open and affirming
the sinner, hate the sin. It's a phrase we all have likely heard, especially in
faith circles. When it's said, it's supposedly meant in love. Trying to show
someone the error of their ways, seeking to help them to escape the eternal
torment of hell. Yet, for many, those words are not received as loving words,
as words meant to point to a loving God. Instead, for many those words leave
behind a question, “Why does God hate me?”
wandering around the internet, I came across an article (https://www.nytimes.com/…/seth-stephens-davidowitz-googling…)
about the things people search for on the internet. When it comes to God, the
number one question is: 'Who created God?' Then comes, 'Why does God allow
suffering?' The third question is, 'Why does God hate me?' When Google looked
into the way people finished the internet search, 'Why did God make
me_________?' The results are heartbreaking. The number one word was 'ugly',
then 'black', then 'gay'. Other common words were: short, stupid, fat. It makes
we like it or not, whether we want to face it or not, those internet searches
are in many ways a rephrasing of the question, 'Why does God hate me?' It
breaks my heart, and forces me to admit that there are way too many incorrect
and damaging ideas about God. And the damage being done isn't to God, it's to
the least among us. The church may teach that we are all sinners that have
failed in doing that which God desires, but, it also declares and affirms that
each of us is created in the image of God, that each of us is loved
that message, the one of love and being made in God's image has not been heard
by many. Instead what is heard is that God is judgmental, that Christians are
hypocritical, that God has favorites – with some being made beautiful, and
others ugly. With some being made gay, and others straight. And that that
difference was a punishment of some kind.
thing is, God doesn't play favorites. God isn't the one who labels and
excludes, who determines who is in and who is out – it's us human beings. We
are the ones who have divided people into categories, who have created
societies where a person’s physical appearance or their being a part of a
specific demographic group is what is important, rather than the content of
their heart, the character of their lives. A practice and message that
contradicts the message we see in the Bible over and over again.
message of Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation is that God has come into
the world to reconcile all people, that God's love is for all people, that
God's grace is freely given to everyone. It is the mission and calling of the
church, both as an institution and as individuals of faith to spread the
message of God's love and grace far and wide. We must do all we can to counter
the damage done by the poor theology that has resulted in so much pain and
unhappiness in others.
can do that, even just a little bit, it could bring the hope and peace that may
cause people to change their Google searches from wondering why God hates them,
to: “Why does God care for me so much?” and “Why did God make me so beautiful
With the Greatest of Hope!
It's Fall again. That time of the year when we
are blessed to see God painting the world with golden colors and striking
beauty. It's a wonderful time of year. Piles of leaves to jump in. Cool foggy
mornings. Clear star-filled nights. Friday night football games. Hot apple
cider. Pumpkin pie. We have some of the most loved holidays at this time of
year: Halloween and Thanksgiving. There is much to give praise and thanks to
There is another event that happens at this
time of the year in the church, the commemoration of the Protestant Reformation
on the last Sunday of October. This year mark 499 years since Martin Luther
nailed his 95 complaints against the Catholic Church at the time. His actions
were followed by other reformers: John Calvin, John Wycliffe, Huldrych Zwingli
(to name a few).
One of the realities that I have come to
believe in recent years is that there is once again a need for a reformation
within the church. In many ways the church has become unfocused, misguided and
out of step with the path Jesus taught and called his disciples to follow.
What might a new reformation look like? UCC
pastor Robin Meyers, in his book The Underground Church, imagines just what
that church might look like: Just imagine...
»A church where women are truly equal to men, and never patronized.
»A church where straights and gays worship together as children of God.
»A church where children are cherished in practice, and not just in
»A church where following Jesus is just as important as worshiping
»A church where the clergy are on neither a pedestal nor a chopping
»A church where learning is not subversive and science is not the enemy
»A church where fear is never an instrument of religious conversion or
»A church where the enemy is not death but rather our failure to truly
»A church where the waters of baptism, no matter how they are
administered, trap us all in the irreversible claim of God upon our lives.
»A church where being rich means having everything you need instead of
everything you want.
»A church where there is no acceptable alternative to hope, no
substitute for joy, and no excuse not to offer the same unconditional love to
others that has been so freely lavished on us.
With the Greatest of Hope!
This coming weekend, on Saturday, we will once
again be hosting a worship service and providing a meal at the Urban Mission in
Steubenville. This is a yearly tradition for us at Zion, and a wonderful
opportunity for us to live out our faith in service to others.
It's striking how many times in the Bible,
gathering together to eat dinner or a feast is used as a symbol for the beloved
community and sometimes heaven itself. One of my favorites is the parable Jesus
tells in Luke 14:15-24.
In the parable, a banquet table is set for
those who are influential and have status in the community. The table is set
and the invitations are sent to those with whom the host wanted to share. One
by one they send their regrets stating a number of reasons why they are unable
to join the guest list. “I’m just married” says one. “I have just bought a new
house”, responds another.
The table has been set, but no one shows up.
Ultimately, the invitation is sent out to the “whosevers”, the “outsiders” –
those who often get forgotten, forced-out and excluded from the tables of power
In our world today many feel forgotten,
forced-out or excluded from the tables of power and plenty. Either “they” don’t
fit, or their viewpoints are not welcomed. Race, gender, gender-identity,
status, class, physical ability, and sexual orientation are often used to
exclude and leave such folks off the invitation list.
In the parable, Jesus help us understand that
the table of invitation is set for all. The story speaks to the values of Jesus
and to the value of Zion United Church of Christ when we proclaim our
extravagant welcome of all people.
It is a welcome that must be lived out today
perhaps more than ever in a world where we witness the results of
close-mindedness, discrimination and exclusion. The lesson that Jesus teaches
the early followers was one that moved them beyond their understanding of “who
The invitation for us today is to continue to
move beyond our own individual prejudices and understandings of “who is in and
who is out” and allow the Holy Spirit to speak as we put into practice the
radical welcome of the United Church of Christ here at Zion, and in our
With the Greatest of Hope!
Pentecost is Sunday May 15. It's the day in
the church year when the church is decked out in red. It's the day when fire
and wind are common images. It's the day the church celebrates and remembers
God's gift of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. We
recall how the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of fire floating above the heads
of the disciples. We are amazed by the power of language and tongues that was
given to the disciples; and how that gift enabled the Gospel to be preached and
heard by thousands.
But, Pentecost is more than just a day, it's a
season. The season of Pentecost begins on Sunday and continues until the Sunday
before the beginning of Advent in November. It's the longest season in the
church calendar. Why? Because the gift of the Holy Spirit marked the beginning
of the church, and Holy Spirit continues to be present in the church, guiding
it and strengthening it.
The initial gift of the Holy Spirit equipped
the disciples for the sharing of the Good News. Through the power of the
Spirit, walls were broken down, people from different cultures, who spoke
different languages were united as one. In the years that followed as the
church grew from Jerusalem out across the Mediterranean people from all walks
of life, all cultures, all languages, all genders, people who had held all
sorts of differing religious perspectives, came together as the church.
Empowered and equipped by the Spirit, not only for the sharing of the Good
News, but for the continued breaking down of the barriers that divide us one
One of the truths that we in the church are
especially aware of is the central role and power of love in our lives, and in
our faith. God's love for us shown in Jesus, and our calling to love our
neighbors as ourselves. Loving is often difficult, it's tough to do it on our
own. Yet, we are not on our own. One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is
empowering us to love. When we are open to the Spirit, we are open to love.
When we open ourselves to receive God’s love, then we abide in God’s love, and
we allow God to love through us.
There is plenty of division and animosity in
our world. The wounds of exclusion run deep in our culture and in the church.
But God shows no partiality. The Holy Spirit breaks all our boundaries. In
Christ there is no slave or free, male or female, black or white, gay or
straight. All are one in Christ, and all are acceptable to God. When we follow
the lead of the Holy Spirit, we can become agents of reconciliation.
All we need is love. But we also need to be
open to the work of the Holy Spirit to help us break down the barriers and
divisions we create among ourselves. We have to be open to the dangerous,
provocative, unsettling work of the Holy Spirit. We have to be willing to be transformed.
Jesus calls us into friendship in order to bear the fruit of the work of the
Holy Spirit – to love as God loves – in order to be salt and light and to be
agents of reconciliation in our struggling world.
With the Greatest of Hope!
A few months ago, we put a
rainbow on the lectern in the sanctuary and on our church sign. I'd like to
take the opportunity to explain why.
We put the rainbow on our
sign as a declaration of welcome; yes, to the LGBT community, but that welcome
is much broader. Many folks have a story where the church has hurt them,
betrayed them, made them feel unlovable, caused them to doubt whether they are
loved by God. Single parents, divorced couples, mentally or physically disabled
folk, to name just a few have experience hurt. The damage that has been
done by churches and by people claiming to be followers of Jesus is
astronomical. And it continues.
Which is why the rainbow is
important. Because I dream of a world where no kid wonders if God loves them or
not. I dream of a world where no person shies away from a community because
they don’t know if they can be authentically themselves. I dream of a world
where we don’t have to put a rainbow on our sign as a public witness that God
unconditionally loves ALL people because it’s just a given, that of course God
I dream of that world. I
think God has been dreaming for a long time about that world. Every time I see
rainbows, I think about the covenant made to Noah, after the flood. In the
story, God hangs the rainbow in the sky and tells Noah never again will that
damage happen. From there on out, God was all in. No matter what, God promised
that nothing would come between God and people again. And that sign, that
boldly colored rainbow, would remind both God and Noah of that.
The rainbow on our lectern
and on our sign is meant to proclaim that same message. It proclaims a message
that every person (not just gay, lesbian, bi, and trans folks), needs to hear
and know: God’s church is open to all. No qualifiers. No conditions. Just come
as you are. That’s the core of what Jesus knew and taught.
Gay or straight, white or
black or brown, tall or short, fat or skinny, poor or rich, extroverted or
introverted, left-handed or right handed, child or adult, democrat or
republican, abled or disabled, whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s
journey, you are beloved, both just as you are and as who you are growing to be
day by day.
The rainbow matters to me
because it shares a message every person ought to hear: you are loved by God
and by a gathered group of Jesus following folks who strive to be bold enough,
crazy enough, to affirm and celebrate the worth of every single person.
May we ALL be bold enough
to proclaim that.
With the Greatest of Hope!
next few Sundays we will be reading from the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of
John. This is a long passage explaining that Jesus is the “Bread of Life”. This
is a sometimes difficult time for us pastors, because we are asked to preach
multiple sermons on the same subject, there is only so much that can be said.
Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be said is that bread (food in
general) is essential to life. Therefore, when we call Jesus the “Bread of
Life” we are saying that he is in some way essential.
thing about bread is that it is basic, it is physical, bread is down to earth.
It is not just “spiritual”. Jesus has come to us in the flesh, as a real human
being that walked the earth and ate bread himself. He has connected himself to
you and me and all of creation in this way.
something is essential to life, God seems to make a lot of it. For instance, we
need air and water, so God has created more than enough for everyone. We also
need food. (Yes, Jesus said we do not live by bread alone, but we also don’t
live long without it.) In the same way, God has provided more than enough food
for everyone. We need to think about this. None of us would deny allowing
another person to breathe or have a drink of water. Can we let someone go
without food when God has provided it in abundance?
August 1, a group of volunteers from Zion UCC encountered people who often go
without food when we provided a worship service and a meal at the Urban Mission
in downtown Steubenville. According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest
hunger-relief organization, there are nearly 12,000 people in Jefferson County
that are food insecure, meaning that they don’t always know where they will
find their next meal. That's 1 in 5 people! This is not just adults, there are
a large number of children that go to bed hungry every
night, and wake the next morning unsure if they will eat that day.
I hope you
can see that we are not talking about a problem that is far away. This is not a
problem caused by famine, or poor distribution, or corrupt governments. It is
caused by poverty and the cycle of poverty that hunger creates. Think about the
children: poor nutrition causes poor mental development, causes lack of energy
and poor performance at school, which causes poverty level employment. Then the
cycle begins again. We are a people that shares Jesus Christ, the Bread of
Life. We break that bread together at worship. It is essential. It is real. And
sharing our bread, our food with the hungry is not something separate or
different. It is part of that communion with Christ, with creation, with all of
With the Greatest of Hope!
people of Zion! I trust you are enjoying our summer months, even though we
would all like them to be a bit drier.
landmark ruling of the US Supreme Court on same-sex marriage announced last
month, we enter into the celebration and joy that many within the LGBT community
have sought and fought for their whole lives. We must honor the sacrifices and
pain of those who have exposed their private lives to public scrutiny and
criticism. We must also be aware of and sensitive to the pain and turmoil this
will cause for many who have a different understanding of this issue. We must
all be prepared to meet anger with love and hatred with understanding. Please
find time in your day to give thanks to God for the opportunities this decision
presents as well as the wisdom and courage we will need to embrace those who
find this decision troubling. We will still need to work for the acceptance and
belonging that all of us would claim as God’s children.
remember the words in our Open and Affirming statement: At Zion, “We extend
God's Extravagant Welcome to persons of every gender, age, race, nationality,
ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, mental and
physical ability, social and economic status, faith background, political and
theological beliefs, marital standing and family structure.” At Zion, we are a
diverse community of people, young and old, progressive and conservative. We
have found a home here because we have learned that we do not all need to agree
on everything in order to sit with
one another in the pew, lifting our voices and our prayers to God.
In the coming
weeks and months, it is likely that Zion will be asked to host weddings for gay
and lesbian couples. It is my hope and prayer that you will join me in
welcoming those couples, and celebrating with me the love they wish to declare
in our historic and beautiful church. I am not asking you to change your mind
on issues that you may find troubling, what I am asking is that you remember
that Jesus' challenge to us is to seek not to judge one another, to find ways
of including people rather than excluding them, and to love others as we
ourselves would want to be loved.
If you would
like to speak with me about this issue, or any other, please contact me. I want
to hear from you. I desire to know and understand your thoughts and positions
on this issue, as well as many others. I will be more effective in my service
for you if I know you better.
Greatest of Hope!
In the daily
“Still Speaking” UCC devotional that posted the day after Easter, Pastor Emily
Heath reminded us of something vitally important. “If you go in any kind of
store (the day after Easter), you will see that Easter is over. The plastic eggs
will be half-price, and the Easter candy will be on clearance, never to be seen
again until next February. There's just one problem with that: no matter what
the stores are saying, Easter isn't over. While Easter may have been the day of
the empty tomb, the 50 days after are just as much a time of new beginnings. We
have until Pentecost, May 24, to celebrate Easter. And beyond that, we
celebrate the new life that Easter brings.”
we celebrate the re-creation and renewal of all things at Easter, it's about
the transformation of the entire universe, not only the resurrection of Jesus
from the dead, or the opening of heaven's doors to us. When we say “I believe
in the Resurrection” we mean a bodily resurrection where heaven comes to earth
and earth is transformed. And everything we do now to participate in God’s
transformation and renewal of the world will be blessed and magnified at the
time of the Resurrection. What we celebrated on Easter morning is the
foundation for a renewed way of life in and for the world both today and in the
What can we
do? Here are some ideas for wrapping up this season of resurrection and
renewal. Offer forgiveness to someone with whom you have a long-standing
grudge. Let yourself feel forgiveness for an action that you now regret, and
for which you feel remorse. Tread a little more lightly on the earth, use less,
and be more mindful of the impact of your consumption patterns. Share a joyful
moment with a friend, show appreciation for your spouse, let a co-worker know
how much you value their contribution. Offer a prayer for peace, get involved
in political action for change, or just pick up some trash along the roadside.
Tell one of our young people that you’ve noticed their involvement in church
and that you are proud of them. Or send a note to someone whose presence in
church you’ve been missing. If you have been among the missing, realize that
you are missed.
You will be
doing your part in God’s transformation and renewal of the world. And you don’t
need to stop at Pentecost…God plans to keep this project going as long as
Greatest of Hope!
As our family
settles into life here in Ohio, I find that I am keeping my eyes open much more
so than I have in the past. I know that much of that has to do with being in
new surroundings, new neighborhoods, new stores, new streets. I want to be sure
I don't miss anything. In a few years, I'm sure I won't be looking around quite
as intensely as I am now. My awareness of seeing things more intensely now,
makes me wonder what things I missed seeing in the past because I wasn't
looking for them.
We have to develop
the eyes to see certain things. Moses saw a burning bush and turned aside, and
was rewarded with a conversation with God Almighty. But I doubt that the sight
of that bush was all that spectacular, and maybe most people would have walked
right on by…not even curious. Moses always had an eye for the sacred and was
tuned in to the God channel. That’s what made him a good messenger.
Unless you have eyes to see, unless you are
looking for something, it's easy to miss what might be right in front of you. My
guess is, if you don’t know anything about God, if you’re not on the lookout
for God, God would also be easy to miss. In the Easter story, Mary Magdalene
comes to the cemetery garden early in the morning. She meets someone who she
initially supposes to be the gardener. But then the gardener calls her by name.
As one who knew the power of Jesus’ love, had felt his special friendship, Mary
recognizes the risen Jesus. I imagine that others might have passed on by this
“gardener” and never known that the
Risen One, the Son of God, was right there in front of them.
You have to know what you are looking for if you want to
find it. Mary was the first witness to the resurrection because she had the
eyes to see. Her words ring through the ages, “I have seen the Lord.” We should
never let our familiarity with Easter
jade us to the surprise of those words. And we should never stop looking for
the Lord in new and surprising places (like a cemetery.) God always has
something new to show us, which is the power of the resurrection. Tune into the
God channel, keep your eyes peeled, and be on the lookout. Easter is breaking
out all over, with new life everywhere.
Let’s walk with our Easter eyes wide open, and bear
witness to the ways in which we see God. Embrace the new life of Easter. Be a
messenger and tell the Easter story to someone who has not seen the Lord. You
will open up to them a whole new world of new life and possibilities.
Hallelujah! Christ is Risen!
few years ago, it became popular in many churches for people to wear wristbands
with the letters 'WWJD' upon them. The letters stood for “What Would Jesus
Do?”, and were supposed to serve as a reminder to think about our actions and
words before speaking or doing. What would Jesus do in the situation if he was
in our position?
is a time in the church year when we are called to pause and reflect on our
lives. A time to pause and think about the things we have done, and still do.
Lent is when we also think about what Jesus did for us on the cross, and the
things he did amongst us as he walked the earth.
fall, the author Mick Mooney wrote a short piece as a comment on the question,
“What would Jesus do?”
upon a time, a mother made her son a wristband. On it was written: WWJD?
This, of course stood for: "What Would Jesus Do?" She instructed her
son to look at the wristband before making decisions on how to live his
week later she was shocked to see that her son had become friends with
prostitutes, was hanging out with 'sinners' -- even buying people who were
already drunk yet another round of beers!
still, he had walked into their church the previous Sunday and tore down the
book store, overturned the tables and threw the cash register through the
window, he then made a whip and chased the pastor out of the building,
declaring he was turning God's house into a den of thieves.
shocking was what happened when his mother went to picket the local abortion
clinic. To her embarrassment, her son was also there, but he was standing with
the women who just had an abortion,
and yelled at the protesters: "You, who are without sin, throw the first
mother was very distressed, but fortunately she found a solution to this
terrible problem. She made another wristband, this time it
read: WWAPD? This, she explained to her son, stood for: "What
Would A Pharisee Do?" She took the old WWJD? wristband and burned it.
her son has been wearing the new wristband, looking at it to help him make his
decisions, he has become a dedicated tither, a public prayer warrior, an active
condemner of 'sinners,' a passionate defender of the Old Covenant law, and has
a great reputation as a godly young man amongst other religious people.
to say, the mother is very happy now. She only wishes Jesus would take notice
and follow her son's good example.
During this season of Lent, may we think
about who we follow as Messiah and Savior. May we truly think about his words
and actions. Can we be honest enough with ourselves to admit that there are
times when our answer to the question of “What would Jesus do?” is actually a
better answer to the question, “What would you like Jesus to do?”
The journey of Lent is a journey of
discovery and self-discovery; a time when we come to see God in new and deeper
ways. May the God we discover be not of our own creating, but the Creator of
With the Greatest of Hope!