Sunday, August 28, 2016


August 28, 2016
Healer Chapel
Fort Carson, CO


On Friday night I got to go to an event with my unit at a place called Paint the Town. It was in a little art studio and they had canvases and paint and everything we needed to be artists. All we had to do was decide what to create. All around the room there were examples and ideas. The sky was the limit. As I was walking around the room I was drawn to a simple depiction of a church and a tree, and down one side of the canvas was a quote. It said, “I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts there can be no more hurt, only more love.” Think about that… “I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

I wonder if any of you can guess who said this. Your hint is that she is one of the most well known nuns of the 20th century? Mother Theresa. And wouldn’t she know this through her own experiences of loving and caring for many people over her lifetime, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And through acts of love and care, this is what she discovered. Beyond the pain and heartache and loss which often accompany love, there is an even deeper, greater love waiting on the other side.

All throughout the gospels Jesus talks about love. Love of God and of neighbors and even of enemies. Interestingly, though, in today’s passage, the word love doesn’t come up once. But, even without saying love, I think Jesus is still talking about it. In these verses Jesus talks about what it looks like to follow the spirit of the law versus just the law, what it means to be humble, and finally, what generosity should be, giving without conditions. In a way, all of these smaller messages help us understand the bigger concept of unconditionality. Unconditional is a pretty familiar word. Some of its synonyms are:

But its one thing to know a definition and it is another thing altogether to really know what something looks like in the flesh. Think about it, unconditionality is pretty rare. Most of the time there are strings attached. Today, though, Jesus is teaching us, really he is showing us, what unconditional means. First, it is not something that happens on our timeline. Jesus didn’t ask the sick man to come back again the next day when it wasn’t the Sabbath. Jesus doesn’t tell him that he is busy because he is having dinner with some important people. He simply identifies the man’s need and heals him.  

This reminds me of good parenting, good leadership, and good ministry. It’s almost never on your schedule. Unconditional and convenient do not typically go together either.  How many times has a squad leader or a 1SG pulled into the driveway just in time to get a phone call which compels him or her to turn around and go back to work to be there for a soldier in need. Or maybe you are just sitting down to dinner when the baby cries because she is hungry or needs to be changed. Just this week, one of my pastor mentors had to miss almost a week of her vacation because one of her parishioners died. Changing an international flight is not inexpensive, but she is this family’s pastor, and they needed her to do his funeral. Because she loves them so well, it was an easy decision to make. Unconditionality is not on your timeline.

The second thing that Jesus teaching here is that unconditional is not about getting anything in return. This might be the hardest lesson for me or anyone else out there who is inclined to keep score. In my old job, one of the chaplains would have to carry a pager at all times and that person would have to come to work about an hour earlier. We passed it around and depending on how many chaplains were in the office at any given time, we might have the pagers two or three times in one week. We would help each other out if someone had to go to an appointment or a meeting. I would always say preface asking for help with the offer that I would be willing to do the same on a different day. And one of my colleagues would always say to me, “Mel, we don’t have to keep track. I will help you if you need it.”

Jesus says to invite people to your banquet who can’t afford to throw one themselves… that way you know you are inviting them for the sake of extending an invitation and not because you will get anything in return. But this is hard for some of us. Because when we do something loving or thoughtful, we are looking to have the gesture returned. It’s not the only reason we act kindly, but when we don’t feel like our efforts are reciprocated, we get annoyed or disappointed. Its as if we view our offering as more of a one for one exchange rather than a gift.  

In a consumer driven society, we all know that you can’t get something for nothing, even when advertisements and other sales gimmicks try to lure us in with the word “free.” We know we can’t believe it. But in every way, unconditional really does mean free, without any strings. I think it is what Mother Theresa was talking about when she spoke of love. Her ministry was a free gift to whoever needed it. And, she learned by giving it without any strings attached that the love, rather than the hurt, in her life kept growing.

Our scripture today tells two stories, one about God and the other about us. This is what we learn about God. Jesus is willing to heal the man even though it is on the Sabbath and the Pharisees are watching him closely. Healing the sick man, being present for him in his suffering, is more important than any judgment Jesus may face for breaking the rules. Jesus moves toward suffering knowing that it will hurt. This is what God does. God enters into whatever pain exists and shares the hurt without any conditions. God’s love for us is always unconditional.

The story about us isn’t fully written. There is a big question mark going into the conclusion chapter. The Pharisees certainly represent a facet of human character, the parts of us that like to have things on our time or need to keep score. But besides reminding us of our tendencies to be very conditional with out love, this passage is an invitation to us. We are invited to follow in God’s footsteps. Jesus demonstrates the meaning of unconditional love and generosity, but we don’t really know the rest of the story. Did some of those Pharisees grow and learn? Did some of them stop keeping score so much and instead become more loving? Did some of them stop worrying so much about God’s business and start focusing on who they were called to be?

I think it’s the same for us. Jesus invites us to live unconditionally. Every day is an opportunity to follow in His footsteps. To grow and learn and be transformed more into God’s image. To stop worrying about the score and to start loving more freely, more completely, without any limits. To stop worrying so much about God’s business and start focusing on who we are called to be. If we do this, I think we will discover the paradox that Mother Theresa was talking about… that if we love unconditionally, if we love until it hurts, there will be no more hurt, only more love. Amen

Jesus Glasses

About ten years ago, I realized that I was squinting a lot. It was my first year in seminary and I saw a couple of advantages to wearing glasses. Being able to see would help me stop squinting, which according to my mother, would minimize my future wrinkles. She reminded me of this often. I also thought that having glasses would make me seem smarter. Maybe if I looked the part, I would be a convincing graduate student. So, I headed off to the optometrist for my first pair of glasses.

The issue that I have found with glasses is that I mostly forget to wear them. Even ten years later, I probably only wear them once a week though I am supposed to always wear them while driving. My eyesight is good enough that I can get by. But, I am not sure that “getting by” should be my goal. It is curious to me that I have a way to see better, and yet I don’t choose to take advantage of it.

When I read the gospel passage earlier this week, the theme of sight and vision kept jumping out at me. Jesus shows up to these two followers, and we are told that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It’s an interesting turn of phrase which leaves a few questions unanswered. What exactly keeps these disciples from seeing that the stranger on the road is actually Jesus? Is God behind their blindness? Is this some kind of grand God plan?

Another option, the one I am a lot more inclined to embrace, is that these men, like I do so often, simply forgot to wear their Jesus glasses that day. So, in effect, they blinded themselves. Perhaps this was an unintentional move. We can give them some benefit of the doubt. They didn’t want to be blind to Jesus. They just were not looking for him there on the road. Maybe they could have seen Jesus if they had been paying closer attention. If they had been practicing what Jesus had taught them, maybe they wouldn’t have been blinded in the first place.

It’s easy to criticize these two for their blindness, to look on from a distance and think to ourselves that we wouldn’t ever make the same mistake. But, the more we sit with this story, the more it gets under our skin. We realize that as much as this story is about these two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is also, just as importantly, a story about us.  We are the blinded disciples on the road. We, too, spend time in the presence of Christ without even realizing that he is with us. We are all grappling with some kind of blindness, and the scariest thing is that much of the time, we don’t even realize it.

This week I have wondered about some of the biggest culprits behind our sight issues. I’ve thought about fear, and hurt, disappointment and anger, emotions that we all experience and yet don’t always realize how much these feelings impact us and our ability to see clearly. Or, how much these emotions drive us to say, or not say, things that we regret. I have also thought about biases and prejudices. I am very guilty of this in my current role as an Army chaplain, particularly when it comes to other chaplains. When I find out that one of my colleagues is a Southern Baptist or a Presbyterian from a more conservative branch of the church, my judgment starts immediately. I am blinded by it. I confess that I can be very intolerant of intolerance. I don’t merely fight against injustice, but I judge it in a mean-spirited way. This makes me intolerant rather than Christ-like.

One of the reasons that I appreciate the context of the Army is because I know I am blinded by my prejudice. Being surrounded by chaplains with whom I am in conflict, with whom I don’t agree theologically, forces me to deal with, at least of few of my blind spots. One of my colleagues this year, best described as my frienemy, is a Southern Baptist who believes women shouldn’t do anything in church but teach children in Sunday School because it is what that Bible says. For so many reasons I have a problem with this position. When I first started working with him, I wanted to kill him most of the time. His opinions hurt infuriated me and quickly I became blind to anything good about him. I would have scoffed at the idea that we could ever find common ground where faith is concerned. In fact, I would have chosen persons of other faiths or even no faith over him.

But, over the months of working with him and listening to stories of his ministry, I started to see him a little differently. Instead of only focusing on his Baptist-ness, I started noticing how well he treated staff and patients, even people who he didn’t agree with politically or theologically. One day, one of my nurse friends who is gay mentioned what a great chaplain he is in the ICU. Since she is a friend, I said to her, “Well, I mean, he is ok. But he is very close-minded about homosexuality.” And she said, “That may be true. But I can still see Jesus working in him. That’s what I care about. It’s what matters most.” This was my “Ah-ha” moment. It was as if Jesus was breaking the bread right in front of me, and I could see, clearly, God working through this man even though it was not in my way.

Part of what the gospel reminds me is that we are all blinded by something. It’s part of the human condition. We might even call it sin. I can so easily see sin in others but not always in myself. Over these past weeks, with a lot of the national debate about religious freedom, it has been easy to point at the blindness in others. But, this passage makes me face the fact that I can be blind, too. None of us are immune. This story forces all of us to ask ourselves, “Where are we too distracted or too angry or too self-centered to notice Jesus and the unexpected ways he beckons us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”

We are called deal with our biases or our emotions or whatever else is blocking our sight so that we won’t keep missing Jesus? We shouldn’t forget that Jesus offers us a pretty good pair of glasses? He taught us how to see beyond the sin we see in others, about how to dispel our prejudices… he showed us how to have relationships with lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes and others who were often pushed to the margins. He was clear about where our judgment should be… not toward others but instead right here. We should first look at our own hearts, at the planks in our own eyes before we start worrying about specs in any of our neighbor’s eyes or decide to throw any stones. Dismantling judgement of others helps take some of the blinders off.

But, the more I have thought about the ways that Jesus improves our vision, the more I decided that Jesus doesn’t merely help us to take off our blinders. He actually teaches us to see through a new lens, the lens of love, of compassion, of generosity. It’s not necessarily a natural way to see certain people particularly if we are in conflict with them. But it is the Christian way. It’s the way that Jesus taught us to see.

I am struck that as much as this passage is about us and our blindness, I think, more importantly, it is about Jesus. After the trauma of the crucifixion and all the ways that the disciples failed him, Jesus is back at it, reaching out to them, helping them to see once again. When they do the typical human thing, neglect to recognize him on the road, Jesus doesn’t get angry, but he sticks with them. He brings them back into fellowship with him. “This is my body broken for you,” Jesus says.  This is my body broken for you so that you may see through a new lens, one of love. I have taught you this before, and I will teach you again… and again and again. Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you will remember my saving love for you and the whole world.

This is our story… a tale of disciples who easily and often become blind to the ways of Jesus and of a God who never tires of going after us wherever we are, sometimes gently and other times with great clamor, so that we might live in love rather than in rancor.

I know that I have been given a good pair of glasses that can do a whole lot to help me see through a new lens. I just have to remember to put them on and keep them on, pray to be shown the planks that I am overlooking. It is through the lens of love, compassion, and generosity that Jesus teaches us to see others. We can only see this way with God’s help.

In-a my Heart

Reverend Mel Baars O’Malley
August 30, 2015
University Presbyterian Church

In-a my Heart

All week I have been singing to myself the hymn “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” I guess there could be worse songs to have stuck in my head, particularly while battling traffic on I 35 during rush hour. It’s hard to sing about wanting to be a Christian, while simultaneously growling or even cursing under one’s breath.

The hymn is both catchy and easy to remember, while also being profoundly applicable to living a life of faith. It is actually an African American spiritual that may have been sung as early as the 1750s. As the story goes, a slave went for counsel to a Presbyterian minister named William Davies and proclaimed, “'I come to you, sir, that you may tell me some good things concerning Jesus Christ and my duty to God, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done. . . Sir, I want to be a Christian.'"

The hymn has four verses, which some have suggested map out the journey of Christian faith. The first verse proclaims, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” Then the second verse takes the next step saying, “Lord I want to be more loving in my heart.” The third verse says, Lord, I want to be more holy. And, the final verse completes the transformation, “Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart.”

As I have contemplated these words throughout the week, it has made sense to me to consider the journey of faith in this way. First, we acknowledge our desire, “I want to be a Christian.” It’s an initial profession of faith, a move toward God. Once we are pointed in the right direction, we recognize that growth in faith requires fuel, requires love. It’s the next step on the journey, letting love become our anchor. Once we have love as our guide, we are in a position to be more holy than before, to reflect God’s light and God’s spirit. And, finally, as we grow in holiness, we naturally become more like Jesus. Each step leads to the next, until we find ourselves living more like Christ than ourselves.

The hymn hinges on its common refrain, sung throughout the entire song which says, “In-a my heart. In-a my heart. Lord I want to be a Christian…. Or I want to be more loving... or I want to be more holy...or I want to be like Jesus… in my heart. It’s all about the heart. This is where the real transformation takes place. It is a slow process. But it has to start from here, in the heart.

When I think about what James is preaching to his congregation in the scripture we just read, I see a lot of parallels between our hymn and his words. He is touching on some of the fundamental markers of the faithful-- those whose heart transformations are already underway. He reminds them that the folks who truly want to be Christian, more loving, more holy, and ultimately like Jesus, they have some similar traits. They are listeners. They don’t get angry quickly. They are mindful of what they say. They talk less about their religion and instead, seem to take action because their faith moves them to do so. “Be doers of the word,” he says, “and not hearers only who deceive themselves.” In other words, as our song suggests, if we want to be a Christian, then we work each day on being more loving and more holy. The end result is that we end up more like Jesus, too.

This is the point for James. Those who listen and subsequently act because of the good news they have heard, they are forever changed. I had been working on this sermon Friday afternoon at the hospital, between calls and patient visits, so I wondered if I could do a little experiment on my way home from work. It’s easier, when trying to work on transformation of any kind whether its weight loss or behavior changes, to have a small, realistic goal in mind. Now, it’s only about 3.5 miles from the hospital to my home so that seemed like a reasonable distance to practice being more like Jesus while under duress. I don’t know why but Friday is the worst day to try to deal with the section of 35 between SAMMC and 410. I leave at the same time every day, but on Friday, it’s twice as backed up.

As I battled the stop and go traffic for the next half hour, I looked at the people in their cars. I wondered what struggles they had in their lives. Which ones were dealing with financial strain or difficulties in relationships or, since we had just left the hospital area, which ones were in physical pain or fighting some kind of illness. I know that none of us are ever happy to be waiting in traffic and all of us are dealing with something. Struggle… That’s our common denominator. I had settled into such a peaceful state of mind that I even let a large 18 wheeler truck get out in front of me. Thank goodness my experiment only lasted 3.5 miles. I am not sure that I could keep it up, though I know I should.

Looking closely at my traffic experiment, I can see that most of what happened on my drive happened inside me. Ok, I let that truck out and didn’t shake my fists at any drivers who cut me off or went too slowly. So, there were a few behavioral changes. But the real work I did on the drive was heart work. Thinking about those drivers and their potential struggles made me feel closer to them, which consequently helped me feel more love, rather than anger.

Working as a hospital chaplain has made me examine how and why I am able to feel close to some patients and families and not so close with others. What allows us to move toward another person rather than keep them and their problem at arms length? Some have suggested that movement toward another is a huge part of being empathetic. Empathy is feeling with another person. Nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman suggests that there are four qualities of empathy. The ability to understand another’s perspective as their truth, recognize feelings in others, communicating emotion to them, and finally, staying out of judgment.

Each of the four is important, but I want to focus on that last one, staying out of judgment. In some ways, it might be the hardest one. It’s certainly the one that the Pharisees struggle with again and again. It’s what we encounter in our reading from Mark. The Pharisees are so focused on judging Jesus and his disciples and friends that they are unable to move toward them at all. Their judgment is a barrier preventing them from loving. The Pharisee’s problem, as well as ours, is that we enjoy judging others because it makes us feel a little better about ourselves, even if that feeling lasts only a few moments. Our faults and struggles don’t seem as daunting when we cast them in the light of another person who is way worse. But if part of the work of faith requires us to move toward each other in love, then judgment only gets in our way.

If we want to be a true followers of Christ, we embark on a journey of heart transformation, which takes us deeper into love, wider into the holy so that we will end up more like Jesus than we ever imagined. Of course, there are a lot of different interpretations of who Jesus is. So many of us think we have the best answer. But, for today, let’s just imagine the Jesus depicted in our gospel’s scene. Jesus and his disciples and friends are eating together. Some of them are dirty. Some have not washed their hands. But, nonetheless, they have found a way to move toward one another. We know that is no easy feat.

So may we follow in their footsteps, finding ways to move toward one another! May we be more loving, more holy, more like Jesus in our hearts! Amen


SAMMC Chapel
November 29, 2015

Luke paints a pretty dismal scene this morning. Distress among the nations… People fainting from fear and foreboding of what has come upon the world. These days we might think this is a pretty good description of what is happening right now in our world. Could Luke have been writing about us? It certainly feels that way when we look around. Violence seems to be shaking communities everywhere. Syria, Paris, Beirut, Bagdad, Chicago, Colorado Springs. Innocent people everywhere are being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite our best efforts to control the chaos, we seem to come up short every time.

It’s not surprising in the face of this uncertainty and fear that we might start to focus solely on our safety, on trying to protect whatever we can even if it means we have to batten down the hatches so tightly that not even the good stuff can find it’s way in.

With this in mind, I am especially thankful for the wisdom of the lectionary, for the ways that our texts this morning compliment each other. Because on one hand we have a gospel passage that reminds us that we live in an uncertain and dangerous world. Reminds us that we are waiting for Christ to return to bring restoration and peace. And on the other hand, we have this beautiful benediction. These verses in 1 Thessalonians 3 are Paul’s blessing to a struggling congregation, to a group of people who are scared and worried about their future. Paul says, “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way. May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all. May he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus.”

For three chapters preceding these verses Paul talks about their mutual love for one another, for brothers and sisters in Christ, but now he is raising the bar, upping the ante. He is telling them to widen their circle, to take the love that they share for those in their family and extend it far beyond to all people, to everyone.

I didn’t know this before preparing for this sermon, but most scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians was Paul’s very first letter. So I think that it must be significant that Paul begins his writing ministry by praying these words to these Christians: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”

I am sure that if we had the chance to talk with the Thessalonian congregation we could compare a lot of notes with them. They, too, were living in an uncertain time. They were waiting with fervent hope for Christ’s return and yet they were also forced to live in a world that wasn’t very kind to followers of Jesus. They were scared for their lives, afraid what the Jews or Romans might do to them if they were discovered. And, yet, despite the danger, Paul gives them a charge to go out into the hostile world, abound in love for one another and for all. It would not be an easy task… for them or for us.

Over the past few weeks, I have found myself confused about how God calls me to respond as a follower of Jesus, to violence, to refugees, but really what underlies these things is this: how am I supposed to respond to uncertainty. It feels like there is a lot of it going around, in this hospital, in foreign policy, in our personal lives, everywhere. If there is one thing we know, it’s that we can’t predict what our life is going to look like tomorrow. There are so many question marks. We wonder whether or not we will be ok? If the illness that we are fighting will get the best of us. If our job or our retirement will be enough to live on. If somebody will be there with us in our deepest moments of need?

Through the uncertainty, Paul’s prayer rings with assurance. He reminds of the way that God has promised to be there for us, working in our lives. For as much as Paul’s words compel us to go out into the world abounding in love, we are also reminded that we only go with God’s help. It is God, the Father himself, our Lord Jesus who directs our path, who makes a way for us. So often it feels like we are the ones responsible for forging our own way, and we forget that God is already there, leading us to the still waters. With God, we become more than we were on our own.

So, this brings me back to my question. How are we to respond to what is going on in our world, to the violence and fear and all the question marks? Last Sunday, I was invited to a silent vigil for peace over at the University of Incarnate Word. The email invite said, “All are invited to a Candle Light Silent Vigil for those suffering from violence, the families and the countries, the victims and perpetrators, ourselves and all the others.”

We gathered at dusk, holding candles. From somewhere in the crowd, there was light and it slowly swept through the crowd. Once our candles were lit we started walking in a circle around the Peace Pole. If you have never seen a Peace Pole, it might be worth a visit to Incarnate Word. Over 180,000 Peace Poles have been planted in places all over the world by different communities who wanted a way to respond to the carnage of WWII. Printed on each of them in multiple languages is the prayer, “May Peace prevail on earth.”

We walked round and round and round in silence, the tiny lights leading our way through the dark. There were so many different people there, Jewish families from Temple Bethel, Muslim families from all over San Antonio, pastors and clergy and students, a group of people who wanted to do something in the face of uncertainty.

At one point, the wind picked up and some of the candles were blown out. And I watched as people turned to each other and held out their candles to share their light so that no one had to walk alone without a flame. As we walked, our hearts joining together and as we lit each other’s candles when they were blown out, I thought, “This is what it means to be increased, to abound in love for all.” When we see someone’s candle has been blown out, we share our light. As we share and are shared with, the light only increases.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. We begin our journey in darkness, with a reminder of distress among the nations, with people fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the earth. Yet, we are given an opportunity as people of faith to respond to this darkness. All around the world today churches are lighting the first candle of Advent, the one that stands for hope. Hope comes first. It is the beginning. Hope makes room for more.  

Like the Thessalonians, we are waiting for the coming of Christ. As we wait, may we remember, no matter what darkness comes, that we have been called to share Christ’s light in the world. And, may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way. May the Lord make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all. May God so strengthen our hearts in holiness now and forevermore. Amen.