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Apr 13, 2015

A God Budget for Tax Day

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (Mark 12:17)

Today’s emperor is the Congress with its power of the purse and the IRS enforcing the rules. Your CPA or software tells you exactly what you owe them. They will want that this week. Paying your taxes is about paying you fair share but like with any institution federal and state budgets are mixed bags. My biggest complaint would be that we have not had a federal budget for the longest time. And even once we do everybody will find things in it they want to support. And of course you will find things that you don’t want to support. That’s all politics and politics are about the process. You don’t have to love the results but you have to honor the process. “Give to the Congress what the tax code tells you.” is Jesus’ straight-forward message.

The second part of that verse is a little more complex: “Give to God the things that are God’s.”
As a pastor I am not your spiritual bookkeeper that tells you how much you owe and there isn’t a software for that either. But I can suggest one mathematical approach nonetheless:
What do you owe God? – Everything!
In numbers that would be infinite. Because ultimately all of creation, all the blessings we receive in life are given and sustained by God. Ultimately we don’t own anything but are mere stewards in God’s vineyard. There is no hard and fast deadline for the giving Jesus is talking about here. Neither is it clear what should be included on that balance sheet. Maybe a good starting point would be to track your expenses and then as a second step you could become intentional about adjusting your “God Budget”. Here is a simple worksheet to get you started, not just financially. But please also include the time and the talents that you invest:
God Budget

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Apr 7, 2015

He washed my sins away

Sister Act film poster.jpg
Sister Act film poster” by Source. Licensed under Wikipedia.

“Oh happy day! Oh happy day! Oh happy day!
When Jesus washed, oh when he washed, he washed my sins away”
I admit it: I just love Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. When that energetic, loving nun turns around that run-down neighborhood, her songs are an inspiration. Bringing Aretha Franklin’s tune to a broader audience also helps spread the message of Easter. The lyrics really contain everything you need to know from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, from Jesus’ death on the cross to his glorious resurrection. Have you stopped humming yet?

The image of washing our sins away with Jesus’ blood is somewhat disturbing because it sounds so archaic but hey, that’s what you get for basing your faith on ancient texts like this one:
“If we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
(1 John 1:7 –Watchword for the Week of Sunday 12 April 2015)

That’s what Holy Week is all about: He washed my sins away!
And actually that extends well beyond that one special week, because I will sin over and over again and I will need cleansing over and over again. It is literally the original vicious cycle.

But not only that: The song as well as God’s purpose for us don’t stop there:
“He taught me how to watch, fight and pray, fight and pray! And living rejoicing every, everyday!”
Remember how Jesus asks the disciples to keep watch while he goes out to pray? – They keep falling asleep! They don’t fight their inner laziness and they fail to pray when it is so crucial. And rejoicing every day? – That sounds so hard because some days are just so hard to bear that nobody would want to rejoice. My hope would be that, when you have one of those days, when rejoicing sounds like too much to ask, that God may send you a sister Mary Clarence who may rock your world and teach you to sing “Oh happy day! Oh happy day! Oh happy day!”

Mar 31, 2015

Easter Eggs

firstimperialegg
Once you dye the eggs for Easter they don’t contain any cholesterol anymore, or so goes the saying, right? Well, I don’t know about the nutritional value of Easter eggs but I do no that Easter is almost the only time of the year when I eat hard boiled eggs. It’s just something I usually don’t enjoy but since it matches the season and makes sense within Christian tradition I will crack open quite a few that Easter weekend.

So why have Christians adopted the egg for Easter? – It is a dead rock that comes to life!
An egg looks a lot like a rock that could be rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb. But when you give it some time eventually it will give way to life: When that baby chick manages to get its beak through the shell, when it eventually cracks it open all the way and makes its way out: Here is you symbol for resurrection that follows a time of death in that “rock”.

Eventually people fell in love with the egg for Easter and they started making them prettier: From simple finger paint to Fabergé eggs you can spend pennies or thousands of dollars on your egg collection. That’s where things get trickier: What does that have to do with the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior? Isn’t that pure pleasure that does not match this solemn season? – Well actually, the solemn season of Lent is precisely over on Easter: For the first time since Mardi Gras, tradition allows the consumption of eggs, for the first time in seven weeks joy is the reason of celebration and chocolate eggs makes perfect sense. Christ is risen! Can you think of a greater joy? – It makes sense to take an ancient symbol and transform it into something fun, fresh, beautiful and yummy.

Mar 24, 2015

Expectation Management

The first official announcement for the 2016 presidential ticket of a major party is now on the books. Campaign season has officially begun. And like always we will hear a whole slate of people announcing their candidacy for their party ticket. And every single one of them will promise to do better than anyone else. They may promise to do away with whatever a predecessor may have done or they may promise to continue down the same path. “With me things are going to get a lot better.” They all have to say something to that effect because in the highest government executive office, we the people want someone who can get things done.

Israel had a lot of expectations for their new leader as well. For generations the land had been occupied by the Romans. There had always been revolts trying to cast off that yoke. Uprisings were commonplace and there was a lot of hope that some day a great strong leader may emerge and kick out the Romans once and for all. Somebody yelling: “With me things are going to get a lot better.” A strong leader who can get things done, who can fight and win our wars and restore liberty and justice for all. Maybe this concept of ancient Israel still applies today: Candidates still want to be the Messiah who saves the day. That’s why they promise heaven on earth if you just vote for them.

Well, here is what happened back then: Jesus was nominated to be the new king of the Jews. The media of the day had high expectations of this new and upcoming star. They wanted him to be the mighty warrior to restore King David’s Empire. They wanted him to lead the people into battle and free Jerusalem and restore Israel’s independence. News reports came in that he may join the Passover festivities in the capital this year. So reporters lined up along the main drag that led into town, vendors set up their booths with fan memorabilia, excitement was building. The people got curious: What’s going on? Who’s coming? What is this all about? Oh – a rally against the Romans? – Sign me up! Finally his presence was announced: Jesus has entered the final stretch and will be visible soon! What’s he gonna look like? Heavy armor? A mighty horse? Troops following behind him, well trained and equipped to march into the fight? Maybe even before the festival is over? Can he get this done swiftly and forcefully? Go Jesus! Go Jesus! Go Jesus!

Then he turns around the corner so everybody can see him in all his glory – sitting on a donkey!? And all of a sudden everybody starts realizing that their expectations had been off. When King David sent his son Solomon to his accession to the throne he had him ride on a donkey (1 Kings 1:33): No war machine, no military parade. The king of the Jews has always been a king of humility. What if our 2016 candidates announced like that: “Don’t expect too much from me. I’m not bringing anything special to the table. Things will not get a lot better because of me. I would just like to play my part in the system.”

What if we would manage our exceptions in a way that would enable us to live the life we have?
What if would would hope for fulfillment in our current situation without radical transformation?
What is life weren’t always all exciting but sometimes just hard work that never seems to end?
Because let’s not forget that the same crowd that yells “Hosannah!” today is bound to yell “Crucify him!” in just a little while.

Mar 17, 2015

A Celebration of Individualism

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
(Psalm 51:10 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 22 March 2015)

Me, me, and me! Unapologetically me! The Psalmist is not afraid in just one verse to three times refer to himself. He doesn’t care about the interconncetedness of all beings. He’s not worried about the state of the church or the state of the nation. He doesn’t want to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, or to care for the widow, or the alien or the orphan. He prays for his own benefit. He doesn’t ask for kingdom come and thy will be done, no, it’s all about me, myself, and I!

That’s where religion takes place: In an individual’s heart. It’s a place where God has spoken from the beginning. Individualism is not a bad thing. God calls prophets and apostles, not committees and representatives. No corporation, no institution, no state, no church, can live if it does not have individuals that take care of the logs in their own eyes before getting into everybody else’s business. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” also means: I am in desperate need of cleaning because it’s not pretty in there. Give me a fresh start this Lent – like a spiritual spring cleaning.

Sometimes the shortest word in a verse has the biggest impact. Here it is certainly the humble a: “put a new and right spirit within me.” It implies that there is a multitude of new and right spirits to be had. For me, I need only one of those for myself. My way is not the highway and if I think my path is the straight and narrow I can be certain that the God of hosts has a host of other paths that are just as viable. The me right next to me, the me across the street or on the other side of the globe has their own journey just as I do.

Mar 10, 2015

That’s Not Fair

A conversation based on John 3:16-17 and written by Rosemary Broadstock and Ann Scull.
john316cross

A: ‘For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everybody who believes in him may not die but have eternal life’.
B: But that’s not fair!!! What about the likes of Hitler and Stalin – the people who start terrible wars and cause the death of millions of innocent people and cause the destruction of whole countries which take decades to rebuild.
A: But God has shown us how much he loves us – it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.
B: But that’s not fair either!!! Does that include the people who dominate powerless people? What about those who rip off the system and make us all pay more? What about people who are cruel?
A: This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.
B: Hey, come on, this really isn’t fair!! That can’t possibly include the thieves and the murderers, the people in our jails, the criminals, the liars and the cheats, the ones who abandon and mistreat their children and families, the ones who fight and drink too much.
A: Absolutely nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.
B: But its still not fair!!!! What about the people who are self satisfied and thoughtless? What about those who gossip and are jealous, the ones who are selfish and lack compassion, the ones who break promises, the ones who are always critical, the ones who carelessly hurt other people’s feelings….. Come to think of it – it’s all of us really, isn’t it?
A: This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.

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Mar 3, 2015

The Foolishness of the Cross

“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.”
(1 Corinthians 1:18 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 8 March 2015)

There are so many spots in my life that are marked with the sign of the cross.
Let me share with y’all what some of them are about:

When she first saw me in the uniform of an Army Chaplain my mother started crying. Yes, of course there was this whole “my son is a Soldier” thing but what disturbed her most was the cross on my chest. The love of God and a combat uniform do not naturally go together. The Army Chaplain Branch Cross is one of five insignia besides the Jewish tabloids, the Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel of life and the Hindu ”Om” syllable. They tell Soldiers where their Chaplains are coming from not where they are taking them. Luckily my mom understands that the love of God is greater than all religious distinctions and Christ has called me to be a servant to all.

Whenever our family has moved we have posted a cross over our front-door. You may call it a talisman or good luck charm. I think of it as a blessing of our home and everybody who lives and visits in it. A symbol of Christ’s presence. Maybe not so much through the symbol of the cross itself but very much so by the spirit which we strive to live. The crosses we have used over our doorposts over the years have always been very modest you may even say tiny. That way they have also been great reminders of humility. I wish the cross were used that way more often. Around Houston highways crosses are being abused as symbols of power and dominance towering up to 200 feet tall. The “emblem of suffering and shame” should not be used as a phallic symbol that strives to be bigger and stronger than everybody else.

The roadside crosses that I respect are the ones that remind us of our mortality. After the deadly crash of a loved one family and friends sometimes try to keep the memory alive at the scene of death – with a cross and candles or flowers. By that not only do they support their own grief process but they also help others in a similar situation. Driving past such a memorial site can work like a support group: I am not alone in my mourning. And on a pragmatic note it warns all motorists: A deadly crash happened here. This spot may require more attention and lower speeds. The cross gets that across more powerfully to me than any speed limit sign could.

In the parish hall at St. John’s United Church of Christ we have close to one hundred crosses on the wall. No, this is not bragging by numbers. This is a sign of diversity. Not two are the same. They are kids crafts, cowboy scenes, crucifixes, clothespins, artsy, rustic, kitsch and ancient, you name it, we got it. The blessing here is in the variety of the multitude. There is not the one correct cross. Our journeys are all different, our approaches to Jesus’ suffering and the season of Lent are all different. What is your cross style?

Feb 25, 2015

Intergenerational Covenant


It’s a great thing to be in a covenant with God. Over thousands of years biblical authors have painted the most wonderful pictures of what that means: blessing, wealth, love, health, peace, power, forgiveness, eternal life, whatever you may hope for in heaven and on earth, it has probably been spelled out as part of God’s covenant with us somewhere. Like when God promised to Abram:
“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
(Genesis 17:7 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 1 March 2015)

Sunday’s Watchword adds an important twist though: God’s covenant is not only with you in the present generation but also “your offspring after you throughout their generations”. That is a challenge because it means that it is our responsibility to preserve the blessings that God provided us with for future generations. And we have to look at this in all aspects of our lives. All to often grown-ups say: “Children are the future” where in reality that is a distraction from our responsibility today. There are also passages where curses are handed down from generation to generation: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,” (Exodus 20:5)

How can we live here today and make sure that our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and their children inherit a world that is full of more blessings than ours has ever been? What can we do to preserve our social programs in a way that they are funded for generations to come? Are we making sure that we don’t leave our kids with generational debt that they need to pay on our behalf? Do we leave behind a world that is fun to live in with a sea to swim in, woods and fields to play in, air to breath and water to drink? Do we create a thriving church that inspires generation after generation? God’s covenant is for all generations. We need to keep our end of the bargain.

Feb 17, 2015

Ash Wednesday in a Protestant Church, really?


I grew up in a largely Catholic area in Germany. Cologne Cathedral has served the area since the 4th century. So as the Reformation came around in the 16th century Protestants needed to be different. We have gone along with the carnival season from November 11th to Ash Wednesday because we like a good mardi gras celebration with parades and floats and a lot of partying. But then when Ash Wednesday comes around you can still tell Catholics from Protestants because overwhelmingly we will stay away from that fasting thing.

For me that changed somewhat when we moved to Utah. In a community where 93% of the population are Mormon the liturgical roots of our tradition helped me to retain and strengthen my identity. My UCC congregation worked regularly with the Episcopal Church across the street to keep ourselves rooted in the desert. And I got my Catholic fix out of our joint Ash Wednesday services. Now in Rosenberg, Texas, at St. John’s UCC we have our own Ash Wednesday service – no Episcopal priest to impose the Ashes but it will be my turn tomorrow. That to me is a double-edged sword since the most disturbing thing about Catholicism for me is the role of the priesthood. The guy imposing the ashes seems so removed from the sinners who receive it. That just feels so wrong since our tradition puts a big emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. So I am very excited that I get to juggle that tension tomorrow.

The good news is that the whole ash thing at its core uses a scriptural foundation that fits well into the Protestant spirit:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19)
God is quoted saying that to Adam and Eve after the scene with the forbidden fruit. Basically they are reminded of their limitations. That applies to all of us who were born to a human mother: Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Priests, All Believers, oh yes, we are all sinners alike!

Feb 10, 2015

The thing with traditions – presidential or otherwise


Going back and remembering presidents past is a good thing: It keeps us rooted. We do that within our families all the time: Remember the hero that grandpa was, take grandma’s sacrifice as an example. But also: Don’t be a drunk like auntie Paige or a playboy like uncle Bob. We remember presidents for their greatest and their worst hours:

George Washington as the founder of the nation and first president will obviously get a lot of credit for all he did. And when we worship heroes like that we tend to overlook their human weaknesses: George Washington was known to complain that his pay was not sufficient to cover the expenses of his household and at times he even had to pay expenses out of pocket. His $25,000 in 1789 equal $650,000 in today’s dollars after inflation. Since 2001 presidents have only made $400,000. Looks like the father of the nation did not have his personal budget under control.

Many stories that we tell about ourselves tie us to heroes of the past: How we grow up to imitate all the great things our parents have done for us or how we start a family tradition totally opposite of our upbringing. We have to connect to the past one way or the other. The same thing is true for Jesus. The Gospels would not just have him show up and do his preaching-teaching-healing thing. They have to explain his authority, to give him a rightful place in the life and faith of God’s people. That’s what Transfiguration Sunday is all about:
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” (Mark 9:2-8)

Jesus is nobody unless he has the authority of a prophet like Moses. No presidential candidate can make it to the White House without tipping their hat to one who has gone before them. None of us can live happy lives without an understanding of how our family tradition and history have affected us for better and worse. None of us are perfect, ancestors and presidents included.

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