Sunday, December 3, 2017

Conjunction Junction, What's YOUR Function?

This sermon was preached at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ on December 3, 2017, at the 9 am service. The audio can be heard here.

I was having a conversation recently with my sister, and we were talking about Saturday morning cartoons, and how we use to watch cartoon shorts called “Schoolhouse Rock.” Some of you might not know what I’m talking about, but let me help you out for a minute. “Schoolhouse Rock” reinforced many of the educational lessons children of my generation received during the school year, by talking to us in language we could understand, making sure that we remember these things decades later. Songs such as “I’m Just A Bill on Capital Hill”, and “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” simplified what were complex issues into bite sized nuggets, and helped us learn things we hoped to master in the classroom.

So, what in the world does a Saturday morning cartoon from your childhood have to do with our readings this morning? Hang on – it will become clear as we go along.

This morning, the first Sunday of our new liturgical year, I believe we face a period of darkness in our country and in the world. All one has to do is turn on the television and listen to the nightly news. There are stories of war and famine, despair and desperation.

Let’s take a closer look at our country to unpack this whole period of darkness in our world. Just this week, we have heard the story of yet another missing child, snatched from her home, and possibly her body having been found.

We have heard the story, just this week, of another teenager missing and with a teacher from her school.

Just this week, we have heard and seen for ourselves our political leaders acting in ways that are not benifical for many of the persons they are tasked with representing, when tax “reform” bills are passed that have not been read or reviewed, and there are handwritten notes in the margins of what will be laws in our country.

Just this week, more corruption and lying was exposed when another formerly high-ranking political official plead guilty to lying to a law enforcement agency. God, how can we find hope in the dark?

This inquiry extends to the larger world as well. Just this week, during peace negotiations in Geneva regarding the situation in Syria, there was increased violence in the same area. There was supposed to be a ceasefire happening at the time.

Just this week, reports about chattel slavery and human trafficking came to light in Libya. 

Just this week, I was thinking about a conversation I recently had with John Dornhauser, the General Minsiter and President of our denomination, and he was describing the situation in the Gaza Strip – he used a word that I never thought I’d hear a minister use: hopeless.

How do you keep hoping, in spite of what you see in front of you? How do you continue going forward, even when you don’t know where you’re going or understand what’s going on? How do you find hope in the dark?

That’s a good question this morning, and I believe both the words ascribed to the Prophet help us understand what we need to start addressing the situation.

Biblical commentators describe this portion of Isaiah as a community lament. And these people had a reason to cry out in pain. They find themselves having to rebuild a broken community, and have a temple that has been destroyed, which indicated, to them, that their relationship with God is in serious trouble. These people find themselves back in a broken and ruined city, after having been in exile, and if we are honest, don’t know what to do.

This is a people, who know they need to ask some serious questions of their god, and have to admit some truths. The anonymous author of this portion of Isaiah, is looking to explain to the people of his day what is going on, and honestly, to ask the question, “Is there any hope?” Look at the text. God, when are you going to show up? When would you open the heavens and come down, and make the mountains shake. When are you going to set things on fire and cause water to boil? When are you going to show up and make your adversaries tremble at your presence?

God, how can we find hope in the darkness? Don’t you know what’s going on? Can’t you hear us? Don’t you want to hear us? The writer tells us that God has heard in the past. The text tells us this in verse 4: From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God beside you, who works for those who wait for him. 

Not only do you hear us, you interact with us God – “You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.” But we fractured that relationship, due to our own bad behaviors: “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself when we transgressed.”

This is not good. It’s looking darker by the minute. Guy, I hear you saying, can this get any worse? Actually, yes. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a lead, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. We are losing hope.

There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

I hate to say it, but it looks like we’re done. It looks like all hope is gone. And we will think like that, especially during this period of the year. The days are short. There is little daylight. It’s dark.

This morning, it was cold and rainy. It seemed like the day would be completely ruined. It was cold, and rainy, and dark. I thought I was going to lose all my hope, especially in this lamentable reading this morning.

But I kept reading….

And here’s where I started finding hope: YET…

There’s your turn right there. For those of you who don’t remember your basic grammar, and that includes me sometimes, the word “yet” is a conjunction, meaning “but at the same time; but nevertheless.” Remember I told you that the cartoon would be important? Here it is – I remembered my Schoolhouse Rock, and one of my favorite songs came to mind:  “Conjunction, Junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses!” “Yet” is a conjunction – conjunction junction, what’s your function?

This conjunction’s function serves to give me hope. But at the same time, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

But at the same time, O God, do not be exceedingly angry, and do not remember iniquity forever. But at the same time, O God, remember that we are all your people!

So, my friends, if you want to know how you can find hope in the darkness, remember that it might be dark, at the same time, the light of the world is coming. Remember that it might seems hopeless, at the same time, a new hope is on the horizon. While you make think that all is lost, at the same time, the one sent to save the day is waiting to make his appearance.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

It is Thanksgiving Day, 2017.  I’m going to forget some people and things that I am thankful for. Charge it to my head and not my heart.

Before I get into my list of things I am thankful for, I must acknowledge the harm and horror done to the Indigenous Peoples of this country, who were here when it was “discovered”, and paid a very high price when it was colonized. I remember and honor the folks who were here when the others got here.

On this cold Thursday morning, I have so many things to be thankful for. To start off, I am thankful for life. Having had a cardiac scare earlier this year made me a little more thoughtful about how I live and taking care of my health. I am glad that, while I move a little slower this year than last, I am still moving.

I am thankful for heat. It’s cold outside, and I pray for the persons who slept outside in that brutal cold, or for the persons who were inside with inadequate fuel to warm themselves and their babies.

I am thankful for my calling. Last year, on this day, I was editing an ordination paper that I though would never get done, Four years ago, I thought that the possibility of serving God’s people through ordained ministry was a wish, never to come true. This morning, I am an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ!.

I have to say how thankful I am to serve two of the best small churches on EARTH: Keysville Grace United Church of Christ and the MountPleasant Reformed United Church of Christ. The members remind me how blessed I am to pastor two churches, and also serve as proof positive that Sunday Morning at 11 am does NOT have to be the most segregated hour in America – they allow me the privilege of serving them as pastor.

I am also thankful for my home away from home – Veritas United Church of Christ in Hagerstown, MD. The members at VUCC are doing an integral work in Hagerstown, and on a shoestring. They also allow me to breathe when I am there – I get to be Guy when I’m there, and I just happen to be the preacher of the afternoon as well. I love y’all, and all of your originality.

For the Grace Church and its pastor, my mentor and friend, Rev. Dr. Rob Apgar-Taylor, it’s good to find your home and your people. I found mine in July, 2014. I am forever thankful for the chance you took on the little brown man from DC who was looking for a place to serve. I thank God for you every day and know that I treasure coming home every chance I get.

This year, there have been some…gargantuan…changes in my life. I started working in a coffee shop – a weird coffee shop. I am thankful for framily like the vanHilst crew, who introduced me to this unusual dude named Paul, who basically hired me on the spot, then entrusted me to run his shop. Not only that, they have enveloped all of us in the Johnson-Davis household into the Weird Brothers/Olsen clan, and we are thankful. In the process, I get to do Coffee House Ministry – it’s always good to be able to let your light shine wherever you are. (PS – Come get some Weird Brothers Coffee – 321 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon…it will bless you real good.)

I am thankful for the old and new friends and family members I acquired this year. George, thank you for being a sounding board and a voice of reason when I am often deaf and unreasonable. Kyle, you are the dude. David…thank you does not nearly encompass what your support and friendship have meant to me. You, sir, rock.

Speaking of new and old friends and family, I would be out of my mind if I did not publically holler how thankful I am for my village and kitchen cabinet: Feborah, Kim, AJ, Melonie, Tiffany, Henrietta, Kevin, Monique, all of my babies. My Chicago family and the newest edition to the family, Akel. Lord, I’m a great uncle again. That’s something to be thankful for.

To my girls: Tira, Kellie, Des Shawn, Venus, Lydia, Kim, Michelle, Kati, and Cindy – Y’all make it easy to be a good friend for almost 3.5 decades. I’m thankful that my crew is on speed dial and will show up and cut up whenever and wherever for whatever. Who knew?

To my boys: Chewee, Dewey, Judah, Rocky, Benny, O, Dan, Scott, Scott, and Charlie: Y’all make it easy to be real with you. Thank you.

Oh crap! I am really thankful for Matt and Eric. And Deidra and Alice. And Jay and Antares. This is why I shouldn’t name people (see opening lines).

Thankfulness extends to my blood family, the ones who carry my last name – Kristie and Cheryl, Bobby and Patrick, Briana and Ciera (and Deuce and Zöe), Terita and Chris (wherever you are – you still have a family that loves you and misses you. Come home). Our folks would be pretty proud of us. I am so thankful that y’all acknowledge me and claim me – even when I’m not at my best. 

But I am most thankful for my husband and dog. I am thankful that I can tell the world that my husband IS my husband. If you want to know why I am so thankful this year, it’s because the man who has stood beside me, supported me, believed in me (even when I did not believe in myself), pushed me beyond my comfort zone, spoke up for me when I could not muster the strength to find my own voice, and made it easy for me to do ministry love me unconditionally. Poppins, well, is Poppins. I am thankful for the person who discovered they were allergic to him and opened the door for us to become his forever family.

This year, life has been a roller coaster, but in the middle of the loop de loop, I have made it a point to find things to be thankful for. I woke up on this side of the dirt. I’m thankful. I can breathe without assistance. I am thankful. I have people who love me. I am thankful.

Find something to be thankful for yourself. I am sure you can, even if it’s a struggle to do so.

Be blessed, but more importantly, be a blessing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Equality Loudoun 2017 Transgender Day of Remembrance

This reflection was presented at the 2017 Transgender Day of Remembrance Event, held at the Purcellville Library, Purcellville, VA, on November 21, 2017.

Good evening. I am the Reverend Guy S. Johnson, pastor of the Keysville Grace and the Mount Pleasant United Churches of Christ, both located in Northern Maryland, and while I am grateful to be here, I wish I weren’t. I know that sounds contradictory, but in 2017, I wish I didn’t have to be here to remember our trans brothers and sisters because they are no longer here.

It is 2017, and we are remembering 24 amazing people who, in any other circumstances, would still be with us. Most are victims of homicide. This is unacceptable. 

It is unacceptable for several reasons, and for me, the first is because these people – our trans family members – are children of God. Now, as a Christian pastor and faith leader, my first frame of reference is that I use the Torah as a guide, and I honestly believe that we imago dei – the image of God. And I use the book of Genesis to make that claim – Genesis 1:26 -27 says it this way: “Let US man HUMANS in OUR own image.” That tells me that WE are made in THEIR – multiple – images. 

And we are. Our trans family members are made in the image of God, and because of that, deserve the rights that all people deserve – the right to life and liberty. Our trans family members deserve all of the rights that we all deserve. Our trans family members deserve the right to live without harassment, without fear, without disruption.

And we have a duty and a responsibility to speak out when we hear of violence. We have a duty and responsibility to make sure all of our family members are safe. We have a duty and responsibility to ensure our family members live. 

We have a duty and a responsibility to love God with all of our hearts, and minds, and souls, and to our neighbor as ourselves.  That’s what we are to do. 

And that might mean we have to contact our officials. Make the call. We might have to contact the press. Make the call. We might have to step in. Make the call.

We must love our neighobors as ourselves, not because we might have a certain faith tradition, but because it is the right thing to do. We must love our GLB, and T family members without reservation or hesitation, because it is the right thing to do. 

We must remember our trans family members and love them unconditionally.

THAT is our call.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Blessing of the Animals

This reflection was presented at the Blessing of the Animals Service for the St. James United Church of Christ, Lovettsville, VA, on September 24, 2017.

There are some services that are quite important to the life of a congregation and a community. For example, there would be an uproar if there was no Christmas Eve or Easter Vigil in some congregations. Can you imagine the outrage that would commence if there was no Pentecost?
Well, I have learned that the St. Francis of Assisi service, otherwise known as “The Blessing of the Animals Service” is as important to the life of the community, even if we don’t know realize it. In case you didn’t know, St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment, and, as the Old Testament reading reminds us, God created humans to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
Many times, I am convinced, we think that dominion over all the earth, and all the creatures that inhabit it, means that we have free reign to do whatever we want to do, regardless of outcome. That, my friends, is not so.
While dominion and authority indicates supreme control over animals and the earth, there is a second component to having control over something – a requirement to ensure care of and maintenance of. For example, the government, in most cases, has dominion over roadways, they are required to take care of and maintain them so that they are navigable. Now whether the government does that well is another issue, they are still required to do so.
Another example I thought of is that of an absentee landlord. You know the kind – purchases a property, rents it out, yet neglects to take care of it. The landlord enjoys the income they derive from the property, yet does nothing to maintain its wellbeing.
Unfortunately, in some instances, we humans have become absentee landlords. We love all of the benefits we derive from the earth and animals, yet we have failed to take care of them adequately. We are required to care for the animals that God has given US dominion over, and we are required to care for the EARTH as well. In case you have missed it, there are indications that we have not done such a good job of the “taking care of and maintaining” part of dominion. We’ve pretty much mastered the “absolute control” over, but if we are honest, we need to do a better job of taking care of and maintaining.
If you don’t believe me, there are far too many animals being mistreated. We are not taking care of and maintaining the animals we have dominion over. There are far too many animals in shelters or homeless. We are not taking care of and maintaining the animals we have dominion over. Our earth is telling us that we are not taking care of her, and she is telling us through the weather. We are not taking care of the earth we have dominion over. We must do a better job.
This is not to say that we are totally absent in our care. Those of us here this morning KNOW that we have a responsibility for caring for the animals that are in our care. Those of us here KNOW that we have a responsibility for being good stewards of the earth. Those of us here KNOW that we must exercise responsible dominion over the earth, and everything on and in it.
So, this morning, let us be thankful for the animals that we have in our lives, and remember that God made us in God’s image to do take care of and love them. What an honorable assignment to have – loving and blessing animals.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Getting It Wrong

Sometimes I get it wrong.

There. I said it.

Sometimes I marvel at the fact that I was called to ministry. Not in the “Oh my God, I’m not worthy” sense, but in the “Really, God? Me? You DO know who I am right?” sense. By the way, that’s a rhetorical question – of COURSE God knows who I am.

I am not perfect, in any sense of the word. I have some faults, but not according to my husband. He thinks that I am perfect in every way…except when I fail to put dates on the calendar, or I forget to do something that I’ve promised, or I neglect to make the bed properly, or I’m gone from home four nights in one week. I think the one that drives him battiest is that I forget to take the clothes out of the dryer before the next load goes in. Maybe he doesn’t think I’m perfect.

Well, I KNOW Poppins thinks I am the best thing to arrive on earth since boiled chicken. Hey, he has low standards. Well, almost…except when I don’t take him out in time, and then tell him how he’s a bad dog when it’s totally my fault, or when I go to sleep and leave three slices on pizza in the box on the table and he jumps up onto the table, drags the box onto the floor, eats the pizza (but not the green peppers or black olives…but devours the onions, causing his Poppy to go into a panic [nothing funnier than a panicked Poppy]), and then belches. Best one so far – has to be a toss up between the three cupcakes he scarfed down and was on a sugar high for two days or the brownie he scarfed down (another Panicked Poppy scenario, complete with tears, a call to Poison Control and the Vet – the Vet laughed at me) and was high for two days.

So, my congregations must think I’m perfect…except when I totally miss changing the date on the front of the bulletin, or choose a completely horrible hymn that we can’t sing (and let’s be honest, there are some hymns that should be retired from hymnody…forever), or miss a breakfast, or….

My friends CERTAINLY think I am perfect. They have to…except when I am running 30 minutes behind schedule, or have totally forgotten to put their event on the calendar (see my husband), or have triple booked myself in 3 different cities (that happened just this past weekend), or totally botch their birthday greetings or their anniversaries, or in one case, their birthday a month early…and I have 5 friends, who all know each other, with the same birthday. Yes, I made the same mistake 5 times in one day – no one answered their telephone when I called!

My siblings know I am not perfect – they grew up with me.

Maybe I’m the one who thinks I’m perfect. Except I don’t. I know that I am a heaping helping of hot mess, especially when I get nervous. I know I’m not perfect, and I’ve stopped trying to convince myself that I am. In fact, I tell folks, especially people that I am going to serve, that I will get it wrong sometimes.

And that’s why this is important. I do ministry. I serve people.  I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. (And it seems that I have an “I” problem in my writing. Oh well, this is about me. Great. Now it’s an “I/Me” problem. This is what…get back on track Guy…)

In life, we ALL get it wrong. We do. It’s human nature. I hope we get it right more than we get it wrong. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t. But most of the time, I honestly believe we get it right. But it seems that the people we serve expect the servants to be perfect all of the time, even outright dismissing folks who, because of a mistake or two, think the person they’re hiring (that’s the first mistake – you don’t hire a pastor…another post for another time….) calling gets it wrong all of the time and in every way. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And if that is going to be the standard, let’s look at Jesus’ track record. Even the Son of God got it wrong once or twice. I mean, he compared a sick little girl to a dog. THAT’S getting it wrong. He had to do a healing twice. THAT’S getting it wrong. He killed off a fig tree because the tree wouldn’t give fruit out of season. THAT’S getting wrong.

He killed off a herd of swine, ruining a whole lot of bacon, ham, sausage, and ribs. Really dude?

So, I guess (there’s that “I” again) my point is – if we are followers of Jesus, we too will get it wrong. The one we follow and call Savior did, and if he got a do-over, so should we.

Sometimes I will get it wrong. I’m human. But here’s what I won’t get wrong – love. Love is unconditional. I may not agree with you all of the time, and I don’t want to, but I will love you, and hold your hand, and stand by you, and visit you in jail, and call your Mama and Daddy, and cheer at little BoBo’s (fill in the appropriate sport) game, and even make a total fool of myself in a costume, or reading something…I will love you.

All I ask is that you be patient with me. Yes, I can be obstinate, and according to a certain pastoral associate who shall remain nameless, I can also be frightening…until you get to know me. I am none of those things. Now, I AM fiercely protective of people, especially those I love and those that are ignored and or dismissed by/outcast from society. I will ALWAYS go to bat for them, because Jesus would have done the same. I am called to do that. Voiceless people need a voice, and believe me, I have a big mouth.

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Sometimes I will get everything else wrong, but I will do my BEST to get the love thing right.

Unless you’re a Packers’ fan. Then all bets are off.  Well, almost. Cheese is good.

Be blessed, but more importantly, be a blessing.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Are You Willing?

This sermon was presented to the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ on Mother's Day, May 14, 2017, at the 9 am service. The audio can be heard here.

While I have only been a pastor for a relatively short time, there are times when a preacher does not want to preach a sermon. There are times when a pastor gets a set of lectionary texts which do not match the day on which they are to be preached. For example, today is Mother’s Day, and none of the texts assigned to us preachers are, in my opinion, applicable for talking about Mother’s. Now, to be clear, I understand that Mother’s Day is not a celebratory day for all persons. But you would think that, out of the four selections assigned, one could be fashioned into some loving words to talk about…Mama.
Not this week. No....this is one of those weeks where the bible and the newspaper seem to meet at the intersection of Current Events Road and Spiritual Street. This is the week where, as public interpreter, pastor, priest, and prophet, I am forced to contend with a reality that has shown up on the doorstep, bags fully packed like a college graduate returning home after being gone for four years. I am forced to contend with a reality that our real time lives have intertwined with our biblical text.
Within the past two weeks, several incidents have occurred that, in my opinion, I thought I would never see in my lifetime.
Less than 12 hours ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mere 2 hours from my front door and 3 hours from where we sit at this very moment, a group of citizens wielding torches, gathered in Robert E. Lee Park and shouted things like “You will not replace us!” and “Blood and Soil!” There is a message being presented, and I promise you, I never thought I would be STILL be worried about the possible resurrection of organized white supremacy movements in 2017.
Oh, this gets better. On the campus of the American University, some coward decided to hang bananas on nooses around campus, referring to the newly elected student president, an African-American woman, in derogatory terms. Yes, my friends, in 2017 in the Nation’s Capital, someone hung nooses around the campus in what is called the “Most Powerful City In the World.”
I’m not done. Within the last five days, two young men in Anne Arundel County, MD, not far from here, were arrested for, you guessed it, hanging nooses on a school, this time however, at a middle school.
However, the story of Gabriel Taye of Cincinnati, Ohio, was released to the public, and is simply horrifying. Have you heard about this story? Let me tell you, if you have not – in January, after being assaulted and battered in a school bathroom, young Gabriel lay unconscious on the floor, while other children stepped over his body. However, a few did poke or even kick the body to see if he was responsive. An adult finally came to Gabriel’s aid, and two days later, he hung himself with a necktie in his bedroom. Did I mention that he was 8 years old? His mother has finally heard the truth, as horrible as it is, about the events precipitating her son’s taking his life. I can see her in her anguish – I can see Gabriel in his anguish, and imagine him saying before ending the pain he faced in life from bullying children and inattentive adults, “Lord, do not hold this against them”, just as Stephen did.
The text this morning tells us about the death of Stephen, one of the first martyrs of the Christian faith. Let me tell you the rest of the story leading up to his execution. It’s quite simple – Stephen was executed for telling the story of Jesus. His story starts in the Acts chapter 6, with these words: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” As he continued, people began to lodge false accusations against him, and he still told the story of Jesus. The religious leadership told him to stop. He kept on. Political leaders told him to sit down and shut up. Stephen kept standing and speaking out.
I am sure that, the people who were new converts to this new thing, this following a dead yet allegedly resurrected Messiah, were afraid about speaking out. But even if he was, Stephen continued to tell the story, from Moses to the Messiah.
And then he went too far: he quoted Moses and, as my late mother would say, “the hit dog hollered.” Stephen, in Acts 7:51, literally spoke the words of Moses: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumsized in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
Then, as Dr. Christopher R. Matthews of Boston College describes it, Stephen was lynched, or if you want to use alternative facts, executed in a sanctioned judicial execution, as Saul (later known as Paul) approved this death sentence. Either way, a man was killed for telling the truth and speaking out, and his last act was to pray for his killers – “Lord, do not hold this against them.”
Let me tell you – this morning, we are faced with being killed for the sake of the Gospel, whether it is a physical death by kicks and rocks and guns, or social death by threats, scandal, rumor, or innuendo. This morning, those of us who believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news that the captives have been set free, that Jesus came for all people, that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, that no one comes to the Father but by him – understand that we have troubled hearts, hence Jesus’ admonition “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Understand that prior to that command, Jesus has just told Peter something that rocked his world “Would you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
Today, like Stephen, we are faced with death for speaking out against the powerful. Today, like Stephen, we must face our assailants and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are times when they are aiming to lynch us. The question is – are you willing to die for the gospel? Are you willing to face death for speaking out against injustice? Are you willing to pray for those who do you wrong?
Stephen shows us what discipleship truly looks like, even to death, all while truly loving those who hate him. May we have the courage to do the same.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Call To Action!

This sermon was originally preached at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at the 9 am service. The audio can be heard here

This morning, we are faced with two familiar texts. If you remember, I preached the Micah text in conjunction to celebrate the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 88th anniversary of his death two weeks ago, and today’s gospel happens to be The Beatitudes.
These twelve verses are familiar to those of us who have been in the church for a great length of time; in fact, these verses are presented first by Matthew to introduce his readers to the importance of understanding Jesus and the requirements for entering the kingdom, because for Matthew and his retelling of the Gospel, entering the Kingdom of God is the most important aspect of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
Yes, these are quite familiar verses, and please understand that while we proclaim them as Gospel today, Matthew’s readers and those who originally heard Jesus speak these words saw them as revolutionary. And let’s be honest this morning, they WERE revolutionary, for they speak to a people who were anything but blessed.
I love studying people smarter than me, so I defer to Dr. Marcia Y. Riggs, a noted Presbyterian theologian. She says it this way:
Jesus delivers these blessings to a people whose sociopolitical context is the Roman Empire and whose religious context is the elite Jewish establishment. What Jesus teaches in these ten verses critiques both contexts. The people being blessed are the underclass of the Roman Empire and the Jewish establishment, for they were one in the same. These blessings are delivered to the groups God deems worthy, not because of their own achievements or status in society, but because God chooses to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peacemakers, and those persecuted because of their beliefs.
Jesus makes a clarion call about what is happening here, and there is a political foundation for what is being said – all of this is organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able – at potential risk of their own lives – for the sake of a world in which the unvalued, including they themselves when they are persecuted, are at last fully valued as human beings. These verses provide a commissioning that undergirds the necessary instructions for Jesus’ chosen disciples and others in the crowd who desire to follow Jesus. As Jesus pronounces God’s blessings, he frames the call to discipleship in terms of both which they are to be, their character, and its consequences for their lives in the present sociopolitical and religious context, as well as in God’s future.
So, Guy, what do Dr. Riggs’ observations, Micah’s message, and Jesus’ sermon mean for us today? I am so glad that you asked!
As I am fond of reminding this congregation, I prepare sermons with the bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. This week was no different. I also tell you, at least once a month, that I don’t preach politics, because I honestly believe that the church and the state should be separate for this one reason – once you start allowing one religious body to control civil government, you must be open to letting ALL religions have a chance to control civil government, and once that happens, it is no longer a civil government, it is a theocracy.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against the wanton and rampant discrimination against our Muslim brothers and sisters. In the name of “protecting liberty and freedom”, actions have been taken to actively discriminate against them because of their religion, an position that directly contradicts what this country claims it is based on – religious freedom. In this country, within the last 24 hours, a mosque in Victoria, Texas was set afire – less than 24 hours after the ban on Muslims entering this country was enacted. If I am honest, even though we may disagree about religion in some instances, if Jesus were preaching this message today, he would include our Muslim brothers and sisters in those who are blessed.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being if I did not point out the glaring hypocrisy of banning people seeking to flee war torn countries attempting to come here for safety and sanctuary, while quoting the words of one who, as a baby, was an illegal alien in a country while one the run, because there was a bounty on his head.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against the repeal of an admitted health care law that covered 20 million Americans, most poor and disabled, who now face the nightmare of managing chronic illnesses without health care. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not speak out against the continued purposeful cuts in the social safety net, which is for ALL of us, especially those who are elderly – attacks on Medicare and Social Security.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against finding $15 billion dollars to build a wall to keep brown people out, which not being able to find $15 billion to fix the infrastructure in Flint, Michigan so that Americans can have clean drinking water.
Look at the text, if you will. If you look at all of the persons who are considered blessed, they truly ARE those looked down upon in society, and the religious and civil leaders who heard this sermon realized that this was a call to upend society as they knew it. It was a call to flip the establishment on its head! It was a call to liberate the people.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That’s a promise of what is to come!
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. That’s for those who have lost loved ones to the empire.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. That’s for those who have been quieted, were abused and trampled over.  Notice it doesn’t say weak – but meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Those people who work towards a better day for those whoa re downtrodden by the religious authorities in the name of religion, they will see their work rewarded.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The measure you give shall be the measure you receive – pressed down, shaken together, and running over shall men give to you!
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.  When I see those two verses, I immediately point back to Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your might.” THAT’S how one can be pure in heart. THAT’S how one can be called a peacemaker.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Let me make a declaration here: Jesus tells us “you are going to have to wait to receive your rewards. I don’t like this one, personally, as it has been used to subjugate people and to tell them to be happy with their suffering. “
But there is a link between the beatitudes and Micah – if you live the words of Micah 6:8, you then can live the beatitudes.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?
Is it easy to do? Absolutely not. It causes you to actually have to DO something – justice. It causes you to actually DO something – love kindness. It causes you to actually DO something – walk humbly with your God.
Those who are at the bottom of society, those who need to be blessed, those who are the outcast, already know how to live Micah 6:8, which means to me, they live the beatitudes. May the rest of us learn to do the same.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Love Wins!

This message was originally preached on January 22, 2017, at the Mount Pleasant Reformed United Church of Christ at the 11:00 a.m service. The audio can be heard here.

The longer I live, the more I realize that when it comes to people, they always want to be right.

If you don’t believe, me, from September until January, there are some homes that are split in half over football games, and that is very apparent in this area. One person in the house is a Washington Redskins fan, and the other is a Dallas Cowboys fan. A personal note here, the Cowboys fan is right. In other households, one spouse is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and the other is a Baltimore Ravens fan, and these divisions cause much consternation in the home, and a friendly rivalry exists, but there is still some love there.

 The longer I live, the more I realize that people always want to be right. If you don’t believe me, look at the political situation in our country this very day. Two days ago, many people descended on Washington, DC to inaugurate a new president in the United States, and a day later, many people descended on Washington, DC to protest the inauguration of the new president in the United States. In many neighborhoods in this country, these divisions over the new president’s positions, policies, and practices are causing people to look at each other with suspicion and if we are honest, leading some to reconsider their relationships with people they have lived next door to, played golf with, shared recipes with, and in some instances, actually lived with.

 And I would be remiss in my duties as your pastor if I did not mention that, even in our churches this morning, there is a great division over this same event. There are people who are reconsidering their relationships with people they’ve sat next to, played golf with, shared recipes with, and in some instances, actually lived with, over the election. There is a great division in this country, and if we are honest, rightly so, because of some beliefs about rights and positions on social issues.

And if we are going to really honest thins morning, these divisions  will remain for the foreseeable future, as many of them are based on how people see other people, in their humanity. The longer I live, I tell you, the more I realize that people want to be right, and this is made very evident in this morning’s text from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. If we look at the city of Corinth, we will find that it looks suspiciously like our country this morning, according to Fordham University’s Laurence Welborn, professor of Biblical Studies and Pauline Epistles.

He says it this way: “Paul’s Corinth was a Roman city, was diverse, and included Syrians and Egyptians, along with Greeks who had immigrated from the surrounding cities. Philo speaks of a sizeable Jewish community in Corinth, and the city regained it’s ancient prosperity based on its favorable location. Sharp contrasts between rich and poor were apparent in this flourishing commercial center, but opportunities for social advancement also existed; even freedmen held civic office, something uncommon elsewhere.” Corinth sounds like our country today, and, in the midst of all of those social divisions, there were divisions in, all of places, the Corinthian church.

Paul describes the situation in the church in terms like those used by political orators to characterize conflicts within city-states of the day, and if we examine the text closely, Paul appeals for the church to be in agreement and to be united in the same mind and the same purpose echoes the language of speeches on accord. Paul talks to the people in language they understand in an effort to get the people to get rid of their divisions.

Look at the text: Paul tells the people that he has received reports that there are quarrels – divisions – among the people: “Chloe’s people have reported this, and you are dividing yourselves into factions. Each one of you are are trying to show that you are right. “I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos. I belong to Cephas. I belong to Christ!” These divisions are splitting the church. And a note – “I belong to Christ” was not indictive of a “Christ Party” as it were, but to be used as satire.

But there are these divisions. Paul asks “Has Christ been divided? Did Paul die for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” And then he drops this nutritional nugget – “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the Gospel. And, not only did he send me to proclaim the gospel, but to do it simply, so that the cross of Christ might not lose its power.” And that right there, was divisive within Paul himself. Remember that Paul was an orator – he was a lawyer, he was a Pharisee. He was used to speaking with power and his words had impact. I am sure that as a public speaker, he knew how to move the people with his rhetoric.

Sounds like today. We have public speakers who know how to make wonderful speeches, saying a whole lot of nothing, which excites the people and keeps divisions going, but say nothing. But back to Paul. Paul then ends this portion of the letter with this theological explosion: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” What? Glad you are as confused as me, and I am sure, the listeners of the day. So, let me help you out a bit. This “foolishness”, as it were, is not the right word to use – these folks look at the gospel as “folly” or “a vulgar joke”.

I still maintain that if one if going to talk about Christ and the message He proclaimed, one must talk about things HE talked about. Jesus talked about the poor, and the sick, and the downtrodden. However, let’s be honest – we don’t want to talk about those things, especially today. We see these things, but don’t want to talk about them. Let’s not talk about the poor, because if they work harder, they would not be poor. Let’s not talk about healthcare, because if people took better care of themselves, they wouldn’t be sick. Let’s not talk about global warming, because we all know it’s a hoax, despite what we actually see and record. We don’t want to talk about that stuff, because it does not impact us. It does not make us feel good, It would actually mean we have to think about someone outside of our own immediate circle of family and friends.

 Yes, to the educated, the learned, the rich and the powerful, Paul’s preaching the cross of Christ is foolishness, for to those being saved, it is the power of God. How can that be? It just is. What do you mean Guy? I am glad you asked. The message of the cross, for me, is that love wins. In spite of the things that divide us, and some of those things are deep and foundational, the cross shows us that love wins. That’s foolishness – a dead messiah? How is that possible? It is. Love wins. I know that we are divided among race, gender, socioecomic, and political lines. Yes. Love wins. That’s foolishness, even to some of us who call ourselves preachers of the Gospel.

I know that “love wins” seems to be simplistic and naïve. But for me, THAT is the message of the Cross. I know that the execution of Jesus was a political act, mean to scare the people into submission, but in the midst of it, Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice shows that true love is to lay down one’s life for a friend. That’s foolishness. But that’s love. Love wins, in spite of everything else going on in the world, in spite of all of the foolishness and competitions and distractions, love wins.

50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King said the following in his annual report to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear. And I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I'm talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I've seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I've seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.”

So my friends, love wins. Despite divisions and distractions, love wins. Despite evidence to the contrary, love wins. And in order for love to truly win in the face of hate, WE must be the one to show that love wins. I can’t control other people’s actions, but I can show love.

YOU can’t control other people’s reactions, but you can show love. I know that sounds foolish and simplistic, but it’s true. Love wins.


Monday, January 16, 2017


This sermon was originally preached on January 15, 2017 at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ, Keymar, MD. The audio can be heard here.

On this day 88 years ago in Atlanta, GA, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior was born to Reverend Martin Luther King, Senior and Mrs. Alberta Williams King. The middle child, but the oldest son, his father changed both their names from Michael to Martin, in honor of the famed German theologian Martin Luther, following a 1934 trip to the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin.

A graduate from Morehouse College, the Crozier Theological Seminary and Boston University, he served as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1963, gave his most famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I Have A Dream.”

His life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on Friday, April 4, 1963 while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. Survived by his wife, the former Coretta Scott, and their four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice, as well as his parents and siblings, he was 39 years old at the time of his death.

I have, in the interest of time, reduced one of the most influential men in the history of this nation down two three paragraphs, sort of like people who reduce Dr. King down to the punch line “I Have A Dream” or call him “The Drum Major of Justice”, and that’s all. Many of these people enjoy the day off work that is supposed to honor this hero, but in all honesty, act in ways that are completely opposite to everything that Dr. King believed in.

As I have stated in the past, I believe that one cannot effectively speak to the church or the world with just the Bible or the newspaper – we are required to prepare sermons with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and these days, that axiom certainly applies. In less than seven days, we will inaugurate a new president in this country, and while many people do not agree with the manner in which he was elected, the process, as established, was followed.

In the midst of that, however, there has been a turn to inflame our basest, and if we are honest, nasty traits. There has been a rise in hate crimes against minorities, whether we want to call them hate crimes or not. There has been a rise in substance abuse cases, whether we want to admit it or not. And just this week, what I consider to be a crime occurred on Capital Hill – the United States Congress has begun moving to repeal the Affordable Care Act, potentially cancelling health care for millions of citizens. There has been a decline in civility, especially when the powerful mock the powerless from their bully pulpits, and using coded language that most decent people would consider shameful.

So, on this anniversary of the birth of Dr. King, I pose the following question: What would Martin do? We know that “What Would Jesus Do” is a popular question and marketing strategy, and let me be clear, I am not elevating Martin to be equal with Jesus, but as a hero to many people, I think that is a fair question to ask. What WOULD Martin do if he were faced with the political, economic, and social landscape we face today? WWMD? I believe Martin would say, “Look to the prophet Micah”.

Now we don’t know much about this prophet, but in his introduction to the book that carries his name, Dr. Gregory Mobley of Andover Newton Theological School, tells us that he was from a small town southwest of Jerusalem called More-sheth-gath, and he had a populist message. Micah expressed disdain for the corruptions and pretensions of Jerusalem and its leaders. He recalled the traditions of early Israel and condemned religious practices unaccompanied by ethical performance.

I asked the question “What Would Martin Do?” and I believe that, if Martin King were alive today, he would say, “There is precedent. Look at Micah!”

Micah makes is very clear:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to live kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The Lord has told us what is good: the Lord requires us to do justice, not just talk about it. I’m sure if we asked Martin “What does doing justice look like?” I would like to think that Martin would show us by:

  • speaking out against income inequality, and how the top 1% of people in this country control 90% of the wealth;
  • talking about how, in some inner city communities, food deserts exist, and you can get access to grease laden and unhealthy fast foods, but not be able to purchase a fresh tomato or fresh chicken. I would hope he would declare that people deserve to shop in stores that should not be condemned;
  • informing the people the fact that people in major cities in the United States don’t have access to clean water, which is a sin and a shame before God almighty herself; and
  • declaring that the lack of healthcare to the least of these truly is an example of not loving your neighbor as yourself;
  • standing up with ALL disenfranchised people: the poor, the underclass, the underemployed, racial minorities, women, the LGBT community, immigrants, and yes, even Muslims. He would model loving your neighbor as yourself.

Let me put a pin here for a minute – so many people have attempted to neuter Dr. King, like they have Jesus, by making him this soft, ethereal, passive doormat. While Martin believed in non-violence as a tactic, that does NOT mean he was weak by any means. It takes strength to turn the other cheek. It takes strength to be called everything but a child of God. It takes strength to remain strong when the people who have claimed to be in your corner desert you in jail. It takes strength to forgive people who try and kill you, for racists who bomb your house, and who kill four little black girls on a Sunday morning.

I am sure that if we asked Martin “How does one live kindness?” he would show us by:

  • calling out our behaviors of treating the disabled as less than people,
  • calling us out for not following the biblical mandate to take care of the widows and orphans;
  • taking us to task for sending soldiers off to war, and not providing them with adequate physical AND mental health care when they return home; and
  • not cutting holes in the social safety net that many of us might have to depend on should we fall on hard times. 

I am sure that if we ask Martin, “How does one walk humbly with your God?”, he would show us by:

  • crying out against religious institutions that are more concerned with piety than providing assistance, more concerned with buildings and business than building disciples and loving communities, and more concerned with fame than faith;
  • explaining that you can’t claim to love God and hate ANY of God’s people, that are made in God’s image; and
  • reminding us that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.

So, before I take my seat, if you want to know “What would Martin do?” the answer is simple: he would live the words of Micah 6.8.  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. He would, and we should as well. That, my friends, is something worth celebrating.