Month: February 2019

Governor Stitt Aims for Oklahoma’s First Top Ten Win . . . In Firearm Deaths

Our new Governor laid out his goal to make Oklahoma a top ten State. Who would have thought that before education, justice reform and healthcare that Oklahoma would pass legislation with the promise of the Governor’s signature that will surely propel Oklahoma into the top ten of states with the highest rate of firearm deaths?!

According to the CDC, Oklahoma is currently at number thirteen for States with the highest rate of firearm deaths. If the statistics from other states that have passed permitless carry legislation inform what we may expect in Oklhaoma, Governor Stitt will get his dream of making Oklahoma a top ten state sooner than later.

What defies common sense, and surely the common good, is that permitless carry was not one of Governor Stitt’s platform planks. There is no outcry from any majority for this legislation. More than 80% oppose this. The Oklahoma Legislature has run House and Senate Bills so fast that Law Enforcement has not had time to weigh in. And, it looks like it is too late.

Many people have hoped that Governor Stitt would undo eight years of Mary Fallin. Who knew that he would undo one of the best acts she undertook when she vetoed this legislation just last year? The Governor is not up for re-election. Even The Oklahoman’s Editors noted what a waste of time this is. Who cares that Representative Echols checked with the NRA. What about Oklahomans?

There is hope. Maybe Governor Stitt will be called upon by religious leaders who follow a King who said to Peter, “Put away your sword.” Gathering for a prayer service to the God of Jesus Christ at the outset of his term might need to be followed with a commitment to the Prince of Peace.

Today I was invited to speak to this issue as a representative of Oklahoma Faith Leaders. Who knows if this will make the news. I offer it here in hopes that maybe, just maybe the Governor will keep his eye on his top ten list that would make us proud, not more bloody.

My oldest grandson, Cohen, will turn sixteen in seven years. His Dad, Craig, is a Driver’s License Examiner. There is no chance that Cohen will be allowed to get behind the wheel of an automobile without training, license and insurance. Not only would his Dad not allow it, neither would the State of Oklahoma. Putting a teenager behind the wheel of a potentially deadly weapon without training has made little sense to anyone. Requiring training and a license helps protect the common good from those untrained, unprepared. Why would we offer a 21-yr old to carry a gun, an intentionally lethal weapon, without a permit or training? Even an 18-year old on the grounds they serve in the military.

Craig supervises the DPS station in Chickasha, he is recognized as one of the best. He insists that teenagers pass written and driving tests before sending them on to a Tag Agency to obtain their much coveted license. Craig also has made sure that those who drive semi rigs over the roadways maintain their CDL’s. None of us would have any confidence should a would-be driver take to the highway with a heavy load behind an 18-wheeler. No. The State requires training, licensure and driving logs for professional drivers. We would not dare let loose untrained drivers to carry goods across the Country, risking the lives of others. It’s not that we dare not do it, we don’t do it.

My congregation represents a cross-section of opinions. Some of our folks possess conceal carry permits. Others frequent or work gun shows. We, even me, are not opposed to guns. We, not me, are not looking to confiscate guns. But, it is clear permitless carry is not legislation intended for the common good. What sort of common good is it that our State would make intentionally lethal products available to untrained young people, the most frequent demographic subject to gun violence. 

There is a likelihood that my presence today will startle friends, even church members. It could be some will object. They will wonder why couldn’t I just leave politics to the Legislature. I wonder what it is that makes our current, liberal, gun laws require the Legislature, with the promise of the Governor’s signature, to pass high risk legislation to satisfy a minority on the promise of more money for re-election. Who’s common is that good for?

My church members should not expect any less from their pastor than to suggest the way of peace does not include greater access to deadly weapons, particularly without training and regulation. To ask the pastor to stay out of politics at this point is to request he ignore Jesus’ message of peace.

Cohen, Max, Fox and Marlee need not worry that others their age will drive a car without training and permits. But, they need not grow up in an Oklahoma where they will wonder if their peers are carrying an intentionally deadly product without training and permit.

Until?

Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we are often lulled into smugness. Here we sit this morning while others are elsewhere. Quickly we allow this seed to grow into a spiritual superiority that blinds us from Jesus, from you. Too often we read the prophets and sit in judgement on a people we barely understand . . . that is until we are reminded with Isaiah that they are us. Spare us the consequences of our hard hearts by revisiting us with your grace, lest our cities, our lives, lay in ruins. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Isaiah 6:1-13; Luke 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 15:1-11

Then I said, “Until when, Lord?” And he replied;

Until . . . That leaves a stump when felled.”

“Just wait until your Father gets home.” What that meant was Mom had spent plenty of time telling us,

Keep listening but not obeying,

Keep observing my anger but not connecting your danger

Sure, that is an adaption of Isaiah 6:9, but it gets better. How long should Mom’s keep repeating the line, “Just wait until your Father gets home?”

Until your summer dreams lay in ruins,

your hoped for trips to the community pool is empty,

until your access to your favorite Saturday morning cartoons is unplugged.

The more immediate translation was, if you think grounding is something, wait until the tender portion of your backside meets Mr. Leather. Now before you judge my parents for their use of corporeal punishment, remember it is not the best practice to judge the 60’s, even the 70’s, based on the 2000’s. I mean, when we played Little League, we did not have drafts, we signed up and played with our local team win or lose. And, when, like us, we did not win every game, we learned to be good losers. Learning to be good losers is much easier than learning to be good winners.

There was no such thing as participation trophies. Uniforms? Really? T-Shirts and jeans. We rarely spotted baseball pants until we played in Jr. High. And, no one ever used the term, Snowflake to talk about others in either direction of the social divides. 

Judging people from decades ago by the standards of the present should also be applied when reading the Scriptures. We often read what is described and treat it like it is prescribed. My recollections are in no way meant to say to teams and parents today that you should do it like we did it. It is to say parents today should take great care to judge parents from bygone days by their contemporary standards. And, that goes for the Bible.

It has become a favorite pastime in many places to castigate Israel for her regular illustrations of infidelity. We use that small tribal people as our “go to” for an example of “how not do do it” when following God. It is a move that suggests that we are a more advanced people, after all, we have Jesus.

If there is one thing we find here in Isaiah 6, is that people are people and the sooner we realize that together we comprise one big cluster of unfaithfulness to the Creator, the more quickly we will be enamored of God’s grace. Yes, that sounds awful pessimistic. But, hey, I am talking about Christ’s Church. You object. This morning, the Houston Chronicle published an investigative piece on the Southern Baptist Convention and its unwillingness to create a clergy abuse registry. The paper let it be known the article was on its way. The President of our Convention, whom I know, JD Greear, tweeted this on Friday,

I recently learned of this coming story. It is certain to be disturbing & painful, but I plan to read it immediately on Sunday. In fact, we all should read it & pray for the victims & survivors. In order for the SBC to move forward, we need to know the truth & demonstrate Jesus.

It has been easy for those in the SBC to point to the scandals in the Catholic Church among priests, and the recently revealed abuse of Nuns.  It has been like swinging at low hanging fruit to ridicule the United Methodist Church for their upcoming General Conference on a Way Forward on the issue of human sexuality and the church. For decades we have pointed out the decline in the UCC, the DoC, the PCUSA, and every other denomination. I have heard our leaders criticize these groups. Maybe it was to make us feel better about ourselves. The news that came out this morning is but one illustration that the pot should never call the kettle black.

Some of us have pushed for a registry in the SBC for more than a decade. We have not hid behind Jesus. Instead, we have hid behind an ecclesiology, a way of understand church, that privileges the institution over the person. And, we have done it all the while claiming faithfulness to orthodoxy, that is right believing about the Bible. But, here we are faced with the Bible. Sure, I am frustrated. I have grown up in SBC churches, I have pastored SBC churches now for more than 30 years. The things I know about us makes me sad and mad all at the same time.  But, the truth is, I know myself. That is exactly what Isaiah noted when he recognized that when God is not made in my image, it is fearful.

Did you catch that? Isaiah did not respond to a vision of God that was of his own making. He did not react to a God that liked who he liked and did not like who he did not like. Isaiah did not project onto his favorite political party the role of righteousness. Nope. When he entered the Temple of the Lord, he saw something different. He had a vision of how things really are, not how we wanted them to be. And, his response was, to acknowledge that his lips, his speech, his words were words of death. 

Woe is me.

Isaiah was not expressing self-pity. His was not some rendition of gloom, despair and agony on me. Deep dark depression and excessive misery. His was not the result of bad luck, it was the consequence of learning that he lived among a group of people who had set such a low bar for all their relationships. 

It would be easier for us, like it would have been last week with Jeremiah, to think this is all about Isaiah. That the words we read are only for his day and his people. That somehow after Jesus’ coming the people of God are immune to to reverting to things as they were rather than living in the newness of what God has revealed in the Messiah, in Christ Jesus. But, that is an optimism that cannot connect us with hope. I know, you fear that the Pastor has reverted to some former Fundamentalist ideology. That the once optimistic and hopeful version of your pastor has been kidnapped and brainwashed. The reality is I am the little boy that heard the words, Just wait until your Father gets home. And, while I am not as bad as I could be, I am not as good as I want you to think I am. If I am not careful, I will create a vision of God that happens to give me a pass for what is lacking … but not you. And, that is the projection of the Christian Church, the Evangelical Church, even the Southern Baptist Church, that the world rejects. And, so may we.

Isaiah, like Jeremiah, is about God. While we cannot escape the details of either prophets call and context, we must not forget that the Scripture is about God, not about us. We are the objects. God is the subject. What that means is that God acts in ways to change the way things are. That reality turns my sadness, my madness, into hope. 

God’s messengers took a hot coal and touched Isaiah’s lips. The act did not give third degree burns. Instead, God cleansed Isaiah. His confession included his cleansing. Did you see that?

Grace.

God’s grace to Isaiah moved him to respond to a question without detail. 

Who should I send?

Who will go for us?

When we hear God call, we want a job description, what will it cost me, how much time do I have? Grace experienced prompted Isaiah to answer without so much as a hint that he would be asked to give a message that essentially meant no one would listen. In other words, Isaiah was asked to give announcements at church to which almost no one ever listens. 

Listen to his assignment,

Go! Say to these people:

Keep listening but do not understand;

keep looking but do not perceive.

Make the minds of these people dull;

deafen their hears and blind their eyes;

otherwise they might see with their eyes

and hear with their ears,

understand with their minds,

turn back, and be healed.

Oh, boy! It gets better.

Then I said, “Until when, Lord? And he replied:

Until cities lie in ruins without inhabitants,

houses are without people,

the land is ruined and desolate,

and the LORD drives the people far away,

leaving great emptiness in the land,

Though a tenth will remain in the land,

it will be burned again.

Like the terebinth or the oak

that leaves a stump when felled,

the holy seed is the stump.

Wow, Pastor, it is cold enough outside. We came for some warmth!

There it is. Do you see it?

All four of the gospels tell the story of Jesus quoting Isaiah. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it comes as the disciples ask why parables or what does a parable mean. John points to the lack of response to the signs Jesus gives that Messiah has come as the enactment of Isaiah 6. In other words, Isaiah’s words point to an issue human beings have always had. We look for the God of our making.

We want warmth. We want an end to the Until. There in the last line of Isaiah 6,

the holy seed is the stump

From the ashes comes grace. Our readings from 1 Corinthians and from Luke combine to give us two people who saw God not as the object they had created for themselves, but as the One who came to them and loved them despite themselves.

Peter and Paul.

Quickly, Peter and his fishing buddies were asked to trust someone whom they figured did not know as much as they about fishing. “Cast out in deeper water,” came the suggestion. “We are slap worn out after a long night of unsuccessful fishing.” But like any of us who fish, the prospect of finally catching a fish would spur us to try another place. What Peter had experienced in scarcity, Jesus delivered in abundance. The overwhelmed Peter recognized that his self-dependence was exposed and needed Jesus to go. Jesus did not riff on Peter. Instead he gave him hope that others would be drawn into the same net of grace. This same Peter would run to Jesus on the shoreline after the Resurrection. 

Paul recounts the message, announcement, he heard. This is the fellow that stood by as Stephen was stoned. Paul is the one name that struck fear in the hearts of early Christians as he roamed about looking to purge the world of those who followed Jesus. Yet, God appeared to him. His vision of God, the one that he had made suitable to himself, was crushed beneath the weight of the Resurrected Jesus. He knew himself all the more in the face of Jesus.

Until . . . Where the power of Sin abounds, grace much more abounds. 

Until we see the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Can’t Drain the Swamp

Luke 4:21-30; Jeremiah 1:4-10

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, it is easy for us to get tied to things as they are. After all, it is what we know and have known. We admit that we really like Jesus’ message of planting and building his Kingdom. We do find it hard that Jesus also challenges our idols. We fear what we might lose. Help us, Lord, to see that grace is greater than all our sin. And all God’s people say, Amen.

Ecologists tell us that it is not good to drain the swamp. Plant and animal life need the available water to survive. Remove the water and there is a rupture in the ecosystem. Things die. Rebecca Harrington noted in a piece for the Business Insider, written in 2016, that the practice of draining swamps was popular when malaria was a problem in the U.S. and Europe. Keep the mosquito population down and maybe you could reduce the incidence. 

If there is anything we know, we have not rid the planet of mosquitos. Do you really think we could? 

Human beings cannot drain the swamp, you know, the one Ronald Reagan called for in 1980. Reportedly it had been found that there was $424 billion dollars of waste that could be cut from the Federal Budget. Drain the swamp. Reagan appointed the Grace Commission. After the report was combed through, it was learned that the writers had included in their numbers items that were necessary, not wasteful. The recommendations were never implemented.

The phrase stuck. Anytime you need to rally voter sentiment in one direction or the other, just shout, Drain the Swamp. I suspect that had the phrase not been first used in 1903, it may well have been floated in Israel. Think about it. Over the course of 208 years, Israel, even if divided between North and South, suffered through 38 kings. Of those 38, 33 were considered evil kings and only 5 deserve the description righteous, or good. Human begins can’t drain the swamp.

What is it? Well, Washington, or Jerusalem, seem like handy scapegoats. Blame those leaders for all the ill in their respective countries. But, before you decide to do just that, remember, those swamps are filled with people just like us. Don’t forget, Israel asked for a king. With all the sadness he could muster, Samuel relayed the words from God. He told them what would happen should they get a king,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants.  He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

For more than 200 years the people lived most of their time under the rule of kings that gave them what they wanted. Or, maybe it would be better to say, they served under kings that produced for them the sort of leadership that magnified their own faithlessness.

Have we learned much?

Before Israel’s captivity in Babylon, Jeremiah heard a call from the Lord. YHWH, Israel’s God, had given the young man a commission. For 40 years his voice could be heard. Jeremiah describes God’s actions and the content of his message,

Then the LORD reached out his hand, touched my mouth, and told me:

I have now filled your mouth with my words.

See I have appointed you today

over nations and kingdoms

to uproot and tear down,

to destroy and demolish,

to build and plant.

If you are keeping score, that is four verbs that describe demolition and two verbs that paint the picture of renewal. That is a 2 to 1 ratio of words that foretell loss. Some get distracted. They think this is about Jeremiah. What we find in the Scriptures is that Jeremiah is God’s object, not his subject. That is, the story is about God renewing and restoring. He describes God’s activity. Before there is building and planting, those things in the way of faithfulness must be torn down. Focusing on Jeremiah would reveal a prophet of little success. Jeremiah was saddened. No amount of positive thinking would change the very real landscape of a people who could not drain the swamp. They could not see they helped create the swamp. 

Jeremiah is often referred to as the Weeping Prophet for he exclaimed,

If my head were a flowing spring,

my eyes a fountain of tears,

I would weep day and night

over the slain of my dear people.

Compare these words of Jesus,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

Nearly six centuries had passed between the fall of Jerusalem and the time of Jesus. Yet, the message given Jeremiah rings in the words used to describe the Messiah.

He has done a mighty deed with his arm;

he has scattered the proud

because the thoughts of their hearts;

he has toppled the mighty from their thrones

and exalted the lowly.

He has satisfied the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

And these words,

Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed – and a sword will pierce your own soul – that the thoughts of many hearts many be revealed.

A sign that will be opposed – the hearts of many will be revealed.

Uproot. 

Tear Down. 

Destroy. 

Demolish.

Jesus had just stood to proclaim the very words spoken about him by his mother had come to pass,

Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.

Quickly the crowds buzzed with enthusiasm. The idea that the LORD had sent someone to change the system, topple the institutions of oppression, to break up the monopoly of power energized the crowd toward Jesus. Luke records, 

They were all speaking well of him and were amazed at his gracious words that came from his mouth;

Even in their praise of Jesus, the witnesses to his work in Capernaum, and the way he handled the Scriptures, they could not get beyond what they saw,

Isn’t this Joseph’s son?

Firmly stuck in the world as it is, the people poured cold water on their own enthusiasm. Did you get that? Gracious words of deliverance. Amazing words of promise. Despite the hope in Jesus’ words, they built a wall and dared Jesus to scale it. And just like that, Jesus did not opt for positive thinking. He began to uproot their ideas of what is. He called attention to the sort of thinking that needed to be destroyed. He spoke in such a way as to demolish their dependence on more than the very words of God. Jesus demolished their reliance on their own judgement. He exposed the swamp.

And to be a sign that is opposed – that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

We not only hear the themes of Jeremiah’s words in Jesus’ preaching, we witness the living out of those words in the life of Jesus. Rather than evoke images through words, God made clear in Jesus what filled the hearts of people. Try as we might to paint a better picture by downplaying the walls we build and emphasizing our confidence in human potential, human history does not lie. 

And that is what Jesus does. He tells them history does not lie. When the people were faithless, God sent the prophet Elijah to a foreigner, some outsider, a widow. When people were faithless, God sent Elisha to Syria, to an outsider. Plenty were hungry in Israel  during famine and many were afflicted by leprosy in Israel, but their lack resulted in God showing up elsewhere. Lest we think God only shows up among us, that we can wall God into our tribe, our group, these stories demonstrate how God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Telling the people their story did not convince them. Instead it exposed them. Rather than own their faithlessness, they became engaged at Jesus. They drove him out of the synagogue – for us the church – and brought him to the edge of a cliff and intended to hurl him over the cliff and be rid of him. 

But, it was not his time.

Hear me please. Jeremiah was given words that pointed to the creation of a new community – one built upon the faithfulness of God amidst the faithlessness of people. Jesus embodied those very words and plants a new community built upon his faithfulness to do for us what we cannot. We don’t rely on human beings to drain the swamp, we trust in Jesus who by his death and Resurrection drain the swamp of its power and influence over us. In fact, if you like a more vivid picture of the Gospel, Jesus entered the swamp and took all of its infectious parasites that represent the Power of Sin that build walls, structures and institutions that keep us sin sick, to borrow from the old evangelists. In his body he bore the disease that kills us and suffered death that comes from our exposure to those parasites. Then to demonstrate the power of God over our disease, in the Resurrection, Jesus tore down, uprooted, demolished and destroyed our enemies so that in us He may create a new community of hope.

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Here is a link to the preached sermon.