowed custom of handwashing? Are we to conclude that Jesus had told his disciples that it was not necessary to be pure? Are we to conclude that the God whom Jesus calls Father is not holy?

Of course not. Jesus is serious about holiness, but it is so, so different from how the Pharisees see it. “You Pharisees,” he says, “all you can talk about is the Law and its complex regulations. All you can do is make up lists of things and persons that are to be avoided. For you, it is all show and no substance. In the process of staying pure, you have forgotten about the holy God. Let’s get back to God.” Our God created the world good. God did not make certain things in the world smut. But anything can become smut by the spin you put on it.

You can take anything and make it smut if you surround it with evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander. And the opposite is just as true. You can take anything that your culture has declared unclean, impure, unholy, and make it pure, clean and holy if you surround it with love, forgiveness, healing and restoration.

Jesus does care that his disciples stay safe when they eat. However, he does not want handwashing to have to carry the proof of whether you love God or not. Handwashing is something you do to stay healthy so that when your hand goes in your mouth you do not get sick, but the proof of whether you are holy before the holy God is what comes out of your mouth, not what you put into it. What Jesus is saying simply is this: Do not reduce something as momentous as holiness to something so banal, ordinary, and natural as washing your hands. That’s too easy, and it is selfish in the end.

Let’s be honest, the politicization of the virus is an example of what Jesus is warning us about: blowing up something natural into something metaphysical. This entire notion that following or not the three W’s of the pandemic shows whether you are a true believer in liberty or a bleating sheep is an example of taking something natural and blowing it up into something that labels you a deviant. That is a political tactic calculated to splinter the united front this country needs in order to stop the spread of the virus. Washing your hands, wearing a mask and watching your distance are three simple, natural actions you can take to stay healthy and keep others healthy. Following them is both the most selfish thing you can do and the most selfless act you can do for your country. We do not need to surround these common sense behaviors with a spin that makes doing them or not a sign of your deepest political convictions.

I can’t be finished with this sermon until I ask you to think with me again about what Jesus had told the disciples that prompted them to give up the ritual of handwashing. Are we to conclude that Jesus had told his disciples that it was not necessary to be pure? Are we to conclude that the God whom Jesus calls Father is not holy?

Of course not. Jesus is serious about holiness, but it is so, so different from how the Pharisees see it. Here is what you must grasp. Jesus sees himself as the Holy One of God.

Out of his grace, he calls a motley collection of followers to stay close to him as his disciples. His call draws us to his side and by sticking with him, we become—by fits and starts, sometimes kicking and screaming—holy people. His holiness rubs off on us as we brush up against him in prayer, in study, in acts of mercy, in acts of solidarity with those he loves. Jesus makes us holy from the inside out; we do not make ourselves holy from the outside in. The root and spring of holiness is found in the heart; we do not come by it through avoiding what the culture police have told us is impure, unwashed, sinister, and unholy.

The real threat to holy, healthy persons are the forces of vengefulness, vindictiveness, and hatred. The only power that is strong enough to overcome this threat is God’s forgiveness and love.

Forgiveness, love and healing are the marks of holy, healthy persons. The real ally to holy, healthy living is to be surrounded by people who brush up regularly against the holy Jesus which gives them the power to love, forgive and out-do evil—even if this brings suffering and death. You will find those kinds of people sticking close to Jesus. For he, the Holy One of God, is the source of the power to love, heal, restore, and overcome evil–even if that brought down upon him suffering and death.

No power of the purity police can overcome a dirty heart. Only the power of the holy Jesus can overcome a dirty heart and make a person into someone who heals.

Where The Waves Are

Dr. Rev. Warner Bailey
August 9, 2020


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Psalm 69:1-3, 14-28, 30-34 1 Peter 5:6-11 Matthew 14.22-33

Seeing is not always believing, especially when you look out into the teeth of a storm. Seeing is not always believing, especially when your heart is full of bitterness, anger, rage, and that sinking feeling of absolute helplessness. The disciples of Jesus had been with him many months, perhaps a couple of years. They knew his face like the back of their hands, and yet when they saw him coming to them through the spray of the boiling waves, the whole boatload of them convulsed into a fit of horror. They were severely traumatized, and they thought he was a ghost, the grim reaper, come to take them to their watery graves.

Seeing is not always believing, especially when inside the frame of your mind you do not expect to see what is actually coming at you. I have been on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, and it is a large body of water, surrounded by hills down which swoop fierce windstorms. In their little boat out on the great, big lake, putting up a losing battle against the sudden squall, the last thing the disciples of Jesus expected to see was Jesus coming toward them. They thought he was safe and sound, praying on the hillside, absent, far-away, unknowing of their plight. No one who matters cares about whether we live or die in this lurching boat, soaked to the skin. We are stuck, we are damned, we will die, and we will vanish without a trace of us being left.

You would have to be completely devoid of sympathy not to identify in some way with their feelings. For we, too, are being subjected to trauma every waking hour. The pandemic is traumatizing because it upends and subverts the very structures of how we live. The virus is an invisible monster hitching a ride on our need to be together in order to survive. The virus has made us all potentially toxic to each other. This destroys the presumption of the mutual trust which must live the heart of healthy community. I have to trust that you will wear your mask, watch your distance and wash your hands often. When you go “Karen” on me, you become my enemy.

When you listen to the pain of those unemployed or who are endanger of bankruptcy or to the pain of the bereaved or deathly sick or the pain of those suffering abuse as children or spouses, you cannot help but share their pain. Our hearts break for those who brave the disease and go to work as essential workers. When elected public officials display gross ineptness, malfeasance, self-dealing and demagoguery, you have reason enough to be scared. It takes a united front to conquer this disease, but unity is shattered when armed demonstrators against stay at home rules are really a show of force for messages of white supremacy, sexism, or racism.

The armed conflict being waged on public spaces of cities from Weatherford to Portland only drives the knife deeper into the muscle that keeps this country together. When legitimate advocacy for Black Lives Matter and police reform is hijacked by anti-fa agitators and the sounds of civil night life are replaced by firecrackers, leaf blowers and crown dispersal blasts, we reel under a double trauma.

The voice of dread sounds forth in the Psalm for today:

“Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.” The force of dread is palpable today. We cannot predict what will happen. Dread feeds on the unknown. Social distancing implies we are living in an unsafe existence amongst ordinary people. My individual freedoms are being taken away for the common good. My protesting of evil is being taken over by evil people for their own ends. All of this produces trauma.

It only takes another a small step and you are stuck so deep in this dread and trauma that it becomes the organizing factor of your life, bringing harmful and dangerous consequences. Dread saps our strength and neutralizes the structures which give meaning to our lives. Maybe you begin to troll the pages of QAnon. Look at our gospel lesson again for proof of those dangerous consequences: dread convinced the disciples that Jesus did not care for them; so, when they saw Jesus in plain sight, they only felt horror.

If you get this one thing out of this sermon, I’ll be satisfied. The only reason Jesus is worth our obeying him is because he chooses to walk on the waves of the turbulence of our lives. Therefore, put it in the frame of your minds to expect him to be with you in the soup when your loan goes under-water. He is with you as you dog paddle as fast as you can but know it is not going to be enough. He is in the chaos of the emergency room. He walks through the swirl of tear gas, pyrotechnics, pepper spray, and crowd-blasters. If you do not expect the power of Jesus to be present in the storm, then when he does come to you, when he does his lordly thing, his presence will only make the terror you are living in even worse. Because you do not expect him, his offer of help will be a threat to you. Any light that he might shine into your darkness will only blind you.

Trauma and dread messed up the eyes in the disciples’ heads, so the Jesus they saw looked like a ghost. What they needed was to use the eyes of their hearts, but those eyes had gone dark because their hearts were filled with bitterness, anger, rage, and that sinking feeling of absolute helplessness. Jesus is where the waves are. His lordly thing is to clear away the dark and help us see with the eyes of our hearts. By the sound of his voice, he sweeps away all our bitterness and anger. “It is I. Do not be afraid. Take heart.”

And quickly then, when we recognize that it is actually him, he commands us to walk the waves with him. His electrifying command shocks us into a new world of possibility, “Come to me and walk with me here.” Dare we try it? Dare we leave what little safety there is in that lurching, plunging boat, the boat that’s about to sink? Dare we step out onto the chaos itself? “Come,” Jesus says. “Look at me; look only at me, and you can do it.” I care for you. I care for your future. I care for the future of everyone who depends on you. Trust me and take that step.

“I dare you,” says Jesus. Peter took up the dare, and he did walk on the waves. He was doing it; he was experiencing an uplifting solidity right in the midst of everything going to pieces. But he broke his concentration. The eyes of his head were feeding more information to him than the eyes of his heart, more and more of the terror and threat, more and more of the sucking sounds of death. And he began to sink. Go down like a rock.

It was not enough, you see, for Jesus to call to Peter. It was not enough for Peter to concentrate on Jesus. That was not sufficient for Peter to stay on the waves. Finally, Jesus has to do something else in order for us to stay on top of the waves. It takes a strong hand-up. It takes his grip. Some of you can remember how Joan Baize sang so well:

Put your hand in the hand of the man Who stilled the water;
Put your hand in the hand of the man Who calmed the sea.

But how do you feel the grip of Jesus in this no-hands time of pandemic, requiring masks, soap, and social distancing? What is it that we always say? “Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work today.”1 But, we cannot touch; we cannot shake hands; we cannot hug; we cannot be together. However, we can see and we can speak; we can do and we can write. Through the disciplines of seeing, speaking, doing and writing, we extend the hand in the name of Christ to bring uplifting solidity right in the midst of everything going to pieces. Through giving someone eye contact, voice recognition, concrete action, and just being able to hold in your hands a message on a piece of paper, you become the hands of Jesus that keep someone from sinking.

Someday the wind and the waves will be no more. Someday this pandemic will be in our rear view mirror, but we don’t know just when. Yet even now in the midst of the storm, we know glimpses of that wonderful peace. A quiet moment with our child in our arms. Pillow talk with our mate. A congregation who hangs together even as we must isolate. A friend with whom our soul resonates. The return of someone we love after we had spent long stretches of the night in prayer. A sack of groceries. A drug prescription filled. A group of compassionate friends. The return of decency, trust, humility, honesty, and competency in our common life.

With Jesus we have a peace that passes understanding. We have a solidity right in the midst of everything going to pieces that can uplift any situation we are in. You can have this advantage if you dare to take that step towards him.

 

1 Annie Johnson Flint, 1866-1932.

“We Know Not Even How to Pray as We Ought”

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
July 26, 2020


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Romans 8: 26-39

In a Sunday school class recently, we were discussing what Jesus teaches about social justice, and one student pointed to the story of the rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. This is a pretty familiar story; you can find it in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus responds by telling him to obey all the commandments, and the man replies, “I have obeyed all these since my youth.” Then the Gospel of Mark tells us, Jesus looked at him with love and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give your money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The rich man goes away grieving, we are told, “for the man had many possessions.”

Well, this led to a hearty debate. How literally did Jesus mean this? Does Jesus ask this of everybody or of just this one man? Was this just meant to challenge his pursuit of perfection? But the person who raised the question kept saying, “Why don’t we just take Jesus at his word? Why do we need to explain this away and make excuses?” And she concluded by saying, “I don’t know how well anybody can really do this. But don’t we have to ask, based on this, if maybe our reasoning is backwards? We always say, ‘I can’t do this because I have to support my family’ or some other reason. But maybe our starting point shouldn’t be sustaining our way of life. Maybe being a disciple means that our starting point should be ‘sell everything you have and give it to the poor,’ and build out how we manage our personal economic situation from there.”

I have a feeling a lot of us—certainly me—left that Bible study really wondering, “If Jesus asks this, why can’t I do it?”

That is a question we disciples should be asking all the time. Jesus asks all sorts of things of us that we give nodding acceptance to, but don’t really try to do in real life. Love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, sell all we have and give it to the poor, if someone asks you for your coat give them your shirt as well, give to everyone who begs from you—I’m just right now quoting random things that Jesus actually said. In fact, if one reads the gospels honestly, Jesus is pretty uncomfortably demanding. Unfortunately, we tend to say, “That’s all well and good, but here’s the reason why I can’t do that.” And so I say, “Jesus is Lord,” except when it comes to how I live my life.

But an honest assessment of Jesus’ calling to us to be disciples puts us in the uncomfortable position of realizing that we don’t do a great deal of what he says, and in many cases, we don’t even try to do it. I don’t want to suggest that we have selfish or unethical motives for that. Some people certainly do, but I think for most of us the problem is that what Jesus is asking us to do seems to border on the impossible. How can we love everybody? How can we give everything we have to the poor?

We recently lost a spiritual titan, Georgia Representative John Lewis, who was a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in the early sixties. He died a congressman, but he started out as a young black man dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his principles of non-violent direct action as a means to overcome racism. The moment he is most remembered for is the famous march from Selma, AL, across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965, where hundreds protesters were violently attacked by police and John Lewis himself was seriously injured by a blow to his head by a police baton. Despite many instances of such violence in his life, throughout his career, as an activist and as a politician, Lewis remained dedicated to non-violence and in fact constantly, constantly told people that they must love their enemies. He was unshakably committed to the principle of love. He remained committed to loving neighbor and enemy his whole life. This was his commitment as a Christian, and it led him to make the decisions he made. He was no shrinking violet: he didn’t mind debating ideas or calling out those with whom he disagreed. But he continued to love them and never responded to violence with violence and taught others not to.

Much could be said about John Lewis. He is a lifelong hero of mine. Some of us may disparage his commitment to love and believe that he was lying or exaggerating or unrealistic. That certainly goes against the testimony of many people who knew him, including those who’d crossed horns with him. But I think many of us look at a man with such an unswerving commitment to non-violence and think either, “It’s not really possible and so I question it,” or “He was a saint, but I can’t do that.” But remember, Lewis looked at this as a question of Christian discipleship and of following Jesus. So maybe what we Christians need to stop finding reasons why we can’t be that way, and instead begin to pray that God MAKE US THAT WAY.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

It tells us that we don’t know how to pray, or even what to pray for, but if our hearts are willing, if we want to be what God wants us to be, God’s Holy Spirit can pray those prayers for us, change us, lead us into being the better person we are meant to be.

But I’m not sure how often any of us pray to be the way Jesus wants us to be. We pray for help in school or in our job; we pray for economic security; we pray for success; we pray for those who are sick and for ourselves and those we love when we or they are sick or in need. We pray for the world and for what ails it. All these are good prayers.

But how often do we pray that God change our hearts? How often do we pray, “Lord, make me more the way Jesus wants me to be. I can’t figure out how in the world to sell all I have and give it to the poor as Jesus says; Lord, help me to do that. I can’t love my enemies and in fact it’s hard for me not to put loving myself first in all situations; Lord, help me to love neighbor, enemy, and stranger. Help me to love that neighbor I’m in a dispute with; help me to love that person whose ideas or lifestyle I hate; help me to love that particular person whom I see as an enemy. I’m not even sure I want to do half the things you ask of me as a disciple; Lord, help me to want to do them.”

When I was a chaplain at a mental hospital years ago, we had a patient on the ward who had Parkinson’s and Dementia largely because in his early life he’d been a prize fighter and had taken a lot of knocks to the head; in fact his head was kind of misshapen because of it. We called him “Ol’ Bullet Head” because that’s what he called himself. By the time I knew him he was old, poor, beat up, mentally ill and a ward of the state of Virginia; but he was a good man. Ol’ Bullet Head used to wander the ward praying from deep, deep in his heart, “Lord, help me/ to be/ a better Christian.” It was almost like a poem the way he said it: “Lord, help me/to be/a better Christian.”

On good days, my prayer sometimes is, “Lord, help me/to be/ more like Ol’ Bullet Head.”

I think for most of the question is not, “Do I want to follow Jesus?” The question instead is “How do I follow Jesus?” And because we just can’t see an easy way to do that, we hardly even pray for it. We just kind of give up.

And if that’s what we’ve done, our scriptures for today have good news for us all. What Paul tells us is that God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. If we don’t know what to ask for, then the Spirit will ask for it through us. If we don’t know how to be faithful, then the Spirit can make us faithful. We often say, “All you have to do is ask.” But according to Paul, you don’t even need to ask. The Spirit will just do it, because “God searches the heart.” God searches the heart so that even if we don’t know what to ask for, God knows we want to ask for it. God knows the faithfulness we intend to have, hope to have, even if we don’t have the capability to be that faithful—and then God will make us as faithful as we are striving to be.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the good fortune to be leading a Bible study based on Warner Bailey’s book Living in the Language of God, which is a study of the twelve minor prophets, or the Book of the Twelve as it is known, with the idea that the twelve books actually comprise one message to Israel in its time of need. Part of that message, says Warner, is that though we are often unfaithful and even incapable of being faithful, God will give us the words—and by extension the actions—that we need to speak and to perform in order to be faithful. This is an act of God’s covenant faithfulness to God’s people. It is an act of love. Long ago God and God’s people made a covenant—God would be our God and we would be God’s people. It looks like we generally have a hard time with our end of the bargain. We are faithful for a moment but unfaithful for generations. But God is faithful no matter what. No matter how faithless we are, the Twelve Prophets remind us, God never stops being faithful; and one of the most important ways that God remains faithful is by making us faithful, empowering us to obey the covenant even when it seems completely beyond us to do it.

But as Paul says, “God knows the heart.” There’s a baseline assumption here, in both Romans and the Book of the Twelve, that at some level we want to be changed. We may not fully understand or even be capable of understanding what God wants of us, but we want to do it. And that is enough for God. Because this is how it always is with God. This is even how one becomes a Christian. At some point you realize that you want to change, but you don’t know how to do it. That’s all the lead God needs from us because God knows the heart. God does the rest. God will make us faithful—if we want to be faithful. Even if we want to want to be faithful, God will make us faithful. If.

And this goes to a concern I have about many modern First World Christians. For many of us we don’t believe in a God of change—a God of conversion—a God who expects something of us. We believe in a God of the status quo, a static God who expects nothing of us and nothing of the world. A God who maintains things as they are. That is not the God of the Bible. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about when he spoke of “Cheap Grace.” He defined “Cheap Grace” as

…grace without a price, without costs! It is said that the essence of grace, is that the bill for it has been paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free courtesy of the paid bill. The price paid was infinitely great, and therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely. What would grace be, if it were not cheap grace?

In contrast, he said, is Costly Grace, Grace that was bought with a price—the life of Jesus Christ—and which makes demands of us, which has expectations of us.

Costly grace (says Bonhoeffer) is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl for whose price the merchant will sell all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave hers nets and follow him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.

Costly grace always expects something of us, even if it’s only to knock at the door. If we knock, the door will be opened and we’ll be showered with the gifts of God’s Spirit; but we have to at least start out knocking. The problem with Cheap Grace is our belief that God’s grace excuses us from discipleship. “God knows I’m a sinner, so God lets me off the hook.” It’s as if now that our salvation’s in the bag, we don’t have to do anything else. So we don’t seek, we don’t ask, and we don’t knock.

But we Calvinists talk about “grateful obedience.” Grateful obedience means that we are so grateful for the salvation won for us in Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness received and the burden relieved, that we want to obey Jesus Christ. Grace has so changed us that we want to continue changing, not so that we can be saved, but simply because we’re so grateful that we want to do what pleases God.

And so the challenge before us is always: Do we want the pearl of great price, a life of true discipleship to our Lord Jesus Christ? Do we want the treasure hidden in the field, a new life lived in a new way to the glory of God? Do we want the sovereign Kingdom of Grace, what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven and what John Lewis called The Beloved Community? If we do—if we really do—no matter how inadequate we are and no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, we will always be seeking; we will always be asking; we will always be standing at the door and knocking. And by God’s grace what we seek we will find; what we ask we shall receive; the door will open again—and again—and again. Because God honors the covenant, and God enables us to honor it as well.

What Is Life?

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
July 19, 2020


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Romans 8: 1-11
One of the most surprising debates that has arisen out of the Covid-19 crisis is about the meaning of life itself and what is worth dying for. Our own Lt. Governor Dan Patrick started this ball rolling, but really, he expresses some of the tensions and questions that have been raised about what life really is. At one point Patrick tweeted, “There are more important things than living.” At another point he said, stating a position we can all relate to, “Let’s get back to living,” by which he expressed the frustration all of us feel in this time of coronavirus lockdown, that our lives have been put on hold.

Patrick has expressed in a nutshell his opinion about the meaning of life, at least in the context of this particular international crisis. And let’s be clear that this is a well-thought-out and creditable perspective. Dan Patrick has worked hard his entire life to create an economically strong Texas. He doesn’t view this as only for himself or for his generation; he believes that this is a legacy that we should pass on to our children and our children’s children. He is concerned that the economic shut-down will have long-term negative effects on our economy that could resonate for generations to come. To him, it would be immoral and even selfish to shut down the economy now, to deal with what he believes is a temporary crisis, to save our own lives at the cost of the inheritance we could bequeath to our children.

Think about this carefully. This is not a poorly thought out, or politically motivated, or “reactive” position. It is a clear moral position, with moral implications that we can understand. It is a fair question to ask if our actions today are pulling the rug out from under generations to come. In fact, it’s a question we should ask more often than we do. Millennials and Gen Z today are dealing with outsized debt loads that had created a generational financial crisis already in process even before the coronavirus shut-down, and most experts point to the many self-serving financial policies instigated by my generation, the Baby Boomers, as benefitting us while passing the costs down the road to our children and grandchildren. One of the most important moral questions we should ask is, “How do my actions today affect generations who will be here after I’m gone?”

Lt. Gov. Patrick’s position dovetails into the disagreement between churches over what exactly is the faithful response when it comes to congregational worship in this time of pandemic. We Christians believe that especially in a time of national crisis, we should make congregational worship integral, even if it has to be done at great risk. Add to that the concern many have that to obey government directives, especially those that direct us NOT to go to church, is to make government or specific leaders into idols whom we are worshiping instead of God. A lot of folks will look to past times when government set itself up as an idol, and how faithful Jews and Christians of the past willingly went to martyrdom rather than to bow down to such decrees. And so, it isn’t such a big leap for them to see risking Covid-19 by going to public worship as a ditch worth dying in—literally dying. They view the risk they are taking as worth it because of the larger purpose of bequeathing true Christian faith to generations to come. They are also more willing to believe that because of their faithfulness, God will protect them from getting Covid-19 by going to church. But my guess is they think it’s worth it even if it kills them.

I think it’s worth noting the level of faithfulness, courage, and selflessness that are reflected in this view. I will say furthermore, that this is a Christian position. There are indeed things worth dying for, and certainly two of them are the inheritance we leave to our children and resistance to idolatry.

Where many of us might disagree with these folks is not on whether legacy and idolatry are things worth dying for, but rather the particulars. What is the legacy we wish to leave? Is this truly a situation of idolatrous confidence in false gods? Is it true that the most faithful thing we can do right now is to risk getting Covid-19 and leave the consequences to God?

Really to ask the question what’s worth dying for is to ask what is it that Christians are living for. That’s what we’ll talk about today.

In our epistle reading for today, Paul says, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” There is so much going on in that sentence theologically that it boggles the mind, but let’s look at the phrase “the Spirit of LIFE in Christ” versus “the law of sin and death.” This is how Paul sees things: without Jesus, we humans are tied to law, sin and death. He goes further to say, that without Christ we are tied to the flesh; but in Christ we have become Spirit. Flesh certainly means the material world; it means sex and materialism and our family and our actual physical life. But Paul isn’t condemning these things. What he’s saying is that if one is not living in the Spirit, then one thinks that is all there is to life. All there is, is sex and materialism and family and actual physical life. That is what defines you.

But if one is in the Spirit, you still have sex and materialism and family and physical life and health—BUT THAT’S NOT ALL THERE IS. THERE’S MORE. Human life is no longer solely tied to temporary, temporal things. Human life is now tied into the eternal, into transcendent things, into God. And that creates a tremendous reframe of what it means to be human. We can value and enjoy the material things of the world, but we don’t define ourselves by them. Life is bigger than these material things and so—this is important—if we lose them, we can do without them. We don’t need material things to give our lives meaning, and so if we lose them, we don’t despair.

This goes to a concern I have about how some Christians are responding to the economic side of this crisis. It is as if they perceive that loss of material security somehow indicates that we are not faithful to God. What’s odd is that it is as if they believe that maintaining financial and material security IS exactly what it means to be faithful to God. It is a strangely materialistic interpretation of being Christian. I think this is more an expression of the classic American work ethic than it is of Christian faith. It reflects Benjamin Franklin’s adage from Poor Richard’s Almanac that “God helps those who help themselves.” I think all of us have said, as Lt. Gov. Patrick said, “Let’s go back to living” because we’re so frustrated that we can’t go out to eat, or go to the gym, or to work, or to church. But life is more than these matters of material security.

So, let’s talk about what Christian life actually is.

We Christians believe that the life we have in Jesus Christ is first and foremost, the renunciation of the power of death over our lives. “Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?” Paul says in First Corinthians 15. “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Paul here indicates that part of the way we live into God’s victory over death is by doing “the work of the Lord.” Paul says in another place that for him, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” If we are Christian, we have work to do, work that starts in this material world that we all share together. That work is Christ at work in the world, and so we should not be cavalier with our own lives. Death may be gain, but life is still Christ, and our job is to live Christ’s life in the world and do the work that requires.
A couple of years ago on my most recent trip to Israel, a group of us Fort Worth pastors was partnered with a group of Black Baptist pastors from North Carolina. Every time we visited a holy site, one of us was designated to provide a meditation. When we went to Bethlehem, that job went to a black pastor named William Johnson whom the other pastors from North Carolina viewed kind of as their “dean,” the guy with the most experience and wisdom. In front of the fields where possibly the shepherds heard the angels sing the birth of Jesus, Willie gave a profound and thoughtful meditation on eternal life, and the way he finished it really struck me: “I don’t wanna go today ‘cause there’s still plenty of work to do—but one of these days….”
And that goes to what we are living for. To die is gain, yes—but in the meantime to live is Christ. We don’t want to go today because there’s still plenty of work to do. And that means that Christ expects certain things of us. And those things happen here, in the material world, right here on earth. Jesus is at war with death right here on earth.
For instance, Jesus teaches us that taking care of the poor and the needy is vital to faithful living, “that whatsoever is done for the least of these is done” for him. Our assistance to the needy is more than just kindness. It is an act of defiance of death. We do not want poverty and neglect to claim one single life. And then there goes Jesus identifying himself with the poor and needy. So, if we say that “to live is Christ,” then taking care of the needy is pretty much required.
We Christians also believe that worship is one of the most vital parts of human life. Worship connects us to the Holy, reminds us of the meaning of our lives, tells us what God wants for the world. But worship isn’t as simple as going to church or synagogue. Frustrated with self-serving worship, the prophet Micah says, “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

The prophet Isaiah addresses the same problem, saying

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17     learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

In both these cases, God says that real worship is not simply ceremonies or going to church every Sunday. In fact, such things can actually be perversions of true worship. But to do justice and to take care of people in need is always, always true worship.

This is why, as much as anything, places of worship have sadly but willingly closed our doors to public worship during the corona virus. It is because, not only are there all sorts of other ways to worship, but real worship is taking care of others; it is because to live for Christ is to live for the most vulnerable in our society; it is because to be Christian is always to be at war with death so that it cannot claim a victory over us. We recognize that public worship is a Petri dish for the coronavirus, so we have closed our doors—for now. We continue our worship through video but also through providing opportunities to serve our neighbors, and those service opportunities are, too, an act of worship.

They’re also a reminder that this isn’t about us. I reject the claim that because we have a right to do something, we should just do it and forget the consequences, even if it makes someone else sick or die. That’s just selfishness. An essential Christian tenet is that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will save it.” That doesn’t mean that Jesus wants you lose your life by foolishly going some public event and not taking minimal precautions. But what it does mean is that we are willing to sacrifice our own comforts for the sake of others. And right now, sacrificing certain material comforts to save lives seems like a completely consistent Christian thing to do. Wearing a mask when out in public isn’t a political statement nor is it an appropriate act of defiance to an overreaching government: it is a loving act of protecting your neighbor from a disease you might have unawares. It’s an act of Christian discipleship. And in the meantime, there are still plenty of ways we can live Christlike lives in this crisis. There are certainly things worth dying for, and if it comes to that then our hope is in Christ, who has already defeated death and promised us eternal life; but in the meantime as pastor William Johnson told us, we don’t want to go today because there’s still plenty of work to do.

This puts us in an interesting position, of course. Frankly, speaking for myself, I very much see why the economy needs to reopen to some degree. It looks as much as anything, from a Christian perspective, like a moral issue. There is a real risk that people will get sick and die because of Covid-19, whether as customers or as workers. On the other hand, there’s also a serious risk of people falling into poverty, not being able to feed themselves or their kids, and possibly creating long-term generational poverty. How do you figure out the balancing act? Just because we have a moral framework in which to view the world doesn’t make the choices any easier or clearer.

As to those who view going to church or refusing to wear masks as a way of resisting the tyranny of the government or the medical elites or public opinion, well, I just don’t see that. I don’t think anyone is trying to usurp the role of God in our lives. I think we’re in a real health crisis and it calls us to respond as Christians are always called to respond: with humility, mercy, grace, service to others, and patience. Fighting tyranny and idolatry are worth fighting and dying for, but that’s not what this situation is.

And finally, as to legacy: I certainly don’t want my children or my grandchildren to be poor because of foolish decisions made in this pandemic. But there are more important things than financial security. Among them are love of God, strength of character, moral fortitude, and an awareness of God at work in the world through acts of selflessness and concern for others. I would hope that our children, would benefit from seeing an entire society or at least a significant portion of it make the conscious moral decision to put the needs of the many over their own short-term comfort. I think that’s a worthy legacy to pass on. A society that lives the self-sacrificing life of Christ would be a great legacy for future generations to build on.

These Truths

Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
July 5, 2020


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I Timothy 6: 11-16

Matthew 22: 15-22

“The American experiment rests on three political ideas—’these truths,’ Thomas Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. ‘We hold these truths sacred and undeniable,’ Jefferson wrote in 1776…. The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be.”—Jill Lepore, 1966-present, Historian

This weekend we celebrate the Fourth of July. It’s a strange one this year, with Americans in lockdown over the corona virus and with protesters on the streets taking down statues and speaking out for justice and equity for Black Americans. We can’t gather to celebrate the way we normally do. Americans are divided over any possible issue you can think of, even wearing masks in public. One group of people thinks our leaders haven’t been responsive enough and another group thinks they’re way too responsive.

But one could also argue that, except for the coronavirus, all is as it has always been in the United States, and in fact all is pretty much what the founders of our nation envisioned. Politics has always been a rowdy and undisciplined process in a nation that spent its earliest years taming both the wilderness and its own wildly diverse and adventurous citizens. Our conversation about the meaning of the word freedom has always been fraught. The mask debate today encapsulates it: on the one hand, freedom means our personal freedoms, especially those encapsulated in the Bill of Rights; and on the other hand freedom is our corporate responsibility to ensure that everyone is able to experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, because to ensure it to others is also to ensure it for myself.

You’ll notice I framed this as one idea versus the other, not one side versus the other: that’s because all of us go back and forth on the continuum between those two concepts. This internal debate about freedom is both personal and political. It fueled the founding of our country, in the debate for instance around whether each state was its own country or whether the thirteen colonies could and should form a federated government; and if they did, what its powers and limitations would be. It was incorporated into what most historians view as the great and terrible dynamic tension of our nation, personified in the man who man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson: the tension between laying out some of the highest ideals imaginable of human dignity and equality, and making those the founding principles of a nation; and on the other hand, that this man, and many of the people who propagated these new and revolutionary ideas of equality and freedom, were slave-owners and were often cruel and abusive to their enslaved captives. People have rightly called slavery America’s Original Sin, and this tension has defined some of nation’s highest acts of character and lowest acts of cruelty. It is a shame that this issue still rips at us today, but it is no surprise. This isn’t simply a debate about history, though obviously history informs it. It is a debate about how our highest ideals, our founding ideals, are supposed to be lived out on the ground and enforced in our laws and in our character as a people.

Our founders knew that these tensions existed when they founded the nation and wrote its Constitution. They knew it because they’d debated these tensions endlessly, from the first Continental Congress in 1774, through the Federalist Papers that laid out the argument for the Constitution, to the version of the Constitution that was finally enacted in 1789. They didn’t believe they were resolving all problems or ending all debates. What they were trying to do was lay the groundwork for a nation in which a people are able to have those debates without ripping the nation apart. As Abraham Lincoln would put it some 74 years later at Gettyburg, our nation’s founders “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Our nation, says historian Jill Lepore, was founded as a great experiment to test the hypothesis that “any nation” “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal… can long endure.” The experiment is ongoing.

Our founders, many of whom as products of the European Enlightenment were amateur scientists themselves, knew the Bunsen burner needed to stay hot and the test tube bubbling if the experiment were to succeed. And so they created a Constitution that facilitated controversy.  It said that public debate and disagreement are human rights. It set up three co-equal branches of government so that even built within the very framework of our government was the idea that parts of it could argue with other parts. Our founders were flawed and their perspectives often seem jarring and disturbing to people today—but they knew that they were flawed and were far-sighted enough that they wanted to create a nation where the limited perspectives of 1789 would not hamper “’these truths,’ as Thomas Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people,” truths they felt were so important that they transcended history itself.

For us as Christians, “these truths” are true, too, but maybe not for the reasons that Thomas Jefferson and many of the other founders thought they were true. We don’t believe in “natural rights” the way that 17th Century Deists and teachers of the Enlightenment did. To be honest, you’d be hard-pressed to find “rights” of any sort in the Bible. The concept of rights was as alien to the Biblical authors and heroes as spaceships, baseball, and the fact that the earth is round.

The Biblical worldview took for granted that life was hard and that nothing was handed to you on a silver platter. It also took for granted that there are any number of things we can’t easily do for ourselves, and so we have to count on God. I’m not sure we often think about how different a belief in a sovereign God is from a belief in natural rights. Natural rights implies there is any number of things we deserve just because we are human beings and walk on the earth. Essentially rights could be viewed as “entitlements”—the very fact that I exist means I deserve this and if I’m not getting it it’s because some malignant force is keeping it from me.

But to believe in a sovereign God is to believe everything we have is a gift from God, not a right or entitlement; and for that matter that we can’t earn our way into God’s good graces, either.  Everything we have is an unearned gift. Strictly speaking, from a biblical perspective, none of us has a right to anything, so be grateful for what you have, even if you don’t have much. If you believe in a sovereign God then you think that whether you live or die, whether good or bad happens to you, is completely out of your hands in the hands of a being of absolute power who has no reason to think you are special and who can’t be held accountable for how It treats you, anyway—it’s God.

If that was all there was to the Biblical worldview, of course, life would be pretty bleak. But not only do we believe in a sovereign God, we believe in a God of blessing. This belief is so important that it reframes the meaning of human life. One could argue that the whole idea of individual human dignity and equality comes from Genesis’ assertion that we are made in the image of God. It is not a hard case to make that our understanding of political liberty comes from the story of God freeing the Israelite slaves from Egypt. For us protestants, it’s worth noting that the rise of nationalism and democratic ideas in Europe coincided with the Reformation’s return to the New Testament idea of “the priesthood of all believers,” that is, that each individual Christian can interpret the bible and decide how to live a Christian life for herself. And of course we can reinforce the idea of human equality with the early church’s assertion that all Christian believers were equal in the eyes of God—as Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). My point here is that we Christians can come to many of the same conclusions that the Founders did without having to adopt the Enlightenment concept of “rights.”

And furthermore, many of the Founders who endorsed these Enlightenment ideas were also Christian, and they saw these concepts as the political expression of their Biblical faith. And even if they were explicitly non-Christian, as Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, they could acknowledge that their Enlightenment ideas had some Biblical root. What unites Christian ideas of God’s sovereignty and grace to those Enlightenment ideas of “political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people” was one simple concept: The idea of blessing. Humans are blessed, whether by the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, or what the Founders would have called the “Mohammedan” sovereign Allah, or by the Deistic God of Nature and Nature’s God; they are blessed because that’s what God does—God blesses them. And what God wants, furthermore, is for us to be blessings to one another. So far the best tool that humans have come up with to make that happen is this concept of human rights, the idea that all humans are deserving of these inherent benefits and so it is the job of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people to make sure those rights are enforced both in concept and in law.

And we Christians can be down with that idea because it largely aligns with what we think God wants in the world and the way we believe God wants humans to live together. The concept of rights gives us a way of making God’s blessings concrete and to ourselves be a blessing to others.

This is the key point of our psalm for today, Psalm 67.

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make God’s face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.

This psalm builds on God’s powerful promise to Abraham that God will bless him and his descendants, and that furthermore through them all the world would be blessed. The psalmist is thanking God for blessing the nation of Israel, and saying that because Israel is blessed, then they are being a blessing to all the nations of the world, so that those nations can worship the God who “judges the peoples with equity and guides the nations upon the earth.” But the psalm’s positive and upbeat framing also hides a warning: if the nation is not a blessing, then it isn’t a blessing to the other nations of the world, and it is not fulfilling its part of the covenant it made with God.

When Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question about taxes by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s!” his answer is as confounding to us as it is to the Pharisees. Christians have read this so many different ways, as endorsement of government or condemnation of government, but frankly I think there’s only one completely true way to read this, which is that to God the emperor and the Empire are irrelevant. Irrelevant. They are here today and gone tomorrow. Irrelevant. Nations do not live eternally, but people do, so what matters is whether we people give ourselves over to the image of God in which we are made.

There is an inherent expectation at the heart of the Judeo-Christian claim that we are made in the image of God. The expectation is that we are to be godlike. We often take that wrong, and in fact the Bible maintains, and Jesus is here implying, that governments, emperors, presidents and politicians, authorities of any sort, are the ones most likely to get it wrong. We think that if we are powerful, dominating and indomitable, we’re being Godlike. But the sovereign God has no interest in our behaving that way—in fact, it is exactly in those characteristics that we are NOT godlike. Not even the strongest nation that has ever existed has ever been even vaguely all-powerful. God’s sovereignty is God’s alone, and there’s no way we can imitate it. That’s not the quality of God that we are made in the image of.

No, that quality is this: to be a blessing. That is the unique quality of the God of the Bible, the thing that makes the Judeo-Christian God so different from other concepts of God. It is such a unique characteristic of God that the Bible assumes we could never have discovered it for ourselves. Instead God has to reveal it to us. God first reveals it to Abraham, telling him that God will bless him and make him and his descendants a blessing to the world. God next reveals it to Moses in the Burning Bush and gives him the surprising news that God cares so much about the Israelites and the concept of justice that God will free the Israelites from their slavemasters. And God ultimately reveals this amazing, unique quality in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To the extent that you and I are made in the image of God, this is how we live into that image: we are to be a blessing to each other, and through living in this blessed way we are a light to the whole world that all may see and celebrate the God of blessings.

This is as true of nations as it is of individuals. A nation that practices blessing one another, and a nation that believes its role in the world is to be a blessing to other nations, is living into God’s hope and image. Over the last two and a half centuries, the United States has gone back and forth in this. Sometimes we are a blessing to the world, because we’re living into our highest ideals, both internally in how we treat each other, and externally, in our dealings with other nations and in how they perceive us. Other times, we are not such a blessing, to each other or to the world; and generally, we’re a little bit of both.

But our idea as a nation, our idea at our founding, started from the concept that it is possible for there to be government by the people which can be a blessing to all the people in our nation; and that a nation so conceived could not only survive, but thrive could be a light to the rest of the world that if we can do it, they can too.  When we are at our best we live into that calling to bless and be a blessing. Today, let’s remember that and celebrate it; then let’s roll up our sleeves, put on our facemasks, pick up our picket signs or write our letters to the editor or fill out that early voting ballot and get back to work doing it.