Archive for category Christian Civility

Making It Matter* – Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott –

The Rev. Dr. Casey BaggottThe Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott
The Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott is executive minister of the Community Church of Vero Beach, FL.

Matthew 25:14-30

24th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A – November 19, 2017

Responsibility. I don’t know about you, but growing up I had some fairly unpleasant associations with that word. I was responsible for taking the garbage out. I was responsible for walking the dog and cleaning up after him. I was responsible for weeding the flower beds and completing all homework assignments in a timely manner. None of these duties exactly inspired joy or enthusiasm in me. Responsibility became, I suppose, something I would rather not have had.

Maybe I’m not alone. May be that’s why we modern church folk don’t stress responsibility much. We tend to emphasize other reasons for pursuing a life of faith. Following Jesus is not really about any onerous duty, we are likely to tell ourselves. Instead, it will give us peace. It will instill a lasting hope in us. It will heal and nurture and save and comfort. It will benefit us.

But then we come to the lectionary text assigned for us today from Matthew’s gospel, and we run smack into my old nemesis, responsibility. At least, I can’t read the Parable of the Talents without recognizing that taking responsibility is a big component of what Jesus is trying to teach us.

This parable is told as part of a long teaching sequence reportedly occurring near the end of Jesus’ life. A plot to silence him is already underway. The intensity and urgency of his teaching now seems to increase. It’s almost as if Jesus is summing up. He alludes to his impending departure from this world and he cautions readiness in his followers. He advocates alertness and engagement in seeing that his work is carried out in his absence. He tells this parable.

Jesus describes a Master who, as he is about to go away on a journey, summons his three servants, entrusting each with a portion of his assets. To one servant the Master gives five talents, to another he gives two talents, and to the third servant he gives just one talent.

Talents were considerable sums of money. A talent was equivalent to around fifteen years’ worth of wages. I like to envision the first crowds gathered to hear Jesus teach – perhaps simple fishermen, herders, peasants – listening to this parable and imagining themselves taking responsibility for such vast sums.

As Jesus tells the parable, the servant given five talents invests and doubles his assets, as does the servant who receives two. Both took significant risks, both were aggressive. When the Master returned, both were praised, given even more responsibility, promoted, and invited to share the joy of the master.

But the third servant has a different story to tell. You see, he was a cautious, prudent fellow. He has observed that the Master is a tough businessman and will not be pleased if the principle is lost. So, the third servant digs a hole and buries the money in the ground, which was, in fact, a perfectly reasonable thing to do if he did not wish to be liable for any loss. When the Master returns and this servant is called upon to give an account of himself, he says smugly that he is able to return to the Master exactly what was entrusted to him. He can account for it down to the last penny.

Now, maybe he’s expecting that the Master will be pleased that he neither squandered nor risked the Master’s principle. True, no great gain was achieved, but no harm was done, right? The cautious servant must be assuming that the Master will invite him to join his fellow servants in entering into the joy of the Master.

But here comes the twist in the story that must have stunned Jesus’ listeners. Jesus tells them that this prudent, judicious, sensible, practical, careful, cautious man was treated very harshly by the Master. Not only was his single talent taken from him and given to the other successful investors, but on top of that, instead of getting his invitation to the big party, he is unceremoniously thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Now there is a twist you wouldn’t have expected, would you? Just because he was practical and sensible, he’s tossed into darkness? Just because he was cautious and careful, he’s thrown out to weep? Just because he was fearful of failure, he’s consigned to the corner reserved for teeth-gnashers? Who saw that coming?

What’s Jesus trying to say? Could it be Jesus’ way of saying to his disciples, as he anticipates the clash with authorities that will lead to this death, that he plans to go, having entrusted them with his treasure? Could it be his way of telling them that if they bury his message of God’s loving kingdom, that he’ll be very disappointed in them? Could he be declaring that if they have the confidence, the courage, the trust in themselves that he has in them, then they’ll take the wealth of his love, his compassion, his goodness, his righteousness, and they’ll take that wealth into the world to let it multiply?

This isn’t primarily a parable of financial acumen, after all. It’s a parable of faith acumen. Have we been given the treasure of faith? If we have it, we will invest it, not hiding the best of what we have, not being prudent or cautious, not seeking our safety and security above all else. We will demonstrate proper management of the treasure of our faith by taking risks for the sake of spreading and multiplying the good news of God’s love.

Philip Hallie was a professor, philosopher, author, and a sincere student of good and evil. Having studied the worst of Nazi cruelty in all its twisted and horrific dimensions, he turned his attention to radical good. While granting that there is, among many of us, indifference to the hardship and the pain of others, there is also, as Hallie recorded in his book Tales of Good and Evil, the capacity for astonishing self-giving, risk-taking, and rescue-making by some.[ii] What makes them capable of this? Why do some step forward to engage danger on behalf of others, even at enormous personal risk? What fuels the courageous moral passion of these world changers?

Consider Rev. Andre Trocme and his wife Magda, French Protestants who lived in a tiny mountain village called Le Chambon during the Second World War. Along with their fellow townsfolk, they provided refuge and, when possible, escape from the Nazis for Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution. Although the Trocmes and other villagers who shared in this rescue operation were under surveillance, they quietly continued their efforts throughout the war. Ultimately, their investment of personal risk and gospel love yielded an enormous reward. Between 1940 and 1944, the villagers of Le Chambon saved the lives of more than three thousand five hundred Jews, most of whom were children, as well as fifteen hundred others fleeing persecution.

Years later, Magda Trocme was interviewed by those who found it hard to fathom such courage, such risk. She said this about her choices: “Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances where you will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision on your own, not about other people but about yourself. I would not say more.”[iii]

What a fascinating review of a life-changing, life-saving undertaking. Magda Trocme insists the rescue operation in Le Chambon was not about the people they were trying to save, only. It was also about the rescuers themselves. They each had a decision to make. Who would they be? Would they be passive, cautious, self-protective, fearful? Or would they be enactors of Christ’s message of compassion and love – no matter the risk? The villagers of Le Chambon chose the risk. As Christ’s people, that was their responsibility. As Magda Trocme concludes, what more is there to say?

Still, it has to make you wonder…must such risky responsibility-taking be a component of faithful living? I suppose we are not all taught to believe that. Some of us have been led to think that faithfulness and being a good Christian simply amounts to avoiding what is immoral or sinful, heeding all the prohibitions and negative rules like “Don’t do this,” “Don’t do that.” But when you think a bit about how Jesus teaches those who will take up his cross and follow his path, there isn’t so very much said about what not to do. Instead, Jesus has a great deal to say about what must be done in his name: Take my yoke. Follow me. Ask, seek, knock. Feed my sheep. Watch and pray. Let your light shine. Love one another.

When you think of the lives that have mattered by making a difference for you, or for others, aren’t they lives that have risked taking these instructions of Jesus seriously, perhaps at some cost to themselves? Aren’t they people who have responsibly worked to fulfill the most significant and meaningful tasks they could?

I remember a line I once read from Gian Carlo Menotti that said, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.”[iv]

There can be a hellishness to regret akin to darkness and teeth gnashing. Maybe you’ve experienced the harsh regret of lost opportunity, of wasted gifts. Avoiding that regret ought to have us asking ourselves again and again: Do I love deeply enough? Care passionately enough? Give generously enough? Risk greatly enough?

Yet sometimes I look around at our deeply troubled world, our divisions and our distrust and our discouragement, and I’m inclined to think my feeble efforts at resolving things aren’t going to matter much in the whole scheme of things. Even if I had the parable’s equivalent of five talents-full of faithfulness, who am I to suppose my investment of them in the world around me will change anything? Ever find yourself thinking that? Ever think that you’d like some guarantees before you took the risk to care or spent the effort to make a difference?

When we entertain that kind of pessimism, it helps to remember that the message of Jesus, and his love, his compassion, his trust in God’s dawning realm, isn’t something that actually belongs to us. Like the servants in the parable, we’ve not been entrusted with the gospel as if it is a personal treasure we can hoard. It’s only given to us that we might take the responsibility to invest it.

Back in 1876, Johanna (a little girl of ten) was placed in an almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Johanna’s mother had died, and not long afterward, her abusive father deserted the family. Johanna was wild and ungovernable, and she was nearly blind from a childhood eye infection. Her poor vision made reading impossible, limiting her formal education. In the almshouse, she learned lessons in self-sufficiency but little else. There would appear to have been little hope for this girl.

However, after a few years, a young woman named Maggie came to the almshouse. Maggie took an interest in Johanna and took her under her wing. Maggie “moved in the blackness of the almshouse like sunlight.”[v]Maggie grew flowers in her room. Maggie protected Johanna and the other vulnerable little girls. Maggie taught Johanna that while she was not responsible for having been left in the almshouse, she was responsible for the state of her spirit, wherever she was. Maggie was a young woman of devoted faith.

Eventually, Johanna learned about the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and convinced the almshouse overseers to send her there. She enrolled in 1880, and though her rough manners made the going tough at first, she persevered and graduated in 1886, as valedictorian of her class.

After graduation, the director of Perkins School recommended Johanna, who was usually known by her nickname, Anne, for her first job. It would be quite a challenge. She was sent to Tuscumbia, Alabama to be teacher and governess to a seven-year-old blind and deaf girl named Helen Keller.

This newly certified teacher, Anne Sullivan, knew about blindness, anger, and fear through the hardships of her life. But she also knew about grace and redemption and the responsibility to live faithfully because of the love of Maggie Hogan who made the grim reality of an almshouse life bearable and even hopeful for children.

And so, Anne Sullivan began opening a new world to Helen Keller, who eventually authored twelve books, was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, and was one of the first advocates for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Now, most of us know something about the remarkable achievements of Helen Keller. And most of us know the story of her life-long, devoted friend and teacher, Anne Sullivan. But how many of us knew about Maggie Hogan?

Yet, it is almost certainly true that without the simple, faithful, devotion of Maggie Hogan, invested with patience and trust in almshouse orphans, neither Anne Sullivan nor Helen Keller could have known the lives they did and achieved the remarkable things they did.

It might not have appeared that Maggie had been given much to invest. But that’s hard to judge, isn’t it?

What have you got to invest in God’s world and among God’s precious people? If you have a secret stash of talents buried in your backyard today, dig them up, spread them around. Try investing them wherever you spot an opportunity. Use every ounce of what God has invested in you and make it matter.

And what will be the outcome when we take on such investment opportunities? We never know. Others’ lives may be impacted in ways we never foresaw or could have predicted. But there is, according to this parable, a reliable result for us, as investors. The outcome for us is joy – an invitation to know the extraordinary, divine joy of our Master.

Investing for God’s sake, in God’s people… Isn’t that a responsibility we can be honored to take on and enthusiastic to undertake?

What more is there to say!? Amen.

*This post is used by permission from Rev. Dr. Baggott with my appreciation. It was posted on


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Paying for the Second Amendment – Rev. Dr. Bill Leonard* – Baptist News Global

Bill Leonard“The United States has 270 million guns and had 90 mass shooters from 1966 to 2012. No other country has more than 46 million guns or 18 mass shooters.” So the New York Times reported on Nov. 8.

Let’s be honest, as a people we are paying for the Second Amendment. The dead are stacking up like cordwood, not simply from mass shootings, as heinous, collective and “normative” as they are, but in the day-to-day local firearm slayings that haunt American communities urban and rural.

In ways we recognize yet try our best to deny, the Second Amendment defines us as a people, a nation where individuals plagued by hatred, mental illness, religious bigotry, gambling losses, family dysfunction or other discernably unoriginal sins utilize Second Amendment-protected arsenals to destroy the lives of innocent, unsuspecting human beings at Bible studies, worship services, country music concerts, night clubs, shopping malls, college campuses and elementary schools. Right now, the list of safe spaces in this country narrows monthly due to gun-related massacres.

The Second Amendment does not create these malicious shooters; rather, it enables them through the proliferation and accessibility of millions of firearms — regulated, yes, but clearly not enough to affect the slaughter. Violent, deranged human beings occupy every nation state in this world. In the United States, however, current interpretations of the Second Amendment give them the means, legally or illegally, to turn this country into a killing field, any place, any time.

We are paying for the Second Amendment, and most of us will probably not outlive this defining element of our national ethos. Firearm obsession, supported or tolerated by the American people, exemplifies our national identity, and we should all own that reality. Indeed, firearm violence has become so routine that barring an immediate political or spiritual Great Awakening, these events demand some form of national triage, collective methods for responding to the consequences of weaponized carnage as an American constant.

The recent bloodbath at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, incarnates the firearm crisis and the need for a shared national response. It is that state’s largest single shooting with 26 congregants killed and 20 wounded by a known criminal who extended a family vendetta into a church at worship. The violation of sacred space is so egregious that the pastor, Frank Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was among the dead, has announced that the building will be torn down, a new church facility constructed in another location, and a memorial established on the current site.

The sanctuary of that Baptist church in a tiny Texas hamlet off US 87 was violated in the bloodiest of assaults with a semi-automatic weapon that poured forth some 450 rounds. Eight of the dead were children, the youngest being an 18-month-old and a baby still in utero, dying in the belly of its mother who was also gunned down. The church’s own video system, streaming the service to homebound members, now too graphic to be shown, reveals that the butchery, carried out with a Ruger AR-556, took only about seven minutes.

Those facts alone should compel gun owner and non-gun owner alike to cry out in collective pain and determination to respond to the unending national slaughter of the innocents. A growing number of faith communities are now compelled to develop security procedures that include hiring professional agencies, training members as armed “gatekeepers,” or depending on congregational concealed-weapon-carriers prepared to match bullet for bullet, another inevitable recompense for Second Amendment “freedom.”

As mass shootings multiply, I keep thinking that I’ve written enough about this topic. But they continue, world without end. As I finished this particular column, four people, including an elementary school student, were killed and 10 wounded in a California shooting. More children would have died had not the school activated an immediate lock-down. How can any of us be silent?

Bret Stephens won’t be silent. The New York Times commentator finds the situation so dire that it is time “to do something more than tinker at the margins of a legal regime that most of the world rightly considers nuts.” Rather, Stephens calls for repeal of the Second Amendment, noting that while “gun ownership should never be outlawed, just as it isn’t in Britain or Australia … it doesn’t need a blanket constitutional protection, either.” He admits revocation is a long shot, but concludes that “most great causes begin as improbable ones.”

Given that wistful proposition, let’s consider another improbable but perhaps viable response to America’s firearm scourge. What about a Second Amendment Reparations Tax, levied on all American households and corporations? If the Second Amendment is essential to American identity, and if additional firearm-related legislation is a long time coming (if ever), then why not create a communal fund to assist those families and institutions devastated by inevitable gun violence? Such a FEMA-administered reparations tax would commit all of us to the task of “binding up the wounds” created by firearm violence. If we can’t affect the laws, the least we can do is help pay for the funerals.

Powerless in the face of Second Amendment-facilitated atrocities, but hoping for additional solutions, we begin by owning the problem and offering a collective source of financial triage to assist those literally caught in the crossfire of a vicious cycle of death that has become the public face of the American nation. Special fund-raisers for specific firearm brutalities remain indispensable, but since it is our Second Amendment, and we’re all vulnerable, we’d all best pay up.

“Bill Leonard was a favorite at the John Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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Too Loud? Too Bad! – Shiny Side Up – Susan Sparks

The Shiny Side Up from Rev. Susan Sparks

Hi y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger.

Before I start, I want to offer an apology to all Honda motorcycle riders who may be offended by this message. God loves you. And I try.
Many years ago, before I bought my first bike, my husband Toby took me to a biker rally in Connecticut (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Like most rallies, the bikes were parked in rows with admirers walking up and down, comparing motorcycles and sharing stories.

Of all the gathered horsepower, for me, one bike stood out. It was hard to miss: red flames on a jet-black gas tank, fringed ape-hanger handlebars that you had to reach high above your head to hold, pipes that looked like two huge corn silos laid sideways, and a sticker on the back bumper that read: “Vietnam: We were winning when I left.”

Standing by the bike was the owner (again, who was hard to miss). Straight out of Road Warrior, he donned dirt encrusted black leather chaps, a leather vest (worn shirtless – and shouldn’t have been), and a giant tattoo on his left arm that was something akin to the naked woman silhouette on a tractor-trailer mud flap.

As we watched, he took the last inhale off his cigarette, ground it under his harness boot and swung his leg over the bike preparing to crank up and leave.

“This should be good,” I said to Toby, pointing at the pipes.

“Don’t count on it,” he replied, rolling his eyes.

The road warrior pulled the bike up off the kickstand, straightened the front wheel, pushed the kill switch to run, then turned to the gathered crowd with a Jacki Nicholson type grin, and pressed the start button.

The sound that came out made me gasp. It was like a grasshopper in puberty – breathy, high pitched, even a bit annoying.

“What is that?” I exclaimed. “How could something that big and bad sound so wimpy?”

Toby laughed. “It’s a Honda. That’s how they sound.”

“But what about all the badass leather stuff?”

“Hype,” he said, shaking his head.

I stood there in shock for a few more moments until another sound exploded out over the grasshopper noise. It was a sound that combined the threatening rumble of an approaching thunderstorm with the subtle “potato-potato-potato” rhythm chugged out by the exhaust stacks of my Uncle’s 1960 John Deere. I turned, and there behind us, gleaming in the sun, was a giant Harley Davidson.

“Oh, I love that sound!” I blurted out.

“Yup, I figured you would,” Toby nodded. Then he added the words that have stuck with me until this day: “Hey if it don’t roar, what’s the point?”  (I’ve been a Harley rider ever since.)

If it don’t roar, what’s the point?

Amen to that. It’s true for motorcycles and it’s true for us. We can live life with a whimper or we can live it with a roar. We’re going to be riding down life’s road either way. Why choose anything but living life loud and proud.

This is especially good advice now given our headlines. So many people are offering a voice that sounds more like a grasshopper, than a roar — veiled concerns, passive good wishes, the ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers.” But if you don’t back these passive words up with action – with a roar – it’s only hype.

And a roar is exactly what it’s going to take. We are facing gun violence, racism, mass murders, sexual attacks, natural disasters, and rampant terrorism. We have to dosomething. As the book of James says, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14).

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of prayer. But prayer alone is not enough. As God told the Apostle Paul, “Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Maybe this means calling your government officials, or speaking out against gun violence, or offering a kind word to guests at a food bank or manning the phones at a battered women’s shelter.

Whatever it is, we must take a stand. We must speak out. We must not live our lives with a whimper. Because in the end, if we don’t roar, what’s the point?

If you want more, tune into my sermon HERE this Sunday at 11 am EST entitled “If It Don’t Roar, What’s the Point?”

Below you will find more inspiration via photos, articles, and sermons. Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down!   –Susan

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