Mar 14 2012

Monday Morning Mercy

Rodger Woodworth

In the words of that famous jazz singer and theologian Billy Holiday, “Sometimes it is worse to win a fight than to lose”.  That is the way I feel about our present political discourse and public debates.  Everyone is claiming to be a winner but they are worse off for it, especially those of us who want to attach a Christian perspective to our view points.  Jesus taught that there is something not quite right about praising God on Sunday and then cursing our brother on Monday. Our Sunday morning worship should lead us to Monday morning mercy for those who disagree with us.

After learning God’s word on the Lord’s Day, Monday is for doing God’s word – loving people and repairing our relationships.  In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes the command “do not murder” and intensifies it, deepens it, and clarifies it.  The root of killing is anger.  This kind of anger is not like a flame that burns dried straw – it flames up and burns out quickly – like my anger in the Squirrel Hill tunnel at rush hour.  The anger that commits murder is like a burning coal that continues to produce heat.  It attacks the mental intelligence and moral character of a person calling them an idiot and a liar.  This carried anger not only hurts others but it diminishes us.

God’s surgical method of dealing with this source of murder is to scare the hell out of us.  He confronts our bitter pool of anger with a more bitter pool of divine judgement – the fires of hell that burn longer and hotter than our little lump of coal.  Even cloaked as a humorous hand grenade, our murderous anger that hurts others is liable for God’s judgement.

The good news is that while every command of Jesus first humbles us it then lifts us up.  We learn the full extent of not murdering and then we learn how we can keep the command.  We seek reconciliation with those we have hurt, with those we disagree and with those who are disagreeable.  Jesus even instructs us to be reconciled first before bringing our gift to him, show Monday morning mercy before retuning to Sunday morning worship.  We learn that when we put Jesus first, He instructs us is to put others first.  It may seem impossible to never carry a grudge but it is possible to make amends, to heal a relationship, and to win a friend by losing a fight.


Jan 30 2012

“My Brothers” by Madeline Smith”

Rodger Woodworth

The big coffee-colored hands of my brother ruffled my dark brown hair, pulled back into a knot of a ponytail, the best a girl of six could do.  I smiled up at them, jumping as the chain rattled when the ball smacked the faded  backboard.

My blue basketball shorts matched Carl’s and swished around my legs as I dodged Flay dribbling a basketball out of his reach.  They let me win.  I patted their warm backs, not noticing how my hand seemed whiter than a seashell tossed about rough waves, sanded down and drained of color, against their coca skin.

Gilbert grinned, his teeth white as snow against his mocha skin.  I leaned against the stone wall with blue paint peeling, and I screamed his name. Sweat dripped from his face, soaking his shirt as he was gasping for breath.  My brothers play hard.

We ate greens and fried chicken; they let the grease stain my white T-shirt that hung down to my knees.  We laughed and talked loud, smashed next to each other on an old sagging couch like mashed potatoes, as the football game played like thunder into the night.  Hot Cheetos were dipped in ranch along with pizza, as fries found hot sauce again and again.

Duct tape held our sneakers together that were piled at the door and tripped on every time someone entered.  No one moved them, it wasn’t something to get rid of, but something to add to.

As my Dad added to the pile of shoes, someone laughed, “Pastor Matt, you the blackest white man”.  He laughed and slapped skin with them all.  It was said in love, that I knew.  But what did it mean?

I am white.  My brothers are black.

(An award winning poem by our 15 year old granddaughter, a freshman at CAPA.  She doesn’t think it is her best but she doesn’t see it through the eyes of her proud Pap.  I share it in honor of Pastor Matt, who was my partner in ministry and Maddie’s Dad and brother Carl.  Both who have been with our Lord for the past several years.  Matt from cancer and Carl from bullets intended for another, a week before leaving for college.)


Dec 23 2011

The Christmas Story Challenges Our Prejudices – Part 4

Rodger Woodworth

As I asked in my last post, what happens when Jesus ignores the politically powerful and the spiritual elite to intrude into the lives of the pagan outsiders, like you and me?  They worship this new born King and go home another way.  There was no special wisdom spoken, no sparkling halo seen, not even a spectacular Christmas pageant, just the presence of the incarnate word – a baby Christ.

In His infancy and simplicity, Jesus is worshipped and the Magi are changed.  The Magi had finally found the true meaning of life.  A life that begins by giving oneself to the honor of Christ.  To worship Christ is to desire to give Him our goods and services because worship takes us into God’s presence and God’s presence causes us to walk home a different way.  You see the Magi not only worshipped  Jesus they acknowledged His right to direct their lives.

When we read the Christmas story it calls for a response.  It calls for a fresh perspective on Christmas.  It not only challenges our prejudices and preferences, it changes them and changes us.  Truth and humility reveal that we all have a little Herod in us, looking to an earthly king for our help, and a little elitism, thinking we have an inside track on God.  Yet it is only by the same grace that invited the undeserving Magi to Jesus’ first birthday party that we have been made right and well in the presence of God.  The Christmas story calls us to worship the new born King and go home another way, all be it a narrow way.  As the psalmist writes, “May all kings fall down before Him and all nations serve Him.”  (Psalm 72:11)


Dec 21 2011

The Christmas Story Challenges Our Prejudices – Part 3

Rodger Woodworth

Herod didn’t know where Jesus was to be born so he calls on the religious experts, the spiritual insiders, who immediately identify the place where the Messiah is to be born.  These leaders know but they don’t follow, they don’t join the Magi on their spiritual quest for the new born King.  They fail to act on their biblical knowledge.  Jesus is just a baby after all, too small to be taken seriously.  They take Jesus for granted.  Sure they didn’t want to kill him like Herod,  they would wait another 30 years for that.

There is a thin spiritual line between wanting Jesus out of the way and taking him for granted.  We hold onto Him when it is convenient and lay him aside when we have more important things to do.  We follow Him when is is practical and withdraw when it is more comfortable.  God has always allowed Himself to be taken for granted.  Adam took him for granted when he chose the forbidden tree, David took him for granted when he went to Bathsheba and we take him for granted every time we chose sin over righteousness.  We take Him for granted every time we have trouble finding a place for him in our busy world of human activity.  It is worth noting that the first and last human act toward the incarnate God was an act of wrapping Him up and laying Him aside.  The first in a feed trough and the last in a borrowed tomb.

However, despite our preferences for occupying ourselves with the politically powerful or the spiritual elite, God continues to intrude into our lives.  Jesus’ life is bracketed by two impossibilities – a virgin’s birth and an empty tomb.  He entered through a door marked no entrance and left through a door marked no exit.  So what happens when God ignores the politically powerful and the spiritual elite to intrude into the lives of the pagan outsider?  They worship and go home another way.


Dec 6 2011

The Christmas Story Challenges Our Prejudices Part 2

Rodger Woodworth

I wrote in my last post that Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ birth uses a literary device of contrasting characters – the faith seeking Magi in contrast to the faith rejecting Herod.  Matthew challenges our prejudice against pagan outsiders by using their idols to draw the Magi to the Christ child but he also challenges our prejudices that favor political power.

Even though he was Arab by birth , Herod had converted to Judaism and thus considered himself the King of the Jews.  But whereas the pagan outsiders act like God’s people, seeking and worshipping, the King of God’s people acts like the pagan King of Egypt, rebelling and killing. (Exodus 1:16).  When the Magi inquired about the location of the new born King, Herod began to realize that if Jesus was the new born King, then he was the dethroned king.  Even as he instructs the wise men to go to Bethlehem in search of the child, Herod can’t bring himself to call Jesus the King.  The Magi thought differently however and after encountering King Jesus they resist Herod’s bidding to return, going home another way.

Author and professor Craig Keener writes, “When we side with the political powerful to seek human help against common foes, we could actually find ourselves fighting God’s agenda.”  Jesus came to serve the most vulnerable amongst us while depending solely on His heavenly Father.  When “Bethlehem” was read in his hearing, Herod was given the opportunity to seek the new born King in His most embryonic form but he not only rejected it he sought to murder it. As we face the great challenges of our day, both personally and as a nation, which King will we look to for our help?  This season of the year is a good time to renew our decision to go to Bethlehem,  worship the new born King and go home a different way.


Nov 28 2011

The Christmas Story Challenges Our Prejudices Part 1

Rodger Woodworth

Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth and the subsequent visit by some wise men is a microcosm of the entire gospel.  He employs a standard ancient literary device of contrasting characters.  The Magi come and worship Jesus while Herod seeks his death.  The Magi reveal God’s grace while Herod reveals man’s sin.  The faith seeking Magi in contrast to the faith rejecting Herod. And Matthew wants us to identify with these pagan wise men from the East not the reigning political leaders of the time, nor the spiritual elite of Jerusalem.   No, Matthew’s gospel wants us to identify with the outsiders – outsiders in both race and profession – Gentiles and astrologers.

Matthew challenges our prejudices against  pagan outsiders.  The Magi were not led to the Christ child through conventional church programs or evangelical methods.  They found Jesus while practicing their idolatry.  The stars, God’s natural revelation, led them to His saving revelation, the incarnate Word lying in a sheep shed.  To those of us who tend to put God in our theological box please note how He uses the Magi’s idol as a means of inviting them to the first Christmas party.  God has always gone to great measures to overcome racial and moral barriers to draw those who are considered outsiders and unworthy in order to make His church more interracial and merciful.

As we encounter the outsiders of our day, especially this Advent season, let us be reminded that like the Magi they may actually be walking illustrations of outsiders under grace.  Let’s invite them to the Christmas party and to God’s saving revelation.


Aug 8 2011

Friendship From the Margins

Rodger Woodworth

Christians are often like porcupines in a snowstorm. We need each other to keep warm, but we prick each other if we get too close.  Our political ideologies, our racial mistrust, and even our theological differences keep us from forming deep friendships across such dividing lines.  Yet it is possible that these identified outsiders may be the very instrument God wants to use as his providential grace in our lives. 

It happened to Jeremiah.  He had already been put in prison but some government officials convinced King Zedikiah that Jeremiah’s continued preaching from his cell was seditious.  These princes had him lowered into an empty cistern with a layer of mud at the bottom and left him to die.  While Jeremiah was not exactly popular or successful at the time, he was not friendless.  A man named Ebedmelech, an Ethiopian, a Black man, an outsider who had no legal standing, goes against the crushing wave of opinion to confront the injustice done to Jeremiah.   He gets permission from the King to organize a rescue party.  He even got some rags to put under the prophet’s arms so the ropes wouldn’t burn as he pulled his friend up from the miry pit.

Life is hard and none of us are self sufficient, we are not meant to live a life of proud independence.  We often find it easier to give friendship than to receive it because it exposes our weaknesses, especially when the help comes from the margins, outsiders who differ from us.  “God chose those who are powerless to shame those who are powerful” (1 Corinthians 1:27).  When we fortify ourselves behind ideologies, race and dogmas and classify people into categories we cut ourselves off from a wide spectrum of friendships that may be God’s help and hope in our time of need.


Aug 8 2011

The Impracticality of God’s Glory

Rodger Woodworth

I continue to hear how impractical it is to have a multi-cultural church, faith-based non-profit or fellowship.  Those outsiders don’t want to be a part of us, or there are no non-whites around me, besides it is too much work and there are more important priorities right now.  I have heard it all before.  Pragmatism often becomes our mode of operation.

Jeremiah was not a very practical prophet.  While locked up in the King’s courtyard falsely accused of treason, he buys a field 3½ miles north of the city in his hometown of Anathoth, right in the middle of the Babylonian’s camp.  Only days away from the city being plundered and the last group of people being carried off in exile, he purchases a field he would probably never see.  Why?  For the most practical reasons – Jeremiah was convinced he was investing in the future project of God.  He was giving a visible foothold for God’s people to believe and act on God’s promises.  God says, “Fields will again be bought and sold in this land…ravaged by the Babylonians,”(Jeremiah 32:43).  Jeremiah was turning his beliefs into actions, a deliberate act of faith. 

In his Revelation of Jesus the Apostle John wrote, “Your blood has ransomed a people from every tribe and language and people and nation.  And you have caused them to become God’s Kingdom and his priests.  And they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10). This is a future project of God worth investing in, working to make the word of God visible through cross-cultural ministry and multi-ethnic fellowships.  It is acting on the conviction that God will complete his promised work even when it seems impractical.  Too often when Christian scripture and common sense don’t line up we prefer common sense.   The problem with that is everybody has their own opinion about what is common sense.  Virginia Owens in her book Eating Words writes, “I’m afraid that for us the notion of…doing anything to the glory of God, has been swallowed up by the pragmatic concept …”.

The most practical thing we can do in the Christian life is to act on the promises of God even when all evidence reveals its impracticality.  God has promised to build His multi-ethnic Kingdom and that defies the pragmatism of this world but participating in it defines the glory of God.


Jun 22 2011

Leaving Our Cultural Shells Behind

Rodger Woodworth

In order to grow, lobsters have to rid themselves of their old, hard, protective shell and grow a new, larger one.  They need the shell to protect them from being torn apart, yet when they grow, the old shell must be abandoned. If they did not abandon it, the old shell would soon become their prison–and finally their casket. This process of shedding an old shell is called molting.  They do this about twenty-five times in the first five years of life and once a year after they become adults.

It is an ugly, messy process.  Under the pressure, the old, hard, protective shell cracks.  Then the lobster lies on its side, flexes its muscles, and pulls itself from the cracked shell.  For a short time – between the leaving of the old and the hardening of a new one – the lobster is naked and very vulnerable to the elements.

We are not so different from lobsters. To change and grow, we must sometimes shed our shells such as our cultural worldview that we’ve come to depend on.  According to author Eric Law our cultural worldview are those “unconscious beliefs, patterns, values and myths that affect everything we do and say.”  All forms of Christianity have been affected by cultural prejudices.  Western enlightenment has blinded some of us to the spirit world while African superstition has distorted some of their view of Christianity. 

Peter says as Christians we are a “holy nation”, litereally we are a new ethnicity (1 Peter 2:9).  Every Christian, while staying connected to our culture of origin, must get enough distance to identify and shed our shells of cultural idols.  To do that we need the help of other cultures to honestly critique our own cultural view of the world.  

Author Lamin Sanneh writes that Christianity does not replace our culture with some other culture but rather converts it – it transforms us in the soil of our respective cultures.  This process is called discipleship – leaving the old and waiting for the hardening of the new - and can leave us feeling naked and vulnerable. It means being so committed to Christ that when he bids us to follow, we will risk change, grow, and leave our “cultural shells” behind.


May 17 2011

Enemy-Love

Rodger Woodworth

We encounter an assortment of enemies in our world today, from terrorist leaders, to disagreeable neighbors, to bullying classmates and even some unforgiving friends.  The definition of an enemy contains such words as antagonistic, opponent, injure, harmful and deadly.  The Greek word for enemy literally means hatred and hostility - the opposite of love and friendship.  Yet as Christians we are taught to love our enemies, pray for them, bless them, and if they are hungry feed them and if they are thirsty give them a drink. 

We may be able to resist the temptation to take our own revenge on such people but Scripture is directing a loving, proactive, initiative towards those who oppose and even harm us.  It is not enough to just ignore them or keep our distance, we are to pursue loving acts of kindness in order to show that we belong to our heavenly Father.  Our God who shines his sun and sends his rain on the terrorist and the peacemaker, the socialist and the capitalist, the democrat and the republican, the righteous and the unrighteous.  God’s even-handedness gives himself generously to his enemies and to his children.  And when we live this way we magnify the glorious nature of God.

But let’s be honest, we look at the command to love our enemies as if it’s an intentional exaggeration by God to get us to at least love our neighbors.  Keirkegaard says, “it is like putting the clock ahead half an hour to make sure of not being late in the morning.”  At our best we agree with the poet Carl Sandberg, “Love your neighbor as yourself; but don’t take down the fence.”  At least don’t take down the fence until you are sure they are going to be good neighbors and if they turn out to be an enemy it may be time to move. 

If we are going to ever be used by God for his Kingdom, to be salty and distinctive, we must break our culture’s law of reciprocity.  The law of loving those who love us, doing good to those who are good, and repaying evil for evil, must be replaced with a counter-cultural love for the undeserving, the unlovable, and even the positively hostile.  This deeply subversive activity is exactly what God did for us when he reconciled us to himself through his Son’s death while we were still his enemies.