Sermon: A Clean Heart

zuy2tlnte6b8b0pscugedir3fvtoti5t-largeIt’s at just about this point in every election cycle, especially this one, that I realize the entire world is mad and doomed to certain destruction and that there’s nothing I can do about it: Frustration, Anger! How can supporters of that other candidate be so stupid?!? Can’t everyone see that it will be Armageddon if the other party wins on November 8th???

And I don’t think I’m alone on this; no matter whether our favorite color is Red, or Blue; or even Yellow or Green.

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For or Against?

14724498_10157594211435113_4623695507832864461_nI like this meme by John Pavlovitz: It gets to the heart of something that always troubles me when I’m labelled as an ally of one group or another…

It is true that we are called by our faith to make a special effort to support those who are not empowered, no matter who they are. And, this is a central concept within my own ministry and in my day to day existence.

But the problem has always been that people tend to view someone who is “for” some group or cause as being against something else. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

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The Narrative of Anger and Pain

…Those who oppose Trump share similar concerns to those who support him. The difference is often in the desired outcome; and even there, there is usually less difference than we are led to believe.

It’s distressing: the current narrative by many supporters of Trump (and haters of Hillary) seems to be “She’s as bad as he is.”
The problem with this is that it is a deflection – attempting to excuse the really vile behavior of one candidate by equating it with the behavior of the other. The problem is Donald Trump’s behavior. What Hillary did (or didn’t do) has absolutely nothing to do with DT’s narcissism, bullying, misogyny and hate speech. Her behavior, regardless of whether you buy into the claims made about her or not, does not excuse what he’s said and done.
What many supporters of DT miss in their eagerness to defend him is that the concerns with him are threefold.
First, aside from a handful of mantras about immigration, job loss, taxes, gun rights and the evils of Hillary; he has no discernible plan or stance on anything. His opinions on things change with the wind, and his proposed solutions – when voiced at all – tend to be in the realm of “whack it with a big stick and it’ll go away, trust me.”
Trust is essential to the office of President: trust built upon diligence, a legacy of results, transparency, and a willingness to take criticism seriously (or at least tolerate it well). No President is perfect at any of these things, but none yet has been as completely devoid of these traits as DT.
And yet, in most of these cases, those who oppose Trump share similar concerns to those who support him. The difference is often in the desired outcome; and even there, there is usually less difference there than we are led to believe.

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Innocence Lost

Quick verbal assurances of healing and redemption and glory in the afterlife – “they’re in a better place” – are bull. Offering cheap grace doesn’t fix the problem, it only deepens the grief of the very people we need to help.

forgiven_frontTen years ago today, a troubled man barricaded himself inside a small schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, PA. He killed five children and severely injured five others, then killed himself. Afterwards, the grieving Amish community responded to their horrific losses in a surprising way. This morning we’ll reflect on their response, in light of today’s Lectionary reading. We’ll begin by listening to an interview of the killer’s mother, Terri Roberts, as heard on NPR’s “Morning Edition” this past week.

“I will never forget the devastation caused by my son” she said. The devastation inflicted upon the Amish, upon the Roberts family and their entire community. It wasn’t just the loss of loved and innocent lives, but the loss of innocence, the loss of the identity they thought they had. Their rural existence, isolated from the tumult and pains of the outside world, was replaced with the isolation of their grief.

On that day, Terri Roberts, the ordinary mother of an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, in an ordinary little town, became the mother of a mass murderer. She later wrote “I was – always will be – his mother. Surely if anyone could spot signs of trouble it would be the woman who gave birth to him.” But she didn’t, no one did.

We see these same emotions: guilt, grief, unresolved and unresolvable questions, in this morning’s reading. The surviving Jews in Psalm 137 are exiles in Babylon: strangers in a strange land. Their homes and their stable and prosperous lives are gone forever.

Why were they spared when so many of their friends and family died? Their city and nation are destroyed. Their identity is gone. Even their God is gone. The Temple that connected them to their Creator and Protector is in ruins.

Evil is sneaky. It rarely announces itself at the door. It sneaks into our lives through the pain and the loss we all encounter every day. Grief is not to be minimized or ignored. It is a valid emotion. Essential, in fact: because all things have an opposite. For light, there is dark. For wealth there is poverty. For evil there is good. For loneliness there is companionship. We cannot really know one until we know the other.

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Sermon: Something Has Changed

Our world is always changing, and yet we hang on to our old traditions and ways of seeing and doing things. We just sort of muddle along: usually (but not always) aware of these changes happening all around us. It often takes a crisis for us to fully appreciate how things have changed: that the old ways no longer work; that we must adapt.

The restored 4th Century Synagogue at Capernaum, built on the foundations of the Centurion’s Synagogue

As you may know, my father was a Minister, too.  And, it’s both humbling and surprising to find myself standing here nearly 60 years after he entered Seminary, a Minister myself. It was not a career I had any wish or plan to pursue – ever!

But, things change…

Some of my earliest memories are of my Father leading a worship service. I particularly remember his voice booming out over the congregation as we sang hymns. But, I have no memory of this from when I was older!

When I asked him about this a few years ago, he told me the following story. You see, he was called to the church (that I first remember him in) when I was about 3. On Sundays, he’d sing from the pulpit as he’d always done in his other churches.  But, in this new church something was different, something that he did not realize mattered.

His previous churches had no audio system. So, singing from the pulpit had never been an issue, he’d never thought about it. And, he didn’t think about it in the new Church either, because the speakers pointed towards the congregation, not towards him. He didn’t hear what everyone else heard.

As a three year old, I had no idea that hearing the preacher sing so LOUDLY was not normal. To me, that was just the way things were, and should be.  My perspective was never challenged until that moment in my late 40’s when my Father told me how “Pony” Felch, the church moderator, took him aside one day. Then, in his wonderful old Vermont twang he said, “You know Reverend, we really appreciate your singing.  But, the next time you sing a hymn from the pulpit, take a step or two back!”

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Sermon: Lost

You can’t rescue someone who doesn’t think they’re lost. We try to rescue them from their ignorance, but they keep on prancing along as they always have, oblivious to our good intentions. They see us as a bunch of obstructive, dense “know it alls” who really know nothing. They’re right, because we’re ignoring the anger, despair and hopelessness that drives their anger and frustration; and don’t forget, we’re just as lost as they are.

champaigne_shepherdThe world is a dismal, frightening place: Droughts, Hurricanes, Floods, Fires, Earthquakes, Wars, Riots, Terrorism, Pollution, Global Warming, Shootings, Plagues, Cancer, Death, … Politics.

We’re tired: one crisis after another; never ending. We learn that another old friend died – months ago – and we never knew.  Yet another ridiculous posting from that clueless idiot on Facebook.  And, that politician or radio pundit said something outrageous – again!

And, we just got sick again, or the kid got sent to the Emergency Room, or maybe we were “downsized.” No job, no income, huge bills; and so we ask ourselves, “What now? Become a greeter at Walmart?”

Maybe … maybe we should just get angry. Lash out at the people that are the source of our problems. Maybe post a really nasty to the point Facebook meme.  (That’ll show ‘em!)  Or, smash a few store windows. Throw a Molotov cocktail or two. Vote for Trump, or Bernie, or Jill Stein, – but certainly not the establishment candidate!

But to ignite anger requires fuel that burns well and with intensity. It requires someone or something to blame. It requires a simple solution to fire the imagination, to focus our energies, to be the target of our anger, and our hate, and our fear.

We don’t want to be lost, anymore. We don’t want to be alone, anymore. We don’t want to live in this world of uncertainty and hopelessness and despair any more. It’s been too damn long. Doing the right thing hasn’t worked. We paid our dues, and now more than we can bear, or afford, is being demanded of us, again. Time to lash out.

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9/11/2001: Fifteen Years

On this, the 15th anniversary of the “9-11 Attacks” I’ve been asking myself: “How do we remember the past; while also being messengers of healing and growth for those still hurting from this (and other) such events?” And, our remembrances must be respectful of the present and the past: a time of healing, not a source of renewed pain.

So, I created this short video to remind us of the events of that day, and reflect on how we remember what we remember.

This coming Sunday marks the 15th Anniversary of the “9-11 Attacks.”

The youngest of us who remember that day are now of voting age, having lived their whole lives in a world where the threat of Terrorism is real and present; no longer distant and theoretical, as many of us thought it to be before that sunny Tuesday morning in September.

We confront the legacy of 9-11 in our lives in many ways, every day. But, the attacks themselves are growing ever more distant with time. (I marvel that World War II, which seems like such ancient history to me, ended just 15 years before my birth.) 15 years can seem like an eon, yet simultaneously it can be as fresh and strong as if it was just yesterday…

I’ve been asking myself: “How do we remember what has been; while also being  messengers of healing and growth for those still hurting from this (and other) such events?”  Yet, we must also be sensitive to the fact that for many, dredging up these memories is intensely painful. Our remembrance must be respectful of the present and the past. It must be a time of healing, not a source of renewed pain.

For me, one way to do this was to compile a short video that is intended to remind us of the events of that day, and which reflects on how we remember what we remember. I will be showing this video following the church service I’ll be leading this Sunday, and afterwards we’ll have a time for remembering, sharing, and prayer.

There are no words in the video, just carefully selected music and images. This is deliberate – in part so that those who find the memories (that these images will recall) too powerful or painful can simply close their eyes. However, the larger reason is that human words are not adequate for expressing how many of us, including myself, still feel when reminded of the events of that day.

No matter whether you worship in a Church, a Synagogue, a Mosque or a Temple;  please join me this coming Sunday morning: September 11th 2016, to remember, and to pray for those who are still hurting.  Pray with me for the healing of all who have been wounded by hate or fear.

Our  wounds and losses will never be forgotten, but we all believe in a Higher Power – whether that power is in the form of a deity, or simply the power of a people united for the common good.  What is necessary is that we learn to believe and trust in each other, because only by trusting each other and working together will our world be freed from the losses and wounds that we inflict upon others out of our own fear and pain.


-Pastor Allen


Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)


There has been a debate since at least the time of the Judges in Israel, more than three thousand years ago, as to where we should draw the line between Communal Faith and Personal Faith: Should our personal faith and practices take precedence? Or, should they be subservient to those of the community of which we are a part?

article-2544061-140565F4000005DC-472_634x667This morning’s reading from Luke is part of a sequence of parables that all have to do with how to live a life that reflects one’s devotion to the Torah; or, in other words, how to live faithfully.

At beginning of Luke 13 we read of Pilate murdering Jews at sacrifice and the deaths of others at the collapse of the Tower of Siloam; and the people ask “What sin did those who died need to repent of?” Jesus responds by teaching that we are not called to worry about others’ sins, just our own: and that repentance is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

The remainder of this chapter contains the Parable of Mustard Seed, among other parables, in which we learn that the seeds of the Kingdom of God are all around us: hidden, but ready to spring forth in a wonderful way without warning, and that we cannot stop it.

All of these stories and parables are used here to show us how to live a faithful life – one that is conforms to the faith traditions, laws and customs of the community, or the Torah, which is far more than merely the Law. But, this morning’s story about the crippled woman, in the middle of this chapter, is unique in the Gospels, and presents a different lesson. …So, why is it here, in between these other two sequences of stories?

But first, let’s talk about Sabbath.

The Sabbath is a day of “Rest” although it’s hard to get agreement on what a “Sabbath Rest” actually is. All would agree that it is more than merely a day to not work. It is a break in the rhythm of our week, intended to get our minds and spirits off of the drudgery and challenges of life that we face each and every day. Sabbath is meant to give us room to reorient ourselves, to focus on what is really important rather than on what keeps us busy.

Many through the centuries have tried to enforce “Sabbath” practices through the law and stern teaching. The Puritans did so: forbidding all “nonreligious” activity on the Lord’s Day. Meals had to be prepared the day before; only the Bible and other religious texts could be read; and games and sports were banned.

The problem with this approach is that it enforces the appearance of Sabbath without necessarily making room for what is at its heart; and so for many, the Sabbath is a day of dread. Those who impose such rules, often even on those who are not of the same faith, are resented and sometimes even feared. Legalism supplants Grace; oppression overwhelms joy.

And, this is not just some long-ago quirk of our ancestors. Some of us may have ovens with a “Sabbath” setting, included so that observant Jews can have a hot meal without having to do the work of cooking on the Sabbath – it cooks itself. And, how many of us have been given a guilt trip at one time or another for not attending church on Sunday? Or worse yet, for going to a sports game, or even one of those godless rock concerts, instead?

Continue reading “Freedom”

What is Faith?

Hebrews is unique, no other book in the Bible is quite like it. It reads like an old time evangelist’s sermon: full of color, movement, stirring imagery and ringing phrases that were meant to be memorable when spoken. We are familiar with many of those phrases, such as: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” – and – “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – or – “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” So then, what is Hebrews 11 teaching us about what “Faith” is?


What is Faith?


It’s not a simple question.  For us, the answer to that question begins with Genesis … and never really ends.

As I’ve said before, Faith defines how we see ourselves, who and what we choose to have relationships with, and what we envision our end (and the eventual end of all Creation) to be.  Faith helps us make sense of the events and circumstances that shape us and our world.  It lays out a path for us to follow into the future.  Faith enables us to gaze into the infinite and the unknowable and find a place there for ourselves.  It helps us make sense of the mystery of God and the vastness and beauty of Creation.  And, it enables us to exist in a world of uncertainty and change.


A lot has been written on the topic of Faith; not just the in Bible, but in everything from Hamlet or Pilgrim’s Progress, to Harry Potter and Star Trek. We admire those who have faith, and we honor those who die for their faith.  We seek to encourage faith in others, and our faith impels us to minister to those in need.  Faith is a powerful thing, and central to our existence, even though we may have a hard time defining exactly what it is.


The 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews is a profound response to the question of “What is Faith?”  Hebrews is unique, no other book in the Bible is quite like it.  It reads like an old time evangelist’s sermon: full of color, movement, stirring imagery and ringing phrases that were meant to be memorable when spoken.  We are familiar with many of those phrases, such as: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” – and – “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – or – “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”.

Much of its Theology is subtle, but the delivery isn’t, nor was it intended to be. The author was addressing a community in crisis.  The people had lost their faith, and had no hope in their future.  The author intended to stir them up; re-awaken their faith; and help them reclaim God’s hope and plan for themselves, their community, and their future.

Chapter 11 is where the evangelist reaches the crescendo of their message.  I imagine them preaching it: arms waving in the air, voice thundering, starting each new thought with the ringing phrase “By Faith” …

By Faith Abraham obeyed when he was called … (and)

By Faith he and his descendants dwelt in the land God promised them, even though they did not yet possess it… (and)

By Faith Abraham believed God’s promise of descendants, despite he and Sarah being far too old to procreate…

By Faith!

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A Message for All Ages: Faith with a Capital “F”

This example using a Dollar Bill shows how and why Christianity is a communal faith and not an individual one: that we are called to work together to make a difference in the world.


Show a one dollar bill to your audience…

Question: What is it?

Possible Answers: A Dollar, Paper Money, etc.

Question: What is it worth?

Possible Answers: One Dollar!

Question: But it is just a piece of paper with some printing on it!  Why is it worth a Dollar?

…Your audience will (hopefully) get stumped on this one, because there is really no reason why a dollar is worth a dollar other than because everyone agrees that it is worth a dollar.

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Sermon: The Great Bargain

The Abrahamic Covenant requires us to obey God, but the story of Abraham’s Bargaining with God in Genesis 18 tells us that there is a great deal more to the Covenant than we think.

Abraham and the angels - He Qi
Abraham and the Angels by Chinese Artist He Qi

Our reading from the Book of Genesis this morning is part of major turning point in the Biblical narrative: a fundamental redefinition of the nature of God’s relationship with us.

In the first 17 chapters of Genesis, we read about the classic Judgmental and often distant God of the Old Testament. The God we read about in the Creation, the Fall, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. But then we arrive here, at the story of Abraham, whom all the great monotheistic faiths claim as their forebear.

Abraham’s story begins with this distant God commanding him to leave his ancestral home in Harran, which he does: taking along his wife Sarah; his nephew, Lot; and all of their goods and possessions. They eventually settle in Canaan.

And there, Lot and Abraham part ways. And soon after, Abraham rescues Lot when Lot and his family are kidnapped in a raid by the enemies of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Then we read about the declaration of God’s new Covenant with Abraham, which we examined in a sermon here over a year ago. At that time we learned how Abraham’s Covenant demonstrates that God hears all of us and sees all of us. That we are all included in this Covenant with God; and that it is one from which none of us shall ever be rejected. But now we will see how Abraham’s Covenant changes the nature of our relationship with God.

The sticking point is that up until this moment, it has been a one-way relationship: God tells Abraham what to do; Abraham does it. We even see this in the Covenant’s requirement that Abraham and all of his household be circumcised. Abraham immediately does this not only to himself and his son Ishmael, but “all of the men of the house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner.”

But, this is no longer a one-way relationship. So, how does the other direction of this relationship work? By virtue of the Covenant, God must be responding to us in some way. This also means that God must be open to being changed by us. And, that is exactly what seems to be happening in this morning’s reading.

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What Does Melania Trump’s Plagarism Say About Us?

160719021527-melania-trump-michelle-obama-plagiarized-manu-raju-sot-00003422-large-169I’ve just finished reading the controversial speech Melania Trump gave last night at the GOP Convention in Cleveland.

Was it a great speech?

No – but it seems to be a strong and reasonably well-crafted dose of the heartfelt, personal, fairly standard and unsurprising “Potential First Lady” fare you’d expect in this context.

What troubles me is the vehemence of the attacks against Melania for what appears to be plagiarism in two lines of her speech.

Yes, it may well be true that this is what happened. And, frankly, a good speech writing staff (which I’m sure is available to Trump and his family, if they want it) would have bent over backwards to avoid intentionally plagiarizing anyone, and then vetted the speech to ensure against unintentional plagiarism as well.

Continue reading “What Does Melania Trump’s Plagarism Say About Us?”