Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Songs of Israel: A People of the Covenant

The Songs of Israel: A People of the Covenant
Psalm 89: 1-6; 28-30; 34-37
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
July 24, 2011

One of the words that is used in the Bible is the word covenant.

In form, a covenant is an agreement between two people and involves promises on the part of each to the other. The concept of a covenant between God and His people is one of the central themes of the Bible. In the Biblical sense, a covenant implies much more than a contract or a simple agreement between two parties. The Biblical notion of covenant is amazingly profound.

Psalm 89, the Psalm we look at today is very long. One of it’s most common themes, however, is celebrating the concept of covenant, a covenant that exists between God and people, and people to people.

The first thing I want to look at is the covenant between God and people. In terms of covenant, in the Bible, there are numerous ‘little’ covenants made between God and people. There are, however, three really large, over-arching covenants.

The first is a covenant of identity. It is made between God and Abraham and is quite simply, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It is a simple identification that there is the God of Israel and a people who are committed to God.

The second covenant is a covenant of law. It is made between God and Moses and builds on the first covenant. It embraces the identity of God and people, but now adds the Law. As a people of God, living within the parameters of the Law is the way of showing faithfulness unto God.

The third covenant is a covenant of grace that came in the person of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It is the new and everlasting covenant and one we live in right now.

The Psalmist reminds us, over and over again, about the steadfastness of God. God keeps the covenant. God is our God and we are God’s people. God has given us parameters that not only demonstrate not only an obedience with God, but an ability to live in harmony with one another; and God has sent Jesus to save us because we fall short of God’s glory.

The covenant reminds us that living out covenant keeps us connected to God in special ways.

The second thing is the covenant we have with one another and I want to specifically talk about us as a church within the United Church of Christ.

As a church within the United Church of Christ, we are a church that has a special connection to the word and concept of covenant. The United Church of Christ is not a denomination built on being theologically doctrinaire ideals, but on a mutual covenant to walk together in faith not fighting over diversity and differences, but embracing them.

We are a very unusual denomination.

I was thinking the other day about the United Church of Christ, a denomination I serve as a minister and love deeply and something struck me. Before I tell you what struck me, please know you may need to stretch your theological imagination to keep up with me on this one. It is a stretch, but please hang in there with me because you hopefully will see the connection.

In 1978 a classic movie was released and it remains a classic movie. The movie was Animal House, and at its core, it was a movie that spoke of an intense rivalry between two fraternities and the mind set of the two groups. The conflict was between Omega House and Delta House.

It really, to me, in my admittedly strange view of the world, speaks of differing theological world views, one that is rigid and unbending, and one that speaks of connection to others as paramount.

The United Church of Christ is often the Delta House of denominations. I say this with a huge asterisk attached. We are not a place of drunken parties or of decadence and depravity not do we promote that in the least, though, in all honesty, the toga party idea sounds good...

But there are a couple of underlying things that were actually very interesting that were pointed out in the movie.

The first was the initiation process. Omega House had an ultra formal, rigid, and even painful and humiliating initiation that demanded the complete submission of its new members with an acknowledgment that there were people in charge, and others had little to no voice. At Delta House, they welcome their new people into their family, warts and all.

The second was, to me, something that very much describes us. One of the people in Delta House referred to his ancestors and the people in the room and said, “Our ancestors were thrown out of some of the finest nations in Europe.” Many of you have heard my semi-joke when I say, “Our members have been thrown out of some of the finest churches in town.”

We, in many ways, demonstrate there is more than a little truth to this. Many of us were raised in other traditions and many of us really could not go back into those traditions with great ease and or acceptance. Many of the traditions were grand and good in so many ways----but life has brought us to different places and we may or may not be welcomed back.

Except we are welcome here.

I was struck last week reading and seeing things about Holy Communion. I recognize that the average person does not read article on the Internet about such subjects, but I do. I found a contrast.

One denomination was concerned that reverence was being lost with how people participated in Holy Communion and who was welcome at the table. Clergy were being encouraged to vigorously defend the Table of the Lord so that people would not treat the Table of the Lord casually and the wrong people did not come.

On the other hand, the United Church of Christ has a video online that was called Flash Mob Eucharist. Flash mobs are those groups we see sing or dance or perform a scene from a play in the middle of malls, train stations, or what have you. In this, at the recent General Synod, there was a flash mob that celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Communion and assured EVERYONE they were welcome.

And it reminded me of the initiation in Animal House, living by rules, or by love and an embrace of one another.

To me, this is what covenant is all about, for us. It is an embrace of one another, everyone of God’s people as brothers and sisters.

I read a lot of religious blogs all written by Christians. The vast majority of them are about how to be stricter, harsher, and, frankly, more exclusive as Christians. I doubt the desire is to intentionally drive people away as much as it is to get people to conform, but the result us usually the same. We, as Christians, do have the ability to drive people away and it’s often because we want them to conform.

What struck me is that the problem is never God in covenant with God that is the problem. Sometimes it’s our ability to covenant with God that is the problem; but the biggest problem we have is our covenant with one another. So let us strive to be faithful not only to God and each other; let us strive to not only be steadfast to God, but to one another. And let us embrace one another and every single one of God’s people as our brothers and sisters.

Toga parties are optional.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Extremism and Terrorism

As I have watched the news stories come out of Norway they are speaking over and over again about the extremism of Anders Behring Breivik who is responsible for murdering over 90 people. The damage and death toll with the bomb was seven. At the summer camp 85 children and youth were murdered in cold blood. Early reports are saying he is a right winged extremist who wanted to destroy government buildings and kill people in the Labor Party in the city, and he murdered the children and youth at the summer camp as this was a camp sponsored by the Labor Party.

His ideology is really of little consequence to me. I know nothing about politics in Norway and his disagreements are not fodder for discussion now. He murdered at least 92 people and that’s all that really matters.

When Timothy McVeigh murdered so many people in Oklahoma City he was also referred to as a right winged extremist. Again, ultimately, his ideology was not fodder for discussion. He was a murderer and died for his crimes in 2001. Even people like me, who really disagrees with the death penalty, could muster little opposition to his death. He was, in so many ways, a walking argument for the death penalty.

Something was striking about McVeigh when they captured him. I don’t know if this will be true about Breivik, but it sounds like it might be. McVeigh was not crazy. He was a true believer in his cause and believed that people had to die and a violent war had to be waged. He saw himself as a soldier for what was right. The fact that he chose to make war on innocent people made little difference to him. His extreme views were, in his mind, principles that allowed him, even compelled him to commit violence.

Over the years these people have come out of the woodwork and committed grave acts of violence. There have been left winged extremists who have killed and right winged extremists who have killed. And, over the years, many have attempted to justify the actions because they are for the ‘cause,’ and there were issues...


The actions of McVeigh and Breivik are much like the acts of the people who bombed the World Trade Center or put road side bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. We call those people terrorists. And they are. But so people like McVeigh and Breivik. There is no cause that justifies acts of terrorism. None.

We need to stop referring to these people extremists. It gives others an idea that these people are justified. They are not justified. We all know that. We all accept that. No matter how fervent people may be about their political beliefs, it is a very, very rare individual who is willing to kill others to put their view forward. For this we can be thankful.

But frankly, we need to stop calling these terrorists extremists. Their ‘extreme’ views are of little consequence. And act of terror is an act of terror and it should be called for what it is.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Random Thoughts

Wow. Brinksmanship is alive and well. There is the debt ceiling debate which is being played out to the final seconds; the NFL labor dispute is being played out to the final seconds. The NBA has a lock out and they probably won't even negotiate a settlement to the final seconds. Do good decisions ever get made as the result of brinksmanship?

Justin Rigali, the Cardinal/Archbishop of Philadelphia is resigning amidst numerous sexual abuse scandals in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Some of these Bishops really need to be criminally charged for covering up the crimes that were overlooked, covered up, or ignored. It's tragic when people are abused by clergy. Beyond tragic, really.

The women's soccer team should make us all proud. They probably inspired more people to sit down and watch a soccer game, in the United States, than ever before. Getting into the final game was amazing. And, hat's off to the young woman who was the goalie for Japan. She was outstanding and probably one of the biggest difference makers in the game.

It's probably not a great time to own News Corp. stock...

I think the Mets should trade Reyes to the Red Sox for some top flight minor league talent. They can either trade him to the Sox this year and get something back, or he'll sign with the Yankees as a free agent next year. The only NY hat he should ever wear is the Mets' cap.

Ever want some interesting reading, check out the Fox News website and compare it to the MSNBC website. They are diametrically opposite of one another. For all the abuse CNN takes, their website is dedicated to, ahem, news. The other two are busily doing their own thing. Any semblance to news either of them have is strictly because they had to include a couple of facts before spinning them.

Recently the United Church of Christ General Synod was held in Florida and it looks like it was an amazing event that I regret not having been at. We have a 2030 group of clergy, the younger clergy, who are really dynamic and amazing. It makes me wish I was that young again! We have a very cool denomination. We have a long history and tradition, but it's great to be part of a church that thinks beyond our own prejudices of here and now.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Songs of Israel: Seeking Forgiveness from God
Text: Psalm 51
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
July 17, 2011

Rev. Michael G. Clark is a Lutheran Minister in Wichita, Kansas. Some years ago I saw him on television and my heart went out to him.

While no group of people can ever be totally lumped together or said to be all the same, most clergy have several tendencies.

A lot of us tend to be a bit on the neurotic side. We tend to take a lot of things personally, tend to take a lot of the issues of the world on our shoulders, and tend to be more critical of ourselves than people are of us. And the fact that we spend most of our lives in the line of fire, that’s saying a lot.

The other tendency many clergy seem to have is a need to be affirmed and liked. We want people to like us.

And thus, it was, Rev. Michael Clark was in a room and the previous President of his Church Council was praising him on national television, saying how Pastor Clark was his ‘main man’ and was a great inspiration to him and the Council President explained he wouldn’t be the man he was today without Rev. Clark in his life.

Rev. Michael Clark’s facial expression was one of horror because the speaker, the former Church Council President, was Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK serial killer. And Clark sat there, mortified.

But, in Clark’s lap, the entire time, was an open Bible turned to Psalm 51 which he was praying over and over again. Psalm 51 is a Psalm of repentance and forgiveness----and that was all Clark felt he could do. Pray for forgiveness that this monster before him had come from the congregation that he, Clark, was serving. And Clark never knew... and the guilt of being connected to this monstrous man was consuming him.

So he prayed a Psalm, a very specific Psalm of forgiveness.

Forgiveness and the stark, even harsh beauty of this Psalm.

Psalm 51 is an amazing Psalm that has the author begging God for forgiveness. When we ask forgiveness, it’s the ultimate way of saying, I’m sorry or apologizing. In the words of the Psalmist what God seeks is not a burnt offering or any other act. God wants one thing:

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart

A broken spirit, a contrite heart is a way of saying “I’m sorry,’ in a profound way.
It is learning to say “I’m sorry,” when we are wrong.

I have found that there is nothing as character building as apologizing. Having the humility and courage to admit that you are personally wrong and have made a mistake, is liberating. Often a good apology clears the air between people. Families who learn to apologize to one another, live healthier and happier lives.

One thing that is crucial, however, is learning to truly apologize as opposed to pretending to apologize.

There is several words in the English language that ought never be in an apology. The word is ‘but.’

When we say, “I am sorry for offending you, but....” When we say this, we are putting the issue of offense on the person we offended. We are trying to justify our actions.

“I’m sorry for hurting you, but...” You deserved it.

“I’m sorry for stealing from you, but...” I wanted the money more you needed it.

You get the point.

Or when we use the word ‘if.’

“I’m sorry IF I offended you, “ and we’re really saying you need to have thicker skin.

“I’m sorry IF I hurt you,” and we’re really saying you need to be tougher.

“I’m sorry IF you needed that,” and we really saying I needed it more.

True apologies end with “I’m sorry.” We can add, “Because I offended you, or because I hurt you, or because it was uncalled for, but we can’t use the word ‘but’ or ‘if.’

The words of this Psalm are a real apology to God and seeking forgiveness and it does so in gut wrenching ways.

And sometimes that forgiveness comes hard.

I was pondering the words from the Psalm:

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Sometimes this is hard, teaching others God’s ways.

William Self, a Baptist Pastor in Georgia tells a wonderful story about Corrie Ten Boon.

Corrie ten Boon was a Dutch lady who during World War II hid the Jews from the Nazis in her home. When the Nazis found out, she was taken out of her home and placed in a concentration camp. When the war was over, she went around the cities of Germany and Holland preaching that everyone should forgive one another for what had happened during that terrible time.

One day Corrie was preaching her sermon on forgiveness in a Hamburg church. When it was over, the people were lined up to speak to her, and in the crowd of faces around her, she saw one particular face and a hand reaching out to her.

The man said, "Corrie, can you forgive me?"

This was the man who controlled the shower room for the women. Once a week the women were herded into a communal shower, they were disrobed, the water was turned on, and this man was perched above them on a platform where he could observe and control the room. He rather enjoyed the indignity of this moment as the cold water hit the bodies of the very frightened women.

Corrie said that of all the people in that prison, he was the one she hated the most.

She said she couldn't get rid of the hate she had for him and the look on his face as he leered at them in their humiliation. That's the face that possessed the hand that came to her, and he said, "Corrie, can you forgive me?" And she said, "I stopped and prayed and asked the Lord Jesus to give me the power and strength to forgive this man."

She said it was the hardest thing that she ever did.

This Psalm confronts us with the issue of sin, but more than that, apologizing to God, and asking forgiveness. It invites us to ask for forgiveness by breaking our spirit and will and apologizing, profoundly to God with know and’s, it’s or but’s. It reminds us of the power of being forgiven and healed from the burdens of our own failures.

And there is its beauty.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Songs of Israel: The Myth of ONLY Human

The Songs of Israel: The Myth of ONLY Human
Text: Psalm 8
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
July 10, 2010

Have you ever heard or used the expression, “But I’m only human?”

Chances are, we all have used that at some point because we use it to express our limitations at something. We are not God, so we are only human.

We sang a little in the Psalm today, using it as it was written, as a hymn of sorts.

We did things responsively, demonstrating the Psalm as a prayer of sorts.

And we saw the words.....and the words give an indication that being ONLY human is something of a myth. There is nothing ONLY about being human.

The Psalm begins as a song of praise to God for the creative power of God and then it asks a question:

What are human beings that you are mindful of them;
mortals that you care for them?

The Psalm goes on to tell us three things and all three things are pretty amazing.

The first is this.
You have made them a little lower than God;
and crowned them with glory and honor.

We are made a little lower than God. A LITTLE lower than God.

Genesis 1 tells us that we, people, are made in the image and likeness of God. At our best, we are much like God. It means we have the capacity to make choices and do things the way God would do things. It demands of us that we live lives with a sense of dignity that God has.

French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas, the author of such classics as, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, once had a heated quarrel with a rising young politician. The argument became so intense that a duel was inevitable. Since both men were superb shots they decided to draw lots, the loser agreeing to shoot himself. Dumas lost. Pistol in hand, he withdrew in silent dignity to another room, closing the door behind him. The rest of the company waited in gloomy suspense for the shot that would end his career. It rang out at last. His friends ran to the door, opened it, and found Dumas, smoking revolver in hand.

“Gentlemen, a most regrettable thing has happened,” he announced. “I missed.”

Somewhere, when faced with his mortality, it dawned on him that he had fallen prey to anger and envy and foolishness and none of these were worth losing his life over. Human dignity is something that makes us more like God.

People are like God because we can often do the opposite of what nature would seem to have us do. Birds fly north for the winter and south for the summer. Yet people have the capacity to travel south to beaches and Disney World in the summer, and travel north in the winter to ski and have winter vacations.

The Psalmist reminds us that human dignity is a godlike quality that we should never lose.

The second thing the Psalmist says is this:

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands.

Over the years people have misunderstood the use of having dominion over the earth as a license to do what we want with the earth. The premise was that the earth was going to one day be gone, so we might as well use it and abuse it while we still can.

But this came from a dualistic world view which saw earthly things and godly things as separate. There was the realm of God and the realm of people and nothing in the twain shall meet.

Instead of a dualistic world view, we need to have a holistic world view. The environment is a spiritual issue. There are issues of justice. My abuse and neglect of my environment has huge negative consequences for my neighbor not just down the street but around the world. My waste shows that I don't really care for what is right. I don't care about what is the Lord's. I don't really love my neighbor.

Dominion means to be in charge of something. It means to be responsible for something. The world is not our world, it is God’s world. God has given us dominion by giving us responsibility.

And, like we need to have human dignity, we need to treat God’s world with dignity and respect. That is what having dominion really means.

The last thing is this. The Psalm begins and ends the same way with the prayer:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name over all the earth!

This is a little reminder of something.

There are two things that give me a sense of faith and security when I walk into the pulpit each Sunday.

The first is the strong faith there is a God; the second is the secure knowledge that I am not God.

I sometimes think of miracles that Jesus did. Turning water into wine and doing so quietly. Only his mother and the chief steward knew. If I had done that I’d have made sure everyone knew so that I would constantly be invited to dinner parties to provide the wine.

The feeding of the 5000? Only the apostles really knew what had taken place. If I had been Jesus I’d rent out our facility for banquets since it would take so little effort and expense to provide food for everyone.

And the really big ones like raising people from the dead, curing blindness, deafness, and people being lame.

Plus the self serving things. The Giants would go undefeated and the Dallas Cowboys would go winless. The New York Mets would be the first undefeated baseball team and the New York Yankees would be the first winless team ever.

You get the point. I thank God that I am not God; and really, we all should. God is pure goodness and pure love and we, despite being much like God in so many ways, are not.

Psalm 8 is a tribute to the dignity and goodness of humanity, but it is also a reminder that, as people we are always people. We are never ONLY human, we are grandly human----with a constant reminder that we are not God.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Songs of Israel----Choosing God’s Heritage

The Songs of Israel----Choosing God’s Heritage
Text: Psalm 33
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
July 3, 2011

One of my favorite parts of the Bible are the Psalms. The Psalms are usually called the Songs of Israel because they were, at their heart, songs or hymns about people’s relationship with God.

Psalms are not, like so much of the Bible, stories or things happening to people or explicit teachings about God. Psalms are more a reflection of where people were at in their journeys in their relationships with God. Years ago they were all attributed to David, but in reality they were songs that evolved over a period of time.

Last week I preached on a Psalm of lament, and this week is a Psalm of praise and petition. And the praise in this Psalm is really sort of unique because it speaks of the glory of God while asking for a blessing of a nation.

in many ways, about being a nation dedicated to God.

The Psalmist says, Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage and earlier states, simply how this happens by stating: For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness. 5 He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

The Psalm says some other interesting things. Listen to these words: “The Lord brings counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the people.” In short, the opinion of people of God’s plans is of no significance; we most often interpret God’s plans according to our own will, not according to God’s. So God frustrates our plans.

I was thinking about this and I began, of course, thinking about the 4th of July.

July 4th, 1776 is the nation’s birthday and the marking of the reading of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. The 4th of July, however, in American history has an other interesting thing connected to it.

On July 4th, 1787 Philadelphia was again a gathering place and again, a place of crisis and change. The country was young and the guiding document of the nation, The Articles of Confederation, was, to be kind, a mess. So during a four month period of time a group of people, many of them leaders in the Revolution, were in Philadelphia and having clandestine and illegal meetings to overturn the Articles of Confederation and develop a new constitution. July 4th was a break day and they gathered for a prayer service at Race Street Church, now known as Old First Reformed Church, United Church of Christ, in Philadelphia. Many people from St. Marks have toured that historic church.

But what is telling is, that in 1787 the people in Philadelphia had come to a realization. In their yearning for independence and more rights, they found something out. They realized with freedom came responsibility. In many ways, when I read this Psalm and ponder what it reflects about asking for the blessing of a nation, it implies something very deep. It implies responsibility. And it implies, from a Biblical perspective, two kinds of responsibility.

The first is personal responsibility.

Sometimes it seems that we can be tempted to overdo faith. I say this very carefully, because it would probably be better to say that we often have a tendency to under do personal responsibility. There is really no way to have too much faith, assuming we understand faith the way God does. Often people view faith is doing nothing in order to let God do everything for them. For example, there is a story of an out-of-work man who believed that God was going to provide a new job for him.

An friend asked the man, "So, have you been looking for a job?"

The man said, "Nope."

"Well, do you have a resume?"


"Are you networking? Out trying to meet people?"


"Well, uh . . . what exactly are you doing?"

"I'm trying not to freak out while I'm hoping that God will bring me a job."

People do this all the time on so many different ways. It is so easy to pass off responsibility to another. Famous people say something really, really foolish or untrue and then claim they are victims of those who reported that they said something foolish or untrue. It is easier to blame others for our mistakes than it is to take responsibility for them.

But, one way we honor God and live as a nation that honors God is by taking personality responsibility.

The second part of responsibility is recognizing that we have responsibility for others.

One of the first stories of responsibility for others comes in the story of Cain and Abel. We all know that Cain killed Abel but that’s not where the story ends. God queries Cain as to the whereabouts of Abel and Cain asks one of the foundational questions in the Bible? “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The rest of the Bible is the answer to the question. It’s a very long answer, but it is an answer that can be summarized in one word. “Yes.”

We are keepers of our brothers and sisters. We are responsible for one another.

Some people have difficulties through their own actions or inactions. Some people have difficulties because of health, bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc. Some people don’t take the responsibility they ought to. The reasons really do not matter. The Bible never speaks of helping the ‘deserving’ poor; just those in need and it calls us into account when we do not.

Often this responsibility for others morphs into a political issue but it is not. The political issue is HOW we care for those in need, HOW we live that responsibility out. That we do is a matter of faith.

Tomorrow is the 235th birthday of our nation and amid the patriotic songs, the fireworks, and the cook outs, we hear the words of the Psalms:

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage

We choose God’s heritage when we take responsibility both for ourselves and our brothers and sisters. That is the way we do and live lives of justice.