One Small Act Can Change the World


    Every day we make thousands of choices.  We go to the grocery store. We choose to stop at a traffic light.  Some decisions are so small that we don’t give them a second thought, but even the smallest of choices can make a world of difference.
    Captain Edward Smith chose to ignore warnings about ice in the path of the Titanic.  That one decision changed everything.
    In 1955, a seamstress at a local department store was riding the bus to work.  As the bus filled, she refused to give up her seat to another customer.  It seems like such a small thing, but with that one small choice, Rosa Parks changed the course of civil rights and American history.
    In 1989 a column of tanks descended on Tiananmen Square to crush the ongoing student.  As they did, one man stepped in front of the lead tank.  By doing so, he compelled the driver of the tank to choose.  Because of one man, the entire column of tanks came to a halt. Photographs of that moment appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.  With one act of defiance, one man captures the imagination of the world.
    Last week (April 9, 2014), a student armed with knives entered the high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania and attacked other students and a security guard.  Amid the mayhem, Nate Scimio, a student and one of the wounded, reached out and pulled the nearest fire alarm.  His quick thinking is saved lives and helped to evacuate the school.
    Even the most simple and mundane choices have the power to make a gigantic difference.  This is exactly what we find in the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Two of Jesus’ friends are asked to do something so remarkably simple that we are stunned to discover how important their contribution becomes. 
Jesus tells his friends to go into town, find a donkey that he knows is there, untie it, and bring it back. 
How much easier could that be?
    What Jesus did was like asking someone to pick up a prescription.  We’ve already phoned ahead, we already know that it’s ready, all they have to do is show up, get it, and bring it back. 
And yet, as simple as it is, the task that these followers perform is significant.
    As simple as it was, the disciples did as they were asked.  As simple as it was, this act makes it possible for Jesus to arrive the way that the Kings of Israel had arrived.  One small choice transforms an ordinary arrival into an historic event. 
I want you to imagine what that might look like in your life.
Because God is the architect of our lives, he already has the big things all planned out. 
    God doesn’t ask us to build a multi-national pharmaceutical conglomerate, but simply to pick up a prescription.    Go, get it, and come back.
    A story, originally told by Loren Eiseley, tells of a man walking along a beach the night after an enormous storm.  The beach was littered with starfish which had been washed ashore and as he walked, the man came across a child who was picking up starfish, one at a time, and throwing them back into the sea.  After watching the child for some time the man said, “Why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. There are thousands of them.  You can’t begin to make a difference!”
    But after thinking about it for a moment, the child continued to throw starfish back into the ocean.  Each time saying, “I made a difference to thatone… I made a difference to that one…”
    Before God asks you to do something big, I can guarantee that God will ask you to do something small.  Be ready.  Do not hesitate because the thing that God asks is small. 
In the hands of God, one small act can change the world.
    Volunteer an hour of your time to visit someone who is lonely.  Buy an extra can of food for someone that is hungry.   
Smile.  A kind word or a friendly face can change the course of an entire day.   
Donate blood.  
Cry with a friend, or offer a shoulder to cry on.   
Share Jesus with a neighbor.   
Take a casserole to a neighbor who has health problems.   
    Offer to watch the children of a young family that can’t afford a baby sitter.  This may sound small, but others did this for us when our children were small and trust me, this was a generous and amazing gift.   
    Invite a single friend to dinner.  Did you know that for singles away from home, as well as for widows and widowers, family holidays like Christmas and Easter are the hardest to get through?  What’s one more chair at the table?   
    Buy a box of diapers or a can of formula for a single parent.  Do you know how expensive that stuff can be?  
Offer to wash an elderly neighbor’s car or shovel their walk in the winter.
You can make a difference but you have to do something.
One.
Small.
Thing.
It doesn’t have to be a big thing to make a big difference.
But in the hands of God, one small act can change the world.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses


What does it mean to be surrounded by a “cloud” of witnesses? 
    Not long ago I was preaching on Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees in regard to the existence of life after death.  In Luke 20:27-38, Jesus reminds them that Moses called God, “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Jesus implies that it would be foolish to say such a thing in the present tense if they were not, presently, alive.  Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
The Apostle Paul described life as a sporting event in which we are called to give our best, saying,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” (Hebrews 12:1)
    Paul expands on the idea of resurrection and the afterlife to remind the church that those who are alive in the next world are watching those of us who remain in this one.  Paul specifically refers to the prophets, saints, and martyrs but it isn’t difficult to imagine that this also includes all of those who have always loved us and cared for us, but who no longer remain among the living of this world.  I know that my grandmother prayed for me nearly every single day of her life and I have no reason to imagine that she has stopped doing so today.
Let me share a mental picture that I have found meaningful.  Have you ever held a newborn baby, yours, or your grandchild, niece or nephew for the very first time?  Do you remember how that made you feel?  It is a magnificent feeling.   Hold on to that feeling.  Now, imagine the moment when you first arrive in the next world, right after you have “crossed over” and passed through Saint Peter’s pearly gates, right after you’ve met Jesus face to face, or however you might image your arrival.  Now, you see, standing before you, a group of people.  Some you know, but many you do not.  In the front are your parents, lost children, and dear friends, but there are many more, perhaps hundreds, even thousands of faces that you do not know.  As you embrace your family and your friends, your father, or perhaps your grandfather, takes you by the hand and says, “There is someone here, that I have wanted you to meet for a very long time.” And he turns to a an unfamiliar face and says, “This is myfather” or “This is my grandfather.”  And then, for hours on end, they in turn introduce you to their fathers, and their wives, and their children, allof whom have known you since you were born, and have been watching you grow, and have been praying for you that Jesus would watch over you and guard your steps. 
    And the feeling that you have is the feeling of holding that newborn child in your arms, multiplied by ten thousand, or more.
    Every moment of your life that you were in trouble, every moment when you faced difficult choices, every moment when you needed prayer, all of these hundreds and thousands of friends and family who love you, were watching and praying for you.
   Think of this, when we walk outside in a heavy fog, that moment when the clouds lay upon the surface of the earth, we are not near the cloud, or next to the cloud, we are completely engulfed and surrounded by the cloud.
    This is the picture that Paul draws for us.  With every choice that we make, with every success or failure, with every crisis or ordinary day, we can imagine that this cloud of people who love us, family and friends, surround us, watch over us, and pray for us.
    Because our God is the god of the living and not the dead, we are constantly watched over by those who love us, care for us, and who are, even now, praying for us.  Paul says that because we are surrounded by this “great cloud of witnesses” we should cast aside everything that is holding us back and have the confidence to forge ahead into the unknown toward whatever God has placed in our path.  

May we all have the courage to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us…”

A Doorkeeper for God

   One of the verses that I often remember is Psalm 84:10.  I don’t always remember where to find it, but n this age of computers, if I can remember the words, the reference is never far away.  Here the singers in the temple, the Sons of Korah, and remember that even those with humble jobs rejoice in the service that they give to God saying…

“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

    Today on Facebook, my friend Jim Jenson posted this poem about the same sort of thing as a remembrance of one of our seminary professors, Dr. Luke Keefer (photo, right).  This poem was one that meant a lot to Dr. Keefer, and, I think, may become one of mine as well.  I would like to note that I do not have any official permission to reprint this here, but you can also find it many places on the Internet.  

    Sam Shoemaker (photo, left) was the founder of Faith at Work at Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City, in 1926. He was also one of the spiritual leaders who helped draft the original 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and was a spiritual teacher to Bill W., AA’s co-founder. (from istandbythedoor.com)

I Stand at the Door

By Sam Shoemaker (from the Oxford Group)

I stand by the door.
I neither go to far in, nor stay to far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.

Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
And want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.

‘I had rather be a door-keeper’
So I stand by the door.

Trayvon, George, and the Church

    I wrote Sunday’s message, “The Test”, long before the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced and yet, the parallels between these events and scripture reading were worth noting.

    In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) a religious lawyer seeks to use Jesus to assure himself that he is good enough to go gain eternal life.  The lawyer and Jesus agree that the two fundamental criteria are 1) to love God and 2) to love your neighbor, but that isn’t good enough and so he asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”  In the time of Jesus, rabbis had differing opinion over who qualified to be a “neighbor” and these opinions ranged from friends and family, up to including anyone who was Jewish.  This man was hoping, even expecting, that Jesus’ opinion would be similar so that he could declare himself “good enough.” But Jesus goes an entirely different direction.  Jesus tells this story of a man who was brutally robbed, beaten and left for dead in the wilderness only to be rescued by a Samaritan.  
For many of us, this may also require some explanation.
    Long before the birth of Jesus, the Jews and the Samaritans hated one another with a deep and abiding hate.  Regardless of whose version of history you believe, hostilities between the Samaritans and the Jews dated back to the Old Testament, perhaps a thousand years or more.  Over the centuries, each side had attacked the other and had desecrated or burned the others’ temple.   A great many had been killed on both sides.  The only reason that the two groups were not fighting one another in the time of Jesus was that the Roman army was there to make sure that they didn’t. 
    In this environment of hatred, Jesus tells a story in which the Samaritan enemy was the hero and tells the man that even his enemy is his neighbor.  Jesus’ command is to “Go and do likewise.”  As followers of Jesus the  command to “Go and do likewise”  instructs us to show mercy to people we’ve never met, to share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, to help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even to people whom we consider to be our enemies.  It was a tough pill for that lawyer to swallow and it isn’t any easier for us today.  The parable of the Good Samaritan has always been, and will always be, difficult to put into practice.
    If we measure the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin by this standard we find that everyone failed.  Both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin failed when they chose to be suspicious and hostile and to engage in a brutal brawl on the ground rather than try to explain, discuss or walk away.  Both men assumed the other was his enemy.  The news media when they looked first for sensational headlines before reporting the facts.  Others failed because they were looking for an enemy and assumed that this violence was somehow different, that this murder was somehow more notable than the other thousands of young people who have been victims of violence since Trayvon Martin died. 
    Finally, the church failed.  We have known the story of the Good Samaritan since we were children.  We know that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us.  And yet, even now, in the midst of this tragedy, the followers of Jesus Christ, both black and white, look to place blame and to see an enemy in others, rather than demonstrate mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.  For the church, this case cannot be about who is right or who is wrong.  A wedge has been driven between two groups who already saw the other as the enemy.  Instead of arguing over who was in the right, we must find ways to avoid this sort of violence that kills young men and women every day in Sanford, Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and all across our nation.  We must find ways to teach the things that Jesus commanded us to teach.  We must show mercy to people we’ve never met, share what we have with people who can’t do anything in return, help people who aren’t like us, people who don’t like us, and even people that we consider to be our enemies.  We are called to be agents of healing instead of division.  We must love our enemies, do good to those who persecute us, and yes, we must love our neighbors.
Each one of us can make the world a better place if only we would, “Go and do likewise.”

Why this Conservative Evangelical Stopped Supporting the Death Penalty


    I used to support the death penalty.  After all, that’s what good Christians did, right?  Murderers received what they had measured out to others.  The death penalty was in the Bible and that was good enough for me.  But as the years went by, I began to wrestle with facts and ideas that didn’t fit.  It took time, years, even decades before I realized that I was changing my mind.  Even then, as a member in, and then as a pastor of, conservative congregations, I didn’t talk much about it. 

    I was troubled as I wondered how grace and mercy were served by the death penalty.  I was also troubled as I heard more about the costs of a death penalty conviction.  I suppose the last straw was when I first heard about the number of convictions being thrown out as DNA testing was first being used in the legal system.  Over the years, the evidence piled up until I had to surrender a notion that I once thought was reasonable.  I am not any different than I used to be.  My political and religious leanings are not significantly different than they ever were but I now believe that it is both logical and reasonable to oppose the death penalty from both a practical and a religious point of view.  Here’s why…
The Death Penalty is Not a Deterrent–Crime statistics in places where there is a death penalty are not statistically different from places where there is not.
Cost – It costs more to incarcerate a death row inmate.  Prisoners convicted under a death penalty statute are granted mandatory appeals and that process is expensive.  Estimates are that a death penalty inmate costs 2 to 5 times more over his or her lifetime than one who is incarcerated for life.
Fairness and Justice – The scriptural standard of evidence, particularly for murder, was from the beginning (Deuteronomy 17), two eyewitnesses.  In our modern world, having two witnesses is rare.  Mistaken identity is now one of the leading causes of error in our legal system.   Add a host of other errors, and suddenly a lot of people find themselves wrongly convicted.  For the last decade or so, an average of 18 death row residents per year were cleared by DNA evidence.  It’s so bad, that nationwide, a Columbia University study found serious errors in 68% of all death penalty cases and 2 out of 3 death penalty cases were overturned on appeal.  Of those overturned, 82% were retried on lesser charges.  Granted, no system is foolproof, but when ours is so messed up that we get it wrong 2 out of 3 times, its time to try something else.
Consistency – The church is usually among those who proclaim the sanctity of all life and declare to the world how God loves all people.  If we really believe that, then why is the life of a murderer not just as sacred?  Does God love murderers less? 
Grace, Forgiveness and Redemption – If we believe (and I do) that the Gospel message is all about grace, forgiveness and redemption, how do we justify the state sponsored killing of incarcerated criminals?  Where’s the grace and forgiveness in that?  How can God do a work of redemption in someone’s life when they’re already dead?  If we believe that God can change the hearts of human beings, then why are we so quick to assume that these men and women are unredeemable?
    As I wrestled with these questions, I realized that I didn’t have any answers that could make my continued support of the death penalty make any logical or spiritual sense.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a part of me that thinks the perpetrators of particularly horrible crimes shouldn’t die in some particularly painful way.   
What it means, I think, is that I’m beginning to understand the difference between retribution and justice.

Called to a Different Path


“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

    I am a Cleveland Indians fan.  I follow the Indians, not because they their winning record (obviously), but by accident of geography. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, went to high school in Akron, and my first job after college sent me to Cleveland for ten years.  As a Cleveland fan, Boston is considered to be an evil empire second only to the New York Yankees.  This week’s attack on the Boston Marathon (a very different thing than baseball) stirs in me the sort of protective feelings that siblings have for one another.  Feelings such as, “Nobody messes with my brother but me.” We don’t yet know who committed this horror, but the reaction of most Americans is, like mine, anger.  This is, I think, a natural and instinctive reaction, but a dangerous one as well.  As Christians, we need to carefully gauge our reactions so that our emotions do not draw us away from the path we have been called to follow.
    Anger is not evil.  Nor is it wrong or sinful to feel angry, but how we allow anger to motivate us, in what direction we allow anger to push us, may well be.  Anger over the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into a war with Japan.  Anger over the attacks of September 11th provided support for wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.  These may, or may not, be proper if we judge them as a means of seeking justice or resisting aggression, but we cross a line when we allow hatred and revenge to become our motivation.
    As a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not believe, as some of my friends do, that we have been called to a path of non-violence or pacifism.  I do believe, however, that we have been called to a different path, a direction different than our instincts alone would lead us.
    In Leviticus, a book often noted for its violence, we find a warning that revenge will lead us astray.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”  Leviticus 19:18
 
    But what if the perpetrator of this horror is not “among our people” but someone else?  Well, Jesus had something to say about that…
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
    This is hard.  Jesus wants us to do good to people who insist upon doing us harm.  Why?  Every fiber of my being wants to hit back when I am hit, to hurt the guy that hurts my family and to put the smack-down whoever did this thing to the people of Boston.  But that isn’t what Jesus had in mind.  Our calling is to a different path.  If you read the rest of the passage I just interrupted we get a few more details…
 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:27-28
    This is hard.  Why should we do good to those who seek to harm us?  Why should we be merciful?  Because we are called to follow a different path, a radical path, a path that calls us to love not only those who love us back, but everyone, whether they love us or not.  We are called to love the way that Jesus loved.
    Paul echoes these same feelings in his letter to the church in Rome and summarizes it by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
    I don’t think that any of this means that we cannot protect ourselves or seek justice, only that we must guard ourselves from seeking revenge and retribution instead of justice, and being driven by hatred and vengeance instead of mercy and compassion.  
This isn’t the place our instincts would lead us.
We are called to follow a different path.

The Politics of Falsehood


    I try to guard my personal opinions from the members of my church because their knowledge of my opinion may interfere with my ability to communicate a far more important message.  I hope that no one in the congregation of our church ever feels that they cannot objectively hear what I am teaching about the Bible because of some perceived political disagreement.  Even so, I have grave misgivings about our upcoming election and it isn’t just about the candidates.  My problem is that, perhaps now more than ever, the truth is taking a beating.
    In the television series “House,” Dr. Gregory House is fond of reminding his staff that “Everybody lies.”  Never has this been truer than during this election.  Each candidate has been caught stretching the truth, or worse.  It seems that after every speech or public appearance the fact-checkers are out in full force pointing out what was incorrect or misrepresented.  Even the media have been caught being “inventive.”  Sadly in the decades since the Watergate scandal, we’ve grown accustomed to “media bias” and understand that each news outlet allows their particular worldview to color their reporting, but now we’re seeing media outlets create their own news or creatively editing audio and video without revealing what they’ve done.  Heck, even the fact-checkers can’t be trusted.  After a recent speech by Paul Ryan, one set of fact checkers went wild pointing out his apparent “lies,” followed by another that pointed out the flaws in the “facts” presented by the first set of fact-checkers, and so on… for nearly a week.  
(Sigh)
    The television show, The X-Files” told us that we should “trust no one.”  This election certainly seems to make us think that this is true, but if we take a look at scripture we might regain a better perspective.  Our problem is that we expect our leaders to tell the truth, and our anger and disillusionment grow out of their failure to live up to our expectations.  We often think of the Bible as being full of love and grace, but in this regard scripture cautions us to be far more cautious, perhaps even downright cynical.  Psalm 20:7 reminds us that while “Some trust in chariots and some in horses… we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”  Whenever we think that the government or the military or any human authority is our salvation, we are in deep trouble.  Isaiah goes farther saying, “Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem? (Isaiah 2:22)  Particularly when we expect government to be trustworthy, our trust in is misplaced.  Psalm 118:8 teaches that “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in humans.”
    The clear theme here is that whenever we put our trust in human beings, we are sure to be disappointed but there is one upon whom we can safely place our trust.  Psalm 119:138 declares that “The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy.”And Proverbs 3:5 says that we should “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
    So does that mean that we as Christians should give our elected representatives and our media pass?  Should we simply overlook their self-serving dance with the truth?  Clearly, no.  Proverbs 12:22 says that “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” What’s more, Paul declares that “…it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” (Romans 12:21)  We should not overlook what our elected officials and the candidates for office are doing to the truth, but we should do all that we can to hold them accountable.
    As we move ever closer to our next presidential election, the followers of Jesus Christ need to hold fast to the truth that we have been given.  We cannot be content to choose the “lesser of two evils” but instead remember our calling to be agents of truth and good in the world around us.  The apostle Paul put it this way, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  (Romans 12:9)
    Instead of giving anyone a pass for playing fast and loose with the truth, or making excuses because “everybody does it,” let us instead recommit ourselves to love, hope, and goodness.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (1 Corinthians 4:2)