The Old Testament Book of Isaiah had multiple authors and
was written over hundreds of years. Some parts go all the way back to
the 8th century B.C. when Assyria dominated the Middle East,
The most recent bully of the middle east had been Babylon. In 587 B.C., the
Babylonian army swept through Jerusalem. The brutality, the suffering, the loss of life was terrible. And it didn’t end for the Jews when the battle was lost. In an ancient version of ethnic cleansing, the Babylonians force-marched the Jews back to Babylon for a life in captivity and economic subjugation. It’s all well-documented in the Old Testament. One verse poignantly reads: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, as we remembered Jerusalem.”
The Jews’ answer to prayer came 50 years later when the Babylonian Empire fell to King Cyrus of Persia. Within days, the new King issued an “executive order” setting all the slaves free; telling the Jews to go home, to return to their historic and spiritual homeland. And home they went, telling everyone that King Cyrus was God’s agent of deliverance.
At first, for awhile, life back in Jerusalem was just a big party. Like a gigantic family reunion. But soon enough, reality began to set in. They began to realize the enormity of the tasks before them: rebuilding infrastructure; restoring institutions, reclaiming the good things about their history prior to the Babylonian exile. Restoration was a HUGE task. And it wasn’t easy.
Within decades issues arose. Imagine this: there was hypocrisy in organized religion, evidence of political corruption, and systemic injustice in the culture. In Isaiah’s language, darkness re-emerged — threatening the nation’s sustainability — just like the bad old days before the Babylonians invaded.
But on the surface, everything looked great. If you just took into account the standard measures of church vitality, you could conclude that Isaiah didn’t realize how good he had it. His people could hardly wait to get out of bed on the Sabbath and come to church. In Isaiah’s day, going to church on the Sabbath was the thing to do. In Isaiah’s day, at the Temple in Jerusalem, it was standing room only. They sang psalms — mostly old ones, occasionally a new one. They prayed, they gave their offerings. They were faithful to all the trappings of their religion.
BUT, God says, they never made the connections between their religion and their daily lives. Their religious practices were less than “skin” deep! They were sinking back into their old patterns. God says to Isaiah, tell them they are a bunch of hypocrites. Tell them their country is going to hell. Perhaps Isaiah was an “Interim” prophet!
It may have been a new day in Israel, but the people and the nation were afflicted by the same old sins… greed, violence, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, and, economic exploitation of the rest.
Same sins, same remedies offered by God’s prophets in every era. And just showing up for church won’t save your hide. On God’s behalf, Isaiah told anyone willing to listen: Here’s how God wants to clean up this mess….
Turn toward God! Turn away from your idols, your addictions, your sins. Center your life in God. Not just the morning of the Sabbath, but every day. This is how I will know that you’re on my team, says God. You’ll live lives of compassion. You’ll work for social justice. Let freedom ring! Give everyone a chance. Take care of the vulnerable. Be kind to the hurting…
If you do these things… your light will shine in the darkness. The world will be a better place. People will know that you are mine. The Kingdom of God will be here, on earth. And you and your nation will be so blessed!
Excerpt from Hal Murry’s Sermon on 2/5/17, based on Isaiah 58:1-12
As a young adult, I must have watched journalist Bill Moyers’ 6-part series of 90 minute television interviews with Joseph Campbell a half a dozen times. That’s a LOT of TV, not to mention the snacks!
For some years every fund raiser for our local PBS station in Columbus, Ohio, featured those interviews. And so year after year, I was re-hooked.
Joseph Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and in his day was one of the world’s premier authorities on comparative mythology and religion. He did groundbreaking research to identify archetypal stories found in cultures around the world. And despite today’s emphasis on differences and divisions, Campbell’s work showed that the foundational stories of most of the world’s cultures have much in common.
In his best known book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he discusses the spiritual journey of the archetypal hero found in many of the world’s religions.
Campbell observes that typically, in the lives of religious heroes, there occurs a clearly demarcated “beginning moment” which Campbell refers to as a “Call to Adventure.” He writes, “Everything changes from that moment. Destiny summons the hero and deepens his spiritual center of gravity. He begins to call others to join him.”
Just such a moment, just such a “Call To Adventure” occurs for Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel of Mark. Mark dates the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry to the arrest of his spiritual mentor John the Baptist. Only after John had been arrested, did Jesus then emerge over a hundred miles away, up north in the territory of Galilee, where he began proclaiming “the Kingdom of God.”
In Mark, the first time Jesus speaks is in Chapter 1, verse 15. It’s been called Jesus’ “inaugural address”, because in it, he proclaims the central message of his ministry. In just a single verse, he summarizes the heart of the Christian message, and sets the stage for all of his ministry that follows.
“NOW is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” — Mark 1:15
Some members and friends of Westminster have expressed curiosity about the decision-making process for weather-related cancellations of Sunday worship. Recently, the writer of Hotline (Hal Murry) sat down for an interview with Westminster’s Interim Pastor (also Hal Murry) to learn about the cancellation process.
Editor: How frequently is Sunday worship canceled at Westminster?
Pastor: Not often. Since 2010, the average has been once-a-winter. There have been two winters when worship was canceled twice and two when there were no cancellations.
Editor: Who makes the decision? Is there a special Weather Task Force or an exclusive committee of weather scientists and highway engineers that meets to gather data and discern weather patterns? Do we consult with other churches?
Pastor: No, it’s just me.
Editor: Do you feel burdened by this responsibility?
Pastor: It is a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
Editor: How do you make the decision to cancel?
Pastor: I use simple and consistent criteria. If the National Weather Service has issued a Blizzard, Winter Storm or Ice Storm WARNING effective during our time of worship, I cancel.
Editor: Simple as that?
Pastor: I don’t lose sleep over this and I don’t try to outguess the National Weather Service.
Editor: How about a Winter Storm “Watch” or a Winter Weather “Advisory” or a Wind Chill “Advisory”? Will you cancel for them?
Pastor: No, no and no. But that doesn’t mean everyone should try to make it to church on those days. The highest priority is to be safe. We don’t want to lose ANY Presbyterians on the highway!
Editor: How about a Wind Chill Warning?
Pastor: I don’t cancel for cold, as long as the church is heated. Again, that doesn’t mean that everyone should be out in that weather.
Editor: What makes Winter Storm, Blizzard and Ice Storm WARNINGS so special?
Pastor: Because when those warnings are in effect, the Weather Service advises only emergency travel. And I don’t consider going to church to worship to be an emergency.
Editor: What if there is a budget shortfall, would you still cancel?
Pastor: Yes. Anyone who wishes may mail in their offering or bring it next week.
Editor: What if the Weather Service is wrong?
Pastor: Give thanks to God and enjoy the “day off.” We’re all about forgiveness.
Editor: How do you get word of cancellations out?
Pastor: We send a mass email; we put it on the church website and Facebook page; and we tell local media outlets, though some aren’t well-staffed on Sunday mornings. We try to get the word out as early as possible to prevent any unnecessary travel.
Editor: Do you sleep in when worship is canceled?
Pastor: Depends. Sometimes I watch TV or read the paper. Often I’m shoveling my driveway. After that I drink hot chocolate.
From Hal Murry’s Sermon “Intervention”
November 27, 2016
Most of you have lived long enough to know that there have been occasions in history when the institutional church has failed to hear God’s voice — has been unable to proclaim God’s word. Most of these “catastrophic failures” — allying with Hitler in Nazi Germany, support for the institution of slavery in America, providing theological justification for apartheid in South Africa, to name just three of many — most of these “catastrophic failures” involve both a loss of vision and a loss of courage. But always, always, when the church fails God, God finds other ways to communicate. Oh, to be sure, the church keeps talking, but God’s people lose interest. Hope is found on the margins. In the midst of injustice, violence and political demagoguery, when even the church has been compromised, spiritual people look to the margins for a word from God. Time and again, it’s been someone from the margins — outside of political power; outside of religious leadership, who rises up to speak for God– who articulates God’s vision; who embodies God’s character. We call these people “prophets.” In their lifetimes, they’re hard to take. Because they are edgy and driven, never satisfied. Impatient. Even angry. Once their message catches on, they are viewed as a threat by the “establishment.” The “establishment” always benefits the few at the expense of the many. And prophets remind us THAT is NOT God’s vision for the world. And then, typically, once we’ve killed them, we think about what they said, we remember what they did, and then we realize it was God who was in them. It was God working through them to make the world a better place. It was God in them calling us to be transformed, for God’s sake. Jesus of Nazareth had his first recorded experience of God while listening to just such a prophet. Around the age of 30, Jesus left his family, his business, his hometown. He walked miles to join a protest and spiritual renewal movement being led by the controversial John the Baptist. At one point, Jesus stepped forward, with scores of others, to receive John’s baptism in the Jordan River. His experience of God in that moment propelled him into his own ministries of teaching and preaching and healing. Months later, on receiving news of his spiritual mentor’s execution, Jesus said this about John the Baptist: “I assure you that no one who has ever been born, is greater than John the Baptist.” Then Jesus withdrew to a deserted place to be alone.
Two Prayers for Election Day
Under your law we live, great God,
and by your will we govern ourselves.
Help us as good citizens
to respect neighbors whose views differ from ours,
so that without partisan anger,
we may work out issues that divide us,
and elect candidates to serve the common good;
through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.
— from Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 732
Lord, keep this nation under your care.
Bless the leaders of our land,
that we may be a people at peace among ourselves
and a blessing to other nations of the earth.
Help us elect trustworthy leaders,
contribute to wise decisions for the common good,
and thus serve you faithfully in our generation,
to the honor of your holy name;
through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.
— from Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 745
Back in 2007, someone sent me a clipping from the Chicago Tribune to “put in your stewardship file.” It’s been patiently waiting there to be used at an opportune time. My sense is that time is now with the Chicago Cubs moving forward in the baseball playoffs and Cubs fans everywhere celebrating. The clipping is from a Tribune interview with Cubs Manager Lou Pinella, whose team on June 23, 2007, had a losing record and was eight games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs had just lost another tough one to the Texas Rangers and the press found Lou to be in a reflective mood after the game. He said: “Being the manager is not an easy job. I’ve learned a lot… Obviously you’re going to get frustrated at times — but we have a good chance to get better. And you know what?” There’s nothing wrong with going to church and putting a little more in the collection box.” Thus ends the “lesson from Lou!” The Cubs surprised everyone and went on to become National League Central Division Champions that year. Perhaps a little more in the offering plate just might help YOUR team’s win-loss record, and who knows what else? We know it will help your church!
“Praise God with the Loot (lute)!” is our Stewardship Theme this year. Stewardship Sunday is October 23rd. We hope that all Westminster members and friends will be present at worship that day to estimate their level of financial support for the church in 2017. A free Fellowship Brunch for all follows worship. Brunch reservations will be received during worship on October 9 and 16. — Hal Murry
During August our leading candidates for President of the United States both released their economic plans. Reactions to those plans followed predictable political fault lines.
Economic plans seem especially important in this election year because of the well-documented and widening “wealth-gap” in America. Huge majorities of Americans in both political parties think moneyed interests have too much power in setting public policy. Fed Chair Janet Yellin told Congress: “There is no question that we have a trend toward growing inequality. This trend can shape the ability of different groups to participate equally in our democracy and have grave effects on social stability over time.”
A recent study by researchers at Princeton and Northwestern Universities concludes that government policies reflect the desires of the wealthy and that the vast majority of American citizens have a “minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy. When even a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, the majority generally loses.”
Our social scientists tell us that most of the people in the world who live in poverty (and that would be MOST of the people) are not poor because they aren’t willing to work hard. They are poor because of systemic factors largely or completely beyond their control, including the way that particular economic systems operate.
Ever since large-scale concentrations of population began about five thousand years ago, the powerful and wealthy have consistently set up economic systems primarily to serve their own self-interests. Surprise! Surprise!
Much of the Bible, including the Old Testament, is a critique, in the name of God, of unjust economic systems. In fact if you take the Bible as a whole, economic injustice and war are the two primary sources of unnecessary human misery.
God’s vision, over against our economic systems, is for a world in which everyone has enough of the basic necessities of life, and no one has to live in fear of violence.
So be aware, politicians. And be assured voters. Our leaders may assume they work for the rich and powerful, but Amos says ultimately they are accountable to God. God’s “plumb line” in the book of Amos is economic justice (see Amos 7:7-17). Systemic injustice justified by wrong-headed religion is like faulty construction. It can’t last. So it’s got to come down. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” — Amos 5:24
Note: Hal Murry’s sermons during August were based on passages from Old Testament prophets
Amos and Hosea. Here is an excerpt from 8/14/16.
Tension and violence between people of different races and religions and nationalities and genders is nothing new. Every group in every age identifies its enemies. In the Jewish homeland, in Jesus’ day, the occupying Romans were relatively “new” enemies in terms of history. Much longer standing, by nearly a thousand years, was the estrangement that existed between descendants of the same ancestors: the Samaritans from the north and the Jews from the South.
By the first century, these differences had hardened into ethnic, political and religious animosity.
For us, the terms “good” and “Samaritan” fit together — sound natural. We call someone who does a favor a “good Samaritan.” We’ve even established laws that protect “good Samaritans” whose intent in the midst of a crisis is to be helpful, even if the outcome is not always positive.
But in Jesus day, most observant Jews did not connect the words “good” and “Samaritan.” Heretical, unclean half-breeds would have been a more likely characterization.
Just listen to the tension between Jews and Samaritans in this example from earlier in the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him, because Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to his disciples, and then they went on to another village.”
The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived during the time of Jesus, tells of an even more lethal incident. He writes: “A great number of Jewish pilgrims were passing through Samaria on their way south to Jerusalem when a certain Galilean was slain… When the story reached Jerusalem, it put the multitude into disorder. They left the religious feast and without any generals to conduct them, they marched with great violence to Samaria.”
The situation became so serious that the Syrian governor had to intervene with the Roman legion. They started with crucifixions and beheadings, and finished by sending the most eminent Jewish and Samaritan leaders for trial before Caesar.
Later, John put it succinctly in his Gospel, Chapter 4, verse 9: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
What was Jesus’ response to this cultural, societal tension so prevalent in his world? We know this: when Jesus had something important to say about God and the Kingdom of God, he would tell a story.
He told his stories in lively, interactive settings, not exactly like traditional Presbyterian worship. There is every reason to believe that the stories went on and on with people laughing and hooting and shouting back and cheering and booing. His stories were told and retold, and in an ancient way, went viral!
And his stories always packed a punch. Sometimes his own disciples were left stunned and confused. His parables always challenged conventional thinking. One of my favorite teachers says a parable by Jesus is like a tiny pin laying next to a giant balloon. (Excerpt from Hal Murry’s Sermon, “Unlikely Hero”. For more, see Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan).
During his lifetime, Jesus was known primarily as a healer and exorcist. People flocked to him, drawn by his wonder-working reputation, as the gospels report again and again: “They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered together outside the door. (Mark 1) By admiring followers and skeptical foes alike, Jesus was seen as a holy man with healing powers.
Belief in demons (or “unclean spirits”) is well documented in the Jewish literature of Jesus’ time. Belief in demons was widespread among other peoples as well.
Exorcism is the expulsion of the evil spirit, driving it out of the person and ending its “possession” or “ownership” of that person. In the ancient world, this could be accomplished only with the help of a superior spirit which overpowered the evil spirit.
As an exorcist, Jesus drove demons or evil spirits out of many possessed people. The gospels contain several extended accounts of particular exorcisms and a number of sayings referring to the practice. The gospels also speak of exorcists other than Jesus. There were Pharisees who were exorcists. There is an unnamed exorcist who expelled demons in Jesus’ name even though he was not a follower of Jesus, and Jesus’ own disciples performed exorcisms.
Unless you’re a fan of a certain genre of horror movies, exorcism is alien to us in the modern world because the notion of “possession” by a demon or a spirit from another level of reality does not fit into our worldview. Within the framework of our worldview, we are inclined to see “demon possession” as a primitive, pre-scientific diagnosis of a condition which must have another explanation. Most likely we would see it as a psychopathological condition.
However, all the “demons” that Jesus confronts have three things in common: they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim; the victim feels trapped in that condition, and they separate the victim from normal participation in family and community life. In the Gospels, demons are forces that capture people and keep them from becoming what God intends us to be. By these criteria, most of us know and love someone who struggles with “demons”. And despite our sophistication, and pharmaceuticals and all the knowledge we have gained, many of us still believe that spiritual power is one necessary ingredient in the overcoming the “demon” of addiction, to name one example.
This is the key to the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose “twelve steps to healing” begins with these three:
1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.
The Gospel writers want us to know this about Jesus: he is more powerful than any of our “demons”. After healing the tormented Gerasene demoniac, Jesus told his disciples: “If I throw out demons by the power of God, then God’s kingdom has already come.”
— excerpt from Hal Murry’s Sermon: “Overcoming Demons”, 6/19/16 —