Selected Sermons

Hunger for God                                                  Psalm 42; John 3:1-17

             During Lent in years past we shared in Lenten gatherings around a meal. We’d talk about our grandmother’s special recipe for Cuban rice and beans, or southern style fried chicken, but the theme would move us to speak of our hunger for God.  Someone admits to feeling empty and alone, as if God had departed from their life.  Another shares about what a joy it is to discover a new energy from a new commitment to doing devotional reading every day.  We all hunger for God, and we all have different kinds of hungers.

            Still, who are we kidding?  For most of us, that hunger for God gets buried.  It stays below the surface, usually.  We drone it out with busy-ness and distractions.  We are only dimly aware of the pain and longing we feel for God. The passionate, burning love we feel for our Holy Maker and Redeemer.

            We’ve become so expert in ignoring our hunger for deeper communion with Almighty God.  I plug myself in electronically.  I multitask… It’s surprising how hard it is to hear the Lord comes knocking at my door when I’m on a Zoom with earphones in, checking my phone, with the tv flickering in the background.

            Some of us use a different strategy.  We fend off the Holy Giver of Life by focusing on all our….stuff.  Electronics, downloaded music, genealogies, baseball cards, your stuffed animal collection… some require a bit of tending, but in the end, they are just… things.  In this pandemic maybe you’ve caught yourself staring at the things in your home and asking…. How did I ever come to possess so much stuff?  Maybe you’ve wondered why your stuff no longer makes you happy.    We grow weary, anxious, and then our hunger begins to roar into awareness.

            Take Nicodemus, for example.  When he sits down with Jesus he’s a bit distracted.  Jesus tells him “You must be born from on high” but Nicodemus can’t figure out what he means.  Nicodemus hears Christ say “you must be born again.”  But it’s a play on words:  born from on high and born again are both possible meanings of the Aramaic expression Jesus used.  It’s pretty obvious that Jesus was speaking about spiritual birth, not physical re-birth.  But Nicodemus can’t seem to pay close attention.  Then Jesus tells him that the Spirit, the wind of God, blows where it wills and calls out people’s natural hunger for God.  Jesus says that when this happens, you must choose to respond to the Spirit blowing on your life with faith.  Faith.  But again Nicodemus doesn’t seem to follow. “How can these things be?”  he asks dumbly.

            Is Nicodemus aware that he hungers for God?  He is, after all, Nicodemus, a member of Jerusalem’s religious elite.  He doesn’t even want his buddies on the leadership council to know that he’s interested in Jesus, so he comes and knocks on the door where Jesus is staying late at night.  Nicodemus hopes no one will see.  How hungry for God is Nicodemus really?

            What does being hungry for God look like?  Just ask whoever wrote Psalm 42.  As a deer longs for flowing water, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts, thirsts, for the living God.  When I understand how cut off I am from you, O Lord, my tears pour down day and night.  I long, O God, to feel your call to me, deep calling to deep.  Deep deep in my soul I long to hear your call, Lord.

            That’s what hunger for God looks and sounds like!

            But Nicodemus? 

            And yet,  and yet… despite being self-seeking, wanting to always make a good impression, and even though he only half listens to Jesus and is a little offended when Jesus doesn’t seem to be impressed by what a good guy he is… still there’s a little voice whispering in Nicodemus’ ear, telling him that he’s missing out, that there is so much more to life, that he, Nicodemus, should not be so full of himself so he can begin to be full of God instead.   Yes, he really is hungry… not for food, but for the touch of the Living God upon his soul.

            The truth is, God doesn’t leave us alone.  Even when we are a schmuck.  God zeroes in on our almost muted, muffled, hunger.  God pursues us.  

            This is noticeable when you get to know young people.  They may disguise the hunger of the soul… it’s not cool to be interested in God…. But I’ve found that when you actually spend time with teens and young adults, when they aren’t too busy with lessons and homework and volunteer work and resume building and their first jobs… when you can listen to young people talk… they express a hunger for knowing God. 

Say you are fortunate enough to spend an evening with them.  You play games, you get silly, make some jokes, have some horseplay, get through to a time when everyone just gets quiet, pretending to be bored, or asleep, and then, when your time together is about up, someone blurts out, “Do you think those boys who killed their classmates and teachers…. Can they be forgiven?”  Or another asks, shyly, “But what I don’t get is, if Jesus really was the son of God, couldn’t he have gotten out of being killed?  I mean, what’s the point of believing in God if you can’t get out of stuff?” 

           And we know, all of us, deep inside, what these young people are really asking about.  What they are really longing to talk about.  Can I be forgiven, even though I feel guilty?  How do I find the courage to live when I know that death comes for everyone, and it’s suddenly dawned on me that “everyone” includes me? 

          Our hunger for God erupts and rumbles inside us at any age, usually at unexpected moments in life.  A great Southern preacher tells of guest preaching ats, a series of revival services.  This was pre-pandemic, of course.  The church was crowded.  A woman came in late with her noisy kids in tow, distracting  and even annoying everyone.  She came up to the preacher afterward.  “You don’t know me, but I’m the one with the noisy kids.”

         The next night he preached part two in the series and the woman came back, this time without her kids.  Again she came up to him afterwards.  “Remember me?”  “Yes, you’re the one with the noisy kids.”  “I didn’t bring them tonight.”  “Why is that?”  “I take my noisy kids and go late when I don’t want something to get to me.  Tonight I came without them.”  He just waited, knowing she would say more.  “You wouldn’t believe what a mess I’ve made of my life.”  All he could do was nod. 

         Was she hungry for God, or what?

         You know, we only have to be a little hungry, a little bit aware of our need.  We can fend off God’s Spirit with our noisy kids but all God needs is for us to be a little willing to put down our defenses.  To lay down our noisy kids and empty ourselves of self-reproach.  Watch, wait, and pray.  God will do the rest.

         So, someone’s wondering:  Was that young mother really hungry for God, or did she just want an excuse to get out of the house?  Maybe she just wanted a distraction?

         Maybe so.  You never know with God.  Sometimes it’s the hunger that burns forth inside us that open us up to discovering how much we really long to feel connection to the Holy One.  Sometimes it’s not so much a hunger pain but an awareness of the emptiness inside.   Many a person has stopped, surprised themselves by talking to Jesus as if really is the son of God.  We ask, “Can you forgive me?  Can I trust you with my one and only life?”

        But sometimes it’s the touch of the person sent by God to minister to us… that preacher… your best friend… the auto mechanic who keeps talking about his uncle who found religion and stopped drinking.  Maybe that’s how God wakes us up, and we blink to find we really miss God’s presence touching us deeply.      

Nicodemus, for example.  Who knows about him?  He went away from his interview with Jesus disappointed.  He didn’t get the answers he wanted.  Sometimes we who know best the stories of the Bible tend to write him off as a lost cause.

       But John tells us that Nicodemus defended Jesus to the religious authorities when they first started thinking about arresting him.  He said, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a haring.”  They responded angrily, but he pricked their conscience just enough.  He bought Jesus some more precious time.

And when time finally does run out for our Lord, who is it that buries him?  Joseph of Arimathea, along with… that’s right…. Nicodemus.  Nicodemus helped wrap Christ’s body and anoint him with spices.  The same Nicodemus who departed from Jesus dissatisfied.  Perhaps after he realized that he did not understand what Jesus was trying to tell him, the hunger only grew stronger.  The pain at knowing he couldn’t really keep Jesus safe cut into his insides.  He longed to know what Jesus really meant, to see who Jesus really was.

       When he sees Jesus at the end, he doesn’t ask any more dumb questions.  He’s put aside his noisy kids.  He’s ready to act.  He’s sad to bury Jesus, sad but determined.

       Sad, but also strangely glad.  Because this time he knows his hunger is deepest and the strange joy he then feels burns most pure when he is around Jesus.  Even when he’s around Jesus’ dead body.  As he helps put Jesus into the tomb, he wonders whether he will be able to face that hunger full on, in the full light of day.  He wonders what he will do with his life.  He doesn’t yet know the answer, but he knows he no longer fears what his buddies will think.  He’s glad that he finally doesn’t need any longer to search for God under cover of night.

What about your hunger for the living God?  It hurts to hide from it. 

       My friends, learn to go to Jesus, and ask.  Learn to pray and wait.  Pay attention to your hunger.  Let it rumble, and burn, and explode until you find yourself doing something foolish and unexpected.  Until you respond to pain and burning hunger God placed inside you, with a burst of foolish, exuberant love.  Crazy love.  Like Nicodemus risking his reputation to bury Jesus.  Crazy love, because you are no longer afraid to tell God how much you love him! 


Pray with me:  O Lord, like a deer longs for water, I long for your touch on my life.  My heart and soul thirst for you.  Come close to me, O Lord.  Help me to love you in return with that Crazy Love.  Amen.


Living with the Gift We Get: a story for adults                                   Isaiah 11:1-9; Matthew 2:1-6; Isaiah 9:6-7

Rev. Noel Vanek                                                                                  December 8, 2019

We’ve all experienced it:  you eagerly open a package on Christmas morning and out pops… a horrible tie, an ugly green Christmas sweater with red balls and white snow flakes that you’d only wear at a hunting lodge, the plastic praying hands that I’ve told you about before.  If you’re my wife Linda you tactfully return the sweater for something more to your taste.  I waited a couple of years and then made sure the praying hands disappeared from my office.  But I still keep the tie because my brother in law Barry visits and I can pull It out and show him it’s on my tie rack!

And you know, over time, this tie has grown on me…. When I look at it I see Barry!  

Kids of course grumble about receiving a nice pair of socks or something practical that they need but it isn’t a flashy toy…   but they learn to live with those new socks.  I learn to live with my tie.  Ladies, you’ve learned to appreciate that appliance that your partner purchased for you rather than the shimmery jacket you hoped he’d get you.

Well, the birth of Jesus created the same sort of conflict and dilemma for the earliest generation of believers who gathered after his death and resurrection.  Mostly they were Jews, like Jesus himself.  They knew the scriptures promised a Messiah.  If you consulted the Jewish scriptures they are clear that a Messiah must come from the line of David.  Isaiah tells us when this child is born he will be restore the line of David on the throne and restore the kingdom of Israel.  He would be a great ruler who would be blessed with both power and wisdom so that Israel would throw off it’s oppressors and establish justice and peace within it’s borders.  The three Wise Men, astrologers from the East who came looking for an important child born, made the mistake of telling King Herod that this newborn baby would become the King of the Jews, a Messiah.  Herod had no claim to Davidic ancestry, which was one of the reason Jews kept rebelling against him.  The idea of a child growing up to challenge him threw him into a bloody tizzy.  He couldn’t live with the gift God was sending.

Isaiah wrote down another prophecy a little bit later in his book.  The line of David (the shoot from David’s father Jesse) will be restored and the Holy Spirit will bless this new ruler.  He will not judge in an ordinary way, by what eyes see, but by a heart for the poor and an anger at the wicked.  And this child from David’s line will establish a new kind of peace…. Not the peace of a powerful king, but the peace people dream about…. Peace between enemies, peace between the lion and the calf, peace that enables the leopard to sleep with the baby goat and the lion to graze next to the ox.  Because this birth, this child, will fill the earth with the knowledge of God so that every heart will be changed.

Some people after Jesus was resurrected waited and hoped, and said, “He brings me peace and I believe he is the Son of God sent to redeem us, to forgive our sins and offer us hope.”

And others looked around and said, “Yes, but, look, the world hasn’t changed.  The Romans are still ruling Israel and the wolf isn’t lying down with the lamb in peace.  So if these things aren’t happening, Jesus couldn’t have been the promised Messiah.”

This debate continues really to this day.  Some people look at Jesus the one Christians call Christ, anointed one, Messiah, and they see in him the face of God and the hope of the world and an invitation to follow his teachings and example to try to make the world more just and more filled with God’s love.

And others, today, look at Jesus and then look at hungry children fleeing violence and unjust rulers sitting on thrones and loved ones dying from disease, and they say, “I can’t live with a Savior who doesn’t obviously make things better.

Jesus is God’s gift to us, but he isn’t necessarily the gift everyone wants. 

You decide what you will do with him in your life.  You decide if he is enough of God’s love and Good News for you.  Amen.


One Flesh: a Sermon about Marriage                                    Genesis 2:22-25; Mark 10:2-9                                          Mother's Day May 12, 2019                                                  Rev. Noel Vanek


Marriage is a difficult topic to talk about on Mother’s Day, or any other Sunday.  But how we live together when we are married affects all our family relationships.  So let’s look at marriage.

By the by, nothing we discuss need be thought of as pertaining only or exclusively to men and women.  We now perform marriage ceremonies for two people of the same sex, thank God.  They have been living together as partners for a LOT longer than New York State has chosen to recognize their union as marriage.  Marriage equality is a very good thing.   LGBTQ couples have some special pressures and dynamics unique to themselves, but it’s still marriage.  Marriage is wonderful and at the same time very hard.


Well, who do you want to listen to about marriage?  That strikes me as the first question.  Do you want to listen to Noel Vanek on marriage?  Probably not… I don’t claim to be wise.  And oh, how I hate advice giving sermons!

How about listening to the Christian Church?  Well, itss record on telling folks about marriage is, at best, mixed.  We have wonderful wedding vows, but too often the church has said to women, in one way or another, you make it work.  It’s your job as a wife to put up with stuff, sometimes the church even said shut up.  That was never acceptable but in these times of the MeToo# Movement it’s even more outrageous.  Marriage cannot be borne on

the backs of women.  

As a little aside, let me say that while a marriage may well be filled with difficulty and sometimes we consider leaving it, no one should stay in an abusive relationship.  No woman, or man, deserves the assault on their dignity and often their body that comes with abuse.  If this is you, find support, find help, get out.

So shall we listen instead to scripture?  How about the Hebrew scripture we heard from Genesis chapter two, which is the second story of creation.  In the last twenty years I’ve been forced to think hard about the biblical passages used to justify discrimination and cruelty to LGBTQ persons, and to anyone who just didn’t fit into the accepted mold.  The truth is, this Genesis passage is full of metaphorical language.  Eve didn’t really come from Adam’s rib. 


The metaphors here speak of an intrinsic, gut level oneness sensed between men and women.  Well, that happens a lot of the time.  Thank God.  Except for when it doesn’t happen.  And the truth also is, same sex couples often experience that intrinsic, gut level sense of oneness,  Except for when they don’t.  That’s the human condition, and that’s why marriage is difficult.

So maybe let’s turn to the New Testament passage instead and listen to that noted, experienced expert on marital relationships:  Jesus… (TaDa!)

Yes, that’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it?  When it comes to listening to things Christ said and seeing they come from deep insight into human experience, marriage might be one of the last things I’d want to hear Jesus talk about.  I’d maybe rather hear someone I respected who had a long and loving relationship give me some pointers.

In fact, that’s exactly what occurred earlier this week when I visited Maggie Skipper… you know, the woman who used to come to worship with the oxygenator attached to her so she could breathe?  Well, Maggie can’t get out any longer so Asayo and I visit her.  You get to know someone well when you sit and visit with them for an hour every couple of weeks.  I know Maggie’s husband was in the military.  He served on a submarine for many years and then transferred that skill into nuclear power plant engineering.  I asked Maggie what she thought the secret to a happy marriage was.  She thought for a few seconds.  “I think both parties really must commit themselves to working hard at the relationship… pause… And I guess it doesn’t hurt if he goes off on a submarine for a few months every year!”


Ah, marriage!  It’s always going to be the object of wisdom sayings (like Maggie’s) but also the butt of jokes.  Marriage is hard.

But even though Jesus wasn’t married and had precious little personal experience to offer up, he does provide us with unique insight into the heart and mind of God.  Listen again to what he says in Mark chapter 10, a difficult passage we often don’t go back to today.  I think Jesus made two points, one negative and one positive.

Negatives are easier to see, so let’s look at Christ’s negative point first.

Divorce was common in Palestine, and in this respect the setting was not unlike our own.  He was saying that perhaps divorce had become too common.  In particular he was noting who divorce was most unfair to.

We must recognize the difference in the status of women then, and now.  A man could divorce a woman on a whim, but a woman could not divorce a man for any cause.  The Old Testament viewed a woman’s sexual infidelity more as property damage against the man or her father.  This is a patriarchal world view through and through.   The Pharisees pointedly ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

More than anything else, Jesus’ response cuts to the root of the patriarchal assumptions.  Everything in his words point to an understanding that there should be a radical equality of the sexes.  He first points out God’s intention:  “the two shall become one flesh.”  Then later in a private setting he explains to the disciples that adultery cuts both ways: against the woman as well as against the man.  So Jesus told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.”  This is the first place in the Bible where sexual sin against a woman, against one’s wife, is acknowledged and men held accountable for it.  Jesus is elevating the status of women.  And whether we are talking about heterosexual or homosexual unions, the partners are to be equal.  This is new thinking in scripture. 

Marriage truly is to be an equal partnership between two people.  Social distinctions and prejudices from the world around them should not enter into how they treat one another.  And even if they do decide to divorce, they should do so in a way that is loving, and not penalizing one party more than the other.


Now for something positive.  But I must approach it in a round-about way.   Don’t you think one of his disciples, sooner or later, surely must have asked Jesus something about marriage more in line with how we feel today?  I bet one sidled over to him at dusk and  said something like, “Level with me, Teacher.  I can hardly stand being in the same room with my spouse anymore.  It didn’t used to be this way, but now I find it such a strain….Well, we’re like oil and water, we don’t mix.  What do you advise me to do, Master.  I can’t take it much longer!”


Notice how, instead of talking about excuses for failure, Jesus speaks about trying to live up to the ideal.  He knew that God sees marriage as two people becoming committed to one another, learning to live in a covenant relationship, through good times but also through hard times.   Jesus would tell his disciple that becoming one with our spouse is a goal for marriage.  “One flesh” is the way the Hebrew scripture puts it.  But this kind of one-ness isn’t romantic, it’s not emotional.  Emotional oneness is an illusion.  It fades.  In marriage we fully recognize how different our spouse is from us.  We see their warts and bags under their eyes, and they see ours.  But marriage gives us the opportunity to learn o love them anyway, to love them as they are, and for who they might become.  Marital one-ness is about building a future together that respects each party’s individuality, yet finds creative space for shared goals and dreams.  This kind of One-ness isn’t an illusion.  It’s the hard-won back and forth of a loving, covenantal, attentive relationship.

But there’s even more.


I think at some point in this chummy, intimate conversation, Jesus would look his disciple straight in the eye… can you sort of imagine him looking kindly but firmly into your eye…. And I think he’d ask, “Why bother?  Why expend so much energy on marriage?”  He’d especially ask this question of us today, because while you pretty much had to be married in Jesus’ day…. We don’t have to be married today.

After all, we no longer punish people for finding that they are better off going it on their own solo again.  I think he’d say to his disciple, “Let those who have perfect marriages give you advice.  I don’t judge you.  And I am not here to give you advice.”  I think he’d say: “That’s all right, Jacob or Joshua, or even that’s all right Martha or Mary.  Being married is hard.  Pray that God will give you the strength, but meanwhile, come follow me.”  I am sure he would say to any of us today.

You see, being perfectly married is not a particularly noble goal for our lives.  Being perfectly happy isn’t either.  What are you really after?  What matters most to you?  Pursue your joy!  And God bless you if your deepest joy in life can lead you closer to the God who gave you life and hopes to give you eternal life.

But what happens if we take Jesus at his word, and try out his prayer?  “God give me the strength to live in my marriage, but meanwhile help me to follow Jesus… help me to follow my deepest joy and passions and do the things that make me feel I am following him and coming closer to you, Lord.”

The Christian Gospel is all about the mystery of human love and relationships being perfected and completed by being taken into the love of God revealed to us in Jesus.  What often needs to happen first is for God to heal and re-invigorate our imagination.  If we can imagine being faithful and loving with our spouse, though there may remain grave difficulties, we’ve given God a way in.  Give God an inch and…. Well, you know the rest of that phrase.  Once we pray for faith and start to live by faith, we find that God usually starts to work.  By faith we begin to be transformed,  And when we are different, guess what?  Most of the time… not always… but most of the time our spouse will notice and begin to act differently too.

One of the ancient prayers of the Christian faith is a very simple one:  “Kindle in us the fire of They love.”  To grow in faith is to make room for the transforming love of God.  To grow in love and faithfulness in marriage is to make room for the fire of God’s lo love to come and breathe fresh life into a relationship that seemed to be going in the wrong direction.  To grow in faith in marriage is to allow God to bring us back together, to be renewed, to see the possibilities for a life together.  A life moving toward oneness in commitment and reciprocal loving and shared joys.

Jesus would tell us, we don’t have to do this to be good.  We don’t have to do this to be loved by God.  

But we may….   

This Mother’s Day, more power of loving, more joy in tackling the really difficult problems in your life and in your family.  More grace to you and peace from God our Father and Mother, who sees you warts and bags under your eyes, and all.   And loves you anyway.  Amen.


Feb. 24, 2019        “Callings”                                                                                                 

Note:  Pastor Noel interviewed four Members in Discernment, adults who are in the process of training and preparing for ordained ministry with our association of the United Church of Christ.  These four interviews (“witnesses”) were read aloud by different members of the congregation, spaced throughout the worship service on Feb. 24, 2019.


Witness of Calling No. 1:  Phyllis Coachman

I am a retired social worker, one year retired, but God put a call on my heart to speak out for social justice years and years ago.  It’s a part of me, a burning passion.  I think God put this passion in my mind and spirit.  The real me that God create is who I am now that I am speaking out for and doing something about social justice.  For me, it’s how I share the Good News of God.

I went to seminary when I was still working, not knowing exactly what I would do with a Masters of Divinity degree.  Only I knew it was a way to find my voice, to speak about my passion for justice.   I’ve been pursuing ordination in the UCC’s Member in Discernment process.  It hasn’t moved quickly for me, but I am patient.

It bothers me that too few people seem to care about the suffering and inequality I see all around.  I see what our criminal justice system has become, a mass incarcerator of black men.  I see people pushing ahead to get what they want, but not caring about anybody else.

If we say we love God then our lives should show that.  Our faith should lead to good fruit.  The good fruit I feel passionate about is to proclaim Christ’s call for a kingdom where no one just gets put in jail for a small mistake and left there to rot.  I want to tell people about the kingdom Jesus said is coming where the sick are healed and the prisoners are really set free.  

One of the specific ways I work for justice is in developing my ministry of teaching about African American history, through my church (Safe Haven UCC) and really with anyone who will listen.  African Americans have been here on this continent for 400 years.  We literally built this country.  We paved the way for other immigrants to come here.  Against all odds we have been the inventors of new technologies and the finders of new scientific discoveries.  We have made a community with its own institutions for care and nurture and education when we found ourselves left out of the white world.  We have survived slavery, Jim Crow, the suppression of our right to vote, and we will continue to overcome!  I made up cards that tell about African American history firsts and famous people. I give them out whenever I can.

Where will God lead me in the future?  Truthfully, I don’t know.  I’m keeping my mind open and hoping that the Lord will lead me the way forward.  I am open.

Witness of Calling No. 2:  Sam Kinsman

In some ways I am a typical Union Theological Seminary graduate student.  I struggle with way too much student debt.  I came to New York after growing up in a very conservative church in California.  I remember back to my early teenage years when I felt God speaking to me, calling me to be a youth minister just like the one who touched my heart.

But then I grew up.  After some soul searching I came out of the closet when I turned 19.  There was no longer any room for me in my church; the Vineyard didn’t admit that God might have a plan for gay men.

So I ran to the theater, getting my BA and then my Masters in acting.  I came to New York to follow my dream, but it’s tough to earn a living as an actor.  I decided to make a career switch into health care.  Just then a friend asked me to officiate at his wedding… you can get qualified to do this simply online these days.

But just putting together the elements of the wedding put me back in touch with my calling from God.  But I didn’t know what to do about it.

One night I went to see a play and I got to talking at intermission with my friend, telling him about my sense of call but also my confusion.  Suddenly the guy who was sitting right in front of us turned around and spoke:  “My name is Fred Davy and I am the Executive Vice President at Union Theological Seminary, and we want you!”  He gave me his card, I followed up, and everything from then on seemed to fall into place as if God was planning my life. I’ve worked my way through seminary.  

Right now I work as the Director of Youth and Children’s Education at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  It’s a full time job but I feel God put me here to use my acting experience and sense of drama to really keep the kids interested.  All along the journey I found time for the studies.  I’ve graduated and at least I’m not awash in new student debt.  I really feel called to serve in a parish ministry.

God works in my life in funny ways.  I found the UCC while kvetching to another friend.  I told him “I wish there was a church nearby where I could be out and be myself and be theatrical and also be on fire for God.”  He smiled and said, “We’ll have to get you to Judson.”  “What’s Judson?” I asked.  Then he told me it was the first church in New York City really to accept gay people.  And that’s how I got introduced to the United Church of Christ, a denomination where I can be myself.

Witness of Calling No.3: Ruth Shaffer

Sometimes a call is placed inside us in earliest childhood.  I grew up watching my father, a teacher, receive a call into ministry when he was in his late 30’s.  But he decided he couldn’t just leave his job and go to seminary, so he served where he could.  He taught the men’s Bible study, he was active in church, but frustrated.

I tucked this knowledge away deep down in my consciousness, but proceeded to build myself a career as a psychologist.  I developed a private practice.  Over the years I noticed that patients with a living faith survived crises better than those who didn’t have one.  Finally, when I was in my late late 50’s I wanted to learn more.

So I went over to New York Theological Seminary’s office to pick up an application, but I on the way I ran into my minister, then Jim Forbes.  He asked what I was doing and he said, “No.  You go over to Union Theological Seminary and pick up an application there!”  The minute I walked into the main hallway at Union somehow I felt at peace, at home.  “This is where I should be – home,” I thought to myself.  It was.  So I went to seminary when I was in my 60’s and was everyone’s “mom.”  And I found myself growing and growing in faith and knowledge of God.

At this point I am pursuing ordination through the Member in Discernment process.  I have developed a ministry to ministers.  I advertise my services as a psychologist with a special interest in pastors, with free weekly consultations over the telephone.  I minister to people as far away as the Midwest.  And all this while I keep up with my private practice.  One of the common afflictions I find in my patients is a severe sense of shame.  So many people feel they don’t deserve God’s love or attention.  I try to help them find that love, and to learn to love themselves.

I pray every time before I see one of my private clients, and before doing one of my phone calls sessions with a pastor.  I pray, and I have learned that God works through me.  God is still speaking.  As time goes by I find myself praying for more and more people, even… especially the ones I don’t know personally.  I pray for our politicians.  I pray for our nation.

I’ve always felt God had my back.  I’m not particularly courageous.  Even when my original church decided they did not want to sponsor me for ordination, I knew God was there.  Then I found a new church, Safe Haven, actually then, God sent me to Safe Haven, and we’ve had a good time together.

Witness of Calling No. 4: Chris Dieguez

Sometimes you outgrow your surroundings.  That’s what happened to me growing up in a Baptist new church start on Long Island.  It was a heady trip for my parents, who had been saved through the original Jesus movement, then settled down and became part of the leadership of this growing church.  It was exciting but as I moved into my high school years I couldn’t help thinking, “but I’ve heard this same sermon a dozen times already.”  I wanted more.  When a big argument divided the congregation my parents left my home church.  They have never found another church they like, and that’s sad.

I went to Vassar College and it opened up a whole new world of ideas to me.  It was a very exciting time.   I found the campus Intervarsity Fellowship to be a home away from home, at first, but then I got involved in their dialogue, or lack of dialogue, with the campus LGBT community.  Neither side talked to the other and both stigmatized each other.  I tried to be a moderating factor, but that just didn’t work.  When a friend from Intervarsity finally came out as a trans woman, and the fellowship rejected her, I knew I had to choose sides.  I told her I didn’t want to choose sides, but if I was forced, I chose friendship with her.  I knew deep in my heart that Christian faith ought not to be destructive.

By my senior year I knew I wanted to go to seminary.  I pieced together my call as a summons to ask “who is not included here and why?”  I went to Duke Divinity School and finished an M.Div degree plus I got a certificate in Gender Theology. While in seminary I met and married my wife.  We decided to return to Long Island.  I found a job to help support us so I could take my time in looking for a church.  

I learned about the UCC while at Duke.  I feel fortunate to have found the Garden City Community Church.  At first I was a volunteer with their confirmation program, then I went on some trips with them, then they hired me.  And sponsored me as I became a member in Discernment.  Now I need just a quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education and to finish my ordination paper, and I’ll be on my way.

I feel fortunate.  I am truly open to where God may lead me, either into full-time ministry, or I could continue my current job as an energy salesman, and find a part-time calling.  We’ll see where God takes me, takes us.  My wife is very supportive.

And no matter where I go, I’m going to ask, “who is not included here, and why?”

The Sermon:  Callings                            Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 6:27-36

It’s important to remember that Jesus preached to ordinary persons when he said those hard things we heard from Luke.  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” And so on.  He was preaching to the crowd but he expected some people to step forward and hear his message as a personal invitation from God, the one he called Father.  He told them do these things and you will be children of the Most High.  

At the end of the passage we heard earlier, he sort of lets them off the hook just a bit.  He tells them that God is kind to bother the ungrateful and the wicked, so presumably if they couldn’t do all the things he said to do, they shouldn’t think that God would not love them.  For God is merciful, God is kind.

We know that some people did hear Jesus’ teaching and preaching as a personal call from God.  And so they became disciples.  They followed him.  They changed their lives for his sake and for the sake of his Gospel.  They had no idea where he would lead them.  They only knew that they felt more alive when they were with him than ever before.  

That’s what responding to your call does to you.  It makes you a bit reckless.  You want to be open and to follow God wherever God may lead you.  Not everyone in your life understands what is happening to you.  Not everyone wants you to follow God’s leading.  It makes them feel insecure, uncertain, jealous even.  But it brings you to life.  And when you answer God’s call, when you hear a voice whisper to you, “You need to do this.  I’ll help you.  Follow me…” you know that you can never be the same again.

Isaiah experienced the most famous call in the scriptures.  He already was a man of God.  He served as a priest in the Temple, a position he inherited because of his family.  He was like a prince among priests, but that doesn’t mean it all felt sincere.  Then one day, in the time of crisis when the king died and all Judah felt the earth start to shake under its feet for lack of certainty about what would come next, it was Isaiah’s time to serve at the High Holy place.  He must have entered full of questions, but then suddenly he saw it.  Or saw Him.  The Most High sitting on a throne, high and lofty, amid the seraphim.  The Temple shook and the house seemed to fill with smoke, and Isaiah called out, “Woe is me.”  He knew he was impure, a man of unclean lips.  And worse, he knew the people he served were impure.  “Yet my eyes have seen the King!” he exclaimed in wonder.

Then something totally unexpected and surreal occurred.  He experienced one of the guardian seraphim flew toward him and touched his mouth with a hot coal.  It didn’t hurt, or if it did, he didn’t remember for all he recalls is what came next.  It told him his sin was blotted out.  And then God spoke:  Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?  And sore lips or not, Isaiah found himself responding, “Here am I; send me!” 


You heard Phyllis, Sam, and Ruth describe their calls from the Lord.  In a minute you’ll hear Chris talk about his.  They each heard God’s call.  But they were each listening.  I hope you enjoyed their stories, their witnessing.   It was as if each one experienced a seraphim coming straight into their life and piercing their hearts, unblocking their hesitations, reminding them that they too are God’s beloved.  They didn’t all respond at once.  Sometimes it takes time to shake your head, to shake up your life, so you can hear what God is saying.  God always has a message especially tailored to fit you.  

Note how God’s call to each one of them was just a bit different… unique to their circumstances, resonant with their lives, contextual to not only where they were but where society around them was.  God needs people to do God’s work, and so God calls.  I suspect God calls an awful lot of people, but not everyone responds.  But each of these four persons, each in their own way responded.  They said, “Yes.  Here am I.  Send me.”

So you know, don’t you, what I’m going to say in conclusion?... 

Oh, PLEASE…!  You don’t have to give up your job and go to seminary!  That’s not the point here.  Responding to a call isn’t necessarily about going to seminary.  Responding to a call requires that we first and foremost listen for what God is saying us.

Jesus is still preaching to those who are curious, to those who want a Savior, to those who desire God’s Kingdom. He’s saying, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend and expect nothing in return.  Do these things to be children of the Most High.  But don’t worry.  I don’t expect you to be perfect.  Know that only God is perfect.  Meanwhile do to others as you would have them do to you.  And if these words come as Good News to you, why not try to follow me?”

Jesus preaches, whets our appetite, stirs our hearts and gets us thinking.  Jesus invites us to share our burdens and to become his disciples. And he empowers us to look with new eyesight at the people around us who need our care. 


But it is God herself who calls us!  It is God who whispers into our hearts.  It is God who understands that we don’t feel worthy, but who cleanses our lips and hearts and lives, and says, “I have something for you to do.  Will you listen?  Can I send you?”

How do you know if you are called?  First, Listen to your life.  That is where and how God speaks to us.  Through your lived experiences.  Through our questions, our hurts, our hard won insights, our desires, when they are true desires for goodness for others and not just for you.


Second, talk to others about your sense of something happening.  Share your questions about feeling a sense of call with someone you trust.  Get feedback, for God’s sake!  Not every idea that enters our head is from God.

But some are.

Know this.  God may very well be whispering, calling, preparing you for something powerful, something fulfilling, something life-giving.   Something God wants you to do in your life.

God is still speaking to us today.  The only question is:  are you listening?  Amen.


6/24/18               Terminal?               I Samuel 15:10-11, 13-19, 24-28, 34-25;      Mark 4:35-41


I’ve been preaching about God’s healing.  This led me to think about the most tragic epidemic in my lifetime.  How many here remember the aids epidemic of the 1980’s and the fear it spawned as the United States saw so many young adults perish?  I wonder if we really remember it.


For to recall that time of ignorance, prejudice, and public panic is to invite us all to recall shame.  The shame of asking someone with HIV to be the last patient of the day at their physician’s office, so that no one else would have to sit on the exam table after them.  The shame of refusing to serve people with obvious lesions on their skin.  The shame of family members disowning dying children. The shame of men passing along HIV to their female companions, and the tragedy of mothers giving birth to infants who contract the disease in utero.  The shame that we recall, remembering the fear and ignorance that too easily combined with homophobia to explain that “gay people were to blame.”  The hurtful lies people told themselves:  “our kind” don’t get this disease.  

Thank God we know more about HIV/AIDS today, and that we no longer treat people with this syndrome as pariahs.  Thank God that effective drug therapies have been found to … mostly…. Keep the spread of the virus in check.

But of course, the shame lives on.  Here in the United States we receive good treatment for HIV/AIDS, but the epidemic continues to kill in parts of the world where effective anti-viral medicines are not readily available or affordable to the common person.  The shame lives on when villages continue to shun young children orphaned by aids.  The shame lives on we hear of people in the United States who can’t afford their HIV medicines, even today.

Where is God in all of this?  There is no one, always correct answer, and I hesitate to make pronouncements that trivialize someone’s suffering.  


So I will wonder in faith with you as we ponder the scriptures, remembering as we read the hundreds of thousands who have died of aids, the millions who live with infection and fear.


The Old Testament lesson tells the story of god’s rejection of Saul as king over the tribes of Israel.  This rejection is announced to Saul through the prophet Samuel, who previously had been Saul’s champion.  Apparently, Saul disobeyed god’s direct command and spared some of the sheep and cattle owned by the Amalekite tribe.  Going against god’s instructions, he brought the choicest sheep and cattle back to sacrifice to Yahweh, the god of Israel.  Samuel the prophet announces with a broken heart that because of this disobedience, “the Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.”

Years pass by, Saul remains king, and then David is brought to the court.  Saul sees the writing on the wall. Saul sends David out to fight Goliath, and then off to fight the legions of the Philistines, thinking he would surely die.  But David is charmed and grows in popularity.  Saul slowly descends into a kind of madness, knowing his destiny is sealed.  Knowing that God is against him.

Why exactly God rejects Saul as king isn’t explained adequately, at least to our minds.  But I want us to ponder the experience of Saul, feeling that god has rejected him, feeling that his fate has been determined.  He is living with a death sentence, not completely understanding why.  It weighs on him until in the later stages of the story with David he does appear to become mentally unstable.  

Some of us, also, will be asked to live with terminal diagnoses … incurable diseases that will eventually overcome our immune systems, cancers that will grow and crowd out our organs, hearts that will sputter and beat and beat and sputter again.  An Aids virus that multiplies, and even with medication, leaves one living with low-lying dread.  How do we ourselves not go mad?  Where is god when we feel rejected by God, rejected and condemned to die?  Please, let’s try not to look at Saul with judgmental eyes.  He’s a lot like us.

Ah, but then there is Jesus.  The answer to the oft-asked question, “where is God in all of this?” Is to point to Jesus on the cross.  God in Christ Jesus is present in our suffering because god experienced suffering first hand. But in mark’s telling of the story, there’s even a bigger claim. 

The waves beat and splash and push the little vessel around till all looks lost to the fearful disciples.  They awaken him with hurt in their voices, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Isn’t that exactly the same question we ask when we feel god-forsaken:  God, where are you in all of this?  We’re in the same boat as the disciples.

It helps to know that there are mythic elements in this story that everyone hearing it in Mark’s church would have recognized.  In the Hebrew scriptures the forces of evil and chaos are personified by the sea monster and the deep dark threat of the sea roiling uncontrollably.  No one can ride the leviathan, no one can tame the storm.  But time after time in the psalms, God tames the storm.  For example listen to:

“You rule the raging of the sea, when its waves rise, you still them.”  Ps. 89:9

“He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters.” Ps. 18:16 and many other places.

Those early followers of Jesus were people like you and me, drawn to the gathering of people of faith.  They knew that when they listened to a story about the waves rising up to swamp the boat and drown the disciples, they were hearing about the forces of evil at work.  And they knew, too, that Jesus wasn’t asleep on the job.  The one who trusts in God’s power to save is typically depicted in the Hebrew scriptures as calm and confident when others panic.  And so, as the early church told this story over and over and asked the question that we ask still today, “God where are you in all of this?” … they thought they knew the answer.  When the final sentence in mark’s story asks “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him,” they wanted to shout out the answer, all together.

Does this shout out about Jesus help you when the boat begins to rock in your life??  I hope and pray it does.  It helped the people in Mark’s time.  It helps people throughout the world today who struggle with injustice, persecution, and above all with disease.  Believing that in Jesus God stills the waves helps many persons cope.  “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  In faith I can tell you that with time, eventually, the Aids virus will too.  

But please note, we shouldn’t end with this affirmation of faith, comforting and true as I believe it is.  The Aids epidemic wasn’t only about human suffering amidst the evil of a deadly virus.  Aids also tells the story of ostracism.  Getting infected with HIV is a tragedy.  Ostracizing people with Aids is a sin.

Recall that touching song "Will I?"  from the early 1990's’s musical Rent:  a young man with a full-blown aids infection attends a support group.  Over a few months he sees member after member disappear.  All that’s left are their empty seats.  Finally, desperate, recognizing that he will disappear soon, too, he sings, “Will I lose my dignity… will someone care?  Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?”  What do we say to that person?

A friend shared this story with me.  She knew a truck driver, Jimmy, a pretty rough guy who had lived a wild life in the 1970’s.  Suddenly twenty years later he develops symptoms… goes for diagnoses… can’t believe his ears when he’s told he now has Aids.  Apparently the only thing he can think of that could explain his infection is shared needle use back when he was a druggie.  So he goes for treatment, it doesn’t help much, he gets weaker, in shame he hides his sickness from family and friends.  In fear the hospital sticks him in a treatment room in the basement, out of sight, a room filled with reclining chairs for those receiving the slow drip.  The only people around him are gay.  He shrinks back in horror:  “Get me out of this place!” He whispers to his friend.  “I don’t want to be around homosexuals.”

A few weeks passed and he grows weaker.  He was admitted to the hospital and again, stuck in a room out of sight.  His two roommates are gay men.  His friend visited the first day and he ignored his roommates, despite their overtures of friendliness.  She came back three days later.  He was much sicker.  But now he and his roommates have become fast friends, sharing jokes, reminiscences, some songs.  They shared life.  No one else visited him but his one friend.  And his new friends, who knew.  Who knew what it was to walk in his shoes.

Where is God in all this suffering?  Where was God in Jimmy’s death?  There, I think. There in the room with him, in the person of his roommates, who were dying too.  There with a man who needed comfort and who needed to grow in understanding.  There with a man suffering as they suffered, with a man who slowly learned how not to ostracize.

Let’s learn how to be there in the room, too.  Amen.


4/29/2018      Aloneness      PS. 4; John 21:1-14

In 2014 then episcopal bishop Heather Cook killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo while driving drunk. It later came out that her diocese had been aware of her previous arrest for driving drunk, and that she’d been drinking heavily at a dinner before she was consecrated as a bishop. It was clear to those present that she didn’t have her alcohol problem under control. The church made her a bishop anyway. Her church enabled her. Why?

Why are we so afraid to ask probing questions? Why do we fear rocking the boat there’s a down side to living in the post resurrection time period of Jesus Christ? After the glow of hope fades, everything else seemingly hurts more. Jesus being raised from the grave doesn’t take away all my problems. We should feel wonderful, we should act bravely, we should all love and support one another, but… we must face our fears, not cover them up. 

The disciples had to face their fears, too. “Come and have breakfast,” he told them; “come and have brunch” he might say to us this morning. In galilee by the sea Jesus re-established community among those he loves. It’s a mistake to think that the disciples are frolicking like frisky puppies in the gentle light of a spring fishing trip. Resurrection faith sometimes makes us feel that all is new, all is well. But not always. If you read this passage carefully you’ll see that the disciples are feeling lost, and I think, depressed. It’s fine to know that Jesus is risen, but after a while he’s not there anymore. They don’t know what to do with themselves. They feel an absence, a big hole in their lives. In short, they are still grieving. They feel… alone. 

Deep in their hearts they are feeling alone, abandoned, afraid.. This is where I find my deepest connection to this scripture. Even though I know and believe that Jesus my lord is risen from the grave and waits for me to join him in his kingdom, I still feel a bit … alone. I suspect you sometimes do, too. 

Grief for the absence of a friend or significant loved one, as I suspect the disciples were feeling, is one kind of aloneness. There are many others. We can be living together with a spouse and still feel lonely. Happy or unhappy, no marriage, no one beloved person can meet all our needs. 

Sometimes we are lonely for a friend, a true blue companion, a soul-mate. The older we get the harder it becomes to make such a friendship. Will we find a soulmate? Maybe yes, maybe no. The old adage that if you want a friend then be a friend rings true. But there are no guarantees in life. 

Many, many people live alone and they have done so for years. Never married, divorced and not-remarried, widowed, even married but essentially living separate lives. Living alone comes in many forms. 

This isn’t the main point of my sermon, but it’s important to stop and think about the implications. When people who live alone come to join us at worship, when they come to see if there is a word from the lord and a spark of god’s spirit among us, what do they experience? So often churches are focused on families that are child-centered. So often churches are marriage-centered. Do we unconsciously make single people feel de-valued?

I heard a pastor who prayed after conducting a baptism in the midst of the worship service:

 “And as we pray for all the families of the church, we also pray for those who live alone and for those who are family to them. We pray for parents and their children and for all who, having none to call their own, are welcomed and needed for what and who they can be in the lives of many children around them.”

Hearing this prayer, one woman reflected: 

“I have been divorced since it was determined that my former husband and I could not have any children of our won. No one in the congregation knows that I was ever married. Can you imagine what that prayer meant to me?” 

Do we forget so quickly that our lord Jesus in his earthly life was a single person living on his own, probably apart from his family? There must have been times when even Jesus felt “alone.” But he found purpose through the depth of his prayerful connection to his father in heaven and his welcoming openness to the others he encountered along his journey. He asks us simply to welcome everyone, and value everyone, and know that we all struggle with feeling “alone.” 

Being alone is a huge part of life. In fact, being alone epitomizes the human condition. Increasingly most of us spend more time alone than coupled. And we all die alone. Like the disciples we may trust in our risen lord. But we still fear being left to our own resources to face life’s travails. 

So… going back to the beginning of my sermon….why is it that church congregations frequently enable bad behavior? 

We’re scared! Congregations fall apart, fight and divide until there’s nothing left. And if that happens then where will we be? How will we talk to one another on Sundays? Who will call us to see if we are still alive? Who will soothe our heart-aching loneliness? I think we know how fragile our life together really is, and we are afraid to do anything that would rock the boat! Who wants to feel even more alone? 

Yet this is the human condition, even for disciples of the risen Christ. 

“Lads,” he said to them. “You haven’t caught anything to eat, have you?” “Cast your nets over there, to the right, and you’ll find something.” Living with our aloneness is a lot like fishing all night long and not catching a thing. It hurts. 

They were hurting. We can place ourselves into this story. We, too, can be sitting in the boat. We too can hear the strangely familiar man call to us from the shore. We can cast our nets and we can catch a haul and we can cook and eat, all the while staring at the one who can’t be there, but is. And we too can eat together, each of us aware of our aloneness, yet each of us strangely comforted. As we eat together, he blesses us, too. 

Wouldn’t we like to hold onto this feeling forever? But instead he tells us to go spread the gospel, and then he disappears. 

Perhaps there’s a part of being a human being that will just be lonely, even a bit fearful. Perhaps loneliness is even woven into the way we were created, placed there to make us know that this world, for all its splendor and goodness, is not our final home. Perhaps our aloneness is even a part of god’s grace. Saint Augustine wrote in his confessions, “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” O God. 

The disciples, briefly, rested their aching hearts beside the risen Christ by that campfire on the shore.

That is why we gather for worship, too. To find a way to rest our hearts in god. It happens, sometimes, but briefly. The truth is, you aren’t going to solve my feelings of loneliness and neither I nor anyone else here will solve yours. Only god can do that. So don’t mistake the vessel for the living water. Don’t protect your church at any cost! Always hold us up to a high standard! 

Rather let us be spurred on in those moments when we do find true rest in god… spurred on to do the right thing. 

Welcome the stranger. Care for god’s world and speak up for those trampled by injustice. Encourage one another. And remember… 

Above all remember and remind one other… of the fish we caught that dawn after the long lonely night. And how he fed us. Taste that roasted fish. Savor it. That’s what keeps us going. That’s what keeps us faithful. Amen.

10/8/17   WICKED TENANTS      IS. 5:1-7; MT. 21:33-44

Friday morning I entered the elevator going up to our apartment from the laundry room, and chatted with another tenant with whom I’m friendly. “You see I’m finishing my wifely duties,” I said, pointing to the pile of laundry I was holding. “Don’t make me feel guilty… that’s on my list but I haven’t gotten to it.” “Well, I’m doing laundry as a way to postpone writing my sermon… this week is hard… what do you say to people after Sunday nights mass shooting in Las Vegas?” “Oh, wow, I can’t even imagine. I didn’t even know people could do such things. Really, never imagined it, it’s so ghastly. My daughter came home from school Monday and had heard about it and wanted to talk to me. Good luck in your talk Sunday.”

That ended our conversation, but here’s how I imagine it might continue. “Yes, I think it’s time for a really frank sermon about gun control.” “I agree with gun control, God knows I don’t want a gun around my daughter. But how do you make the scriptures raise that issue?”

Or I could tell say, “My sermon’s now half-done and I am exploring the nature of human evil. What makes someone like Stephen Paddock purchase $20,000 worth of weapons and scout for months for the perfect site to shoot down on a concert site so as to kill the maximum number of people?” She replies, “Sure. I get it. His childhood traumas and his social aloofness aren’t enough to explain this atrocity. Somewhere in him there must have been a spark of evil. Is it in all of us, I wonder?”

My imaginary conversation generated two possibly interesting sermons, but today’s scriptures got in the way. They don’t easily take us to Los Vegas. Let’s see where they do lead.

This parable of Jesus is called the parable of the wicked tenants. It’s found in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke, and also… curiously… in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. Most scholars agree that the ending verses where Jesus asks his adversaries about the stone the builders rejected, quoting Psalm 118, is a later Christian addition alluding to his resurrection. One pretty good argument that these verses were written later is that they quote the Greek translation of the Old Testament, not the Hebrew.

But the basic story of the vineyard, the tenants, and the owner’s attempt to collect seem original to the earthly Jesus.

All the gospels agree that Jesus told the parable either in or near the temple, after his authority was challenged. He spoke it to his adversaries. They would have followed his allegory. The vineyard represented all of Israel. They would know the Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah 5:1-7, our OT lesson, perhaps by heart. “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem, and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” Isaiah asks what more could God have done for his vineyard, yet the people yielded wild grapes.

If Israel is the vineyard, then the tenants in the vineyard must refer to the people’s leaders. When the tenants, the leaders, do not fulfill their obligation, they must be replaced.

The slaves sent by the owner refer allegorically to the great Hebrew prophets. The OT is full of stories about the prophets being mistreated and their message calling for reform being rejected by Jewish leaders.

The son certainly refers to Jesus. While Jesus didn’t usually refer to himself objectively as God’s Son, he did talk often about God as his Father and lifted up the filial nature of his relationship to God. Clearly he saw his vocation as that of continuing the preaching and work of the prophets before him, and just as clearly, he saw that his preaching and teaching would get him killed once he went to Jerusalem.

The basic details of the parable accurately reflect the realities of first-century Palestine. That a landowner might plant a vineyard, leave it in the care of tenants, and head off abroad wouldn’t have been unusual. First emissaries are sent, then the landowner’s son himself is dispatched as one with authority to clear up the dispute. The longer the landowner stayed away, the greater the presumption of ownership by the tenants. It happens today, too. I have a friend who owns land in Peru. He is involved in a very long legal process trying to evict squatters from land he and his brother own there. The tenants in the parable seem to be acting hastily in killing the owner’s son, but not necessarily irrationally.

The parable as Jesus told it ends with him asking a rhetorical question. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The leaders can’t help but jump in and answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” Their words condemn their own actions, of course. Jesus saw that, they saw it themselves and hated him all the more for it. And we see it, too.

Is this only a Jewish question? Who are the new tenants of the vineyard to be? Later Christians to be sure thought of the new tenants as the apostles who spread out throughout the world and preached the risen Christ. Centuries later, the interpretation came to be that the Gentile church superseded all of Israel as God’s beloved vineyard. But we’ve seen where this interpretation has led us: misunderstanding and prejudice, enmity and ghettoizing, hatred, pogrom, expulsion and exploitation, culminating in holocaust.

Simply put, we cannot as Christians maintain that we are the new tenants of God’s vineyard without seeing oh so clearly that we too should be thrown out and given a miserable death for our treatment of the Jews.

No, the new tenants Jesus envisioned for God’s vineyard, the people of Israel, must surely have been better Jewish leaders. Leaders who will one day return to God a good harvest. Leaders who will stamp out the wild grapes and render to the Lord a sweet and rich vintage of love and justice, faithfulness, and respect for all. Israel has yet to really do this very completely.

But that’s Israel’s problem, and it’s for Jews to settle. I must admit to you that I find it repugnant when Christian churches gather and make pronouncements about what Israel should do, as if our hands are clean and we are in a neutral position to comment on Israel’s morality. What hypocrisy! Let the Jews settle for themselves who will run God’s vineyard.

Meanwhile what are we Christians to do?

There has been a tendency in interpretation through the centuries to say “God has given us a vineyard, too. The church.” But I think Jesus in this parable was only speaking about the fate of his people, the Jews. The church is not God’s vineyard, never was and never will be. The church is important, but it’s in a different relationship to God through the Son Jesus, than are the Jewish people.

As Christians, we are special to God, we do stand in a unique relationship, but not because of the church. We stand in a unique relationship to God because of the gift of the Holy Spirit which Christ left to us when we trust and believe with faith. God doesn’t ask us to run his vineyard.

But does God ask us to tend our garden, the garden that is each of our hearts.

The garden we are asked to tend is the gift of our salvation, the implanting of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the gifts of faith. Come, tend God’s garden. It begins first inside you. Then it grows as we come together and share. Our coming together is called the church. Finally it can grow even beyond our coming together… we can plant and grow a garden together that begins to include and change other people. We can create a garden that people will want to be a part of. Then we will be good workers… in God’s garden.

If you’ve ever had a garden you know that beautiful moment in the early summer… the plants are all in and growing well. The rains have been just enough but not too much. You can see growth happening week by week, even day by day. You look forward to the first harvesting. You sigh. But your job isn’t done yet, because weeds grow too. If you aren’t vigilant they will grow faster than the vegetables and choke their pathway. So it is, my friends, in us. We are made in God’s image. When we respond with faith to the call of Jesus the Christ God’s Holy Spirit does amazing things within us. We grow our inner garden and we learn to share. But weeds can still grow inside. Christians can still do bad things. We can do evil.

I wonder if that’s what happened to Stephen Paddock. It doesn’t sound as if he ever was given much of an introduction to Jesus Christ, or even God. But he was born… made in the image of God. There was goodness inside him. As you read about accounts of his life from people who knew him, there were l oving things he did. But the weeds took over. They clogged the way to the light and his good gifts withered. He gradually failed to take care for himself. The weeds consumed his life and heart and in that darkness a desire to do the evil thing was the only thing that grew. And grew. And grew. What are we to do?

All of us have some weeds growing. Don’t let them take over. Help one another weed. Proclaim the victory of Christ over our desire to do evil. Make it his Garden. Dedicate it to him. Invite him into your garden over and over again.

Gun control might be a very good secular policy. Israel should find a way to live in peace with Palestinian Arabs, and of course they with Israel. But the first thing we need to do, as Christians, is to make sure we don’t allow ourselves to become Stephen Paddocks. Or the kind of Christians who spewed hate in Charlottesville. Tend God’s garden. That’s what we, as Christians, can do. Amen.

10/1/17   Take a Knee      Gen. 1:26-28; Ex. 20:4-6; Col. 3:9-14

Why should we care about the second commandment? I think it shows many of us in a pretty bad light.

The second commandment prohibits making for yourself an idol, or as it was often translated in older English versions, a graven image. The truth is, most of us don’t think very much about worshipping idols, little statues that pretend to be gods. In fact, most people in every faith throughout the globe don’t worship idols. Ask any Buddhist or Hindu practitioner and they will tell you that the statues of gods in their temples aren’t really gods. They just point to the one god behind the many gods. They would say a statue of a god is a worship aid, but not to be taken literally. This sophistication of course wasn’t so common when Moses received the commandments from God. People did worship idols. Even the Israelites were sorely tempted, as witness the infamous golden calf incident, when Moses was called away for too long and the people grew anxious and made a golden calf to worship. But that’s not who we are today.

Still, the great tradition of the scriptures as they think about the Ten Commandments points to the many little ways people continue to err toward idolatry. The early idols were all made of silver and gold in a time when silver and gold were rare, enticing, and represented a wealth far above what the average person could ever touch, let alone possess. Making worship images in silver and gold are expressly prohibited because they represent excessive wealth. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take them for yourself, ancient Torah interpreters warned. No one is meant by God to have so much wealth that they literally become godlike themselves. 

Becoming godlike themselves was the particular temptation of ancient kings. Monarchs liked to put their face on a coin, like James Madison but on gold rather than a five thousand dollar bill. In most ancient societies the king was regarded as an earthly representative of the gods, and so it also seemed natural to put the image of the god on the coin the king minted. The gods were backing up the king’s authority. And this of course was anathema to the ancient biblical ethicists. No human being could claim to represent God or have God’s power. No human being should claim people’s unquestioned allegiance like the allegiance we owe to the God we come to discover in the Bible.

As time went on and people thought more about what was included in the prohibition against idolatry, scripture interpreters said that the reason we cannot allow a depiction of God is because God should remain a mystery. God approached Moses out of the dark and never let Moses see the Divine face. The great tradition says that God is shrouded in mystery for a reason: so that humanity wouldn’t think it understood the Holy One… so that we wouldn’t try to label and dissect and explain God and make God an object of our learning. The ancient interpreters especially warned the clergy against the pride of creating theological systems which sought to explain and make visible the mysterious workings of the Almighty. The danger is in thinking that somehow our images which we create for God, images that can be made from words as well as gold, can somehow “capture” God.

The Biblical God will not be captured, explained, or made to fit a theological system. God is always free, and always bigger and beyond that which we can show or say.

A final application of the 2nd commandment asks us to reflect on our modern desire to turn celebrities into objects of worship. If we were prohibited from worshipping the ancient king as a god, then think of how much more this commandment demands that we refrain from idolizing the pop star or the sports star of today. Especially as society grows more secular and fewer and fewer people are brought up in any kind of religion, the appeal of throwing all one’s love and attention toward someone beautiful and powerful and famous can be overwhelming.

We look at tv and we want to be like that person, we want to dress like them, and we try to act like them. But no human being should be such a strong role model. I would say especially not most movie stars or pop singers or professional sports starts. Taking them too seriously is just not healthy for society. It distracts us from paying our full allegiance to the God who created and redeemed us.

Think about the alternative way of translating the second commandment: Thou shalt not make a graven image. No image we craft with human hands should be worshipped. And the truth is, some people are all about image. They will do anything to be seen as popular, successful, beautiful, trend-setters. A graven image doesn’t even have to be a thing. It can be how we present ourselves, asking others to worship us.

This is what disappoints me about our President. Not his policies, not the company he keeps, not any conniving to get elected. But the obvious fact that he feels he is a celebrity and celebrities must always be admired. This whole sorry back and forth drama with the Mayor of San Juan in Puerto Rico is so sad. Elderly and ill people are dying from lack of water and exposure to extreme heat, and all he can do is say “we’re doing a good job” and try to blame Puerto Rico. There’s no compassion, no hint of being able to say “maybe the Federal government could have done more in advance to lay aside emergency supplies on the island.” No humility.

It’s funny, though. President Trump has taken on one group that expects to be admired and idolized just as much as he does, and that’s our professional football players. What began as a sincere protest by 2nd string quarterback Colin Kapernack has morphed into a tug of war between the president and the whole NFL. He’s not going to win this one.

There is, however, one human image that we can gladly give homage to … not worship, never worship, but surely treat with respect… and that’s the human image when it allows the divine image to peek through. The scriptures say each one of us is the reflection of the divine image. Genesis makes clear that you and I, we, all humanity, are made in the powerful and frightening image of the God who creates us … the God who is love but cannot be seen him or herself. The God who relies on us to show forth the Divine character.

By this Genesis reminds us that the one reliable way God can begin to be understood is when human beings behave divinely. When we love one another God is made just a little bit more visible. When we stand up to protect the innocent and the unjustly treated… and here I’ll say thank you Colin Kapernick for your courage… when we do what is right and pure for the sake of the other, then our Holy Almighty and Mysterious God tips his cap. Christian Baptism, at its best, is the claiming for ourselves the Divine Image. And through our baptism we ask the Holy Spirit to help us lead lives that help others to see our Divine Parent.

So, the whole point is, don’t turn others into stars. It’s bad for you, it’s worse for the persons being idolized.

But do pay attention to the divine image stamped in us all.

Another way of saying this is be sure to wear the right clothes.

Now if you’re a star, you have a dresser and a wardrobe specialist and a publicist and a deal with a sports shoe company and a dress line and anti-aging cream endorsements and what not, of course. Those things go with celebrity. If you’re a star you have to dress like a star, and then you like as not feel impelled to do all sorts of outrageous things just so that we, your fans, pay attention to you. But that’s veering toward making an idol out of yourself, and that’s not good.

No, when I say wear the right clothes I’m thinking of the Apostle Paul’s analogy. As God’s chosen representatives bearing the image of Christ within you, put on compassion. Clothe yourselves with humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive one another, and above all, wear love. Like that little black dress, love goes well at all occasions. It looks good first thing in the morning and even late at night.

Wear the right clothes. Let God’s image shine brightly through you.

And if you decide to take a knee in protest… and God knows there are lots of things to protest… be more like the guy who just scored a touchdown. He bends his knee and says a little prayer of thank you. It’s corny but it works every time. Give God the glory and you won’t go wrong. Amen.